We were halfway into the commute between UCO and OSU last night when we got the call that there would, after all, be a live stream of the planned dialogue between representatives of Oklahoma Atheists and representatives of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. This lead to some hasty mobile-blogging on the part of my colleague and fellow traveler Chas Stewart, who announced the live stream here with less than half an hour until go time. For those that asked, there will be a recording released to YouTube in the coming days, probably here. Before then, I just wanted to get a few of my thoughts down while the event is fresh in my mind.
Firstly, several audience members suggested that whenever apologists and atheists share a stage together, people expect to see sparks fly, and they can be a bit let down when a confrontational dynamic fails to emerge. Even though the participants were careful to frame the event as a dialogue rather than a debate, many in the audience were eagerly anticipating the moment when one side would start affirming what the other side denied. I’m unsure how best to deal with this problem, but it is not about to go away given our increasingly polarized and balkanized media landscape.
Secondly, don’t wear an OU cap to OSU. We took all kinds of shit for that, got segregated into the cheap seats, and some guy in a white Saturn nearly ran us down while shouting redneck epithets. Lesson learned.
Finally, I noticed during the Q&A that there is a class of questions which have the property of being very easy to answer tersely (and at least seemingly satisfyingly) on the premises of Christianity but much more difficult to answer on the worldview of Humanism, because the latter view offers us a wealth of open possibilities while the former does not. Here are a few representative examples.
Q: What does it mean to be human?
Humanist: There is no single thing that sets us apart from the other great apes. An complex array of biological and cultural adaptations have gradually distinguished us from our mammalian forebears over time.
Christian: Humans are uniquely created in the image of God.
Q: How do you find purpose in life?
Humanist: There is no set purpose in life, it is up to each of us to choose which purposes we should pursue in accordance with our own values.
Christian: The purpose of life is to love and serve God.
Q: Why there is something rather than nothing?
Humanist: The question raises a number of difficult questions in quantum physics and cosmology, and the answers (if these should ultimately prove answerable) lie beyond our current scientific understanding.
Christian: God wills it thus.
Now, if I really wanted to provide reasonably thorough naturalistic answers to these three questions, I would probably recommend this book, this book, and this book, respectively, for a total of around 1,100 pages of interesting and often challenging reading. The Christian, meanwhile, may (perhaps a bit smugly, perhaps in a cultured English accent) assure us that the answers are always to be found by discerning the will of God. While this seems to us little more than an overpriced epistemic bridge to nowhere, it goes over really well with the crowd. That crowd, at least.
Of course, not every question that unbelievers get from believers is going to suffer from this asymmetry in terms of how richly complex the answer is on each side. For example, one woman last night asked how she can reconcile her studies in the sciences with her faith in divine creation, and that is one question which never bothered me once I grew out of faith, even though I’d put a decent amount of effort into it before that. No doubt there are other questions like this one, which trouble only believers, but relatively few of them were voiced by the audience.
Ok, so this post went on a bit longer than planned, so I’ll close with a few questions. Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of a theologically loaded question like those listed above? What was it? What have you found is the best way to respond?