Arguing with Christians: Belief and Opinion

So I’m coming to the end of tutoring, and soon I’ll be into the wonderful world of unemployment, because tutoring is precarious and only runs for 28 weeks of the year and you have to kinda scramble to get anything else for the other 24. Anyway, ended up chatting with one of my course coordinators about Christianity for a bit, and some of what we talked about was kinda relevant to the work I do here. So I thought we’d talk about it. 

We were talking about Christianity and its relationship to broader public discourse, and one of the things the coordinator said is that with religious people, it’s kinda hard to actually engage in discourse with them sometimes. You get to this point where they go ‘Well, I believe this thing is true because God says so,” and that’s the end of the conversation. There’s not really anything more you can do from that point. And on a basic level, that’s kinda true – there’s definitely people who essentially end the conversation by appealing to God or something and – you know, that’s really it.

But what I noticed with this criticism is that the problem isn’t necessarily about religion. In fact, if you think about it, the best people to argue with religious types are other religious types. If you find some asshole who thinks God created women as secondary beings, you don’t want to deploy an atheist – you want to deploy another (more liberal) believer with better religious arguments. If a Christian bases a belief on their interpretation of the Bible – well, fuck ’em, let’s get a better interpretation.

In some ways I’m not really saying anything new or especially interesting. When I talk to non-Christians about Christianity, I also try and frame it in a way that makes sense to a non-religious mindset. You can actually go a surprisingly long way if you just substitute ‘goodness’ for ‘God’. The ideas aren’t identical, right, but if I say to some agnostic ‘Look, I think ending poverty is a good thing to do,’ they’re going to say ‘Yeah, sure, totally.’ If I then say ‘I think it’s also part of God’s character that He wants to see poverty ended,’ they’ll go ‘Well, not so sure about the God thing, but you’re trying to do good things, so fine I guess.’ It’s not disingenuous or undermining the faith, it’s just good communication skills. The same applies to dealings with conservative Christians. It’s just about framing things in a way that adheres to the mindset.

It’s probably also worth noting that my argument is a little bit self-serving. Within many liberal circles, there’s an odd mixture of contempt and incomprehension towards the religious right – and to be honest, often towards religious people more broadly. These liberal circles tend to be largely non-religious – at least in my experience – and so by setting liberal Christianity up as a sort of entry point for understanding and engaging with the religious right, I’m also kinda positioning myself as the Most Important Person in that conversation. That’s, uh, declaration of interest, I guess.

Although at the same time, I don’t think this argument is just about self-interest. I’m partly joking with that point, right. More importantly, I’m trying to note that actually, in my experience, many people in liberal circles aren’t very well equipped to engage in serious conversations with Christians. You know you’ve heard this conversation before:

Conservative Christian (CC): God says that women should be subordinate to men.

Liberal (L): Uhh that’s dumb and kinda degrading to women.

CC: TOUGH GOD SAYS SO.

L: Sounds like a pretty shit God.

I’m not trying to straw-man here – I’m really just trying to speak from my own experience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-Christian ask why a Christian holds a specific belief. The point goes back to my convener’s comment on belief – if someone says they believe something, there’s no room for conversation. But that’s not quite true. I can have a conversation with those people, and even if I can’t change their minds, they’ll usually accept that there are other valid interpretations that fall within the scope of Christian thought – which really in itself is a kind of victory. Further, I’d like to suggest that you don’t actually have to be Christian (liberal or otherwise) to talk with these people. It’s really just a matter of knowing something about the culture and critical discourse. For instance:

CC: God says that women should be subordinate to men.

L: Personally I don’t believe in God, so I can’t really agree with you, but I hear there are other Christians who don’t think God says that.

CC: They are wrong.

L: Why?

CC: Because the Bible says that woman was created as a helper for man.

L: The Bible also says that you can have multiple wives (Ex 21:10) and slaves (Ex 21:2). Is God okay with those practices?

CC: Those are old laws in the Old Testament. We’re not under those laws any more.

L: But slavery is also legitimised in the New Testament. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). If it wasn’t okay under the new covenant, wouldn’t Paul have mentioned it?

CC: The Bible contains the intellectual seeds of abolition.

L: Some Christians think it also contains the intellectual seeds of gender equality (Galatians 3:28), rather than encouraging the subordination of women.

CC: But you also have to read the Bible through the power of the Holy Spirit to discern what God’s will actually is, as Calvin teaches. That means as a non-believer, you can’t really have an opinion on what the Bible means.

L: I don’t claim to know what it means. I’m just reciting the things that some Christians have said about its meaning. Surely they have the right to an opinion.

CC: Yes, but their arguments don’t respect the linguistic meaning of the text, and they’re logically inconsistent.

From here the argument can continue on – but there’s a key shift in those last couple lines. If Christians claim that only Christians can have authentic opinions about Christianity and the Christian God, then you just shift gears. You’re not presenting your own arguments, right, you’re presenting the arguments of liberal Christians (hi!). They’re all Christian, so they get to have an opinion, and they disagree with the conservatives on gender equality. If the conservatives then turn to linguistic arguments, or logical arguments – bam, they’re back on your turf. Take those motherfuckers out.

Ultimately a Christian may fall back on this sort of line: ‘I just don’t think that’s who God is.’ When you hear that, or anything resembling it, you’ve won. You’ve moved them from ‘God says X’ to ‘I think God says X.’ By foregrounding different positions from within Christianity, you remove the veneer of objectivity inherent in the claim to divine knowledge. That’s what supposedly shuts down the conversation, right, that claim to know what God thinks. “I believe this thing is true because God says so.” What we can do is show how actually, that belief is not an inherent part of their faith tradition. Rather, it’s one of several diverse positions. Really it’s not a religious belief at all – it’s more a religious opinion.

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