Our Night at an ‘Unpacking Atheism’ Simulcast Run By Christian Apologists

This is a guest post by Dorothy Stephens. She is a nurse, a grandmother, and a member of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba.

***

The website promoting the event featured a two-minute video with Christian Apologists Lee Strobel and Mark Mittelberg:

The video first showed a billboard erected by the Colorado Coalition of Reason claiming that “God is an imaginary friend.” The two then stated that atheists are probably among those you know and that atheism is on the rise, especially among young people. They propose to address the “rise of the influence of skepticism,” at this worldwide simulcast. At the event, they would be joined by William Lane Craig, as well as a panel of former atheists.

Below the video is the statement “Atheism is on the rise,” followed by a list of “sobering facts”:

  • 1 in 4 Americans under 30 now describe their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular”
  • The number of Americans with no religious affiliation has doubled since 1990, to 15 percent
  • Young people are dropping out of church at 5-6 times the historic rate, often because of intellectual doubts
  • Books by the New Atheists have gone mainstream, many becoming international bestsellers
  • Skeptic groups are becoming aggressive; the Secular Student Alliance has doubled in two years, and has established 250 chapters in U.S. schools [Note: Actually, the number is closer to 400]

With that, they vowed to meet the challenge of “militant atheism” head on.

When one of the members of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba discovered that a local Winnipeg church was going to host this broadcast, we just had to get a group together and check it out. These guys sounded like they were running scared! What were they more afraid of: Loss of numbers or loss of revenue? Maybe loss of influence and privilege?

Six of us eventually went to Grant Memorial Baptist Church in Winnipeg. We anticipated a large crowd, but instead of the simulcast being held in the church itself, it was in a smaller room. At most, there were about 150 people there.

The whole event was underwhelming from start to finish.

The opening featured a video clip of William Lane Craig at his debate with Christopher Hitchens, then cut to Strobel and Mittelberg sitting on a stage, remarking about the number of locations hosting the simulcast — about 150 venues throughout North America, mostly churches, with a few college campuses. The stage was stark and plain, bare except for a no-frills table and chairs. No audiovisual aids, no graphics, nothing to augment their conversation at all. The simplistic presentation could have been done by any YouTube-r in his or her garage. We had expected a much glitzier event. The hosts then reiterated the recent Pew Forum survey results about the rise of the “Nones” within young people. This became a recurrent theme — in describing the “problem” of atheism, they actually made quite a case for atheism.

William Lane Craig soon joined them and related his personal testimony, full of stock phrases like “spiritual rebirth,” “call to ministry,” and “found Jesus.” He talked about attending Wheaton College where he studied every subject from a Christian perspective. Then he defined Old Atheism and New Atheism.

The difference, he said, is that the militant New Atheists wanted to “exterminate” religion from private life, not just from the public square. Furthermore, they referred to believers as “the enemy.” He went on to discuss the proof needed for atheism or theism and predictably tried to lay the burden of proof upon the atheists, who he says are making a truth claim that “There is no god,” which wrong defines atheism while tricking the audience into thinking theism ought to be the default way of thinking.

There was some mention of common atheist arguments, but the only one actually discussed was the problem of evil, which Craig attributed to the “emotional anger” of atheists. He said that the existence of evil proved the existence of God and then went off into the “objective moral values” argument. From that he segued into his well-known spiel: God is the explanation for all that exists, the fine-tuned universe, the cosmological argument, etc.

He briefly criticized physicists, specifically Lawrence Krauss, saying that they failed to define the term “nothing” when talking about a “universe from nothing.” From there, we got the “who created God?” argument — his answer is no one; God doesn’t need a creator since he is “beginningless and timeless.” Following this, he explained his evidence for Christianity, mainly the resurrection argument: Jesus was in the tomb, the tomb was empty, groups of people saw him alive after he rose, his disciples saw him and believed… therefore, Christianity is true.

He mentioned miracles but said they do not contravene the laws of nature because if God caused them, the laws of nature did not apply. This whole segment was a demonstration of cognitive dissonance. It seemed unbelievable that an educated man could twist his mind the way he did. A lot of time was spent on this discussion. In fact, Craig got the whole first hour, after opening remarks. There was nothing in any of his arguments that anyone who has watched his previous debates on YouTube has not heard multiple times. The only advantage for him to present them in this format is to have the opportunity to present them unchallenged, for a captive audience of the converted, who are not clamoring to hear the other side.

