Is atheism the biggest threat to Christianity?
KEVIN HARRIS: Glad you are here for the podcast. This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. I’ve got some great things to say about Jon McCray who is a chapter director and speaker for Reasonable Faith. He also runs a ‘doubters’ club which schedules regular hangouts which encourages people who think differently to become friends over coffee. In addition he runs a YouTube channel called “Whaddo You Meme??” You know what a meme is. He examines the facts and logic of these popular memes that you run into. Sometimes it is just a picture with a slogan typed across it. It can be a video or whatever. Dr. Craig, he says in this article, which is posted on Capturing Christianity, that apologists are fighting the wrong battle. This really got my attention. I want to run it past you. Jon says,
Believe it or not, the biggest threat to Christianity is not Atheism. After all, atheists make up a significantly low percentage of the population. In my mind, given this, we shouldn’t be directing all (or most of) our apologetic resources towards a group that only makes up about 3-5% of the population, and are often the most resistant to the gospel and spiritual things (Matt. 7:6 may be applicable). Apologists are fighting the wrong battle.
He hastens to say,
I’m not saying apologetics geared towards atheism is not necessary and beneficial; it has great benefits for believers and unbelievers alike. However, we should be addressing issues that are affecting the masses. This naturally leads us to ask, what sort of issues are these?
Before we get into that, let’s look at this. I find myself time and time again, and for decades, addressing the arguments of atheists, atheism, agnosticism, and interacting with them. I think that is because it is the most challenging perhaps. I think they have tremendous impact on the universities which are the centers of culture and learning (mostly culture). What do you think of his opening salvo?
DR. WILLIAM LANE CRAIG:I hesitate to disagree with a Reasonable Faith chapter director but I have to say that I share your reservations. I don’t think that the fact that those who are self-identified as atheists is merely 3% to 5% of the population is a good argument for saying that our apologetics should not be significantly directed toward atheism. I think that there are a number of reasons why this is absolutely vital. First of all it is the importance of maintaining a cultural milieu in which belief in the existence of God is a rational thing for people to do. If this is a tiny percentage of the population, that is wonderful, and we need to do everything we can to keep it that way so that the Gospel can be heard as a legitimate option for thinking men and women. What lies ahead of us here in the United States is already evident in Britain and in Europe where far larger percentages of the population are atheistic and therefore uninterested in Christianity. I think we need to do everything we can to preserve a theistic cultural milieu in this country in order to allow the Gospel to be heard in a reasonable way.
Moreover, as Jon acknowledges, there are great benefits of natural theology not simply for unbelievers but for believers as well. This strengthens the confidence of believers to have good arguments for thinking that God exists and spurs evangelism and helps them to go out with confidence. It helps them to deal with times of doubt or struggle when God may not seem real. Particularly with regard to the problem of suffering and evil, it is absolutely vital that we be able to provide a good intellectual response to this so that the emotional problem will not be so devastating when that enters a believer’s life.
I frankly think that natural theology (that is, arguments for the existence of God) have been under-emphasized in Christian apologetics. Apart from me, who is championing arguments for the existence of God? It seems like most Christian apologists are focused on Bible apologetics or historicity of Jesus or the resurrection sort of apologetics. I don’t know of too many Christian apologists who are doing a good job of defending things like the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments for God’s existence. So I believe that this is actually an aspect of the apologetic task which has been really emaciated in evangelical Christianity until very recently. I am very thrilled to see that we are coming back now and offering a more robust natural theology for the existence of God which serves, as I say again, as a foundation for Christian belief. Your apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus will be vastly, immeasurably more effective if a person already believes that God exists when he hears that evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. If you’ve got the person across the Grand Canyon from atheism to theism then getting him across the gulch from theism to Christian theism is going to be a lot easier.
KEVIN HARRIS: I think we all need to be reminded of 2001. You can point to that year 2001, 2002, when the New Atheism movement broke out. I’ve never seen anything like it. It continues. There are indications – some people say – it is slowing down. That was a huge atheistic movement where it became acceptable to be atheist. It was the New Atheism. It wasn’t the old Madalyn Murray-O’Hair group. It is definitely something to look at here. One more thing to look at what he says here. This kind of resonates. He says, “They are often the most resistant to the gospel and spiritual things.” When you get on the Internet and things like that, that is often true. They are there to debate or to one-up you or to have an adversarial kind of a thing. They are real resistant.
