There I was, Sunday morning, having coffee, when the doorbell rang. Who could that be, I wondered. Totally expecting a neighborhood kid, I was surprised to find a grey handlebar mustached man in a suit smiling at me. He introduced himself as Joe, and asked me, as I realized who he was and what he was there for, “who do you think is in charge in this world?”
In my head, I was jumping up and down. Finally! After all the YouTube debates and lectures I had watched, all the blogs and articles on /r/atheism and other places I had read, the audiobooks and actual books I had been reading, a chance for battle!! The bullshit Facebook debates with people who either don’t know how to be intellectually honest or don’t care enough to bother with it, those stupefying comment clashes where the same assertions get leveled again and again no matter what factual evidence presented refutes them, opinions are given as facts, false equivalence is posited where it doesn’t exist, “intelligent design is science”, scorn thrown at opponents, ad hominem, strawman, special pleading, begging the question, ignoring most or all of an argument and refusing to deal with their own intellectual dishonesty, all that shit that is so easy to get away with in FB comments, would not fly here. This is real life. I was like:
I took a deep breath, stepped into the doorway and told him, “Well, as a Humanist, I feel like humans are in charge of our own affairs, and while we aren’t perfect, we do the best we can,” Later, it dawned on me that the question was loaded with the presupposition that Someone or Something could be in charge at all, and that we could somehow know about it.
He responded by giving a long speech about how the world was evil, and that Satan was in charge. Right after he mentioned that Satan was in charge, I could listen no further. Here’s why. The statement, “Satan is in charge of the world.” is loaded with presuppositional baggage. It takes for granted the following:
1. There exists a being named Satan.
2. Beings with the power of deities exist.
3. Satan is such a being.
When your starting point is taking all that for granted, and everything else you’re saying is contingent on those things being true, I need to hear why those first three things are true, or at least reasons to believe that they may be true. Thus, the tuning out. At the end of his spiel, he asked, “Now, do you believe that?”
Frustrated, he looked down at his partner. I didn’t see him at first and had a thought that it was strange to see one by himself. Now I realized I had been speaking to the apprentice.
There Is A Book…
I met Vinnie, a taller, skinnier gentlemen with a thick, well trimmed mustache that stopped at the corners of his mouth. It contrasted well with Joe’s thin, yet equally well trimmed handlebar. As a Navy Sailor, I am obligated to notice mustaches, and if I like the individual, comment on them. If I talked with Joe and Vinnie a little longer, I would compliment them both on their mustache growth and maintenance.
Vinnie came up to the landing, stopping one step short and shook my hand. He began to tell me about the Garden of Eden, and how Satan fooled Adam and Eve into sin by telling them they can know things if they eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He connected this story with an interpretation of my answer to Joe’s first question. I had said that humans were ultimately the determiners of our fate, and Vinnie now told me that it was Satan telling us, and by extension, me, that terrible lie. Vinnie explained that we were never meant to have disease, suffering, or death, that tending the Garden and having dominion over the creatures was our intended lot. When he paused, I would start to ask the question that was on my mind since the very beginning of his speech, but he continued talking, letting me know that he wasn’t done yet. Still proceeding very politely, I sensed that he knew I objected to his story on some grounds, so he went on, hoping that his speech’s persuasive power would grow with its length.
No such luck. He told me that everything he was saying was in the Bible. Seeing an opening, I pounced.
“In the book of Genesis, it says the serpent talked to Eve, it doesn’t say Satan.”
“Well, Satan was using the serpent as a puppet.”
“Does it say that in the book?”
“Yeah, well Satan couldn’t just go up to Eve himself, she’d know that he was Satan.”
I thought, but didn’t say, “without having eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, how would she know Satan was bad?” Instead, I said, “If Satan did use the serpent, it should explain that somewhere in the Bible.”
Those Scientists Know The Truth.
He complimented me on my Bible knowledge, and had another go at convincing me. “Six thousand years ago, God created man to serve him in the Garden. We weren’t meant to die in 70, 80 years. Did you know scientists did experiments and they found that the human brain could live forever?”
My head nearly exploded with questions and incredulity at this nugget, but again, I had to start with the beginning.
“Six thousand years, you say?”
“The Bible says that man was created six thousand years ago.”
Not exactly. The real story is that a bishop named James Ussher came up with the six thousand year timeline in the 1700s. Didn’t want to broach this one, I felt better to just refute the claim rather than waste time on correcting his source for the claim.
“There is a great deal of evidence that man has been around much longer than six thousand years.”
“Well, scientists just tell us that because they’re paid to, but they know the truth.”
I had to smile at this. I wanted to laugh out loud, to truly lol at these two and their story.
I got the Argument From Design, where Vinnie pointed to a car as being designed, “just like me. I was designed.” The first person reference, I noticed, made it more difficult to argue against.
I think Vinnie quickly realized that he was getting nowhere telling me about Intelligent Design, so he went back toi talking about the evils of the world. Joe jumped back in with a verse from Revelation. I was really hoping they would mention The Beast because I wanted to tell them about how the entire book was an allegory and The Beast was a symbolic representation of the Roman Emporer Nero. No such luck, they just pointed to passages that talked about when Jesus is going to come back, every knee shall bow, etc.
About this time I felt that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere. He reads a Bible verse, talks about how it supports his warped worldview, and ignores or deflects all of the facts that I know conflict with it. For example, the idea that the world is going bad, and getting worse all the time is one they kept taking for granted. This is a popular misconception that many people agree with on the basis that it “seems” true, but it’s not. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explains how all statistical categories of violence have decreased over time. I mentioned this book to Vinnie, and the statistic that with one or two exceptions, there has been no war between world powers since WWII. Like the rest of the facts I mentioned in our talk, it didn’t change their minds, they didn’t even seem to acknowledge them.
