Reflecting on the Top 10 tips for Christian – atheist dialogue
Recently leading Christian author and public Christian spokesperson John Dickson offered 10 top tips for atheists to engage with the Christian message at Easter. This led to an intelligent and thoughtful response by James from Reasonably Faithless.
I realise that this debate occurred a little while ago, but it has taken some time to think through some of the issues. I have framed my response in two parts. This post is some reflections and suggestions on the meta issue of how Christians and atheists should engage. I’ll respond to some of the actual arguments debated between Dickson and James in another post.
Understand your opponent
James gives Dickson two basic tips in response to his article. First, James proposes that any potential apologist (on either side) should acknowledge the particular position of the opponent and hence any engagement should be on the terms of that particular interlocutor.
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.
This is very helpful advice and soundly responds to Dickson’s third point about his perspective on the status of Young Earth Creationism. Whilst from Dickson’s perspective this view may not be ‘mainstream’, this conclusion may be harder to draw for the atheist depending on what type of Christian they are dealing with.
Personally I also find it frustrating to engage when opponents make assumptions about you which are unfounded (I was even confused for an atheist once! – now that was confusing). So this is a very helpful comment. This of course does raise a problem of how to make ‘general’ statements about a particular group e.g. the ‘religious’ or’atheists’, but I think James’ wise advice is that we should be cautious and careful about making any broad general statements at all (I’m also mindful that I’ll potentially make some later in this post).
Respond to the strongest arguments
James’ second tip to Dickson is also true where he encourages Christians to focus less on Dawkins et al and instead focus on the arguments of the more sophisticated non-believers.
Why does the Christian apologist concentrate so much on Dawkins and Hitchens, yet ignore Oppy, Drange and Sobel?
This again is an astute reflection and James’ piece has given me a great new bibliography of atheist authors to read, digest and think about. James does highlight one of the main reasons that Christians are preoccupied with responding to the ‘new atheists’, because they are louder. Yet there are other pressing reasons to respond – Dawkins and co are also very popular among atheists and extremely influential in the modern Christian/atheist dialogue.
Last year I hosted a public conversation between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig in the CBD of Melbourne (we actually had Graham Oppy as the moderator!) We contemplated having Oppy as the conversation partner with Craig but due to certain circumstances he wasn’t able to participate. Yet if we did elect to have Oppy there is no way we would have filled the Town Hall (around 1700 tickets sold for the Krauss/Craig event). Whilst we were more likely to have had a more intellectual and philosophically substantive conversation, it just wouldn’t have sold. Atheist ‘rock stars’ like Krauss and Dawkins are far more popular in atheist groups than those like Graham Oppy. Moreover few atheists ever quote Oppy, Drange or Sobel in discussions and public debates and on the letters page of our newspapers. The new atheist ‘rock stars’ are certainly loud, but they are also popular and influential. This is why so much energy is spent engaging the ilk of Dawkins and Hitchens.
So whilst it’s right for both sides of the debate to whinge that the other doesn’t engage those with the strongest arguments, this is a symptom of our rock star Twitter popular culture, where intelligent debate is substituted for a ‘meme war’. It is this same culture which has also led to a poor level of intellectual debate in our political arena.
The challenge for us all is to rise above this. Perhaps atheists should encourage other atheists to read and quote Oppy, Plantiga and even the Bible and some decent commentaries (I’ll say more about this below). And perhaps Christians should get other Christians to do the same and then we can have a much more rigorous and intellectually satisfying discussion.
The lazy atheist (and the lazy Christian)
My closing remarks summarise some of the reasons that I think Dickson wrote his original post . One of my frustrations, and I also think John Dickson’s, of dealing with many modern atheists (here I have to be careful about generalising) is that they are generally lazy. This is not always the case, but my experience has been that many atheists have failed to do any adequate reading or research, particularly in the area of Biblical scholarship and the historical Jesus. It appears that many atheists have not read much of the Bible as an adult, nor much (if any) academic theology.
Moreover atheists trumpet theological and exegetical ‘difficulties’ to the Christian which can be resolved satisfactorily by consulting a decent commentary (I’m not saying that his is the case with every theological quandary, but many can be resolved by consulting some academic theology). A classic example is Matt Dillahunty host of the TV show ‘The Atheist Experience’ where he claimed that:
‘The idea that the Christian god is just, is directly contradicted by the idea that the Christian god is merciful. Perfect justice and any mercy are necessarily in contradiction because mercy is a suspension of justice’.
