Monday, September 19, 2011

My Call to a Christian TV Show

A week ago I had to make a 9-11 call. No, thankfully it was not a domestic emergency. I made a call to the nightly, Canada wide CTS Christian Call- In Show " It's your Call. " The subject on that night was ' The Atheist Perspective' and they were discussing  9-11, inquiring where God was on September 11th, 2001 when the terrorist attacks in the US were taking place. It all stemmed from an email the station received from an atheist wondering where the Christian God was on that day, and suggesting that believers just made excuses for their God's lack of action.

I know some atheists  will be asking how I managed to be watching this program , maybe thinking that I just happened to be flicking through channels and stumbled across it. Well, it didn't exactly happen like that. I actually do spend some time listening to various forms of Christian programming, call-ins and discussions. Some of my atheist friends consider that doing this is a strange form of self torture, but I actually find it entertaining and it helps to get an eye into what persons espousing the various flavours of Christianity believe. When I went to channel CTS on the night in question and saw a picture of an atheist logo on the screen next to the host Robert Melnichuk, I dropped what I was doing. I immediately started recording the show on my PVR,  because I knew this was one I couldn't afford to miss.

I have to give credit to  Rob, for accurately interpreting the arguments of the atheist when dealing with issues regarding the problem of evil, which on this night in question referred to events of 9-11.

 "Do we as Christians make excuses for God when  tragedies happen? Are we just making up rationalisations to account for the things we don't understand ?"

Yes yes, yes!! I couldn't believe the host had summed up things so beautifully. No atheist could have done a better job. I thought it was a bold question to put out there. Still, I realised Rob was speaking to his choir. This was 'It's Your Call' not 'Ask an Atheist.' Things were well set up up for his audience to call and declare in chorus that nothing could be further from  the truth. Of course, that's exactly what happened.

" Free will, free will, it's all about free will!" was the cry.

One lady made a statement that had a layer of irony thicker than the rubble left behind when the towers fell in 2001. " God wants us to be free to decide whether we want to choose him or not. If God had intervened to stop the attacks of 9-11 where would our freedoms be?" she exclaimed.

I hadn't during all this time intended to call the program, I just wanted to listen. In typical fashion, although they were looking at the ' Atheist Perspective' it was more a case of considering the atheist perspective from the christian perspective. Jeez, how many times have we heard this? Then something did break the ice, an atheist called in to explain how religion is where people turn to for comfort and that is why so many people turned to religion after 9-11. It was important to make this point as the host had begun to imply that the increase in numbers of people turning to Christianity after 9-11 was testimony to the fact that Jesus was real and had the power to deliver people from their distress. As the call finished Rob asked why the caller didn't believe in God and  the caller mentioned how seeing his son circumcised before his eyes was so horrific that he questioned the overall sanity of religion, he studied and began to look more closely at  the claims religions were making and eventually came to the conclusion that God was not real. The call unfortunately finished soon after.

I thought it was a shame the call ended there because I know enough about Christians to be sure that many would boil down his entire conversation into the statement, "I stopped believing in God because I don't like  circumcision." They would then dismiss the caller by saying that his point doesn't make sense since they as Christians don't believe in circumcision either. The believers would  then go on  to say that the atheist caller obviously doesn't understand that we are now under the new covenant and Jesus has changed all that and it is now about a relationship with God not a religion bla-bla bla, bla- bla bla. At that point I decided I would go for it. I would make the call at least to try to leave something more with the viewers. With any luck it  would portray  more fairly the 'atheistic perspective' and why we don't believe in the  God that they do.

My decision  to  call was late in the show and I knew I would probably have to be on hold behind all the callers in front of me in the line. When I eventually put the call, I received a very enthusiastic call screener . I told him I wanted to get on the show and he asked me if I was aware of what tonight's topic was.

" Yes" I replied calmly." In fact I am an atheist."

" You're an atheist? That's great!!!"  he responded.

