Science vs. Religion
February 5, 2010 8:12 AM   Subscribe

A lively discussion has come to a screeching halt, but I don't want it to. Help me continue the debate!

I have been discussing various science vs christianity topics on my website with a close family member. We were both (I assume) enjoying the debate until he suddenly decided to stop posting. I took the scientific viewpoint, he the christian. I'm looking for help with two things:

First, I was greatly enjoying the challenge of debating my beliefs, and I would like to continue. How can I entice him to continue the discussion?

Secondly, I would like some 3rd party input from the intelligentsia on the green. Are my arguments actually logical? Am I missing anything? The point of the debate is not to convince him of my beliefs (though that would be awesome), but to keep both of us thinking about the reasons for our views, and to open our minds to new ways of thinking.
posted by tdreyer to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total)
I am being a bit naughty and not reading the discussion, but I have had similar experiences. My thoughts:

Scientific training makes us kind of hardened and unconscious about taking a critical tone. People who have a strong scientific background learn to dissociate their sense of personal self-worth from whether or not other people accept their arguments and the validity of the points they're trying to make, or else they go insane. This also means that most scientists I know enjoy debating and arguing, view it as a good way to learn something and/or create new hypotheses, and say pretty harsh things to each other (e.g. "You're full of crap.") without taking it personally on either side.

Most other people do not have this attitude towards argument and debate, and find it a stressful form of conflict which implies that the arguers/debaters don't respect each others' viewpoints. Case in point: the time me and my mother-in-law accidentally destroyed a dinner over Thanksgiving weekend by (we thought) having a friendly debate, but really we were kind of ripping a close family friend to shreds.

Something like my accidental fight-with-my-friend might have happened, so I might reach out to the family member and say something like "I was really enjoying our Internet debate, but I haven't heard anything from you lately. I hope that I didn't argue my points too strongly or make you feel like I was trying to cut you down, because that was far from my intention. Instead, I was just trying to understand the reasons behind both your beliefs and my own. If I've inadvertently offended you, I apologize, and I hope that this isn't an impediment towards continuing our discussion in the future."
posted by kataclysm at 8:27 AM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

IHMO if he's dropped the topic then let it lie.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:41 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

How can I entice him to continue the discussion?

I doubt you can. Debates are fun until they're not. I think your relative summed it up pretty well:

I will not be posting anything else on this because it will never matter how many evidences I present. If the Holy Spirit does not convict you, nothing I say will make any difference. In the end, I would like to thank you for challenging my beliefs because I have found more evidence to support my beliefs and am more secure than I have ever been. I now know that Christianity and science go hand in hand. All of the scientific evidence is completely consistent with the Christian faith.

The debate you engaged in forced your relative to use your terms to justify his position (which has its own set of terms that you wouldn't accept). Moreover, he was coming from a position that not only matters to him intellectually but that defines his life, his whole outlook and choices and understanding of every experience. That can get exhausting. It's no longer fun or interesting for him and he's said so. Consider seeking out a forum that brings together individuals who want and enjoy this type of debate.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:42 AM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Has it occured to you that this was fun and amusing for you but not fun and amusing for your sparring partner? People with faith generally do not enjoy having something they hold very dear attacked.

And frankly, since your attitude is that it would be "awesome" to convince him to abandon his faith, this is probably not a comfortable conversation for him. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence; all the science in the world is not going to change that.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:42 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

One person's "lively debate" is another's family feud.

He may have reached a point where he had to choose to end the discussion or say something he thought would be uncomfortable or impolite to a family member.

Or maybe he was just bored.
posted by sallybrown at 8:44 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

First, I was greatly enjoying the challenge of debating my beliefs, and I would like to continue. How can I entice him to continue the discussion?

What you enjoy as fun may very well be frustrating and unpleasant for the other person, and their desire to stop is likely coming from their perspective of you as unbending and having a closed mind, or perhaps using circuitous reasoning.

If you want to have a debate, have it in person, and have it with a willing partner. If I were you, I would send them a note that says "hey, I wanted to let you know I am sorry you stopped engaging me on [subject], but I completely understand that debating with me can sometimes be a chore. for the record, I enjoyed it, I respect your opinions [and if applicable] and faith, and I look forward to having many conversations about all the other topics the world has to offer."
posted by davejay at 8:46 AM on February 5, 2010

It's an intellectual argument for you, an emotional one for him. Your investment is different. It feels different. I think if he doesn't want to do have this argument for fun, you shouldn't push him.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:48 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

is not to convince him of my beliefs (though that would be awesome)

By the way -- religion is what gives a lot of people a belief in an afterlife. It is very unkind to take that comfort away from them. I wish I believed in an afterlife.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:50 AM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think his "final notes" indicate his position pretty strongly.

