How Would You Respond? (RJS)

Tuesday I posted on an article by Justin Barrett contained in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. This book, edited by J. B. Stump and Alan Padgett, consists of scholarly essays covering a variety of topics relating to the discussion of science and the Christian faith. The contributors range from believers to skeptics and approach the topics from a variety of different angles. Justin Barrett is a Christian and his study of psychology of religion has not led him to banish God from the picture. Many others, however, take a different view. Today I would like to look at an article by Dylan Evans The Third Wound: Has Psychology Banished the Ghost from the Machine?

Dylan Evans has a Ph.D. in philosophy, training in psychology, and has published a number of books including Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine. He was a Lecturer in Behavioral Science at the School of Medicine, University College Cork at the time The Blackwell Companion went to press. I believe he has since left his position at Cork.

Like Barrett, Evans explores the psychology of religion. Unlike Barrett, Evans believes that the study of psychology has dealt a death blow to Christianity as a justified belief. The cosmological challenges raised by Galileo and Copernicus and the biological challenge raised by Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection are, he claims, minor in comparison to the challenges raised by a better scientific understanding of psychology.

There are three specific issues Evans raises in his argument that psychology has banished Christianity from any serious, rational consideration. These are worth looking at and considering because they raise doubts and concerns that confront many Christians, that lead to loss of faith for some as they grow and learn, and that prevent non-Christians from considering the gospel message.

The Virgin Mary in Glass, Image from Wikipedia

Human Error.The first issue Evans discusses is that of human error. Here he looks at some of the same ideas considered by Barrett, and some other studies as well, but comes to different conclusions. He cites Barrett among others in his discussion. Human beings are adept at pattern recognition. We are more likely to identify a pattern in a random phenomenon than to mistake a true pattern for chaos. This leads to a tendency to attribute causation to an event when no causal connection exists. The same capacity for pattern recognition is seen in cases where religious faces (Jesus, the Virgin Mary etc.) are identified in a grilled cheese sandwich, a tortilla, or a recently cut willow tree.

The tendency to identify a causal connection when none exists was also identified in studies of pigeon behavior as early as 1948 – Evans cites a study by Skinner here. He also cites studies that suggest that paranormal thoughts and hallucinations are caused by high levels of dopamine in the brain. Thus the claim is that pattern recognition and the tendency to attribute causation is merely an adaptive attribute for survival with a purely chemical basis.

Hallucinations, “Chinese whispers” and natural human cognitive faculties explain away key characteristics of religious belief. By “shining a harsh light on the often prosaic nature of religious experience as a natural phenomenon” psychological research undermines any justified confidence in the supernatural truth of Christianity or any other religion.

Has psychology banished God?

Does a prosaic explanation of religious experience undermine justified belief?

The Placebo Effect. Miraculous healings in scripture, not to mention reports throughout church history, can be understood as examples of the placebo effect – something Evans has studied and written about.  Belief in the effectiveness of a treatment has a surprisingly large impact on its effectiveness. This belief changes the way that chemical messengers are secreted in the brain and activated in the immune system. But if there is no causal connection there will be no healing. Evans points to the fact that we hear of the lame walking but not of the regeneration of new limbs where one was lost in an accident. A truly supernatural explanation should find either equally possible, the realization of only one kind of healing points to a “purely” natural explanation.

According to Evans the healings of Jesus in the NT are merely examples of the placebo effect, his other miracles were typical conjuring tricks of the era, the post resurrection appearances were hallucinations.  Both Jesus and his followers genuinely believed these were from God – but all can be explained as common psychological phenomena of normal, fallible human beings. Self-delusion is also a feature of human psychology.

The Mechanical Mind. Evans suggests that research leading to the formation of artificial intelligence, the creation of an android or robot, is the ultimate death knell for Christian belief. After some rather absurd historical examples of dubious origin lacking citation or critical analysis (and perhaps intended to play off the psychology of belief and incredulity of readers) Evan writes:

An early example of the new generation of “cognitive robots” was Shakey. Developed at the Artificial Intelligence Center at Stanford Research Institute between 1966 and 1972, Shakey had a complex cognitive architecture in which distinct functions such as perception, planning, and natural language processing were implemented by separate programs, which reflected the emphasis of cognitive psychology on the functional decomposition of mental processes.  (p. 341-342)

Shakey the robot, image from wikipedia

Evans claims, following the work of Daniel Dennett, that the functional decomposition of cognition and the human brain will eventually eliminate any ideal of human exceptionalism. All that makes us human will be understood based on simple components, so trivial to build that they leave no room for a human soul. “At this point there is no place in the machine for any ghost to hide.

Much to Consider. The article by Evans raises a number of serious questions. These must be dealt with in a  serious and thoughtful manner. Studies of the cognitive structure of religious beliefs will give rise to doubts and questions.  But Evans’s article also raises another issue. The Christianity he argues against is a rather truncated form (or so it seems to me). The miracles of Jesus were supernatural “magic tricks” that proved his divinity. Natural explanations and the action of God are mutually exclusive. There is no story of the mission of God in a Christianity so easily dismissed. I will reflect on this in a future post. But for today I would like to simply pose a question or two.

What would you say to the young Christian who is challenged by argument such as those raised by Evans?

What would you say to the non-believer? How would you address these arguments?

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  • Rick

    RJS is posting on a Wed.?

    Added: whoops, fixed.

  • DRT

    I face these exact questions with people in my family and I have found that they are very difficult to combat. I am currently taking the appoach of saying that even if all this is true, that we can decompose our processes, that we hallucinate, that there are non-miraculous explanations for the miracles, etc, even if true, this does not eliminate the possibility that the Christian view is correct.

    So we are left right back where we started, that there are rational and coherent arguments for non-belief and, I believe, for belief. So one still has to make up their mind based on their own instincts and analysis.

    I look forward to reading what others do.

  • scotmcknight


    I’m not convinced the cognitive argument is that strong. Yes, human cognition is fallible; yes, human cognition can confuse patterns and causation … but to the degree that religious people do arrive at sound knowledge, to that same degree their religious conclusions have weight. Positing a problem doesn’t simply eliminate the quest or the capacity to know.

