Saturday, May 11, 2013

Arguing about the Bible on Facebook (or, How to Crush Your Own Soul)

This post is not going to have a conclusion. I don't have anything insightful to add. I just wanted to share an experience that is eating away at me right now and hope that some of you out there smarter and more experienced in this than me can give me some insight. (Also, warning, pretty much everything in this post is offensive and triggering. If you're not offended by something early, you'll likely be offended by something later.)

I was recently added to an online discussion group designed to challenge people to think. I really like it. As I've demonstrated here, I'm a big fan of rhetorical debate (particularly agonistic rhetorical debate: see this post or this one). I spend a lot of my time reading about theoretical frameworks in which to resolve conflict, so I relish any opportunity to put those frameworks into practice in the real-world, and this discussion group seems to be a good place to do just that.

The group discussion rather quickly turned to gay marriage rights and Biblical texts, with two Christian men taking the lead on arguing against gay rights. For quite a while, a woman who is gay was passionately and very calmly arguing back. She left the group a day later, citing her own well-being and happiness as her primary concern.

I'm about to join her.

Last night, one of the men ended up leaving the group but then private messaging me to try to "save my soul from Hell." (For the record, I'm not an atheist. In fact, I consider myself a Christian. I just don't believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible because it is a text constructed by human hands and interpreted many times over thousands of years and thus cannot be understood without some pretty complex interpretation. I've written about my own religious/spiritual battles here and here.)

On one of the myriad tangential discussions on both the group and my private chat with this other man, the problem with sexism in the Bible came up. One of the passages used as evidence of the Bible's sexism is Judges 19, which tells a story where all the men in the city wanted to rape a holy man, who was a guest of one of the occupants. In order to prevent this, the man offered his own virgin daughter and the guest's sex slave to the men, who rejected the daughter but took the slave and raped her until she was unconscious or dead (the passage doesn't make it clear which). Then the man took the slave's body (alive or dead, who knows?) and hacked it into little pieces to send to different cities.

It is a disgusting story.

Another passage demonstrating sexism was 1 Corinthians 11:9
Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man
In the private chat, that man ended up "explaining" to me that women are different than men and need protection. It's not about inequality, he says, but each of us fitting our roles that God has set for us. Apparently he doesn't see "God" (i.e. whoever penned that part of the Bible) setting my role as beneath his role as sexism. I disagree.

In the larger conversation, the other man ended up defending the Judges passage as just a product of the time they lived in. He said:
"It was brutal to do that but if you have a pack of gays trying to get your guest what would you do?"
When I explained that what I would not do, ever, is send a woman to be raped, murdered, and dismembered, he explained to me that it was a different time. He was very stuck on the point that this woman was his whore, so it was his right to do with her as he pleased. When I countered that 1) "whores" are human beings who do not deserve to be raped and murdered (and that "whore" really means "sex slave") and that 2) he also sent his own daughter, he told me that:
Again that was fine at that time because it was the norm. Some how his daughters did end up out there. If they raped his daughters they would have had to marry them.
He insisted that I answer his question of what I would do in that situation, and I said that it looks like I would probably be sent to be raped and murdered by someone like him, to which he replied:
I would have sent you to be if you where my whore then go to war because I felt that what the men did was wrong
And you know what? I can't.

knock out
In this case, I am the guy on the floor, but I don't think it was a fair fight.
I want to completely believe in the benefit of rhetorical debate, and I want to say that bringing the tensions between these different belief sets to light is productive. I believe that in a completely theoretical framework, but I can't have this fight. I can't have a fight where someone is telling me that it was "fine" for women to be raped and murdered and that in that time, it would have been fine to do it to me personally, too.

I can't.

So, what does that mean for rhetorical debate? What does that mean for all of the theories of argument and discourse that I so fully ascribe to? How do I go from theory to practice when this is the landscape in which I have to act? 

Photo: pj_vanf


  1. "How do I go from theory to practice when this is the landscape in which I have to act?" -- You can't, at least I don't think so. I'm not familiar with "theoretical frameworks in which to resolve conflict" (wish I were) or any of the theories about rhetoric (I should probably do that), but it seems for a lot of people (not all), in the case of things like politics and religion, there is an element of dogmatism and idealism that will bring out antagonistic rhetoric no matter what (tell me if I'm applying this correctly). The fight is never fair in these cases, because they are likely to say anything to keep a belief or set of beliefs and have no intentions of learning anything from others because they already believe they have the answer. It's then all about figuring out how to convince you of it. There are just some people you cannot debate with because they are so rigid and closed-minded. Getting into debates with them will drain you as you will put a lot of intellectual energy into what can only be a fruitless debate. It will always be fruitless in these situations! So, there are no benefits in these kinds of debate unless the other side of the debate seriously engages and is not just trying to figure how to argue you into submission. Otherwise the only thing you will GAIN is FRUSTRATION.

