The Worst Objections are The Best
If you’ve spent a decent amount of time looking at the whole Atheism/Theism debate, you may have noticed something odd. The most influential teachers for the majority of online Christian apologists, often hold PhD’s in philosophy of religion, theology, or something else directly related to religion and/or critical thinking about God and religion. On the other hand, the most influential teachers for majority of the online Atheists, are often biologists, Youtube Atheists, comedians, and so on. None of these people have formal training in anything directly pertaining to religion, but are considered authorities on all things religious. Why is this? A lot of responses could be given, but for our purposes, we need to address one.
A good number of online atheists do themselves a tremendous disservice when they consider the top Christian thinkers to be idiots, dishonest, or not worthy of serious consideration. They confidently declare that all the leading arguments from natural theology are utter illogical-rubbish, and even go so far as to sincerely believe they can smoke leading debaters and philosophers such as William Lane Craig, in a one on one debate. This leaves many apologists completely perplexed by this apparent being so far out of touch with reality. But what if I told you that we may have the same problem, only expressed differently?
Atheists will simply be left behind in the intellectual dust if they continue writing off all the most sophisticated and scholarly apologetic arguments as some nonsensical drivel that they don’t need to seriously engage with. This is probably why Richard Dawkins had such painfully embarrassing objections to the arguments from Natural Theology in his famous, The God Delusion. He didn’t take the arguments seriously enough to really wrestle with them, and likely figured he didn’t need to. He either overestimated his own ability, or underestimated their credibility. Either way, his objections to the arguments would only be found to be relatively impressive to a person who has never read the literature carefully, if at all.
Echoing the same noxious mixture of ignorance and arrogance, many online atheists are simply working against themselves when they foolishly claim that the top scholarly work produced by Theists can be brushed off with a mere handwave or one liner. They are being left in their ignorance, and having comedians, scientists, and Youtube starts (who themselves are not learned from scholars on religion) to lead them.
In a similar way, we often are guilty of doing the same thing with non-academic objections. Objections such as, “You wouldn’t be a Christian if you weren’t born in America”, “all religions are just different roads that lead to God”, “Jesus never existed”, and so on. Because these objections are patently weak when we view them from a philosophical, logical, or factual pair of eyes, we almost naturally conclude that they aren’t worthy of serious discussion. All the while, either uncaring or entirely oblivious that culture is eating up these objections left and right; these are the objections that contribute to a loss of faith for most people. This is why I say, in a weird way, “the worst objections to Christianity are the best objections to Christianity.”
Who Is our Target?
Have you ever looked at the statistics on the growth of atheism over the last couple of centuries? If so, have you ever wondered why atheism can’t win over a very large number of adherents, despite the constant inferences to being today’s intellectual elite? And when they are drawing in people, it usually isn’t because of any strong arguments in favor of atheism. Instead, the growth usually follows strong negative emotions towards religion. Perhaps many years ago, when the cultural authority could have been said to be academia, logic, and fact, logical arguments may have carried a lot more weight concerning the growth of atheism. But gone are those days. Cultural interest is by and large much more directed towards personal emotions and experience.
But, if the authority for most people in popular culture is no longer academia, logic, and facts, then what it is? If I’m correct here, in our culture, the individual is taken to be their own authority. How they feel and their experiences are what they consider to be authoritative. The cultural doctrine is now personal freedom, self-expression, and subjective relativism. Perhaps this may be one of the reasons why we are often incapable of communicating apologetics effectively to pop culture.
If the culture speaks the language of positive emotion and simplicity, should we really expect for our unadulterated fancy words (that they don’t understand) to flip their world upside down? If the individual’s non-rational experience is their authority, does it make any sense that we directly quote people in academia and solely dry facts in attempt to show them that their experience is mistaken? If they don’t see the Bible as an authority and probably see it as “just some book from the bronze age”, do we really expect that quoting condemning scriptures is the best way to reach them?
