should everyone be allowed to believe whatever they want?

16 Apr

One important skill in conversational apologetics is the ability to recognize an inconsistency in your friend’s worldview. Pointing this out with tact is a helpful step towards analyzing and rejecting incoherent or incomplete worldviews.

Today I was at UCF hoping to engage students with the question “Do you believe there are any moral absolutes?” The following conversation is particularly helpful in illustrating the above point.

I was with another person who introduced us as Christians before I asked the question, and I think it colored the response of a young woman we met. After she asked for clarification about my question, we settled on “is there anything that you think is morally true for everyone regardless of whether or not they agree?” Her response came quickly: “Everyone should have the right to their own opinions and beliefs.”

(Aside: Can we get a more textbook 21st century western answer?? This response feels like she was reading from the Tolerance is the Highest Virtue Handbook! I suspect this was her warning that we should not preach at her, a warning we heeded….sort of)

Our initial plan was to go from the reality of moral absolutes to the existence of God to the Gospel, sounds easy right? We assumed we would have to reason with people about the existence of moral absolutes, not the absolutes themselves; but in this case I took the side street. “Everyone should have the right to their own beliefs” sounds okay at first blush, and it is okay if people stop at beliefs. The problem is that they rarely do. In this case what we are really suggesting is that everyone should have the right not to believe what they want but to do what they want. I chose to illustrate my disagreement with her binding moral principle by asking about a person who was attracted to minors and believed that going to the local middle school was the best way to find a good sexual partner. Of course our new friend was horrified with this and agreed that some beliefs cannot be allowed to come to fruition. Our conversation went on from there and I am happy to say that we shared the Gospel with her (and personally, I think we respected her unvoiced request not to be preached at).

The main takeaway here is to follow your gut if you spot an inconsistency in someone’s worldview. Notice that instead of saying “you’re dumb” or something similar I just posed a question that exposed her opinion as untenable in the real world. This helped her to see that what she thought of as a moral absolute wasn’t so sturdy after all. The approach is called taking an idea to its logical conclusion. We do this by asking “what if everyone behaved this way?” To make it clear that the idea in question is unrealistic we insert a negative example, someone we actually don’t want to follow this principle.

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4 Responses to “should everyone be allowed to believe whatever they want?”

  1. Ann April 16, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Always difficult when religious types think theirs is the only way to live. Nothing could be more arrogant. But it doesn’t stop there as not only do you seem to believe your religion is enough for you but because your “holy” book tells you to “go and make disciples of all nations” you now are “called” to proselytize and convert everyone to believe what you believe.

    Just because you believe something could better someone (ie: believing in Jesus and escaping hell) doesn’t mean you should then seek to evangelize and convince others to follow suit. I personally believe that obese people would benefit from eating healthier foods but don’t seek to manipulate them into viewing their diet habits the way I do. If a fat person honestly asks, I can share my thoughts, but it’s not my business to go out and solicit them. And there is actual proof that a better diet will make one healthier and no proof whatsoever that Jesus is Lord.

    Furthermore, this unsuspecting student that you tried to manipulate did have a good answer in “everyone should have the right to their own opinions and beliefs.” Catching people in a “moral absolute” and showing them how it doesn’t work in all situations might help you try to prove the need for a god but those “truths” you are so quick to expose are always changing, just like your religion. Remember how Christians accepted slavery for all those years (and isn’t interesting how the bible actually accepts slavery)? The only truth or meaning that exists in the world is the truth we bring to a situation.

    Even your example of child sexuality has changed in time, as in ancient Rome, men often had relationships with young men. And god types can’t argue that from your side as the prophet Mohommed had a child wife. And you Christians are no better as if you believe in the “virgin birth” you are in a rock and a hard place as in the Septuagint the Greek word parthenos was used to translate the Hebrew word almah, which means a “young woman” so you are faced with two options: 1. The virgin birth didn’t happen and Mary fucked a man before marriage or 2. Your god statutory raped Mary. Children are protected from sexuality of older people in our time because studies have shown that it is crucial for a child’s development and our current day society places value on it. Too bad your god didn’t get he memo before he (or the holy spirit) raped little Mary. By the way, it sure is odd how Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that have it when Mark is obviously the oldest… but then again, at least it says it at all, as your “trinity” doctrine is no where to be found.

