A fellow emailed the TV show address with this forwarded list of questions that apologists have for atheists, taken from Lee Strobel’s site. What is surprising is how simplistic and banal many the questions are (most of them being variations of “if God didn’t create us, who/what did?”). Only one question is any good, and one is downright idiotic. You’d think these guys had never read any atheist literature in their lives. They probably haven’t, though, being apologists, you’d think that doing so would at least give them some kind of frame of reference from which to formulate good responses to atheists’ and skeptics’ criticism of religion. Or maybe they’re worried they wouldn’t be able to respond…
The following answers are my own. Readers are invited to offer their own answers in the comments.
What Would I Ask an Atheist?
Hemant Mehta’s offer for me to respond to questions from atheists led me to ponder this topic: what would I ask an atheist in return? Hmmmmm. I decided to send emails to some of my friends and ask them for their suggestions. Here are their replies.
Hmmmm indeed. Here are the questions:
Apologist Mike Licona: “What turns you off about Christianity? Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?”
I’m glad this question came first, as it’s actually the first time I’ve heard a question phrased this way from any Christian. Notice Licona doesn’t ask why I don’t believe, he asks why Christianity is a turnoff. Which is quite a different matter. Licona has noticed that, apart from disbelief, there is something about religion in particular that rubs atheists the wrong way. Very astute, Mike. (Except, of course, for slipping in the mistaken attempt at equivocation with the ever-popular Christian weasel word “worldview.” Atheism is not a “worldview.” It is merely the disbelief in gods.)
I’ll take the final question first. When credible evidence for a deity comes to light — a thing theists have singly been incapable of providing — then I will doubt my atheism. This does not mean I have a closed mind towards the idea. Even when I say, with full confidence, that I don’t believe in any gods, I’m not making a dogmatic proclamation of absolute knowledge. But here, it’s like the question of leprechauns. Would I believe in leprechauns if evidence for them ever made it sensible to do so? Sure. But in the absence of such evidence, I’m quite confident in maintaining my disbelief in leprechauns. Ditto gods.
There’s nothing about Christianity troubling to my atheism, per se, so much as troubling to my humanism and ideas about goodness and decency. What turns me off about Christianity is that I consider it morally confused at best, and morally bankrupt at worst. Indeed, the Doctrine of Hell alone forever disqualifies Christianity as a moral belief system of any kind. Put bluntly, any religion that not only uses threats of eternal torture and punishment to enforce compliance, let alone considers eternal torture morally acceptable in the first place, simply for the “crime” of not being Christian, can only be considered not merely immoral but evil. Let us, for the sake of argument, say God exists. Am I to understand that this deity — said to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnific — is so insecure in his rule over his creation that he would find it necessary to consign me to eternity in hell merely for using my reasoning capacities (which he presumably gave me) to doubt his existence, especially when this God has deliberately chosen to refuse to reveal his existence unambiguously? Am I supposed to consider such a being worthy of my admiration, let alone my love and, most incredibly, my worship?
I often ask people who call the television show to imagine an abusive spouse, who tells his wife the following: “Honey, I love you with all my heart. But I swear, if you ever leave me, if I ever even think you’re looking at another man or thinking about breaking up with me, so help me, I’ll break your neck!” Now, is this a man you’d introduce your lady friends to? Is this someone you’d consider, not only a good man, but the best and most moral kind of man possible? No? But look closely. This man is your God. Don’t worship him to his satisfaction, don’t accept the divine love he so generously offers you, and go directly to hell, boom, no passing “Go” or collecting the proverbial two Benjamins.
Honestly, can you really be so clueless as to why Christianity turns atheists off, when it offers such an appalling deity for our devotion?
The immorality of Christianity doesn’t stop there. This is a religion that preaches “love one another,” and yet encourages the most virulent forms of hate. True, Islam does this to a degree Christianity can only dream of, but Christianity is still pretty objectionable. It is Christianity that inspires essentially 100% of the homophobia that is practiced in this country, and it informs most of its racism as well. You could say that this activity is merely bad people misinterpreting Christianity to their own ends. But it’s hard to sell that excuse when passages in Leviticus calling for the execution of gays, and similarly hateful passages in Romans exist.
And why do so many racist groups openly identify themselves as Christian, giving themselves such pompous names as “World Church of the Creator”? This, I’d say, is perhaps not something particular to Christianity as it is to the very nature of religion itself: religion has historically been a tool for people to justify violence, atrocities, bigotry, oppression, even outright murder by giving such activity the divine stamp of approval. Todd Rundgren comments eloquently on this in his song “God Said,” in which he imagines God replying to the prayers of a desperate and insecure believer.
