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Posted by on Apr 21, 2014 in Atheism, Bible, Christianity, John Dickson, Morality, Philosophy | 29 comments

Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter – a response to John Dickson

john dickson

John Dickson recently wrote an article entitled Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter, in which he outlines what he thinks atheists are doing wrong in their discussions with Christians.  Although this post contains responses to each of Dickson’s tips, the main two tips I’d give in response are:

Tip #1.  Christians should remember that there are many many different kinds of Christians in this world, and that it is worthwhile for atheists to engage with them where they are at – not just where you might be at.  Of course any given Christian listening in to a critique of another Christian’s beliefs will often think “But I don’t even believe that” (creationism, same sex marriage, inerrancy, etc), but so too would that other Christian if they were listening to a perfect refutation of your beliefs.

Tip #2.  While it is indeed a good idea for non-believers to engage with the arguments of the most sophisticated believers, Christians should take this advice too.  Why does the Christian apologist concentrate so much on Dawkins and Hitchens, yet ignore Oppy, Drange and Sobel?  Sure the “Four Horsemen of Atheism” are louder than the typical academic atheist philosopher of religion, and this is one reason a Christian might give for being so preoccupied with Dawkins and co.  But this is precisely the reason many atheists engage with the likes of Lee Strobel and Ken Ham rather than Alvin Plantinga.

But now to Dickson’s piece…  All block quotes in this post are from Dickson’s article, which is linked to above – feel free to have a read there, although I’ve quoted every word in this post.

Atheists should drop their easily dismissed scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity, and instead quiz believers about Old Testament violence and hell, writes John Dickson.

I think everyone should drop easily dismissed arguments of any kind.  There are atheists, theists and agnostics who recycle the same inadequate arguments for and against God over and over again.  It’s a sign of intellectual integrity to admit you have been wrong about something and move on.  Many ex-Christians have done this after realising the arguments used to prop up their Christian faith were deficient –  it takes great courage.

As an intellectual movement, Christianity has a head start on atheism. So it’s only natural that believers would find some of the current arguments against God less than satisfying.

This “head start” idea seems a bit silly to me.  Christianity has only been around for 2000 years, and there were atheists before Christianity ever got started.  If what Dickson means is that Christians have been thinking about Christianity for longer than atheists, then I guess I agree, but I also wonder why this would matter.  On the other hand, there were critics of Christianity right from the very start – Celsus, for example – the fact that many of these opponents were not atheists takes no relevance away from their criticisms.

Obviously believers find “some of the current arguments against God less than satisfying”.  I do, too.  However, I do find some arguments against (the Christian) God to be very effective indeed.  For example, I haven’t heard anything like a satisfactory response this most simple of syllogisms:

In addition, I find every single argument for God I have come across to be less than satisfying.  One of the main purposes of the Reasonably Faithless blog is to explain precisely why this is.

In the interests of a more robust debate this Easter, I want to offer my tips for atheists wanting to make a dent in the Faith. I’ve got some advice on arguments that should be dropped and some admissions about where Christians are vulnerable.

OK, tip time – let’s dive in!

Tip #1. Dip into Christianity’s intellectual tradition

This is the 1,984th Easter since 7 April AD 30, the widely accepted date among historians for the crucifixion of Jesus (the 1,981st if you find the arguments for 3 April AD 33 persuasive). Christians have been pondering this stuff for a long time. They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith.

My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents – Pannenberg, Ward, MacIntrye, McGrath, Plantinga, Hart, Volf – popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, “Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!”

This is about the 4,500,000,000th year since the earth began orbiting the sun.  The Judeo-Christian religion has been around for about one ten thousandth of a percent of that time.  This is about the 200,000th year that humans have lived on the earth.  Christianity has been here for around 1% of that time.  Just think about the way beliefs about the world have changed over the last 200,000 years.  Do you think Christianity will still be around 200,000 years from now?  Although this doesn’t really address Dickson’s point yet, when claims are made about the ancientness of Christianity, it’s worthwhile actually stepping back and contemplating just how recent Christianity is in the scheme of things.

But yes, it is true that Christians have been “pondering this stuff for a long time”.  It is also true that, even though every era has seen critics raise objections to Christianity, there are still loads of Christians around today.  And Christians have indeed given many “reasons for the Faith” over the years, whether these are deemed to be good reasons or not.  But what exactly does this prove?  Change the word “Christian” in each of those sentences to “Muslim” or “Hindu”, and you’ll have equally true statements.  This alone means that there have been lots and lots of people who have not been shaken by critiques of their beliefs, and who have devoted their lives to defending those beliefs, even though they are completely wrong.  The fact is that there is a much better correlation between beliefs and geography than there is between beliefs and intellectualism.  It doesn’t matter how many people believe something, how intelligent they are, or how long something has been believed for.  What really matters is whether there are good reasons to support those beliefs, and I imagine Dickson agrees.

Having said that, I definitely agree with Dickson that it is good to be aware of the best arguments for Christianity, those made by the best Christian theologians and philosophers.  However, I think Dickson and many other “public Christians” are guilty of exactly the same thing.  They speak out against the Dawkinses and Krausses of the world, rather than tackling leading atheist philosophers such as Graham Oppy, Theodore Drange and Quentin Smith, to name just a few.  Christians devote entire websites to attacking The God Delusion, yet seem to completely ignore books like Why I Became an Atheist, in which John Loftus absolutely does engage with Plantinga, Craig and company, very successfully I think.  And then there are classics such as Oppy’s Arguing About Gods, Sobel’s Logic and Theism, and so many more.

