Build the commonality, then discuss differences; picking my way through my recent Twitter conversation

It’s still amazing to me how one comment can cause a ripple in the force of the internet and before you know it, everyone’s jumping in the topic ends up on the other side of the planet. It does reveal a lot about people and how discussions are carried out though, as well as raising some very difficult questions.

On Twitter this week I read a post that read (and this is exactly how it was put):

Ive SEEN 100s HEALED of CANCER and OTHER PAIN and DISEASES JESUS HEALS EVERYDAY ASK PRAY BELIEVE

To which my response was:

and when he doesn’t heal you?

Why God does not heal people, or leaves it a long time before he does, has always been a difficult point. Some of the responses to my question involved Gods timing being perfect and that he has a plan. This suggests its part of Gods plan for people to suffer and wants them to. This is just grotesque on many levels, and is in no way related to what Jesus taught. Another response was about our sufferings now are nothing compared to the riches of heaven. Whilst I believe that God will renew and heal the world and rejoin it with heaven (both combined are Gods kingdom), we’re still left with the issue of suffering now. This is one of the main reasons cited by atheists as to why they don’t believe in God. I can fully understand why this is, and I think that some of the responses do nothing but treat peoples suffering with contempt and simply dismiss it. I get that we’re trying to understand it, but lets not make it less than what it is and/or trivialise it.

Things got interesting when atheists started weighing in on the conversation. Sadly though, the conversation very quickly degraded into an insult slinging match. The main comments were that all religious believers were delusional and stupid and suggesting professional help; one went as far as saying that the only way they could believe what Christians do is to have a labotomy or a tumour. What came to mind on this was the fact that despite some atheists believing that belief in God is some kind of mental illness, there is no effort or even talk about getting it classified as one. For all their bluster, they don’t seem to be taking much action against something they feel people can and should be cured of. One of the things they cite is the claim made by Christians that God speaks to them. This conjures up ideas of actual voices similarly with schizophrenia. This is where Christians don’t really help themselves or assume far too much. Christians do alot of talking about hearing God, God speaking to them, putting things on their heart etc, but what exactly does this mean? As a Christian, I absolutely believe that God guides and inspires people. I also believe that sometimes we attribute things to God that did not come from him. How do we tell the difference? Great question, I’ll come back you when I have an answer. Rachel Held Evans wrote a great piece on Chrisitanese and how it’s often used as a barrier, as well being concepts that some Christians don’t even understand. The point though is that with a few exceptions, no Christians claim to hear voices when they say God spoke to them and claim God told them to harm others; this could be one way to tell the difference, when did Jesus command people to harm others? Those who believe belief in God is a mental illness may point to a clinical definition of schizophrenia which includes;

Delusion – Unusual beliefs not based on reality which often contradict the evidence

They will claim it is not based on reality and contradicts evidence and therefore is a delusion.  Professor Andrew Sims, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Leeds and Past President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, wrote a book titled Is Faith Delusion in which he argues that faith is not, indeed cannot, be a delusion. He writes:

I started with the question, is faith delusion? I spent some time looking at precisely what delusion is in psychopathology and then measuring religious faith against it. I concluded that faith, of itself, is not  and cannot be delusion, although people frequently have delusions that include religious and spiritual content. I covered briefly various other abnormal phenomenological states and found that, although those with religious belief may well experience them, faith was not causative. I also looked at the nature of personality to assess whether faith could be construed as a product of abnormal personality. Although variations of personality affect the manifestation and self-experience of belief, religious faith exists independent of personality. Finally, I examined the phenomenon of faith, observing its cognitive, affective and volitional aspects. This process has been carried out from the perspective of descriptive psychopathology.

When it came to the tone of the conversation, some responses by Christians didn’t exactly help matters. Telling someone they’re demonic is not the greatest negotiation tactic. Some of the things they came out with also made me scratch my head. Things like:

“i know,but she doesnt have a heart at this moment for God.She will need to be humbled b4…she will want God. But if you want evidence…he provides that. It is a 2way relationship…not a myth”

There’s just seems to be so much arrogance to that statement. It is like calling yourself humble, if you have to call yourself it then you’re not. Michael Greens statement sums it up:

Some Christians really do give the impression that they have arrived and that all the rest of us are just struggling in the dark.

They give this impression when dealing with other Christians too. The response was spot on and really hits on something that has crept into Christianity:

the problem is, he assumes anyone who isn’t Christian doesn’t have a good heart.

Absolutely, this seems to be a massive assumption within Christian communities; that atheists can’t be good people. This is just utter utter nonsense. The statement about not having a heart for God was followed up about them being angry at God. Atheists not angry at God, you can’t be angry at something that you don’t believe exist, but many seem to be angry that there are people who believe God exists. This is just weird that people get visibily upset at the thought that someone believes something they don’t. I get being angry at the actions of people that they claim is in the name of religion, but insult those simply because they believe something different? Oh yes, very enlightened. Also, I didn’t have a heart for God when I became a Christian and every single person has the same choice I did; say yes to God or say no. Quoting scripture at an atheist to prove a point is just a waste of time in most circumstances. Not because they’re not willing to listen, but they don’t believe the Bible is the word of God. It’s like trying to prove a point by quoting the Koran to a Christian; same thing.

Inevitably the question of evidence came up and this didn’t go much better. Claims from Jesus is the evidence to Jesus didn’t exist were thrown about; and accusations that no evidence was provided even though links to what the evidence is were posted less than a minute earlier. It does seem sometimes that the ones who scream the loudest about evidence, are the ones least interested in it. There were 2 really interesting statements made on this. One I’ve heard expressed in various ways from both atheists and Christians, and that is if there was evidence you wouldn’t need belief. This is straight out the Richard Dawkins textbook, and completely misunderstands what belief and faith are. We believe things when we have reasons to, when we have had enough evidence to persuade us. As W.H Griffith Thomas wrote:

[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.

Even a glance at the dictionary shows that the concepts of belief, faith and evidence are linked. The Christian faith may be wrong, the evidence for it may not actually point to its truthfulness, but it simply is not the case that it can’t have evidence purely because it is a faith. I was given a slightly back-handed compliment when I was told not to give up my reason as I will eventually see religion for what it is. Whilst it was refreshing to hear an atheist acknowledge that a Christian can be reasonable and rational, they still seemed to struggle with the fact that reason and rationality are reasons people are not atheist. Atheism probably makes about as much sense to many Christians as Christianity does to many atheists.

Looking back through the conversations, I’ve realised that it went all rather predictably. Some atheists think Christians are mentally ill, some Christians think atheists are immoral, both seem to think faith and evidence are enemies and the internet really isn’t the place to hold discussions with people you don’t know; especially about such an emotive topic as religion seems to be. Something atheist philosopher Michael Ruse said I think is very true:

Unless you’ve got commonalities, you can’t really discuss things. If you’re just talking completely past each other, it gets kind of boring. It’s where you share an awful lot then things get really interesting

I have many atheist friends, and we discuss religion quite often; but we know each other, we share other interests. When you don’t know them, it’s easier to keep people at a distance and caricature and mock them than it is to make the effort to get to know them I guess. That just doesn’t make for a conversation that goes anywhere.

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