The Wednesday Writers: Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

It’s the inaugural post from The Wednesday Writers!

No idea what I’m talking about? Read this.

Today we hear from my dear friend Andrew Budek-Schmeisser.

How To Talk To An Atheist

How do you talk to an atheist who is interested in debate?

And how do you talk to an atheist who wants only to shout you down?

The second one’s easy. Atheism is a faith; there is no proving the non-existence of God, and even disproving every single transcendental experience over recorded history won’t do it…because the one that can’t be disproven might occur ten minutes from now.

Atheism is a belief masquerading as non-belief.  Period.

And it has no foundation in science.  Science is what we use to build models of observed phenomena in the world around us, models that invoke certain physical laws, like those of mathematics and chemistry. Science is NOT truth. It’s the best explanation we have, based on what we know from interpretation of what we have observed.

As an example, Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion work beautifully to describe our observed world; they are what we use in designing bridges and buildings and aeroplanes. But scale them way up to the galactic, or way down to the subatomic, and they don’t work at all. They’re simply wrong. We can use them, yes, but only to a degree, and in the knowledge that they are fundamentally incorrect in that they don’t take all cases into account.

Regarding God, science can never do that. It was never meant to do that.

So our domineering atheist is left with this: his or her belief in non-belief is just that, and science can’t back up the argument…and never will.

But when we meet the earnest believer in non-belief who’s willing to talk and to listen…what do we say?

I think the first thing we need to express is humility, that our faith is just that…a belief that we can’t prove according to an external physical benchmark.

We also need to be respectful, especially to someone who’s fallen away from faith. An atheist has a personal investment in his or her non-belief, and has made psychological and philosophical adjustments that give life meaning within that framework. Don’t attack it, because provoking a defense will only lead to defense against Christ’s message.

We can bear witness to what Christ has done in our hearts and in our lives, our faith walk, but I fear that for an atheist it’ll be religious “jaw,” something unrelateable.

So perhaps we can take a more prosaic approach, one that leads to a logical acceptance of the transcendent:

  1. The existence of, well, everything is highly unlikely as a random event. Consider the formation of one strand of RNA, one of the building blocks of life, from the four relevant nucleotides.  If the strand is postulated at a length of 300 nucleotides, and all the nucleotides are present, the chances of a random assemblage in the correct (that is, viable) order is 4 to the 300th power.  In the decimal (base 10) system, it comes out to 4.15 times ten to the 180th power, around 4 followed by a hundred and eighty zeros.  As a comparison, the Lambda CDM Concordance Model says the universe is 13.8 billion years old, or about 4.36 times 10 to the 17th power seconds (that’s 436,000,000,000,000,000 seconds). The odds, therefore, are very much against the formation of even one strand of RNA . If a “try” is assumed every second, involving, simultaneously, a quadrillion potential RNA strands, the odds are something like 1 versus 10 to the 165th power against. Don’t go to Vegas with those odds. And this is for a single strand of RNA; the formation of the nucleotides is not factored in, and neither is the formation of life. Intelligent design suddenly makes a lot more sense.

  2. There’s a lot more history in the Bible than many people realize. Archaeology has found evidence of many of the places and people in the Old and New Testaments. King David is mentioned on a tablet from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs; the Pool of Siloam has been excavated; and the ossuary of the High Priest Caiaphas has been found. Nothing from Jesus’ life has been disproven, and current discoveries prove more and more (the latest is the dating of Jesus’ traditional tomb to the correct part of the Roman era in Jerusalem).

     

  3. The Bible is much more a narrative than a story; the familiar form of the novel didn’t exist when the New Testament was written, and while there was epic poetry, the Bible doesn’t fit that genre, except in the parts of epic poetry that preserve historical details, like the “Catalogue of Ships” in the Iliad (which has been shown to be faithful to the Aegean Bronze Age). Reading Jesus’ genealogy can be pretty tedious, but ‘listed’ history is very often true.