In addressing atheists, Craig admitted that they can live moral lives, but insisted that God is the basis for morality whether people believe in him or not. He claimed to have won all his debates and expressed a fondness for Hitchens, referring to him as a “curmudgeonly uncle.” But he obviously had no such feelings for Richard Dawkins, dismissing him as a “professor of public relations or something,” and mocking the fact that Dawkins has refused to debate him.

The second hour consisting of conversations with two “former atheists.” This would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. The first was Holly Ordway, an English professor who described her Pagan upbringing and secular education. She described Christians as “pushy and obnoxious”; in fact, throughout her whole talk (lasting more than half an hour) she described the atheist position so well that she didn’t seem credible as a Christian apologist at all, making some of us wonder if religion will be a passing phase for her. She talked about her study of literature and mentioned Christian authors J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis as her favorites, then said it was her fencing coach that brought her to Jesus. Her arguments made little sense. For example, she described finding Jesus through Narnia. She stated that even after she accepted Jesus as her savior, she still didn’t love him, but then her pastor told her that “obedience is love in action.” Scary! At the end of her testimony, she admitted she still has doubts.

The final speaker was fellow ex-atheist Randall Niles, who said he was raised Christian, then became a skeptic as a teenager. His testimony was very disjointed. He returned to religion when his mother became ill with cancer and his worldview changed. He then went on to read the works of ancient philosophers and finally the Bible, of which he professed ignorance until then. Suddenly, he decided Jesus was the Messiah, and ended up at Saddleback Church (Rick Warren‘s home), where he was initially reluctant to enter because he believed they would “preach mythology and take my money.” But then his wife “came to the Lord” and he followed. He read Strobel’s book The Case for Christ, gave up his law practice, and now runs apologist websites.

Both of these former atheists pretty much made the case for their opponents’ arguments. They did not give convincing reasons for their conversions and often stated their previously atheist views more coherently than their apparently current Christian views.

Finally, there was a 10-minute wrap-up on How to Evangelize: Don’t be pushy, be open about your faith, always be prepared to give an answer to atheist arguments, and provide evidence for God’s existence (Wasn’t that supposed to be what this whole session was about? we thought), admit when you don’t know the answer, learn to listen. There was a final word from Craig: Atheists are “so angry,” and there may be legitimate reasons for them to be angry, but they shouldn’t blame God.

At this point the presentation should have been over, but the participants spent another 10 minutes plugging their books. Not unexpected, but what was surprising was that they plugged only their own materials, and didn’t even mention any other books or websites as resources.

A big surprise to all of us who attended was what was not mentioned in this seminar. With the exception of the problem of evil, there was almost no mention of common atheist arguments or how to respond to them. Wasn’t that the point of the whole simulcast?

There was no mention of the Bible at all, its contradictions, atrocities, or authorship/credibility. There was no mention of hot-button issues like treatment of the LGBT community, oppression of women, or any issue related to sexuality. There was no mention of Creationism or evolution. No mention of the success/failure rates of prayer. No mention of Pascal’s Wager. No mention of the return of Jesus or end-of-the-world prophesy. No mention of corruption within the church.

Overall, it was just a rally for the already-converted and a PR opportunity for the poster-boy of apologetics, William Lane Craig. Other than that, it was an epic failure.

Far from unpacking atheism, it appeared that they didn’t even take the package out of the trunk!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Snarkyheathen

    I don’t know if I should shake my head or laugh at the fact that they don’t want atheist to blame god. If only…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813165390 Annika Raaen

      Basic understanding of what atheism is escapes them, it seems.

      • Helanna

        I’ve always found it a little terrifying that these people literally cannot conceive of a person who simply doesn’t believe in a god. 

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, Blonde

          actually, i think you’ve got it backwards. ymmv, but in my experience, conservatives of all types are generally guilty of one really bad habit: projection. 

          when they scream and rant and protest that it’s “inconceivable” that anyone could “not believe in god,” (leaving aside the questions of ‘which god(s?) and by whose definition?) what they are often saying is really, “i know that when i pray, no voice answers me, and no feeling of comfort or security comes from that activity. but i must continue to pretend that i get something out of it, or i will lose face/standing/money/support from the believing community. so i will project my worst internal behavior and secret understanding of the futility of faith and prayer onto those who i can demonize and scapegoat the most easily: the dreaded Atheists!!

           everyone in my community of believers already ‘knows,’ (even tho we have no proof and made up the assertions of evil behavior on our own to make ourselves look good) atheists eat babies! poop on images of the EVOO, i mean virgin mary! who don’t respect Allah and who refuse to admit that iPhones aren’t Kosher! and who insist on teaching all children dangerous ideas like science, history, comparative religious history, and equal rights for all. they must be STOPPED. and also, blamed, for my own personal insecurities about a mythology i have long come to understand, is as silly as a child’s fable about a tooth fairy or easter bunny. 

          as we say in the queer community: “you know what homophobia really means…” substitute hyper-anti atheism, and it’s more or less the same thing. that, or a serious fear in a crappy economy that if people figure out the scam, some of these hucksters might actually have to try to get a real job instead of enjoying free donations for doing little more than being professional blowhards and haters. 

