John Loftus reveals his Questions for Christians

Some time ago, prominent atheist (and ex-Christian minister) John Loftus and I had a bit of a disagreement about the best way to debate Christians.  Loftus said then that critics should wait to draw conclusions until he had the full list of questions posted.  They’re up.

I’ve posted the list below with some comments interpolated in bold.  If you want me to expand on one, say so in the comments, but I can only comment to a point, since I don’t know what kind of evidence either side is planning to muster.  And I’d love to hear from Christian readers if you’ve struggled with any of Loftus’s questions or if his interlocutor is asking the questions that you’d put to an atheist.  Here we go…

Who is this god and what did he command?

  1. The biblical concept of god evolved from polytheism to monotheism.
  2. The biblical god required human sacrifices for his pleasure.
  3. The biblical god commanded genocide.

I still think Old Testament attacks are of limited utility.  Plenty of Christians have plausible enough defenses (some books are historically unverified, God was laying law down specifically for Jews at that time that was not meant as universal law, etc).  Many Christians have higher levels of confidence in the New Testament, and are unlikely to be phased by OT problems.  For total literalists, this line of attack makes more sense, but it’s not always worth arguing with them.  If they are completely ignorant of the content of the Bible, perhaps, but, if not, the argument can feel like a fight with Bre’er Rabbit.  Every time you try to throw a reductio ad absurdum, they’re delighted you finally understand their position.

God does not care:

  1. God does not care much about slaves.
  2. God does not care much about women.
  3. God does not care much about animals.

Anyone who believes about human exceptionalism can’t be expected to get too upset about that last one.  I’ve heard Christian defenses of #1 (Paul isn’t expected to completely transcend his time, etc). I’m not always satisfied, but I also can’t claim that it’s my main objection to Christianity. Number 2 appeals more to me, both for the obvious reason, and because it’s a question that modern Christians need to address on a day-to-day basis, rather than a problem of finding historic justifications for past actions.

God is ignorant:

  1. God is ignorant about science.
  2. God is ignorant about the future

I don’t know what kind of argument Loftus is going to make in these sections.  I assume #2 is about the way Jesus’s apostles had the impression that the Second Coming would occur in their lifetimes,  which does seem problematic.  He may have a different target in mind, though.

I’m less confident about #1, because, usually when I’ve seen these kinds of attacks, they’re about Genesis descriptions not corresponding well to the Big Bang, and Christians tend to cry “Metaphor!” or “Limited Understanding of the Mortal Transcriber of God’s Word!” (Admittedly, the second is more of a mouthful.  But, again, I’m not really sure what the target is, so I could be totally off base.

God is incompetent:

  1. God is an incompetent creator.
  2. God is an incompetent redeemer.

I don’t know where these are going at all and my guesses are too wide ranging to speculate (problem of evil, maybe?).  I’ll just place a bet now that ‘ineffable plan’ comes up somewhere in the answer.

So far Randal’s first three topics (i.e., canards) are:

  1. If there is no God then life has no meaning
  2. If there is no God then everything is permitted.
  3. Science is no substitute for religion

That last is obviously stupid.  The contention atheists make is that some religious people try to use faith as a substitute for science, not that science has anything to say about religion (besides that some of its empirical claims are empirically false.

As for the first two, they are more interesting.  The trouble is, that this argument never seems to get resolved, since both sides have different standards of what is required for a valid grounding of morality.  (Or whether it’s necessary to fully understand the metaphysics to be able to understand moral law and act accordingly).

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  • Why can't we have interesting atheists anymore? Why can't we have a Celsus or an Ivan Karamazov to debate for a while? These days it's either "Je n'ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse" or "OMG he just totally told him to kill his own kid!" These arguments serve no purpose but to allow believers and atheists alike to congratulate themselves — both talk past each other and both win the arguments on their own terms.I love debate — but I'll wait till I come across an atheism worthy of a Christian's time.

  • Eli

    Gee, Kevin, would you like to debate? It sort of seems like you want to, but it's awfully hard to tell, what with all the needless condescension. Maybe you could even propose a specific topic?

