14 October 2013

Randal and the "new direction"

After the whole big fiasco over my allegedly uncharitable partial review of Randal Rauser's book What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?, Randal opted to delete both of his posts on the topic and all the ensuing comments (over 150) with them, citing a desire to take his blog in a different direction:
I regret the direction the conversation took in the articles and ensuing threaded discussions. It was not edifying or illuminating and generated more heat than light. Since this is my blog, I must own the lion’s share of the blame.
I'm of two minds about Randal's decision. On the one hand, I've made no secret of the fact that I get more than a little fed up with debating religious apologists. I really like Tim Minchin's analogy, that it's like two tennis players trying to win a match with beautifully executed shots from opposite ends of separate tennis courts. We're operating on entirely different sets of assumptions and often end up just talking past each other. I'm also not a fan of the frequently adversarial nature of such debates, and I confess that as the years have gone by my patience has worn thin and these days my reaction to the elaborate rationalizations of religious apologists is often more likely to be, "You've got to be fucking kidding me" than "Let me explain in rigorous detail why I think you are wrong". So I understand that Randal, too, probably gets tired of arguing with atheists and of the adversarial nature of such discussions – especially for a guy who calls himself a "tentative apologist".

But on the other hand, I think that Randal may be overlooking the fact that you can't generate light without heat. Religious apologists – of whom Randal is one, tentatively or not – make pretty bold and often grand assertions about the nature of reality, how we understand it, our place in it, and how to best live a moral and fulfilling life. Those are the kinds of things that are bound to be contentious and will provoke dissent even among believers, much less between believers and non-believers.

Finally, I think Randal's making a grave mistake in deleting the posts. It shows an unwillingness to tolerate dissent and/or criticism, and it shows him as unwilling to own his own role in the fiasco. Now of course, he did say he must take the "lion's share of the blame", but that's rather vague, no? The blame for what – passionate and vigorous disagreement? Spirited debate? I think the posts ended up being an embarrassment for Randal not merely because they generated fierce vigorous debate (that's nothing new for Randal), but because he failed to engage the arguments, resorted to a rather petty show of grandstanding over his credentials, and found even other believers correcting him and distancing themselves from his theology.

At the same time, looking back, I realize fueled the fire with my assertion that Randal spent his book "making shit up". Really, that's the phrase that triggered the whole ensuing confrontation, so much so that the actual four questions that I was (and am) sincerely interested in discussing were all but ignored. Like Randal's behavior with his "new direction", I'm of two minds about my own. I'm the type of person to call a spade a spade; I don't like to mince words for fear of offending others. I couldn't see any type of pattern or logic to Randal's claims about the afterlife, and that's what led me to the conclusion that he was "making shit up".

However, this is also cause for me to reflect on what this blog ought to be. If I want it to be an atheist echo chamber, the blunt condescension will probably do just fine as my non-theist regulars will undoubtedly cheer me on. But if I actually want to have spirited but civil debates with those whom I am criticizing, I feel that I ought to write with a less acerbic tone as no one, regardless of their beliefs, enjoys being patronized. Even if I was right about Randal's failure to justify his claims (and I'm confident I was), I could have been more careful about my tone if I actually had any interest in him or believers like him discussing those four questions about Heaven.

In many respects, I've had enough with apologetics. I've been reading and discussing it for the better part of 15 years, and it's grown tiresome having virtually identical debates over and over. But on the occasion that I see it fit to discussion apologetics or theology, my readers deserve better from me – and so to all of you, and to Randal, I apologize and pledge to do better. 

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