I had this image of everyone in  the room where he was punching the air. At that moment I felt as if I knew exactly how the 'Atheist Experience' crew feel when a theist calls in. I realised that I was now 'that  theist caller' in this alternative evangelical universe. Then the phone seem to go dead, no sound of callers talking on the live show, no elevator music, just dead silence. On the tv screen it seemed they were showing a special that lasted about five minutes about a family from 9-11, so I would probably have a long wait sitting through that and then whoever else was waiting from earlier . Then I got a jolt that broke the silence like a thunder bolt.

" And we've got David from Calgary!"

That's when I got the lump in my throat, this was it. Wow, they didn't take any other calls while I was on the line. Maybe they ushered me straight to the top of the queue because I was an atheist. Well, there was no more time to reflect, I had to start talking and get on with it. I had no idea how much time I would have or if and when I would be interrupted. I had written out a few key points I had hoped to hit, I just took a deep breath and got going. The moment was made a bit more awkward because  this was not only the first time I was calling into a Christian show. This was actually the first time I had called in to any call-in program. I had been a frequent listener to shows like 'Tell it Like it Is' and 'Getting Down to Brass Tacks' in Barbados and have done my fair share of radio and TV interviews in my time but for some reason I just never thought that calling in to a live program was my thing. My lack of experience showed when I realised that although the TV was turned down very low it wasn't muted, so I could hear a faint echo of myself in the background. I frantically tried to mute the TV as I was speaking and as a result I paused as I gave  my opening statement, where I was making the point that I was an atheist. I wondered if  viewers would interpret those pauses as being scared of calling the 'A' word. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I found myself after thanking the host for taking my call,  getting straight into the story of my deconversion. How I was once where he was but had since changed. In spite of having my talking points to hit, I think sub- consciously I wanted to take this public moment to tell the world, well in this case Canada, why I no longer believed.  I felt I just needed to get it all out and to be honest I really felt better having done it. I spoke of how easy it is to see a God in everything  once you believed in him. A sunrise or sunset the sound of a baby laughing, all those things testify to a God once you believe. I went on to say that when things like 9-11 happen ,that seem not in keeping with a loving God, you still accept them as part of a plan, they must be a reason for these things even if you can't understand. It is this type of conclusion that I think leads to the excuses and rationalisations that I thought the atheist writer was alluding to in his letter. I went on to say that I also used to see God in everything when I was a believer but that one time after observing a tragedy unfold in Barbados, I asked  myself for the very first time, " What if God really doesn't exist?" I told him that once I removed that 'faith lens' and started to look at the world without assuming that a God existed it became more and more apparent that God wasn't there.

As I finished these thoughts I heard the host's voice cutting in  and I apologised because I felt I had spoken for a long time uninterrupted. That was a bit of a surprise to me too. But it did seemed the host was listening very carefully trying to take in all I was saying. I wondered how it all went down with viewers though, I was thinking that maybe it just went totally over the people's head. Then the host asked what was a very odd question.

" So David, do you believe in God now?" The only words that could come out of my mouth were " Pardon me?"

Don't get me wrong, I heard his question clear as day, I just couldn't believe that he had actually asked that . Had he not understood anything I said?  After he repeated his question, I followed by saying, " NO I don't!" with as much emphasis as I could without raising my voice.  I added the following,

" I just think that if you want to find truth it is far better to look at the evidence and let that lead you, rather than start by believing something on faith and  investigating from there, because if you have faith then you don't need evidence."

Well,  I am not sure what happened after that because as soon as I got that statement out all I heard was dial tone. I had a nagging feeling that this would be it for my night's contribution. I was right. As I could see the hosts mouth moving on my now muted television set, I figured he was making some comment on the call.He might even be still carrying on the conversation  without me. I felt a bit disappointed because I didn't get to say what I was planning to end of with. A simple question of why God didn't care about the 'free will' thing when he intervened in the lives of the callers who phone the show every night speaking of their personal 'miracles'. Alas, my 'free will' moment  was denied.

I actually had to play over the recording a few minutes later to here what had actually occurred after I was off the line. To my surprise. Rob's  response to my statement that it is better to follow evidence than faith in order to find truth, was met with the answer, " That's a  fair point."

