Educated People Can Disagree Agreeably and Learn From One Another

I received yet another email from a Christian professor who is planning on using my book in his classes. Here is what he said about my recent decision not to allow any more comments [Edit by popular demand we're now moderating comments]:
I have really appreciated reading your DC blog the past couple of months after very carefully reading, highlighting, and writing in the margins of Why I Became an Atheist. (I agree with your suggestion that it merits a second and third reading.) I was disappointed when I read about your decision to no longer allow general comments. I understand that you must get frustrated by the many banal comments of those who just want to argue rather than discuss intelligently.

I am planning to use your book in a couple of courses I teach, one undergrad and one grad class, and was hoping to use the blog as a way for my students to interact with you and others in the blogosphere. I would enjoy finding a venue by which that could still happen.

I figured you were getting some annoying and hateful posts. My concern is that there are so few places anywhere, including cyberspace, for genuine, thoughtful conversation between open-minded people on both sides of the theism fence.
This is what I have wanted my Blog to be from the beginning despite the attention getting name (once again, it's main purpose is to grab people's attention), although I don't claim to be open to Christianity at this point even if I AM willing to have an open dialog about it (which may be what he meant). But there are ignorant Christian trolls who comment here to try to disrupt and derail this discussion/debate.

So what's the difference? Why is it that educated Christians and professors want to truly engage our arguments in a thoughtful and mostly mutual respectful manner but that ignorant Christians do not?

I think I have an answer. Only ignorant people (on both sides, by the way) think that whoever disagrees with them is stupid, ignorant and dumb. We can see this almost everywhere. An ignorant person not accustomed to fine wine, classical music, art, or the classic novels of the day simply cannot appreciate them. They have to be educated to see why such things are indeed on a higher level than cheap wine, rap music, graffiti or romance novels. What we fail to understand we also think is unworthy or undignified and that people who enjoy them are stupid, ignorant or dumb. But educated people know differently, even if on some levels they can still appreciate other expressions of these kinds of things.

[Full disclosure, I like cheap wine. I like some rap music and I don't listen to classical music much. I also think some graffiti is amazing, even if it's illegal. I dislike novels, even classical ones for the most part, especially romance novels (from what I understand romance novels are a woman's kind of pornography anyway). But then I am not claiming to be knowledgeable about these kinds of things. I lack the refinement of these tastes, but then I know that I do and I will never tell people with these more refined educated tastes they are ignorant or stupid for having them. I just don't think there is any comparison with the music of a Beethoven, Back, Chopin or Brahms with Vanilla Ice and some others, although many rappers are really creative. For instance, have you heard Wanna be a Baller by Lil' Troy? ;-)]

In the first few months after becoming a Christian I was dispensationalist. I remember reading through my Scofield Bible Study Bible notes as if these notes were as authoritative as the Bible text itself. I didn’t know any better. No alternative view was presented to me. So when I ran across a Christian who questioned this eschatology I had a hard time thinking that other person believed the Bible! I was ignorant. I later learned that Christian people had such disagreements. In fact, on issue after issue where I found disagreement among other Christians the more and more I learned that Christians can believe a wide variety of things and still believe the Bible. But this process took some time. As I became better educated I could embrace more and more Christians as Bible believers.

The same thing went for many different kinds of arguments I found at first thought ot be repelling, especially as I began studying philosophy. If you have ever thought that someone was completely ignorant to think there is no material world then just wait until you get into a Ph.D. program and take seriously George Berkeley’s arguments on behalf of Idealism. Then you will no longer think such an argument is stupid or absurd, even if you might still find it wrongheaded, if you do.

Here’s the point. As one becomes educated, truly educated, then the absurd doesn’t sound absurd anymore. You'll probably still think certain ideas are wrong, of course, but you cannot say of most any idea defended by an educated scholarly person that it is so completely out of whack that anyone who believes and defends it is just stupid, ignorant, or dumb. In fact, since none of us has a corner on the truth (and there is disagreement among philosophers about what truth is) then even those ideas we thought of initially as absurd might be correct after all.

Only the ignorant think that people who disagree are ignorant simply by virtue of the fact that they disagree. People who are educated will use the opportunity of interaction mainly as a time to learn from one another and then to disagree agreeably.

There’s something else. An educated person knows when someone else is educated. S/he can see it in how the argument is expressed, how much force is claimed for the argument, whether the person pontificates about things for which it isn’t possible to pontificate on, and so forth. For instance, when someone starts out an essay or comment claiming to "refute" a certain philosophical argument, that is a very large claim to make and is unlikely to happen (within certain restrictions, or course). Educated people know that the larger the claim is then the harder that claim is to defend. Educated people look for these kinds of things and they can tell when the person they are discussing something with is educated or not. The ignorant haven’t a clue. All they see is disagreement, and where they find it they automatically present their opponents a screwball award because they cannot recognize these clues. And they most emphatically cannot understand that the other person simply cannot say all that s/he knows in one short comment, one short posting, one short summary of an argument, or even one book. We all know more than we can say, although some people are better at saying it than others. So we must always assume the other person has more to say on a topic, and not assume that this is all he can say about it.

The ignorant person may also suggest some silly stupid objection to what a person writes as if this objection will end the debate. The ignorant person may even think such an objection has not even been considered before. The educated person offers better objections and asks whether it has been considered before. And an educated person will usually just ask of another recognized educated person what his response is to the objection.

Sometimes the best thing is for an educated person, who is on your side of the issue, to tell the ignorant people on his side, that this is what he sees when he reads the arguments of the person on the other side of the issue.

Educated Christians are saying that they appreciate our type of atheism here at DC, for the most part. And professors in both Christian and secular colleges are using my book in their classes on apologetics and atheism. This should be a clue to the ignorant Christians out there that educated Christians take me and this Blog seriously, that we know what we're talking about, and that we are worthy opponents, despite the fact that they still disagree. That's because educated people can disagree agreeably and learn from one another, although even educated people falter from time to time in the heat of a debate, which does happen, because we still disagree.

I wish the ignorant Christians who comment here would understand this, but then to do so they must become educated. I can only hope that barring a good education they will listen to the educated Christians and engage us in respectful debates about theses issues, instead of name calling, slander and charges of stupidity, ignorance and of being dumb. This only reveals THEIR ignorance, for they are saying something different than their own professors in Christian colleges are saying when they choose my book as a textbook for their classes on atheism and apologetics.



Anthony said...

I wish more people would post that are interested in genuine discussion and dialog. Everyone has reasons to be here, and some are more interested in evangelizing for their position than they are in being open about discussing things. We should be honest with the evidence that we do have and be unafraid to look at the arguments of the opposing position.

The sad thing is that I don't know if there is a good way to control or even block the trolls. They do not want to interact except to insult. I personally have never been persuaded by insult and do not know too many people who have, but there are a great many individuals, both theist and atheist, who seem to think that insults work.

We all need to be a little more patient (I say this knowing that there are a couple of people who post here that I love to give them a piece of my mind), be open and understanding towards each other. This is the only way to make progress in our discussions or otherwise they just tend to denigrate.

Corky said...

Actually, this is a blog and not a forum. No meaningful discussion is really possible in a comment box. And, that's what this is that I'm typing into, a comment box.

They are only meant for short comments on the posted subject and not for a long theological discussion or debate.

By the way, good post, John.

jjmontem said...

I think you may want to read this article from the NY Times...

It's your point exactly but it has some science behind it...