You were enjoying the discourse of debate for debate's sake, the marketplace of ideas, broadening your horizons and so forth. Your family member was enjoying it for a different reason, with the intent to proselytize and convert you. When he saw that things weren't working out that way, he decided not to waste any more time.

He said he's calling out sin for what it is. He quoted scripture to show that "you have become prideful with your worldly knowledge." He's praying that you will humble yourself and ask God for forgiveness. I'm not sure how much farther you think you can get with someone who has taken that position.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:50 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you familiar with the saying "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink"?

I don't enjoy debating, either. What I enjoy is discussing China, for example, and seeing how my views and another person's are similar and different. Common ground is important to me. If someone was merely attacking my view of China, I'd get bored with that quite quickly because it's rude. Were you just attacking Christianity in the guise of debating it?

If the guy isn't interested in the discussion any more, let it drop. He's directly said he's not interested, so let it slide, or find someone else to continue it with. It's not just about you enjoying it, it's about him enjoying it too. Cajoling him to continue won't work. Could you find someone else to continue it with?
posted by Solomon at 8:59 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could pay him. That's generally how you convince people to do something they'd rather not do. Or maybe you could bait him into replying. Sometimes a good troll is all that's needed to get the conversation going. Or you could respect his wishes and change the topic. He clearly said he's no longer interested in trying to convert you, which apparently was his motive all along. Surely, there's something else you could debate.
posted by malp at 9:01 AM on February 5, 2010

The "final notes" in Brian's last comment indicate pretty clearly that he's no longer interested in discussing the scientific evidence. That's not a judgment; I sometimes stop responding in debates, not because some kind of resolution has been reached, but because the topic has ceased to interest me. I don't see any way around that, except perhaps patience; maybe in months or years he'll regain interest in the debate. In the meantime, it might be more fruitful to seek out other persons who share Brian's position (or similar ones) and are interested in the debate.

Also, sometimes a debate ends because the participants realize they are proceeding from fundamentally different axioms, in which case it's unlikely that any progress can be made in the debate. If two people share the same axioms but draw different conclusions from them, then debate can be constructive to see which one of the two is "right," but when their axioms are fundamentally different, there is often nothing that can be done other than to recognize that fact, that further progress is impossible, and that further debate is pointless. (Another tack would be to challenge the other person's axioms by showing that they lead to a conclusion unacceptable to that person, but that doesn't seem to be likely here.) Brian may have recognized that the two of you are operating from fundamentally different axioms and, therefore, any further progress is impossible, even if you have not yet recognized that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:03 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's always a differential between what the two sides of these debates consider to be "at stake."

People in your position have nothing (or very little) at stake. It's a fun exercise, critical thinking practice. It's not about the destination, it's about the journey.

People in your relative's position put a lot more importance on the final result of the debate. From their point of view, there had better be a winner or the discussion's not worth having. And at the core of it all is the salvation of your immortal soul.

You're just looking to have an interesting point/counterpoint. Your relative is deeply concerned that you are going to burn for all eternity in a lake of fire. He considers this debate to be an opportunity to save you from the flames.

Unless you're a Dawkinsian evangelical atheist trying to deconvert your relative, the balance of the discussion is all kinds of out of whack. There's not much you can do about it. In your relative's mind, you've proven that you don't care about about your eternal fate, and he doesn't see any point in continuing. It doesn't matter how earnest you are if your priorities are fundamentally different.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:19 AM on February 5, 2010

DevilsAdvocate has it. You'd reached your axioms, or at least he'd reached his. Once you're at that point, there really isn't anything more to be said.
posted by valkyryn at 9:32 AM on February 5, 2010

Maybe he's just busy.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:40 AM on February 5, 2010

Mod note: link to discussion removed - put it in your profile if you want people to check it out
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:47 AM on February 5, 2010

Your contributions come off as hurried and not deeply thought out ahead of time, despite this discussion taking place on your own web site at your initiation:
"Well, as far as the 'big bang' goes, I don't know what the current scientific stand is now. All I know is that the apparent age of the universe is approx. 13billion years." [after you chose the topic: "big bang theory and evidence"]

"My short and somewhat snarky answer can be summed up in two sentences...I'll have better arguments later."

"Now it's been a while since I've updated this so this reply may be a little fragmented, sorry... bear with me."
He comes across as much more open and thoughtful; he's reading books, thinking actively about the nature of causality, while you're not solid on the topic at hand which you introduced and sending him to a wikipedia page about it.

He may have been disappointed at the framing of your comments. Finally, he realized that he was working much harder than you and just recommended a book that someone else had written (good on you for reading and reviewing it, though -- I didn't look at your review).

