The Word of Zeus

Bust of Zeus in the British Museum
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A man walks up and hands you a pamphlet with the following printed:

The Word of Zeus

Don't kick puppies -- they can suffer.

To prove that this is of divine origin, anyone who is holding this pamphlet -- skeptic or believer -- can call down lightning to immediately strike anything you wish.

Pretty impressive pamphlet, right?

Actually, I’d say, ‘all right, let’s zap that tree over there…’

If in response the man said, “oh we can’t do that… there’s one more verse over here on the back” and sure enough on the back it says very clearly:

You shall not test the Lord your Zeus.

Would you be anything but MONUMENTALLY unimpressed with this pamphlet?

Tactic: Rather than attack a person's beliefs directly invite him to understand your criticism of a position not explicitly held by either of you. An extremely forceful argument can be made without provoking a defensive shield.

Since this site is meant to encourage effective discussion and conversation, I'm going to give an example of how NOT to get your point across, followed by a more effective way.

Notice the difference between these two examples.

How not to do it.

Setting: A determined atheist having a discussion with a Christian who believes the Bible is the literal Word of God.

Crappy goal: To prove to a Christian that he is deluded.

Ineffectual Atheist: “As far as I can tell, there are a bunch of different religions pointing to their own magical book, and each makes magical claims that ALWAYS turn out false if they are tested in any way that interests me. Take the Gospel of John chapter 14 verses 11 through 14:

John 14:11-14 (NRSV)

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

This is clearly a claim that can be tested, and it never ceases to fail any test that I’ve given it. Pray for the end all cases of malaria in the world to instantly be cured, never to infect a human again. Clearly, the curing of a disease is within the bounds of “anything.”

You should realize that Jesus is lying, or the Bible is false. You are clearly deluded if you continue to follow the Bible. It makes claims that a demonstrably false right now!”

How to do it better.

Setting: A determined atheist having a discussion with a Christian who believes the Bible is the literal Word of God.

Better Goal: To convince this Christian that you both share the same level of skepticism toward magical claims that cannot be verified.

Conversational Atheist: “Try to see this from where I’m coming from. I’m skeptical, I haven’t seen anything supernatural happen, ever. As far as I can tell, there are a bunch of different religions pointing to their own magical book, and each makes magical claims that ALWAYS turn out false if they are tested in any way that interests me."

Paraphrase of the Zeus pamphlet story and then continue with: "It would be nice if I could test the various claims of the different book – and the lucky thing for you is that the Bible makes all kinds of claims that are testable.

Take the Gospel of John chapter 14 verses 11 through 14:

John 14:11-14 (NRSV)

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

This is clearly a claim that can be tested, and it never ceases to fail any test that I’ve given it. Pray for the end all cases of malaria in the world to instantly be cured, never to infect a human again. Clearly, the curing of a disease is within the bounds of “anything.”

Now, you can give a laundry list of reasons why you wouldn’t expect the prayer to work and that’s fine I accept them without a challenge, but the point I’m trying to make is: If I have a whole stack of alleged magic books in front of me, and every single magic claim that I ever care to test fails exactly as I would expect if magic wasn’t real, then as far as I can tell, every single proclaimed magic book fails in exactly the same unimpressive way.

You’ve got to at least see how, from my point view this claim that “Anything you ask in my name I will do it.”

Or

Matthew 17:20-21 (NRSV)

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Or

Mark 16:15-18 (NRSV)

"The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: ... if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them..."

Those are claims that are equally as impressive claims to me as being able to call down lightning strikes.

And when the Bible’s claims fail exactly as the pamphlet’s claims fail, I cannot help but be exactly equally unimpressed with each.

Do you see it from my point of view? We’d probably think the same exact thing about the Zeus pamphlet! Do you understand why it is that I find the Bible’s claims so spectacularly disappointing?

It’s perhaps surprising, but you can really hammer down on just exactly how “absolutely spectacularly astoundingly unimpressive and disappointing” the Bible is to you without the person feeling like you are attacking him. And, without too much cognitive dissonance, you can get them to admit that they completely see where you’re coming from. And if you can get them to clearly see where you're coming from, I'd count that as progress.

Evidence that the "better" way is indeed better.

The second example is an almost exact account what I actually said to a group of evangelical Christians that had approached and wanted to save my friends and I eating lunch.

My delivery, tone of voice, and what I was saying were not threatening to them. I got them to share a brief imagination trip where we were on the exact same skeptical and unimpressed side of a claim to supernatural power that never materializes.

The group of Christians all thoughtfully agreed that they definitely saw exactly where I was coming from. We talked a lot more, and eventually two of them took my e-mail address and they have e-mailed me directly to continue various conversational ideas.

Asking the person you are arguing with to understand why you think something in a certain way is a far “safer” thing to do.

A bit deeper analysis.

There was also a couple of minor tactics that I used and should mention briefly.

The first is when I preemptively cut off whatever their justification for the failure of scripture by immediately acknowledging that they were going to say something (or were going to try to come up with something), and then in the very next breath verbally emphasizing that “whatever their response, the main point of the argument was about to follow.” This takes the pressure off of them having to try to come up with the same old lame excuses for why malaria won’t be cured. I don’t care about those excuses because this is not the point that I am trying to make --  and so I just step past them.

The second is the word choice that I used. Look, I know that it sometimes looks odd in writing, but you can get away with adding superlatives and redundant phrasings in conversational speech that can really help to emphasize your point. The part about the claims being “equally impressive”, yet “failing in the exact same way,” leads to being “exactly equally unimpressed” with each.

The Christians you talk to know that they would be really really really really unimpressed with the hypothetical Zeus pamphlet. And, they also recognize that however much more esteem they’d like to give to the Bible that it does fail in the same way in the eyes of the skeptic. As they think about it, “to a skeptic, the Bible is really really really really unimpressive” in this way, and the Christians have a visceral knowledge of just how lame the Bible looks. This could be one of the first times that they could actually see what the Bible looks like through skeptical eyes.

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