Rules of Engagement

man-390339_640In the last year or so I have been involved in quite a few theistic/atheistic debates on social network sites, and have followed the back-and-forth on many more. One thing that has never failed to shock me is the ridicule, belittling and all-out hatred expressed during these exchanges. I see complete disregard for any respectful discourse. I see contempt and condescension towards people that do not hold the same views. I see ganging-up on people who are asking legitimate questions.

You might assume that I am talking about anti-theists or militant atheists. I’m not.

I’m talking about Christians.

In a certain sense an atheist has no compunction to abide by any rules of engagement. They are not governed by any body or required to subscribe to any code of conduct or objective moral guidelines. Even though it is hard to accept this, it is part of the price for interacting with a militant atheist, or anti-theist. They are free to make up their own rules. There is no reason to expect them to abide by yours. This is one of the few benefits that their world-view offers them, and you cannot blame them for taking full advantage of it.

I’m not accusing all atheists of being rude or of not following assumed social contracts. I have had very enjoyable and informative dialogs with people who are completely opposed to my point of view. As long as there is mutual respect two people can talk about anything, while still not coming to an agreement. What I am talking about is the ridicule and abuse tactics advocated by atheist leaders like Richard Dawkins or Peter Boghossian. There is a mind-set out there that considers this a completely legitimate way of treating those with alternate views of the world. The tenacity of the Internet troll is seen as an end in itself. If they can get you to loose your cool, or to just throw you hands up and walk away, they have “won”.

A Christian, on the other hand, does have a set of rules they are expected to recognize, and instructed to observe. I don’t know how many times I have heard 1st Peter 3:15 quoted as the Apologist’s key verse, but normally it is only the first half of the verse that you hear. You do not hear the part about doing it with “gentleness and respect” quoted nearly as frequently.

I freely admit that I am as guilty of this as anyone else. I have done my share of flaming. I have also seen the opportunity for a snide remark designed to cut, and have often taken it, but I am trying to change. My current favorite verse to guide my apologetic approach is, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV). This is in the middle of a passage where Jesus instructs the Apostles to spread the Gospel, and warns them about how they are going to be mistreated. He does not tell them to take on the attributes of the wolves, to beat them at their own game, but to present the Truth boldly and unselfishly. They were told to heal the sick. They were instructed to endure in the midst of beatings, torture and being run out of town. If they were called to withstand all of that for the sake of the Message, how can I dare to claim offence against a name-caller, and lash out in some sort of self-serving “righteous anger”?

I am not advocating some sort of wishy-washy, I’m OK you’re OK type of approach. We need to stick to our convictions and state the truth, but we also need to present that truth in an attractive manner. It is possible to either wield it as a sledgehammer to beat them into submission, or as a cool glass of water to offer them refreshment. Recently I have been trying to ignore any insulting rhetoric and only respond to the actual talking points. I rarely feel that I am getting through to the person I am in a direct conversation with, but I am a strong believer in “ricochet witnessing”. I feel that if I can get the opportunity to present my point in the most Christ-like way possible, I have accomplished my goal, whether or not the point is acknowledged in the exchange.

What I don’t understand is the downright vicious remarks that are sometimes posted by my “fellow Christians”. I have lost count of the times I have seen things like “All atheists must die!” and “Go to hell and good riddance!” What are they trying to accomplish? They not only are loosing that particular battle, but are also reinforcing their opponent’s appraisal of Christians in general as bigoted and hateful, causing any future efforts of believers to fall on deafened ears.

Sometime you can tell very quickly that the person you are debating is not interested in rational discourse. If you find you are caught up with a troll, forget about trying to win the argument, you never will. The only win/loss option you have left is how you represent Christ. Are you going to win by displaying Christ’s nature, or will you loose by allowing the other person to goad you into displaying your own human nature? The way you behave is the only thing you have any control over, and in many circumstances it is quite possibly the most important thing. The final instruction Paul gives the Colossians, in a letter he writes from prison, is to “Walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6, ESV) This specifically says to not waste your time. It implies that sometimes the best thing you can do is to politely bow out. Remember that if you decide to stay and engage you are acting as an ambassador for Christ. You need to represent Him in an attractive, intelligent, honest manner. Though anger has its place, its place is usually not during an online dialog with a stranger.

I once heard an axiom that said, “What you call a person with is what you call them to”. Are we calling them to Christ, or to Westboro Baptist Church?


Politically (in)Correct Epigenetics

I have recently started studying epigenetics, and find it quite fascinating. Once I started looking I found quite a few studies and documentaries online. In addition to the TED talk above, here is a very good Nova episode about it.

So, epi means “above”, so epigenetics means above-genetics. These are chemical markers that control the expression of genes, turning them on or off. This is an added level of complexity to the genetic code, one that may or may not be inherited, can change over time, and is influenced by the environment. Geneticists now believe that mapping the genome has turned out to only be the first step in decoding DNA. Epigenetics adds a whole order of magnitude of complexity to the project.