    I agree that this presentation of miracles needs more sophistication and interaction with good scholarship on miracles. I have pointed people to v. 2 of JP Meier’s A Marginal Jew, where there is a good appendix on miracles and Jesus.

  • scotmcknight

    And RJS, I would want to ask what the person thinks of Jesus — as a historical figure to be sure but even more.

  • RJS


    Evans takes the position that Jesus, most likely, was a self-deluded prophet and charismatic leader who used common “tricks” following a tradition of his people, one who was dismayed when no supernatural rescue occurred on the cross. He was neither crazy nor right (Evans refers specifically to the CS Lewis quote).

    This is probably not what you were getting at though. What a person thinks of Jesus is important – but what a person thinks of the entire biblical narrative is as much, or more, important. My hypothesis (still under development) is that many of these “conflicts” arise because we don’t know the story … preachers don’t preach the story, teachers don’t teach the story, the average Christian doesn’t value the story or even know the story. I think the vast majority of these challenges diminish in importance when we know the story … and are followers of God rather than converts to a method of salvation.

  • Megan Hopkins

    Here’s my knee-jerk response: Sometimes miracles aren’t real or true, sometimes it is just a coincidence and not God– but sometimes it is God! Our task is to take the science and our growing body of knowledge and use it to better discern His voice. …. and how about this one: He gave our minds the power to recognize pattern and to “hallucinate” so that we could perceive Him!

  • Bev Mitchell

    “A plain, prosaic man, would insist, that I have been traduced.” D. Stockdale 1792 

    The conclusions pertaining to the revelations of God to man (which some insist on confusing with religion) put forth by psychologists are indeed prosaic. They are confused over the great difference between humans seeking God and God’s self-revelation to humankind. To the first instance, their findings are largely applicable. As for the second, they seem not to be able to distinguish it from unicorns.

    To answer your questions, yes… and no. If our faith is based on us finding God, yes, and a good thing too. If our faith comes from God as part of his self-revelation to us, well, that’s an entirely different matter. As to the wet-ware involved in both cases, of course it is the brain-mind, what else could it be? It really is becoming clear that spirit interacts with brain-mind, and that brain-mind is closely related to our personal concept of our own spirit. Both our vain imaginings and the Spirit of God use this substrate. The revelation of Jesus Christ is needed to sort it all out.

  • John Mc

    To the questioner i will say:

    In the end it is about whether you make the leap of faith or not. Miracles are signs for those who need them and are moved by them. Not everyone needs a miracle to believe. To those who do not believe, or are not in a frame of mind to believe, miracles will appear as foolishness.

    Whether one accepts the idea that God intervenes in history is certainly a matter of faith and will always be subject to challenge. Those who scoff will always be dismissed by the believer. For me, I have always been leary of the miracles, (telling myself that since i didn’t witness the miracle personally, it wasn’t meant for me) and instead have founded my faith on my confidence in God as creator, and God’s continuing presence in my life as witness and companion and so much more. The miracles for me were always parlor tricks intended to gain attention, and not the true direction or method of God’s work in the world.

    As for the placebo effect, it seems to me to be a perfect example of how faith can effect transformation, even misguided faith. True, the healing ubder the placrbo effect is not the miraculous work of God, but it most certainly reflects the work of God on our hearts, enabling our bodies in response to do what our bodies could not do in the absence of our relationship with God. That some people achieve healing through their faith in fake medicine as opposed to faith in God, serves only to prove the power of faith, not invalidate faith in God.

    I will say to the non believer that “when it is time for you to believe, when God wills it, then you will believe. Until then live well, and prosper” – to quote a prophet from a different tradition.

  • A.G. Reichert

    I would respond by saying that Atheism is a justified belief system. It is “wishful thinking” that there is no God, therefore no one to answer to as an absolute moral authority.
    As far as attributing miracles to “tricks” or healing as a “placebo” effect, there is no empirical evidence for that.

  • David Kueker

    Scot, with 32 years in ministry to mostly blue collar people, I’d first like to say that these issues don’t come up very often in that context. Evangelizing here isn’t so much a matter of intellectually debating someone into submission to Christ, but waiting for the moment when life and difficulty has worn them to the point of understanding that they need Christ’s help to live and they are ready to hear of someone who can help them in the context of their problem. In this case, psychology is our friend as it provides us with tools to help people resolve the difficulties of their lives and relationships.

  • T

    Let me see if I’m following this rightly. Point one is that human reasoning is flawed. It is specifically flawed in that it leans toward pattern recognition and causation when the data doesn’t necessarily prove pattern or causation. Point two is that we can build increasingly “smart” machines who can use logic and other mental abilities like us.

    I think all Evans has made a strong case for is his first point, which I would have gladly conceded in the first place.

  • David Kueker

    Second issue … these debates seem to revolve around a rigid idea of creation and aimed at a perceived weakness of our faith revolving around the idea that everything in Christianity should be able to be logically proven and likewise impossible to be logically disproven.

    Therefore, the assumption is that providing an explanation of any kind is sufficient to disprove a concept of faith … for example, the challenge that the existence of the placebo effect completely disproves the existence of miracles of healing. This logic is ridiculous but common place.

    Looking into this (which is a topic I don’t have the scholarship tools to address) I assume one would find mechanistic theories of creation plus a logical approach to evangelism that says “You must believe in God because you have to admit that these miracles took place 2000 years ago…”

    Of course, for some of us, theological positions of centuries past are defended as if they are infallible. The theological structure built by the schoolmen (Acquinas et al) blending of Greek concepts with biblical ideas may not be useful to us today.

    Evans arguments, to me, seem to boil down to the thesis that I should not have faith in Christ because (1) humans make mistakes, (2) bodies tend to heal and (3) better and better machinery means there is no soul. The flip side … When did (1) the church teach that human beings are infallible? When was medicine so bad that only prayer worked … (2) except during the era where barbers bled patients? And when there was no machinery to speak of (3)? Certainly debating the prevailing theology of the middle ages is the setting up of straw men, I would think.

  • Seems more of a very modern attempt to assert credentials and sound sciency in order to convince. But what is happening here isn’t science. It’s scientism that is coming more out of that philosophy background than “training in psychology”.