Tip #2. Notice how believers use the word ‘faith’

One of the things that becomes apparent in serious Christian literature is that no one uses ‘faith’ in the sense of believing things without reasons. That might be Richard Dawkins’ preferred definition – except when he was publicly asked by Oxford’s Professor John Lennox whether he had ‘faith’ in his lovely wife – but it is important to know that in theology ‘faith’ always means personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds. I think God is real for philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons. Only on the basis of my reasoned conviction can I then trust God – have faith in him – in the sense meant in theology.

First of all, it simply isn’t the case that “no one uses ‘faith’ in the sense of believing things without reasons”.  Many many Christians do, even sometimes quoting Hebrews 11:1: “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”.  As in my own Tip #1 above, it is definitely worth engaging with such Christians according to the way they use the word ‘faith’.  This kind of faith is often referred to when a Christian has been defeated in an argument by a well-educated non-believer; but, rather than admit there are problems with Christianity, they retreat into the “I just have faith” shell.  (Dickson maybe even seems to do something like this in his Tips #9 and #10 – see below.)

To say instead that no serious Christian philosopher or theologian uses ‘faith’ in this way would be to commit the No True Scotsman Fallacy.  What if I could produce a piece of Christian literature in which this view of faith was espoused?  Would Dickson just say “Oh but that isn’t serious Christian literature”?

The reality is that Christians think of ‘faith’ in many different ways, but Dickson is focusing on just this one as if it is the only one.  He says that faith is about trusting God, whereas coming to believe in him is based on other reasons (philosophical, historical and experiential).  But he omits the fact that those historical and experiential “reasons” themselves generally involve some amount of faith.  How does he know Jesus rose from the dead?  That the Bible is reliable?  That the message of salvation is accurately recorded?  That his “experience” of God is not just simple psychology at work?  That God answers prayers rather than just whatever was going to happen happens anyway?  These are things that Christians will often say they believe on faith.  As for the philosophical reasons, I think those are just bad arguments…

Tip #3. Appreciate the status of 6-Day Creationism

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney’s Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn’t Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the ‘six days’ of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.

This tip is mostly covered by my own Tip #1 above.  Dickson may not be a 6-Day Creationist, but plenty of Christians are, and we need to engage with them where they are at, not where Dickson is at.  Sure, any atheist who claims that “6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction” is wrong.  But so is any Christian who claims that acceptance of evolution is the default Christian conviction.  Many ancient Jews and Christians took Genesis literally, too.  But what does that prove?  Don’t you think Yahweh (apparently “not a God of confusion”, 1 Cor 14:33) could have made Genesis a little bit clearer?

Still, I’m not sure if I agree that Dawkins and Krauss speak as though creationism is the default Christian belief.  Dawkins doesn’t debate creationists, yet he has debated loads of Christians, and he refers to creationists as “hard-core”.  But anyway, doesn’t half of America believe in 6-Day Creationism?

[EDIT:  Gallup polling shows that 46% of the United States believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” -- for more statistics, see Nichloas Sewell's comment on April 22.]

Oh and here’s another free tip:  Kraushas a double ‘s’.

Tip #4. Repeat after me: no theologian claims a god-of-the-gaps

One slightly annoying feature of New Atheism is the constant claim that believers invoke God as an explanation of the ‘gaps’ in our knowledge of the universe: as we fill in the gaps with more science, God disappears. Even as thoughtful a man as Lawrence Kraus, a noted physicist, did this just last month on national radio following new evidence of the earliest moments of the Big Bang.

But the god-of-the-gaps is an invention of atheists. Serious theists have always welcomed explanations of the mechanics of the universe as further indications of the rational order of reality and therefore of the presence of a Mind behind reality. Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer.

No Christian likes to be accused of using a God-of-the-gaps (GOTG) argument, but the plain and simple truth is that loads of Christians do use them.  In his recent debate with William Lane Craig, Sean Carroll gave an excellent explanation for why two of the most common arguments used by serious theists (the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Fine Tuning Argument) are precisely GOTG arguments.  In any case, Dickson’s claim that no serious theists use GOTG arguments once again smacks of the No True Scotsman Fallacy…

But it also seems that Dickson might just have misunderstood what is going on with GOTG arguments, anyway.  It’s not just that a scientist discovers an explanation for phenomenon X and atheists gather round proclaiming there is no longer any reason to believe in God.  It’s that often Christians proclaim that God is the only possible explanation for X, so you’d better believe in God.  The above-mentioned Cosmological and Fine Tuning arguments are good examples, as are various claims of Intelligent Design theorists (see for example Kenneth Miller’s refutation of the ID arguments based on the complexity of the bacterial flagellum and blood clotting cascade.)  Discovering a naturalistic explanation for X completely defeats the argument that X can only be explained by God.

Tip #5. “Atheists just go one god more” is a joke, not an argument

I wish I had a dollar for every time an atheist insisted that I am an atheist with respect to Thor, Zeus, Krishna, and so on, and that atheists just go ‘one god more’. As every trained philosopher knows, Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods. They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe. The disagreements concern how the deity has revealed itself in the world. Atheism is not just an extension of monotheism any more than celibacy is an extension of monogamy.

