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Reflecting on the Top 10 tips for Christian – atheist dialogue

May 22, 2014

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’.

Atheist experience meme

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.


From → Comment

  1. Interesting piece Rob, and I might agree with your overall message about addressing the strongest arguments in position we oppose.

    So I can’t help but zero in on this:
    “…Dillahunty has raised a potential objection [that perfect justice and mercy are a contradiction], 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.

    If I understand correctly, you’re saying that Christianity resolves this contradiction because God forgives our sins. The sacrifice of Jesus (and that’s a logical detail to argue elsewhere/another time) provides the necessary justice and punishment for the sins we commit.

    Just to clarify: Do you mean all of them? Are there any sins, or is there any pattern of sinning, which is not forgiveable by God?

    I know you don’t know the answer for sure – as I’ve noted before, Christians use the get-out-of-dilemma-free card here by saying we can’t judge – only God can do that…. But please, give us your best guess. If you counsel people in your capacity as a Christian advisor, you must have some belief or answer for this, even if it comes with some degree of uncertainty.

    Consider that if you answer yes (that some things are unforgivable), I’ll want to know what they are, and I will assume committers will go to hell rather than heaven they die. And this will of course demonstrate that God is not always merciful. The crucifixion of Jesus obviously wasn’t sufficient to clear the way for everything ‘bad’ that a person might do.

    If you answer no (that no sin is unforgivable), then is the heaven/hell thing arbitrary? What really are the criteria for going one way or the other? Or does the crucifixion thing now mean that we all get in upstairs anyway? (And if so, doesn’t that make all New Testament mentions of hell irrelevant?)

    This appears to be a significant dilemma, and I sincerely do not understand how this is resolved by Christian doctrine. Certainly your explanation here doesn’t answer it for me, and I doubt it would for Matt Dillahunty either. If you can provide a satisfying answer for those that recognise the objection, then we might have common ground for agreeing that Dillahunty is ‘lazy’.

    • Paul, Thanks for your comments on this and my apologies for the delay in responding. You ask some really excellent questions here (and I’m glad we generally agree with the tenor of the post).

      In terms of the ambit of the sins forgiven, I do mean, yes, all sins of the believer are forgiven. There is nothing that is unforgivable.

      In terms of your criteria of heaven/hell being arbitrary, I’m not quite sure I follow you here. ‘Hell’ is the just punishment of our rejection of God – heaven is a gift by the grace of God. We certainly don’t all get in upstairs, the ‘criteria’ for going one way or another is trusting in God’s righteousness (i.e. Jesus) which makes the believer united to Christ and hence no longer bears the penalty of their rejection.

      There is much more to unpack and discuss here, which I’m happy to do. Maybe I should do a skeptics guide to the atonement? Interestingly your comments are far more sophisticated and thoughtful than Dillahunty’s. My criticism of Dellahunty was more general in that he appears to reject an ‘in principle’ resolution to the potential paradox of justice and mercy – which Christian doctrine does offers a solution.

      • Thanks Rob, and you can relax on the apologies about timing. I reckon the debate/discussion has no time bounding.

        “…In terms of the ambit of the sins forgiven, I do mean, yes, all sins of the believer are forgiven. There is nothing that is unforgivable…”
        “…he appears to reject an ‘in principle’ resolution to the potential paradox of justice and mercy – which Christian doctrine does offers a solution.”

        This might get right to the nub of the problem, although you haven’t been completely explicit, so let me use different words to restate what you believe. You can tell me if you disagree:

        Actually, there is one unforgiveable sin, and that is non-belief. Not accepting God and Jesus is punishable by damnation. This is the one sin for which God shall show no mercy.

        I’m sure you realise that acceptance of this apparent truth is one of the most astoundingly bizarre inconsistencies that skeptics see in Christianity. The majority of us just cannot fathom how you can reconcile this thinking with the supposed logic of a merciful God.

        So forget about the skeptics guide to atonement. Instead, I challenge you to write a post about why worshippers go to heaven and non-believers go to hell when they die. Include results of what (you think) happens to all the various categories of folks that would be in the various ambiguous areas of worship vs. atheism.

        If you can explain this in a way that is consistent and satisfying to your average skeptic, then: a) you’ll be the first person, ever, to do this; and b) you’ll go a long way to resolving one of the most significant flaws in contemporary Christian theology.

        More on Matt Dillahunty later… (see below, maybe.)

      • I’m glad that you are happy with extended dialogue – I think that can be very fruitful as it allows time to reflect and ponder between each exchange. Thanks for the challenge – I’ll write a response on why worshippers go to heaven and why non-believers go to hell (in many ways that will be a skeptics guide to the atonement). So stay tuned and I’ll get to that soon.