Normally in a face to face conversation, facts that are presented confidently have a way of being given at least the benefit of the doubt for the extent of the conversation. The exception to this would be where the listener knows that the facts to be untrue, or that other facts call the presented facts into question. In this case, my facts were not refuted or even attempted to be refuted. They were simply ignored.
Am I being fair if I appear to ignore their position? For me to entertain their worldview, I would have to abandon things that are verifiable and empirically supported by physical evidence. My acceptance of these empirically verifiable things comes from a way of seeing the world that values the same. As Sam Harris said, and I’m paraphrasing, how can you convince someone who doesn’t value evidence of the truth supported by evidence?
Vinnie told me, after showing me yet another Bible verse, that “the Bible interprets itself.” I wanted to get off the treadmill that this talk had long since become, but I couldn’t help it. I asked, if the Bible interprets itself, how is it that there are so many different conflicting interpretations?
For the first time, I heard frustration in Vinnie’s voice. He again pulled another Bible verse and told me that he and his group had gotten it right. These guys were nothing if not well prepared. Since then I have had occasion to quote a Bible verse but couldn’t remember the exact chapter and verse to say nothing of the wording of the verse itself. Of course, these guys, especially Vinnie, do this every week, going door to door, so they had way more EXP arguing their bullshit than I had arguing using facts and logic.
I Am New to This
In fact, this process of systematically examining and re-examining my arguments and my support for same is relatively new to me. As of 2012 I was consuming pseudoscience eagerly, certain that I had stumbled onto secret knowledge that They didn’t want us to figure out, and we were on the verge of great new revelation that would change humanity forever. For a more detailed, shamefaced look back, check out my 2012 post.
College classes, more than anything else, were the catalyst of my (as of this writing, still embryonic) development as a thinker. In classes with other people, with other sets of experience to draw from, is where I learned that your reasons for your answer are as important, if not moreso, than the answer itself. It is in these classrooms that I learned that “it depends” is a fitting beginning to such an answer, to be followed by questions and more questions. Most importantly, I learned that arguing – a verb that connoted aggression (to me anyway) – calmly, patiently, and respectfully, was the best, maybe the only true way to evaluate ideas.
And ideas is all they ever were. Just some thoughts, a story about the world, how it is, how it should be. The having of an idea does not define one any more than preference of sleeping position. Questioning an idea is no more offensive than asking what city someone was born in. All ideas are questionable, even that one. Everything is up for debate, and there is no need to get emotional about it. This last is very tricky, especially when it comes to ideas that are charged with emotional baggage, or whose very existence is enough to make people question other previously rock-solid ideas of theirs.
Where Was I?
It is clear to me now that that was were I was with Vinnie and Joe. I was telling them things that I know to be true, things that I could show to be true if they needed, but these things was saying, these facts flew right in the face of the story they were committed to. These guys were dug in, but good, and it would take much more than my reasonable questions and verifiable facts to get them out.
The Cult Mentality
After they left, I realized that I was more or less ignored in every point I had tried to make. While I didn’t go get my copy of The Better Angels of Our Nature as I wanted to, or even reliably quote a really meaningful statistic from it – I gave a very brief synopsis of the main argument of the book during one of the times they let me speak – I don’t think it would have made a lick of difference. I took their pamphlet mostly to take pictures:
Then I looked up their site as seen on that last pic. I found that there was a documentary film about the Witnesses. In fact, there are several. Only when I learned more about the nature of this cult and how strongly the cult mentality penetrates those who get caught up in it did I realize how far I was from talking sense to those two. One of my favorite YouTube channels, The Bible Reloaded, did a video about them.
Those Wacky J-dubs!
Due to their strange beliefs, door-to-door marketing strategy and relative newness to the field of religious belief, most people use Witnesses as a sort of punch line. It also doesn’t help that they have wrongly predicted the end of the world several times. Even theists, my-beliefs-are-sacred-you-must-not-mock-them theists, can agree with bashing JWs.
After my meeting with Joe and Vinnie, and the tiny bit of googling and learning I’ve done since, it occurs to me that this is a real cult that is really consuming the lives of its adherents. People who would have led normal lives, especially here in the developed world where ideas are free, are wasting their time, energy, and other resources in the service of spreading a message that is toxic to modern life. They’re laboring their lives away under the delusion they’ve been fed; worst, they think they’re doing good. Seriously, these people deserve to be made fun of, but they are also worthy of contempt for what they take from their members: in a word, their lives.
A Parting Word of Advice: Question!
If these husks that were once productive human beings (and could become again I’m sure, people leave cults, get deprogrammed, etc.) come knocking, knocking, knocking at your chamber door, ask them questions. What made Joe have to signal for help from Vinnie was my questioning, along with my refusal to go along with his story of the Devil being in charge et al. The only time I saw Vinnie get frustrated was when I asked questions, specifically how does he know that his interpretation of the Bible verse saying how you could interpret Bible verses is correct, a nitpicky but relevant inquiry given the number and variation among Bible interpretations.
Telling them things accomplished nothing. My answer to their opening question, “who is in charge in the world?” wasn’t listened to the way a person would listen to another person’s opinion if they were having a conversation where all parties truly wanted to exchange ideas. Instead, Joe heard me begin saying, “as a humanist,” then decided I didn’t have the right answer, then politely waited for me to stop talking so that he could do his pitch.
Asking questions forces a person to acknowledge what you are saying and respond to it. If there is no response to the question, it appears to any reasonable observer that they are not playing fairly. I recommend it not just for when cult members come to your door, but any time ideas are being bandied about. Even the ones you agree with. For it’s by questioning that we discover, that we learn, that we grow.