Tag Archives: youth

Dealing with an Atheist Gadfly

Just on a whim the other day, I stopped by a Christian student group on campus.  I stopped by because a fellow faculty member was supposed to be giving a testimony of something God had recently done in his life.  While I’m the sponsor for one group, there are actually quite a few Christian groups on campus–a student can pretty much go to some sort of Bible study every day during lunch.  I usually don’t frequent them, but due to my colleague, this day was different.

Well, the colleague never made it to the study.  But I’m still glad I came, because of the two guys that actually did make it to the meeting.

Not that they were the only two guys there…the room was jam packed.  But they were atheists.  Hey, who let these guys in?  Juuusst kidding.  It’s good when non-Christians come to Christian meetings.  To a certain extent, that’s kinda the point.

As far as I could tell, they simply walked in on a whim…and afterwards, they really let it out.  Come to find out, these guys weren’t there to make friends or check out the claims of Christ.   One of the guys was really hanklin for an audience.  Well, pretty soon, he got one.  No sooner than the meeting ended, and he started layin’ into some of the regulars there.  In a few minutes, there were about 10 or so gathered around either watching the “conversation” or actively participating.

I label it a conversation lightly.  The guy must have been a Hitchens devotee:  the arguments, assertions, manner, and vitriol seemed directly cut out of his playbook.  When the Christian students would attempt to answer his challenges, he would interrupt, throwing every loaded term and straw man in the book at them.
Rather than jumping in, I sat back and listened.  After a few minutes, one of the Christian students pulled me aside asking for help: “can you please step in and help us out?  We could really use it.”

Nope, I said.

His challenges were the typical ones I hear: God’s omniscience excludes human freewill, the God of the OT is a God of violence, there’s no evidence for life after death, you mean you believe in a God who fathered himself through a virgin? religion causes wars like the Holocaust (not making this up…the guy really said that, verbatim), blah blah blah.  They needed to take care of this on their own, however.

All year long I have been subtly communicating to the Christian students in my charge the importance of learning how to defend the faith.  When I’ve pressed it, they’ve agreed with me to my face, but then nothing happens.  They haven’t changed their behavior and values.  They simply keep churning out the same ‘ol same ‘ol youth group Bible studies.  The whole year, they’ve devoted 2 Bible studies to apologetics, theology, and defending the faith…and that’s just the group I sponsor.  All the other groups, to my knowledge, have devoted zero Bible studies to those things.  The Bible studies they’ve had have value, because they’ve been focused on the relational and emotional aspects of the faith.  Can’t be a real good ambassador for Christ if you’re a jerk.  Having a Christ-like character is one pillar of an ambassador, but there are other large pillars that have been almost completely neglected.

This is a recipe for a bunch of future atheists, not because Christianity itself as a worldview is anemic, but because their training is.  They fail to see their study times as times of training for a future test(s).  If they keep it up, one day they’ll get out of the confines of their youth Bible clubs and the secular world will pick em apart.  An wholly unprepared Christian youth without much depth meets a hostile secular world…I can figure out the outcome of that one.  If Anderson Silva took their training philosophy and applied it to his fighting, Joe Dirt could knock him out.

Despite what I’ve discussed with the students, this has gone on unabated.  They have not seen their need.  Sometimes, it takes a good thrashin’ to see your need.  You know what they say: sometimes you don’t know you need a belt until your pants are hanging around your ankles.  Because of all this, I was hoping that the atheist student would really hand it to them, though I didn’t tell anyone this directly.

And you know, they really had a tough time with him, for a number of reasons.  His aggressive and abrasive manner really threw them, for one.  They didn’t know quite what to make of his loaded language (they really couldn’t even see that it was loaded language.  They just bought it and didn’t call him on it) either.  Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that none of them had actually heard of his challenges.  Good grief, some of them go all week by going to a different Bible study every lunch period.  They are quite comfortable and content staying in the Christian bubble.  Pretty soon, they were “punting” to faith.  You know, I think it kinda shook them.

I’m not the type to leave them like that, though.  All I wanted was for them to get a swift kick in the pants so they’d be motivated to take the intellectual life of the Christian disciple more seriously.  Heavens ta mergatroy, its front and center in the *first* commandment! You’d think that would be enough.  Anyway, afterwards I let all who were in on the convo know to come to my room today to debrief.  The plan was to tackle the atheists arguments and assertions one-by-one in a calmer, more “practice-like” environment.  This was going to be a teachable moment.