    Honestly, I’m glad your blog is here but it’s laughable that you’re trying to point out how people who don’t believe in god have answers to life that aren’t “sturdy.” If anything you’re the one defending a religion that has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. From travesties like the crusades and priest molestations, impossibilities like miracles and a earth that is a few thousand years old, insanity like speaking in tongues and people rising from the dead and far-fetched values like biblical inerrancy and fundamentalism, your religion is a scam. Most (if not all) of the stuff you are trying to prove doesn’t exist in your holy book and the parts that do you are doing so much hermeneutical gymnastics to say anything at all. Think about it in your own life… all Christianity does is bring moralism, guilt and a false sense of security surrounding death. Has it really done anything else for you? And would you really be willing to even ask yourself that question?

    I know it’s hard to hear this kind of stuff. It’s funny to be that Christians are truly the one without eyes to see and ears to hear. I understand that everything falls apart for a “believer” if they at all try to take one step outside the bubble of their religion and actually think about it and that all most Christians are going to do is try to disprove and debate. But I can tell you that their is honesty and honor in letting go of god. I hope you’d be as willing as those students you engage to at least look at it from the other side.

    • stevewimmer April 17, 2012 at 4:25 am #

      Ann – thanks for reading and taking the time to post such a thorough comment. Because you address so many things in your post I’m not going to respond to all of it, as I think that would detract from the coherence of my response. (that being said, I do think there is a response to everything you said)
      First, I invite you to read my post “why I’m not a jerk” re: the charge of arrogance. I also ask you, if it is arrogant to try to change someone’s beliefs then why are you doing it to me? In your example you say you wouldn’t try to change the diet of a fat person but that seems to be an example you cherry picked. In the example of your post (which is a more “real life” situation in that it actually exists) you ARE trying to change what I believe. I don’t think that’s arrogant, you SHOULD be trying to convince me out of it since you don’t believe – you are a nice person and don’t want me living in a fantasy world. We just disagree on who is living in the fantasy world and who is connected to reality.

      You also assert that the only truth that exists is the truth we bring to a situation. Is that statement always true for all people and situations? If it is not, then I chose not to bring that “truth” into this discussion. If it is, it seems to extend beyond its own scope and render itself false. Truth is a more trustworthy foundation than you have come to believe.

      The rest of your charges reveal that you have studied enough religious history to have ammunition but not enough to know what you’re talking about. I am aware of all your objections; are you aware of how a Creedal Christian would respond? You dismiss the evidence for the Christian worldview as if there is none, which suggests that you have only armed yourself with enough evidence to believe what you want. There are good arguments for and against the Christian worldview – some of the world’s most notable philosophers and scientists adhere to it though, suggesting it’s not completely baseless – I encourage you to heed your own call and step outside of your bubble. If the readers of this blog wish to pursue some of your objections I encourage them to do so, just make sure you hear the case for each side from the best possible representative.

      The last piece of your response that caught my attention was this: “all Christianity does is bring moralism, guilt and a false sense of security surrounding death”

      You make these assertions, but with what cause? Moralism is not Christianity, but its own false religion which should be exposed as such. (For a concise and decisive treatment of the difference between the two, see “The Reason for God” by Tim Keller). Guilt is not the product of Christianity but the human conscious. You experience the same guilt that I do and we likely have a very similar set of moral principles, the difference is our grounding. I think moral truth is grounded on the existence of a transcendent being, you think morals are up for grabs – you just don’t live that way. Lastly, you assume that my sense of security surrounding death is false because you have a priori rejected the truth of Christianity. If Christianity is in fact true then my sense of security is warranted. When we’re reasoning together we don’t get to just assert that our opponent’s view is false and move on, we bear the burden of explaining why that is the case.

      I am not trying to prove anything, but I am trying to reason to the truth – as we all should. Absolute proof of anything is pretty much off the table as far as I’m concerned. The best we can hope for in this life is probable truth, or likelihood. I think that there is just cause to think the Christian worldview has the best explanatory power and scope of any philosophy and so with it have cast my lot.

  2. Ann April 17, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    Great stuff here Steve. Thanks for replying and responding.

    I am not trying to convince you to believe what I believe as you are with all others in the world. I’m seeking to let you know what it’s like on the other side of that interaction. Would you say it’s always wise and discerning to seek to convince people of things we hold dearly? If so, I suppose your worldview does back up your evangelizing. But why half ass it? If you follow the bible that way and it is as important as you Christians profess, what keeps you from selling your home and abandoning your family and truly giving your life to this cause that is so important like your Jesus did? Did he not call all of you to do so? Why half ass it and engage society, go to the movies, eat out or have a home? It just feels like modern day Christians are trying to make an ancient religion fit in current day living and doing so like theirs if the only and flawless way to live. For me, if someone actually takes the bible as face value (as so many Christians say they do) it changes everything… and most people at the best do stuff like starting a blog while most just try and make themselves feel better with what Jesus said on Sunday mornings. What Jesus actually said is radical as fuck and if people actually believed it, it would change more than their salvific status and their “relationship” with Jesus. It would actually change their life.

