On Debating Christian Apologists

Debating an apologist?
Get ready for a fight
Cos you’ve got an obligation
To get all the science right—
If you overstep your knowledge
Just a little, and you’re caught,
Then you’ve lost the weight of science
And you only get one shot

If your expertise is physics,
Or biology, or psych,
Best to know your limitations,
Not just wander where you like.
You may truly be an expert
And be perfect for the task
You may know your science backwards
But that won’t be what they ask

They’ll poke holes in what they’re able
And they’re gonna have a ball—
There’s an awful lot of science
And there’s no one knows it all
They would love to make you falter
And they’re surely gonna try
And your expertise is shattered
If they catch you in a lie

Say your answer misses something;
Say it’s off by one percent;
Say you quote the right researcher
But it’s not quite what they meant
Say the science isn’t settled,
Say there’s genuine debate
In the hands of an apologist
You’ve quickly sealed your fate

Now, it doesn’t really matter
If the one who’s right is you—
See, if science isn’t perfect
Then religion must be true
You’re debating an apologist?
Get ready for a fight
Cos you’ve got an obligation
To get all the science right.

A couple of days ago, Physicist Victor Stenger had a piece in Ye Olde HuffePoe on “How to Debate a Christian Apologist“. Now, Stenger is no stranger to this area–his books are carefully thought out, thorough, and devastating to Christian Apologetics (or rather, would be, if apologetics had to answer to the real world). And, you will note, he explicitly says in his introduction, more or less what I just said in the verse above:

Certainly atheist debaters will make their own arguments for atheism during their opening statements. I advise, again from observation and experience, that they limit these to their particular areas of expertise and avoid subjects outside those areas.

During their opening statements and throughout the debate, apologists are likely to make arguments with which atheists may not be so well versed. So, when the time comes for rebuttals, atheists often cannot provide cogent responses, or any responses at all, and so lose debating points.

An experienced debater will make note of every point his or her opponent makes and try to provide at least a one sentence response. That will prevent the opponent from coming back and saying, “My atheist friend never replied to this point.” This takes experience. I never had enough to be good at it. In a debate, impressions are more important than the substance of an argument and not answering a point makes a bad impression.

The point of his article, though, is to give some quick rejoinders to some of the Apologetic points he has heard again and again, so that the reader can see examples of how to quickly address some of the more common claims. It was not intended to be a thorough rebuttal:

I do not provide any technical details. These suggestions are meant to be short, punchy statements to use during your rebuttals, which are usually time-limited. If you are a cosmologist, biologist, or biblical scholar, you don’t need me telling you what to say on those subjects. If you are a non-expert on any subject, you should not say anything about it beyond your competence. Your opponent may call you out on it. I have seen that happen.

Alas, it seems that the good people at Uncommon Descent are as selective at reading Stenger’s article as they are at anything else, and must have missed that bit. Their reply:

Victor Stenger has his How to Debate a Christian Apologist in the Huffington Post. An atheist PhD physicist is reduced to using arguments many of which go beyond fallacious and border on the risible. I find the article very encouraging. If that’s all they’ve got, they ain’t got much.

Since most of their readers won’t bother to actually visit HuffPo to read the introduction, let alone the rest, score one for the people with a commandment against bearing false witness.

I would add one additional caveat to Stenger’s introduction. Because science works via a structured argument among experts, be aware that your opponent will be able (if properly prepared) to quote experts who appear to disagree with you (or your quoted experts). (For instance, Stenger makes the claim “Thoughts and emotions are observable electrochemical signals in the brain.” You don’t have to have read here long to know I vehemently disagree with this–thinking and emotion are not at all relegated to just the brain; they are observed across time in the interaction of a whole person with their environment, and cannot be reduced to brain signals. Mind you, I think his view is worlds better than theirs, but it’s still wrong.)

If you cannot reasonably expect to enlighten your audience about some substantial philosophical differences (and practical differences, of course, as well) between religious and scientific world views, perhaps the best bet is to stick to forms that are not stacked against the more nuanced and complicated view.

“Protestant Work Ethic” Vs. “Atheist Work Ethic”

The “protestant work ethic”
Was, we assumed,
Underlying the gains we had made.
A secular ethic, it’s
Clear, left us doomed—
And an atheist one, much afraid!