    And I was not offended by anything you said. Also, the guy said he would give you away first then go to war. If I'm not missing the context, would it not have been better for him to go to war first, instead of letting a woman get raped and then saying "oh, now I have something to fight for"? And those women being sex slave sounds like forced prostitution and I don't think God, at any time, would have been okay with that, regardless of culture. I understand if we are not trying to be anachronistic, but it is trivial to say I would have acted the same because "those were the times" because of course if I were a man in those times I would have most likely been a sexist! We believe we have recognized something the people of the past did not and they were wrong to be sexist. This is were the thing about morals being objective comes in, as I don't think he understood the philosophical implications of what he was saying (of course moral realism could be wrong, but that would kind of undercut Christianity). We could make plenty of things not sinful if we just accepted them as a culture and say "oh, it just the norm. That's just what we do".

  2. "there is an element of dogmatism and idealism that will bring out antagonistic rhetoric no matter what"

    I think you are absolutely right and hitting the main problem right on the head. I was approaching these debates with a different framework (a friend of mine compared it to playing basketball while they were playing soccer). We weren't entering into the debate with the same rules, so it was doomed from the beginning, I think.

    As for theorists you might check out, Walter Ong wrote some amazing things about rhetorical frameworks (Fighting for Life is one of my favorites) and Debra Hawhee has a great book about agonistic rhetoric called Bodily Arts.

  3. I was not offended, but a little triggered just because I've been there so many times before. Ryan has some good points, but I'll add just one thing: no matter the topic, there is no rhetorical debate with someone who does not see all participants as full and equal human beings.

    There have been so many times when I've realized that nothing I could say even on a light topic would ever be taken seriously. It's always most obvious when a man (my history of this is as a male-female thing) makes my same point again a few minutes later, and then it's received with thoughtful consideration. It's enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Anyone who would argue against the rights of one of the participants? Not worth the energy.

    In this case, it probably would not have made much difference anyway. If someone believes the bible is the literal word of God, nothing else matters. (Although, I am interested in the fact that he sees the abuse and ownership of women as an artifact of the times. How then is the homophobia any different?)

  4. "Although, I am interested in the fact that he sees the abuse and ownership of women as an artifact of the times. How then is the homophobia any different?"

    Exactly! And that's where this (much too long) debate started, so we really just ended up full circle without making any progress at all. Exhausting.

  5. Orchid Sixty-fourMay 11, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    I think you can't approach these arguments from a personalized position. Once you do that, you lose your ability to engage in any rational way. Kate is right that discussions related to the bible or "what God thinks" cannot be debated. The purpose of debate is essentially to score points based on analytical and rational concerns. All things religious are, at their core, related to beliefs.

    That being said, your opponent was, essentially, arguing about people who occupied a particular period in history when people were regarded as a form of property. It wasn't just women, though it was often women, and those who were deemed a form of property were of lesser value than those who were not (in this case, the holy man). At that time, the "whore" and the daughter were equivalent to cattle. They were to be used and then discarded. That was that period in history.

    I think that one needs to argue this from two points of view. One was that this made a sort of "sense" for the time and could be seen as a choice which had to be made in such a situation. However, it can also be seen as a reflection of how large swathes of the bible are painfully outdated and do not apply to the modern world. If I had been in your shoes, I would have conceded that those men made a choice in tune with the times, and then asked him if you felt such a choice would be the one he would make in the present. He would, of course, say he would not offer his mistress/girlfriend/whoever and daughter for rape and murder.

    Once he acknowledges that the behavior and viewpoints in the bible suited a point in history, but not the present, you have him on the views in the bible about homosexuality. The bible does not suit the modern era in many respects, and how it portrays and dealt with homosexuality is one of them. The fact that many anti-gay Christians choose to cherry pick what they will and will not embrace as the valid voice of God only betrays the selective of their belief which, in turn, reveals their personal bias. They cannot have it both ways - either the bible is right for us now or it only reflected what was right then.

    Use their own logic to dislodge their thinking. This is how you deal with these types of people.

  6. I agree, and I and two other people did use that exact line of reasoning at least three times during this debate. It didn't matter. He continued to draw an arbitrary distinction between homosexuality in the Bible and these other things in the Bible which he says have to be read in context. No matter how many times we made the logical connection that reading this part of the Bible "in context" meant we had to read all of it in context, he continued to insist that homosexuality was somehow different than all those other contexts, I assume because he was using his personal prejudices instead of any logical connection.

    You're right that showing the logical connection was the right way to handle it, but what about when that doesn't work? Then you just stop, right? You can't force someone to follow the rules of logic.

  7. I am reminded of the terrible bargain which we have regretfully struck:

    "There are the occasions that men—intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—insist on playing devil's advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some
    other subject generally filed under the heading: Women's Issues. These
    intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument
    for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for
    fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my
    voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of
    fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that's so much fun for them is the stuff of my life."