Things not to say to atheists

So, although I’m (possibly temporarily) retired from arguing with atheists, I’ve been nominated to present a little seminar at college on things not to say to atheists.

I reckon I’m pretty good at saying things they don’t like – some right, some wrong…

Here are some things I think you shouldn’t say:

  1. Don’t say anything about how Hitler was both an atheist and evil – as though atheism necessitates evil. I’ve broken Godwin’s law plenty of times – but mainly to suggest that atheists arguing from Christian extremities is about as consistent as Christians arguing using Hitler. This context is often lost. Hitler is like a red rag to a bull in these discussions.
  2. Don’t say anything about how atheists can’t possibly be moral or good as a result of rejecting God. This is silly, it’s not even Biblical. If we’re right and God exists, and he’s the God of the Bible, then atheists are capable of “moral” actions even if they reject him. They don’t put off imago dei just because they don’t believe in the second part of the Latin equation.
  3. Pretty much don’t say anything negative about science. Science is a good thing. Acknowledge that. Move on. Stick to the philosophical and reject “naturalism” that’s much sager ground because there’s no proof that it actually is how things work, just that it’s an observably feasible method of understanding things.
  4. Don’t suggest that atheists should be governed by laws set by Christians just because they’re in the minority. This again is pretty dumb. It’s like we expect people to live like they have the Holy Spirit when they don’t. This is mostly relevant when talking about politics, but also has some bearing on talking about personal choices. It’s fine to say that something is wrong if you’re a Christian, and fine to say that someone is doing the wrong thing according to God, but unless there’s a third party innocent victim to protect (like there is in abortion) I’d be keeping that powder dry.
  5. Don’t quote Psalm 14:1 out of context (“the fool says in their heart there’s no God”) unless you want to be lumped in with every other proof texting Bible bashing redneck who wants to beat up homosexuals while eating lobster. We need to make sure that we use the Bible well. In fact, don’t quote the Bible out of context at all. Ever.

But I’d love to hear from you, dear readers (especially any atheists hanging around) about what us Christians shouldn’t say to atheists (within reason – we’re allowed to say “you’re wrong, and it’s not very nice to call our beliefs a crazy delusion”).

Any pointers from your experience – otherwise I’m just going to be rehashing things from this post and this one (and the comments therein) – and possibly these ones from Pharyngula and the Friendly Atheist.

Warranted Belief

Mikey keeps posting quotes from this philosopher guy Al Plantinga (wiki). It turns out the book he’s quoting from – Warranted Christian Belief – is available in its entirety online. And free.

Might be worth a read if, like me, you keep getting in over your head in philosophical arguments with atheists. It’ll save you reaching out for the succor offered by a quick Google. And it’ll give you an intelligent “scholar” to quote…

Here’s a (long) quote on historical criticism – particularly on why it’s hard to argue with people who presuppose that the miraculous accounts in the Bible are mythical because they are miraculous, and why this shouldn’t be convincing:

The Troeltschian scripture scholar accepts Troeltsch’s principles for historical research, under an interpretation according to which they rule out the occurrence of miracles and the divine inspiration of the Bible (along with the corollary that the latter enjoys the sort of unity accruing to a book that has one principal author). But then it is not at all surprising that the Troeltschian tends to come up with conclusions wildly at variance with those accepted by the traditional Christian. As Gilkey says, “Suddenly a vast panoply of divine deeds and events recorded in scripture are no longer regarded as having actually happened.” Now if (instead of tendentious claims about our inability to do otherwise) the Troeltschian offered some good reasons to think that, in fact, these Troeltschian principles are true, then traditional Christians would have to pay attention; then they might be obliged to take the skeptical claims of historical critics seriously. Troeltschians, however, apparently don’t offer any such good reasons. They simply declare that nowadays we can’t think in any other way, or (following Harvey) that it is immoral to believe in, for example, Christ’s resurrection on other than historical grounds.

Neither of these is remotely persuasive as a reason for modifying traditional Christian belief in the light of Troeltschian results. As for the first, of course, the traditional Christian knows that it is quite false: she herself and many of her friends nowadays (and hundreds of millions of others) do think in precisely that proscribed way. And as far as the implicit claims for the superiority of these Troeltschian ways of thinking go, she won’t be impressed by them unless some decent arguments of one sort or another are forthcoming, or some other good reason for adopting that opinion is presented. The mere claim that this is what many contemporary experts think will not and should not intimidate her.

Driscoll’s apologetic

Mark Driscoll has been invited to write occasional columns for the Washington Post. In his first he was asked how to best present the gospel to atheists and skeptics.