I was taken aback, that's a pretty big concession for a christian TV host to make to an atheist . Maybe he just didn't have a response to give me right there and then and that was the easiest thing to say. Either way I hoped that the viewers would reflect on what the implications of their faith based beliefs would be if I indeed had  made a ' fair point.' I guess I will never know what the results of any such reflection will be. Anyway I thank Rob and CTS for allowing me to make my points and giving me a fair hearing. I don't think one could say that for every christian show.

After acknowledging my point, Rob said that unfortunately it was time to wrap up. Wow, I had just got in before the bell. I smiled to myself as he finished off because the whole scenario seemed so familiar to me. I used to attend a bible discussion here in Calgary where whenever I brought up arguments to challenge the group leader's arguments for God's existence, he would look at his watch and lament the fact that time was running out and we would have to wrap up right away. Curiously, there were other group discussions that took place alongside ours, but the group I was in always seemed to finish first. I know that this time it had to be station schedules, but it still brought back memories of old.

As Rob was signing off the program he held out his hand and pretended that he was holding something round in it. " This is the fruit." he said. "You just have to come and taste it. This is what God  is asking us all to do just come and try it and you will see how sweet it is."

Apart from remembering the devastating consequences that followed  the last time that God was part of a story involving eating a fruit, there were other  things that bothered me about his invitation, presumably aimed at us atheists. It is the assumption that we atheists actually have these spiritual fruits but just refuse to eat them. They think we are well aware that their God is real but we are just stubborn deniers,many Christians really don't believe that we are atheists. It follows, because I have been often called thinks like a "self acclaimed atheist," and a "person who calls myself an  atheist" by believers I have interacted with.
Caucasian Man Sitting at a Table and Reading a Menu at a Restaurant Posters, Art Prints
Christians tell us to 'try Jesus' as if he is some exotic dish on a menu at a fancy restaurant. A culinary delight that we are too scared to order because we think it will be too spicy or tangy for our palates to handle.They don't realise that we can't try what we can't see. We have looked over the menu back, front, inside and outside many times and we have not seen the " Blood of Jesus Special."

When we ask why we can't see this divine tasting treat, they tell us it's because we don't bring faith to the table. But how can an atheist bring faith ?  If we had faith to bring, we would not be atheists.  How can we acquire belief, if in order to do that we have to believe to begin with? It's the perfect circle.  It makes it logically impossible for any sincere atheist to ever find God. Faith is needed to find God, and the only way to get it is to have it. So, if you don't start out with it you are eternally screwed. Well, in that case, I can only hope that I am an insincere atheist , because only the pretenders among us non believers have even the faintest hope of finding the God of the faithful.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Engaging with theists online: Trying to be direct without causing offence

I wasn't expecting it to be so impactful, but engaging in online discussions with theists has been quite a learning experience for me.  I am finding out everyday, that it is rather different from both blogging and face to face interaction and it requires a different set of skills. Online discussions are similar to  blogging in that you have time to sit down and craft what you want to say in the way you want to say it. This is something you don't have the luxury of doing in a face to face chat. In online discussions you have to however be even more careful than you are when blogging. A blog is something you throw out to the online world and people are free to take it or ignore it. It is speaking to the general populace rather than a specific individual and  people  can decide 'if the cap fits' as they read. When you are in a discussion with a single person or group online it is a different story. You are speaking more directly to the individual and it makes me feel as though I am speaking personally about his or her God and a related set of beliefs which is often held very dear.

So, as a result I am regularly bending over backwards to not be offensive in tone to a greater extent than on the blog. (Although I try to be sensitive in blogposts too). I therefore try to avoid the humour and sarcasm I would use to get my point across in blog writing, lest it make the person I am talking with feel uncomfortable. In practice, this effort of trying not to upset people makes writing responses online almost as challenging as writing a blog post. Yes, sometimes you feel like a West Indies batsman being fed an 'easy to hit' ball, short and wide outside the off stump. The sort of delivery that you have seen and played many times in your career. But you have to be careful. If you try to hit it too hard the result could be disastrous. A shot hit too ferociously and the opposition will claim you are taking unfair advantage and the game could be over before it's begun. So you have to try and caress the ball delicately between the fielders like Brian Lara used to do rather than go for a savage pull over mid-wicket in the vain of a Chris Gayle. It is so critical to get that balance right.