      • OK, here’s a brief follow-up on one other point.
        “Interestingly your comments are far more sophisticated and thoughtful than Dillahunty’s…”
        That’s a flattering thing to say, Rob, but you I think you overstate my sophistication and understate Dillahunty’s.
        It looks like you’ve taken a two-sentence soundbite meme and assumed that Dillahunty has leapt to a conclusion [about the contradiction of justice and mercy] without consideration of the Jesus sacrifice story as a resolution to that.
        I had a quick look into Matt Dillahunty’s background – apparently he was a fundamentalist Christian for 20 years and a Baptist minister – so my guess is that he is familiar with this core piece of Christian doctrine.
        If you do recognise that the types of questions I’ve been asking about this topic are difficult to give clear, consistent and compelling answers to (see my earlier comment: Are we to understand that the skeptic / non-worshipper is to be shown no mercy?), then you yourself would be disproving the assertion that Dillahunty’s quote was ‘lazy’.

      • I still maintain that your position is more sophisticated than Dillahunty’s. I wouldn’t be so sure that being a ‘fundamentalist Christian and Baptist minister’ would mean that he would certainly be familiar with this piece of doctrine. The other quote I mentioned was from Dan Barker who was also a preacher for a long time, yet he appears to be completely ignorant of Christian doctrine and exegesis (or possibly deliberately deceptive, which is more concerning). Dillahunty doesn’t criticise the substance of the Christian solution to wrath/mercy which you have done (hence your answer is more sophisticated) but he merely states that no solution exists – which is untrue. I’ll respond to your other commennt as well.

  2. James Garth permalink

    I agree that James’ response was a thoughtful one. Indeed, this line stuck in my mind:

    “Why does the Christian apologist concentrate so much on Dawkins and Hitchens, yet ignore Oppy, Drange and Sobel?”

    It stuck in my mind so much that I think it’s actually precipitated a bit of a change in my behaviour. I’ve read both high-tier atheists and ‘rock star’ atheists, but I think moving forward I’ll concentrate more on the former. There are enough effective rebuttals of the weaker points of ‘New Atheism’ to fill a bookshelf, I don’t think I can add much more to them. I’ve always been one for raising the calibre of the discourse, so moving forward I’ll explicitly try to absorb, engage with, quote from post on and comment on the likes of Ruse, Oppy, Smith, Martin, Baggini and Sobel.

    James G.

  3. kennethjwest permalink

    An interesting book to download is Debating Christian Theism (ed. J P Moreland et al). It features believers and non-believers engaging with each other on aspects of Christian thought. It’s not entry level, so be prepared to consult your reference books to keep up with the ideas.
    The chapter by Stenger is the only clanger I’ve read so far, but the rest is good stuff. The conversation on omnipotence is a real eye opener for me.

  4. Ron permalink

    On Christ’s self-sacrifice:

    The doctrine of vicarious redemption—the proposition that the innocent can pay the debts of the guilty—runs counter to all rules of western jurisprudence. How can scapegoating ever bring about “perfect” justice? No sane court of law would propose such a remedy, nor would any sane society accept such a solution.

    Furthermore, an act of forgiveness requires only thing: the extension of forgiveness, and nothing further. Demanding blood sacrifices in addition is completely extraneous to the process, so it’s beyond me why an all-powerful would engage in such a pointless exercise.

    On Jesus and slavery:

    Parable or not, the passage in Luke 12:47-48 (“And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few.”) makes it clear that Jesus condones both slavery and the beating of slaves who do not follow their master’s will because he never explicitly condemns either. And the Greek word doulos here means “slave” or “bondman” and not the word “servant” that appears in many English translations. Moreover, US slave owners cited this passage as justification for their right to beat slaves. (In fact, this passage is specifically mentioned in Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, the autobiographical account upon which the movie was based.)

    • Ron, Thanks for your comment, but I’m afraid your reading of Luke 12 does not make it clear that Jesus condone slavery. As I said, he condemns it. Yes, I agree that the word is doulos, but the context of the beatings is eschatological and the last judgement. It is dreadful that this passage was used to justify the beating of slaves for it is an appalling application. As I’m sure you’re aware, just because it has been used in a certain way doesn’t make it right does it?

      In terms of ‘justice’, you raise a good point on what would constitute ‘perfect’ justice. What do you propose is the best way of administering ‘justice’? How can the ‘guilty’ be appropriately punished?

  5. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘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! ‘

    Lazy atheists assume that it is just wrong for Jesus to cut people to pieces, without realising the love Jesus has for the people he cuts to pieces.

  6. “perfect justice and mercy are in contradiction”
    God does not forgive free, which would make it unjust,
    but accepts the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, to forgive the repentant.

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