My partial book ‘How to Debate Atheists’ was showcased on the Christian Apologetics Alliance forum and I was asked to comment further on the book. Here are some of my comments:
1) How to think about the theism/atheism debate
2) Where I think atheists go wrong.
3) What I think apologists could do better.
4) Why I don’t use certain arguments.
First, some explanations:
– About two years ago I was toying with the idea of writing a book about my thoughts on the theism/atheism debate. I decided to write a few chapters, drive some traffic to them and see if there was any interest. So I wrote a quick draft, did some advertising, and, all I got were hundreds of comments from angry atheists. No substantial feedback from any Christians. So I dropped the project and moved on to other things. Looking back on it now, the chapters desperately need a rewrite, as some things are really hard to follow and other things are way over the top, like my comment about the resurrection, that someone quoted above. Whether I ever get the time to edit it remains to be seen. In the mean time, please be patient with the work.
– I will tell you from the start that, when all is said and done, there’s a good chance many of you will disagree with my position. I started debating atheists in person (informally) and online, without any training in apologetics. I did not read any apologetics books or watch professional apologetics debates but stumbled my way through and developed my own approach. It was only years later, once I already had my own system, that I started looking into what other Christians were doing and found that I often disagreed with their strategy. But that’s ok. The world won’t be harmed by a slightly different approach to apologetics.
– I believe a very important question to ask ourselves as apologists is, how do we evaluate the effectiveness of our own arguments. I believe that the most accurate metric is whether we are reaching the people who are genuinely on the fence, those truly unsure whether a God exists or not. So when I say that a certain popular argument isn’t that great, I am not saying that the argument isn’t beneficial or faith-building to the theist. I am saying that, in my experience, I haven’t seen it work too well with people who are sincerely trying to sort through the issues.
2) How To Think About The Debate
For the sake of our own sanity as apologists, we need to be able to adequately categorize the interaction. I say in my article that atheists are a cult. That of course isn’t accurate since a cult is generally some type of religious organization. But when you interact long enough with people who have fallen into various forms of fanaticism, you start to observe certain patterns. This almost always has to do with a belief system that is very logically derived from a set of faulty premises. Now, all of us hold to conclusions that were derived logically from faulty premises; it’s part of being human. What is distinct about fanaticism however, is that for some reason, the people are unwilling or unable to evaluate their own starting premises. So in debates with atheists we need to spend substantial time addressing those starting premises, not so much for the atheists, but for those on the fence who might be confused by the apparent logic of the atheist’s position.
The first reason atheists approach the problem wrong is because they evaluate the question of God in isolation: does God exist or not? What evidence is there that He exists? Rather, the God question should be seen as one hypothesis amidst multiple hypotheses for how WE came to exist. This allows us to contrast multiple possibilities and go with the better even if we’re not absolutely sure it is correct.
The second problem is that a good portion of atheists today misunderstand the limitations of the scientific method. Sadly, this is a problem even with top scientists because those working in the field don’t often delve too deeply into the realm of the philosophy of science. The problem here is that the scientific method, by its very nature, is materialistic. Certain assumptions about the universe have to be made in order to be able to come up with testable predictions. Of course, if God does exist, those assumptions are automatically wrong and the entire process falls apart, when it comes to the God question.
The argument is then made that the effectiveness of the scientific method proves that the assumptions are in fact correct. And this just isn’t sound thinking. If we ever gained the ability to create a universe inside a computer-generated environment, we would first think through the architecture of this universe in our heads. But when we actually begin to program it, we would first create a set of rules for this environment, and then put processes in place that would create the entire universe for us based on those existing rules. So in essence, we expect the scientific method to work just as well in a created universe as in one that developed on its own, with only minor exceptions. If a universe is created, it doesn’t mean that every part of that universe is manually created exactly as is. That is a very childish notion of what creation means.
If there is a part of the universe where God did directly interfere however, the scientific method again gives us problems because it cannot just come out and tell us that the method is breaking down. Instead, all we know is that our CURRENT attempts to explain something materialistically aren’t working. And, it’s easier to just assume that all this means is that we have to wait until we come up with a better hypothesis in the future. Very few atheists really take the time to think through the complications of this methodology when it comes to God and the supernatural.
