Conversations on an Airplane
About a year-and-a-half ago I was flying home from North Carolina after spending a weekend teaching at a church there. The man sitting next to me pulled out a philosophy test and began filling it out. I asked him if he was a student, and he said that he was actually a first-year professor of philosophy at a state university here in the southeastern portion of the United States. He asked what I do, and the conversation took a strange turn when I said, "I'm a theologian." He immediately told me that he had been a graduate assistant for Daniel Dennett, and he wondered if I'd had a chance to read Breaking the Spell (which had just come out not too long prior to this). I had not, so he told me the central theme of the book. I told him that I had read Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith. He asked me if I might be afraid to read Dennett's book. I smiled and said, "Why would I be afraid?" He responded, "Well, it might cause you to question some things."
I assured him that I questioned things all the time. That's my job.
He didn't quite know how to respond to that. "What do you mean?" he asked.
I told him, "I don't just read Christian books. I want to know the other points of view. I couldn't speak to the issues intelligently otherwise -- at least not with any credibility."
Then I asked him, "Do you think Dr. Dennett read enough to interact responsibly with any Christian scholars? There actually are some, you know."
He'd never heard of any of them.
We continued our conversation for a while. He asked if I was a dualist. I told him that I was an ontological dualist. He seemed to know what that meant, but he looked a little uncertain so I explained. "I believe there are two categories of things: God and not-God." Now he understood. I pushed a little farther on some things that appear in the atheist's worldview that would require greater faith than most Christians have. I asked him how we got from nothing to something. And how did we get from chaotic something to ordered something when that violates the law of entropy (that things move from order to chaos unless acted upon by an external force). And how do we even know that we know what we know.
He admitted that there were some sizeable gaps in his belief system -- especially epistemological gaps.
"Perhaps," I said, "you've been prejudiced against the supernatural so much, so indoctrinated by Hume's closed system that you've ruled out the existence of something transcendent. Maybe that transcendent thing is a person, and maybe that person could fill in those gaps if you'd let him."
"You're a preacher. How do you know Hume?" he wanted to know.
I went on to say, as gently as I could, that I am not a Christian because I have to be or because I'm afraid to not be. I am a Christian because it makes the most sense to me. If there is another belief system that is as comprehensive, practical and correspondent to the way things actually are in this world, I'd most likely jump ship. But I've read every belief system I can find, and Christianity beats them all hands down.
He apologized and said he really had to get back to preparing his test. I told him I understood and actually had some work to catch up on myself. We flew the rest of the way home in silence.
When we got off the plane, he caught up to me at baggage claim and said the strangest thing. He said, "I'm embarrassed."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because you know more about my field than I know about yours. And I've made fun of people like you. I wonder if my friends and colleagues would give your literature as fair a reading as you've given ours. And yet we call you the fundamentalist."
I gave him my card and told him I'd love to meet him for lunch sometime. He never contacted me again.
I tell you that anecdote because I think there are a lot of people like him. He's educated, but he's been educated into a worldview -- without even realizing what was taking place. He's prejudiced against Christians, but the Christians he's prejudiced against are more a figment of his imagination than the real Christians who live and work around him. If Christians can keep from panicking, listen and speak in a winsome manner, we can do more than any protest or saber-rattling ever could. Maybe that's what Peter had in mind in 1 Peter 3:15-16.
I also tell you that story because I've been asked to appear on a Christian television show to talk about what is being called "the new atheism" (demonstrated by people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett). They've told me that they're going to be interviewing a professor of philosophy from a state university in the southern portion of the United States (what are the odds it could be my traveling partner?). They want me to interact some with what they consider to be attacks on the Christian faith and elaborate a little on the historical repercussions of atheism.
But I do not want to sound combative or afraid. So, I'm asking you: What would you hope I would say? What could I say that might be helpful to Christians who want to discuss these issues in a rational and winsome manner?