Books and Code · A Miscellany

How to Talk to Me About Religion


Of course, you’re free to talk about religion however you want. But, if you want to do it with me here are six tips that will insure it will be a pleasant experience for both of us.

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. — Ecc. 1:18

1. Your inner experience is not relevant

For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? — 1 Cor. 2:11

Your inner experience tells you X. My inner experience tells me Y. We are now at an impasse. How passionate you feel about X does not convince me; my passion about Y is equal to yours.

2. Truth is not a feeling

If something is true, it is true whether or not you believe it. If God exists, he exists in spite of atheists. If he does not exist, he does not exist in spite of your feeling that he does. “Feeling his presence” is just that, your feeling; see #1.

3. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps. — Prov. 14:15

The more interventionist your version of God is, the better your evidence should be. The deistic God is easier to argue for than a God who intervenes in human affairs, contradicts physics and other scientific and historic evidence, performs miracles, etc. Don’t confuse arguments for the former with arguments for the latter. The more your God does, the more hard evidence you need to provide. When I know you believe in the typical interventionist God of Protestant Christianity, don’t pretend you are a Unitarian or a deist. If God exists, he’s more likely a Unitarian or a deist than a Lutheran or a Mormon. Why? Because the former make fewer absurd claims about him.

It helps if you demonstrate good critical thinking skills in other areas of life by, for instance, seeing through quack medicine, urban legends, and not remaining blithely ignorant of vast stores of scientific evidence relevant to your truth claims. If I see gaping holes in your judgment on the dangers of GMO food, for instance, why would I expect your judgment on a much more difficult metaphysical question to be any more reliable? (See the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 on this point.)

4. Be as open to accepting my view as you expect me to be to yours

The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines. — Prov. 18:17

I have no particular desire to de-convert you, but unless you are willing to consider the possibility that I am, in fact, correct I am not interested in discussing religion with you. Like you, I’m pretty confident that I am right. I’m not a “seeker” or waiting around for God to “reveal himself” to me. This is not the way knowledge works. Even a cursory acquaintance with history shows how misguided divine revelation has been as a means to attain real, verifiable truths. Plenty of other people have a sincere belief that their divine revelation (which conflicts with yours) is the truth. On what grounds are they wrong and you are right? (Keep # 1-3 in mind as you answer.)

The way I see it practiced, most religious thought is a dishonest form of retroactive continuity (“ret-con”). That is, on any given topic you start with an answer (eg. Jesus) then you work backward from that answer to find a way to derive it from the existing assertions that you’ve already claimed are divinely revealed. In this way, a religious tradition is able to avoid ever being refuted. (For example, Judaism wasn’t wrong about God, it was “fulfilled” by Jesus.) Whenever humanity acquires real knowledge (from exploration, philosophical or scientific inquiry, etc.) it can go back and revise obsolete divine revelations in light of the new information. This kind of “revision” of religious theory is very different from how scientific theories change over time. Reinterpreting things as metaphorical or symbolic what were once claimed literal is a tell-tale sign of this strategy. No one would take seriously a scientist or historian who tried this. In the 19th century, some scientists thought they saw canals on Mars. When this was eventually shown not to be so, they didn’t reinterpret the canal theory as a metaphor for the interaction of sub-atomic particles and proclaim Percival Lowell a misunderstood prophet of quantum electrodynamics. The notion was simply discarded as an explanation that didn’t pan out and lives on only in science-fiction.

5. Be informed about your own religion

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. — Hos. 4:6

Judeo-Christian religions are heavily text-based. I expect you to have read and studied yours well. The longer you’ve been a believer, the better the command of their contents I demand you have. I will cite chapter and verse and I expect the same. If you cite a passage in support of a claim, I expect you to know and explain a passage elsewhere that contradicts it. The Bible is not a book, it is a collection of books written by different people in different places at different times with different conceptions of God. Sometimes they were actively disagreeing (eg. when Matthew and Luke revise Mark). Some things therein might be simply wrong. If you want to assert flat-out that there are no errors in the Bible or that all its books are trying to say the same thing, you have an uphill battle ahead of you. (This approach to Biblical interpretation smacks of ret-conning to me; See #4, paragraph 2.)

If you believe something that is not supported by the Bible or the doctrines of the religion you purport to follow, then admit what you are doing: inventing your own religion. I don’t have a problem with this, but realize that in so doing you are actually rejecting the very thing you are trying to justify. A divine revelation that needs to be periodically revised by subsequent revelations and/or re-interpreted by Man isn’t much of a revelation in the first place nor is it therefore the objective foundation of wisdom it is claimed to be.

The relevant events in your religion happened at certain times and places in certain cultures. Are you well acquainted with such context? Are you familiar with the scholarly consensus on the key aspects of your sacred texts and their history? Not just from fundamentalist scholars with whom you agree, but the wider community of scholarship including secular scholars. Because I am. I am usually in the process of reading such a book at all times. If I have more information on the subject than you, what do you expect to say that I will find worth considering?

6. I’ve read your books, have you read mine?

If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame. — Prov. 18:13

I have studied the Bible and its history closely. I have fully participated in the religious tradition and culture of my upbringing. I have attended a Christian college, studied Koine Greek, and sought to learn the bulk of what is taught at any decent seminary. I have tried to see the issues from all sides, not just the one I was indoctrinated into, and my study has reflected this. In short, I have invested literally years of my life into the earnest investigation of the world view I inherited. Not just doing devotions and attending church—investigating with dedication the basis for my truth claims. You better be able to say the same. Have you read or studied any view that contradicts your own in any depth whatever?

What’s more, can you say the same about my books? If you know me, you know I value books very highly. I’ve read the books you value. (There are 66 in the Bible alone.) Can you even name a few books I value highly? If so, did you bother to read any? I named my first-born son after an author important to me. Have you read anything Ralph Waldo Emerson ever wrote? I’ve put in the work to understand your view and I’ve earned the right to comment on it. Can you say the same to me?

To this end, below are some suggestions of books that I can say fairly represent my thoughts on various things, grouped roughly in the genres that one finds in the Bible. Some of these are my personal favorites (marked with *), some are just good summaries. I look forward to having a truly reciprocal dialogue with you but I won’t come to you. You can come to me, and bring these six tips with you.

A suggested reading (and viewing) list

† I’ve taken the liberty of using the term “gospel” in this context to denote narratives away from religion.

‡ Denotes video.