    The field of psychology itself is indeed vulnerable to all the charges that were such a “death knell” to faith.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS (and all),
    Thanks for always pushing the envelope and making us think about issues we may not always think about much less want to think about. I think Christians and theists are confronted with doubts and unbelief and have to consider and wrestle though them. I sometimes wonder how many atheists really struggle and wrestle with God, mystrey, momentary flashes of the divine, coincidental, and the unexplained? In DRT’s house there may be a kind of iron sharpening iron but I suspect that the fortress mentality is going on way to often from both sides of this conversation.

    I find Evans first two arguments unconvincing but his last one has more teeth in it and needs to be wrestled with. So I will kind of turn Evan’s arguments backwards and apply them to his own worldview system (and I will have to change the last one to change the trajectory):

    1. Atheism is a human error. This is why so few people believe it and it is simply wrong.

    2. Atheism follows a placebo effect. They simply hallucinate there is no God. They want so badly for there to be no God and there is nothing greater than their own rational mind. They are self-delusional.

    3. The beautiful mind argument (Here is am replacing Evan’s mechanical mind argument). Where is the beauty, mystrey, intuitive wonder in life? Does it all come down to chemical and DNA reductionism? When it comes to machines (especially computers), there is a qualitative difference between the kind of work they do and that which humans are capable. And if a machine or computer is programmed, who programed us?

    A chess playing computer may generally beat even good chess players but none come close to beating a chess master. There can also be made the case that computers or machines cannot think because they do not have bodies. They do not interact and participate with the world.

  • Joe Canner

    As a statistician trained to identify and account for the placebo effect, I struggle a lot with the influence this training has had on my view of miracles. I am quite sure that miracles do actually happen on occasion, but my knee-jerk reaction when I hear about a “miracle” is to assume that there is an alternative explanation. It is not at all hard for me to sympathize with skeptics who would seek to downplay the miraculous on scientific or statistical grounds.

  • CGC

    PS – To be very honest, I think most atheist arguments are stupid and I think most theists arguments are stupid. Most of the arguments from both sides are trying to deal with God like God is some kind of parisite under a microscope or God can be fully comprehended by the logical-rational mind or people inadvertantly reduce God down to the “god-of-the-philosophers” or an apologetic argument to bash other people over the head with. None of this kind of stuff is going to win people over to God much less playing by the rules so often set forth by atheists.

    It will only be the generous, hospitality, self-sacrificing giving to others that will make the greatest impact and then one’s testimony of God at work in you and in the world around you. Finally, if Christians want to have a good discussion with atheists, I think it needs to happen more like possibly RJS suggests. You tell me how your atheism is making the world a better place and I will tell you my story of God, Israel, Jesus, and the church and how that is making the world a better place. Let’s tell stories. Let’s share and swap stories and see what God may do with that?

  • I agree with CRC 🙂 and RJS that the narrative story is the Key.

    Grooming ourselves to simplify the story in understandable terms and visuals is a challenge all of us have. To get there though you have to first sort out the overall details to be able to put them in perspective. Huge challenge; but is needed when you have to give an account of why the Bible is presented in the manner it is to the uninitiated. After spending countless hours reaching solid concepts you then should be prepared to present it at a 5 Grade comprehension level. Therein lays the ultimate challenge that I don’t see ever going away. Every generation will have to build upon the narrative approach until it becomes part of the cultural background.

  • T

    Sorry; I commented too quickly to be clear.

    Point 1: I totally agree that people are fallible and lean towards pattern recognition and causation when none exists. But this either proves too much or too little regarding Christianity and witness accounts generally.

    Point 2: The placebo effect. I’m glad the placebo effect works sometimes, whether in medicine or prayer. Awesome bonus to both! But the existence of the placebo effect doesn’t disprove that a healing was caused by God directly or by medicine. And honestly, if someone tells me that the healings of the NT or even the ones I’ve seen can all be chalked up to the placebo effect, it makes me think that this person hasn’t even read the NT, or has some thick colored glasses when doing so. There’s no comparison b/n Jesus’ healing numbers and the numbers that any placebo effect data would predict.

    On the third point, we can build machines that use logic . . . great! I’m sorry, this just doesn’t disprove God. Man being unique or superior in his ability to reason or use logic just isn’t the reason I trust Christ. I still think we’re a very, very long way from creating a machine that truly threaten’s man’s uniqueness, but I tend to think of that holistically, not just in terms of cognitive abilities.

  • Mike the Geologist

    So Jesus was a brilliant moral and ethical philosopher and a conjuring trickster? And Evans says we live in cognitive dissonance? Was the raising of Lazarus a parlor trick? No, he hasn’t presented an answer to Lewis’ trilemma, he’s confirmed it. As for healings being mostly psychosomatic, maybe, who’s to say. I had an emergency room doctor miss my acute appendicitis. They released me and I walked around for a year with a burst appendix until it was discoverd by another surgeon and rectified. How did that happen? You could argue that my adipose tissue contained the infection, yadda, yadda, yadda… Nevertheless, how many people survive a burst appendix? I know who preserved my life. And as far as regeneration of new limbs… I am emailing RJS a signed letter from a women’s surgeon. The women had kidney disease and had one kidney surgically removed. Then the other kidney began to fail. After prayer, she returned to the surgeon who removed her kidney, and she had TWO functioning healthy kidneys.

  • Bev Mitchell

    CGC (16)

    “Let’s tell stories. Let’s share and swap stories and see what God may do with that?”  That’s right CC!

    I spent more than thirty years among atheists and agnostics, many of whom are still good friends. Among them I observed compassion, thoughtfulness, community spirit, clear analysis of our “it’s all about me” culture, deep understanding of living simply vs having it all, great ability to communicate with and fully respect other cultures, ability to learn from those with different experience and world views and so on. In areas of disagreement there was no vindictiveness, name calling, heresy charges or dissimulation. Of course, there could be misunderstanding, the inter-planetary communication problem, confusion and misinformation that needed clearing up, both ways.

