Tactics


Lack of FaithHe who makes a claim bears a burden to demonstrate the truth of his claim.  Theists have a burden to demonstrate their claim that God exists, and atheists have a burden to demonstrate their claim that God does not exist.  Nowadays, however, it’s common for atheists to claim that the theist alone bears a burden of justification.  They try to escape their own burden of justification by redefining atheism from a “belief that God does not exist” to “the absence of belief in God.”  Since only positive beliefs can be defended, they are off the hook.  All the pressure lies with the theist.

While I think their attempt to redefine atheism is intellectually dishonest, let’s grant the validity of their redefinition for a moment.  Greg Koukl observed that while it’s certainly true atheists lack a belief in God, they don’t lack beliefs about God.  When it comes to the truth of any given proposition, one only has three logical options: affirm it, deny it, withhold judgment (due to ignorance or the inability to weigh competing evidences).  As applied to the proposition “God exists,” those who affirm the truth of this proposition are called theists, those who deny it are called atheists, and those who withhold judgment are called agnostics. Only agnostics, who have not formed a belief, lack a burden to demonstrate the truth of their position.

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Empty prisons2Nobody likes the idea of hell – even believers – but many unbelievers simply loathe the concept.  They think punishing sinners in hell is not befitting of a supposedly loving God, and appeal to the doctrine as evidence against the truth of Christianity.  Is hell truly a stain on God’s character?  I don’t think so, and when the skeptic examines his own beliefs about justice a bit more carefully, I think he’ll come to agree that hell is not the egregious concept he claims it is.  Here’s a tactical way to get your skeptical friend to see this point.

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Burden of ProofIn philosophy, a burden of proof refers to one’s epistemic duty to provide reasons in support his assertion/claim/position.  While listening to a debate recently, I noticed that one of the participants spoke of a “burden of justification” rather than “burden of proof.”  I thought this terminological shift was helpful since when most people hear the word “proof” they think “certainty.”  Clearly, no one has the burden to demonstrate their position with apodictic certainty.  “Justification,” on the other hand, makes it clear that one only has a burden to back up their claims with good reasons.  I am going to be intentional about adopting this terminology in the future.

We're all atheistsIn two separate posts I have addressed a common piece of atheist rhetoric that I like to call the “one less God zinger.”  It goes roughly as follows: “We’re all atheists.  Christians are atheists with respect to all gods but their own, while I am an atheist with respect to all gods, including your own.  When you understand why you reject all other gods, you’ll understand why I reject all gods.”

While this is rhetorically effective, it does not stand up to scrutiny.  While much could be said of this zinger, I only want to focus on the first two sentences.  Is it true that we are all atheists?  Can Christians be properly described as atheists because we deny the existence of all gods other than YHWH?  Not at all.

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Scott McKnight alerted me to a couple of posts by philosopher Jeff Cook on the topic of desire and reason in evangelism (1,2).  Cook contends that “the debate about God today is not about what’s reasonable—it is almost entirely about preferences and desire.”  That doesn’t mean he is opposed to using reason or providing evidence for Christianity in our evangelism of the lost.  He simply believes that this alone will not persuade most people because it is not rationality alone that causes them to reject Christianity. 

Cook proposes that if people are going to be persuaded by our reasons for Christianity, they must first want there to be a God.  In his words, “Wanting God to exist is more important than believing in God.  By ‘more important,’ I mean desire is more crucial to the transformation of a person’s heart, more helpful in moving them toward faith in Christ, and more instrumental in one’s ‘salvation’ than right thinking. … It seems then that enticing the passions and wills of those who do not follow Christ is far more important than targeting their intellect with arguments for God’s existence. Showing that God is desirable will be the primary target of the successful 21st century apologist, for wanting God to exist opens highways for subpar apologetics; yet a closed heart will not here [sic] the voice of wisdom.” 

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I have a question for my non-theist readers: Why is it that I can chop up a tomato and eat it, but I cannot do the same to a human being?

