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Friday, June 03, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Faith in the Crosshairs

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The website GodIsImaginary is an interesting study.

As you might guess from the title, it’s the work of evangelical atheists attempting to lure gullible Christians into the spiritual equivalent of a Venus flytrap. The bait is a little bit of flattery: “I’m going to assume you are an educated Christian”, “You are a smart person. You know how the world works, and you know how to think critically”.

It’s quite a clever move actually. For once, they’ve dialed back the mockery and abuse atheists can rarely resist in the interest of catching more flies with honey.

‘Gotcha Question Time

Tom: Still, move in for a closer look and you find more than 50 carefully contrived “gotcha” questions designed to shake your faith. Immanuel Can, I’m wondering if our obligation to be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us extends to people who are essentially, well … trolls. Their questions are not asked with even the slightest interest in hearing our answers.

Immanuel Can: Yes, I see your point, Tom: they’re not offering a conversation, only a series of (what they consider to be) “a-ha!” questions, questions they think are so obviously unsolvable that their mere presence will instantly silence a Christian.

The truth is that all these questions have been frequently answered, and answered very rationally. So while I’m grateful to the site authors for pointing out that many Christians are well-educated and intelligent (a thing most atheist sites pretend couldn’t possibly be true), they can’t actually believe it. If they did, they’d expect Christians to have thought these things through, and thus would have done some basic research to discover what Christians had already said about them.

They didn’t. But if they had, their rather smug little site would never have been put together. They’d have mounted a much better offensive or simply retired the field. That the site exists tells you they don’t believe their own flattery.

Ready to Give an Answer

Tom: What do you think, IC? Do we owe it to ourselves to answer people who are not really looking for an answer? More importantly, do we owe it to the Lord?

IC: I don’t think there’s a single answer to that question. A lot depends on discernment. There are people who throw up “a-ha!” questions because they’re actually troubled by them, and there are those who throw them up merely as walls to avoid having to think about the claims of truth. Then there are those who are just self-satisfied, and have no end of objections for any reason.

There’s no value in conversation with the latter. In my experience, they just get more rude and annoyed until they end up blaspheming. But the first two … the second of these may be capable of rational persuasion if their walls are knocked down — and sometimes not. The first is the tricky one: it’s the case of a person who really has a question, but may elect to frame it in an insulting way simply to avoid showing how anxious he feels and much he actually cares about the answer. Despite his superficial resistance, what he needs is a reasonable, gentle response.

Would you agree?

Drone Strike Atheism

Tom: I do. I think, however, that a situation like this is a bit exceptional in that there is no way to give an answer even if you’d like to. The sole purpose of the exercise, from their angle, is to destroy faith from a distance without even having to engage. It’s like an atheist drone strike. They hope to kill the enemy (or make him go home with his tail between his legs) with zero risk of collateral damage or battle losses.

But my thought is that in going to the trouble of baiting a trap for inexperienced Christians, they’ve revealed an awful lot about their own techniques of argument that we can use to armour our own side and equip Christians to better deal with atheists that are actually willing to talk to someone face to face.

The obvious one was flattery. Satan played to Eve’s ego too. As a student of philosophy, do you see other obvious tricks on their home page?

Half a Dozen Fallacies, and Establishing Frame

IC: Well, the purely rhetorical questioning style is dishonest. The comment about Christians being intelligent is just flattery. But then there’s also question-begging, such as their assumption that if evil exists there can be no explanation in theistic terms. (Honestly, you’d think they’d have heard of the oldest book in the Bible, Job.) And then there are fallacies of presumption, such as the idea that if God existed he would surely heal all amputees …

But for none of these are Christians offered any chance to respond. So bully-tactics: that’s what they’re really trying. They want to hit and run. They’re asking questions for which they have no intention to sit still for answers.

Tom: I like the way they work at getting you to concede their frame before moving in for the “gotcha” moment. This pattern is repeated a few times:
“As a Christian, you believe in the power of prayer. According to a recent poll, 3 out of 4 doctors believe that God is performing medical miracles on earth right now. Most Christians believe that God is curing cancers, healing diseases, reversing the effects of poisons and so on.”
So they’ve established your frame for you, and they’re waiting for you to concede so they can move in. That moment when they try to get your assent before moving on should make Christians wary they’re being set up. After all, what does it matter what 3 out of 4 doctors believe? The question is, do we have any scriptural warrant to believe that God can be counted on to heal all cancers, all diseases and reverse the effects of all poisons? I had a close Christian friend die of cancer several years ago, so I can assure you this is not happening across the board. And the subtleties of such an issue are lost on the atheist anyway: the reasons God might allow one thing and prevent another. They don’t care. They’re just wanting you to concede the point so they can pounce and say, “A-ha! Why doesn’t he ever heal amputees then?”

