If you spend enough time online, you’ll find that most arguments about God are a lot of back and forth with very little in the way of changed minds.
When I was an atheist, I had many conversations with well-meaning Christians trying to talk their way into a conversion. Believing in God, it seemed, was a matter of deploying the right argument in the right way at the right time. None of this brought me one step closer to Christ – often quite the opposite. Many of these arguments relied on circular logic. Others were steeped in a condescending kindness that does more to signal the arguer’s values than convince the recipient.
Yet Christians are called to witness, and we are not ashamed of what we believe. So how can we do this in a way that’s intellectually honest and doesn’t accidentally reinforce religious bigotry?
Today I’m going to discuss some ‘standard’ cases made for God’s existence (and by implication Christianity), along with why I find them less than convincing. A second article will point toward possible alternatives.
This argument was first formulated by Blaise Pascal, who was also a theologian as well as a mathematician, philosopher and physicist. It boils down to a pragmatic case for belief: if you believe in God and you’re wrong, you’ve suffered no great loss. But if you don’t believe in God and God turns out to be real, you’ve won a one-way ticket to the Bad Place.
This line of thinking has probably never convinced an atheist to pick up a Bible and go to church. For one thing, it’s dishonest. Would God really be impressed with someone faking religion just on the off chance? I doubt it. After all, we can’t really choose to believe – at least, not in the same way as we choose what to have for dinner. It’s not clear that our mere “belief” is what God most values anyway.
Ultimately this argument fails because, for someone in a different religious tradition or who’s an atheist/agnostic, the two possibilities don’t seem equally likely. When your case for God gets shut down by something like Russel’s Teapot, you’ve got a bad case.
The Bible Says So!
I heard some variation of this at least once a day during my later teen years. Religion was, understandably, very important for my parents. They had a difficult time accepting that I was on a different path, with no guarantee I’d ever return.
Christians hold a diverse range of views on the afterlife, but since they believed those who don’t confess Jesus Christ will suffer eternal conscious torment in the afterlife they had quite a strong motivation to change my mind.
A key tactic was pointing to some Bible verse and saying: look, it says so right here! What more proof do you need?
The problem is, using decontextualized verses to ‘prove’ a certain interpretation of the Bible cheapens our Scriptures. No one will be persuaded by the authority of a book they don’t put stock in to begin with. Making an argument from a cherry-picked quotation only invites a counter argument using another bit of Scripture that (apparently) says the opposite!
The books of the Bible are sacred. They span literary genres and defy simple categorization. There is significantly more nuance and spiritual depth in their words than some of us will admit. Let’s not disrespect our holy book by flinging pieces of it at our ‘opponents’ like slingshot rocks.
A whole branch of Christian apologetics is dedicated to proving the most literal interpretation of Biblical events. There’s a Creation Museum. There’s a thriving industry dedicated to replacing an evidence based understanding of the world with pseudoscientific biology and social sciences.
Rather than allowing our broadened knowledge base (compared to our ancient ancestors) to inform and exchange with our faith, we shrink the power of God by forcing it to fit into an antique/medieval framework. Well-intentioned Christians do this thinking it will strengthen Christianity against creeping modernity. These efforts often produce the opposite result as people mistakenly believe the faith can’t be reconciled with living in the 21st century.
This is not a good way to win converts. It’s not a good way to raise our children as lifelong Christians. And it certainly isn’t glorifying God. While apologetics isn’t inherently harmful, we need to make sure we’re basing ourselves in reality as it exists, informed by our experience of God through Jesus Christ.
So what now?
I realize this article has been a lot of “don’t do this.” Where does that leave us? If some of these arguments are (or should be) off the table, where does that leave us with the Great Commission? How can we follow Peter’s instruction to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have“? (1 Peter 3:15)
In the second part of this series, I will share thoughts on ways we can make the case for Christian faith – and how it can look much different from building intellectual arguments.