  • Leah: What about Harris's THE MORAL LANDSCAPE: HOW SCIENCE CAN DETERMINE HUMAN VALUES? There's a reason this phenomenon has a name (scientism)… And I'm willing to bet there are plenty of people who look to science for answers to what are essentially religious questions, even without realizing it (and I'm not talking metaphysics here).

  • Also I'm just going to link this post because I cannot bear the stupidity of Mr Harris alone:

  • Here are my thoughts.1) Stunning statement. He claims he was a pastor right? I don't know any Christian who remotely believes that. Every Christian I know of believes God created Adam and Eve and revealed Himself directly to them. That's unmistakable monotheism preceding polytheism. He needs to demonstrate this from the Bible since he asserted it's a "biblical concept".2) Not sure what he's referring to here. 3) No. According to the Bible, God passed judgment on a certain portion of His creation (who were among other things, sacrificing babies on red hot altars). God with His knowledge of future events could have discerned that allowing them to survive would have had catastrophic effects on the rest of human history. In order to protect many He ordered the destruction of a few. Most people would kill Hitler (or a nation of Hitlers) if they knew it would prevent the Holocaust.4) The problem is few people understand Hebrew "slaves" vs. American slaves. It's not the same at all (not even the same ballpark, or state for that matter). Many people would voluntarily and with much joy become modern day Hebrew slaves to clear themselves of their mortgage debt in 7 years. 5) I'm not sure where this comes from. God created women "different" but certainly equal. Men are designed and better suited for certain things, while women are designed and better suited for others. It's silly to even argue this. God (who created both) obviously knows for what purpose he created women, one of those roles was not to be a religious leader over men. He doesn't say women can't lead men in *anything*, just not religion. I mean, is that *really* such a huge deal? There are tons of prominent and heroic women in the Bible, this argument is completely invalid.6) God places a much higher value on humans as opposed to non-humans. Humans place a much higher value on humans as opposed to non-humans. I don't see his point.7) Humans are at best, ignorant about science. Most of our *best* science is probably wrong, and will be obsolete (and probably considered primitive) in 200 years. It's part of the "self-correction". 🙂 Not to mention the fact that theists founded or revolutionized nearly every branch of science known to mankind. Besides, one you grant the premise God is the creator, the argument implodes. To imply that bumbling humans would know more about the intention behind the creation that He does. How many times have we looked at something, and been like, "Man, that was stupid, why'd did [name] do it like that", until we can speak to [name]. Once we understand we're like, "Oh that's actually brilliant". Then look stupid.8) This assertion makes little sense as is, more info is required.9) This assertion makes little sense as is, more info is required.10) This assertion makes little sense as is, more info is required.All in all, I think most of those questions are weak. I'd be surprised if Loftus doesn't get shredded worse than he did when he debated Dinesh.

  • @Eli:Don't get me wrong; I'm not kidding about loving debate. But much of what atheists these days say is the sort of thing that, to a believer, doesn't even appear as a problem. Imagine if believers mainly said things like: "But atheism doesn't give you a way to find absolution from your sins!"Now an interesting topic might be whether revelation is possible. "Is it possible that the utterly transcendent, ineffable and impassable God should communicate in human language and in texts subject to the vagaries of history?" For the philosophically-inclined Christian, this can be a real problem.But we don't get that kind of discussion anymore. Atheists either whine about evil, or try their hand at amateur metaphysics. It's enough to justify more than a little condescension on the part of an educated Christian. (Such as in this book.)But a little condescension, even if not very charitable, will always be understandable when Christians and infidels talk to each other. I mean, lacking the light of revelation really does put you guys at a disadvantage!