To avoid the risk of being entirely misunderstood, I should clarify that I love our philosophical arguments and I do think that there is a necessary place for them. I believe these arguments are invaluable for giving us clarity and clear thinking when it comes to how we understand God. But what I do disagree with is always using them as our primary starting point and the lone aspect of our conversations. Strict academic philosophical arguments often will primarily be best in reaching those who hold logic and reason over emotion (LOM) no matter the cost. However, I would be so bold as to say that most people aren’t like that. A strictly logical approach may work best for atheists who truly don’t believe in God because of what they perceive to be logical reasons, and have little to no emotional reasons for being an atheist. Again, most people aren’t like that.
We can take note as to why it may prove difficult for apologetics to reach culture (and church culture). These are broadly the same reasons that academic atheists will have problems reaching culture (and church culture). It is because both camps tend to take a LOM-styled approach. The arguments that generally are culturally strong for atheism, are going to be the ones that are not sophisticated, aligns well with cultural commonsense, and appeal much more strongly to emotions. Arguments for Christianity are no exception in this regard.
Putting it in Perspective
The vast majority of people are going to be something in between the devout religious believer and the militant atheist. If you talk to the average non-Christian on the street, you are likely to hear things like, “I could believe in a god, but only a god whom accepts everyone equally.” Others will say, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Some may claim, “love is my religion.” Others might reject hell and divine punishment because they “just don’t think God is like that.” Some may identify as a Buddhist. Some might say they if God does exist, they are sure that “He doesn’t care what we do with our genitals.” They will say things like, “even if there were a God, He wouldn’t send me to hell because I’m a good person.” Or perhaps they might say that their religion is simply “being a good person.”
Notice how emotions, personal-freedom, self-expression, and relativism play into their belief claims. These types of non-believers feel free to choose their beliefs for themselves, and the beliefs are likely not going to be aimed at what is true; most likely they will be aimed at how their beliefs make them feel. In other words, their preferred authority is not some external objective truth, but rather an internal subjective choice of what makes them feel good, and what they like.
Have you tried responding to these kinds of slogans with logically sound answers? If so, how did that work out for ya? Most of the time, at best, you might have gotten a blank stare. Or maybe you received an incoherent rant (it’s much harder for people to express how they feel than what they think). At worst, perhaps a personal or physical attack! So, if the majority of people are not atheists, and they are not losing faith due to atheism, and are not concerned with the emotionless arguments from natural theology, then why do we often make those things the primary– and sometimes the only– focus of our apologetic training?
Perhaps it is not always the case that the immediate threat to the average person is the loud and violent wind of militant atheism that we enjoy battling so much. Instead, it may be the gentle mist of social conditioning that popular culture has been slowly inhaling for years. Hearing things like, “stay true to how you feel”, “do whatever makes you happy”, “don’t let anyone tell you what to believe”, “accept everyone for who they are”, “don’t judge anyone”, “separation is bad, and religion causes separation”, “you don’t have the right to tell someone else how to live”, and many more like these.
It is not as though what these statements imply is virtuous, but rather it’s that they sound virtuous. They have a virtuous connotation or use virtuous language (think of the word “tolerance” for example; they use the word, but they aren’t using the definition). These types of slogans have a certain virtuous feel so people often feel a sense of being moral when they claim these things. However, the intended implications of these claims also conflict with Christianity at its core level. So, what happens when you try to object to their virtuous feelings with logic? You’re gonna be met with resistance, and they probably couldn’t care less about being inconsistent or illogical.
Remember, how they feel is what matters to them, and what matters to you in that moment is sound logic. You’re speaking different languages. If a person has been absorbing these types of slogans for years and are socially conditioned to believe that these statements are the foundation to their moral landscape, Christianity no longer makes sense because it doesn’t fit in with how they “feel” the world to be and what they “feel” to be good. So instead, Christianity is “felt” as a bad thing, and is then seen as a threat to the good things in the world.
Again, if I’m right here, then how we proceed will depend on our goals and intentions. If we have a primary intention of reaching popular culture at large, perhaps us apologists would be better off widening our studies to incorporate the emotional implications and social issues and that are important to culture, and addressing the unspoken social conditioning in a way that culture will be receptive to. This could be a start of a whole new way of exploring apologetics.