     

  4. For someone who claimed to be God, Jesus’ words have an awfully lot of common sense behind them; for example, when being asked if Jews should pay Roman taxes, He took a coin, and as it had a portrait of Caesar on it, said that what was Caesar’s should be given him. In other words, pay your taxes. And make no mistake, Jesus’ claim of divinity was a show-stopper in that society. Not to be dismissed out of hand as a lunatic He had to offer something useful, and not just spiritual gas.

     

  5. Jesus attracted some pretty hard-headed people, including a couple of guys who collected taxes for the Romans, which today would be like guys doing collections for the Mob. They were not clerical pantywaists. They realized that by tying their lives to that of Jesus they were probably going to die young, and something in Jesus’ teachings had to say it was worth it, that there was something ‘beyond’ that would make a shortened life worthwhile.

This doesn’t touch the concept of a personal relationship with Christ; it’s not supposed to. What we want to do is crack to door, so some light can enter.

You do have to expect resistance, and argument. Some popular rebuttals to the Christian are:

  1. A lot of smart people are atheists. Yes, Stephen Hawking has no need for the God Hypothesis. But Stephen Hawking is an astrophysicist, and has no more background to evaluate the historicity of Christ or the validity of transcendental experience than he does in removing an appendix. His education simply doesn’t go there, and making pronouncements in a sphere in which knowledge is limited simply makes one look silly.

     

  2. There is no evidence of God’s existence. Maybe, but until we built the right instruments we had no evidence that gamma rays existed, even though millions of them pass through our bodies every minute. This is not to say that someone will eventually invent a God-O-Meter, but the point is that something unseen is not necessarily nonexistent.

     

  3. Religion has caused misery in human history. No doubt religion has played a part in some of history’s worst moments. But sex has caused just about as much. Is anyone talking about giving up sex for that reason? Humans can ruin anything.

     

  4. The Bible is a made-up fantasy. The New Testament, on which the truth of Christianity ultimately rests, is being proven in its details by archaeology, and has been corroborated by independent contemporary sources (notably the historian Josephus).

     

  5. It’s just something you believe because you’re scared of death, and it brings you comfort. Of course I’m afraid to die, and being terminally ill this is an important question for me. I would be a lot less pleased to be putting my hope into something that I felt, deep down, was a lie. But don’t take my word for it; look at Jesus’ followers. There’s nothing to indicate that they were unbalanced, and we have extensive writings from Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh, that show his almost tedious sanity.  And these men, after the death of their leader, chose lives that led to ridicule and the cruelest kinds of death.  If the Resurrection story wasn’t true, they were simply fools. But what record we have of their actions doesn’t remotely indicate anything other than a steadfast resolve to spread the faith on which they literally staked their lives. There had to be a reason.

It’s unlikely you’ll convert a committed atheist in one shot. But you can plant a seed, and you can fertilize and water the soil.

********

Daddy and Emily
Andrew Budek-Schmeisser writes at Blessed are the Pure of Heart. He and his beloved wife Barb are caregivers to many beautiful and rambunctious dogs. Andrew regularly blesses his readers with encouragement, wisdom and a delightfully warped sense of humor.

 

Signature

Want to join The Wednesday Writers? I’d love to have you! Read this for more information.
SUBSCRIBE TO THE NEWSLETTER, REST STOPS ALONG THE WAY. PONDERINGS AND PUPPY VIDEOS DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX EACH SATURDAY(ISH).
Advertisements

10 thoughts on “The Wednesday Writers: Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

  1. Hi Andrew! I’m Crystal and I’m PhD student anthropological genetics. Don’t worry, I don’t troll Marie’s blog, but while I’m not a troll, I’m also not a Christian. I would like to address a couple point you make. At least the ones I feel relatively qualified to address given my educational background and life experiences.

    “So our domineering atheist is left with this: his or her belief in non-belief is just that, and science can’t back up the argument…and never will.”
    If someone were writing a how to talk to a Christian article, you would likely see something like these as well with the roles reversed. Science is a methodology of testing hypotheses and figuring out how things work. It isn’t really in the field of proving stuff. A good scientist is entirely willing to change their mind on a matter if the tests fail to pan out for a hypothesis.