I tend to agree a little with this one, though I do think it’s a funny joke, especially when told by nonstampcollector:

But there is something serious lurking at the heart of the joke.  If a Christian tried to directly refute all the other religions of the world (i.e., without resorting to excuses such as “I think Christianity is true, so these religions must all be wrong”), they’d find that many of the arguments against Mormonism, Hinduism, Islam and the rest would count equally well against Christianity.  I have no good reasons to believe in those non-Christian religions, and neither do any Christians.  I just go one step further and admit that I also have no good reasons to believe in Christianity.  As John Loftus argues very well in his book, The Outsider Test for Faith, if Christians examined their core beliefs from the perspectives of an outsider, they might be alarmed at the outcome…

Tip #6. Claims that Christianity is social ‘poison’ backfire

Moving from science and philosophy to sociology, I regard New Atheism’s “religion poisons everything” argument as perhaps its greatest faux pas. Not just because it is obviously untrue but because anyone who has entertained the idea and then bumped into an actual Christian community will quickly wonder what other fabrications Hitchens and Dawkins have spun.

I don’t just mean that anyone who dips into Christian history will discover that the violence of Christendom is dwarfed by the bloodshed of non-religious and irreligious conflicts. I mean that those who find themselves, or their loved ones, in genuine need in this country are very, very likely to become the beneficiaries of direct and indirect Christian compassion. The faithful account for an inordinate amount of “volunteering hours” in Australia, they give blood at higher-than-normal rates, and 18 of the nation’s 25 largest charities are Christian organisations. This doesn’t make Christians better than atheists, but it puts the lie to the claim that they’re worse.

This is another one I tend to agree with, but only to a certain extent.  Religion doesn’t poison everything.  That’s just far too grand a claim.  But many aspects of religion are indeed poisonous, and this even extends to some of the charitable Christian communities Dickson mentions (and that I spent the first three decades of my life in):

  • women and gays are discriminated against,
  • time and money are diverted from much more pressing needs,
  • children are taught about terrifying (but thankfully non-existent) things like eternal punishment for all their non-Christian friends and family members.

But this is just to scratch the surface, and to say nothing of the less-than-charitable Christian communities we frequently hear about in the news: from extremists such as the Westborough Baptist Church to the thoroughly mainstream Catholic Church with its pedophile clergy rings.  We also should not forget the frighteningly recent abuses of Aboriginal children in Australia’s mission schools, and the backward views about unmarried mothers that played an instrumental role in the forced adoption of many children confiscated from their devastated mothers.

While it might even be true that Christians give more blood than anyone else, and while other such considerations probably do defeat the overly ambitious “religion poisons everything” claim, a far more important question is whether, on balance, religion is a positive or negative force in the world.  With Christianity being responsible for a great many goods and evils, it would probably be very difficult to answer that question.  But my tip for Christians is to consider this kind of question, rather than only concentrating on the low hanging fruit presented by proponents of the “religion poisons everything” view.

Tip #7. Concede that Jesus lived, then argue about the details

Nearly 10 years after Richard Dawkins says that “a serious historical case” can be made that Jesus “never lived” (even if he admits that his existence is probable). It is astonishing to me that some atheists haven’t caught up with the fact that this was always a nonsense statement. Even the man Dawkins cites at this point, GA Wells (a professor of German language, not a historian), published his own change of mind right about the time The God Delusion came out.

New Atheists should accept the academic reality that the vast majority of specialists in secular universities throughout the world consider it beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus lived, taught, gained a reputation as a healer, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and was soon heralded by his followers as the resurrected Messiah. Unless sceptics can begin their arguments from this academic baseline, they are the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise – unwilling to accept the scholarly mainstream over their metaphysical commitments.

I am personally of the opinion that a real person named Jesus lived.  But I also subscribe to the view that the gospels present an extremely exaggerated, distorted and glorified picture of him.  I strongly recommend Bart Ehrman‘s excellent book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium for anyone who would like to know why critical historians and biblical scholars think this, and also what we can probably say with some degree of confidence about the real Jesus – it really is a fascinating book, probably my favourite of Ehrman’s.

Is Dickson implying that critical scholars and evangelical Christians only really disagree on small “details”?  If he is, this is certainly misleading.  Non-biblical texts such as Tacitus and Josephus suggest nothing more than that Christians existed in the first and second centuries (and give us a very short list of some of their most basic beliefs).  But it’s not as if we didn’t know that already – the New Testament authors were certainly Christians.  In his above-mentioned book, Ehrman explains exactly why these extra-biblical texts prove nothing about Jesus himself.  But, nevertheless, Christians get very excited about such sources and are very quick to fill in the gigantic gaps between these unhelpful texts and the extravagant claims made in the New Testament.

I might also add that Dawkins is probably not the foremost skeptical authority on the question of Jesus’ existence.  Aren’t we supposed to deal with the best arguments made by the best opponents of our views?  Dickson should be engaging with the arguments put forward by Robert Price and Richard Carrier.

Tip #8. Persuasion involves three factors

Aristotle was the first to point out that persuasion occurs through three factors: intellectual (logos), psychological (pathos), and social or ethical (ethos). People rarely change their minds merely on account of objective evidence. They usually need to feel the personal relevance and impact of a claim, and they also must feel that the source of the claim – whether a scientist or a priest – is trustworthy.

Christians frequently admit that their convictions developed under the influence of all three elements. When sceptics, however, insist that their unbelief is based solely on ‘evidence’, they appear one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness. They would do better to figure out how to incorporate their evidence within the broader context of its personal relevance and credibility. I think this is why Alain de Botton is a far more persuasive atheist (for thoughtful folk) than Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus. It is also why churches attract more enquirers than the local sceptics club.

