In search of good religious discussion
October 26, 2006 12:43 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find serious religious debate/discussion? I'm looking for a place to read and maybe discuss religious views (primarily Christian-based) that don't constantly delve into ranting and/or idiocy.

I was wondering how fundamentalists figure Noah got elephants, pandas, kangaroos, llamas and polar bears on the arc the other day. And I wanted to read some thoughtful religious discussion, but I'm not sure where to go.

Apart from the Noah bit, I'm hoping for something without ideological ground rules, but serious, pointed debate with intellectual rigor. Ideally, a place where Christians (liberal and conservative) and agnostics/atheists have actual discussion without anger or bitterness. I may be asking for something that doesn't exist, but I hope not.

Most everything I've found falls into one of categories: 'If you don't accept this you're hellbound, so shape up and start believing' or 'It's all just fairy-tale bullshit, stop talking nonsense' or 'These cultural heuristics need to be seen in the proper meta-historical narrative of the theistic experience to blah, blah, blah...'.

So where should I go? I need some religious debate while wasting time on the internet.
posted by bluejayk to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite is good for this sort of thing. However, it sounds as if you're looking a bit for people to bait, and the crossover between the set of people who will argue that elephants etc were literally on the Ark and the set of people who have logical, reasoned debating points to back that up is very small.
posted by bonaldi at 12:56 PM on October 26, 2006

Dan Barker, pastor turned atheist, has published many of his debates with theologians (see further down his bio page). Here's one (in which the audience voted that he "lost").

Nothing is ever decided in these debates, but the level of discourse seems higher than normal for this kind of thing.
posted by ldenneau at 1:04 PM on October 26, 2006

If you want intelligent discussion about religion, about the only choice is talking with atheists, IMO.

Look for kind ones, who can discuss the structure and content of religion, in general, with no ownership of the dogma.

I've never sought something like that online, but I have met quite a number of Unitarian atheists who fit the bill in the real world. (This isn't to say that Unitarians are atheists, it just that they accomodate that much variety in their congregations.)

Wherever you go, don't plan on 'winning' any arguments. I generally follow the pattern that it's not an opponent I try and convince of my positions, but the uninvolved bystander.

Good luck!
posted by FauxScot at 1:05 PM on October 26, 2006

Best answer: Have you tried's Debate forum.
posted by saffry at 1:06 PM on October 26, 2006

Response by poster: Cool, I'll check those out. I'm not really looking to enter into a debate myself. I'm pretty set on the Noah question personally. I'm really interested in what other people see as the evidence and/or foundation of their belief, and what authority if any, people with different ideas recognize.
posted by bluejayk at 1:12 PM on October 26, 2006

I'll second beliefnet.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:13 PM on October 26, 2006

'These cultural heuristics need to be seen in the proper meta-historical narrative of the theistic experience to blah, blah, blah...'

What exactly is wrong with these types of perspectives, other than the fact that you gussied up the language to make it sound pretentious? People who try to take religion seriously, like people in philosophy departments and divinity schools and stuff, and yet are faced with a primary text that is absurd on its face ("some guy built a boat and rounded up 2 of every species on the planet") have to engage in some academic synthesis to respect the subjects and objects of religion without sounding... well, silly. And if that strikes you as pretentious, then maybe the problem does not lie in the discourse that's going on around you.

I tend to agree with bonaldi that "it sounds as if you're looking a bit for people to bait" because there is no logical solution for how Noah pulled off the ark feat; it's an article of faith and discussions about ark dimensions, food and waste issues, etc, miss the point completely. "Serious" religious discussion does not engage these topics. Christian-baiting does.

Now, I don't mean to flame you because I really empathize with your weariness towards the average level of religious discussion in most contexts. But yes, I do think that what you're looking for, at least as you state it in the question, is a bit of a red herring. If you are genuinely curious about the ways in which Christians (or any religious people, for that matter) justify literal belief in stories that strain credulity, I don't think what you want is a "serious debate/discussion" with them. I think what you want is something like a sociological or anthropological study of Christianity (or whatever particular religion), which is going to be more of a reading project than a talking project, unless you sign up for such a course at a local college. Here's the syllabus for such a course at the London School of Economics, the reading list for which may engage some of your questions.
posted by rkent at 1:15 PM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've heard good things about Ship of Fools, but I have no personal experience of it. It probably won't take long to check it out and get the feel of it though. I don't think it's well populated by atheists, but as I said, I only know it from it being mentioned by Christians I consider relatively level-headed.
posted by edd at 1:15 PM on October 26, 2006

Response by poster: I don't think I'm baiting, or flaming; but I'll take the suggestion that I am as evidence that I didn't phrase the question very well.