You are not serving me, you’re serving something else
Cause I don’t need to be pleased, just get over yourself
You can’t suck up to me, I know you all too well
But I don’t dwell upon you, so get over yourself
Cause you’re not praying to me, you’re praying to yourself
And you’re not worshiping me, you’re worshiping yourself
And you will kill in my name and heaven knows what else
When you can’t prove I exist, so get over yourself
You might say, again, that religiously-inspired hate and violence is man misusing religion, and doesn’t come from God. But outside of Rundgren’s song, I don’t see God doing much to put a stop to such activity in his name. And when you consider, as I (and Todd) have, that what people call God is pretty much always simply their own idealized self-image, projected upon the universe, is it any wonder that religiosity has so often taken such an ugly form?
Another thing that turns me off about religion in general and Christianity in particular is the way such beliefs encourage delusion and bankrupt knowledge. I could go on (and have) at length about the way Christian fundamentalists in America are engaged in an all-out war on science education, specifically the study of a subject — evolutionary biology — that is vital to the understanding of our health and of our ability to treat disease. And the roster of scientific all-stars suppressed (Galileo) or just plain murdered outright (Giordano Bruno) by the Church is a stain you’ll never wash off. But this post is going to be long enough as it is, so I’ll move on.
Scholar William Lane Craig: “What’s the real reason you don’t believe in God? How and when do you lose your faith in God?”
Why ask for the “real reason” as if you assume atheists are, as a general rule, dishonest about their reasons for not believing? If you think that’s the case, I’d expect to see you back the claim up. You know, being a “scholar” and all. But really, the reason I don’t believe in God is the same for why I don’t believe that UFO’s have a habit of traveling millions of light-years across space only to leave odd markings in crops and kidnap poor country bumpkins in order to perform proctology exams: There’s zilch in the way of credible evidence for the belief.
As for when I lost my faith in God, well, let me say this. While I had a Christian upbringing, don’t assume all atheists started out theist. Kazim here on the blog is a lifelong atheist, and you’ll find many such folks. I’d say my process towards disbelief began in early adolescence, around age 14 or so, and progressed through to my adulthood. Atheists do not tend to have “road to Damascus” deconversion epiphanies. The path to disbelief is an intellectual exercise in developing one’s reasoning capacities and learning to slough off the rubbish your mind’s been filled with since childhood. It’s a lot like outgrowing your belief in Santa, just a bit more involved.
Thinking back, I don’t think I ever really had “faith” in God. I know you’ll leap on that as an admission I was never a True Christian™ to begin with. But to be totally honest, I don’t think most of the people sitting in pews every Sunday really have “faith” in God either. They say they do, because that is what is expected of you in the Christian life. But, as George H. Smith pointed out, “scratch the surface of a Christian and you will find an agnostic.” I tend to think most Christians are cultural believers who, when their backs are against the wall, really don’t believe what they claim to believe. At least not to the point of having real “faith” in their God.
Example: When pink-wigged Jan Crouch of TBN infamy came down with colon cancer in 2003, she checked herself into a hospital’s oncology ward to undergo surgery. And yet the network she and her husband run regularly features the rallies of Benny Hinn, who performs flamboyant onstage “healings.” If the Crouches really believed in what Hinn was doing as an agent of the Lord (after all, they’re promoting his programs to millions and making money off them), why didn’t Jan just go to Benny for a miracle cure? So much for “faith in God.” When the chips are down, it’s science to the rescue after all.
Author and pastor John Ortberg: “How can you create a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?”
I’d first ask John what he means by “meaningless universe.” If he means “non-teleological,” that is, not intentionally designed for the purpose of housing us, the human race, who are so very special, then yes, I do think the universe is meaningless in that sense, and I further fail to see how that fact prevents me, as an individual and higher-thinking being, from establishing meaning in my own life here on Earth. Imagine a group of people putting on a Shakespeare play in an open field. You might as well ask them, “How can you produce a Shakespeare play in a location not specifically constructed and designed for the purpose of performing plays?” Meaning is that which we attach to our own lives, through our goals, ambitions, our desire to leave behind a legacy to be proud of. I don’t tend to fret over my life choices because they cannot possibly “mean” anything on Omicron Ceti VIII. Why do you, John, think the universe must have some kind of specific “meaning” first, in order for your own life to have one?