For the reasons stated above, it is sometimes takes me a few days to respond to a point a believer raises in a discussion. I am sure that they think the delay is because I am just stumped by the great arguments they come up with. Oh well, I am sorry to disappoint the theists out there. It's often that I am trying to decide on the appropriate stroke to play, thinking of the right response that will encourage more engagement and understanding of my point of view. I also take the additional time to try to understand the position of the person I am talking to and put myself in their shoes. This is actually more of a challenge than you might think. It is easy when you become an atheist to forget what it is like to think like a believer. When I say that there is no evidence for the existence of God, for me it's an obvious fact. However, for most Christians the statement is plain nonsense.  Of course there is evidence for God, it's all around us, every living thing including you yourself testifies to his greatness and power. To say there is no God is to turn a blind eye to the whole universe and even deny your own existence. It is not easy to explain to a person who has always taken God for granted why nothing in 'creation' counts as evidence. I am not sure I have always been successful making this point.

In attempting to be respectful, I have especially tried to stay away from comparing their God with leprechauns, fairies, Santa Claus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I know that equating their God with such characters will tend to come across as demeaning. Yet, there are just times when I have to resort to this because there is simply no other way to make the point that the burden of proof for God's existence lies with them.

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Sno- cone with milk or without?

One of the main sticking points I have in these discussions is the idea of belief being a choice. It is often expressed to me how sad it is that the atheists ' choose' not to believe in God. They make it sound as if a decision about reality is like considering whether you prefer to have your sno-cone on a hot day in the Caribbean with our without  condensed milk at the top. They reason that it is irrational to choose a plain sno cone when you can get something  much sweeter without paying anything extra. I am sorry, you don't get to buy your own personal reality from a vendor pushing a cart.

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Unfortunately in this game of exchanging ideas, this playing field is about as level as the slope of the Pitons Mountains in St. Lucia. Whereas I am required to play carefully and watchfully, the opposition players are allowed to treat me as they like. There are no arguments that are not allowed for them, no limits to the number of bouncers they can bowl at me in one over. I recognise the double standard but I must admit that I am not unduly bothered. I am cognisant of the reality of holding an unpopular minority view, in a part of the world where God belief is almost as natural as breathing. However, I have to say that there is one ball which is being thrown at me often in these debates which I think should be deemed illegal. It's the famous quote from Psalm 14:1.

"The fool has said in his heart. There is no God."

I have refrained in discussions from calling believers on this tactic, but I want to say here that this is a definite  'no-ball' and does not represent an argument made in good faith (irony intended). It is basically just 'name calling.' I know the argument will be made that these are God's words and we shouldn't blaming the believers who are simply the messengers. But this doesn't really cut it because  they always make it clear from the outset that there are making their judgements based purely on what the ' holy book' says. So the words, " You are a fool!" are by default coming from their own mouths. This is in no form or fashion  an appropriate statement to say to someone that you want to have a respectful conversation with. I wouldn't dream of saying or implying that anyone was a fool at the outset of a debate , I wouldn't even want to suggest the person I am speaking with is by any means intellectually inferior. Level of intelligence is irrelevant in any case, because the only thing that matters in a discussion is the strength of the argument that is being put on the table. The quoting of Psalm 14:1 is a further insult due to the line that follows that is almost never quoted but would have to be equally applicable if the first line of the verse is to carry any weight.  Here is a little bit more of what God says about those fools who don't believe.

" They are corrupt, they have abominable works, there is none that does good."

Now I can't believe that the persons I have had conversations with actually think that way. If they did I don't see why they  would want to talk to me at all. You see, that is the conundrum you put yourself in when you go to the bible to argue your position. If you want the first part of the verse to apply you have to be comfortable with the second part as well. It's in the same verse of the same chapter of the same book in the same Book. Therefore you can't yell " Context!" So, my advice to the theists who are reading this is to try to refrain from using the Psalm 14:1 line of attack.

Having got that all out of the way, I thought I would leave you with a sample of an ongoing online discussion that I am having with Rachel (not her real name), a Christian living in the Caribbean. The dialogue has been respectful so far and I look forward to further interactions with her and others.I try to be firm and direct in stating my areas of disagreement while at the same time seeking not to disrespect her cherished beliefs. Have I got the balance right? I don't know. You can be the judge.

