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Friday, December 18, 2015

Grappling with grace over even the nastiest topics

Strong disagreement doesn't require me or you to skirt the issue in order to be civil. It means to cordially confront the matter in a friendly, winsome, bright, persuasive way with grace and even humor.

Here's what Os Guinness in The Case for Civility says (in part - more later):

"Most Christians would sooner die than think—in fact they do.” In my mind’s eye I can still hear Bertrand Russell delivering that favorite line of his with a deadpan face, betrayed only by the twinkle in his eye.

As his quip shows, he was more than willing to take sideswipes at any with whom he disagreed, but it was usually with grace and often with humor. Years later as a graduate student at Oxford, I shared a train compartment with the eminent philosopher A. J. Ayer—or Professor Sir Alfred J. Ayer, as he had become. My field was the social sciences, but I had read a fair amount of philosophy, and I certainly knew the fate of Ayer’s logical positivism and his celebrated “verification principle.” Only that which could be tested by the five senses, he had argued, could be verified as true. Theology was therefore “nonsense”; or, as it was famously argued, “The word G-O-D is less meaningful than the word D-O-G.” His was the ironclad atheism of a world without windows. The trouble for A. J. Ayer was that his verification principle was self-refuting. It could not verify itself and thus opened itself up to the charge of being nonsense, too. As he admitted, what he thought was a guillotine against faith turned out to be a “blind alley.” He was candid with me about the failure of his principle. “I wish I had been more consistent,” he chuckled. “Any iconoclast who brandishes a debunker’s sword should be required to demonstrate it publicly on his own cherished beliefs.”

It is true that Lord Russell was an aristocrat and that A. J. Ayer had been knighted and was retired when I spoke to him. But in countless other cases in those days, there was a civility to atheist arguments that matched the force of their logic and rigor. Anyone who reads Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” can still enjoy the pathos and beauty that offsets the bleak bravery of its vision of a world leading from “accidental collocations of atoms” to “extinction in the vast death of the solar system.”1 And Ayer was usually as polite as he was formidable in his decisive dismissals of beliefs with which he disagreed.

I have known many secularists over the years, many of them as dedicated as Russell and Ayer, though not so well known. I have also read the books of many others, both those living and those who no longer grace the earth. But to put it charitably, when I read the current dismissals of faith from the new atheists published in America today, I do not get the impression of the same calm assurance, strenuous logic, and passion for truth. We are closer to the wild atheism of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, back to barnyard debating, with ungrounded assertions, irresponsible accusations, ad hominem arguments, and reasoning that repeatedly slumps into ranting...
[It gets better; stay tuned]

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