The next question, and easily the silliest of the lot, comes from apologist Gary Habermas, who identifies himself as a “resurrection expert” in a way that indicates we’re meant to be impressed. From my side of the fence this sounds like identifying oneself as a “Greek mythology expert.” Sure, there’s a vast and interesting field of cultural history and literature to be studied there. But the fact there are experts in Greek mythology doesn’t imply those myths are true, any more than the fact some apologist considers himself a “resurrection expert” makes that particular myth true. But Gary is quite full of himself and his expertise, and launches into a prolix question loaded with unfounded assumptions and unsupported claims stated as fact.
Resurrection expert Gary Habermas: “Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.”
These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t enjoy quite the same universal consensus, nevertheless it is conceded by 75 percent of these scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.
I bet you didn’t know there was universal consensus among “virtually all contemporary scholars” that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, did you? Why, it must be true, since Gary says so himself. Who exactly are these “scholars,” Gary? Yes, I’m being tiresome, asking for names, citations, and what have you, but you know, that’s what we skeptics do. I’d especially like to know who the “skeptics” are among this vast array of contemporary scholars, and especially what it is they are supposed to be skeptical about, since, according to you, they all agree with the historicity of Gospel claims about Jesus. Which would seem to make them, you know, not skeptics. Not to be pedantic or anything. I’m just sayin’.
Naturally it would help to have some of these names. And then, once given the names, we’d need to immediately weed out the ones who were, like Gary, Christian apologists writing for Christian publications rather than peer-reviewed academic journals. Because, as Gary so astutely points out, you really need to assess evidence without preconceptions clouding your judgment.
Okay, enough snark. Obviously Gary’s question is preposterous on its face, mainly because it’s rooted in numerous claims that certain events have been independently established as historical fact, when they have not. Shall we go through them by the numbers?
- We have no bulletproof extra-Biblical evidence that the Jesus of the Bible existed at all, let alone that he performed any of the feats attributed to him by the Gospels. Now, I happen to think that the character of Jesus was, in all likelihood, inspired by a real person.
But even granting this much of the benefit of the doubt, this gets us no closer to real historical, archaeological proof of anything the Gospels say he did. Remember that the earliest scriptures were the product of an unscientific, pre-Enlightenment, primitive, barbaric and cruel culture. Even educated Roman historians like Seutonius, writing about the Twelve Caesars (a great read, btw — snag it), took things like omens and auguries seriously, and slipped them into their histories. Fanciful stories about supernatural occurrences involving popular Roman generals were circulated and believed by the legionnaires; these helped boost morale among the men. In short, the Gospels are hardly unique in making occult claims about famous men. But at its most prosaic, is it likely that, if an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus/Jeshua existed, and pissed off the establishment, that he’d have been crucified as a common rabble rouser and malcontent? Sure, it may have happened. Does it follow from this that we can then claim to have sufficient evidence he rose from the dead? Here’s a hint:
- That someone is converted to a religion or embraces a belief does not prove it is true.
- Goto 2.
- Goto 3.
- What accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb exist outside of scripture? And even if we had such (the passages in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews are widely considered inauthentic), well, allow me to illustrate the absurdity of what you’re claiming, Gary.
You’re stating that it is an established historical fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty three days after his crucifixion, and that this supports the belief that he rose from the dead. How, exactly, would we in the present day establish this as a fact?
Let’s go for the best case scenario a Christian could hope for. Let’s say a tomb is unearthed by archaeologists in a location conforming to where Jesus’ tomb is supposed to have been. (No, not this one.) Let’s say they find pretty solid evidence that the tomb was, in fact, the one Jesus was placed in. (For grins, we’ll say they find that little INRI sign that appears in every dead-guy-on-a-stick painting handed down to us through the ages.) Let’s say they carbon date all this stuff right to 33 C.E. (that’s A.D. to you). And let’s say there’s no skeleton in the tomb at all.
Could we deduce from this that the resurrection really happened? Well, no, any more than an Egyptologist could deduce, finding an empty burial tomb of a forgotten pharaoh, that the guy’s mummy shambled to its feet and wandered off to do some Boris Karloff thing. Maybe the tomb was broken into and robbed; happened often enough. You might expect to see signs of that, but maybe the graverobbers were extremely careful to conceal their tracks. Indeed, maybe the tomb had been broken into by the disciples themselves, in which case, you’d expect them to be careful. Or maybe the tomb was broken into 1800 years ago, or 1600, or 1200, or 700. Maybe it wasn’t maliciously broken into at all, but quite intentionally opened up in order to relocate the body to a different tomb altogether.