  • Eli

    Oooookay, if that's where you think the interesting stuff is…1. Whether or not revelation is possible is not the same as whether or not revelation is possible through texts.2. Transcendence, ineffability, and impassibility are pretty clearly not barriers to linguistic expression, even taken together (nonexistence, on the other hand…).3. Utter transcendence, on the other hand, would require no amount of non-transcendence. So if that's your God, you're ruling out any chance of incarnation (among other things).Given 1-3, I'm not real impressed on a philosophical level either with the answer to the question or with the question itself. I can see how you might think that it's a really nifty puzzler, but I myself would have a hard time taking it seriously even if I were a theist. Speaking of which…4. Why, again, should atheists be concerned about this? Your example of a bad conversation-starter with atheists relates to sin, but I'm fairly certain that revelation is equally religion-centric. I'm hardly interested in working out the fine details of zodiac-based astrology – why should your make-believe system be any different?5. What on Earth makes you think that evil and metaphysics "[don't] even appear as a problem"? (Or, to phrase it another way, who put you in charge of what interests "the philosophically-inclined Christian"?)6. Which atheists, exactly, are you reading? And are you, in fact, reading them, or are you reading someone else's summary of them?Etc. and so forth. If the only sort of thing you would want to debate is something that presumes the existence of a specific God and then quibbles of fine-grained details about how that God would behave, I don't think you have any particular grounds on which to claim that atheists are wrongly turning you down. Do let me know, though, once you've come to a conclusion about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – I hear that that one has been bother philosophical Christians for centuries now.

  • What luck! For Christmas I got a genuine mechanistical atheist, with a perfectly-tuned memetic clockwork, and so easy to wind up! Some might object that such a gift is rather common, but I don't mind — they're still fun to play with.Especially when they lay out their points in very neat, very rational numbered lists. I don't quite know where some of the points came from, but since Christmas is no time for quibbling, I'll run through them seriatim:1. Absolutely true. Textual revelation, though, is the main kind a Christian is interested in, and it seems like a particularly unreliable way for God to communicate — particularly open to the criticisms of the unbelievers. But the question of the possibility of revelation as such also merits discussion.2. "Ineffability" is, by definition, a "barrier to linguistic expression." Yet Christians feel a need to speak about God, and do so to no end. The problem arising here was the occasion for the famous treatise De divinis nominibus, as well as many other great works in Christian history — but it's still very much a live issue.3. It seems indeed that the transcendence and impassibility of God ought to preclude the incarnation of the Word, which seems to imply immanence and change. And yet the church asserts that there is no contradiction here. The reasoning here is in fact quite "impressive," for those that do not take offense at it.4. I really don't know why so many atheists talk about religion. I don't really care, but usually, I suspect, it's because they want to refute it — and they have every right to try. But if they want to engage with believers, then they ought to engage on "religion-centric" ground. (Most Catholics, for example, don't care one way or the other about evolution — but they would care if you could prove that Christ never existed or never rose.) But regardless of their motivations, when people are talking about religion, they ought to get it right. What good does it do anyone if an atheist refutes his own monstrous chimera that he imagines religion to be?5. I wouldn't dare to call myself a "philosophically-inclined Christian," when my mental gifts are so poor and my reading in the tradition so shallow. But I hang out with some, and I see that the mode of thinking with which an atheist approaches the problem of evil is alien to the Christian way of thinking about such things. (Here I exclude Christian analytic philosophers, who always try to play catch-up by talking about the same subjects as their atheist colleagues.) The proper Christian response to evil is not protest, but repentance — on a deep level, the Christian mind is never prepared to give the prosecution a fair hearing in a court of theodicy.6. When I want some good atheism, I read Nietzsche or Hume. I've tried to read Dawkins and Hitchens, but their writing is so unpersuasive and tendentious, so self-congratulatory and wrongheaded, that I always lose interest. Sam Harris, though, can be read for pleasure — he's a riot. Of course I also read summaries of these folks, since many Christian commentators understand that their works need to be read with a certain dose of humor.And the angels! on the head of their pin! What a delightful question. The answer, of course, is an infinite number, but it never occurred to any of the great doctors of the church to ask that question (since the answer is so obvious). It's the philosophes who popularized that idea, not the schoolmen; and if you're getting your information about the church from the philosophes you probably have a lot to learn.

