Tactics


We’re living in a time when people tend to isolate themselves intellectually. Not only do they not take it upon themselves to search out viewpoints that differ from their own, but they actually shun people who do not agree with them. We see this all the time on social media. You post something that person X does not agree with. Rather than reading what you have to say and starting a dialogue regarding your differences in hopes of helping each other discover the truth, person X ignores the post, or worse yet, unfriends you.

This sort of behavior is consistent with our cancel culture, but frankly, it is childish and foolish. I use these words advisedly, not as a smear. This is childish because only children plug their ears when they don’t want to hear what you have to say, not sensible adults, and thus when adults engage in this kind of behavior they are literally acting childish. This is foolish because this sort of behavior makes it impossible for one to grow intellectually. Everyone has false beliefs. The only way to discover which of our beliefs are false and correct those beliefs is to be open to listening to alternative viewpoints. If we ignore alternative viewpoints and shun those who hold to them, we stunt this process, guaranteeing that we will not grow in our knowledge of truth and wisdom.

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Have you ever tried striking up a conversation with someone about the existence of God only to find that they have no interest in the question?  Trying to continue the conversation is like trying to talk to a two year old about quantum mechanics.  Strategically, you must find a way to get the unbeliever to see that the question of God’s existence is relevant to his/her life.  I think the most effective approach is to appeal to common existential questions that every human wonders about.  This could include:

  • What do you think happens when you die?
  • Where did everything come from?
  • What is the source of our moral awareness?

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when-life-beginsWhen someone supports abortion on the basis that “nobody knows when life begins,” my immediate reaction is to immediately correct their misinformation with the facts of biology.  Doing so, however, does not always end up with them becoming pro-life.  People will often move the goalpost, offering another justification for abortion.

To prevent this, you could ask: “Does this mean that if we knew when life began – and we found that it began at conception – that you join me in opposing abortions?”  If they say yes, then they commit themselves to becoming pro-life once you have provided them with the biological evidence.  Of course, they could always say no, in which case you might ask them, “If it’s not our ignorance of when life begins that justifies abortion, then what does?”  While this may prevent you from being able to provide them with the biological evidence to demonstrate their error, at least it will refocus the conversation to the reason(s) they think justifies abortion – which allows you to be more pointed in your apologetic, and provides a better chance of them changing their mind.

Christian apologist, Tyler Vela, has observed that atheists like to define “atheism” and “belief” in very nontraditional ways, and these definitions lead to an absurdity. Consider the following: “Atheist” is redefined as someone who merely lacks the belief that God exists (rather than someone who believes God does not exist), and “belief” is redefined as holding something to be true without evidence (rather than a mental disposition concerning the truth of some proposition). Given these definitions, if God did something by which all people had direct and incontrovertible evidence that He existed, then no one could believe in God (since His existence is no longer an opinion without evidence). If no one believes in God because they know God exists, then they are atheists (because atheists lack a belief in God’s existence). Ironically, then, everyone would be an atheist precisely because they know God exists.

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Apathy-I-dont-careOne of the most frustrating experiences is trying to talk to someone about God that is apathetic concerning His existence.  They are not interested in your arguments or your experience.  They are not interested in the topic, or claim it has no relevance to their life.  How do you advance the conversation when confronted with a game-stopping attitude like apathy?  I don’t think there is any one tactic for stirring someone out of their apathy (it will differ from person to person), but here are some probing questions that may help: (more…)

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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