          • 3lemenope

            [...]in my experience, conservatives of all types are generally guilty of one really bad habit: projection.

            Are you sure you haven’t already had one or more of these experiences but didn’t recognize the conservative because he or she did not project? It seems to me there’s quite a danger, in drawing descriptive circles so wide, that one may not even realize when a counterexample has occurred. 

    • John

       It’s God’s fault that God doesn’t exist!  I’m so angry that he doesn’t exist!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813165390 Annika Raaen

    That sounds fairly par for the course for these people. As soon as they actually start unpacking these issues, they see their reasoning unravel before their eyes. They can’t do that and expect to continue hawking their bullshit for cold, hard cash.

  • ACN

    Oh dear lord, a night with WLC AND Strobel? 

    Someone gag me with a spoon…

    • dorothy30

       yeah, that’s pretty much just what it was. we went for coffee after, could have used something stronger.

  • Antinomian

    It’s recently dawned on me that there are Christian apologists of every stripe, Catholic,
    Evangelical, etc… and there are also Muslim, and I’m sure an apologist for about every religion and concept of a god. While religion has a lot to apologize for, I can’t see why there would ever be a need for an atheist apologist. That in itself says a lot to me. 

  • Thin-ice

    That bloody canard about “angry atheists” just won’t die! Since I de-converted 4 years ago, I’ve gained dozens of atheists as friends, and NONE of them are angry, including myself. I liked my church and christian friends, hated leaving them, but couldn’t believe in the bullshit any more. Where does Craig get this from?

    • 3lemenope

      Craig makes people he speaks with angry. 
      Some of the people he speaks with are atheists. 
      Therefore, angry atheists.

    • Rando

       There is some truth to the “Angry Atheist” claim. I should know, I was one. It started with the brutal murder of my wife of three years. I was angry that god could just kill someone I loved so easily. For a while, I actually became more religious because of what happened. I kept trying to find a reason for what happened to me, but the more I looked into it the more I kept asking myself why I was looking so hard. I realized that I was just blaming god for what happened, after a while the problem of god seemed to go away.

      • cipher

        I’m so sorry for your loss.

      • michael both

        My condolences. Your situation would be one of the most difficult struggles with religion/faith that I could imagine.

      • RobertoTheChi

        I’m very sorry for your loss.

    • kolab

      tsk tsk, exclamation points…see, they’re right you ARE angry!

  • RobMcCune

    I think it was called “Unpacking Atheism” because the atheism they talked about was fabricated elsewhere, then shipped to the church.

  • DianaGoods

    I attended this with Dorothy and though they made a point of greeting us and asking what group we were with, there was no opportunity to actually interact with any of the attendees, as there was only a very brief intermission and no discussion at the end. Obviously, they were not actually interested in talking to real atheists. As Dorothy said it was clearly just an opportunity to acquaint their followers with the idea that there really are good arguments to “prove” the existence of God.

  • Baal

    “The two then stated that atheists are probably among those you know
    and that atheism is on the rise, especially among young people.”   Oh noes!  Secret atheists!  Quick, time for a hunt!…  If we don’t appear obvious to him 1) we’re in the closet for a reason 2) normal folks are normal.  Either version (and others) should make him consider why that’s the case.

  • jdm8

    Remember kids, calling out people’s bullshit for what it is, is called “militant”.

  • Brian Pansky

    We could always record an “unpacking christianity” or “unpacking religion” session in which an all-atheist panel discuss personal stories of de-conversion and we try to sell each others books and reputation.  It would be a balanced and accurate presentation of religion, of course.

    (yes, they marketed this “unpacking atheism” stuff as accurate, and balanced.)

  • Baal

    I had an additional thought (it was slow percolating).  If they think WCL’s apologetics will help your average xtian talk to (nay defeat!) an atheist, they are sadly mistaken. It takes special skill in reciting bullshit and most folks don’t have it in them (even believers).  Worse, most of us who have spent anytime in the seedy atheist parts of the internets have been exposed to WCL and the flaws of his apologetics.