    It was also interesting to note that most of them were refugees from organized religion, often of the dogmatic sort that did not allow questioning beyond a certain fixed perimeter. Some were what I came to think of as Sunday School veterans still recovering from PTSD. They had been told what to believe, and it really did a number on them. Arguing ‘religion’ with them was useless. When they started in on televangelists, it was best to first agree they had a point, then to ask if they had confirmation of anything untoward about people like Billy Graham. Besides his, to them, annoying message, they had no answer. They were quite OK with seeing me on TV in the choir of a big Pentecostal church each Sunday (or knowing they would see me if they chose to tune in). They would not accept one word of preaching, from me or anyone else. My only mission was to live among them in a way that gave no cause to say, “why are you singing in that choir? And, by the way, to observe their finer behaviours and try to learn. Their less fine behaviours and incomplete worldview were simply subjects on which we disagreed. I don’t see them often, having retired and moved. I do still pray for them. One recently has had a huge mess come into his life.He graciously accepted my gift of N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus”. 

    We sometimes have difficulty remembering that God is patient as well as loving. The agricultural metaphors in Scripture are there for a good reason. Plough, seed, fertilize, water and……then comes God’s harvest – not our harvest.

  • megan

    I admit I struggle quite a bit with the first one. If a Christian prays for something and receives the desired outcome, they attribute that to divine guidance. If they pray for something and don’t receive the desired outcome, they still attribute it to divine guidance, but say that God had other, better plans. And, often, another event will occur down the line that they feel “proves” what those other plans were. They may very well be right. Or they may simply be converting random events into a pattern that makes sense. And, as an added bonus, this pattern suggests that someone is exerting some form of control over our lives (actual definition of “control” of course varies based on your theological persuasion). The last thing humans want to believe is that their lives are a series of random events, subject to control by no one and nothing. Of course they’d perceive some divine pattern, and they’d perceive it no matter what the outcome.

    I’ll grant I’m oversimplifying. And obviously, I don’t think this is fatal to Christianity. If it was, I probably wouldn’t be a believer. But it does need to be dealt with. And it’s tough to deal with in churches because most congregants have a very high degree of emotional investment in the notion that there is a divine pattern to their lives. To even entertain an idea that might undermine this provokes strong reaction.

  • Larry Barber

    People take this guy seriously? Hard to believe. The “human error” argument is simply an example of the genetic fallacy, even if all our ideas of god can be shown to be the result of human error (and I seriously doubt that he has shown this) it has no bearing on whether or not God actually exists. God can, and has, used human error to advance his purposes in the past and will undoubtedly do so again in the future.

    The “placebo effect” is just giving a name to something that nobody really understands. Giving something a name does not explain it (although there are some theologians that need to learn this, too). I’m also not convinced that all reports of healing, excorcisms and the like can be laid at the doorstep of the placebo effect. See Craig Keener’s recent (very large) volumes on Miracles for lots of examples.

    The “mechanical mind” argument is pure materialist reductionism. A matter of faith, not fact. Even if shown to be true (and I’m not aware of any true artificial intelligence, what exists is more artificial than intelligent, definitely nothing like human intelligence) it doesn’t really say anything about Christianity or whether or not we humans are exceptional. The imago Dei is not merely a matter of intellect, or we would be a lot smarter than we are. But if humans are not exceptional, name another animal that does science.

  • Amos Paul

    Evans sounds like a cognitive reductionist (or is he eliminative?). I could be wrong, but I don’t even think this is the predominant position amongst academic philosophers of mind anymore. I am under the impression that most professional philosophers of mind are non-reductive (albeit, predminantly materialist). I don’t think that John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ example has been properly debunked as a problem in understanding he mind and consciousness, either. Though Daniel Dennet certainly *thinks* that he’s debunked Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ in order to support his eliminative materialism. Eliminative materialism is probably the least widely held form of materialism (because it’s a ridiculous view).

  • Larry Barber

    One more thing, he’s still trying to claim that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus can be explained as hallucinations? If he thinks he’s being “scientific”, perhaps he could point to one other case of mass hallucination that is at all similar to what happened after the resurrection.

  • Joe Canner

    Larry #22: Saying that nobody really understands the placebo effect is a bit of an overstatement. There are several recognized explanations for the placebo effect, even if it is not totally understood. One is that people get better on their own. This is both a biological phenomenon (e.g., immune system doing its job) and a statistical one (regression to the mean). Another explanation is that people get better when they think they are getting treatment, even if that treatment is a placebo. Both of these explanations can probably explain some instances of so-called miraculous healing. I agree with you, however, that all miraculous healings cannot categorically be attributed to the placebo effect.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Megan (21)

    This is a big problem. Some say they believe in divine micromanagement yet live as if we inhabit a world full of possibilities. The wealth of possibilities world just makes more sense. What about a God who is able to create a world that yields a wealth of possibilities and is also able to comfort, sustain and even redeem us, in the midst of all possibilities that come to pass in our lives? Does a God of this kind seem comforting?

    There are very good, evangelical authors writing today who point us to this kind of God. Just ask if you would like a short reading list.

  • Larry Barber

    Joe (#22), “people getting better on their own” is not what the placebo effect is. “People get better when they think they are getting treatment” is not an explanation, its just a definition of the placebo effect, since no mechanism for getting from thought (think they’re being treated) to the physical manifestation (healing) it explains nothing.

  • Kyle F

    So he studies the patterns underneath our erroneous cause-and-effect cravings to reach conclusions that ironically validate cause and effect (the pattern we typically comstruct is an effect of a need to see patterns) but then rules out the religious realm as being attached enough to reality to benefit from, rather than be destroyed by, his work and its truth? I’m with RJS: this is merely a reminder that real knowing is hard to come by, not the death knell for that knowing. From one perspective, the case for revelation becomes all the sounder.

