Monday, May 6, 2013

A Friendly Conversation

Recently my dad caught up with an old friend of his. I didn't ask to use his name, so I'll just call him Steve. He became a Christian a few years ago after having been raised Muslim and remaining so for most of his life.

Steve wrote a short book about his experiences, and since copy-editing is on my list of potential career options, my dad volunteered me to read through it. It basically consisted of his life story, with a focus on his conversion to Christianity, as well as various arguments for his adopted religion and against other viewpoints.

The universally accepted meeting
place, for some reason.
After I sent the manuscript back to him, he asked about my own views, and upon learning I was an atheist, he suggested we meet for coffee so he could better understand my perspective.

So last Wednesday we spent thirty or forty minutes discussing atheism and related topics. I was a bit apprehensive going in, but thankfully it was a casual, friendly conversation, with an atmosphere of learning rather than debate.

He asked whether I had been a Christian by "default" or whether it was something I actively believed, so I gave him a bit of my background and conversion to Christianity. And how I became curious in my college years of what the opposing evidence looked like, how my investigation of creationism was the starting point for my eventual departure from the faith. 

From there, Steve asked me for my definition of atheism—always a good start for a discussion on the topic. I was pleased to discover that he easily understood the distinction between strong and weak atheism. I explained the need for evidence in proportion to the extraordinary nature of the claims made, and how the idea of God represents such a departure from everything we know about the world that it has an incredibly high evidential bar to meet.

Steve made a few of the standard points for Christianity, which I let go mostly unchallenged, to make sure we stayed in the realm of discussion rather than conflict. He asked what I think happens when we die, and pointed out that if that's true, it kinda sucks. No argument from me there, though it's not a total loss. He brought up Pascal's Wager, although more out of curiosity as to how I approach belief than as an argument in favor of belief.

The problem of evil was mentioned as an example argument, to which free will was of course the vanilla reply. I brought up animal suffering, which it seemed he hadn't considered in that context before. Steve's response was that if animals were treated differently, people might notice and see it as evidence of divine intervention, thus violating free will. While I don't find that very convincing—even if biblical God cared about free will, he could probably find a way to circumvent at least some of the suffering we see—for an improvised explanation, it wasn't terrible.

Steve thanked me for my time and for what he was able to learn from our conversation. He would pray for me, and that my bar of evidence would be met. Despite my warning that I may not read it due to time constraints, he said he would send me Josh McDowell's book Evidence That Demands a Verdict. And he expressed a hope that I would continue to research Christianity. It brought to mind a post I made a while back about my pro-Christian bias: that I've already given Christianity so much more attention than I would give any other faith.

Even though I don't think any minds will be changed as a result of our conversation, I'm glad to have had the chance to talk with Steve. It's heartening to know there are religious people who are genuinely curious about atheism, and willing to engage in a good-natured dialogue to learn about a different way of thinking.

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like an interesting person. I can see how someone who's changed religions might be more sympathetic to an atheistic viewpoint, and feel less threatened. He's made a real choice, unlike believers who find us threatening.

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  2. Did he clarify what, if anything, he *did* learn from the conversation, other than the animal suffering issue?

    I'm glad that it was a pleasant conversation, but I find it somewhat unfair of this "Steve" to presume that you should read his suggested book, without offering to respond in kind. It's not as if there is a lack of available material about atheism -- isn't it a legitimate moral imperative for "Steve" to seriously and fully examine that, certainly when he is speaking to someone who has seriously examined his "side"?

    Jesse

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    1. Jesse,

      He didn't really go into specifics, but I think he got a better sense of the types of positions atheists tend to hold and why.

      To be fair to Steve, once I explained that I may not get to reading the book, he stressed that he didn't want to put any pressure on me to do so. I do think it would be wise for him to do some more serious research on atheism, but going as far as he has puts him a step above the vast majority of people, religious or not. So I have to give him some credit for that.

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  3. Yes, I too am surprised that the conversation remained pleasant. As to Pascal's Wager, its major flaw is that it requires a god too stupid to realize when he or she is being conned.

    Lurker111

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