On Dealing With Apostates.

Some Christians think they have Biblical precedent to scoff, mock and malign those of us who are apostates from the faith because Jesus Paul and Elijah mocked their opponents. Let me try to reason with them.

Other Christians argue against such tactics. Christians on both sides of the fence can defend their views here, because there are Biblical stories and verses that support both sides, just as Christians disagree about the relationship of the church to the culture. See H. Richard Niebuhr's classic book, Christ and Culture, where he shows there are six different ways Christians have sought to engage in their culture, all based upon something said in the Bible. Christians see a different Jesus in the New Testament texts. Jesus fits all sizes doesn't he? But to think that the NT contains different and even contradictory approaches to handling unbelievers is something they would never think of accepting. Many times the Jesus that a Christian sees is based upon his own personality type. Not only are interpretations of the Bible historically conditioned, but they are also conditioned by what personality types we already have before coming to the Bible. I maintain that the side a Christian takes with regard to how to treat false teachers is more likely to be based upon his or her own personality type. Hateful, self-righteous, know-it-all, competitive, arrogant and angry people will simply have the strong tendency to interpret the Bible the way they do.

Christians who use these tactics are ignorant. Using these tactics is based upon imitating some ancient superstitious people, like Elijah, Jesus and Paul, whom they hold no candle to. Charles Sheldon's 1896 book, In His Steps asked, "what would Jesus do?" in order to spur Christians on to imitate his behavior. This book has been widely criticized by Christian thinkers because Christians cannot do what Jesus did, since they are not Jesus. Can we perform miracles? Should we overturn the money changers’ tables and thrash them with a whip? Jesus also shunned a Canaanite woman and called her and her people “dogs,” because he said his mission was limited to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:21-28). There are a host of things these Christians wouldn’t try to imitate, like telling women to be silent in the churches as Paul did (I Cor. 14:34), selling all and giving it all to the poor (Luke 18:22; Yes, Jesus really meant this because his ethic was an "interim ethic" until the Kingdom of God came, which the NT writers believed was imminent in their lifetimes), or sending a slave back to his master (Philemon), or even be an itinerant preacher like Jesus with no place to rest his head (Matthew 8:20). These Christians merely pick and choose what they want to imitate based upon what they want to do.

Even if Jesus, Paul and Elijah did what was right in taunting and demeaning their detractors, there is a difference that makes all of the difference. They supposedly knew with a much greater certainty than these Christians will ever know that they were right. These Christians do not have the same assuredness they did, to do what they did. Are you Jesus? No? Then you don't have the right to do as he did.

The same hermeneutics these Christians use to interpret and apply the Bible in dealing with false teachers, was also used to justify southern slavery. Get and read William Swartley's book, Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women (Herald Press, 1984). This Christian book is really about hermeneutics. Its main thesis is that there are two different ways of interpreting the Bible with regard to these four different ethical issues. On the one hand you have the literalists, and on the other hand you have those who stress Biblical principles over some of the literal statements in the Bible. And guess what? The literalists defended southern slavery, while those who stressed Biblical principles (like Galatians 3:28) were against it.

The problem here is that Christians who berate and ridicule false teachers because Jesus did, argue based upon the same interpretive principles as those Christians who defended southern slavery. Other Christians stress Biblical principles like loving the way the Good Samaritan did, who was considered an outcast, a half-breed, and a worshipper at a false temple.

In fact there are two good reasons for treating those who disagree politely, like we do here at DC: 1) People will listen to you, which is the goal, isn't it? 2) You might learn something in the interchange of these ideas, since no one has a corner on the truth.

Certainty is unattainable when it comes to such issues, so it's best to at least tone down the rhetoric. But on they go. They are right about everything. Everyone else, even many other Christians are wrong, which is another personality induced my-way-or-the-highway attitude of what an apologist is supposed to do.

Actually we apostates can consider ourselves lucky. In a previous era they would have tortured us and burned us alive. Atheists don't deserve apologies because they are less than human. And once you demonize your opponent you can do anything you want to them, and Christians have done just that.

Many people listen to what we say here at DC because we say it respectfully. Think about it. Many people cannot hear what these other Christians say because they can't hear their words above the loud screams of their attitude.

Even if these Christians are right about Jesus, Paul, and Elijah, who cares? We live in an opinionated society; one that values the free expression of ideas and where educated and intelligent people realize we will not all agree. That's the difference that makes all the difference.

These Christians should adjust their views, just like they’ve done with their liberal views on women when compared to Christians of earlier centuries. They should adjust, just like they've done by condemning racism and slavery, unlike those who justified these things in the American South. They should adjust, just like they do with their liberal views of hell when compared to the Middle Ages. They should adjust, just like they do with regard to their liberal and heretical ideas of a free democracy when compared to earlier times of the divine rights of kings. They should adjust, just like Christians have done who longer think the Bible justifies killing people who disagree. They should adjust or die trying to kick against the goads.

Exapologist has said to these Christians:
You're missing the point about the relationship between civility and inquiry. It's not to prevent from hurting others' feelings, but rather to prevent obstacles to finding the truth. People who care about gaining/sustaining true beliefs and avoiding/discarding false ones realize that a free and open exchange of ideas contributes greatly to that end. It's a way for ideas to be scrutinized and refined through careful peer review. When this sort of exchange is at its best, it's a thing of immense value. It's a process that drastically increases the probability of acquiring truth and avoiding error.