  • Luke Allison

    I like to say two things when having these conversations:

    1. There are plenty of people in Evans’ position who believe. That to me is the best possible empirical evidence that Psychology and belief in God aren’t mutually exclusive.
    2. I wonder if the assumption that human beings have always thought and reasoned the same is true…did Jews in the 1st Century under Roman occupation have the same kind of mental and/or existential struggles that 21st Century Americans have? Did they desire the same things? Did they long for the same things? Maybe they did, but it’s worth studying.
    3. Evans has obviously approached any and all historical study through a very particular commitment to radical skepticism. This sounds very “conservative evangelical” of me, but I have to say that a proper study of the 1st Century, 2nd Temple Judaism, and the circumstances surrounding the claims of the early church make what he’s saying completely irrelevant. This is one reason why a scholarly tome like The Resurrection of the Son of God is important. At the very least, they should read someone like Crossan or Borg. The fact is, many many experts on that time period don’t agree with Evans. I don’t think Evans’ opinion on 1st Century Hebrew culture is worth any more than Chad Ochocinco’s opinion, frankly. That sounds combative, but I don’t have any patience for Dan Brown-level fiction.

    Surprisingly, I’ve had quite a bit of conversational success with twenty-somethings raising similar objectives. Not that I can answer every objection (nor should I!) but that I can at least take the edge off of it so it doesn’t seem so insurmountable.

  • DRT

    I am a fan of the NPR show Radio Lab and they did an episode couple years ago on randomness and human perception called Stochasticity.

    Among other stories in the show, one that particularly intrigued me was a story about an experiment where a teacher would ask groups of students to pretend that they are flipping a coin 100 times and to write down the result after each time with the objective of making it look like they actually did flip the coin. But one group was to actually flip a coin instead of pretending to flip it.

    The teacher would then look at the results and pick the one that was a real coin flip.

    The way this is done is that most people do not realize that random events have a way not looking very random. In this case, there is a better than 50-50 chance that if you flip a coin 100 times that you will get a streak of 7 heads or 7 tails. Most people would never predict that so when they are imagining the coin flips they will not include such a long streak. The teacher will just pick the group that had the longest streak and generally be right.

    The point is that people think that random events should be smooth, and with no long streaks and such so when we do get long streaks or events that coincidentally come together it is easy for us to incorrectly attribute it to divine intervention.

  • Jon G

    RJS said “Natural explanations and the action of God are mutually exclusive.” (in regards to the stance taken by the article writer)

    This was exactly what I was thinking. Continuing to take this position will always result in the same nothingbutness conclusions. So a doctor may give a patient a placebo and we’ve then explained the result of healing in terms of the placebo’s effectiveness, but what about the doctor being the one who administered it? Why is the way in which the placebo works the only answer to why the patient was healed…why isn’t the Doctor’s administering the placebo also an answer?

    Also, on the matter of miracles, I have been contemplating (just pondering) for some time now that God does not work through miracles (if miracles means the suspension or contadiction of natural laws) but rather through natural laws themselves. Perhaps what we see as miraculous is just God using natural means that we aren’t yet aware of (think of the 13 different dimensions of String Theory here – could what we call miracles be natural phenomena in one of those dimensions?). Maybe the Resurrection wasn’t God suspending natural laws but using them in as yet undiscovered ways. That way, the question of why God performs miracles sometimes but not always is a non-sequitur.

  • Joe Canner

    Larry #27: How do you know that the placebo effect is not, in part, spontaneous improvement? The name “placebo effect” assumes that it’s the placebo that causes the effect but studies have shown that some people will get better without any treatment and some people will get better with a placebo. However, in a placebo-controlled study there is no way to know why a particular placebo recipient got better.

    I’m not familiar enough with the neuroscience aspect of the placebo effect to know whether a neurological (or other) mechanism has been postulated or confirmed. Such studies would be difficult to do without interfering with the effect itself (akin to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). However, there are well known connections between mental health and physical health generally, so it is not really that hard to accept it without having to know the precise mechanism.

    All that said, I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. Aside from being a “God of the gaps” argument, the assumption that God is behind the placebo effect doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. Why would God consistently heal 20-30% of patients in clinical trials for no apparent reason? It makes much more sense to accept that the placebo effect is a real biological phenomenon, while at the same time recognizing that there are cases of healing that cannot be attributed to it.

  • DRT

    I am re-listening to the radio lab piece I posted in #30 and it is quite relevant if you have the time to listen. It is talking about randomness, and then relating that to sharing story….very relevant.

  • megan

    @Bev #26,

    Would love to hear what you’d recommend.

  • We need to be careful with attributing everything miraculous sounding in the bible as true expressions of miracles. Jonah and the great fish swallowing him appears to be a parable piece of literature directed toward self-centered Jews who wanted to keep God to themselves instead of filling the great commission. Hyperbolic and theatric story telling are a huge part of the Biblical mix and it’s not always easy to discern what is and isn’t miracles. We tend to err on the side of caution by attributing the stories as miraculous if we are having difficulty ascertain the story but again it becomes a challenge. That is why literalist are afraid to start venturing down the “slippery slope” of identifying these stories in this manner because they fear that ultimately everything will be classified as having a natural or literary theatrical answer. It’s hard to blame them when the evidence in Genesis points strongly in that direction. However the bottom line is that with so many (at least 500) validating the resurrection of Christ and the takeoff of Christianity during a period of severe persecution by both the apostate Jews and the various pagan groups including Rome it’s hard to explain those powerful realities away to embellishment alone. It’s like the UFO sightings where we have people who swear to what they have seen and experienced but there is simply not enough there to start a movement that explodes on the scene in the manner Christianity did in the first century. There were many messiah imitators but none of them stuck until Jesus of Nazareth rose from the “dead” as was testified to by scores of people.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Megan (34)

    Try these. Though they are all straightforward, they are listed in order of difficulty beginning with an easy but inspiring read.

    Greg A. Boyd “God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God” Baker Books 2000.

    In this book Boyd asks many questions like “Why did God tell Hezekiah he would add fifteen years to his life? If God knows certain people will go to hell, why does he create them? Does God foreknow the outcome of every decision we will ever make? I think you will find his answers to these and many other questions biblical and faith building. I know do.

    Clark Pinnock “The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God” IVP 1994.

    According to the back cover, this was “the first major attempt to bring the discussion (of the rationalist or personalist perspective of God) into the evangelical arena.” 

    Thomas Jay Oord “The Nature of Love: a Theology” Chalice Press 2010.

