Monday, March 30, 2009

Spin Doctor Atheism

I've been going over to Debunking Christianity to mix it up with the Atheists for quite a while now. I think they might be fed up with me, so I haven't been replying to any posts for a couple of days. However, the blog director and chief atheist, John W. Loftus, just posted an interesting article from Dr. Douglas Groothius, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He has a new book coming out defending Christianity against the attacks of the New Atheists and he posted on his web site a primer of the book. Mr. Loftus put Groothius' primer up on his site so that his atheist friends could throw rocks at it. You can read Groothius' post at DC and the atheist responses to it here:

When I started reading posts over at Debunking Christianity I noticed that the posts and comments were a lot of straw man arguments about God, Christians, and the Bible, etc. At first I tried to keep my mouth shut and be agreeable to show some understanding with sympathetic comments. However, after a while I felt like they were getting away with bullying Christianity, so I simply tried when and where I could to show them some of their false and exaggerated arguments. For instance, one of their favorite straw man arguments is to describe the Biblical God as blood thirsty, capricious and very angry. "Who would want to believe it that God?" is their point. Another one is the false comparison between the Christian Faith and belief in "imaginary friends" and "spaghetti monsters". "Jesus is just a figment of our imagination", is this point. But, to support this claim they have to make up a "belief" that Jesus was just a mythical figure. Of course, they are completely outside of mainstream scholarship when spouting that belief. Yet, it is finding remarkable popularity today. Another common atheist straw man is depicting the historic Christian Church as wicked, hypocritical and genocidal. "See, religion breeds evil people, not good people," is the point here. They don't ever, and I mean ever, cite one example of the benefits Christianity has brought to the world since Christ was born. I just thought it was not fair to let these exaggerations go unchecked. If they are going to make a stand against Christianity they ought to at least use arguments that are meaningful, instead of these spin doctor tactics.

When I read the synopsis by Groothius at DC I almost started shouting at my computer, YES! Finally, a scholar with more refinement and more verve than I could muster has been posted at DC addressing many of the same things I have been trying to say. But, then when I read the comments by the atheists I saw the same old false criticisms. No change! I wonder if the explanation for the problem has to do with what Paul said in Romans 1:18-23, where he describes the unbeliever as comitted to supressing the truth of God. What do you think?

9 comments: said...

Just a ping that I'd really appreciate a response to your response on my blog if you get a chance. said...

" I wonder if the explanation for the problem has to do with what Paul said in Romans 1:18-23, where he describes the unbeliever as comitted to supressing the truth of God. What do you think?"

I think Paul's argument is a perfect example as to how anyone who thinks their view is the only coherent view would react to those who find it silly. The initial knee-jerk reaction is "they are deluded". This applies to atheists or Christians - anybody. It applies across the board to every religion or non-religion when they tire of dealing with the opposing arguments or just plain don't have a good response. Its an easy way to dismiss opposing arguments.

downtownpastor said...

Just my two cents... What truth exactly would you say is being suppressed? Is it the truth that Christianity is valid, real, etc., or the truth regarding the Divine existence and nature (this is what the text suggests in verse 20) Paul doesn't actually say that unbelievers supress the truth, per se. Specifically, he says that it is the "unrighteous" and "ungodly" who supress it "by (means of) unrighteousness." So it's not really unbelief that causes the suppression of truth, but it is the moral/ethical distinction of the "ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." This makes sense if spiritual (saving) truth itself is something that must be revealed TO us (cf. 1 Cor 2:12-13), as opposed to something we are able to discover by the application of our (unaided) mind. In other words, how could our atheist friends really be able to suppress something that they don't in fact possess (certainty about Jesus, the resurrection, etc.), because God has not given it to them? This leads me to suspect that the line of reasoning that I've held ("Everyone knows Christianity is true, or at least plausible.") isn't valid, and perhaps it would be more accurate to say that everyone has a measure of awareness that God does in fact exist, and the phenomena of creation around us presents a strong case for what kind of person He is (Rom 1:19). THAT'S the truth we supress. Do we figure out that the gospel is true by applying our intellectual constructs to it, or do we believe it is true only after recieving the ability to believe in it, from God? Again, the 1 Cor 2 verses above seem to bear on this, as Paul is writing concerning the ability of "natural" (non-believing) man to grasp the "message and preaching" of Paul himself.
As I read even further in the Romans 1 passage, verse 21 links the breakdown of human thinking about God to a preceding moral decision to NOT "honor God or give Him thanks." This suggests that the starting point for right, correct thinking about God must begin with an acknowledgment of human failure and sin, rather than human intellectual ability. Thanks for reading this! Take care.

Anonymous said...

