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: Krauss has 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.
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.