Archive for June, 2009

How to out-Christian a Christian


In my previous post, I referred to certain uses of the phrase “I’ll pray for you” as passive-aggressive. But being passive-aggressive doesn’t have to be a bad thing — it can be your friend when dealing with certain types of Christians, especially on debate boards but also in “real life” if you happen to be faced with a particularly belligerent person.

I’ve found that the best way to win a confrontation with a Christian is to out-Christian them — be a better Christian than they are. Be meek, mild, accepting — even loving — and non-judgmental and non-confrontational. Turn the other cheek, and all that.

The Christian(s) you’re arguing with won’t find your demeanor convincing, any more than they’ll find your arguments convincing — they never do. But when you’re arguing with a Christian, the goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to de-convert them and convince them that their religion is wrong.

Realistically speaking, that’s not going to happen even if you’ve got an airtight argument and the Christian’s got nothing. Dogma is a powerful thing. But fortunately, it’s also an obvious thing, to any lurkers or onlookers or other spectators.

When arguing with a Christian the goal is (or should be) to demonstrate to onlookers that you’re the one who’s right — or at least that you’ve got a valid argument and that the Christian’s argument has some serious flaws.

So, how do you out-Christian a Christian in a fight? It’s not hard, at least not if you define “Christian” as someone who follows Jesus’ instructions to his followers.

Jesus said (according to the Bible, anyway) that you shouldn’t be judgmental, and that you should treat everybody well, even those who curse you or do you harm. Jesus said you shouldn’t act like it’s your place to point out the moral failings of others, at least not until you’ve managed to get rid of all your own failings.

So when you’re arguing with a Christian, and you want to come off looking like the “good guy” while still winning the argument, don’t cast aspersions on the Christian’s moral character or motives — leave the judging and condemning to the guy who claims to worship someone who commanded, “Judge not, that ye not be judged; condemn not, that ye not be condemned.”

Don’t declare that there’s no reason to believe in any deities — just declare that you’ve been unable to find such a reason, and ask your Christian buddy for help. When he offers something he considers a good reason, don’t tell him he’s wrong, just explain your own logical (or other) objections, not as criticisms of his belief but simply as a personal “testimony” (Christians love personal testimonies) of why it doesn’t work for you.

Then ask him to clear up the logical (or other) problem you’re having with his argument. If he can’t, maybe you can ask him to help you out by supplying some other reason you should believe in his magical sky-daddy (although, of course, you don’t want to use the phrase “magical sky-daddy”).

And then repeat the process. Explain why his reason isn’t working for you (and make sure you phrase it that way, that it’s not working for you because of the logical contradictions — not that the contradictions invalidate the argument for any sensible person).

(Atheist Eve cartoon via Carapace)

“I’ll pray for you”

prayerWhen someone says, “I’ll pray for you,” what’s the polite response?

I’d say it depends on the intent, and the situation.

We all know that “I’ll pray forĀ  you” can be a Christian’s passive-aggressive way (or a passive-aggressive Christian’s way) of putting you down. It can mean, “You’re such a wretched specimen of humanity that you need divine intervention in order to avoid your just punishment of eternal torment by fire.” True, many Christians believe (or say they believe) that the same is true of themselves. That’s not unusual — lots of people put other people down because of their own deep-seated sense of insecurity or lack of self-worth.

If someone’s clearly being passive-aggressive about it, you might have a hard time responding politely (or even civilly). But passive-aggressiveness is a two-edged sword. There are lots of ways to say “thanks,” and you can say it in a way that implies sarcasm (“Yeah, great, thanks.”), bemusement (“Um, thanks?”) or dismissal (a simple “Thanks” that’s delivered in a way that implies, “Whatever, Bubba”).

But lots of times, “I’ll pray for you” is a perfectly well-meaning gesture of goodwill. If a Christian hears that you’re going through some tough times, and says they’ll pray for you, they’re not only expressing sympathy, but even promising to do more than just keep you in their feelings.