    This one is my favourite of the three. If you are a bit into theological writings, you will have no problem with Oord’s style. Otherwise, start with Boyd. From the back cover: “Some theologians have placed faith at the centre of Christian theology, some God’s sovereignty, still others the Church, but Thomas Jay Oord places the emphasis on love – God’s love for us revealed in Christ, the Church, and creation and our love for one another.”

    You don’t need to go all the way to accepting the Open view to gain lots of insight from these books, but they are like a tonic against the micromanaging God view. As a bonus, the view they develop is much more easily reconciled with what is being discovered by modern science. I won’t have to tell you who among your friends and acquaintances will be aghast if they know you are reading these authors. Don’t be put off, the misinformation machine is well oiled on this one. Read and decide for yourself.



  • Larry Barber

    Joe (#32) I know that spontaneous improvement is not the placebo effect because the placebo effect requires a placebo. It’s true that most medical studies lump spontaneous healing and the placebo effect together, because they’re not studying the placebo effect, they’re trying to eliminate it so they just lump placebos, spontaneous improvement, etc. into a single control group. If you wanted to break out the placebo effect in order to study it a study could be devised that had multiple control groups, one or more getting placebos, another getting nothing (go home, come back in x months), and another getting treatment of known efficacy.

    Also, I am not making a God of the gaps argument, but pointing out that using the placebo effect to try to disprove the existence of God, or to demonstrate Christianity’s invalidity is just poor reasoning and goes _way_ beyond the available evidence and knowledge. I do not assume that God is behind the placebo effect (although it’s a lot easier to explain if you allow such categories as “soul” or “spirit” into the discussion), but neither can you assume based on current knowledge that God is _not_ behind it. That is just assuming that a material explanation for it will be found, as I said it is a faith based argument.

  • DRT

    Norman, I think that hyperbole is one of the most difficult things to identify conclusively in the bible. We make extensive intentional and unintentional use of it today, and I can’t see why it would be any different in the past.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    One of my favorite quotes on miracles comes from Jurgen Moltmann who says, “Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in the natural world. They are the only truly ‘natural’ things in a world that in unnatural, demonized and wounded.”

    There are true miracles and there are its counterfeits and somebody can always point to the counterfeit to de-legitimatize the authentic. Jon G. is right, as long as Christians continue to speak of miracles as “intrusions” or negating natural laws for a miracle to happen, I think Christians and the church will continue to lose credibility for those who think more deeply about such issues.

    On a side note, I think Christians or church people can be just as skeptical about miracles as the next person. There is something about our secular minds that really have an aversion to the miraculous (whether we are a believer or not). Many of us say we are for the miraculous, supernatural, and believe in angels and demons. But functionally, we are deists.

    Psychological answers and naturalistic answers and skepticism can just as much answer these issues as faith in what we have not personally witnessed or seen with our own eyes (which the early evangelists testify in the gospels to and we have not). For those who have witnessed and testify to miracles they have seen and heard, there is no going back to the world of the non-belief. For those who have not witnessed or encountered these things personally, there is still the ghost of the skeptic that resides in us nevertheless.

    This is so ingrained in us that for even people who have encountered many miracles, they still are surprised by them because the world is so demonized, wounded, and unnatural. it is more easy to not believe than to believe.

  • Larry Barber

    This guy is just a treasure trove of bad reasoning. Why couldn’t you apply his “human error” argument against his own work? It’s definitely a double-edged sword.

  • RJS


    I think there are some serious flaws in his reasoning – but simply dismissing these arguments without addressing them drives those for whom they raise doubts underground, and sometimes out of the church all together. We have to be able to give reasoned responses. I brought this article up, not because I think I would ever convince Evans, but because I know too many for whom these arguments are a serious challenge.

  • Norman

    DRT #38,

    You stated… “Norman, I think that hyperbole is one of the most difficult things to identify conclusively in the bible. We make extensive intentional and unintentional use of it today, and I can’t see why it would be any different in the past.”

    True enough but not as much for those Jewish writers that passed their hyperbolic (apocalyptic, metaphorical and analogical) style from one generation to another. There was enough Jewish understanding of the literature for it to sustain itself for hundreds of years, otherwise the writer of Revelation could not have kept the same contextual flow that begin in Genesis, extended to Ezekiel, Daniel and culminated in Revelation. These writers understood their contextual meanings whether we think they did or not. Now I’m not saying that typical Joe on the street grasped it but the educated priestly and scribal writers did such as Paul who was trained and able to continue the art of Hebrew literature and to explain it to the masses in a more everyday context that we see in the NT. That is why Paul and others who had training were extremely important to the deciphering of the OT to the lay person. IT’s the same today where we need trained scholars training the pastors and teachers of the churches but unfortunately they are encumbered with a hybrid Greek idea of scripture and therein lays the problem that wasn’t so much so in the 2T and early First century environment.

    I truly believe that the writers of Jonah, Hosea, Genesis, Ezekiel and Daniel as examples fully understood they were using embellished material to produce their theological ideas of judgment and a messianic coming in the future. Otherwise it would be a convoluted mess over the centuries; yet it is hardly such unless you’re a literalist who doesn’t grasp these Hebrew idioms.

  • Luke Allison

    RJS #41,

    I’ve seen many people read Evans’ level of argument and not fully understand it, but know that it creates a problem. My viewpoint is that a dulling of the edge of the argument is very helpful, which is why I like to continuously remind young people that not everybody agrees with his argument. That must be stated at some point. Otherwise some mythical consensus is assumed and it becomes that much harder to discuss the actual argument.

    I remember you linking to Bill Newsom’s webpage a few months back, and it seems as if he had a very similar way of dealing with arguments: “Calm down. Relax. There is no consensus here, so we can talk about it without any fear.”
    That’s what non-experts (like myself) should learn to do, I believe, rather than trying to learn popular-level versions of high-level arguments.

  • CGC

    Hi Larry and all,
    I think you have a point (forgive the pun). But I will also say Christians need to apply the double-edge sword to their own arguments. Atheists are not the only ones that make arguments like this. Christians often make similar arguments aimed at atheists or other Christians they disagree with without ever looking at how their arguments often cuts both ways and not just one way.

