Was I dodging a bullet, or being dismissive?

12 08 2008

Here’s the scenario. I was travelling on a subway carriage in Japan with a group of friends, one of whom iwas soon to return to Australia, another of whom is a (I presume) born-again Christian. For weeks I had been raving about Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, boring my girlfriend to tears with a panoply of zoological “Did you knows” (e.g. did you know that the cicada produces its distinctive and loud song not by the rubbing together of wings/limbs that is associated with crickets and grasshoppers, but by buckling parts of its thorax as one would an aluminium can?). It was my girlfriend who dropped The Ancestor’s Tale into the conversation. “What’s it about?” asked a member of our group. “It’s about evolution,” she replied.

This elicited a roll of the eyes and a derisive “Oh, evolution,” from my Christian friend, at which point I panicked, and immediately changed the subject. My intentions were honourable: we had gathered together that night to have a good time and to give the girl returning to Australia a good send-off. I didn’t want the occasion soured by a religious debate, nor did I want my Christian friend to feel uncomfortable.

In hindsight, however, I wonder how my intervention must have seemed to her. Would she have appreciated what I was trying to do, or would she have felt as if I was simply dismissing her views, patronisingly attempting to rescue the night from her embarrassing Christian otherness? (She’s not the stereotypical born-again Christian: she’ll cuss and drink with the best of us, and doesn’t seem comfortable being “out” about her beliefs around her secular friends. Indeed, I wasn’t aware of her religious affiliation until I came across her blog.)

Or, did I perhaps miss an opportunity to take one for the team, as it were, by engaging her in frank debate and discussion on the topic of evolution? Would this in fact have been the more respectful thing to do?

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12 responses

12 08 2008
John Morales

Really, only you can know that.

Anyway, your message would’ve been perceived within the social context, and your tone, manner and body languague would’ve been of no small significance.

<shrug>

I can’t venture an opinion.

12 08 2008
AV

Really, only you can know that.

I guess so. I guess it was one of those situations where I discovered what I’d be prepared to discuss on the intertubes (and in what tone) and what I’d be prepared to canvass among family and friends. I don’t go out of my way to be snarky to theists online, unless provoked, but I wonder how I’d handle my Christian friend if I encountered her, behind the cover of pseudonymity of course, in a hostile blog exchange.

12 08 2008
John Morales

In more general, then, I’d say you probably dodged a bullet.

FWIW.

Nothing good comes from disputing the irrational beliefs of an acquaintance in ad-hoc circumstances, and I speak from experience.

12 08 2008
The Barefoot Bum

I think you can counter an off-hand comment with an off-hand comment without being rude.

“[A] roll of the eyes and a derisive ‘Oh, evolution,’ from my Christian friend,” deserves the simple response, “There’s nothing wrong with evolution.”

12 08 2008
AV

You’re probably right, BB. As I said, I panicked, and at all costs wanted to avoid the dreaded uncomfortable silence. I think if I didn’t know her as well, I might have been more willing to pursue the topic.

13 08 2008
PhillyChief

Borderline. I’d say you did fine. If there was an assertion made by the Christian, then I would have charged into the breach. Of course the potential souring of the evening might mean you’d be denied charging into your girlfriend’s britches later.

13 08 2008
Evo

I’m glad you read The Ancestor’s Tale. I always recommend it to people with an interest in evolution, but I was recently convinced (correctly, I think) that it’s not a good book to recommend as a starting point for someone who doesn’t accept the fact of evolution.

I don’t know that I would have reacted totally different than you. At the point of the “eye roll” I probably would have said, “yeah. it’s one of the greatest books on evolution I’ve ever read”. If she didn’t want to keep up the conversation, I would have gone on to something else. I don’t think it has to be a huge confrontation that ruins the night. Some people enjoy a good friendly debate. I do!

13 08 2008
AV

I’m glad you read The Ancestor’s Tale. I always recommend it to people with an interest in evolution, but I was recently convinced (correctly, I think) that it’s not a good book to recommend as a starting point for someone who doesn’t accept the fact of evolution.

Out of curiosity, what book would you recommend for those who fall into the latter category? I have a (Catholic) aunt who didn’t–when we last spoke about it, that is–believe in evolution (yes, the “how can there still be monkeys if we came from monkeys” line was uttered), and in fact didn’t even believe in artificial selection. She believed the various dog breeds of the world were separately and individually created by God.

I loaned her my copy of Carl Zimmer’s Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea, which may or may not be more appropriate for a creationist, but it was all I had at the time. When I asked, a year later, for the book to be returned, she said a lot of it went over her head, but she was still reading it and didn’t want to return it.

13 08 2008
Ordinary Girl

I’d recommend Carl Zimmer’s book Evolution: Triumph of an Idea if someone was open to reading up on evolution. It covers the basics of evolution in a very matter-of-fact way and it doesn’t try to challenge religion.

For a die hard anti-evolutionist, I’m not sure if there is a book to recommend.

13 08 2008
Evo

OG is right, of course. The one you gave her is a good one. The Exterminator turned me on to one that is really good as an initiation – Jonathan Weiner’s “The Beak of the Finch”. Other good ones – Sean Carroll, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, Matt Ridley “The Red Queen”, Richard Dawkins “The Blind Watchmaker” or “Unweaving the Rainbow” or (if you think they might only be willing to read something short), “River Out of Eden”. I’d have them read any of these other Dawkins books and only then, if they are still interested, “Ancestor’s Tale”. Also, there is a great website at UC Berkeley called “Understanding Evolution”. It teaches it the way you would ideally teach a high school biology class on evolution.

13 08 2008
AV

I certainly wouldn’t recommend The Ancestor’s Tale as a starter (I’m still wading my way through it). Since I can’t get my Zimmer book back, I think Growing Up in the Universe, Dawkins Christmas Lecture series, would be a sufficiently accessible introduction perhaps even for my Christian friend. (And it’s available for free online.)

13 08 2008
Evo

I’ve never checked it out. But Dawkins is tremendous when he sticks to evolution.

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