  • Everyone knows that only jesuitical casuistry could lead one to conclude that angels dance at all. What kind is this dance? Mazurka? Quadrille? No, I tell you it is mystery what angels do with their legs! Such arrogance to assume knowledge of angelic ambulation exists only in the wake of the scholastics. Eyes are not for looking at pins but for weeping.(Merry Christmas Eve*!)*if you're using the satanic new calendar

  • Eli

    "Absolutely true. Textual revelation, though, is the main kind a Christian is interested in"Horseshit. I dunno who you're reading who says this, but this is absolutely false. You might have a demographic point – most Christians may be mainly interested in the text – but you'll agree, I think, that what most people do or think is not relevant."'Ineffability' is, by definition, a 'barrier to linguistic expression.' Yet Christians feel a need to speak about God, and do so to no end."But this is entirely different than what you asked. You wanted to know whether God could express ("reveal") itself through language, not whether humans could express God through language. Surely God, on your hypothesis, would know things about itself that humans cannot know and would know them with a clarity that humans cannot possess. As I said, this is a dumb question even for a theist to ask, and that's reflected in the speed with which you abandoned the original question in order to talk about something else."It seems indeed that the transcendence and impassibility of God ought to preclude the incarnation of the Word, which seems to imply immanence and change. And yet the church asserts that there is no contradiction here."Yes – funny, isn't it, how the church just asserts these things and then expects the peons to work out the details? Are you so forgiving, I cannot help but wonder, of the governing bodies of other religions?"…if they want to engage with believers, then they ought to engage on 'religion-centric' ground."But this does not mean abandoning metaphysics or the problem of evil. It doesn't even really mean abandoning evolution – I guess you'd be surprised by the number of Christians who find evolution to be a real sticking point, but the fact is what it is. The point is that what is central to the religion is not up to believers to decide; you can, in other words, be wrong about what you think the weak spots are in your hypothesis. This is true of everyone, of course, but here you seem to be saying that Christians are some kind of exception."The proper Christian response to evil is not protest, but repentance — on a deep level, the Christian mind is never prepared to give the prosecution a fair hearing in a court of theodicy."Huh – now what was that about getting it right? This is an utter misconstrual of the problem of evil, so if you take it seriously I can see how you might end up thinking all sorts of shallow, absurd things about atheists. I mean, this is on the level my asserting that Jesus didn't rise from the dead because Jesus is the Latino man who serves me my coffee at Starbucks: forget being in the same ballpark, the repentance angle isn't even on the same continent. You've got to be absolutely kidding yourself if this is the best you've got."When I want some good atheism, I read Nietzsche or Hume."Good – just checking. Although I will say that there are good modern atheists out there, you just have to look a little harder for them, is all. If you've read Hume, though, surely you've run into the argument against miracles. That strikes at the resurrection claim, does it not? And I'm sure that I've seen atheists making that argument today, even if it is just a rephrase of what Hume originally said. So I'm still not quite sure why you find atheists "boring" – except, of course, if that's some kind of defense mechanism for beliefs that you know you can't defend.

  • Responding briefly to the point about textual revelation: pretty much all Christian Churches, and "churches", of which I'm aware, consider the Bible incredibly central to their faith– some (sola scriptura types) "more" than others. Even Orthodox Christianity, which, God forgive me, isn't exactly known for its Biblical focus, asserts this: "The Bible is central in the life of the Church and gives both form and content to the Church's liturgical and sacramental worship, just as to its theology and spiritual life. Nothing in the Orthodox Church can be opposed to what is revealed in the Bible. Everything in the Church must be biblical." – Father John Matusiak And that's nothing compared to the millions of protestants whose theology, really, can be drawn from the Bible ALONE. So yes, textual revelation: incredibly, incredibly central to ALL Christianity, snake charmers and those who speak in tongues aside.