Hi David,

Let's use some reasoning from mere observation. If there is such a thing as an invention then one can readily conclude there must be an inventor.If there is a creature there must be a creator. The bible has so many truths. Man has questioned its validity because God allowed man to record His account of life. If the bible was strictly man's concoction we would have excluded all the failures and flaws and presented this perfect account to try to convince people to believe in the bible. We would exclude Abraham's lying, David's adultery, Jesus asking him for the cup to pass from him etc, but God has allowed man to see that sin and salvation are very real.

A lot of scientific discoveries were long time mentioned in the bible but the revelation of God's word is with those who seek Him. Even some of us Christians do not fully understand all that is revealed. There are some things God has chosen to remain silent on, but the things he has revealed are enough to keep us in this life. Many of you who claim to be atheists sooner or later call on the same one you say doesn't exist, that's why there are signs up saying " God doesn't believe in  atheists." One writer said " A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." I choose to believe in God rather than man. I think it is sad that (you) the creature are now denying the creator. David, God loves you and I pray that you will one day be drawn to God through that love.

Hi Rachel,

You have raised a number of things which I will try to go through one by one. Firstly, you make the argument that just as every invention needs an inventor, every creature needs a creator. This does not necessarily follow. We know having observed human beings , exactly how man creates. We can see the templates, equations, architectural and engineering drawings. We have seen builders and technicians take these concepts from mind and paper to implementation and we can visit the factories and see these transformations take place.

For things that occur in nature we have no such evidence. That is how we are able to distinguish between the natural and the man made; how we know that a skyscraper was built and an underground cave was not. If we posit that a special creator made all the things in nature that man did not, then we are left with the question of where the creator came from and who made him, her or it. This just creates a bigger mystery, because we need an explanation for the creator too.

I don't see how the portrayal of man's failures in the bible counts as evidence that the bible came from God and how we can surmise that man if he made it up would have left out these failings. Indeed, I think those failings help to make the stories more compelling. It shows how the characters in the bible have triumphed in spite of their own personal limitations. Such stories often move us emotionally, as we may even see aspects of ourselves as we read. Why would biblical writers not want to include these things? I consider that the essential point of showing the human failures is to emphasize how much God is needed to make us whole. That idea is what leads people to think that they need God's salvation and that's exactly what anyone that has the objective to spread that belief system would want.

I have heard it said that many scientific discoveries were mentioned in the bible. Yet, so many things in the bible directly contradict what we have discovered through science. Things like a seven day creation, plants created before the sun they would need for photosynthesis, illnesses caused as a result of demon possession. There is nothing in the bible about microbes, DNA,electrons or black holes. Knowledge of these things 2000 years ago would have saved millions of lives and put our development light years ahead. I just can't see how the bible has served as a benefit to science.

I know that many Christians will say that we atheists when we find our backs against the wall will cry out to the same God that we claim doesn't exist today. I have strong doubts about that, but since I have not yet been in that situation as an atheist, I cannot tell you for certain what I would do. So, maybe I would call out to God. But that would make him no more real or unreal than he is now. You consider that my not believing does make God not real and I agree. But the opposite must hold as well. Me believing tomorrow would not be proof there is a God.

Arguments must stand on their own logic. I think that the decision I come to when I have the chance to consider the evidence carefully without pressure is likely to be better than the one I come to when I am under intense stress or in a highly emotional state. It is one of the reasons why psychologists advise us not to make major life decisions when we are angry.

Rachel, I know that your desire to reach out to me to show me God's love is sincere. I know you consider  you have found something precious and you want to share it, that's great. I hope you understand that I have considered all the things you said. I had years of wrestling with these issues and there are even moments that I wish I could believe again just to be at one with many friends and family. However, I just can't. My heart cannot accept what my mind does not.

What I want to let you know is that I am not sad and you don't have to feel sorry for me. Life without my old beliefs is far from unhappy, indeed it is very fulfilling. Since I have left faith I too have found something precious. a sense of being free, not to do whatever I feel like, but to think without fear.