Monday, July 20, 2009

Catching flies with honey

I've been having an interesting dialogue with an acquaintance who I find to be a witty, intelligent, delightful person with whom I have quite a bit in common, not least of which are an appetite for good conversation and a cold glass of Fresca. She's young, she's hip, she's funny and gregarious, and comes across like your typical young urban career girl.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that she is a young-earth creationist.

Until learning this, I had never encountered (to my knowledge, obviously) anyone who honestly believes the earth, and everything on it, were created out of nothing by the god of the Bible only 6,000 or so years ago. I thought people like that were mostly confined to the southern U.S. states, plus a few isolated pockets here and there around the rest of the U.S. I never would have expected to find anyone with those beliefs in Canada, and especially not doing the job this person does. Once again I am reminded how very naive I can be.

We made a date to go for dinner and discuss our respective world views. It was a fascinating discussion. She gave me a first-person experience of what it's like to deal with true believers. We both worked very, very hard to keep the conversation friendly and open-minded. minded might be the wrong choice of words. Let's say we worked hard not to succumb to the temptation to shake our heads and say "Are you serious?? You really believe that, eh? Wow...that's wild." Well, I was trying very hard not to say things like that. She seemed quite composed. I suppose she's more experienced with that kind of discussion than I am.

I also think she seemed more composed because she has moments when she seems to be questioning what she believes. I guess that makes one less apt to pound the table with the certainty of the true believer. I'm not sure whether her slight misgivings are due to the overwhelming number of people who believe differently than she does, or to her admitted lack of understanding of the "other side." Both of these conditions would naturally cause uncertainty in any intelligent person.

And she is an intelligent person. This is what baffles me the most about learning of her beliefs. I'm having an incredibly difficult time processing the fact that someone really can believe what she believes. She might as well have told me she still believes in Santa Claus and the toy factory at the North Pole. Say what??

She loaned me a couple of books which she said might explain her thoughts better than she can. One was called The Case for Christ which tries to prove that Jesus existed and was the son of God. The other book was Mere Christianity by CS Lewis (yes, that CS Lewis). I started reading The Case for Christ. It reminded me of one of those documentaries on the Discovery Channel which explains the details of some huge event in the past that none of us was around to witness. Of the little I read, the writer tried very hard to only use facts that could be historically verified, and if not verified by hard evidence, then by basing his assumptions on the cultural norms of Jesus' day (for instance, the custom of passing information from generation to generation by word of mouth). Mere Christianity was much too dense and circuitous for me to even want to try to read.

In return, I loaned her my copy of Letter to a Christian Nation, which she read in its entirety over the space of one weekend. Wow. She's got me on that one. Does it count that I downloaded the video documentary of Case for Christ even though I haven't watched it yet? I guess I can console myself that I'm still ahead of her in that she doesn't understand how evolution works yet, and I have a pretty good grasp of the goings-on of the Bible etc.

We've also sent each other numerous links to check out online. Most of mine were video-based, but she says she hasn't watched them because she prefers written material. Most of hers just kept making me want to go and look up rebuttals and I found myself spending more time reading material that supported my own convictions than reading the material she wanted me to read. Well, on the positive side, I've rediscovered my passion for atheist reading material.

All this exchange of reading material has reminded me of something I've complained about in the past: atheists cannot challenge believers without belittling and insulting them. It's a problem for me. You see, I don't like to insult or belittle people if I can avoid it. At least, not to their face or in front of anyone who might tattle on me. It's much more constructive to speak respectfully. You catch more flies with honey, as they say. Sam Harris peppering his otherwise excellent little book with insulting personal opinions just makes it less likely that he will get through to a believer who might otherwise be open-minded enough to hear him out.

On the other hand, I guess the believers have their own way of doing the same thing. Preaching to anyone who'll listen that you're going to go to hell and burn in eternal torment if you don't believe in Jesus in exactly the same fashion that he does is not going to make many friends or converts for the Bible-thumper. All he'll end up with are the weak-willed already-convinced who are goaded by fright into practicing that particular Bible-thumper's particular brand of religion.

I was so anxious to find a non-aggressive book for my friend to read that I turned to the forums for advice. Ironically, the only books that were suggested that avoided insult were the simple science books that explained evolution etc. Any of the books written by anyone trying to refute religion and belief in god(s) were pretty much guaranteed to be insulting. So, I have to wonder, is it not possible to write a book to argue against something without insulting it in the process? Is it the same for other Big Debates? Do conservatives necessarily belittle liberals in their writing or can they state their opinion without grinding the opposition under their heel? Can a Mac lover write a book about how much he loves Macs without insulting the Windows users of the world? I don't know. I'm not well-read enough to say.

Whatever the answer, while we're all busy insulting and threatening each other, are we really getting anywhere? Well, it appears so. One website I read (a Christian-based one at that) stated that, at the present rate of change, the majority of adults in the U.S.A. would identify themselves as either non-religious or non-christian by 2035. That's less than 20 years from now. This is a pretty powerful statistic when you consider that, while interest in mainstream Christianity is waning, interest and attendance in conservative and fundamental denominations is growing. In spite of that growth, in the end, it will all fizzle out and even the world's most Christian nation will be mostly agnostic or atheist. In only 20 years! I'll only be 70. Considering that I was born at the end of the traditional mom-and-pop, nuclear family, Sunday-go-to-meetin' 1950s, that's quite the change in one lifetime!

Maybe if more of us atheists flavoured our rhetoric with honey rather than hot sauce, we could hasten the inevitable!