The trick, I think, is not to go down their path in the first place. You know it’s not going anywhere good.

The Danger for Young Christians

IC: In this case, I have to agree. The courage and sincerity of those who simply fire “a-ha!” questions and then retreat is entirely suspect. Yet the same question, if it came from someone you actually knew, someone who was interested in having a conversation, might actually be sincere and deserve an answer. So the questions themselves are not wrong, and are not really difficult to answer; but the spirit in which the posters are presenting those questions seems merely antagonistic and insincere.

Yet would you say this sort of poser atheism does present a problem? I’m thinking of how an untaught or immature Christian might stumble over such things.

Tom: What I’m saying is whether the question comes from a poser or a person with genuine interest, we have no obligation to walk into a verbal trap that is laid for us. When I say not to go down their path, I don’t mean refuse to give them an answer. I mean refuse to accept a false premise. Turn the question around. You never need to get to the amputee issue if you’re dealing with someone who’s asking the question seriously. You could stop and say, “Really? Is God performing medical miracles on earth right now? How do you know?” And you could follow it up with, “If he is, what do you think his purpose might be?” and “Do you wonder why he heals some people and not other people?” or “What do you think the purpose of miraculous healing might be anyway?” All of these questions can potentially lead a seeker into a Bible-based discussion of what it was Christ came to do in the first place.

And the point is, now you’re setting the frame, not the other guy.

Anti-Apologetics

To answer your question, the atheist Peter Boghossian gives examples of what he calls “Anti-Apologetics” in which he shows Christians becoming progressively more bewildered by the logical webs he is weaving. Perhaps these are staged examples, but I can see a cunning older atheist running circles around younger people if they succumb to the temptation to argue theoretically rather than to take their stand on what we do know, which is always the word of God.

IC: Yes. Well, I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone take on a cranky, nasty cynic … that’s worthless at best. I was thinking of people one actually knew, sincere people, who had picked up one of these bad questions. If guys like Mr. Boghossian are throwing them out there it’s possible people could pick them up. Mind you, I agree with your strategy: either way, don’t accept the premise. Question it, discuss it, and see where the conversation goes. But I would add, only try with someone that we are personally seeing, personally involved with, and have reason to know is sincere. I wouldn’t waste a word on websites like the one at the beginning of this post; there’s no conversation to be had there.

Tom: What I’m thinking is that Boghossian teaches proselytizing strategies for young atheists, and his books show them how to do it. If you’re in university or college today, you’ll almost surely run into one of his proteges at some point or another, and it may not be instantly obvious that you’re being worked when you engage with them.

Faith in the Crosshairs

What motivates someone to try to shatter the faith of a believer? Do we have a scriptural answer for that?

IC: What motivates them? I’m not sure. Why would one be a proselytizing atheist? After all, if what they believe is true, then it really doesn’t matter what a person wants to believe. True or false, we’re all worm food soon, so why not embrace a delusion, from an atheist perspective? There’s no reason why not. And why care if anyone else is fooling themselves? If they’re happy, let them be happy.

That is, unless in your heart of hearts you worry that you’re actually wrong, so you’re desperately trying to disillusion other people in order to prove to yourself you’re not at risk. That would make sense as a motive.

Tom: Well, the usual excuse is that Christians are messing up the utopia that would otherwise exist — you know, if people didn’t have false hope for an afterlife to hold onto, they might knuckle down and set about making this world a better place in earnest. But I always come back to Romans 1: “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them”. For me, the sort of “futile thinking” that results from the rejection of truth goes a long way to explaining what might otherwise be inexplicable.

Preening in Public

IC: Well, as history clearly shows us — especially recent history — that longing for the ideal secular society is far and away the most destructive ideology of all time. In the last century, 148 million people were sacrificed on the altar of atheist utopias by people like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. So it truly has to be amazing to anyone, even someone with only the tiniest understanding of the facts, that atheism still dares to show its ugly head in public. And yet here it is again, preening itself in public, claiming a moral superiority that no grasp of statistics could ever justify, and daring to question Christians on their consistency.

But why are we surprised to find that atheism isn’t consistent? And why do we marvel that it doesn’t hold itself to historical, factual or moral account? After all, according to its own version of things it doesn’t owe anything to the truth.

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