I had a genuinely bizarre conversation at work yesterday. A colleague and I were talking (via a handful of other topics) about things that should be easy to determine as true or false, but have such entrenched misconceptions that it’s difficult to do get a straight answer with, say, a ten-second Google search. One example I mentioned was the idea that the Coriolis effect causes water to drain from a sink in opposite directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. For the record, this is rubbish, or at best a massive exaggeration; although the Coriolis effect does influence the draining water, the effect is so small at the scale of a sink or bathtub that it’s impossible to detect above other influences, like the flow direction of the water as it comes out of the tap, the shape of the bowl, and the movement of the plug after you pull it out. This site describes a way that the effect can be detected on this scale, but it’s a long shot from what you’re ever going to notice when flushing your toilet. The myth has been perpetuated by a combination of gullibility, people who capitalise off demonstrating it to tourists at the equator, and a sixth season episode of The Simpsons. (Although as an Aussie, that’s the least of my objections to that episode.)

Back to the story. While we were talking about the Coriolis effect, another colleague turned around from his desk with a look of confusion and disbelief – obviously he’d believed it until this point in his life. He challenged us to explain how, when (like, I suspect, most of us) he had tried swirling the water by hand in the opposite direction, it looked like it briefly changed direction, stopped, and then changed back. He completely dismissed the idea that the shape of the plughole and the sink, the motion of the water after hitting the sink from the tap, and the general chaotic effect of him swirling his hand through it would have a much more obvious effect than the difference between the radius of the earth from one side of the sink to the other. Didn’t want a bar of it. I asked him, if he had amassed such a body of evidence, which direction he thought the water did go in in the southern hemisphere; he couldn’t remember, but he knew it was the same. (He later said it was counterclockwise, but he didn’t sound too confident.)

This went back and forth for a while, until I demanded that we take the argument to the sink in the bathroom. We couldn’t find a plug in the bathroom so we went to the kitchen. (Incidentally, this gives you some idea of the immense scheduling pressures of our job.) On the way, the story started to change a bit; he started suggesting that a sink was too small, and there wouldn’t be time to see the swirl change direction in a small sink. We were told that we’d have to go home and fill up a bath – a bath – and then we’d see it all swirling in the same direction. The funny thing is that, until we actually went to look at a sink, there was no mention that there was a minimum size at which you’d see the effect. We tried the sink anyway, with results that I think it would be generous to call inconclusive; but as the water (with bits of paper to see which way it was moving) went down the plughole, the slightest movement in any direction was pointed to as evidence that the direction was changing.

We then tried an appeal to authority (read: Google), and the story changed again, to something like: “It might not be the rotation of the earth that does it, but something makes the water go down the sink the same way.” I suggested that there might be a legal requirement to build sinks shaped such that the water goes down one way in the southern hemisphere, and the other way in the northern hemisphere. The conversation sort of degenerated after that.

I’m not totally sure how serious he was; probably he was at least partially being stubborn and argumentative for its own sake. (He wouldn’t have been the only one.) But the point is that the conversation seemed strangely familiar. There’s something frustrating about trying to make a point to someone when the rules of evidence are reversed – instead of looking for the conclusion that best fits the facts you’re aware of, the conclusion is assumed, and the argument revolves around finding a way to make the evidence support the conclusion. Half-remembered personal experiences are quoted as unassailable facts, while other people’s experiences are dismissed. And when it looks like the other side is getting the upper hand, the goalposts move so that there’s still a chance of claiming a smaller or different conclusion as a win. I’m sure just about anyone has done some of these things in an argument at some stage, but what it really reminded me of was the argumentative merry-go-round that is religious apologetics.

There is something more specific that made the Coriolis thing remind me of a religious debate. The colleague in question is (now) the only believer on our project. I’ve been a bit hard on him so far in this post, but back when I was starting to have doubts about Christianity, he was one of the people I talked to at great length to look for some answers. When I started drafting this post yesterday I wasn’t even going to mention that he’s a Christian (I’m still trying to keep him anonymous of course), but then today we actually did have a discussion about religion, and it summed up what I think about Christianity so well that I thought it was worth writing about.

