Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fight Night

Yesterday I got a call from a Jehovah's Witness.  This has happened a number of times over my adult life and every time I have politely listened to a few words, informed them that I was not interested and then hung up.  Not this time though.  This time I had an hour to burn and was itching for a brawl.  Recently I have read

God is not Great - Christopher Hitchens

God:  The Failed Hypothesis - Victor Stenger

Now obviously with names like these you aren't getting someone who really wants to present both the atheist and religious viewpoints with equal verve and emphasis, but given that they actually present really strong arguments.  After reading what they had to say I thought it was time to give the Jehovah's Witnesses a bit of resistance and see if they were actually willing to talk about the Bible as long as I was and to find out how they dealt with unflinching criticism.

In short, they dealt with it about as well as could be expected.  The first person on the phone got very flustered when I started talking about how God gave instructions for proper slave ownership in the Bible and rapidly passed me off to the local expert.  It seems that they have run of the mill Jehovah's Witnesses giving phone scripture readings but that they aren't really expected to deal with a somewhat hostile audience, which is reasonable.  I ended up talking to The Believer (I didn't get a real name or rank or anything, however) for 45 minutes or so, leaping back and forth across all kinds of sections of the Bible and scripture in our debate.  I feel like at the end I had brought up a large number of absolutely damning points against his beliefs, but I do feel obliged to credit him with some things.

Firstly, he actually knew an awful lot about the Bible.  I bet I know a lot more than the average atheist and somewhat more than the average believer, but The Believer knew a *ton* more than me and obviously wasn't just quoting from a script, he had a Bible in front of him and was flipping to particular passages to quote me things.  The man had obviously spent a heck of a long time studying the Bible.  While I don't believe what it says, I will give credit that at least he did know exactly what he was preaching.  He also addressed some of my points in very interesting ways.  For example, when I criticized the Bible for promoting slavery he immediately came back that slavery in those periods was for a period of seven years and was often for failing to pay debts or other crimes.  This is not someone who pretends that the Old Testament doesn't exist.

Secondly he did not get angry or abusive.  In the conversations I have had in my life with religious people I have usually encountered anger, bitterness and irrationality.  In many cases the other person resorts to shouting and name calling almost instantly, removing any possibility of debate.  The Believer though simply tried his best to address all of the concerns I had in a calm, reasonable manner and bring up counterpoints when possible.  He spent time to try to educate me on how his religion works and make positive comparisons to other religions without name calling.  His examples were specific and topical and reflected a lot of thought or research into the issues at hand.  I must give credit where credit is due.

However, there were certainly some points that he had no reasonable response for.  I tried to corner him with

"So when you were choosing a religion and deciding which one to follow, how did you choose being a Jehovah's Witness over Islam?"

Zing, if I do say so myself.  On this point he actually had some prepped responses about how Islam was based on the Koran which contradicts the Old Testament and so should be rejected, so I must credit his preparation.  Of course the New Testament is riddled with contradictions with the Old Testament, so his argument does not hold up in the slightest.

In addition he had real difficulty justifying God intervening in wars between the Israelites and others (stopping the sun to let the Israelites complete the slaughter of their enemies, for example) when in theory murder is against the rules.  In general it is going to be extremely difficult to reconcile modern moral thought with the God of the Old Testament, so given that he was trying to support what seems like a completely untenable position I think he did all right.  Of course that doesn't change the fact that he actively supports the idea that it is morally right to commit genocide if your religious leaders tell you that God has promised you a particular piece of land to rule.  Note that I actually asked him if the slaughters perpetuated by the Israelites in the Old Testament were morally right, and he said unequivocally that they were.

I guess in the end The Believer really fits into the category of person I talked a lot about in my Faith post.  I have no reason whatever to think that The Believer is anything but a nice, scholarly person who believes in Bible literalism and will never hurt anyone if he can possibly help it.  I expect he is a gentle soul who actually wants to help others.  That unfortunately does not change the fact that many of his beliefs, taken literally, encourage and support fundamentalism, violence and oppression of any that do not share those beliefs.  Making it easy to convince others to commit atrocities is not something we can ever punish by law, but it certainly is an act I cannot morally condone.

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