I highly recommend a recent debate between William Lane Craig and Kevin Scharp. In this debate, Kevin sets up a chart where he explains the God question in terms of Certainty or Confidence Levels. I wish all apologists would memorize this chart.
In science, questions are evaluated in terms of confidence levels. If my wife calls me and tells me that her car isn’t starting I immediately have a set of options with respective probabilities in my head: 40% it’s the battery, 20% the starter, 10% she’s out of gas etc. I then ask her to describe to me what the symptoms are and if she tells me that nothing happens when she turns the key, my certainty increases to 60% that it is the battery. If she tells me that none of the lights work either, then I’m 70% sure. And, if I take the battery to Autozone to test it and they tell me it’s bad, I’m now close to 100% sure. The problem we have as apologists is that we present our arguments as if they provide high confidence, 80-90%, that God exists.
But here is my question for theists: if God was interested in providing high-level general evidence that He exists, wouldn’t He have found a much easier way to do it, like, maybe, by just showing Himself to everyone? Instead of relying on complex philosophical arguments..?
I propose instead that all general, objective evidence for God is intended to only provide a low confidence level, 55-70%. This allows people who want to doubt to do so freely while those interested in finding God to have sufficient reason to begin looking for Him. As Christians we do have high confidence that God exists. But we get our confidence from our personal experience with God (the tangible transformation experienced through the new birth as well as God’s continued providence in our lives). The rest of the evidence just tells us that our personal experience is not unreasonable.
If we carried out our apologetics in such a way that people understood we were only showing them that the likelihood of God’s existence is higher than the alternative, and we did this so that they would seek God themselves and allow Him to provide the rest of the evidence to them personally, people would appreciate our arguments much more.
And yet today, we live in the most enlightened, scientifically advanced age in human history. Where then is our evidence? What has God given us that has similar evidential value as the plagues had for the Egyptians?
In my opinion, the resurrection of Christ was not intended by God to have this role, even though it is used this way by most apologists. Besides the reasons I’ve outlined in my article on the Ultimate Resurrection, for the simple reason that only minor adjustment would have given the resurrection far more evidential value: like if a delegation of Roman officials happened to be in Jerusalem, saw the crucifixion and the resurrected Jesus and then wrote about it. It doesn’t seem at all like God was going out of His way to make the resurrection a strong line of evidence for us.
In my opinion there is only one line of evidence that was actually intended by God to be used by us as objective evidence for the Bible: prophecy. Unfortunately, we almost never use it in apologetics because we can’t agree amongst ourselves what the prophecies mean so we set them aside and rely instead on far less effective tools.
Regarding the Resurrection as Evidence:
I realize that I am practically going against the entire apologetics establishment when I say that the resurrection argument should not be used in apologetics. Because of this I expect that not many other Christians will agree with me. But, in my experience, I have not found the argument useful.
I overstarted my case in my article by implying that the resurrection argument is completely useless. It is not. When we already have high confidence in the bible because it changed our lives, because the biblical worldview is more sensible than other religions, because the bible as a historical document is pretty well verified, etc., the fact that the early church suffered persecution and death rather than deny the resurrection becomes strong additional confirmation for the faith. But the argument works as a package deal, not independently.
When it comes to the historical method, if all the available documents and archaeological data support the claim that nation X conquered nation Y some 3000 years ago, we generally take that claim to be fairly trustworthy. This is no longer the case when it comes to supernatural claims. If I am talking to a Hindu and he tells me that the best explanation for why nation X conquered nation Y 3000 years ago, considering nation X’s circumstances, is that Vishnu incarnated himself as Krishna and led their armies, I immediately have high doubts regarding this claim. And, this is not because I have an a priori bias against supernatural claims but because I have zero confidence in their general narrative. Therefore, that isolated supernatural claim is instantly far less likely than the hundreds of other natural explanations imaginable.
So when it comes to inference to the best explanation, the only reason we think an actual resurrection is the best explanation for what happened with the early church, is because we’re already biased. We would find a hundred other explanations as more plausible if we were completely unbiased observers. We do however have very good reason to be biased in this case because the resurrection for us comes as one element amidst a complete and highly sensible narrative. But as an independent line of evidence, it is weak. I often think that the reason we use the resurrection argument so much is because we have a sense that some independent line of evidence has to be present for the Bible to be taken seriously, and, because we can’t think of anything else, we convince ourselves that the resurrection is such evidence.