His answer, as his answers always are, was beautifully Christocentric.

Q: What makes the best ‘case for God’ to a skeptic or non-believer, an open-minded seeker, and to a person of faith and Why?


Christianity is not first and foremost about a sacred place to pilgrimage to, a philosophical system to ponder, a moral code to live, a religious tradition to honor, or an impersonal god to experience. Rather, Christianity is about a person who claimed to be the only God and said he would prove his unprecedented claim by living without sin, dying for sinners, and conquering death through resurrection.

It’s a nice opener. The gospel in a nutshell. And he doesn’t shy away from addressing other areas, but he starts with Jesus. And that’s worthy of respect. More respect than others who like to sit on their blogs and throw stones because they don’t like his sense of humour…

His conclusion is helpful too…

“And so while there is no “best case” for presenting God, there are false ways of presenting God: as anyone in addition to or other than Jesus Christ. As Christians, our goal is never to lie to people by only telling them what they want to hear, or manipulating them to feel what they want to feel. Instead, we want to respect them enough to tell them the truth, and love them enough to do so in a way that is compassionate. We care more about the truth and the love than having the “best case.”

I’ve been wondering, given recent experiences with atheists right here, how to move the debate away from discussing theism/atheism towards Christianity/atheism. It’s a great tactic the atheists have adopted to avoid dealing with Christianity specifically. It’s much easier to dismiss a non-specific deity on the basis of dismissing all deities (Christians do something similar all the time, by rejecting all other Gods) than it is to actually dismiss the specifics of the deity people are actually putting faith in. But it’s a case of moving the goal posts to suit the game you want to win.

The temptation, when discussing the existence of God in the theism/atheism paradigm is to throw our lot in with other theists (Muslims, Hindus, Mormons etc) and see them as allies – when a better, more Biblically consistent model is the one Driscoll advocates. Using an apologetic based on Jesus.

That’s why I’m a Driscoll fanboy. That, and the description he gives himself in his byline on the article.

“A nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody.”

Let there be light

I often feel discouraged when talking to my atheist friends. Not because their arguments are compelling, but because I love them and believe Christianity is true and offers hope.

It’s hard. It’s like talking to a brick wall. But this long quote gives me a fair bit of hope that all is not lost.

“My commitment to atheism essentially came in three steps. The first was when I was in junior high school and began asking Christians uncomfortable questions, like, “How can there be a loving God with so much suffering in the world?” And, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” And, “How can Jesus be the only way to God?” Rather than engage with me, they basically told me to keep my questions to myself. I quickly concluded that the reason they didn’t want to discuss these matters was because there were no good answers from the Christian perspective.

The second step came when I began studying neo-Darwinism in high school. I was particularly struck by Stanley Miller’s 1959 experiment in which he recreated what he thought was the original atmosphere of the primitive Earth, shot electricity through it to simulate lightning, and discovered the creation of some amino acids, the building blocks of life. I naively concluded that Miller had proven that life could have emerged in a purely naturalistic way. To me, that meant God was out of a job!”

That’s Lee Strobel – American author of a number of books of Christian apologetics. He said it in answers to a series of questions from the Friendly Atheist back in January.

You can find them here, here, here, and here. It’s a great example of respectful dialogue between two opposing camps.

And here’s the encouraging rub.

For nearly two years, I investigated science, philosophy, and history. I read literature (both pro and con), quizzed experts, and studied archaeology. On November 8th, 1981, alone in my room, I took a yellow legal pad and began summarizing the evidence I had encountered. In light of the scientific evidence that points toward a Creator and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I came to the conclusion that it would have required more faith for me to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian.

Essentially, I realized that to stay an atheist, I would have to believe that nothing produces everything; non-life produces life; randomness produces fine-tuning; chaos produces information; unconsciousness produces consciousness; and non-reason produces reason. Those leaps of faith were simply too big for me to take, especially in light of the affirmative case for God’s existence and Jesus’ resurrection (and, hence, his divinity). In other words, in my assessment the Christian worldview accounted for the totality of the evidence much better than the atheistic worldview.

The Friendly Atheist

I’ve been reading a bit of the back catalogue of the Friendly Atheist, who is in fact a friendly atheist – it’s a same about his lunatic band of followers who deface every moderate post with comments about why Christianity should not exist… I’ve been doing this because I think engaging with just one or two posts from this sort of blog and getting all preachy in the comments is harmful. I like to understand context before I go off disagreeing (yes my specific atheist friends this is important to Christians…).

