Disputing respectfully?

Here’s an interesting article by Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance (The Grid of Disputation). It could be topical here because some have suggested that I may have been a bit harsh in my criticism of theists who have, in my view, been giving an incorrect description of science.

Sean provides a grid of the possible disputes one could get into. The implication is that it is pointless arguing with young earth creationists and similar crazies. “Victories” are easy and meaningless. The more fruitful discussions are with the “worthy opponents” – those capable of listening and making reasonable rejoinders. Often we can learn a lot from such discussions – both about our opponents thinking and about subtleties of our own position.

There is also the implication that the debate itself should be respectful, not derogatory. However, Sean is clear that mockery does have a place. I agree – sometimes the only way one can handle a silly idea is the mock it or use sarcasm. And, often one should call a spade a spade.

PZ Myers, noted for his humorous and often sharp debating style on his blog Pharyngula, comments on Sean’s article in The dilemma of the anti-creationist. He basically agrees , but does wonder if restricting discussion only to those “worthy opponents” could make for a boring life.

See also:
Thank You, Richard Dawkins
Blogging Heads: Science Saturday – The early Universe: Sean Carroll & Mark Trodden

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13 responses to “Disputing respectfully?

  1. To quote an older source, here are back to back verses from Solomon (or a really smart guy who was clever enough to use “Solomon” for a pseudonym):

    Answer not a fool according to his folly,
    lest you be like him yourself.
    Answer a fool according to his folly,
    lest he be wise in his own eyes.

    Proverbs 26:4-5

    A very wise man I know (my son’s father-in-law) helped me understand how the term “fool” is used in the book of Proverbs. He said, “A fool is someone who doesn’t know what is right and doesn’t care.” He distinguished the “fool” (as that character appears in Proverbs) from the “simple person,” who “doesn’t know what is right but does care.”

    I find myself aspiring to be “simple,” by that definition. I KNOW that I don’t know a lot of stuff, but I do care. And I appreciate a forum where people who actually do know some stuff are willing to share it.

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  2. “lay” creationists: misled/misinformed/uneducated, not crazy … need to question their presumptions and learn more

    “professional” creationists: frequently crackpots, some sincere, others clearly dishonest … deserving of sarcasm

    Many Christians have difficulty reconciling the scriptural creation account with the profound implications of evolution.. I really appreciated the respectful attitude of this Bible scholar

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  3. Ropata – on the other hand, many don’t. Probably the majority of New Zealand’s self declared Christians (according to polls) accept evolutionary science. And why shouldn’t they?

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  4. I have no problem with it any more.. but as a young christian it was quite difficult being at university and reading libraries stacked with evidence for evolution, then hearing the latest weird theory on radio Rhema..

    Thankfully the christian faith is not contingent on one peculiar interpretation of a few passages in Genesis :)

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  5. .. but as a young christian it was quite difficult being at university and reading libraries stacked with evidence for evolution, then hearing the latest weird theory on radio Rhema..

    Interesting. How did you make the transition from conflict to acceptance?
    Was it a gradual thing or a sudden realization based upon a piece of evidence or argument?
    Did your change affect your relationship with others around you?

    (Sorry if the questions are too personal. I don’t mean to be rude. Feel free to ignore them. I’d just like to find out more about what made you change your outlook.)

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  6. Hi Cedric,
    My acceptance of evolution was quite gradual and reluctant.
    I was told that evolution
    – was a step towards atheism
    – undermined the authority of the Bible
    – its relentlessly material/empirical approach marginalized God’s creative work

    But this just didn’t add up with the numerous texts in the science department, and the impressive work at talk.origins. Much of the creationist literature was exposed as very poor, recycled froth that has been categorically discredited time and again.

    Also I found that a few distinguished, devout Christians (such as Frances Collins, John Polkinghorne), and bloggers such as the iMonk are quite comfortable with modern biology and physics. This gave me courage to question the dogmas and fearmongering prevalent in the evangelical mindset.

    Although theistic evolution is still probably a minority position it is a relief to know that I don’t have to engage in painful contortions of science (and truth) in order to impress God.

    Some of my earlier comments on this topic:

    Like Augustine I deeply regret the pseudoscience propagated in churches and elevated to an article of faith. No doubt it has caused difficulties to many faithful people who understand science. For a long time I struggled to reconcile the revelations of faith I have received, with the unscientific things I was taught by people I respect.

    In non-traditional churches particularly, they seem to delight in their “superior knowledge” of theories such as the “discoveries” of Bob Cornuke or Intelligent Design advocates. It’s a pain because I believe the church DOES have a lot of spiritual insight. But a humble attitude in matters of science would be more appropriate, in light of the dedication of hundreds of academic lifetimes spent discovering the secrets of the universe that God has made.

    There are a few synthesising thinkers out there, such as John Polkinghorne or Stanley Jaki, but their scholarship is out of reach of the less scientifically inclined. People are like sheep.

    Sheer causality takes us back to the Big Bang or whatever is the current cosmological model. While not particularly fond of “God-of-the-gaps” models (theologically, God is transcendent and immanent in relation to creation), this makes a big space for God, the uncaused First Cause.

    Just because we can’t detect Dark Matter does not mean it’s not there.