There are definitely many ways we can come to believe something.  We have to be very honest about that, and I highly recommend Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman‘s book Thinking, Fast and Slow to get some insight into this.

Yes, many Christians do admit they have formed some of their beliefs by less-than-completely-rational processes, and so too do many non-believers.  Any believer or non-believer who completely denies this is deceived.  But I think Dickson may be missing the point here, or is perhaps equivocating between beliefs and our methods of arriving at beliefs.  We can and do arrive at true and false beliefs for all kinds of good and bad reasons, but the best way to test the truth of these beliefs – however you might have come to them, or even if you don’t (or don’t yet) hold them – is to carefully examine the evidence for them.  I don’t claim to speak for all atheists, but when I say that I don’t believe because of the evidence, I simply mean that the lack of good evidence for the Christian religion is the primary and most important reason I have to remain skeptical.

When I changed my mind and left Christianity behind, the key factor was a thorough investigation of the philosophical and historical underpinnings of the Christian religion.  I fully accept that a couple of things in my life had led me to a place where it was actually possible to seriously consider whether Christianity might not be true after all.  But I absolutely didn’t want to let go of my faith.  I was compelled to, though, by the weight of the evidence against Christianity, and my reluctant realisation that Christianity had no argument that ought to convince a non-believer.

I also accept that, of the many reasons I had for eventually rejecting Christianity, some involved the more unsavoury parts of the Old Testament (see below for some examples).  But it is perfectly acceptable to simultaneously have feelings of disgust at the atrocities recorded in the Bible while also soberly reasoning that they could not be the will of a perfectly loving God.  The Old Testament should conjure up feelings of intense disgust, and it would just be nonsensical to say that anyone who feels that way must be making decisions for bad reasons.  No one makes decisions in some kind of vacuum where there are no emotions, only logical syllogisms, but I don’t claim to.  And this is all very different from disbelieving Christianity for purely emotional reasons.

To reiterate what I said above, the lack of good evidence for the Christian religion is the primary and most important reason I have to remain a non-believer.  If John Dickson thinks I’m “one dimensional” because of this, I’m happy with that – I don’t crave “thickness” that much.

As for Dickson’s little dig at Skeptic groups, I think we all know why there are more groups dedicated to classical music appreciation than to classical music hatred.  It takes a special kind of person to be fascinated with religions they think are false.  Skeptic groups are often a haven for ex-believers of one kind or another who find it helpful and enjoyable to spend time with people who share some of the same life experiences.

Tip #9. Ask us about Old Testament violence

I promised to highlight vulnerabilities of the Christian Faith. Here are two.

Most thoughtful Christians find it difficult to reconcile the loving, self-sacrificial presentation of God in the New Testament with the seemingly harsh and violent portrayals of divinity in the Old Testament. I am not endorsing Richard Dawkins’ attempts in chapter 7 of The God Delusion. There he mistakenly includes stories that the Old Testament itself holds up as counter examples of true piety. But there is a dissonance between Christ’s “love your enemies” and Moses’ “slay the wicked”.

I am not sure this line of argument has the power to undo Christian convictions entirely. I, for one, feel that the lines of evidence pointing to God’s self-disclosure in Christ are so robust that I am able to ponder the inconsistencies in the Old Testament without chucking in the Faith. Still, I reckon this is one line of scrutiny Christians haven’t yet fully answered.

The Old Testament goes far beyond “slay the wicked”.  How about:

  • slay the children and animals of the wicked (1 Samuel 15:3),
  • slay the homosexual (Leviticus 20:13),
  • slay the disobedient child (Exodus 21:15),
  • slay the guy who works on Saturday (Exodus 31:12-15),
  • slay the fortune teller (Leviticus 20:27),
  • slay the adulterer (Leviticus 20:10),
  • slay the non-virgin wife (Deuteronomy 22:20-21),
  • slay the rape victim if she wasn’t able to call for help (22:23-24).

The list goes on and on and on and on…  And rather than just glazing over that list while trying to think of excuses for why a perfectly loving being might give such commands, why not spend a moment thinking about rocks smashing the skull of a three year old boy who made the fatal mistake of talking back to his daddy (who obviously would never do anything to provoke a small child into doing such an evil thing).  But let’s also not forget about:

  • take people by force to be your slaves (Leviticus 25:39-46),
  • take young girls by force to be your wives (Judges 21:10-14, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Numbers 31:17-18),
  • force rape victims to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29),
  • beat your slaves but not so hard that they die within a day (Exodus 21:20-21).

Dickson is right to be apprehensive about these things.

I get it that someone might have other reasons for thinking Christianity is true, and so be happy to accept a few mysteries.  But you’d want some damned good reasons to be able to overlook those kind of “mysteries”.  And anyway, what are some of the reasons Christians have for believing in God?  Some Christians say they feel close to God, or that God helped them find their car keys one time, or that God gave them a sunny day for their wedding, or that God allowed them to pass an exam they hadn’t properly prepared for.  As I see it, there are no good reasons (philosophical, historical or experiential) to believe that any kind of all-good God is running the universe, but these and numerous other Biblical passages make it far more difficult to think the God described in the Bible is the all-good designer of morality itself.  This last point can’t be stressed enough.  God is supposed to be morally perfect, not just pretty good, or better than most of the other ancient Near Eastern deities.  If you were morally perfect and wanted to come up with a suitable punishment for a rapist, do you really think giving him the victim for his wife would be a good idea?