The Friendly Atheist, Hermant Mehta, achieved some fame ebaying off his time with a promise to visit churches identified by the winning bidder. He turned it into a book – which would no doubt be informative reading for anybody wanting to look at church practices from the outside. He also used his experience to write a couple of reflective posts – one about things about church that are annoying (and I agree with most of them) – as do many Christian commenters on the post (which is still getting comments almost 2 years later)… and this one – ten things Christians do better than atheists – which is a bit less friendly. I guess because both target the fringe parts of Christianity that I personally have struggles with… Which in itself is interesting. I think the “rational” evangelical arm of Christianity probably spends a lot of time agreeing with atheists and throwing stones at Christian brothers rather than focusing on the unity we have with our “irrational” fellow Christians. Which is pretty challenging. Especially in the light of passages like 1 Corinthians 1 (incidentally if you google the phrase: 1 Corinthians 1 biblegateway esv – the third result down is a page on the MPC website (dad’s church for the uninitiated))…

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The more I grapple with, and try to convince my atheist friends of the rationality of the gospel the more I am convinced that this is the case – they’re going to read this and tell me I’m copping out for falling back on a proof text written in order to justify just this criticism – but that’s where I guess our “doctrine” of Scripture disagrees. If it’s a true representation of God’s intentions why wouldn’t the Bible say it?

Craig linked to the article from the Friendly Atheist I posted the other day, with a wise disclaimer encouraging Christians to be sensitive when posting – advice I perhaps failed to heed with my own comments – lest we give more ammunition to the disdain these atheists show for Christianity. It’s particularly pertinent advice given some of the “drive by” evangelism that happens in the comments on that blog – evangelism without relationship is pretty futile. As perhaps best expressed by this Friendly Atheist post of advice for Christians as they evangelise to atheists

More on atheists

I’ve had a pretty long debate stretching over two days with my atheist friends. I have some observations I’d like to make… they are generalisations so come with the standard general disclaimer.

  1. Atheists being branded as they are will always immediately dismiss Christianity on the basis that they’ve made the debate occur a step before Christianity – this means not engaging with any Christian material (ie the Bible)…
  2. They’re a-theist not a-Christian. If you argue the questions from a Christian perspective they dismiss them immediately because you’re not tackling the issue at the root.
  3. They will also refer to God as “it” and remove any Christian terminology from the argument – which makes arguing from a Christian perspective difficult. The Christian then becomes an apologist for Islam, and any other theistic world view in the process. In fact, by doing this they bring in every non-credible and crazy religion and ask you to defend them on equal footing – which is why the “atheist movement” for want of better nomenclature – have invented the Flying Spaghetti Monster and describe Jesus as a Zombie Carpenter…
  4. In attacking the rhetoric this way they’ve moved the goal posts – and apologists must adjust accordingly.
  5. The fundamental differences between the two positions are, in my mind best expressed as follows: Theists look at a complex universe and say a big creator must have made this, atheists look at the complex universe and say it’s too complex for a big creator, it must have been small particles accidentally colliding, or its complexity is a product of infinite possibilities occurring in infinite time. Alternatively, as expressed by one of the atheists in the discussion:

Theism uses the impossible to explain the rational.
Science uses the possible to explain the irrational.

Where somehow, if I understand that point correctly, science is equal to atheism. Which comes as a surprise to me, and no doubt to many Christian scientists.

Apologetics accepted

One of the things I do in order to increase my levels of frustration is read annoying things written by atheists who feel intellectually superior to us “unenlightened Christians”.

I spend a lot of time arguing with three of my friends – two of whom are declared atheists – one is a notorious fence sitter. 

I often ask myself why I bother. They’re smart guys and as set in their beliefs as I am in mine. I don’t think we’re going to change each other’s minds. I guess there are a few reasons. I like them – so I’d like to see them change their minds – believing as I do that hell is real. I would like to not be scoffed at for having “an imaginary friend”. And I guess there’s the fact that I love an argument. But I think one of the key reasons I do it is to refine and define my thoughts on the criticisms atheism throws at any form of theism – but particularly Christianity. It’s an exercise in apologetics – in defending the faith. 

I guess in the face of militant atheism, being championed as it is by leaders with evangelistic zeal, Christians need to make sure they’re putting up a fight for the hearts, minds and souls of the great unreached – the agnostics. Those who haven’t picked a side yet. Those people are being bombarded with teachings from both sides – and I feel like I need to mount a compelling, rational defence of Christianity. 

That was all a pretty long preamble to a great reminder that the real “apologetic” winner is relational not rational. The reminder comes courtesy of Tim Chester at the Resurgence.

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