    You are free to believe what you want but it seems absurd to engage people with such a dated and out of touch religion. I suppose we all do seek to convince each other of things in this world, but only people whom we have relationships with that are special to us. You reach out of your relational reference and approach people on the street with what you believe. To me that is odd and abrasive like mormons on their bikes and people trying to come to my door to sell me magazines.

    For me, yes, I believe truth is relative and existence precedes essence.

    It sounds a little harsh to tell me I only have ammunition and not to “know what I’m talking about” but I’ll “covenant” with you that over this type of communication on a blog, I’ll try and give you grace in knowing you don’t mean all statements in harsh ways if you extend me the same understanding.

    As far as a Christian Worldview and evidence for it, most of those notable philosophers and scientists that believe are from another age and as science as progressed in the past 200-300 years, less and less people who are in the field of science believe in a god (or at least the Judeo-Christian one). And as philosophers are concerned, very few and far between are Christians and again, anyone would be hard pressed to name anyone relevant and respected in the field in the past 100 years who would give themselves that moniker. In other words, science and philosophy does not side with Christians.

    And concerning moralism, guilt, etc. I’m aware of Tim Keller but just because the NY pastor says something, you Christian types have to accept it like the Nicene Creed. I always find him preachy (haha).

    I find it odd that the stuff you didn’t address is all the major issues I stated before about Christianity. At best you’ve given proof for agnosticism. Maybe you’ll get your hands dirty in other posts but unless you take this stuff out of the clouds and address real issues of Christianity, this blog will only be a reason for a god or the flying spaghetti monster.

    Again, thanks for responding.

    • stevewimmer April 17, 2012 at 9:05 am #

      Ann – thanks for a very gracious reply, again you raise so many issues it is hard to respond. I’ll work backwards: the purpose of my blog is sort of niche, modeling and explaining how to apply whatever apologetic knowledge we have obtained in actual conversation. Almost all of my posts will be breaking down some element of a conversation I’ve had. To that end, I won’t spend tons of time defending the virgin birth, the veracity of the Bible, evidential arguments for God’s existence etc. in the comments section of a given post. Plenty of more qualified apologists have done so elsewhere and to the degree that I don’t feel I have much to add to the conversation. (PS – I think the major issues boil down to one: how do we explain the rise/existence of the Christian church? NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God and Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus are definitive works of contemporary scholarship on this issue)

      I think most people who don’t already have an interest in the field would be hard pressed to name ANY contemporary scientists regardless of religious affiliation – I am among that group. There is a Wikipedia page listing current Christian thinkers in various scientific fields for what it’s worth. Regarding philosophy I know that there has been a relevant surge in recent years in Christian theism among leading western universities. Some notable philosophers include Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swindburne to name a few.

      Your assertion that relationships are the most fertile soil for having meaningful conversations about these things is 100% accurate. I talk to strangers too because I’ve worked with college students for the past 8 years and know that few of them are having these conversations. And no, it isn’t ALWAYS the best move to challenge someone’s fundamental assumptions. My niece however, will not stop hounding my father in law – a 50 year smoker – to quit, because she has not been socialized yet to believe that manners matter more than (what she sees as) life and death. Similarly, the committed Christian believes that our foundational assumptions have eternal implications and engages people on that level freely.

      My comment that you don’t know what you’re talking about was harsh in retrospect, sorry for that. I meant to communicate that the nature of your objections seems to me like you haven’t heard much from an intelligent Christian source on the matter (or you just reject their reasoning). Some examples, you insist that all Christians must believe (and require others to believe) in young earth creationism. This isn’t true. You assert that miracles are impossible without providing any reasoning. You point out the absence of the word “trinity” in the New Testament as if that scores a point for something. You refer to sexual scandal within the church as a hole in the faith – I don’t remember the Bible instructing priests to do anything like that, so why does their behavior which lies outside of what is expected of Christian leaders negatively impact the truth content of Jesus’ message? All of these objections seem like they are coming from a very emotional place, not a place of yearning for truth. Your language and general attitude seem to reveal a history within some Christian community, is that the case?

      I agree whole heartedly that belief in Jesus should change everything. I disagree that this means everyone should sell everything they own and/or disengage from culture, and that not doing this is half assing it. You should study the Bible with an inductive method in a diverse group of people some time if you haven’t recently and find out if other people have drawn the same conclusions. Thanks again for engaging.

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