I know lots of atheists, lots of agnostics. A good number of moderate Christians. I don't know any 'liberal Christians' personally (I think), and I haven't spoken with any conservative/fundamentalists in quite awhile. If I asked my Noah question to a fundamentalist, I really don't know what the answer would be. However a fundamentalist would explain it, I'm pretty sure my only answer would be "Oh, that's interesting. Thanks." I'd also like to know what liberal Christians would say in response to those assertions. I'm not looking to engage in a debate, but rather a semi-toothless discussion.

rkent is probably right in that my question is more sociological or anthropological. And the syllabus linked to may be a great way of going about it, but as I don't have access to a library (I'm in China) I'm gonna concentrate on internet sources right now.
posted by bluejayk at 1:40 PM on October 26, 2006

I'd also like to know what liberal Christians would say in response to those assertions.

Get thee to Slacktivist.
posted by desuetude at 1:55 PM on October 26, 2006

Have you thought of listening to Interfaith Voices, my public radio show? We cover the many religions of America, but Christianity really does take up a lot of our minutes. Plus, it's hosted by a nun, which everyone thinks is really, really neat.

Interfaith Voices is online! You can even podcast the show (psst...look it up on iTunes!)
posted by parmanparman at 2:33 PM on October 26, 2006

I think you're going to find the answer less interesting than you think with the Noah/Ark stuff. My admittedly somewhat limited (or at least more so than I wish) experience with religious studies folk is that they're plainspoken and non-confrontational about Biblical stories being non-literal myth designed to inform and guide. Asking one of them about the exact mechanics of The Flood would probably result in them asking you if you think the Fox actually spoke too.

If you're really interested in such things you could do worse than to start up with the works of Joe Campbell. I didn't care for the writing style in Hero of a Thousand Faces but you could get the Moyers documentary.
posted by phearlez at 2:35 PM on October 26, 2006

I'm really quite fond of Ship of Fools (posted above). It leans heavily British, heavily Anglican/Episcopalian, some atheists and agnostics, a small number of conservative evangelical protestants--a better class of conservative evangelical protestants than I've usually found on the web.
posted by Jeanne at 2:38 PM on October 26, 2006

It sounds like you want two different things.
1. To understand what extreme Biblical literalists think, and how they reply to obvious questions about their beliefs
2. To discuss these matters with people who are thoughtful and reasonable.

For #1, I'm betting there are many websites out there for the extreme literalist homeschooling set. Googling "did Noah really" yields many such hits. A little searching will probably yield good results here.

For #2, it may be hard to engage in a respectful, distanced, critical discussion with someone who's in that camp. In my experience there are certain blinders in place that prevent this kind of discussion.

But: Christian apologetics, and other explanations of what faith means and how to understand the Bible, have been a heavy industry populated by very smart thoughtful well-funded people for 2000 years. You might get the best-reasoned arguments from books.

A good philosophy book would be Atheism and Theism, a debate between an atheistic philosopher and a theistic Christian philosopher. Some parts are on the technical side; skip whatever seems too hard the first time through, and you'll still end up with a lot to think about.

C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy are two great, intelligent, funny pro-Christian books. William James on religious experience is great; offhand I don't know what particular bit to point you to. Pascal's Pensees; Augustine's City of God are also worth reading someday.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:04 PM on October 26, 2006

The thing is, religious people who want to talk about theology usually want to talk about fairly advanced topics among themselves. They may not enjoy explaining basics to brand-new people who are just popping in (more often than not to bait them) for a question or two.

Probably the only people who will have the patience necessary for that task are people who're trying to convert the questioners -- but I don't think that's what you want.
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:16 PM on October 26, 2006

Not really a debate forum, but you should check out the (rather scholarly) debate between Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Pullman is the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and the Archbishop of Canterbury wears nice hats.
posted by GarageWine at 3:27 PM on October 26, 2006

Best answer: The church I was associated with growing up has a huge amount of material online:

Literal Interpretation of the bible
Literal Six Days of creation
Genesis Flood

Some of these articles are in the form of notes that members of the church would go through and fill out. This is why certain verses have blanks in them.
posted by null terminated at 3:32 PM on October 26, 2006

I'd like to third the suggestion for Ship of Fools. I've been a member there for eight or nine years and have seen some fascinating discussions during that time. You'd probably be most interested in the "purgatory" board (debate & discussion) and possibly kerymania (discussing the Bible specifically).
posted by belladonna at 4:44 PM on October 26, 2006

I have 12,000 posts on BNet, though I don't post there anymore. Mention my name in Christianity Debate; they'll give you a good seat.

However, they are in the midst of a major site and forum remodeling job and it takes forever for every stinkin' page to load.

I also liked Ship of Fools, although I don't really post there anymore.
posted by Doohickie at 7:46 PM on October 26, 2006

After all those posts, I still hadn't figured anything out, so what's the point?
posted by Doohickie at 7:47 PM on October 26, 2006

I'm interested in such discussion myself -- any chance we could toss around subject matter in email personally? (you know what to swap)
posted by vanoakenfold at 10:57 PM on October 26, 2006

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