I think you have hit the nail on the head Joe. If one is going to argue or debate an issue of any kind, reference to all equations must be addressed, by both the supporting and opposing sides. Acnowledgement of ALL facts has to come into play or the arguments do not have a leg on which to stand. Just because I may not agree with someone else's point of view or beliefs, I still have an obligation to recognize and acknowledge whatever truth is represented in the opposition, and I have an obligation to point to the areas in which facts are false. The same obligations apply to my own position(s). Many times the truth can be staring someone in the face and yet, out of desparation, they choose to ignore truth by way of purposefully spreading lies of other positions and purposefully leaving out truth in their statements against opposing positions. As such, their arguments are shallow and pathetic attempts to dismantle other positions. The question then arises, how does one determine what arguments hold weight, and which ones are pathetic? Perhaps those debators who present all sides to all arguments offer substance upon which others can use to engage a belief system. Unfortunagely, for the atheist, when they begin to interact and debate in this way, they know they will lose their audiences because the truth of Christianity puts their arguments to shame. There are very few atheists who can hold a candle to a strong Christian debate.


Joe Staub said...


Thanks for the thoughtful input. You are a man of the Word! I think I agree with most of what you wrote in your exegesis of the passage, but in seeking to solve the problem of unbelief your theory of revelatory knowledge potentially creates a problem. When we say that only by God revealing truth to us can we be certain that the resurrection occured and the Biblical God exists, we run in to four problems that I can see:

1. It ultimately puts our mind in the position of infalliblity. In seeking to not trust the mind's intellect and logic we place the mind in the same position of authority over what is true using the mind. In fact, one might accuse such a person of intellectual arrogance that he is able to be so certain without evidence or reason. You have to be able to say I "know" (mind) because it is in my mind, where God put it. We can call it God's revelation, but it is still the mind that has ultimate authority to judge it as revelation from God. How do you do that without reason?

2. Then, how do we know our judgment is correct that it is God's revelation that has come to us? What about a Muslim that says the same thing? Or a Jew that says this about his faith? They might (and in my experience have) hold to the same theory you do? There is no way to evaluate or judge the truth of a statement except by your "mind".

3. How do you "know" that the Bible passage telling you that God has to reveal truth to you in order for you to "know" is true? You have to use reason, logic and evidence to even get in the batters box to begin playing the Christian game. Why do you trust the Bible to teach you truth? You have determined that the Bible is true through some degree of evidential means and the use of reason.

4. We have no common ground with the unbeliever. Someone asks you, "Ken, why do you believe?" Under your revelation theory you say, "God told me so." How does an unbeliever test that, falsify
it, evaluate it? So that he can make a judgment? That is just the end of the game between the two of you. He has nowhere else to go with you and you with him. All you can do is wait for God to reveal it to him, as God did with you. No apologetics are really possible with your theory.

What I would prefer to say is that we have to come to a point where faith bridges the gap of evidence. It leaves something for the us and the unbeliever to do, which is what the Bible wants us to do - make a decision about Jesus. And, it just seems more practical/realistic to me. Now, if my Reformed Presuppositional friends read this I will get blasted for what I have written here! LOL. I am sure that something can be found wrong headed about what I wrote, but this is the way I see it at this time. I am very much open to a rebuttal if necessary.



downtownpastor said...

Hi Joe,
I agree with you on all of your points concerning my observations of the text. However, the (unfortunate, perhaps) implications of those observations are different from the actual veracity of them. In place of the questions that you've posed, "How do you know..." I think it may be more relavent to to ask, "How do you convince..." For what we're dealing with in apologetics isn't really what we know as much as how we can defend what we know, and why others should consider what we know to be true.

"1. It ultimately puts our mind in the position of infalliblity..."

This is only apparently, but not actually, true. Paul had a very high degree of certainty about his knowledge--knowledge that was not supported by the contemporary intellectualism of his day--and yet he still spoke with an authoritative (presumed infallible) voice. His logic didn't hold water to the philosophers of his day on Mars Hill (although to Christians today it seems air-tight). We wouldn't accuse him of being intellectually arrogant for simply asserting a truth that he believed. Instead, we would hope to establish the plausibility of his assertion, and leave it to the mind/spirit of the listener to weigh his/her own relationship to that truth.

"How do you do that without reason?"

I don't think you can do that without reason, but the Scriptures seem to say that a "natural man" (1 Cor 2 again...) does not possess sufficient reason to "seize upon" spiritual truth. This (cf. chapter one of the same) presents one of the chief affronts to both ancient and modern man's identity and sense intellectual proficiency. It is foolishness to him, and thus requires a divine act (provable or not) to enable him to understand it. At least, that's what Paul seems to suggest here...

"2. Then, how do we know our judgment is correct that it is God's revelation that has come to us?"

We gain personal certainty of the validity of our beliefs as we live by them, and "test" them against life. This doesn't make our judgement more or less true, but it increases our own certainty. It doesn't make our argument more/less true, either, but with spiritual growth we can gain a greater proficiency in sharing revealed truth in such manner that impresses our listeners with its plausibility. If the apostle Paul or even the Lord Jesus Himself engaged in debate in which they routinely did not sway the opinions of their listeners, is it any surprise that our best attempts at finding common ground, and a mutually agreed upon definition of truth would fail, too? Was their apparent failure of their own fault, or their own weakness in communication techniques or logic? Probably not.

"3. How do you "know" that the Bible passage telling you that God has to reveal truth to you in order for you to "know" is true?"