How many do you think showed up today?  2…yep...2.

Of all the vices, apathy, I’ve found, dies the slowest, hardest death of all.  I’m dealing with the same sort of blahse` attitude with the wrestling team I coach.  Apathy just gloms onto suburban kids like you wouldn’t believe.  This is going to take some stick-to-itiveness to address adequately.

I held back the debriefing for a day, and spread the word that those who missed were not to skip out again.  They can’t afford to.

I’m just not going to let this one go.

I’ll let you know what happens.

Refreshing

While we were on the way to a wrestling dual on Thursday, one young man told me he broke up with his girlfriend.

Curious, I asked why.

“Because she wanted to have sex, and I’m saving myself for marriage.”

This came from a young man who, to my understanding, is not Christian.

Perhaps there is hope for the current generation.  :)

In other news–sorry the postings have been few and far in between this week…you know: one of those weeks.  I’ll try to get back on the horse soon.

Putting Stones in Shoes

One of the banes of just about every English teacher in the country is grading papers.  It is oh so very labor intensive, and you’re like me, you feel like putting a fork in your eye when you’re done.  I’d rather watch paint dry.  Last week I just finished a Santa-sack size load of research papers.  Some essays you can zip through quickly, but not these suckers.  It took me about 20 minutes to grade one of them…and I had 60 to grade!

You know, though, this time through I actually enjoyed the process a bit, because of the importance of both the topics the students were addressing and the skills I had to impart.  There were a few exceptional papers in the bunch, but by and large the overwhelming majority struggled in a few important areas: giving hard data and evidence to back up assertions, avoiding simple logical fallacies, and giving their opponents charity.

Most students could assert with the best of them, but they could not argue.  They employed rhetoric effectively, but lacked depth in their thought.  This is not surprising, since they are surrounded by so much surfacy stuff that passes for critical thinking.  When your intellectual diet consists entirely of MSNBC or The O’Reilly Factor (yes, I know some of you are fans, but you have to admit, many times, instead of level-headed arguing, he gives his audience a series of one liners and hand-wave dismissals.  Just because he yells louder and acts more outraged doesn’t mean he’s making a good point.), the depth of your own arguments tends to suffer.  Sound bites and status updates are the main mental diet of generation 2.0 (and that might even be generous, come to think of it), and this doesn’t bode well for critical thinking.

When one’s argument is full of assertions and devoid of evidence, it is pretty easy to defeat it.

The same overwhelming majority also struggled with giving their opponents a fair shake.  If they even addressed counter-arguments at all, they were typically summarized in a line or two, then done away with a simple upturned nose in the air.  Students on both sides of the hot button issues, conservatives and liberals alike, struggled with this.  This way of treating one’s opponents, of course, is not convincing.

Here’s an example: one girl in the class wrote in defense of same-sex marriage.  At one point in her paper, she brought up the Old Testament’s prohibition against homosexuality as a counter argument.  Though it is, strictly speaking, not centrally relevant to the legality of SSM, that was the main counter argument she addressed.  She responded by leveling a charge of hypocrisy against Christians.  Yes, homosexuality is condemned a few times in the Old Testament, she acknowledged, but the Old Testament also condemns things like picking up sticks on the sabbath, wearing certain clothing, as well as a host of other odd things.  No Christian today, however, takes those prohibitions seriously: many work long hours on Sundays and blithely violate most or all of the OT ceremonial law.  Her point was that if Christians don’t take all those commands seriously, why should society take prohibitions against homosexuality seriously?

Her response is a common one, and it is most of the time stated as if it’s plain as day.  Typically, most people who make the same points make little to no effort at engaging with the large amount of scholarship out there answering the question.  Most just act like it doesn’t exist.

Here was my response to her that I wrote:

When you do address counter arguments, you do not handle them well. Your treatment of the Bible is a case in point. I don’t think you took the Bible and your critics seriously. Seems to me like you simply dismissed their arguments with a handwave. Even if you do not think Jesus was God or anything of the kind, he was a smart guy. The same thing goes for the other New Testament players like Paul and John. Even though you might disagree with them in the end, please admit that they weren’t country bumpkins. If your charge of inconsistency were as obvious as you seem to say it is, don’t you think they’d notice? Do you think it’s possible that they might have information/perspective about those passages that you missed? The same goes for the Church Fathers after the apostles and all the biblical scholars since then. Again, though you might disagree with them in the end, they deserve to be engaged with. Christians have had 2000 years to figure out an answer to your charge, and there are some cogent explanations out there. In your rush to prove a point, you missed the meaning and nature of the Old Testament law.