Our country was built on the
Fear of a God
Who would smite us for sloth (it’s a sin)
We have to believe, or
It’s all a façade—
And the atheist communists win!

The theories assume that a
Godly belief
Is so useful, we don’t need a test—
The thing is, they tested it:
Here’s the motif—
The atheist way is the best!

Statistical evidence
Must be dismissed
Or, at least, we must say that it’s fraud!
Or else, it is false, what
Believers insist…
Productivity hinges on God!

A recent article in the Journal of Institutional Economics explores the assumption that the protestant work ethic should be credited with… well, with all the warm fuzzies it is always credited with. And the answer is… no. Hemant has a version, too. This particular study focuses at the interstate US level; one cannot extrapolate to either an international level, nor an interpersonal level.

At the interstate level, though, religion is not predictive of entrepreneurial activity.

Mind you, there are partial answers at other levels. At an international level, for instance, an earlier article in the same journal suggests that some predictors of socioeconomic success (in particular, property rights and the rule of law) are negatively associated with religiosity.

The truth is, everything about us is complex. Nothing is simple–not even the relationship of god-belief to any given measure of culture. If anyone tries to tell you that the answer to everything is simple… the cool thing is, the answer to their proposition actually is simple.


Well, unless it’s me. Me, you can believe. No, really.

Trust me.

Edit… I just looked at the recent FTB posts… if you have not yet, read this and/or this, either of which are far more important than the post you are currently reading.

“The Church Of Self-Worship” (or, “are you faster than a unicorn?”)

You don’t believe in gods or demons,
Spirits, souls, or elves—
You’ve got to worship something,
So it has to be… your selves!

You don’t believe in hell or heaven,
So I’ve heard you say
You say my God is make-believe—
To whom, then, do you pray?

You look to find life’s meaning
With no God to help you search
You call it “Sunday Fellowship”—
We both know, it’s a church

Nearly everything you tell me
You can see, I’ve had to change
But there’s one thing I see clearly—
Your religion sure is strange!

So my aggregator keeps trying to point me to a story someone wrote about the “atheist church of self-worship” (nope, not gonna link). Now, the Sunday Assembly is not for me, but I have nothing against it whatsoever for the people who enjoy it. But, please–it is not an atheist church (that label was not chosen but was thrust upon it by others), they do not gather to worship anything at all, and they are not the ultimate in egotists, worshipping themselves in place of a god.

It’s as if there is a narrative that must be followed–that the writer can get to the point of “they don’t believe in God”, but can’t follow that path one step further. Whom do they worship, if not God? To whom do they pray, if not to God? Why would anyone gather with like-minded others on Sunday morning, if not to bother God?

It’s like one person claims that unicorns are really really fast; another says “you know, unicorns don’t exist”, and the first concludes “you think you are faster than a unicorn! How presumptuous of you! What arrogance! What ego!”

And no, that makes no sense. Neither do the “atheists have made gods of themselves” crowd. It’s just annoying.

Templeton Funded Research Finds Science & Religion Compatible (or, that evangelicals have their own definition of “science”)

Evangelicals will tell us, they are unafraid of science;
They assume it proves the bible to be true.
There’s a scientific method into which they put reliance
But it looks a little strange, to me and you.

They’ll evaluate hypotheses experimentally
Then, conclusions will be carefully inspected:
Do results remain consistent with the bible? And we see,
If they’re not, then the conclusions are rejected.

Perfect science, thus, can never be at odds with Christian thought,
Clearly, science and religion coexist!
Any finding not agreeing with the bible, as it ought,
Is a finding simply stricken from the list!

When you’re truly doing science, then you do the work of God
He’s the author of the evidence you read
It’s a different sort of science, so at first it might seem odd,
But a Bible/Science mix is what you need!

The latest headline out of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago is that there isn’t really a any contradiction between Science and Religion… at least, when you (as the Elaine Howard Eklund did, supported by a Templeton grant) poll people to see what they think is the case.

It sounds all friendly and promising… until you look a bit deeper into the results, and realize that a good many people are using a very loose definition of “science”. For instance (as reported by phys.org),

* Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
* 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
* Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
* 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
* 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
* Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

I regularly read, in comment threads, claims that “actual science disproves evolution”, that there is a conspiracy by atheist scientists, who simply ignore the copious evidence of God’s existence. Science, I am told, has proven an afterlife, and ghosts, and dowsing, and ESP, and free energy, and more. So I am not in the least surprised that a poll of evangelicals shows that most of them have no problem with science as they understand it.

