Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rhetoric and Agenda-Setting

How many times have you found yourself in the middle of a conversation with a Christian and been debating the niceties of the Gospel of Matthew? You know what I'm talking about; you realize at some point that they've had the football on your end of the field during the whole exchange.

Of course, evangelists are typically good rhetoricians, because it's all they have. However, while they have a great offense, they usually have a weak defense; they're usually around like-minded people, so they're not used to people taking the debate agenda away from them. A few years ago on a Friday night I was back at my alma mater, walking across campus with a friend when we were approached by a campus crusader. Admittedly, back when I was young and foolish in college I might have said some shock-value nonsense to him just for laughs, and made him go away without changing his mind, as well as not impressing any on-the-fence bystanders that atheism might be a good way to live your life. He started his spiel, the usual "Have you heard the Good News? Have you accepted Christ in your heart?" etc. I told him, in a sincere tone, "Look. I can tell you're concerned for your fellow human beings, and that's really admirable. But I'm afraid you've been led into something just by virtue of being born into a community where your particular religion is practiced. So my question to you is, how is it possible for such things as gods even to exist? Wouldn't I actually be operating by two different standards of truth by telling people about gods versus trying to accurate tell the truth about things that I know or have done?"

As it turned out, he disengaged first, but I would have been glad to talk to him at least until I got to where I was going; I'd like to think I got the wheels turning not just in him but in the other people who overheard the conversation. Really basic - and sincere - questions like that will sow doubt (in the evangelist and the bystanders) in a way that direct objections never could, and in a way that trying to debate the internal inconsistencies of scripture never could (because then he has the ball way down at your end of the field). Here in the West we're at the end of almost two millennia of Christian dominance, so it's sometimes difficult even for atheists to set the agenda of these discussions in terms of very basic questions, rather than arguing over the inconsistencies in the gospels. But perhaps even more important than that is to be sincere and nonconfrontational - that will devert a lot more people.

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