You seem very confident in your own education and general knowledge, but you don't seem to be sincerely questing for understanding, while he is. You're so sure that what you've been told is right that you're not taking the trouble to formulate good prose to convince him of your point of view.

This isn't the approach that will lead to more tolerance between those of different beliefs.
posted by amtho at 9:55 AM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: [link to discussion removed - put it in your profile if you want people to check it out]
Since I was looking for feedback, the link is now in my profile.
posted by tdreyer at 10:29 AM on February 5, 2010

Aside from what everyone else has said, the fact that you equate your views on religion, in contrast with his, with "science" and declare them to be "scientific" is a problem. "Science" doesn't say that everything you believe about the world is right just because you're a materialist, atheist, secular humanist, or however you identify your worldview. Science gets a lot of things right, but once science has said everything it's competent to say, there are still open questions about the structure of the world. You might think, "Wait a minute, no, every warranted belief is based on science!" But that response itself is based on your intuition, not science. Or, if that's not your response, then you should be able to admit that you also have a worldview that's not just based on science. I'm a secular agnostic, and I find your framing of this as "science" vs. the-things-you-don't-believe-in to be offputting in its dogmatism. (Google "scientism.") If even I find this framing offputting, and I'm not religious, just imagine how offputting it is to a Christian. One of the last things he said was, "I now know that Christianity and science go hand in hand"; you might find this view dogmatic, and maybe it is, but it's equally dogmatic to assume that Christianity (or theism in general) and science cannot go hand in hand.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:47 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

One more thing: both of you seemed to be very brusque in saying: here are the logical errors you made, and here's my logical argument that makes more sense than yours. I'm not trying to say that logic has no place in this debate or that it's futile to try to have a rational debate about God. It's fine to want to make your arguments confidently and directly, but I'd suggest that if you're going to engage in this kind of debate, you should also include some "cushioning" to your counterarguments in the form of qualifiers like "I understand what you're saying, but..." "I respect your opinion, but..." "I see the appeal of this view, but I also think..." Even if you find this slightly tedious, it's worth it if it helps both sides feel that they're not being attacked. I'm not going to weigh in on whether this particular debate is still worth salvaging, but that's my general advice with this kind of discussion.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:09 PM on February 5, 2010

You say, Gee, here's the universe! It's so complex and I'm a small part of it, I bet that I can use bits at hand to understand the whole wonderful thing! He says, Gee, here's the universe! It's so complex and I'm a small part of it, I bet that I can use bits at hand to see how incomprehensibly wonderful the whole thing is!

While most of the religious people I know enjoy religious debate, it's not the religion's validity they're debating. Similarly, all of the science-loving folks I've ever met go gaga for competing hypotheses - but again, it's not the nature of science they're debating, but the interpretation of data. Your debate? It reads like one or both of you really wanted to get into the nature of knowledge but didn't know quite how to get there, and so kept bashing heads and bruising egos and going off on tangents.

Drop your relative a "thanks for the discussion" note. You both got into this discussion in reasonably good faith, you both seem to have a sense of joyous curiosity and wonder at how the world works, it'd be a shame if you stopped sharing these things with each other.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 1:20 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm interested in what exactly you find so interesting about the discussion and why you want Brian to return to it. He got out of it what he'd hoped, it appears, but you did not.
What, exactly, are you looking for?
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:36 PM on February 5, 2010

I find your arguments about other dimensions, quantum foam etc. to be clutching at straws. It gives the impression to a neutral observer that you are simply unwilling to consider anything that doesn't come under the veneer of science. This may be why he became impatient and simply appealed to fundamentally differing axioms.

Either there's something or there's not. If there's something, you will still end up worrying about what that something depends on. Brian then appeals to a necessary being- which is a venerable solution and not so easy to dismiss. You may find you disagree with each other less if you concentrate on the necessary bit and drop the 'being' (implying conscious being) bit. For instance, what if it's logically/mathematically necessary that the universe exist? Would that satisfy you? No considerate theist should claim comprehension of what God is.

The alternative which neither of you considered is that the existence of the universe has no reason at all, it's just a brute fact, and a contingent one at that (there could be nothing at all). This may seem odd, because you still wonder how it all started. But you are also not considering the idea that time may be observer dependent; that 'now' is akin to 'here' and that all times exist at once.

I prefer the first answer because I hold a fundamental axiom- that there's a reason for everything. I think you both do too- so there are grounds there for constructive discussion.
posted by leibniz at 2:03 PM on February 5, 2010

It doesn't look like you knocked him down at all.
By the way, did you really read and review that book in one day?!
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 3:36 PM on February 5, 2010

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