Tip #10. Press us on hell and judgment

Questions can also be raised about God’s fairness with the world. I don’t mean the problem of evil and suffering: philosophers seem to regard that argument as a ‘draw’. I am talking about how Christians can, on the one hand, affirm God’s costly love in Jesus Christ and, yet, on the other, maintain Christ’s equally clear message that those who refuse the Creator will face eternal judgment. If God is so eager for our friendship that he would enter our world, share our humanity, and bear our punishment on the cross, how could he feel it is appropriate to send anyone to endless judgment?

This is a peculiar problem of the Christian gospel. If God were principally holy and righteous, and only occasionally magnanimous in special circumstances, we wouldn’t be shocked by final judgment. But it is precisely because Jesus described God as a Father rushing to embrace and kiss the returning ‘prodigal’ that Christians wonder how to hold this in tension with warnings of hell and judgment.

Again, I’m not giving up on classical Christianity because of this internally generated dilemma, but I admit to feeling squeamish about it, and I secretly hope atheists in my audiences don’t think to ask me about it.

I haven’t read everything on the topic, but I don’t think there is anything like a consensus among philosophers that the Problem of Evil is a ‘draw’.  See for example Theodore Drange’s book Nonbelief & Evil, or Nik Trakakis’ The God Beyond Belief.  Trakakis is actually a theist who thinks the Problem of Evil achieves far more than a ‘draw’ for atheism.

But, again, Dickson is right to acknowledge that there are some serious problems arising from the “internally generated dilemma” that God is supposedly all-loving, yet apparently created a place of infinite and eternal torture for:

  • the people who never heard about Christianity (almost all humans to have ever lived),
  • the people who spent their entire lives earnestly believing that they were doing the will of the God of another religion (that they were almost bound to believe in, given the time and place they were born),
  • the people who diligently did their research but just didn’t find the claims of any religion to be credible.

Infinite and eternal torture.   Just ponder those words again.  This is far worse than commanding people to kill animals and babies.  But, in fact, the Bible goes even further than this, suggesting that God purposely created some people with the pre-ordained intention that they would never believe, just so he could punish them and give the Christians something to be grateful about:

  • What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?  (Romans 9:22-24)
  • God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.  (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

Dickson says “Bring it on – give it your best”.  But many atheists have indeed challenged Christians on the topic of Hell.  For one example, check the debate between William Lane Craig and Raymond Bradley on the Problem of Hell, in which it has to be said that Craig is defeated very soundly.

Dickson concludes:

I doubt there are any strong scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity. Most of those in current circulation are nowhere near as persuasive as New Atheism imagines. Contemporary sceptics would do well to drop them. Paradoxically, I do think Christianity is vulnerable at precisely the points of its own emphases. Its insistence on love, humility, and non-violence is what makes the Old Testament seem inconsistent. Its claim that God “loves us to death” (literally) creates the dilemma of its teaching about final judgment. Pressing Christians on this inner logic of the cross of Christ will make for a very interesting debate, I am sure. Believers may have decent answers, but at least you’ll be touching a truly raw nerve of the Easter Faith.

Well, let’s quickly pass over the blatant attempt at shifting the burden of proof in the first sentence – isn’t it more worthwhile to evaluate the strength of the arguments for Christianity?

But I do think Dickson should be commended for bringing up these two issues, the Old Testament atrocities and the Problem of Hell, and not pretending they are inconsequential.  I agree that they form a much more important avenue for exploring the shortcomings of the Christian faith than, say, 6-Day Creationism or the (non)existence of Jesus.  But I differ crucially from Dickson in that I think the two issues he raises do present fatal challenges to the truth of Christianity.  Hopefully intelligent and well-informed atheists will press Christians about these issues, and hopefully more Christians will wake up, as I am so glad I did, to the wonderful free world of non-belief.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    Excellent responses.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    If I recall, half of the US doesn’t believe in evolution, but only 20% are young earth creationists. I think 6-day Creationists would be about the same amount.

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      How many Americans are extremely or very confident that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old? 27 percent. http://ap-gfkpoll.com/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/AP-GfK-March-2014-Poll-Topline-Final_SCIENCE.pdf

      This is a tweet from Carl Zimmer on a just released AP poll. I haven’t see the actual data yet. I will be looking it up. But extremely or very confident is usually the only two choices for positive. The other three choices would generally be not at all confident, and somewhat confident, with an unknown number answering ‘I don’t know’.

      Considering that the only reason to the scientific age of the Earth is due to religious reasons (with Christianity being top of the heap in the US), I’d say that more than 20% of the people at least consider the Biblical account to be accurate.

      Again, that’s just based on the statements I’ve seen so far.

  • http://www.nsewell.com/ Nick Sewell

    Gallup polling shows that 46% of the United States believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” The figures show that belief in Young Earth Creationism has gone up from 2010, and it’s simply wrong to say that creationism is a small problem, or that it’s going away. The number of Republicans that accept evolution has plummeted from 54% in 2009 to 43% in 2013.

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/Evolution-Creationism-Intelligent-Design.aspx
    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/republicans-belief-in-evolution-plummets-poll-reveals/

    In 2012, Republican Congressmen Paul Brown, a highly ranking member of the United States House Science Committee stated that evolution and the big bang were “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” The Congressman stated “You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/06/paul-broun-evolution-big-bang_n_1944808.html

    Republican lawmakers would not make comments like that if they did not appeal to a sizable proportion of their base.