Unfortunately, this invaluable process -- which isn't even allowed in many places -- is extremely fragile: it's very easy to stifle. For example, if someone enters into this process and starts attacking others, then people start to shut down, or they start a shouting match, or... Thereby drastically reducing the probability of getting truth from the process -- or shutting down the process entirely.

So you see, the reason why people don't like it when you start attacking them is not primarily because it's unpleasant (although it is, but most grown-ups can handle that), but rather because you're stifling the free and honest exchange of ideas, which in turn stifles their inquiry into the truth.

Now there are places that you can go that are against the free and democratic exchange of ideas, and would prefer the unquestioned adherence to the dogmas of a particular religion, silencing all dissent with violence -- e.g., societies in which the Taliban is in control (or Calvin's Vienna). But the people you attack aren't into that, for some strange reason.

Also, if you yourself are interested in increasing the probability of gaining true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs, then (in addition to taking some courses in critical thinking and logic) you need to acquire certain intellectual virtues, such as the following:

-intellectual humility: "you know what? I don't know everything, and in fact some of my beliefs might actually be false or otherwise unjustified."

A closely related virtue is:

-intellectual charity: "perhaps I should listen to and internalize the views of others, and not unfairly characterize them to myself or others -- even those whose views are diametrically opposed to mine. I should be able to explain and defend their views before I evaluate them. After all, that way I can be relatively confident that I'm not rejecting a view that turns out to be true."


- intellectual honesty and tentativeness: "I *think* that my views about x are true and reasonable, but sometimes I have my doubts about it. For example, there's this one argument Y that's pretty decent, and I don't know what to say about it. What do you think?"

As you put these into practice and develop them, the probability of your believing true propositions goes up dramatically.
Here’s what a Christian named Touchstone wrote:
It isn't that we can't handle it. It just looks bad for Christian apologists to come off that way. I don't agree with William Lane Craig on a lot of things, but I think he has a good sense of his obligations as a representative of Jesus Christ in how he acquits himself. He's clear and firm, but generous, and projects an authentic air of good will in the works I've read from him. In his debate with Ehrman he even went so far as to do a little treatment of "Bart's Blunder" if I recall. It was actually a well made point, but very much done in a charitable, if pointed way.

Why "mock" people who say Christianity is "clearly false"? Why not simply point out their missteps dispassionately? Maybe you don't owe this to the unbeliever at all. Maybe it is well within your rights to laugh like Elijah did with the prophets of Baal or how God "sits in the heavens laughs [and] . . . scoffs at [unbelievers]." (Psalm 2:4). Fine, but that doesn't mean that you must exercise that right. Doesn't your Bible say that Jesus "felt a love" for an unbeliever ("the rich young ruler"--Mark 10:21--Although, this might be the only such reference in the Bible)? Is "mocking" and "laughing at" indicative of this? What do you hope to accomplish by mocking and laughing at an unbeliever? Will this help the unbeliever accept what you are saying? Will this help other Christians feel better about their faith? Does this honor God more than dispassionate reasoning?
In my book I revealed that I had an affair eighteen years ago as of this writing, and some Christians seem to berate me for it. They seem to think it discredits my arguments. Not so at all!

Here’s what a Christian named Jeff said in response to JP Holding's constant personal attacks on me:
We are constantly told that the insulting personal rhetoric that is used so readily in some circles…is justified because it accomplishes a larger strategic goal, namely to publicly shame opponents of the Gospel so that (a) they will be quiet and (b) they will be discredited in the eyes of the "audience". Now both of these seem like very flimsy justifications insofar as (a) never actually happens, and (b), I think, overestimates the size of the putative audience and underestimates its intelligence, but nevertheless, ok, fine, I'll accept it for argument's sake. But what, exactly, is the rhetorical advantage that is gained by criticizing and condemning someone for having sinned? It seems to me that to argue that John has sin in his past says nothing more or less than that he is human like the rest of us, and it's far from clear how that in some way discredits his arguments. Can you imagine, in a debate between, say, Witherington and Ehrman, if Ehrman were to finish a lengthy case for his view and Witherington's response was "unfortunately, Bart, your position has no merit because I have hidden-camera footage that shows you kicking a puppy!"

Good grief, people. If you want to argue vehemently against John's position, by all means do so, and if you think that calling him a moron or a poopypants somehow puts you on the lofty pinnacle of unassailable intellectual rigor, go ahead and indulge your belief in the validity of that notion. But don't suppose for a second that because his sins have been publicly disclosed and yours have not, that you are somehow justified in presuming to stand on some sort of moral high ground and wield his sin as a debate broadsword with which to win an argument. Even if you could win a debate that way (and you can't), your victory would be hollow, because with your own words against him you convict yourself -- just replace his sin with yours in your epithet, and you'll find your sword turns in your hand to stab its master with alarming speed and accuracy.

When someone is transparent enough to disclose personal information, particularly when it is potentially embarrassing to them, it's a betrayal of that person's trust to then throw that admission back in their face; to use it as a polemical barb is intellectually bankrupt.
A final note. I'm not opposed to using ridicule. Sometimes there is nothing left to do when all else has been said and done. Sometimes we must vent and laugh at what can only best be described as a ridiculous position, like Voltaire did this in his book Candide. But I am opposed to these offensive tactics being used on a daily basis against those who disagree if the goals are to convince others of our respective positions, and to learn from each other. These are my goals here at DC.

Redated from February '07.