I completely agree with the second sentence of his statement – perfect justice and mercy are in contradiction. Interestingly this then creates an enormous problem with Islam where there is no seeming solution to Allah being all just and all merciful. It also causes problems for Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape where he claims that maximising well-being is not in contravention to justice, when it is.
Yet to claim that this is a problem with Christianity is ignorant of basic Christian doctrine where mercy and justice are met in Christ’s voluntary self-sacrifice on the cross (incidentally this is why the incarnation – Jesus being God is so crucial, because God takes upon the punishment for human rebellion onto himself). There is justice because sin is punished (in Jesus) yet this same act enables God to forgive and dispense mercy. The Apostle Paul writes, ‘God presented him [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ Romans 3:25-26. Tony Payne describes it aptly, ‘How can Allah be all-just and yet all-merciful at the same time? That’s what the cross does in Christian thought – it’s the means by which the utterly moral God remains moral, and yet forgives immoral people. He deals with the punishment himself, in pouring it out on his own Son, so that guilty people (like me) can be forgiven’. (Islam in our Backyard, p133).
Dillahunty has raised a potential objection, but an understanding of basic Christian doctrine offers a solution. So why does Dillahunty present this as a significant obstacle? Either he is ignorant or he is intent on firing a ‘meme war’? Either way, it’s lazy.
Another example comes from Victor Stenger in his book, ‘The New Atheism’. He quotes Dan Barker and suggests that Jesus encouraged the beating of slaves in Luke 12:47-48 (p.110). Yet a vary basic examination of this passage demonstrates that Jesus was in fact claiming the opposite.
The context of this verse is a parable where Jesus is speaking about the final judgement – not about everyday experience now. In the verses immediately preceding this (Luke 12:45-46) Jesus is as critical of a human servant who beats his slaves. Jesus is so critical that the man is judged by Jesus (the returning master) and cut to pieces! So what Jesus is speaking about in verses 47-48 is the final judgement where the servant who knows the masters (i.e. Jesus’) will and fails to act responsibly will be judged more severely than the man who is ignorant of Jesus’ will. This passage offers no imperative nor justification for beating slaves. Instead it speaks about the final judgement where Jesus will punish those who mistreat (and beat) others and ignore the message.
Basic comprehension of the passage Luke 12:45-48 will reveal this conclusion – so then why do Barker and Stenger claim the opposite? Either they are ignorant or intent on creating a ‘meme war’ – either way it’s lazy.
This is my problem with ‘lazy’ atheism – sound bites are substituted for academic and rigorous argumentation. The lack of rigour in exploring and critiquing the Christian message often appears that many atheist’s opinions on Jesus and the Bible (and of God) are based more on ignorance and prejudice than on rigorous evidence-based reasoning. Hence I’d suggest that an atheist actually read the New Testament as an adult, consult a decent commentary (the Pillar series is a good start) and maybe read something by Richard Bauckham on the historical Jesus.
Yet I also think that James is equally and rightly frustrated by the lazy Christian – Christians who haven’t thought through their position very carefully, who fail to understand the weaknesses in their own position, who assume that William Lane Craig is infallible, who caricature their opponents and resort to ‘faith’ as the ultimate and unassailable ‘reason’ to believe.
I’m frustrated by both. I think the dialogue between Christians and atheists can be enhanced and improved if we reject this laziness and seek to truly understand the best arguments that the other side has.
This was in many respects the motivation I had to read The God Delusion. As a Christian believer I had given up a lot materially to study at theological college and I wanted reassure myself that I wasn’t giving up this material wealth for a lie. Hence I read The God Delusion wanting the best atheist arguments for atheism so I could properly assess my own beliefs. It was a real challenge and yet deeply rewarding period of my life. Reading Dawkins helped me confront a number of issues I’d never really fully appreciated before. Yet, ironically Dawkins ultimately strengthened my Christian belief. As I explored and reflected on his works and I began to appreciate how poor his argumentation and logic was at times (he makes many errors of philosophy, theology, history and exegesis) I felt that if this was the best atheism had to offer then maybe the Christian message had something going for it after all. Perhaps at that time I should have read a little more Oppy! (I certainly will be reading more Oppy now)
So please, let’s listen and read the strongest advocates for the position we reject, let’s think hard about these issues and be polite and respectful as we discuss these most important questions. Then perhaps the truth may be seen.