As I mentioned, we’d talked a while ago about the fact that I was having doubts, but I didn’t really keep him up to date with the fact that I’d reached a conclusion (the wrong one, from his perspective). Today the topic came up, and I (for lack of a less weighted phrase) broke the news to him.

The first thing he said was interesting – he agreed that Christianity made no sense. This is a position that, strangely enough, finds support in the Bible:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, NRSV

Apparently it’s okay for the message to seem to make no sense, because God’s wisdom makes no sense to us. This is superior to evidence (Jews demand signs) or reasoning (Greeks desire wisdom). That’s fine, but how then are we expected to decide whether it’s true or not?

He went on to say that Christianity is based around an idea that doesn’t make sense on the surface of it – that you should put everyone else in the world ahead of yourself. Now a lot of religious people see atheism as a rejection of morality, because morality is part of religion. I had to point out that the idea of self sacrifice isn’t the most surprising part of Christianity, nor is it unique to Christianity; plenty of other religions and systems of morality say exactly the same thing. I have no problem with that. That’s not what I disagree with. The point of Christianity, which I do disagree with, is the claim that there’s a divine creator watching us, that he sent his son to us in the form of a human called Jesus, and so on.

After a bit more discussion, he told me that he was concerned that, against Hebrews 10:25 which tells us not to give up meeting together, I had stopped going to church because it’s “easier”, and then lost my desire to believe as I lost contact with the church, eventually justifying the fact that I didn’t want to go back by saying that I didn’t believe in God anymore.

My reply to this was sort of also the reason that I wanted to post this conversation, so that I have it on record for anyone who feels concerned about my decisions. I did not reach my current position lightly. I spent months looking at arguments from different angles, talking to people, asking God for guidance; one day I’ll post more detail about this, because it’s worth having stuff like this written down. As for it being a justification for my non-attendance at church, I actually stopped believing a few weeks before I stopped going to church. I was scheduled for songleading nearly every Sunday, which was a commitment I took seriously, and really enjoyed in earlier times when I was passionate about it. But for at least a couple of Sundays last year, I was looking out at a congregation, singing with them, while thinking, “I don’t believe these words anymore.” It was a surreal experience. My decision to stop going to church was nothing to do with the culture of the church, or the people in it; it was simply because I no longer believed in the God I was going there to worship.

After this, he more or less accepted what I was saying, and was good-natured if a little dejected about it. Full credit to him for recognising that someone has legitimate, thought-out reasons for what they believe or don’t believe. (My partner Tina wasn’t so lucky – one of her workmates told her that the solution to all her doubts was that she should read Philippians 4. She did. It wasn’t.)

The conversation drifted on to a few other topics; for example, he said that there are some things he has real difficuly believing deep down, but he knows they’re true because the Bible says so – a situation I’m familiar with but now find strange. These days I take the position that if the Bible says something that really doesn’t appear to be the case, then it casts the Bible in doubt, not necessarily just your own perception. This led him to the old assertion that it depends on faith, not on sensible reasoning. This has Biblical support as well:

I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments… See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:4,8, NRSV

There was a time when I accepted that, at least in some cases, blind faith and acceptance of Biblical authority was a better way to find truth than “plausible arguments”. These days I’m less convinced.

I’m aware that this post has rambled over a handful of topics without really doing justice to any of them, and may have generally sounded a bit patronising. The colleague I’m talking about is a good guy, and using conversations with him to make a point isn’t going to totally reflect his character in all its gritty human detail. What I’m trying to show here is that, as I see it in myself (as a former Christian and, to some extent, now as well), and in others, there’s an attitude towards reasoning that accompanies religion. It’s an attitude that says that some truths can be sacred, and anything that seems to contradict it is either wrong or is being misinterpreted. It says that not every truth needs to stand on its own merits, that some things should be accepted on faith, and that that faith is superior to any rational argument that disagrees with it. It says that someone who doesn’t hold certain beliefs is doing so for ulterior reasons, because they don’t want to accept it, or find it too hard, or have emotional barriers that they have to overcome.

This is how I see things. Feel free to disagree with me. None of my opinions are sacred.

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