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Life Arts

Some Words on Method

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Originally posted:

Dialogue is very important. The purpose of a debate is to win—but the purpose of a dialogue is to increase understanding. It's non-adversarial in nature. The other person is your friend. You want to learn from them, and teach them, and come to a common understanding. There are no losers.


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Consider the following, based on an email I sent a friend of mine in response to his story about how he converted to Christianity:


I would like to say, first of all, that I both respect you and regard your experience as legitimate. From my point of view, the question is not whether or not spiritual experiences are real, but rather how to go about interpreting those experiences.

[My friend relates being raised in what he describes as a faith-neutral home, with no discussion of spirituality either positive or negative.]

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You’ve heard of a power vacuum: if a region looses its leadership, it can create an unstable situation in which any group can come and step in. Well, I think there is also such a thing as a spiritual vacuum. When people grow up without any spiritual experiences, they look for anything to fill that void. In our society, I think there is a great deal of spiritual illiteracy. Spiritual experiences are marginalized. There is a type of underground, but there is no oversight. People are taught to separate critical thinking and spiritual experiences as a matter of principle. And this is detrimental to a genuine understanding of how the universe works.

[My friend relates how he use to believe the Bible was false and pointless, but that he had a moving experience attending church with a friend of his. He was impressed by the music and the message presented there, and was moved by their discussion of the Bible's cohesiveness despite being written by many authors over many centuries.]

Often times fundamentalist apologists make claims that seem convincing on the surface but which, upon further study, fall apart. Tobin does a good job presenting the general mainstream scholarly responses to popular apologetic claims in an article specifically targeting these:

You mention, for example, the uniformity of the Bible. This is what Tobin has to say about the issue:

Q1. Doesn't the fact the Bible shows such an impressive uniformity, although the period of composition spans many centuries, point to the idea that it had a single (divine) author?

“The idea of 'uniformity' is very vague. On the one hand, this claim is trivially true. One would expect some kind of uniformity in the Bible just on the basis of three contingent facts:

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“1. The Old Testament is a collection of books from one specific people in the middle east. Thus we would expect cultural continuity (such as the same language [Hebrew or its derivative Aramaic], the same adherence to holy books, i.e. The Torah etc) to be contained within the books since most cultures persist for some time through history.

“2. Similarly the New Testament is a collection of books taken from a group (although not homogeneous as we have seen above) of people who lived in the first and second centuries CE who believed that Jesus's coming was a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Finding some 'continuity' in its message with the Old Testament is therefore not surprising.

“3. Finally, and this must not be forgotten, the books of the Bible were collected at (more or less) singular moments in history. The Old Testament for instance was collected by a Rabbinic 'council' during the years following the Jewish revolt in 70 CE. Books that did not correspond to the theological views of the rabbis were explicitly excluded from the canon of the Old Testament. [We give a more detailed description of this process elsewhere in this website.] Thus much of this 'uniformity' is not something which occurs naturally but arose out of an active selection process by Jewish Rabbis within a given period in history. Similarly many books were excluded from the New Testament because they did not conform to the views of the Church Fathers that eventually won control over nascent Christianity. [We give a more detailed description of this process elsewhere in this website.]

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)

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