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  7. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ropata.

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  8. PS. Yes it did annoy a few of my friends at church but I’m not one of those types that feel the need to convert the world to my POV — I am more inclined to understanding and harmony. I will stick to my guns pretty doggedly, but I’m not the world’s greatest debater. Gathering evidence, thoughtful analysis and tentative conclusions are not things that preacher types are very good at.. many churches sheepishly follow the charisma of one outspoken leader. Many of those guys are fairly reasonable, but some suffer a lack of basic understanding of science (and oftentimes sadly, a naive approach to the Bible.. but that’s another topic). Much like my faith itself I will be happy to explain my position to anyone who asks but I’m not going about stirring things up unless I feel it is necessary (such as Cornuke visiting my church and talking a load of crock)

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  9. Hi Scott, good to be here. I used to comment at Wishart’s blog quite a lot but it’s been kinda boring over there lately (wall to wall Air Con / global warming blah blah)

    I’ve recently been questioning my faith a lot more too.. so be gentle

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  10. Any faith worth having is worth questioning, Ropata. Just remember that Mary asked, “How can these things be?” while Zecharias asked, “How shall I know this?” I call that the difference between “wonder” and “doubt.”

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  11. Thanks for your comments, Ropata.
    It’s always interesting to hear stories like yours.

    I’m glad you found talk.origins useful.
    That probably the most comprehesive take-down of creationist arguments on the net.
    Hundreds and hundreds of creationist talking points that are based on ignorance and falsehoods.
    If creationists carefully read through the “Index of Creationist Claims” BEFORE they commented on threads..then it would save a lot of time and frustration.
    Theirs and ours. :)

    I don’t have a problem with somebody wanting to believe in any kind of religion. It’s none of my business. Each to their own.

    Yet I find it very offensive as a human being that people will eagerly flush science down the toilet for the sake of propping up their tiny, twisted view of the bible (or the koran).

    The principles of the Enlightenment have helped transform civilization itself.

    We have come so far in terms of our understanding of reality via reason and logic and observation and experimentation.
    Humanity has so much to be proud of.

    Yet, in the 21st century, we get the wierdos that want to keep their computers but cling to a 6000 year-old Earth.
    They’re happy to take antibiotics yet they diss the Theory of Evolution.
    They love it when NASA puts a man on the moon, but they get all snakey and plug up their ears when NASA tries to warn people about global warming.

    They love science…right up until the moment it tells them something that they just don’t want to hear.

    They don’t get the fact that you can’t approach science like a customer at the Pizza Hut salad bar. Doesn’t work.

    For me, it’s interesting how people can compartmentalize their beliefs in the face of reality.
    I don’t know if you are familiar with AFDave but his “God Hypothesis” at ATBC is legendary.
    This guy has a degree in electrical engineering, used to fly planes for a living, supports a family, pays his taxes and yet…has a completely screwy version of how reality works because of what he thinks the bible says.
    A legion of scientists from pandasthumb.org commented and tried to “reach” him.
    Biologists, anthropologists, physicists, chemists etc.
    However, AFDave’s mind was like a steel trap; rusted shut.

    The opposite side of the spectrum would probably be someone like Matt Dillahunty. He was a hardcore Southern Evangelical for about twenty years and was prepping to enter the seminary when he began to question his religion.
    He now runs a community TV show called The Atheist Experience where they take live calls from members of the public. Some of those calls can be “interesting”, to say the least. I’m something of a fan of his.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments. I hope to see you around here again.

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  12. Cedric,
    I really enjoyed your enthusiastic review of the achievements of the scientific enterprise.

    I encounter people like AFDave, in person, quite frequently. It’s pretty much a waste of time discussing science with people like that because they are so convinced of their intellectual superiority. There are bible school grads who collect random anti-evolution “facts”, one guy who is a post grad physicist and somehow is also a Young-earth creationist, church leadership who are sincerely trying to be faithful and generally go for ID, and a congregation comprised of ordinary people who don’t really think about science at all.

    The message of the Gospel is counter-cultural, so it’s not difficult for preachers to cast aspersions on the high priesthood of academia. I think that undermines the message and turns off most people with an education. Perhaps I can make a difference ..

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  13. I really enjoyed your enthusiastic review of the achievements of the scientific enterprise.

    Glad you liked it.
    As a medium, there are some stunningly well made youtube videos that do an amazing job of presenting science topics to the general public. Every once in a while I do a youtube search and type in “Intelligent design” or “creationism” or “evolution” or “global warming” and I find some brilliant stuff.

    I encounter people like AFDave, in person, quite frequently.

    Ouch! It’s bad enough to encounter them on the Internet. I can’t imagine how you keep your cool when you encounter them in your own community. You must have the patience of a saint. I’d blow a gasket.

    There’s a lecture you might be interested in by Richard Dawkins. He’s addressing the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain’s Conference on Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society.
    In it he exposes Harun Yahya’s book “Atlas of Creation”. He says a lot of interesting things. His take-down of Muslim creationism is, naturally, awesome but in the Q&A session afterwards he tells the story of Kurt Wise. It’s perhaps the most tragic story of creationist thinking I have heard.

    Perhaps I can make a difference ..

    That would be a very, very good thing. :)

    Like

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