Though I could have gone to great lengths to explain the OT law and how it functions in the new covenant today, I was under no compulsion to do so, since her assertions were formed so haphazardly.  The simple questions above should be enough to give her pause.  It is probably the case that no one has stopped her and asked her those common-sense questions before.

She also trotted out the same old-name calling assertions, calling those who think homosexual behavior is immoral intolerant and hateful.  This was my response to that:

You want to convince your audience with evidence, data, and reason, not alienate them. If your conclusion is offensive to them, so be it. You are not to be faulted for that. But if your method of argumentation is offensive, that is a different story. In your paper, it is your method that is offensive. When you blithely call your opponents bigoted, intolerant (page 2), and hate-filled (page 4), you alienate them. That is name calling, and name calling is not an argument. This sort of manipulation has no place in a principled discussion. Your opponents think that some lifestyles should not be encouraged, and they think that for moral, health, and public welfare reasons. They might be wrong, but how is that hate?

Again, she’s probably never considered the question before.  I’m glad she’s in my class, and I’m glad I had the chance to hopefully make her think.

Public School Relativism

Faculty meetings at school are usually useless.  Whole bunch of people talking about absolutely nothing.  For the most part, that was the case in today’s faculty meeting.

There were the usual characters: the eager beavers, the silent ones, the ones that always complain, and the one sarcastic curmudgeon in the corner–who could forget him?–who always just bluntly lays it out there.  The eager beavers always gasp, but there his words sit, like a dog’s vomit.

There was the usual (useless) agenda: tweaking our school mission statement.  It’s a totally banal exercise.  We were meeting in separate departments today (English, History, Science, etc, all separate), so no doubt our tweaked mission statement is going to get passed around and hacked to death by the other departments.  The wheel will be destroyed, then reinvented all over again, and we will end up with mostly the same mission statement we started with.  All this will take quite a few months to accomplish.

Things got a bit interesting at the end, though.  Most people wouldn’t find it interesting, but given the fact that I’ always thinking about the issue that came up, it was invigorating to me.

The statement focused on making students who can “feel successful and accepted.”  I piped up: “well, who really cares about their feelings?  We want students who don’t just feel successful, but are so.  Plus, isn’t the whole ‘successful’ bit a little sketchy?  What if you’re successful at being a prick?”

That got a few laughs

I then moved on to a more serious point:  the mission statement didn’t include character.  Shouldn’t that be a goal?

Another colleague objected: “we’ll get parents who will criticize, saying that character should be taught at home via religious values.  We cannot mention character here.”

Another teacher added that including it was a bad idea because what character is differs from one person to the next.

My thought during all this: “geez, where do I start?”

I thought their responses were highly ironic.  After all, our school has a program that emphasizes virtues like respect, integrity, and honesty.  Many school clubs have character as their focus, and it is infused throughout the Language Arts curriculum.  And they say we shouldn’t talk about character?

I brought that up, and added, “you might think that what character is differs from person to person, but its not real difficult to find some things we all agree on.”  What I didn’t say but should have is: “who cares if different people have different concepts of character?  How often does that happen with darn near *everything* we teach at this school?  It has rarely stopped us in the past, why should it now?”

I chose to move on to a deeper point, though: “really, there is no neutral ground here.  You don’t have the option of ‘not talking about character.’  You are already teaching about character right there.”  My point was that by adopting that stance of  ‘since what is character differs from person to person, we shouldn’t talk about it,’ they were, by their silence, teaching a certain point of view about virtue–that it’s relative.  This is far, far from being neutral on the question.

By ‘not talking about it,’ they are teaching the students that character is such an  irrelevant personal taste thing that it doesn’t deserve to be explicitly addressed by the school.

That is a lesson that speaks volumes.

For the record, I sympathize with the hypothetical parent the first colleague talked about.  Given the track record of the public school system of teaching absolutely horrible character (not virtue, but vice), I’m leery of giving it the reigns in such an important area.  However, like I noted above, it’s not too difficult to find some virtues that we all–conservative and liberal alike–can agree upon (lets start with, “it is absolutely objectively wrong to cheat.”  Ok, build from there), and, the school doesn’t have the option to be neutral on the issue.  It will teach about character one way or the other, by hook or by crook–even if not one soul broaches the subject.

Rape and Beating Homosexuals–Just Your Opinion?