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

      My comment was in response to the OP’s claim that about half of the US
      believe in 6-day creationism. I thought this was an overestimate, based
      on my recollection that YECs are under 20%. But allow me to check my
      references.

      “In 2009, Bishop ran a survey that clarifies how many
      people really think the earth is only 10,000 years old. In survey
      results published by Reports of NCSE, Bishop found that 18% agreed that
      “the earth is less than 10,000 years old.” But he also found that 39%
      agreed “God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars,
      plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10,000
      years.””

      From NCSE: http://ncse.com/blog/2013/11/just-how-many-young-earth-creationists-are-there-us-0015164

      It seems that YECs are indeed 20%, and another 20% or so are old-earthers. They still believe that humans were created in their present form in the last 10,000 years (explaining the Gallup poll), but don’t believe that the earth was created at the same time. Therefore, they are not 6-day creationists. Not that OECs are any less worrying than YECs.

      • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

        Actually, rereading that paragraph, it says that 39% believe that God created the earth in the last 10,000 years, and that about half of those people nonetheless believe the earth is older than 10,000 years. Maybe the takeaway is that people are confused about their own beliefs.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless Reasonably Faithless

      Thanks Nick. I’ve added an edit to the post with the Gallup stat, and also suggesting readers check out your comment.

      Thanks also to trivialknot and others who have provided some other stats.

  • DRC

    Lots of good points in there.
    Especially how Dickson encourages arguing against the strongest points, yet responds to Dawkin’s notions about the existence of Jesus. Does Dickson consider this biologist to have the strongest arguments on ancient history???

  • Joel Reid

    While Old testament is definitely a challenge to Christianity, two of your old testament references are very out of context and misused:

    Leviticus 25: 39-45 does not say slaves are taken by force… in fact quite the opposite. Those of same nationality are not to be taken as slaves (people in debt can not sell themselves to fellow nationals as slaves, they have to work it off), and slaves of other nationalities can only be bought from nations around you or be temporary residents (this most likely refers to those people selling themselves out of debt), there is nothing about ‘taking them’ or ‘by force’. In fact from other parts of the bible it would imply there is a greater instruction to kill enemies, not take them as slaves, several times God gets quite angry that Jews take slaves during war instead of killing them. This is a far more interesting topic for Atheist/Christian debate.

    Deuteronomy 22: 28-29 is less about forcing the woman and more about forcing rapists to take responsibility for a woman that is now unlikely to find a husband or any stability in the future.
    If a woman was raped in that time then she would be an outcast, often even from her own family, and even other nationalities. Essentially she would be left only scraps in life. Making the rapist take her will solve that problem. While not the preferred option from a modern standard, it would have been the second best option for the woman… obviously the best option would be for the rape to never have happened in the first place.
    Interestingly there is a clause that he can never divorce her due to his actions. This means that if she were to be unfaithful or act in any way that can lead to him divorcing her according to the law, he cant… essentially he is forever indebted to her (ie. has to provide for until his death – which would probably include her children if she were to die or run away).

    • Joel Reid

      Side note: There is a separate section in Exodus about “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.”
      This is of course to avoid ostracizing of the woman from society. Once again the man is to take responsibility for the uncultural mess produced by his actions “. Basically it is the Male role to make sure women are not degraded in any form. Interestingly the issue of women seducing men is not really made obvious. It would appear in the Old Testament law men are responsible for this issue.
      In our modern society many would consider this taking responsibility away from women and putting full responsibility on the man and treating them like children. However in a society (as most societies in history) where men are dominant then it makes sense that the person with more authority should take responsibility.
      It is of course very difficult in our modern western society to understand this.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless Reasonably Faithless

        So why is it that a man is to be executed if he *consensually* sleeps with another man, yet if he *forcefully* sleeps with a woman, he just has to pay a fine? Why is it that a child must be executed for talking back to his parents? Why is it that you could get executed for all kinds of trivial things, yet a measly fine is all you get for raping someone, which, as you say, has the effect of destroying their future prospects in life?

        In any case, the verse has an outrageous loophole. If the father doesn’t want to let the rapist marry his daughter, he doesn’t have to – and the woman (the victim) doesn’t get compensated – *the father* gets compensated – money is payed *to him*. Seriously, how could a straight-thinking modern person quote that passage and think it helps people realise the law was given by a morally perfect being.

        As for women seducing men, can you imagine seducing a man if you knew you would be an outcast forever, and would be executed if you ever got married (since your husband would find out you weren’t a virgin)?

        • Joel Reid

          You raise the most important point that I already said above: culture is different now and women are not valued the same.

          To understand why the payment then you have to understand the culture. It makes no sense to a modern western culture.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless Reasonably Faithless

            understanding the culture is fine. i just think that an absolutely perfect god could have come up with a way to help the israelites break free of that kind of way of treating women (and slaves). he didn’t seem to mind imposing other things on them – eg, no eating pork. are you saying there was something preventing god from commanding the israelites to get really progressive and give women greater rights (and responsibilities)?

          • wakeupkeo

            This argument sound basically like, “we weren’t there so we can’t understand.” Easy way out of asking the real question about the nature of this deity.

            As Reasonably point out, the deity would have to change as the times change, but the deity is supposed to be timeless. He was making the rules, why not say the rapist is executed and the victim shall be blameless? Could the deity not make a better, more clarified rule that stands the test of time, as he apparently does with his new testament teachings?