The next time you hear someone say they are not a Christian because there are too many hypocrites in the church, here are a handful of tactful ways to respond: 

  1. What do you mean by “hypocrite?” (You want to make the point that a hypocrite is not merely someone who is morally imperfect, but someone who says he believes X but purposely fails to practice X)
  2. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church.  Jesus told us there would be.  But Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite.  What do you think about Jesus?
  3. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church.  Jesus told us there would be.  But there are also genuine Christians who are following Jesus.  Why do you choose to let the hypocrites dictate your response to Christianity rather than the true followers of Jesus?
  4. What does that have to do with you?  Couldn’t Christianity still be true even if a lot of confessing Christians are bad people?  The question God is concerned with is not what others do, but what you believe and how you live.
  5. Are you saying that because other people fail to live up to their ideals you don’t have to even try?  
  6. If you can’t tolerate all the hypocrites in church, why not follow Jesus independently of a local church body—to avoid all of those immoral Christians? (This will get them to tell you the real reasons they are not a Christian) 

Do you have any more to add to the mix?

When someone says to you, “You shouldn’t impose your morality on other people,” proceed as follows:

YOU:  “So you think it is wrong to impose one’s moral point of view on other people?”
THEM:  “Yes.”
YOU:  “Then why are you imposing your moral point of view on me?
THEM:  “What?”
YOU:  “To say it is wrong to impose one’s moral point of view on other people is itself a moral point of view, and you are imposing that moral point of view one me by morally condemning me for morally condemning the actions of other people.  You are guilty of doing the very thing you say should not be done.”

The fact of the matter is that we all have a moral point of view, and all of us apply that moral standard to others and judge them accordingly.  The question is not whether we have moral standards, or whether we will apply them to other people, but rather whether or not our moral standards are true.

Frank Beckwith has made the observation that when people cannot refute your argument, they often trump it with spirituality. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. You state your reasons for believing P rather than Q, and your Christian brother responds by saying, “I know that’s not true because God told me Q is true.”  Or your Christian sister responds, “You only believe that because you are carnal.” Don’t fall for this cheap tactic.

You could respond by saying to your brother, “Actually, God told me P is true, so I know you didn’t hear from God.” And to your sister you can respond, “Ok, I’m carnal. So can you tell this carnal brother of yours why my argument is wrong, and why I should believe your position/interpretation?”

Back in September 2010 I addressed a clever rhetorical gem that has become quite popular among atheists.  It’s what I’ve come to call the “one less God zinger.”  It appears in several different forms, but could be summed up by the following representation: “We’re all atheists.  Christians are atheists with respect to all gods but their own, while I am an atheist with respect to all gods, including your own.  When you understand why you reject all other gods, you’ll understand why I reject all gods.”

I invited your criticisms of this zinger, and offered a couple of my own.  Since then I have stumbled on other apologists’ response to it, allowing me to further develop my own.  What follows is an updated evaluation and counter-responses.

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Oxford professor of chemistry, Peter Atkins (atheist) recently engaged in dialogue with Oxford professor of mathematics, John Lennox (theist), on the question of God’s existence.  While atheists such as Atkins often portray their atheism as being the result of being brave enough to follow the evidence to where it leads, at one point in the debate Atkins showed his true hand.

LENNOX: Do you think it’s an illegitimate thing from a scientific perspective…to see whether scientifically one can establish whether intelligence needs to be involved in the origin of life?

ATKINS: … Let’s just take the laws of nature as available.  And seeing that, letting them run free in the environment that we can speculate existed…billions of years ago, and seeing whether that sort of process leads to life.  And if it does, that seems to me to abrogate the need for the imposition of intelligence.

LENNOX: And if it doesn’t?

ATKINS: Then, if we go on trying (we may have to try for a hundred years), and if in the end we come to the conclusion that an external intelligence must have done it, then we will have to accept that.

LENNOX: Would you be prepared to accept that?

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In today’s society everyone seems to be hyper-sensitive to judgmentalism.  The minute you tell someone you disagree with something they are doing, you are accused of being judgmental.  Of course, it always escapes their notice that they are judging you for being judgmental, so they are guilty of both judgmentalism and hypocrisy!  But the problem runs deeper than mere self-contradiction.