As far as I can determine there are several ways that we acquire epi-markers. Some are produced as we develop in the womb, as our cells differentiate into the specific kinds for different organs and structures. After we are born our environment, diet and stress levels can cause others to be formed. These explain the differences that emerge between identical twins as they grow older. There are others that we can inherit from our parents. There is evidence that famines during the time that your grandparents developed their reproductive cells and organs can cause you to be more susceptible to diabetes.

The epi-markers that I want to talk about are ones that usually get erased between generations, but sometimes are not, and are passed from parent to child. The way that I understand it these particular ones have not been empirically proven, but have been theorized by mathematical modeling, and are considered to be valid. Research on these particular ones is frowned-upon, not because of scientific or ethical ramifications, but because of politics.

These particular epi-markers may make a person prone to homosexuality.

OK. There it is. I said it. The dangerous H-word. I want to pause right now and make something clear. I do not intend to make this some diatribe against gays. I do have definite opinions on the matter, but that is not what I want this post to be about. I believe that every one of us is created in God’s image and deserves love and respect because of that. Just because I may disagree with another person’s world view or lifestyle does not mean that I think that person has any less worth. There are many things about this research that opens up a can of worms in our ever-increasingly pluralistic society. The ramifications are far-reaching, and I would like to mention a few. I am sure that I will in no way be able to touch on, or realize, all of them.

End of disclaimer, on with the post.

The mechanism.

There are many hormones associated with pregnancy and fetal development. Certain epi-markers are responsible for the way these hormones affects the fetus, causing changes in the body and brain. One of the markers affect the way testosterone is absorbed in the growing brain, influencing psychological gender identity. Sometime the father’s epi-marker is not erased and is passed on to the female offspring, or the mother’s marker to the son, causing a mismatch of physical and psychological traits. It is believed that this might cause a physiological basis for some same-sex attraction tendencies.

The implications.

Taking the above as true, for the sake of argument, raises many issues that could influence critical social issues that are at the forefront of public opinion right now.

How would we classify this if it is determined to be caused by a faulty genetic mechanism? Would it be classified as an impairment, like autism (which may also be a result of developmental epi-markers)?

What if we could find a way to test for this in the womb, and “treat” it if the parents so desired?

What if a same-sex couple would want to produce this trait on purpose?

What if an option is found to either produce this or reverse this trait in people old enough to make up their own minds?

If you plug “epigenetics” and “homosexuality” into a Google search you will find many articles on this subject, from a wide range of viewpoints. Many of them talk about how scientific research is being discouraged in this area. It seems odd that in this age of “enlightenment” people are reluctant to take on politically sensitive research. Science is often praised as the only way to reason and truth, but this goes to show you that imperfect people are still at the bottom of it. People with fears and agendas. People afraid of loosing their funding in these politically correct times.

I want to reiterate that this post is not intended to be about homosexuality per se, but about the political implications involved in this new area of research. The American public seems to have made up their mind on this issue already, so it is no wonder that scientists do not want to upset the apple cart. This has the potential of upsetting a lot of people and groups, but should that matter? Shouldn’t we pursue truth regardless?

It should prove interesting either way.

Sex Objects are not People

This video was going around on Facebook lately and it brought up an issue that has been on my mind ever since I viewed it. She talked about a study that performed brain scans on men while showing them pics of women in bikinis vs pics of women dressed modestly. I found it interesting so I did a little research and found that there were a couple of studies performed by Susan Fiske and her team at Princeton University.

The studies show that the area of the brain that deals with tools becomes active when looking at women in bikinis (and presumably any other provocative dress). They were surprised to find that the part of the brain that is used when we think about another person’s intentions was completely inactive in some instances. Fiske said. “The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.”

This shows that the provocatively dressed women were not thought of as actual people, but only as objects. This is no moral judgement on the men involved in the study, as it was nothing that they were in conscience control of, but it shows we are hard-wired this way. The obvious significance of this is the point made in the video about modesty and how others perceive you. It is true that this doesn’t excuse rude or evil behavior on the man’s part, but it also tells the woman she should not be surprised if she gets this reaction.

I was thinking about other implications.

If you look at this through an evolutionary lens it makes sense one way but not another. From the male side it makes sense because according to evolution rape is a perfectly fine way to get your genes into the next generation. If you do not see the woman as a person it would make it easier to abuse her. From the female side it would seem that modesty would be a survival trait. If they stayed covered-up they would be able to relate more as a person and have less of a chance of being violated and possibly injured or killed in the process.

If you look at this through a Biblical lens you see the instructions of I Timothy 2:9-10 and I Peter 3:2-5 to dress modestly, because true beauty comes from within, in a different light. If men look on the outside they see objects, if they look on the inside they see people. Yet another small example from modern science that shows the Bible knows best.

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