    “We also need to be respectful, especially to someone who’s fallen away from faith. An atheist has a personal investment in his or her non-belief, and has made psychological and philosophical adjustments that give life meaning within that framework.”
    I appreciate your call for respect. All too often non-Christians are bombarded with the angry Christian friends and family who tell us we are going to Hell, which is not respectful and makes us far less likely to listen to anything said to us after that. We all have investments in the frameworks we create for navigating the world. Your Christian faith applies to this argument as well.

    As for your argument to “open the door”:

    1. I am beginning to believe that this “RNA is so astronomically random it cannot possibly have been chance” argument must be in some apologetics manual because I’ve seen it so many times. Scientists are trying to work out if this is really as astronomical as it seems at first blush. In 1993, two scientists Bartel and Szostak (https://molbio.mgh.harvard.edu/szostakweb/publications/Szostak_pdfs/Bartel_Szostak_Science_93.pdf)) wanted to see if a completely random system of molecules could undergo chemical selection into something viable. They used trillions of RNA strands, and their hypothesis was basically that once you had the 4 proteins building blocks that form RNA, that random assemblage was likely, rather with selection it would happen much sooner than 4 to the 300th. What they found was that within a few generations they could watch RNA evolving by imposing a survival challenge. What this shows is that genetic information (viable RNA) can come from trillions of random assemblages, most of which couldn’t create viable life, as long as there was some sort of selective challenge (in the case of this experiment, they were trying to demonstrate that chemical selection was possible) and enough variation to begin with. This study demonstrates the possibility of chemical selection, which likely would have been necessary for life to have been evolved from some sort of random chemical process.

    
The assumption that base pairs and the nucleotides themselves forming is even more astronomical is still in the process of being researched. However, a 2016 paper by Cafferty et al (https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms11328) has shown that spontaneous formation and base pairing is plausible. The science has not caught up to showing exactly how life evolved from chemicals, but it is beginning to put together the pieces that are necessary for that to possibly be demonstrated in our lifetimes. Alas, I won’t be part of this research, but it will be interesting to see progress none-the-less.

    In terms of astronomical probabilities. The probability of having four 10s and losing to a royal flush in a game of poker is 1/97,5551,242 (http://people.math.sfu.ca/~alspach/art30.pdf), arguably the chances of you being born is somewhere around 1 in 10^2,640,000 at least based on the calculations a professor at Harvard who examined the probability of your parents meeting, getting together, that specific sperm joining that specific egg and making you. (http://blogs.plos.org/mitsciwrite/2011/12/31/life-the-universe-and-everything-what-are-the-odds/) While his numbers may be off, you can find many examples of highly improbable events occurring every day.

    2. A book can have a lot of verifiable history and still have claims that don’t pan out. I wouldn’t argue against the idea that there is history in the Bible. Many intelligent atheists argue against the interpretation of divinity, the imposition of Biblical morals on society at large, and the claims that because there are some historical accuracies in the text that means that the morality contained therein must be the one chosen by and passed down by a higher power.

    As someone trained in archaeology and tasked with teaching this discipline to the next generation, I would like to point out that finding an item doesn’t prove anything, particularly in cases where the interpretation is challenged. And interpretation in archaeology is often challenged, as was the case with the Tel Dan Stele and the interpretation of it saying, “House of King David”. As I do not speak Aramaic and do not specialize in archaeology of the Middle East, so I will not weigh in on who may be right in that discussion, but as with many archeological finds, it’s meaning has been contested.

    3. I suspect most atheists aren’t challenging Jesus’s genealogy… But I will give you that the Bible has a lot of narrative. The parts of the Bible I challenged and couldn’t get answers about when I was breaking away from the church had to do more with apparent contradictions, about ideas presented that were contrary to my personal moral and ethical code. Some Atheists may challenge the Bible’s historical authenticity, but ultimately, I think what matters to most Atheists isn’t the story, but how the morals and ethics presented in the story are imposed on people today. In fact, the challenge is often the church and Christians, not the book.

