Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I know a Christian mathematician and lecturer at my local university. Though not friends we have always been on friendly terms. Ever since he found out that I’m an ex-Christian, he’s been looking for an opportunity to “share the gospel” with me and “bring me back to the fold.” Not wishing to cause friction (as I’m a student), I’m usually quick enough to avoid any religious conversations. Things came to a head today, when he caught me unawares. Naturally, we got into an argument. He told me that my arguments “were confused,” I was giving the “standard stuff off the internet,” and that I was “choosing to reject Jesus.” Eventually, I just played along until he calmed down and then excused myself. I know that he will come at me again. I feel intimidated and unsure of myself. He seemed to have an answer for all the objections I put forward. He used a combination of apologetics combined with some analogies from mathematics. How do I stand up for myself against an individual who is intellectually my superior?
Kind Regards and Much Thanks
I hope that by “Christian mathematician” you don’t mean he teaches “Christian mathematics.” What little I know of Christian mathematics are things like 0 + 0 = 1, 0 x 0 = 1, and zero evidence plus a large amount of talk equals one deity’s existence.
Kidding aside, I think you should not bother puzzling over how to “win” this debate, when you don’t even want to be in the debate. You said that you don’t want to cause friction because you are a student, so you prefer to avoid religious conversations entirely. You have a completely legitimate right to do so.
His position as a teacher gives him or implies that he has authority and power over students, and that carries a responsibility to be mindful and sensitive about how he interacts with students. His aggressively pursuing you to attempt to evangelize you without your invitation is inappropriate for his role as a math teacher, and he is overstepping his bounds.
You had to play along with him until he “calmed down,” as if you felt were at risk in some way, and you feel intimidated by the prospect of him “coming at you” again. This is the professorial version of playground bullying, and he should be called on it. Because he may not realize how unwelcome his behavior is, he deserves one fair warning to back off.
If you don’t want to have these discussions, you don’t have to endure them, but it is up to you to put a stop to them. The time for avoiding friction has passed. You’re not on friendly terms any more. He has spoiled that. Don’t bother trying to unravel his bafflingly elaborate arguments that are bankrupt of evidence, and don’t tolerate his condescending characterizations of your private motives, i.e., “choosing to reject Jesus.”
Instead of struggling to argue with him, stand up to his badgering. Otherwise he’ll just persist and escalate, and he’ll also feel free to do this to other students. Look him right in the eye and in a calm, cool tone say something like, “Professor ____, this has nothing to do with math and nothing to do with my studies. Your proselytizing is unasked for, unwelcome, and out of line. I am not interested in having this conversation with you, and I want you to stop now.”
Hopefully he’ll stop right there, but he might make some snide remark implying that you are being cowardly, or that you’re conceding defeat because you can’t counter his “argument,” or some other attempt to goad you. Don’t fall for anything like those! Those are just traps to sucker you back into playing in his ego trip. Take a deep, slow breath and calmly reply, “I’m not going to respond to that. I’ve made it clear that what you’re doing is unwelcome. If you persist, I will file a complaint with the Dean.” If you are too nervous to verbally deliver either of these two steps with the necessary poise, that’s okay, write it on a note and hand it to him.
You must not bluff. You must be prepared to follow through. You have rights as a student, and you have rights as a human being, but you will not enjoy those rights unless you are ready to enforce them yourself. Other people may be willing to stand up for you, but you must stand up first. Because you are a student, I assume that you are young. Build this conviction into your psyche now, so that it will set deeply.
You also can draw upon support from your fellow students. If there is a Secular Student Alliance on your campus, or some kind of club for non-believers, approach them and ask their advice. Such college groups should not only be for enjoying sharing ideas and views. They should also be for mutual support against abuse. If there isn’t a group on campus, it’s clearly needed. Start one.
Later in life, you’ll have more self-confidence and more argumentation skills, and perhaps you’ll have more time and interest in engaging in these amusements. Generally I prefer to cut these very short, because I have better things to do.
The best way I have found is to first explain to the person that to be convinced of any important claim, I need to be shown evidence that matches its significance. Some people believe outlandish hypotheses at the mere suggestion. I can’t. That’s just the way I am; I was born this way. Arguments are not evidence. Arguments need evidence. Arguments are what people fall back on when they have no evidence. No matter how eloquent, elaborate or simply long-winded an argument is, if it has no acceptable evidence at its foundation, then it’s just vibrating air. Acceptable evidence is three-dimensional and has mass. It requires no mystical knowledge or ability, and it can be observed by anyone using at least one of the five senses. Then I politely ask the person to skip all the talk and show me the evidence, or please stop wasting my time.
Carl, I hope that your years at the university are full of the sheer pleasure and excitement of learning, and I hope that your interactions with your teachers are far more productive and suitable than the kind of inappropriate and annoying claptrap that you got from this one teacher.