  • RJS


    Good point – I’ll link to Newsome again sometime soon. He makes some excellent points in the videos I’ve used in the past. I almost did link one of them with this post. He doesn’t address the first two of the challenges raised by Evans as much in the things I’ve linked before, but he did get into the mechanical man question.

    One good strategy, I think, can be to step back and consider what is world view assumption and what is a real challenge to our faith. This can dull the edge of an argument and become something of a “Don’t Panic” button. One big edge-duller is the realization that in many cases it is not either a “natural” mechanism or God, but God through what appears to be a natural mechanism.

  • Larry Barber

    RJS (#41), we must have a very different idea of what “reasoned responses” are. I would think pointing out that his conclusions don’t follow from his premises, that his premises are faulty or, at the very least, unproven, and that in general his reasoning would earn him a ‘D’ (I’m an easy grader) in a sophomore logic class _is_ a reasoned response. If by “reasoned responses” you mean meeting him on his own ground of materialism and sciencism, I think I’ll pass.

  • CGC

    Hi Norman,
    I think you raise an important issue of how do we interpret these texts in their proper contexts? And don’t we like in our modern world to flatten out the Bible, read it like a newspaper, linear, all historical biography with no hyperbole or metaphors? (or we read it all as symbolic as if it was some esorteric wisdom from above). Since most of us have either learned our theology of the Bible from the church or academy, I suspect we like our doctrines better than history. We read the Bible like its a collection of intellectual arguments rather than a subversive story (by the way, if apocalyptic language is not subversive, then I don’t know what it is?).

    We like our favorite theologians from the conservative right or the progressive left but whatever happened to reading the Bible with prophetic poets and Christian mystics? Oh, these people are too dangerous and besides, we’ve got the Bible down to a methodological science? Oh really? We have forgotten how the prophets preach, the mystics write, and the poets illustrate. In the end, we treat the Bible like a dead document rather than a living text or word from God and then wonder why faith seems to evaporate?

    I used to get upset in how atheists interpreted the Bible in the worst light with the crudest literalism. But I have come to believe after listening to how most Christians tame, silence, and turn the Bible into something it’s not, then we end up losing the biblical story (praise God for people like Scot McKnight who is trying to challenge the church to get back to story centered in Christ rather than something else).

  • DRT

    Norman and CGC,

    I have the ability to be the court jester here so I will take advantage.

    My wife and I used to discuss these thoughts in years long passed and our metaphor was of a caterpillar and a butterfly. The caterpillar would chomp on the next piece right in front of him (did you all read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to your kids?) but when we become a butterfly we can see the big picture.

    I am convinced that 90 percent of the people are catepillars.

    But the bible requires you to submit to being a catepillar.

    Worse yet, we are saddled with the bible message that once we believe we will get the Holy Spirit and then we will be able to know the inspiration of god! This is a very big problem. I have been learning from some conservative sites and was shocked that there are ministers out there who are teaching people that the end of Rev 22 applies to the whole bible and not just the book of Revelation:

    22:18 I testify to the one who hears the words of the prophecy contained in this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described 36 in this book. 22:19 And if anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life 37 and in the holy city that are described in this book.

    The atheists are generally right, in my view. Christianity as it exists in many/most/nearly all/ places today is not really all that good…..

  • DRT

    I meant that the bible requires you to think like a butterfly.

  • RJS


    You can’t point it out by ridicule – you have to demonstrate why his premises are faulty or at least unproven. And you have to demonstrate it such that the person with questions (not Evans, say a 22 year old graduate student who has been going to church) will see the reason.

    Look, I am not really asking anyone to convince Evans of anything – I am asking how you deal with the smart young Christian who has serious questions because of these kinds of issues.

  • Larry Barber

    What’s wrong with ridicule when the ideas are ridiculous? Someone that argues “Humans make mistakes therefore Christianity is false”, no matter how they dress it up, deserve to be made fun of. If I ran into a young, genuinely confused person I might make the arguments a little more gently, but maybe not, pointing out flaws in logic and reasoning can be aided by a little humor.

  • RJS

    Frankly Larry, Because your use of ridicule will convince some … but it will convince more of these people that you (and perhaps Christians in general) are the one not worth listening to. And that is the real shame.

  • CGC

    Hi Larry,
    Jesus did use sarcasm and ridicule to the religous elites (which probably relates to quite a few of us). But he never did that with seekers and young people struggling in their faith. I am just afraid if you are not careful, you will certainly be a witness to these young people but will it be one that draws them closer to God or turns them further away?

    By the way, I am not saying you are doing this Larry but I will say that for some of us, we are continually finding ourselves doing damage control of people who are being turned off by religious responses of others in the church who don’t edify the weak but they feel like they are being looked down-upon and so want to exit the local church permanently as fast as they can!

  • Larry Barber

    And someone who thinks “Self-delusion is also a feature of human psychology.” can be used as an argument for or against anything is worth listening to? If you think someone is deluded give reasons for it, but an appeal that humans in general being self-deluded is worse than worthless. After all, I think Evans is deluded in thinking the disciples and Jesus deluded because, after all, self-delusion is a feature of human psychology.

  • Larry Barber

    Sorry if I was off topic a little bit, but I was responding more to the arguments that Evans was making directly, not as to a young person who is maybe a little bit over-awed by Evans, “Wow, he has a Ph.D., whatever he says must be right”. As I said in my first post, I can’t believe anybody takes arguments like this seriously, they don’t even rise to the level of sophomoric.

  • Tim Seiger

    I did not read through all of the comments yet so I apologize if this has been asked or adressed. It seems to me that point one about the human capacity for error ultimately results in a self defeating argument in that, ala Descartes, in purely material or psychological terms humans can never know if they are not being deceived all the time. This hold even for the author in question. What Descartes demonstrated was that only a belief in God can rescue anything that resembles objective knowledge and even that is not something that can be reasoned only trusted. I think Platinga also makes an argument along these lines in relation to purely material explanations of human origins.

  • Sam

    I can relate to what RJS has said about giving reasoned responses to these sorts of critiques against religion.