Well, you would have to weigh whatever information you have about the author (Paul), and ask youself if he seems a trustworthy person. From there, you would have to ask, "On what basis should I NOT believe in what Paul is writing? Sure, I have complete freedom to doubt it, but do I have valid reasons, based on what I know of Paul, to doubt what he's written here?"

"4. We have no common ground with the unbeliever."

Is a predisposed, though well-intentioned, doubt of Scripture really the kind of common ground one would want to meet anyone on? If each weekly sermon were preached from the standpoint of a skepticism that presumes my thoughts and conclusions were not intellectually valid--we'd never get beyond the shrugged shoulders and "have a nice day" type messages. So, the beginning assumption has to be, "This is what the text says. Let's assume the assertion of the text is at least plausible, and see where it leads from there..."

"What I would prefer to say is that we have to come to a point where faith bridges the gap of evidence."

I get what you're saying, but again, the Bible itself presents faith as a much more reasonable response to whatever evidence we do have, rather than a choice made in the absence, or gap, of it. And, (sorry, you know I'm a Bible thumper, Joe) again, Paul does present unbelief itself as a moral defect, no matter how we might define it. Paul makes it a choice, not based on the absence of evidence, but on the persistent desire to avoid the acknowledgment of God, and even suppress evidences of God in the world.

Well, that's more than two cents, this time. Thank you for reading my post and replying, Joe!

Joe Staub said...

Ken, thanks for the very thoughtful response. You are really making me think, Pastor! I like the input.

As soon as I sent out my response to your first comment I wanted to follow up on one matter of clarification, but I didn't. I wanted to say that I fully agree with your "theory" as I called it, because it is Biblical. You quoted the verses displaying the requirement of God's revelatory grace to us and they are clear and I have always believed them to be applied as you did with me. As you know some call this fidiesm, or "a priori" reasoning. It is assumed thinking. I think that some level of fideism is Biblical and I do believe that without revelation we will not understand. But, my practice, right or wrong, has been to play the game by the rules of the skeptic (skeptical rationalism) so that I can play the game with them. I think what I am saying is that I feel I have to "put on" or adopt the skeptic's world view in order to reason with him. I don't do this to fool anyone, but I want to put myself in the shoes of the other guy so that I can see it his way. After all, I was once there. If I were in his shoes I would not accept Christian fideism as a valid answer to my challenges, because I would be thinking that, first of all, it begs the question. It is circular reasoning, which means it won't allow itself to be tested. Second, Christian fideism is self-defeating because it is no different than a Mormon's fideism, or a Muslim's fideism, etc.... The Mormon says you will know that what I believe is true because you will feel it in your heart as God confirms it to you in prayer." That is really no different than what you and I believe. We point to these verses teaching us that The Holy Spirit confirms the truth to us. But, I don't know how this is helpful to the thoughtful unbeliever who has these legitimate logical concerns.

When I was a Christian school teacher years ago, I remember we held a school wide apologetic debate session in the context of a convocation. There was a panel of a few students and teachers who wanted to do this to answer hard questions in defense of Christianity. Students were allowed to ask the panel nagging quesitons about the Christian Faith. Some very good and thorny problems were brought to the panel. But then, one of the english teachers, who seemed to be fed up with the whole situation, stood up from among the convocation of students and with great confidence and authority declared, "I know that Christianity is true because I know. I know that I know that I know!" She was a highly respected teacher with years of tenure in this school. This declaration was followed up with a few soft "here, here's" and then that was the end of the discussion. Everyone had this feeling all of a sudden that there was no where else to go. God had spoken and the case was closed. A lot of questions went unanswered.

For me, when talking to the skeptic, I want to try and bring him to a place where he sees the superiority of Christianity philosophically, historically, existentially, rationally, etc. There comes a point where I have a reason for my faith over and against Mormonism, Islam, etc. Then, I put my faith in what I see to be true. If Christianity cannot stand this test then it is not worth of acceptance. I believe that coming to see and believe is all of God's grace, whereby it is God who allows me to believe. Jesus called his disciples and said to them when they were not sure about Him, "come and see." Isn't this what we want to do with the skeptic. Respect his mind, which after all is our's too, and offer him the call of Jesus, "come and see" Once seeing they will need God's grace to see and understand appropriately. This is what Calvin called a "fait accompli". We act and we exercise faith, but all the while knowing that God is the cause.

I am not absolutely certain about what I am writing here, but take what I am writing as "musings". I am very much open to the dialgue we are having. You are challenging me and I am seriously evaluating.



Joe Staub said...


Thank you for the input! I value your comments and insight. I know you have have been answering the questions and challenges of one of your friends that was dabling in atheism.



Nathan said...

thanks for this post, Joe. please pray for me, especially this Tuesday. An older couple, long standing members of our congregation invited their neighbor and walking partner to visit our worship meeting on this past Resurrection Sunday. She has maintained her atheism for her entire adulthood (she is also a senior citizen). She has consented to visit with me in her neighbors' home tomorrow to discuss her questions concerning the resurrection and the tenets of the Christian faith.