I discovered and joined this website two days ago and started this blog that same day. In my first post, I explained that I turned away from Christianity as a boy because I came to find it "ridiculously implausible" but that I've nevertheless enjoyed discussing Christianity almost ever since. I called it "following my Campbellian bliss," even if I wasn't sure exactly why I felt this way about it.
Well, a Facebook friend read my post and revealed that, unlike my starting out Christian and turning atheistic, he had started out atheistic and later turned Christian only after he "experienced the touch of God and his miracles first hand and [has] no more doubts that Jesus and the Holy Ghost are alive and active." He said he'd pray for me that my "eyes can be opened," since "intellectual exercises" alone can't prove what only direct personal experience can.
Now many atheists might feel put off by my friend's offer to pray for me so that I might see the error of my ways and the truth of his. But I took no offense. In fact, I felt touched that someone I hardly knew would go out of his way without being intrusive to help me fulfill what he regarded as life's highest purpose: to know, love, and obey the one, true God and obtain salvation. This is how I replied:
"I guess there's no arguing (not that I want to argue :-)) with powerful personal experience. I would only offer two thoughts about what you say.
First, a lot of us haven't had these kinds of experiences, so what are WE supposed to do in the meantime? Second, if one does have the kind of experience to which you allude, I don't know that this establishes the TRUTH of the experience. Humans vividly experience all kinds of things and are firmly convinced of their truth when it's obvious or becomes obvious that they aren't true. Humans have an amazing capacity for self-deception. That being said, a part of me envies you for you comforting certitude and thanks you for your prayers on my behalf."
My friend graciously replied that he empathized with my skepticism and wondered why God didn't bless everyone with the kind of persuasive experience with which he'd been blessed, and he urged me to "stay open" to God's grace.
This is how I replied:
"I confess that it's difficult for me to "stay open" to something that my rational mind finds implausible at best. It's a little like telling someone to "stay open" to Zeus or, if you're not of Tom Cruise's or John Travolta's persuasion, Scientology. But I do what I can.
And one of the things I can do is learn more about Christian teachings. I concede that this is largely a rational undertaking. I also admit that I'm doing it primarily in order to write the best book on Christian counter-apologetics that I can. Yet, I guess it's possible that if Christianity is the true faith, the more I expose myself to it in any manner, the better my chances are of realizing its truth.
What's more, my book will be aimed not only at skeptics such as myself but also at believers. The way I figure it, if believers study the arguments I'll present against Christian teachings and they can refute them, they can quite possibly strengthen their own faith and act as more capable spokespersons for it to non-believers who engage them in dialogue and debate."
I share this correspondence here for several reasons. First, I think it illustrates the kind of respectful dialogue that atheists and theists can and should have if each is to understand the other better and this world is to become a more inviting place. I'm currently reading a wonderful book by Sean Stephenson entitled "Get Off Your But" in which he persuasively suggests that "communication is merely an exchange of information but connection is an exchange of our humanity" and that we should strive to connect with those with whom we communicate. Yet, how often do we do this with those harboring different religious or political perspective than we have? I'd rather dialogue with theists than argue with them. That way we can learn from one another and feel bonded by our core humanity instead of alienated, sometimes to the point of verbal or even physical violence, by our relatively superficial differences of opinion.
Second, I pointed out to my friend a major problem with personal experience proving religious truth. Personal experience of "the touch of God and his miracles" and all the joyful emotion and conviction that accompanies it is no guarantee that what we experience is anything more than mere happenstance and that our conviction of it being otherwise is other than self-deception. And it seems to me that the more miraculous our experiences seem and the more supernatural their origin appears to be, the more cautious we need to be about accepting them at face value, no matter how powerfully and convincingly they strike us.
Third, I raised the question of why, if these powerful experiences are necessary to bring doubters into the fold, God "blesses" so few of us with them. Doesn't this seem supremely unfair to the large number of us who wander in the sinful darkness because God hasn't "touched" us the way he has my friend?
Finally, my correspondence with my friend brings up the issue of openness to truth. My friend urged me to "stay open" to the possibility that Christianity is true, and if there's any chance that it is true, I certainly don't want to reject it and suffer the mortal and immortal consequences thereof. And how and when do we ever really know with absolute certainty that Christianity is the crock of bovine feces that most of us here probably think it is? On the other hand, how open to Christianity can we force ourselves to become and how do we do it, and how open to it should we be before we cross the line into gullibility and accept evidence and arguments for its truth that don't merit that acceptance?
These are some of the issues raised by my correspondence with my friend that I hope to consider over the course of my blogging and other forms of participation here.