  • Fargofan

    It frustrates me that they included no (current) atheists at this meeting about atheism. Then again, in Lee Strobel’s apologetics book he interviewed no one but Christians, so I guess that’s their M.O.

    • Helanna

      Well if you actually spoke to some atheists, they might dismantle the strawman you have of them, and you know, the strawman’s just so easy to defeat, you may as well keep him around . . .

    • B_R_Deadite99

       His books suck. Only the most ignorant of dopey feebs could actually consider them to be anything other than debate fodder.

  • Renshia

    Death throws I tell ya. It’s the death throws.

    Soon it will be like cannibalism, only found in the deepest recesses of the jungle, and obviously ridiculous.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813165390 Annika Raaen

      Yes, this! I’ve been saying this for years. It’ll will get worse before it gets better.

      But that’s just me being an optimistic, non-angry atheist. ;)

      • Renshia

         That’s true, it will get worse. If you ever seen an addict OD, they always thrash around the worst just before they die. I would expect it would be similar to that, but on a grander scale.

        But someday, if we have not become extinct, our grand kidses kids kids will be taking the bible to school. Not to share the gospel, but for show and tell. Telling them all how their grandpas grandpa used to tell everyone the book was true. They’ll all get a kick out of that one.

        It’s a pity, I won’t be around to see the day.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813165390 Annika Raaen

          I hope for the same…and like you, I wish i could see the day. :)

    • compl3x

       Yes, but like an animal when it’s cornered and injured, it’ll be at its most dangerous. You’ll also have competing religions all vying to take Christiany’s place and won’t be anywhere near as easy to deal with.

      • Renshia

         I agree with “like an animal when it’s cornered and injured, it’ll be at its most dangerous.” But, I don’t think that the latter part is true. We will never eliminate christianity, unless we eliminate all religious thinking. I don’t think it is possible to effect one religion without effecting the whole. Some may die a bit slower, but overall it will all slide into oblivion together.

        Unless of course we are invaded and enslaved by the Goa’uld.

  • Troels Jakobsen

    Man, I’m so fed up with the off-handed, broad mischaracterization of atheists being angry or rebellious. We’re just angry, we’re just throwing a tantrum, we just don’t understand the real issues.

    Fuck you, William Lane Craig. If anything makes me angry it’s your dismissive condescension, not your imaginary god.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      It’s just dumb. I wasn’t raised Christian. How can I hate their god when I didn’t even realize that people believed in it? I have nothing to be angry about.

  • cipher

    Furthermore, they referred to believers as “the enemy”.

    Of course, it would never in a million years occur to Craig that if this is true, Christians bear the responsibility for it.

    But then his wife “came to the Lord” and he followed. He read Strobel’s book The Case for Christ, gave up his law practice, and now runs apologist websites.

    Uh huh. Yep, there’s objectivity.

    I’ve ceased to be amazed by the number of Christians who are impressed by Strobel’s books, and who tout them to nonbelievers – “Read The Case for Christ! It will open your eyes!” Now I’m just depressed about it.

    We REALLY need mandatory testing of intelligence, sanity and developmental level as a prerequisite for voting and reproduction.

    • Renshia

       Lions and coliseums.  Lions and coliseums.

  • Silver_fox-trot

    It’s not so much that they forgot to take it out of the trunk so much as they forgot to put in the order.
     

  • cipher

    He claimed to have won all his debates

    This is another thing about Craig – he really believes this, and so do his followers.

    Cult.

  • MichaelD

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED I SAY! That they didn’t get in a swipe with pascal’s wager.

  • Octoberfurst

    The Christians are running scared. They know they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the young and it is killing them. This is just an act of desperation.
      Oh and I loved William Lane Craig’s comment that he has won every debate he has been in. Sure ya have Craig, sure ya have.  Still on your meds?

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Either Craig thinks “winning” a debate means not publicly conceding right then and there that there is no god, or he thinks “winning” a debate means his entourage of ass-kissers tell him he won the debate.

    • CultOfReason

      It’s been my experience that when someone has to claim they won a debate, it typically means they didn’t.

  • CultOfReason

    Join Lee Strobel, Mark Mittleberg and Dr. William Lane Craig for a riveting experience unpacking the central claims of Atheism

    I dodn’t realize atheism made any claims.  Seems to me that the entire premise of this simulcast is an epic failure.


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