Further Adventures at an Atheist “Bible Study” Group
Last night I attended for the third time an “atheist Bible study” group in metro Detroit led by Jon, a former evangelical and friendly fellow, with whom I have debated the Galileo issue. He has a blog called Prove Me Wrong. The first time I went there, several months back, I was invited as a guest speaker. It was simply a Q and A, “grill the apologist” session (due to my dislike of lecturing as my own method of communication), mostly devoted to the usual garden-variety questions about Catholicism. Jon later described the night as follows:
I run a bible study. It’s for those interested in understanding the Bible from a secular perspective. We’re mostly atheists but we do have some Christian participation. A couple of times instead of studying the Bible I’ve simply brought in a religious person. So once Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong came. A lot of atheists regard Christian belief as extremely easy to debunk and I thought it would be fun to bring in someone that has thought through common objections and is able to turn it back on atheists. Make them exercise their brains a bit. We had a great time with Dave.
That time, there were eleven atheists and myself. It was the most enjoyable and challenging evening I have ever spent as an apologist in almost 30 years of apologetics. Several of the people said that I had won their respect, by simply showing up and being cordial and willing to answer their questions and do some back-and-forth. For their part (save for just one person who was later kicked out of their group) they were very cordial and friendly.
This is not the stereotypical “angry atheist” group (example: John Loftus’ Debunking Christianity blog), with (irrational, self-contradictory) anger against God and Christianity upfront and dominating everything, complete with ubiquitous personal insults towards Christians. No; Jon, to his great credit, is trying to do something different, and to actually seek to better understand Christianity and Christian arguments and to have some real dialogue.
I went a second time and enjoyed some great discussion around a campfire (mostly with the guy who had given me the hardest time in the first meeting: insinuating that I was dishonest or ignorant or both). Then I invited Jon to my house to do a presentation on the nonexistence of Jesus (a position he holds tentatively). That went well, too, and Jon gave the following description of his experience:
I had the opportunity last Friday to sit down with some Catholics and just spend an evening discussing some of our disagreements. It was me along with another atheist (who I met for the first time) and a few Catholics. It was put together by Dave Armstrong. I really appreciate Dave. He’s one of those people that is able to sit down and disagree with me strongly, but do it in a way that makes for productive and friendly dialogue. Not all Christians can do this, nor can all skeptics.
Apparently, Jon has a somewhat more favorable view towards my reasoning abilities these days, compared to 26 March 2010, when he wrote (I tease him about this):
As far as apologists go I kind of like Roman Catholics. Dave Armstrong may be extremely irrational. But he’s always been fairly charitable.
Last night, the person doing the presentation was a guy who goes by “DagoodS”: another former Christian who runs a blog called Thoughts From a Sandwich. He is an attorney; a very animated, thoughtful, academic type (the sort of person I particularly love talking to and learning from). He talked about how Christians defend the resurrection of Jesus; playing “Christian” most of the time. It was historiographically dense (with many “footnote” references to “what scholars today think”), interesting enough, and entertaining on its own level, but ultimately not to my own taste because it was a professorial-type lecture (complete with the white board and markers). It was like being in a graduate-level history class (or maybe a Unitarian Bible study). I want to dialogue (as is well-known to my readers by now), and that never occurred. We all have our preferences.
One of the few critiques I was able to get in at all had to do with the relentless, dogmatic presuppositional skepticism of atheists. DagoodS asked the group (17 including myself) how many believed that miracles occur. I was the only one to raise my hand. Then he asked how many believed that miracles might possibly occur. Jon raised his hand, and possibly one other. Only one or two even allowed the bare possibility. This exactly illustrated the point I was to make.
DagoodS was saying that it is more difficult to believe an extraordinary miracle or event than to believe in one that is more commonplace. True enough as far as it goes. But I said (paraphrasing), “you don’t believe that any miracles are possible, not even this book raising itself an inch off the table, so it is pointless for you to say that it is hard to believe in a great miracle, when in fact you don’t believe in any miracles whatsoever.” No response. I always try to get at the person’s presuppositions. That is my socratic method.