    4. You can make the same claims about other great figures in other world religions. Any time you claim anything like divinity, you have to offer up something useful in return.

    5. Charismatic leaders can win over a lot of hard-headed people. That doesn’t make them right. In fact, this often leads to a great number of tragedies.

    I don’t think much of what you addressed here would really change the mind of my anthropology colleagues or my partner’s computer science and physics colleagues. One of my lab-mates is Christian, but she is probably the only one in our department. Like many of the sciences, anthropology has some hard-core atheists. I’m neither atheist nor Christian, though I grew up in the church and spent a year as an assistant youth pastor when I was considering becoming a pastor. I consider myself neither an atheist, nor a Christian, so all I can really say is that these arguments wouldn’t have worked on me when I was an atheist, though they did lead me to read 3 really interesting peer-reviewed journal articles.

    In truth, most atheists and non-Christians, have had at least one Christian try to share their faith with them at some point in time or another. Americans grow up in a predominantly Christian culture, so it takes effort to not have heard about the Bible. Often, non-Christians are harassed by folks claiming to be Christian. I’ve even received a couple of death threats for not being Christian in the past year and a half. In this particular moment in history when you talk about trying to convert Atheists, you are faced with a group of people who are increasingly being threatened by Christians. Christians who are simultaneously arguing that by existing we are persecuting them. As if being a minority in a culture grants you that kind of power.

    It is likely that most Atheists were raised in a Christian household, or were at the very least introduced to Christian ideas before the age of 10. Most non-Christians I am acquainted with were raised Christian and rejected it. These are people who are unlikely to be a couple pieces of contested archaeology, a statistical challenge and logic claims. That being said, my community is highly educated, so if you did the same claims to my undergraduate students who claimed to be Atheist, maybe you would get somewhere. After all, I’m able to convince at least a few of my Christian students that evolutionary science and genetics is real and worthwhile.

    PS- Your courage and faith inspire me, even if it is a faith I do not share. I have read many of your posts Marie has posted on Facebook.

    Like

    1. Crystal, I appreciate your taking the time and thought in this comment. I’m not well enough, now, to reply at length.

      I didn’t take the RNA sequencing analogy from another source, but I’m familiar with Bartel and Szostak’s work. It’s interesting, but their choice of favourable catalytic conditions seems to me to generate a circular argument. (Though I’m not a molecular biologist, I do have a doctorate in structural engineering, and worked in seismic research, so I do have some experience with designing experiments…which I sometimes unwittingly did to generate the result I wanted.)

      You’re right that against-the-odds events do happen every day, but far more don’t. It’s not therefore impossible that life could have been spontaneously generated; it’s still highly unlikely.

      In archaeology, you’re absolutely right that finding an item doesn’t mean anything; look at Schliemann’s interpretation of his dig at Troy, and his attempts to connect it to Homer!

      It’s a bit like accident forensics; looking through a debris field 9apart from being potentially nauseating if human remains are present) only provides raw data, and only in corroboration and context can that data be properly interpreted. A mention, say, of Caiaphas means nothing, but an ossuary that is dated to the correct time and is consistent with similar ossuaries among the Pharisees is something else. It’s not proof, by any means, but it is a valuable data point whose error bars can be said to have ‘shrunk’.

      I’d love to chat more – this is a wonderful, thought-provoking challenge you’ve offered – but a literal lack of breath forces my adieu, at least for the moment.

      Like

  2. Wow, Andrew. What an in-depth explanation. I LOVED this. My very own primer on talking with atheists. I especially appreciate your point about humility. Humility will lead much further than arrogance or over-confidence will.

    Great post, friend!

    Like

  3. We also need to be respectful, especially to someone who’s fallen away from faith.
    I know this truth all too well. Thank you for including so much thoughtful, caring and respectful food for thought here. I liked your post, but more so I feel I learned something helpful. Thank you for taking the time to feed our minds and hearts! Lisa

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s