DR. CRAIG:Yeah. Sure. But remember the point that I made. The significance of a robust natural theology extends far beyond your personal evangelistic contact. It shapes our culture. It shapes a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can be heard as a reasonable option. People may not come to believe in Christianity because of the cosmological argument or the moral argument, but it can give them the permission to believe intellectually when their hearts are moved by the preaching of the Gospel. So it is myopic to focus just on your immediate evangelistic appointment and say, Well, these people aren’t interested in or persuaded by these theistic arguments therefore we ought not to focus on them. I think that is too narrow a perspective.
KEVIN HARRIS: I’m sorry I had to make you make that point twice. The other day a guy sent me a picture of himself, and he had a t-shirt on that said, I’m an atheist, debate me. He wasn’t interested in truth, I don’t think.
DR. CRAIG:Probably not, although I have been amazed at the Facebook messages and emails I get at Reasonable Faith from people who were hostile, angry, bitter, anti-Christians who then have come to Christ through watching a debate or seeing videos or reading a book. I got a Facebook message from a fellow recently who said, I was one of those who was the most bitterly opposed to Christianity, to God. He says, Now I’ve come to faith, and I’m getting baptized next week. It is just thrilling.
KEVIN HARRIS: Jon continues. He says, “Each generation has their own set of concerns with Christianity that must be overcome by the believers of that era.”
DR. CRAIG:Let me respond to that. This is my second concern with Jon’s perspective. While this is true, focusing on those types of concerns can make one’s apologetic faddish and tied to your immediate cultural situation rather than constructing an apologetic that is of enduring quality. I don’t want to invest my life in faddish trends that are currently fashionable. I want to craft something that is of more enduring value. The danger here about just focusing upon what is hot in our current culture is you are going to tie your apologetic to those cultures and in a new generation it will be obsolete.
KEVIN HARRIS: He says,
DR. CRAIG:As you look at those three, they are very different. Divine relativism is a kind of religious pluralism. Sexual ethics would be primarily, I think, opposition to a Christian ethic for human sexuality. But biblical literacy is not an objection to Christianity. That is just ignorance. What he calls threats here are very different in nature. The first two present objections to Christianity whereas the third is just a kind of condition of our culture. People are ignorant and illiterate that inhibits the effectiveness of apologetics.
Not too long ago it was the issue of evolution and the age of the Earth. Today, I believe less non-Christians actually care about these things. They are far more concerned with what Christianity has to say about issues like sexual ethics. For present purposes, I will argue that three of the biggest threats to the Christian faith are divine relativism, sexual ethics, and biblical illiteracy.
KEVIN HARRIS: Just jumping to that what he says about illiteracy, if I may, he says,
In my estimation, well over 80% of what the New Atheist authors and speakers say about Christianity are demonstrably false or misleading. But this raises the question: If their claims are false, why is it that Christians weren’t able to correct these falsities, shutting them up right away? Part of it is simply because of the brute force of their rhetoric. Another part is because Christians are largely illiterate about what it is that they claim to believe.
DR. CRAIG:He is certainly right about that ignorance. That underlies, I think, the importance of training people to be able to articulate and defend what they, as Christians, believe. That is the sort of thing we are about in our Defenders class as well as in these animated Zangmeister videos that we are providing for people to be able to give an answer for the hope that is in them. I am an enemy of ignorance as determined as anyone. I quite agree with Jon that we need to overcome the tremendous illiteracy that exists not only in our general culture but sadly in our churches as well.
KEVIN HARRIS: I think we would say “amen” to so much of what Jon is saying here in this article. It leads me (to what you just said) to another article from Tom Gilson who writes about this very issue that you brought up – keeping the cookies on the lower shelf when it comes to church. I have heard pastors saying this very thing. I don’t know; I guess you pick it up at seminary or something. He says,
“I try to keep the cookies on the lower shelf.” I keep hearing pastors saying that. It bothers me.
Oh, I get it, to a certain extent. The idea is keep sermons accessible. Everyone should be able to keep up with what’s being taught, no matter how short a time they’ve been in the faith, and no matter how little education they might have had.
It makes sense in a way, but still pastors must ask: who are we reaching that way, and who aren’t we? What are we communicating about the faith, intentionally and unintentionally? And what does the Bible say about lower-shelf teaching?