This being the case, for an atheist (ostensibly with an “open mind”) to examine evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is almost a farcical enterprise from the start (at least from a Christian perspective) because they commence the analysis with the extremely hostile presuppositions of:
1) No miracles can occur in the nature of things.
2) #1 logically follows because, of course, under fundamental atheist presuppositions, there is no God to perform any miracle.
3) The New Testament documents are fundamentally untrustworthy and historically suspect, having been written by gullible, partisan Christians; particularly because, for most facts presented therein, there is not (leaving aside archaeological evidences) written secular corroborating evidence.
Some atheists (like Jon) even claim (or suspect) that Jesus didn’t exist at all (making such a topic even more absurd and ludicrous (given that premise) than it already is in atheist eyes. Yet they think that such an examination of the Resurrection is an objective endeavor on their part, as if they will come to any other conclusion than the foregone one that they have already decided long since, upon the adoption of their atheism? And we are the ones who are constantly excoriated for being so “inflexible” and “dogmatic” and “closed-minded” to any other truths besides Christian ones?
The lecture went on for two hours in the library room where the group met, and then we went to a restaurant. Over there, I wasn’t seated next to either Jon or DagoodS (there were about 13 people present), so further discussion with them wasn’t possible. Instead I talked a lot about the problem of evil and God’s supposed serious deficiencies, with a third person, with the person on the other side of me asking me intermittently about purgatory and limbo and indulgences.
I was able to get in at least one important point with Jon at the restaurant. He was making fun of the popes taking many centuries to decide the dogmatic question of the Immaculate Conception of Mary . So I noted (with some vigor) that people (not just atheists but also Protestants) are always criticizing popes (and the Church as a whole) for supposedly declaring things by fiat and with raw power, apart from rational deliberation and intellectual reflection (which is a myth), yet on the other hand, if they take centuries to let the Church reflect and ponder important issues (this example, Mary’s Assumption , papal infallibility ), by not yet declaring something at the highest levels of authority, then they get blasted for being indecisive and wishy-washy and lacking authority.
It was a classic case of the Catholic Church always having to be criticized, even if there are simultaneous contradictory criticisms taking place. It’s the amusing, ironic spectacle of people illogically falsely accusing us of being illogical. If we do one thing we are wrong and stupid and illogical because of thus-and-so. If we do the exact opposite and contrary of that, we are still wrong and stupid and illogical for reasons that utterly contradict those of the prior criticism. And so on and on it goes. The only thing that critics of Catholicism “know” is that the Catholic Church is always wrong. That is the bottom line. We seem to be everyone’s favorite target and “whipping boy.”
DagoodS’ specialty (like that of many atheists of a certain sort; especially former Christians) is relentlessly trying to poke holes in the Bible and dredging up any conceivable so-called “contradiction” that he can find. It’s the hyper-rationalistic, “can’t see the forest for the trees” game. As I’ve often said, such a person approaches the Bible like a butcher approaches a hog. Their mind is already made up. If they go looking for errors and “contradictions” they will assuredly always “find” them.
And if a Christian spends the great deal of laborious, tedious time required to debunk and refute these in order to show how they are not, in fact, contradictions (as I and many others have done), they simply ignore that as of no consequence and go their merry way seeking out more of the same. It never ends. It’s like a boat with a hundred holes in the bottom. The Christian painstakingly patches up the last one while the atheist on the other side of the boat merrily drills another one to patch. I’ll play the game for a while and every now and then but it is never to be taken too seriously because it is, quite literally, just a game in the end.
I have actually debated DagoodS several times in the past on the Internet, and have critiqued his deconversion story (atheists invariably despise the unmitigated gall of a Christian daring to do that!).
And that is the whole goal of apologetics, and particularly the dialogical apologetics that I specialize in: to help people (by God’s grace) avoid theological and philosophical errors and to be more confident in their Christian and Catholic beliefs, by understanding solid intellectual rationales for same. We remove obstacles and roadblocks. What the person will do with that information is a function of their minds and free wills and God’s grace, and that is out of the apologist’s hands.
Dave Armstrong vs. the Atheists (Protestant apologist Cory Tucholski, 10 Dec. 2010, from Internet Archive)