    For a good long while, I actually fell into a depression regarding the rise in scientistic reductions of Christianity and other religions. This ranged from my beginning to wonder if I was just a glorified robot (as per the neuro-determinism espoused by cognitive-scientists like Harris and Dennett), to wondering if my most meaningful experiences could be reduced to neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine, to wondering if morality and religion in general simply amounted to evolutionary survival mechanisms that helped ancient humans survive. It was actually finding resources like RJS’ blog, not to mention the Biologos Forum and theologians like John Polkinghorne, that helped me over come much of this angst.

    I cannot emphasize enough that, for many young people, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and others like them are practically rock-stars. A growing number assume that these atheist scientists, since they’re members of such cutting-edge fields, must therefore be infallible in their pronouncements on any subject (even if those pronouncements are not well-reasoned at all). Many who are angry at the admittedly hypocritical antics of certain church leaders (scandals in the Catholic Church, the Crusades, racist bigotry, and more) latch onto these scientists’ anti-religion writings with the thought that, “Thanks to these guys, I finally have ammo against these hypocrites!” Now more than ever we need thoughtful, empathetic Christians to rebut these writings and help the younger generation move past hateful slander and towards more critical, nuanced thinking.

  • barlow

    Yes, we do horribly deceive ourselves every day. The bible doesn’t ask us to believe that, statistically, Jesus rose from the dead. It isn’t about comparing the relative probability of imagining that someone rose from the dead with the relative probability that someone actually did. It’s not about testing human cognition and finding the parts that are abuzz with religious sentiment and correlating religious buzzy-ness with other traits, good or ill. It’s about believing the historical claim that Jesus did rise from the dead. I simply do not see how science crosses an historical ditch. Subject Jesus’s Cana wine to scientific analysis, and you might find yeast animals, the product of their digestion (alcohol) and all manner of things, but it wouldn’t tell you a thing about the age of the wine if Jesus had actually created it a second ago. And so when we are in a particular field of scientific inquiry, we have to humble ourselves at the feet of historical claims. I don’t believe in a plausible Jesus, I believe in the implausible Jesus who was.

  • I have to admit – sometimes I get weary of sludging through the same old stuff over and over — cycled and recycled. Evans, Dawkins, Harris, Madalyn Murray O’Hare, whoever. Solomon said there is nothing new under the sun. But it has to be this way. There are no spiritual grandchildren. These questions will be raised and will have to be answered over and over because there are always people who are trying to find their faith for themselves and God said that the challenges to faith will always be present in this life.

    This same problem was in the first century with intellectualism and Gnosticism. Gnosticism in the first century separated the body from the spirit, said the body was all bad (so they could do whatever they pleased) and spirit was good. They said that Jesus was on the earth in spirit and His body was a kind of mirage. Today, it is a type of reversed gnosticism — separation of body and spirit — body is good and spirit is superstitious, Jesus may have been present as some type of person but the spirit didn’t exist – hallucination. The apostle John dealt with the Gnostic beliefs in his letters, and what was said then applies today.

    1 John 4:5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God,and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

    The church had the answer in the first century, and the church has the answer today. It can be summarized in two parts, but they go together. Number 1 leads to number 2, but without Number 1, Number 2 is a clanging cymbal.

    [1] What does the church DO?
    [2] What does the church SAY?

    Definition of THE CHURCH: THE church means – the body of Christ – one body – not just the building on the corner, the denomination headquartered in St. Louis, some loose organization of some churches – it means the single witness of the single church of the single body of Christ. Some Christians will have to start by asking what that kind of church is that? “Well, does that mean we have to ……” We have a long way to go.

    [1] The church DOES (verbs) Love, Peace, and Unity and the world will take notice.
    [2] The church SAYS the arguments about miracles, placebos, reductionism, whatever, and at least some of the world will listen.

    Without [1] being evident, [2] has no credibility. Our witness is mostly as individuals speaking to individuals; we speak as [2] but we carry the credibility of [1]. Most people would say, “Well, I can’t do anything about [1] the worldwide body of Christ.” That may be true, but, if it is, we are going to get hosed and we are helpless to stop it.

    John’s formula for the church to answer atheists and criticism from unbelievers:

    1 John 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Ever
    yone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

    If the church would do what the apostle John said, the credibility of what we as individuals could say would increase 3 orders of magnitude.

    Christians have both the data from the physical creation as well as the Spirit of God. Christians have more bandwidth for revelation than anyone. Then, why do we find ourselves on the defensive, quivering in our church buildings instead of answering the challenges from Goliath and mowing him down as we storm the gates of Hell?

    Number [1] and then number [2].

  • RJS

    Sam (#57)

    Thanks, your experience makes my point nicely. And this is not uncommon. Part of the reason I write here is because I have had the kinds of questions and doubts you describe – and it was well nigh impossible to find reasonable responses.

    The bottom line, I think, is that we (speaking here to Christian leaders, teachers etc.) need to keep our eyes on the goal. The goal isn’t to “one-up” Evans, Dennett or Dawkins. Nor is it to gather a cohort of like-minded followers with high-fives all around. Rather the goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Theo, (59)

    Yup, first things first. Thanks for the refocus.

    Apprehending God, not comprehending him
    John 1 before Genesis 1 
    Love then speech
    Jesus the Son of God, then Jesus the Saviour
    God the Father, then God the Creator
    God is love, then God is sovereign
    The Incarnation then the Cross

    “Piety and truth, godliness and accuracy, belong inseparably together (and in that order) in authentic knowledge of God through Jesus Christ his Son. T.F. Torrance, “Trinitarian Faith” pg. 49. 

    And I love what Athanasius said: “It would be more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works and call him Unoriginate.”

  • Sam

    RJS (#60),

    Very well said. Personally, I think it would be something of a waste to take up writing on science-&-religion on the sole basis of wanting to ‘beat’ Evans et al. Doing so would simply paint Christianity in the same vitriolic light it is trying to rally against, which does no good for anyone. If one is to engage those writings at all, it should be done with a spirit of grace, to help the doubtful see past the bleak and nihilistic image painted by the ‘new atheists’. In doing so, those held back from Christ out of the fear that science shows religion to be a delusion may yet find him.