            Or simply say don’t rape or penalty of death as he does so many other sins.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless Reasonably Faithless

      Leviticus 25:44 speaks of buying slaves from other nations – I don’t suppose these slaves would have gone happily to their new masters to be “their property”, whether or not you think “force” is the wrong word.

      Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has two consequences. The rapist “must” look after the victim (but it is also a nice little loophole for getting that woman to marry you in the first place). But the rape victim must marry her attacker. All this talk of this being a lovely command so that the woman is looked after is to completely ignore the fact that there are *far better* ways to achieve this goal. How about:

      If a man rapes a woman, causing her to be viewed as an outcast, he must compensate her buy paying for her accommodation and living expenses for the rest of her life.

      And how about some commands *not* to treat rape victims as outcasts? The whole point is that wives in these times were regarded as property, and a raped woman is “damaged property”.

      I completely get it that we are talking about an ancient society with unenlightened views about a lot of things. So I completely understand that you’d find awful laws like the ones you find in the Bible. I don’t “blame” the ancient people for not knowing what we know (and I’m sure we don’t know plenty of things future people might judge us on). But I think it’s appalling for modern people in our society to try and defend these laws – not just as fine laws, but the product of the all-perfect all-good creator of morality itself.

      • Joel Reid

        I agree with you on all your points to some degree.

        We should not be either defending, nor encouraging ‘all’ the laws from the old testament, they were based upon people different to modern western culture. Many laws were very wise options and do have a degree of use in the modern world, but many do not. Ones concerning treatment of women and slaves are those that do not mix well with modern culture becasue women now have more authority and we have alternative bankruptcy systems (although those systems have other problems) and do not take slaves as war spoils.
        This is where it is important to differentiate the ‘types’ of laws. theologians separate old testament laws into three types [you may know this, but for others]. Ceremonial (which are religious type stuff pointing to ‘God’s plan’), Civil (Which are Israelite specific, such as these), and Moral (Which define sin).
        Civil, such those relating to slaves and women, is not technically religious, as in they are not expected to be followed by other people or cultures. These do not apply to Christians simply becasue Christians are not Israelite (at least in the context of the Old Testament law). So, presuming God gave these laws, and they were not just decided by Moses (who wrote the first four and a half books), did God expect these laws to be specific for those people in order to maintian their stability of day to day living in the knowledge they were ‘imperfect’… after all, a God would be as aware as we are that no civil legal system can be absolutely fair to everyone.

        The issue of slaves being bought is interesting.
        While Israel was instructed to not take slaves as spoils of war(they were punished several times for that), there is no indication whether other nationality’s slaves were gained in this way. it does raise the problem of whether it would be right for an Israelite to buy a slave that had previously been put into slavery through the spoils of war. It would be interesting to hear what a Rabbi thinks of this.

        • wakeupkeo

          So why does God make it a point to ground so much of his evidence for our faith in a time which we cannot understand?

        • Robert W Ahrens

          I think your arguments are very well argued, and perfectly cogent – IF you are arguing for a man-made and invented religion in which no perfect, supernatural deity was involved in the creation of.

          But for arguing for the existence of a deity whose entire view of space/time is from the outside, wakeupkeo has an excellent point when he asks why we should believe in a being who could not explain himself in less time-anchored terms.

    • Steven Carr

      ‘While not the preferred option from a modern standard, it would have been the second best option for the woman at that time in history’

      A real god doesn’t do second best.

  • Roger Morris

    I think the blogger makes some valid points, particularly when he suggests the possibility that Dickson commits the “No True Scotsman” fallacy when he waves off fideism, young earth creationism and God of the Gaps within the Christian collective.

    While “no true intellectually respectable Christian theist” would accept a fideistic definition of Christian faith and would appeal to a faith that is underpinned by solid rational warrant, sadly many (even most) Christians would happily accept a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” despite a lack of rational warrant as perfectly acceptable, if not commendable and pious. This is true for congregations in Australia as much as in the US.

    While “no true intellectually respectable Christian theist” would be seen dead supporting a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) position on the age of the cosmos, sadly many Australian Christians would think this to underpin their faith and would reject old earth theories and evolution as dangerous compromises. This number exponentially rises in the US. If 50% of Americans believe in YEC, than the % in US Christians would be even higher (and again exponentially higher in US evangelical Christians).

    While “no true intellectually respectable Christian theist” would be caught out using a God of the Gaps argument regarding the mysteries of the cosmos, most Australian and Western Christians would not even have heard that this was a issue and would quite happily insert God into any and every current gap in our scientific knowledge without a second thought.

    I have to agree with the blogger regarding his “No True Scotsman” Fallacy charge. If they spend any time thinking upon these issues at all, most people in Australian church congregations are quite comfortable with a fideistic notion of faith as being biblical and commendable, would feel that anything but a YEC position on the age of the cosmos as dangerous compromise and probably haven’t even heard of a fallacy of thinking called “The God of the Gaps”.

    Unfortunately, sophisticated philosophical consideration and critical thinking regarding these matters is usually limited to a small minority of Christian theologians, philosophers, academics and a relatively small band of “groupie” hobbyists. By and large, the average weekly church attender in Australia sees this kind of philosophical speculation as superfluous, uninteresting, unnecessary or even contrary to pious faith – if they ponder these things at all.

    And we all know that a movement is judged on the views of the majority rather than those of a select minority.

  • Steven Carr

    Another tip for atheists.