  • Eli

    Sigh – I tried this twice already but my internet is flaking out, so you'll have to live with the Cliff's notes. Point the first: the actual percentage of Christians who live sola scriptura is tiny, regardless of how many say they do. What people "consider [to be] central" is not what actually is central. Point the second: the Christian hypothesis cannot succeed using just sacred texts. A number of apologetic strategies (including, notably, reinterpretation of the text itself) explicitly call on other alleged sources of revelation; to give the Bible a special place would invalidate all of those strategies and therefore put the Christian hypothesis in even more hot water than it's currently in. I repeat, it's simply bullshit to say that the Bible is in a class of its own for Christians.

  • 1. I'm not sure what you're getting at, here. Christians generally tend to admit that we suck at being Christians. Some of us even suck at doing that. That doesn't mean you get to argue with the uneducated, uninformed version. If I think global warming is a lie and attack a third grader whose science supports a certain global warming theory, I'm not sure where that gets anyone. What do you think is *actually* central?Where is my false consciousness here?2. Giving the Holy Scriptures "a special place", as you say, does not assume dogmatic assertion of sola scriptura. Generally I do think it would be awfully silly to ignore the wealth of apologetic and patristic writings accumulated by the Church over the centuries, but it's in no way inconsistent to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God while those other texts aren't, but are still very important. I'm still not really sure what you're asserting– it is factually true that pretty much any hermeneutical work can be disowned or refuted, but that the Canon will never be changed. That is how the Church governs herself in this regard. Protestants may do as they please but I also think they're incredibly unlikely to (at this point) mess with the Canon.Now if you really wanted to be gung ho in arguing about this you'd find examples of Christian societies that flourished absent Bibles, or even read a bit about the early Church in particular and her relationship to the Bible in the decades and centuries immediately following the death of Christ. But perhaps I am misunderstanding you.I'll stop before I get too ahead of myself, as I'm the sort of person who is drawn toward paradox and not repelled by it, and so am probably not a very good one with whom to be arguing.

  • Eli

    Er, no – the first point isn't that people sin or whatever, it's that they claim that they believe only the Bible when in fact they believe other stuff. A parallel point can be made in academia – you see all the time people claiming that they're using an argument of so-and-so's when in fact their argument bears only the slightest similary to what so-and-so actually said. What people claim is not always so."…it's in no way inconsistent to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God while those other texts aren't…"Well, unless you then go and say that the other writings have priority, which is what people do. It's absurd to go, "So here we have the word of God and here we have some stuff that a guy wrote, and I'm gonna go with the stuff that the guy wrote." That's ridiculous."it is factually true that pretty much any hermeneutical work can be disowned or refuted, but that the Canon will never be changed"So all the translations of the Bible are equivalent? Interesting."Now if you really wanted to be gung ho in arguing about this you'd find examples of Christian societies that flourished absent Bibles"See, but I'm not saying that the Bible isn't a necessary component, I'm saying that it's not in its own special category. These are two very different things and I'm not sure why you're having trouble distinguishing between them.

  • So much hatred directed here in the comments at the "other" side. For the atheist one can ask what Aristotle asked some 300+ years before Christ: What is truth, What is life, and What is love? Atheists as well as Biblical Christianity (note: not religions) must believe in something. Both are provable to the one who believes in whatever system they believe. If one wants to prove nothing they can, as well as proving something if they want. And yet both ends of this spectrum have things in their "belief system" that are unexplained. The true problem then "festers" into (based on your group) a monumental life-time of fighting that you must draw a line in the sand to defend the "Alamo" of your group's beliefs (Atheistic to Christianity). For both the Atheists and the Biblical Christians it must be remembered that Jesus was a radical, bleeding-heart liberal of truth in his religious day. However with the common folk he was loving and full of life. So Atheists and Biblical Christians the questions remain: what is truth, what is life, and what is love?Food for Thought, If you are Hungry

  • I have always wondered where the line is when people who are theistic but have kinda dropped the bible and possibly even that Jesus is savior will stop calling themselves Christians.It is looking more and more like Christian is becoming a social identity rather than a religion for lots of folk.When you argue with a Christian about whether a person who lives a good life but doesn't accept Jesus as savior can get into heaven the vast majority say yes. Even though that contradicts Jesus in the bible. What the heck am I arguing with you for, I understand your religion better than you do…