As the term is commonly used today, judgmentalism is thought to be limited to expressions of moral disapproval of X, or attempts to correct some person P for doing X.  In reality, judgment involves both moral disapproval and moral approval.  Judgment requires that we distinguish what is right/good from what is wrong/evil.  Judgments are involved when you say X is good, as well as when you say X is bad.  Indeed, the only way to say some X is good is if you know what bad is, and know X is not that.  The only way to avoid making judgments is to make no moral distinctions whatsoever.  No sane person can do this, nor is this a worthy goal.  Moral judgments are indispensable to a healthy society.

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When it comes to the issue of abortion, both opponents and proponents support the freedom of choice and the sanctity of human life.  Those on the pro-choice side, however, think a woman’s freedom to choose trumps the life of the unborn.  Those on the pro-life side think the sanctity of the life of the unborn trumps a woman’s freedom to choose.  How do we break the impasse? 

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In recent days I have noticed several of the “new atheists” employing a clever and rhetorically effective soundbite while evangelizing for atheism.  Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens come to the top of my mind, but no one has encapsulated this sound bite better than Stephen Roberts: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

I consider myself a fairly seasoned apologist, but I must admit that this little rhetorical gem stopped me dead in my tracks.  “How in the world should I respond to that?”, I thought.  Fortunately for me, others have been thinking about this as well.  Michael Patton has done a good job formulating the beginning of a response already.  I would encourage you to read his thoughts on the matter.  He even takes on the claim that belief in God is like belief in Santa Clause, so you get a “two-fer.”

I think my first response would be that the atheist’s claim that “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you” is a misuse of language.  To be an atheist means one does not believe in the existence of any God or gods, so it would be inappropriate to call Christians “atheists.”  The claim is rhetorically effective, however, because it makes it sound as if the Christian and atheist differ in only one minor detail (the Christian denies all gods but one, while the atheist denies all gods).  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A world in which even one deity exists is a radically different from a world in which no divine being(s) exists.

How would you respond to the claim?

I just love Greg Koukl!  In his most recent issue of Solid Ground he provides a wonderful response to a challenge atheist Michael Shermer likes to lodge against theistic moral objectivists: “If there was no God, would you still be good?”   

Shermer expects an affirmative answer from his theist detractors.  If theists would be good even without God, he reasons, then God is not necessary for morality as the theist claims.  While this is a clever rhetorical device, it misses the point entirely.  The theist’s argument is not that one must believe in God to behave in ways people generally consider “good.”  Our argument is that if God does not exist, there is no such thing as “goodness” at all.  As an individual or as a culture we might prefer to help a grandmother cross the street as opposed to running her over with our car, but neither behavior is morally superior to the other.  All human acts are just molecules in motion, and the last I checked, neither molecules nor motion come in “good” and “bad” varieties.  Morality is not a quality of matter, but of mind.  

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Brett Kunkle, the student impact speaker from Stand to Reason, relates a story that typifies the point I was making in Getting to our Kids First:

After my final teaching session, the son approached me, quickly launching into a laundry list of objections to Christianity.  A lengthy conversation ensued, covering topics like objective moral truths, utilitarian ethical theory, Kant’s categorical imperative, retributive justice, divine hiddenness, intelligent design, and the experience of the Holy Spirit.  From the conversation, I guessed he was a graduate student in philosophy.  Wrong.  He was a high school senior.

His objections boiled down to this:  “I’ve been taught that Christianity’s truthfulness is confirmed by my experience.  I am no longer having powerful Christian experiences.  In addition, I’m reading arguments against Christianity.  I now wonder if it’s rational for me to remain a Christian.” 

Let’s hope this kid can be persuaded out of his doubts by the evidence, and let his story serve as a lesson for all of us parents and leaders.  We’ve got to get to our kids before the enemies of the faith do.