    Don’t quote the Bible. They will stop talking to you, as soon as you point out all the bits of the Bible they do not like

    Don’t ask them for evidence of their god. They will stop talking to you as soon as you ask them for evidence.

  • http://kelosophy.blogspot.com Kel

    “I might also add that Dawkins is probably not the foremost skeptical authority on the question of Jesus’ existence.”
    This is something I’ve found quite odd about it. The comment from Dawkins is an off-hand remark, and a view that he immediate says he does not subscribe to (just that it has been made by the likes of GA Wells), yet it’s taken as being some huge failing that it’s even included there. Michael Martin’s The Case Against Christianity includes a whole chapter on it (again based off GA Wells), yet the mere mention of its existence in The God Delusion is taken as a serious failing. I don’t get it.

  • patrick.sele

    “slay the rape victim if she wasn’t able to call
    for help (22:23-24)”

    “force rape victims to marry their rapist
    (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)”

    Another tip for atheists is
    “Don’t distort the meaning of Biblical texts”. As for the
    first passage it doesn’t explicitely say anything about rape but simply about a
    man sleeping with a woman, what of course could (but doesn’t have to) be rape.
    Moreover, the passage doesn’t say that the woman WASN’T ABLE to call for help,
    but that she FAILED TO DO SO. The meaning obviously is that even though, being
    in the city, she could have cried for help she failed to do so and by such behaviour
    consented to sleeping with the man. As for the second passage the one who is
    forced to do anything is the man, not the woman. As can be seen from the
    parallel passage Exodus 22,16-17 the passage is not about raping a woman, but
    about seducing her.

    • sir_russ

      That’s some of that real Christian-ey “sophisticated theology” right there. Blame the victim for everything from rape to prayers not being answered. So are you advocating the killing of a woman for having consensual sex? So should a non-virgin bride be executed, too?

      As for distorting the meaning of Biblical texts, all we need to do to find the next distinct reading of those texts is find another Christian.

      You, patrick, do not speak for all Christendom, and, you, patrick, have nothing to offer concerning religion or the Biblical interpretation that is binding on anyone else, Christian or not. I am an atheist and my reading of Biblical passages is every bit as legitimate as anyone else’s. The Bible is an ordinary book and like any literature can be read with many interpretive approaches. Your’s is only one, and not the “right” one either. How do I know? Well, for one I can talk to other Christians who have different views. And, for another, I can simply imagine as many ways as I can for the words to be semantically interpreted. I can treat it all as literal(another Christian wiggle word the semantics of which Christians can’t agree on) and have one set of meanings, or I could handle it all as metaphor and make it mean basically whatever I want it to say. That Christianity is chunked up into 40,000 or so sects tells us that no one knows what Bible passages mean, so no one has the right way to interpret it.

      You can huff and puff all you like, but you will never prove yourself to be the ultimate authority, or even a significant one, on Biblical exegesis or hermeneutics. So, stop trying to act as if you are.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless Reasonably Faithless

      Deut 22:23-24: this certainly does apply to women who just didn’t want to call out. but it also does apply to rape victims who simply weren’t able to call or did but were not heard. if the rape victim wasn’t able to call, then she “failed to do so” and so would be executed.

      Deut 22:28-29: i’m sorry but this just comes across as insanity. if it is ordered that two people will be married, then *both* people have been forced to get married. how could you possibly argue any different?

      also, deuteronomy was written by different authors in a different time to exodus (deuteronomy is later) – you can’t say deuteronomy means X because exodus says Y. just have a look at the wording from deut 22:28-29:

      “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

      according to the NIV translators, it specifically refers to *rape* (other versions use words like “seize”). a different passage written by a different author in a different book does not constitute a valid reason for pretending “rape” doesn’t mean “rape”.

      • patrick.sele

        “Deut 22:23-24:
        this certainly does apply to women who just didn’t want to call out. but it
        also does apply to rape victims who simply weren’t able to call or did but were
        not heard. if the rape victim wasn’t able to call, then she “failed to do
        so” and so would be executed.”

        Of course, this
        is possible. But the question is if it was the aim of that passage that this
        would happen. From the subsequent passage one can see that this very likely is
        not the case:

        “But if out in
        the country a man happens to meet a girl pledged to be married and rapes her,
        only the man who has done this shall die. Do nothing to the girl; she has
        committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks
        and murders his neighbour, for the man found the girl in the country, and
        though the betrothed girl screamed, there was no one to rescue her.”
        (Deuteronomy 22,25-27, NIV)

        • http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless Reasonably Faithless

          Why do you think it is “unlikely”? Do you think the rapist would never even think of covering the woman’s mouth? It might be a handy way to try and escape detection (which might be one of your goals when you’re committing a crime that carries the death penalty).

          The second passage you quoted there punishes only the offender. But isn’t that kind of the most elementary requirement of a law?

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

    Being a progressive Christian, I agree that one can find heinous stuff in the Bible, and this clearly disproves inerrancy. But progressive Christians have always viewed the Bible as containing human thoughts about God rather the Almighty directly speaking to us.
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

    When you say that THE whole Bible endorses all these evil things, you are buying the Conservative claim that the Bible is an unified document speaking with only one voice on all these topics. This is not the case at all, what we now call the Bible is a gathering of many conflicting authors, sometimes arguing with one another.

    As for hell, I think that C.S. Lewis’s view works rather well if you believe that:
    1) hell means the cessation of existence
    2) many non-Christians will be given a chance on the other side of the grave.
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/the-dark-side-of-destiny/

    Cheers.