Almost every week, I keep having this very troubling conversation with my students.  Note I said troubling, not surprising.  It is definitely the former, but not so much the latter.

 

We were discussing Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”  The piece is interesting, if for no other reason than it brings up several good questions, starting with, “what is a good citizen?”  Does he always obey the law?  What if you’re in Germany in the 1940’s and you have Jews in your basement?  Does a good citizen obey if the law is unjust?  What makes a law unjust, anyway?  What standard do you use to measure what is just/unjust?

 

We were discussing those questions, somewhat awkwardly, and I was making the point that to Thoreau, saying a law is unjust is more than just saying “I don’t like this law” or “it doesn’t fancy my desires and wants.”  It has to do with conviction, not mere whims or desires.  A student suddenly blurted out, “well, that’s just your opinion.”

 

And the frustrating, recurring conversation commenced.

 

I try not to let comments like that slide by without being challenged in some respect, so I asked her, “what do you mean by that?”  She said, “well, opinions can’t be right or wrong.  You just have them, that’s all.”

 

Like usual, I applied a reductio question: “so what if my opinion is that blacks and Latinos (this was said to a class that was about 1/3 Latino) are inferior to whites?”

 

A decent number of students maintained their relativism: “well, I don’t agree with you, but that’s just your opinion.”
“So it’s not right or wrong?”

 

“No.”

 

Many people just brush it off: “they don’t really believe that.  They are just saying that to save face and admit they are wrong.”

 

Perhaps, but this happens with waaaay to much frequency to think that’s all there is to it.  Plus, they maintain their relativism without a blink, as if I was asking them to question breathing.  Their face doesn’t register any balking whatsoever.

 

At the end of class, I took a bit of a stand.  I usually don’t do this, but I’ve had this conversation too many times: “really think about what you are saying.  What if everyone really believed that opinions can’t be right or wrong, true or false?  What kind of society would we be living in?  It would be quite an anarchic society, and that should give you pause.”

 

I was reflecting afterward on the situation.  People like Brian McClaren say that relativism is pretty much dead, but I beg to differ.  The reason why students spout out this nonsense is because, quite frankly, that’s what they’ve been taught by the adults in their lives and the media.  Sometimes it is unintentional, but there’s no question we give it to em hard.

 

One way in which we do this, perhaps unconsciously, is this funky fact/value distinction we have going.  We teach that facts are facts–they are cold, hard, empirical, and they apply to reality.  They count.  They are true and false.  Everything else, on the other hand, especially opinions, is amorphous and ambiguous.  Two people can have two contradictory opinions about a certain issue–which one is right and which one is false?  Neither.  When it comes to evaluating opinions, we back off and get real queazy real quick.  The prevailing attitude is that as long as the person can live with their opinion, it is not subject to critique in the same way that empirical facts are.

 

Students take that lesson and run with it.  They connect the dots.  They see that the only way that can be true is if opinions are neither true nor false.  Moral beliefs and religious/spiritual beliefs, for instance, are most often not empirical in sense usually defined, so they get put in the realm of  “opinion.”

 

The thing is, these students graduate and become our neighbors and co-workers.  Do we really want neighbors that really hold that there’s nothing really wrong with the  belief  “rape is good” or “all homosexuals deserve a physical beating”?

 

You might not think that relativistic attitude is a big deal…until you are the one getting beat and your neighbor is just standing there doing nothing, because he thinks, “hey, that’s his perogative.  I shouldn’t get involved.”

 

It is time that adults become more aware of what they are advocating and reject the horrible fact/value distinction that’s so popular today.

Homosexuality and Public Schools

I just finished watching “Tolerance and Teaching Homosexuality in Government Schools” by Chris Neiswonger.

He makes some good points.  Highly recommended.

A Disturbing Trend Persists

Something happened today in class that troubles me.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given the spirit of the age, but it’s still troubling, no matter how you look at it.

First, a little context. on Tuesday, I brought a BBC article to class about a practice that most people consider patently immoral: polygamy.  A South Africa man married four women in one day.  The groom pointed to culture and tradition to justify it’s acceptance, but the practice is not without controversy–many say that it tramples on women’s rights, for while men can marry as many women as they want, women can only marry one man.

I used this to launch into a discussion about morality in general.  Our discussion was called, “to judge or not to judge?”  Most students were unwilling to say the man was wrong.  They might not engage in polygamy themselves, but they thought it uncouth to judge a practice from a foreign culture.  “Morality is relative to culture, so one ought not judge,” some said.