Updated 1/19/10

Greg Koukl has a really good response to those who say “Who are you to say?” in response to our disapproval of same-sex marriage:

Who are you to say?”  That challenge works both ways.  First, if my disapproval isn’t legitimate, then why is my approval legitimate?  If I don’t have the right to judge something wrong…, I certainly don’t have the right to judge it right….  Second, why is it that I can’t make a moral judgment here, but apparently you can?

The appeal for a change in marriage laws is an attempt to change the moral consensus about homosexuality.  You invite me to make a moral judgment, then you challenge my right to make a judgment when I don’t give the answer you want.

Building on Greg’s thoughts, I think the most concise, tactical response to the “Who are you to say it’s wrong?” challenge is simply to ask in return, “And who are you to say it’s acceptable?”  This response makes it clear that both parties are making claims, and those claims need to be justified.  The burden of proof is not just on the person in favor of prohibition, but is also on the person in favor of permission.

I am reading Antony Flew’s book, There is a God.  In an appendix written by Roy Varghese, he relates what appears to be an apocryphal, but nevertheless insightful exchange between a skeptical student and his wise professor.  The student asks his teacher, “How can I be sure I even exist,” to which his teacher responded, “Who’s asking?”  Classic!

Closed Mind2It’s common for those who reject the Christian worldview to accuse Christians of being closed-minded.  Often this retort comes on the heels of a Christian’s outspokenness about his/her beliefs.  How can you respond when someone tells you you’re being closed-minded, or that you need to be more open-minded?

The first thing you ought to do is ask the person what s/he means by such terms.  S/he could mean one of several things, so we should not presume to know the answer.  In fact, s/he may not even know exactly what s/he means, and our inquiry may force him/her to think it through for the first time.  The truth of the matter is that those who use such terms often sling them blithely at anyone who disagrees with their point of view,[1] never stopping to think about what exactly it is that they mean.  And since the accusation is usually effective at silencing their opponents they continue to use it over and over again as the trump card of choice when discussing religion with “right-wing, fundamentalist wackos” such as ourselves.  If we can respond thoughtfully to his charge, not only will we rescue ourselves from a distasteful allegation, but we may disarm him/her from using this unfounded charge on other Christians in the future.

While there are several ways people define closed-mindedness, typically it is a label given to anyone who comes to a conclusion on a controversial matter, and believes that conclusion is true to the exclusion of all others.  We are told we must be open-, rather than closed-minded, which means we have an intellectual obligation to remain “on the fence” of all divisive issues, never taking a definitive position, and never claiming that one position has more merit than another.  There are a few ways to respond to this understanding of open- and closed-mindedness.

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ToleranTolerancece is a two-way street, but in today’s world its application is typically one-way.  In the name of tolerance we are told we must tolerate those who do not believe in God, are pro-abortion, pro-same-sex marriage, etc.  Interestingly, however, those who hold to those viewpoints often refuse to tolerate us.  We are forced to take down religious monuments because somebody is offended that they are forced to look at it.  We are forced to forego prayers at school graduation ceremonies because someone who doesn’t believe in God may feel like an outsider.  Guess what?  The Constitution protects rights, not feelings.  Frankly I’m not concerned with how they feel.  It’s called disagreement.  Everybody experiences it, and the mature person learns how to deal with it.

When you disagree with someone you have one of three options: persuade them to adopt your view, pursue change through democratic initiatives, or suck it up and deal with it.  Christians have to suck it up all the time.  I disagree with atheists, and I disagree with the way religion is being forced out of the public square because of a few cry-babies supported by an out-of-control judiciary, but you don’t see me shouting “offense” because I didn’t get to participate in a public graduation prayer.  No one seems to be concerned about how Christians feel.  We are told to lump it when we cry, but when atheists and adherents to minority religions cry they get the whole world changed for them.

While liberals tell us we need to be tolerant, they have need of their own medication.  They need to learn to tolerate public prayer, religious talk, religious monuments, and national recognition of the Creator on our money and in our pledge.  It’s time they learn that tolerance means “deal with it!”

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