Rebutting Reasonable Faith: The Atheists Are Multiplying!

Since I’ve been busy the past year and a half answering Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator, I haven’t written any posts responding to William Lane Craig’s “Reasonable Faith” columns. But I’m done with Strobel’s book now – and Craig has avoided my fire for far too long!

Today I’ll address question #170, in which Craig answers a correspondent who frets that there are just so damn many atheists at his university, and he doesn’t know how to respond to them all:

Dr. Craig, I attend Louisiana State University and I am a student worker at our school’s library. Of all the people I work with, half are agnostic and the other half are atheists… I am worried for our future. I don’t know how to combat atheism. I am a Christian, I converted based on personal experiences, and I am not a philosopher. Atheists are grumpy and want answers, answers I don’t have the time to find out…. How does one who has no time to learn philosophy or read theology become a debater against these closed minded ranting non-believers?

By his own admission, this believer has no answers to the objections of atheists, and yet he wants to learn how to defeat us in an argument. In other words, he made up his mind before looking at the evidence, and now that he’s being challenged, he wants to find ways to justify that belief. It’s as if he’s asking, “I think that Christianity is true. Why do I think that?”

Common though it is, this behavior is intellectually dishonest in the extreme. If this student really wanted to know what’s true, he should begin by looking at the evidence and then make up his mind. What he’s doing instead is starting out with his conclusion and only then going out in search of evidence that supports it.

On a side note, I find it interesting that even in the heart of Louisiana, atheists on campus are becoming so common that Christians are starting to worry about us. Is this unintentional testimony to the fact that the new atheist movement is making inroads?

One easy thing that we can all do is learn to ask questions. Greg Koukl recommends asking two questions of non-believers:

1. What do you mean by that?

2. What reasons do you have to think that?

It’s amazing how these two disarmingly simple questions can tie people in knots!

Stop the presses: For once, I agree completely with William Lane Craig! The only small, trivial difference is that I think these questions can far more effectively and usefully be asked of the Christian.

For example, when Christians say that God is a “spirit”, we can ask them, what do you mean by that? When they say that God is a trinity and is three people without being more than one god, we can ask them to explain what they mean by that. When they say that Jesus’ death redeemed humanity from sin, we can ask how exactly that process works.

And the question “What reasons do you have to think that?” offers up a wealth of possibility regarding the epistemic foundations of the Christian worldview. If a theist cites their own personal religious experience, we can bring up the obvious fact that millions of people have equally convincing experiences which lead them to totally different religious beliefs. We can point out that faith can support any possible conclusion and thus can’t be used as a means for deciding among them.

A second thing you can do is refer the unbeliever to some resource. You don’t have to have any brains to tell someone, “Have you seen the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology? Before you say there are no intelligent theists and no good reasons to believe in God, maybe you’d better look at that book first. Otherwise, you’re not really informed.” …Shame the unbeliever for his ignorance of the literature.

Again, Craig apparently doesn’t realize that this is a tactic that not only works both ways, it’s arguably even more effective against Christians. If they can demand that we familiarize ourselves with their literature, then we can ask the same of them – and in my experience, the percentage of atheists who’ve read at least some Christian apologetics books is much, much higher than the percentage of Christians who’ve read any books at all arguing for atheism. This is a tactic that’s likely to backfire badly for Craig’s beleaguered correspondent.

When I’m in situations like this, I’ll always offer to read a Christian book of the apologist’s choosing in exchange for him reading an atheist book of my choosing. In my experience, the Christian will inevitably slink away in shame. (I’ve been in an exchange like this where I held up my end of the bargain, and then when it came time for the Christian to read a book I selected, he refused.) After all, there’s only one side in this debate that’s telling their followers not to read or think about the other side’s writings.

Third, learn to drop the names of some Christian scholars. When the unbeliever says that Christians are all ignorant bigots, look really surprised and say with astonishment, “Do you really think that?

If “the unbeliever” said that, they’d be rightfully taken to task. But this claim is more often made in Christians’ imaginations than in the actual arguments of real atheists. What we actually say is completely different: that Christians may be intelligent and educated people, but that they don’t apply this intelligence to critically analyzing their own religious beliefs. For example, Craig cites Francis Collins as an example of an intelligent and educated Christian – but while Collins’ scientific achievements are indisputable, his arguments for God are downright terrible.

Fourth, offer this handy-dandy rejoinder to his assertions:

“Now let me get this straight: your argument is that

1. Christians are stupid and illogical.

2. Therefore, Christianity is not true.

Now can you explain to me how (2) follows logically from (1)?”

It sure is easy for a Christian to win a debate when he gets to make the atheist’s arguments for him, isn’t it?

Again, this is an argument that occurs more in the imagination of evangelists than the writings of real atheists. Insofar as we use any form of this argument at all, it would be in the opposite direction: because Christianity is not true, therefore Christians are illogical to believe it.

I feel sorry for the letter-writer who, confessing his ignorance in matters apologetic, tries to use these lines in an actual debate. Craig’s advice would only help him if he were arguing against the imaginary atheists that Christian apologists fantasize we are, i.e., people consumed by personal hatred of Christians who are ignorant of the actual teachings of Christianity. In a debate with an actual, knowledgeable atheist, meanwhile, I think this correspondent would fare disastrously. I realize that it serves Craig’s apologetic ends to promote the false claim that atheists are all ignorant misanthropes – but I’m genuinely surprised to find out that he seems to genuinely believe it himself.

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