Next, I turned up the heat a bit with a series of other scenarios, each more serious than the previous one.  I asked them about a situation where an older white man shouts a racial slur at a black female co-worker.  To judge or not to judge?  Does it matter if the scenario happens in another culture?  (some said yes!)

The last scenario was about the Holocaust: should we judge those who exterminated the Jews in the Third Reich?

My intention with each scenario was to pit two dearly held moral values against one another.  In the first, it was belief in women’s rights and belief that morality is relative.  In the second, it was belief that racism is wrong and relative morality.

You get the point.  With each scenario, it became harder and harder for them to maintain their relativism.  For the most part I stayed out of debating directly with them, opting to ask probing questions instead and soliciting feedback from opposing viewpoints.

The bottom line is that it’s hard to hold to competing statements, yet that is what many Americans do when it comes to morality.  Many believe that all women, regardless of where they are from, have rights, yet they passionately declare that there are no absolutes or objective morals.  Little do they know that those two cancel each other out: if morality is relative, then the Saudi who beats his wife for cooking a bad meal (to choose a slightly stereotypical example…happens, though) is not really doing anything wrong.  Yes, we don’t believe that sort of thing is ok in America, but that’s our morality.  The Saudi comes from a different culture, so who are we to judge?

One has to go: either women really do have rights, regardless of where they were born–in fact, wouldn’t the opposite be a rather pernicious racism, that we accord dignity and value based on where someone was born–or morality is relative and anything we call “rights” are fictitious conventions, akin to driving on the right side of the road…useful for us, but not rooted in reality.

Same thing goes for the other situations.  Many hold that racism is horrible and wicked, but they miss the fact that for many people in other countries, racism is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.  Are they wrong?

The “to judge or not to judge?” exercise is meant to cause some cognitive dissonance in the participants.  We can only hold to contradictions until we really pause to think about it.  In addition, living with the consequences of relativism becomes extremely hard when you really ponder things.

I mentioned that some, at this point, bring up that people in the East can hold to contradictory beliefs with ease.  These folks, some object, hold to a “both/and” logic, rather than a Western-born “either/or” logic, and the law of non-contradiction and such applies only in the latter.

Nah.  As Ravi Zacharias often notes, even in China, they look both ways when they cross the street, because they understand that it’s either them or the bus, not both (I don’t think my students really got that one.  Oh well, they can’t all be homeruns).  At any rate, people insist that when evaluating Eastern views, you use the “both/and” system *not* the “either/or.”  See the law of non-contradiction (or excluded middle…sometimes hard to tell in conversations) pop up right there?  Hard to get away from, you know.

Anyway, the discussion went well.  The students were into it, and, though some clinged obstinately to their relativism, some actually changed their minds.

On to today’s lesson.  I was lecturing on certain laws of logic–specifically, the law of non-contradiction–and ways of arguing, specifically–reductio ad absurdum.

I mentioned that I subtly employed a soft reductio (as opposed to a hard reductio.  A soft reductio shows how a premise in an argument generates an unlivable or absurd conseqence, while a hard reductio shows that a premise in an argument leads to an outright contradiction.) in Tuesday’s discussion: if morality is relative, then the Holocaust wasn’t really wrong.  We might not like what happened, but we can’t consistently say more than that if relativism is true.

Were my students willing to live with such a consequence?  It’s a hard pill to swallow.

One girl–one of the brightest and most articulate in the class–raised her hand.  “Mr. Bordner,” she said, “but the Holocaust really isn’t something that is either right or wrong.  It’s neither.”

“So you mean it’s neutral?  It’s not right or wrong, it just is?”  I asked for clarification.

“Yeah, that’s it.”  She replied.  A few members in the class “uh-huhed” in approval.  Not kidding.  She said it with a straight face and didn’t blink an eye.
Sigh.  If I had a teenage son, he would not be allowed to even think about going on a date with that student.

“How rude,” you might reply.  “That’s not loving, not letting your son date such a nice girl.”

Think about it for a sec.  If you had a daughter and your teenage next door neighbor believed that there’s nothing really, truly wrong with, say, rape, would you even let him near your daughter?  Why would it be any different here?

Part of my job as a teacher is to shape character.  It’s straight from the Ed Code.  Getting students to really pause and think through the implications of their beliefs is part of that goal.  I hope my precious, dear student really thinks about her views over the next few days.

The stability of the next generation depends, in large part, on that “pausing.”  One need not be a Christian to see that.