There’d be almost no way to tell. And the point is, I’m giving a hypothetical here. We don’t have an actual Tomb O’ Jesus in the archaeological record anywhere at all. Don’t think for moment every accountant in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism hasn’t fantasized that they had one. So how you expect to approach a group of skeptics with the bald claim that Jesus’ empty tomb is established as factual, while citing no sources and naming none of the impressive dramatis personae of scholars you say agree with you, is quite boggling. You seem to think you can say, “hey, some of these guys were skeptics too!” as if we are obliged to respond with, “well, gee, then maybe I should take all this seriously myself.” Honestly, Gary, you give the impression that the job of “resurrection expert” is to make a bunch of stuff up! [/sarcasm] Do you even know what skepticism entails?
Okay, I’ll grant that you admitted there isn’t universal consensus on the tomb thing. But, you say, 75% of scholars concede the point. How handy that it’s exactly 75%! I mean, it could have been 72.14% percent, which is, like, a weird number. But 75% would be the kind of thing that might make people sit up and notice, unless they were intelligent skeptics. In which case, you should expect to hear lots of snickering, as you’re hearing now. Then again, you could always cite your sources and name these guys. Because, as the saying goes, 98% of statistics are made up on the spot. But who knows? Maybe yours are among that 2%. I think there’s about an 11.3851% possibility of that.
So my “comprehensive natural explanation” of the resurrection that “makes better sense than the event itself”? Simple. Like the Virgin Birth, it’s a myth. Because the event itself makes no sense. While understanding that it is a myth conforms to Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony. Which is the more parsimonious and sensible explanation for the resurrection?
- That it is a myth, or…
- …that at one point in history, one human cadaver behaved in a manner that, in all of human history, no human cadaver had ever acted before, or has acted since.
Don’t think too hard on it.
Final points: Is it not odd, considering how factually established you seem to think the resurrection is, that the Gospels themselves give conflicting accounts of how it all went down? Being a resurrection expert, I assume you know this. I mean, if the divinely inspired word of God can’t get its information straight, what can we trust? Here, for the rest of you, is the game I like to call Choose Your Own Resurrection Adventure.
- Number of women visiting the tomb: 2 (Mary Magdalene and Mary (Jesus’ mother).
- Earthquake: yes.
- Number of angels and when they appear: 1, descending from Heaven following earthquake.
- Anybody else there?: yes, an unspecified number of “keepers,” who understandably did “shake and become as dead men” in response to all this divine seismic activity and angelic visitation.
- Tomb open or closed?: Opened by angel immediately upon touchdown, demonstrating that no one knows how to make an entrance quite like an angel. Then, just to show off how frickin’ cool angels are, he calmly sits down on the stone after rolling it away. Matthew doesn’t specify if he then lights a cigar while the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly plays.
- Reaction: The two Marys rush off to tell the disciples. Part-ay! Jesus arrives, fashionably late. Serious part-ay! Disciples are encouraged to spread the word that Jesus will appear to his “brethren” in Galilee, and to meet him there.
- Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: High. Priests from the temple, who must have slept through the earthquake, are led to empty tomb by guards, and are accordingly chagrined. They bribe the guards to spread the word that the disciples stole the body. If I were writing this scene, I’d have a clueless, comedy-relief guard named Dorkus Magnus say something like, “But what about the earthq—”, followed by a getting-hit-over-the-head sound.
- Number of women visiting the tomb: 3 (Mary Mag, Mary Mom, and someone named Salome).
- Earthquake: no. In fact we get the idea it’s a pretty morning.
- Anybody else there?: No.
- Tomb open or closed?: Already open when the women get there.
- Number of angels and when they appear: 1, and he’s already inside the open tomb, waiting for them.
- Reaction: Fear. The angel calmly tells the women to inform the disciples Jesus is arisen, but, terrified, they keep their mouths shut and tell no one. Then Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, and next, bizarrely, appears to two of his disciples (not named) in “another form.” These men tell the remaining disciples, who don’t believe them. Jesus then appears to them (as himself, I presume), jumps everybody’s shit for doubting his return, then orders them all to spread the word. In short, a considerably less joyous reunion than in Matthew. Footnote: a lot of folks have died over the years thanks to Mark 16:18.
- Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: None. No denouement here about wily Sanhedrin.
- Number of women visiting the tomb: More than 3 (Mary Mag, Mary Mom, someone named Joanna, plus an unspecified number of “other women”).
- Earthquake: no.
- Anybody else there?: No.
- Tomb open or closed?: Already open when the women get there.
- Number of angels and when they appear: 2, who beam down from Heaven with considerably less pyrotechnics than Matthew’s angel, while the women are standing slack-jawed inside the empty tomb wondering where Jesus is. This sudden appearance, not surprisingly, scares the shit out of them.
- Reaction: Complex, happy but muted. The women rush off and tell all the disciples, who don’t believe them. But Peter goes and checks out the empty tomb himself, leaving perplexed. An unspecified time later, two disciples are discussing the event in a town called Erasmus, when they encounter Jesus and fail to recognize him, with the passage indicating, as did Mark, that Jesus was intentionally disguising himself. The disguised Jesus casually questions the men, who express their sadness at Jesus’ death and confusion over events at the tomb. Jesus gently rebukes them for their doubt, then has dinner with them later, where he reveals his true identity then promptly disappears. The men return to Jerusalem and inform the other disciples, at which point Jesus beams in. But the disciples are frightened and think he may be a ghost. Jesus confirms his realness by letting them examine his wounds. Then, instead of giving his “go out into all the world” speech, he tells them all to hang loose in Jerusalem “until ye be endued with power from on high.” Finally Jesus goes back to Heaven and the disciples spend all their time in the temple praying.
- Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: None.
- Number of women visiting the tomb: 1, only Mary Magdalene.
- Earthquake: no.
- Anybody else there?: No.
- Tomb open or closed?: Already open when Mary Mag gets there. She promptly runs off and gets Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple, believing that someone has already stolen Jesus’ body.
- Number of angels and when they appear: 2, who, for some reason, only show up inside the tomb after Simon Peter and the other disciple have checked the place out and gone home. Only Mary Mag sees them.
- Reaction: …And not only that, Jesus is in there too, alive! And like the befuddled disciples in the other Gospels, Mary Mag at first not only doesn’t recognize him, but mistakes him for the gardener and asks where he has moved Jesus’ body! Then he reveals himself to her. Interestingly he says he has not yet ascended to Heaven, but is waiting to tell her to inform the disciples of his resurrection first. (Why didn’t he just appear when the men were there too? John really needed a good story editor.) She does so that night, at which point Jesus materializes in their midst. In John, there is only one disciple, Thomas, who later doubts Jesus is alive (unlike all of them in Luke), and that’s because he was the only guy not there at the time. Eight days later Jesus appears again, proves himself to Thomas, and chides him for his entirely reasonable skepticism. Later still, Jesus plays an odd prank on some of the disciples fishing on a boat in the Sea of Tiberias. In disguise again (why? — they already know he’s risen), he calls to them from the shore and they complain the fishing is lousy. Jesus tells them to cast their net again, and they promptly snag 153 fish. Simon Peter, now aware the stranger is Jesus, gets embarrassed at his nudity and jumps over the side. LOL! Later, over a yummy fish dinner on the beach, Jesus, after a fashion, forgives Simon Peter for his earlier denial of him (John 18:25-27), giving the man a speech that might have inspired the one given by Don Corleone in The Godfather. (“Someday, and that day may never come, I may ask you a favor…”) Finally, the author of John slips himself into the dinner party, giving Jesus a line that implies the kingdom of Heaven will be installed on Earth in John’s own lifetime.
- Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: Surprisingly light, considering how anti-Semitic most of John is considered to be in its crucifixion scene. There’s a brief note that, after the tomb is found empty, the disciples are in hiding “for fear of the Jews.”
Whew. Quite a lot of variations for one story, eh? Was there an earthquake, or not? Angels inside or outside the tomb? And why is Jesus doing all this concealing of himself, when he presumably wants his followers to know he’s back and better than ever? Given so many discrepancies and incongruities in the narrative, it must take a great deal of stretching on Habermas’ part to have the stones to claim all of this is established historical fact. But then, maybe that’s what being a “resurrection expert” is about: skillful explaining away of the problems in the narrative, to make it all sound like it was meant to be that way. I think that’s probably what apologists call “interpretation.”
Next: Three more apologists to answer…stay tuned.