Face it — if a friend of yours had connections in the real world, and offered to use them to make your life better, wouldn’t you be grateful? I sure would. Even if my friend’s connection turned out to be unable to help, I’d still be grateful to my friend for making the effort, even though it turned out to be useless. Likewise, just because there’s not one shred of evidence that praying for you will have any effect whatsoever on reality doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be grateful to someone for making the effort.

P.S. I’ve been unemployed for 6 months, and I have my very first in-person interview tomorrow, for a job with a TV program, a morning news broadcast you’ve almost certainly heard of (no, not that one). If any religious believers are reading this, I won’t mind at all if you pray for me to do well in the interview. Then again, if you hate this blog and pray for me to fart loudly in the middle of the interview, or walk into the room with toilet paper on my shoe, or otherwise fail spectaculary, I won’t mind that either.

(Prayer cartoon via The Bronze Blog)

Sunday Sermon: Wichita

oreillyI already had last week’s Sunday Sermon prepared when I got the news out of Wichita, so I went ahead and posted what I had. But this still seems like a timely opportunity to discuss the events of last Sunday.

Pro-lifers were quick to condemn the murder of Dr. George Tiller, reportedly one of only 3 doctors in America who perform late-term abortions. They were almost as quick to claim that he’d performed 60,000 abortions in his life (where did they get that number from?), and that he was earning a million dollars a year in his practice, and make lots of other claims designed to portray him in a negative light.

I understand the posthumous smear campaign, and I understand the thinly veiled satisfaction oozed by many pro-lifers (some big names, some semi-anonymous forum posters) at the news of his death. What I don’t quite understand is the condemnation of his murderer — what’s with that?

As far as I can tell, Tiller’s murderer merely embraced the mainstream pro-life message and took it seriously. If O’Reilly’s sobriquet “Tiller the baby killer” was even remotely accurate, and Tiller really was in the business of snuffing out thousands of innocent human lives, the question isn’t whether a pro-lifer can justify killing him — it’s how a pro-lifer could possibly justify NOT killing him.

Here’s a guy who’s the point man for the biggest holocaust of modern times, whose name and location are known, and who lives in a country where you can buy a gun at Wal-Mart. If you really believe fetuses areĀ  babies with full human identity and full human rights, and if you believe their rights supercede a woman’s right to control her own body (including her womb), how can you stand idly by while more human beings are killed?

And it’s not just Tiller, either. What about the women who hire him? If the “babies” they paid him to kill are really human beings with full human rights (and the extra right, not shared by any other humans, to occupy another human being’s body without their consent), then they’re committing first-degree murder just as surely as they would be if they hired a hit man to kill somebody.

When prosecutors are dealing with a “hit man” case, they sometimes offer the hit man a deal if he testifies against the real murderer — the one who hired him. They never offer the hirer a deal for testifying against the triggerman he hired. And yet there are lots of pro-lifers who don’t think women who procure abortions should be charged with murder — they say the focus should be on the doctors who perform the procedure, with the women walking away scot-free.

Does this make any sense at all? Well, yes, under one condition. If you don’t really believe abortion is murder, that fetuses are really human beings, and you’re just saying those things because they make good sound bites and bumperstickers, then it makes perfect sense to take that view.

And it makes equally good sense (if you want to call it that) for a pro-lifer to condemn someone who treats abortionists like they really are killing babies en masse, and kills one to save numerous unborn lives.

But if a pro-lifer really believes the pro-life rhetoric, it makes no sense at all.

(cartoon about punching Bill O’Reilly via MythTickle)

Are you a “New Atheist”?

dawkinscartoonAtheists have been in the news quite a bit over the last year or two, especially in discussions of what people are calling “the New Atheism,” which apparently means being nearly as outspoken about one’s atheism as Christians and other religious types have been for centuries.

The conventional wisdom on the New Atheists is that they might be good for helping atheists feel less alone, but their strident tone is alienating potential followers or converts. People like PZ Myers and Matt Nisbet have lots of discussions about “framing,” and whether atheists should follow the old advice about catching more flies with honey than vinegar and all that.