I think you see where he is going with this. What we mean by keeping the cookies on the lower shelf is a crude way of putting it – dumbing everything down because you have to reach everybody and pastors can’t get very deep. That is why you have so many shallow sermons. With a class like Defenders, maybe you can give us some direction here.
DR. CRAIG:Let me say a couple of preliminary comments on this first. I think Tom is right in saying that it is a really sobering thought to think that in one’s congregation there are public high school teachers, there are doctors, there are lawyers, there are accountants and businessmen who are intellectually sophisticated and for whom there is nothing in many of these sermons. Surely in our sermons we can have something for them as well; something that would stimulate their thinking. Tom is absolutely right. The sermon is not a lecture. It cannot be pitched at such a level that most people won’t understand it. But there surely could be elements in the sermon that would be intellectually stimulating and go deeper even if, after having done that part of the sermon, one then recurs to something simpler.
I think there are techniques that the pastor can use to help make his sermon more intellectually substantive. One way is to simply deal with different views on the text that he is preaching. If he is preaching through a particular New Testament epistle or Gospel and he is dealing with a passage, he can say, There are at least three ways in which Christians have understood this, and then explain them. And then give which view he thinks is the best interpretation and why. Just exposing people to alternative viewpoints helps them to think and gives them confidence that you are being objective on what you are teaching them. I think the use of PowerPoint and illustrations can be very powerful. For example, our assistant pastor a few years ago was preaching on the stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee and as part of the sermon he showed slides of that first-century fishing boat that had been excavated from the mud in the Sea of Galilee. It really made it real to us. It made us realize that this is a real boat. This is what it looked like that the disciples were in. On another occasion, the same pastor was preaching on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego being thrown into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar. And he put up on the PowerPoint what a Mesopotamian furnace looked like and how it was used to fire bricks and things of that sort. Again, it just made the passage come alive. There are all kinds of techniques one can do to add some intellectual substance: by giving the historical background, or alternative interpretations of the passage that you are preaching on.
Having said that, however, I find that Tom’s article is quite unsatisfactory because he doesn’t offer any positive suggestions as to how to deal with this problem. Does he want pastors to simply make the sermons more difficult, more intellectually challenging? I don’t think that is the solution. Rather, what we need to recognize is that there are different venues in the local church for preaching, teaching, and discipleship. What we need to do is to be sure that in the local church we are offering either Sunday School classes or small group studies that do go into greater depth than what the pastor is able to do in the sermon. This brings me to our Defenders class. I teach an adult Sunday School class in a church in which we do a survey of Christian doctrine and also talk about Christian apologetics as we survey Christian doctrine. This is a chance for people to go into much, much greater depth than what the pastor can do in a morning sermon. I would say that in our churches we need to exploit these adult Sunday School classes to do things like teach courses on church history, New Testament survey, Old Testament survey, apologetics, a survey of doctrine. Why couldn’t we even have classes on New Testament Greek? I think there is no reason you couldn’t find a layperson who would be able to teach people how to use a Greek dictionary and lexicon and to use an interlinear English-Greek New Testament, to recognize the letters of the Greek alphabet, and to be able to work with the text. I think there is just a lack of imagination, and a lack of vision, in too many of our churches. The pastor is too busy to do this himself. But we need to empower laypeople to exploit these other venues for providing top-shelf teaching to our congregants.
KEVIN HARRIS: The Sunday sermon is a different animal, isn’t it?
DR. CRAIG:It really is. It is not a teaching tool. It is meant to convict, encourage, inspire, and move people to consistent Christian discipleship and the worship of God. But it is not to teach them Old Testament survey, for example.
KEVIN HARRIS: Tom concludes his article with some Scriptures that are pretty convicting that say, for example, in Hebrews and Paul says, as well, to get off the milk and get into the meat. So we have some marching orders there. To put the elemental things . . . you’ve said that before.
DR. CRAIG:Where I would demure is saying that the Sunday morning sermon is the vehicle for doing this. I think, as we’ve said, that is probably a misconception. The venue for getting off the milk and into the meat is going to be in one’s personal devotional study and then in these group Bible studies or adult Sunday School classes where people can be trained to go deeper.
KEVIN HARRIS: Thanks, Bill. I want to remind everybody as we wrap up the podcast today that there is a new look at ReasonableFaith.org. Check out our updated website at ReasonableFaith.org. We’ll see you next time.
(This podcast is by Reasonable Faith / William Lane Craig. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)