Now, none of this has much to do with etiquette, since it’s a debate being carried out on blogs and opinion pages, rather than in person. But any discussion that’s out there in public can end up being brought up in a social type situation, especially if atheism is already on the table. If you tell someone you’re an atheist, there’s a better-than-average chance they’re going to ask you about the latest crop of unapologetic, in-your-face atheists and the things they’ve been saying.

Here’s one idea for handling the situation: If someone tries to pin you down by asking you to either disavow or support Richard Dawkins, and/or Sam Harris and/or Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, etc., you can point out that lots of groups, lots of worldviews, have some prominent spokespeople who rub some folks the wrong way.

And that’s a great time to bring up some prominent Christian spokespeople — not wingnuts like Fred Phelps or Ray Comfort, but people like Billy Graham and the Pope. You can say something like, “Well, it’s important to note that not all atheists agree with Richard Dawkins, just as not all Christians agree with Billy Graham or someone like that.”

Why name relatively moderate religious leaders? Because it sends the message that one person’s wingnut is another person’s reasonable spokesman. And it sort of sends a shot across the bow, signaling that if they start talking about what they see as wrong about Dawkins or Hitchens, you’re prepared to do the same for religious people whom they may not feel comfortable disavowing.

And, of course, you might have to do so. The person you’re talking to might throw caution to the winds and ask you what it is about their views that you find wacky. You can point out that the Pope thinks it’s a sin for a married couple with 8 kids to start using birth control, and that Billy Graham said he thought AIDS was God’s judgment (though he later retracted the statement), and had a conversation with Nixon where Graham said some pretty hinky things about Jews (also later apologized for).

Or, if you’re just looking for a humorous way to deflect the whole issue, you could say, “I’m not a ‘New Atheist,’ I’m ‘Atheist Classic’!”

(wacky Dawkins cartoon via Oklahoma Daily)

“What religion are you?”

non-prophetWhat should you say when someone asks “What religion are you?” or “What church do you attend?”

Someone named “Laptop Jesus” on Yahoo! Answers has a good suggestion: “One easy thing to do is to smile and laugh and say ‘Oh no! My mom taught me to never talk about religion, sex or politics! And I always listen to my mom!’ Only a really rude person would pursue it after that.”

That’s especially good if you’re into the passive-aggressive style of politeness, where you make a big show of being polite while subtly implying that the other person is being rude. I don’t like to do that myself (I like to think it’s because I’m honest, but I suspect it’s because I’m a wimp with no social skills), but it seems to work for some people.

Of course, you can always just say, “I’m an atheist,” but there may be some situations where you don’t want to call that much attention to yourself. A less “in your face” answer is something like, “I’m not really religious,” but that can still lead to a discussion you and the other person might both wish you’d skipped.

Personally, I’ve been known to deflect the question by saying, “I’m a Methodist.” That’s not entirely false (I was baptized and confirmed as a Methodist, so I can claim it as my background), but not entirely true, either — but then, isn’t that kind of the point of etiquette? To gloss over uncomfortable truths in order to get along with people?

Atheism is not a religion (any more than “bald” is a hair color), but it’s a belief about religious-type stuff, just like Christianity or Buddhism or whatever. And like any religious belief or belief about religion, it implies a belief about what other people believe.

No matter how tolerant your belief is, it implies that there are other people whose beliefs are wrong — and the person you’re talking to might very well be one of those people. Everyone has beliefs about that stuff (even if it’s just the belief that you haven’t seen a belief worth adopting), and your average person is sensible enough to refrain from pointing out to acquaintances, or even friends and family, that he thinks they’re going to hell, even when he does actually believe that.

Likewise, if you believe that acquaintances or friends or family members are deluding themselves into believing in some sort of ludicrous voodoo magic, you’re not required to inform them of your opinion, any more than they’re required to remind you that they think you’re going to spend eternity in hell or be reincarnated as a bug.

Everyone has flaws. And everyone has to deal with other people. People with acquaintances can deal with their acquaintances’ flaws, and people with friends and family can accept and love (or at least deal with) those people without mentioning those flaws.

That’s what lets people get along with each other despite their flaws (and despite even disagreeing on which traits are flaws, and which are virtues).