I also once read, in an actual print journal, an explanation of the scientific method that was remarkably like what you might find in science textbooks… but with one further step. After you crunch your numbers and draw conclusions, you “compare your answers to biblical truth.” I shit you not. So, yeah, when you do science this way (the right way!), it is impossible to find disagreement with biblical principles.

I have seen it argued that, were it not for God keeping everything following His laws, we would see pure chaos, so the fact that we can do science proves that God is there, doing His thing. But since God is always there, the laws are constant–that is, since God is constantly and consistently intervening, it looks like He is not intervening at all. And since you can trust God to keep the clockwork going, it is perfectly fine to do science without explicitly invoking (nor denying) His influence.

But that view, in which everything is a miracle, has no place for miracles as explanations for specific phenomena. That first bullet point quoted above would include the possibility that God could intervene at any point. “Then a miracle occurs!” would be a standard model, not the (arguably) most famous science cartoon ever. How exactly would that work? How would incorporating miracles into scientific explanation work? It can’t, that’s how. Can people believe that it does? Certainly, so long as they redefine either god, or science, or both.

Eklund has not found that science and religion are compatible. Rather, she has found that people’s definitions of “science” can be modified as needed to fit.

TV Snake-Handler Dies (Spoiler: Not Old Age)

There once was a pastor
Who handled some snakes
For goodness’ sakes—
He handled snakes!
(He knew the stakes)

There once was a serpent
With venomous bite
Oh, what a plight!
A venomous bite!
(And deadly, quite)

The pastor, he handled;
The serpent, he bit
With a venomous spit
He bit and bit
(And wouldn’t quit)

The pastor’s behavior
Had faith as its source
With no remorse,
His faith was his source
(He died, of course)

Via Doubtful News, we hear the utterly predictable news of the death of a snake-handling pentecostal preacher, from (naturally) snakebite.

In an era of sophisticated theology, yes, snake-handlers still exist. Though, frankly, not a lot of them, despite how often the same group makes the news. Usually, for dying by snake bite.

I wonder, sometimes, what it would be like to be from a family where you pretty much all eventually died from completely preventable, proudly public, dangerous behavior. Do the extended relatives admit their connection? Are they proud? Ashamed? Anyway, my condolences to the family–may this be the last one to die in this manner.

“Sports Chaplains” Hunting Big Olympic Game

I’ve come all the way to Sochi
With an overarching goal-
I’m not here to win a medal—
No, I’m here to save your soul:

Have you ever heard the story
Of the savior on the cross?
Who redeemed us all from sinning
Through his sacrifice and loss?

I can see it in your eyes—you’re
Too polite to walk away;
So you’re gonna hear a story
I can talk about all day

You have shown your dedication
You’re the best at what you do
Every moment here is precious
Let me waste a bunch for you

You are here for competition
On your skis, or skates, or board
But myself, I’m on safari—
Hunting athletes for the lord!

I’ve got lots of pins for trading;
By the waterhole I lurk—
Yes, I’m here among the heathens
Doing missionary work

And I hope I bag a trophy—
Grab some big, athletic name—
Or it’s just a paid vacation
Hunting Big Olympic Game

Via NPR this morning:

There are probably fewer American fans in Sochi than at previous Winter Games, partly because of concerns about security, and partly because of the time and expense it takes to get to the Russian resort town on the Black Sea.

But Americans are represented there, with gusto, by a group of evangelical Christians who call themselves the International Sports Chaplains. Members of the group have been going to the Olympic Games since 1988.

On a recent sunny day at the Olympic Park, with bands playing and fans strolling around the venues, the chaplains move through the crowd in teams of three or four.

Reminds me of the cult recruiters I’ve seen on campuses; similar tactics, and many of the athletes are roughly college age. Sometimes they advertise their purpose, but often it is a bait-and-switch tactic:

When people see the pins, they want to trade, Gardner says. He says trading pins is a good opportunity, because he’ll say, “Hey, I’ve got a pin I’ll give to you, it’s got a story. Can I share with you that story?” Through the pins, they share the Gospel.

Gregory tells the story to a young volunteer near the entrance to the park. “See this dark area on the pin?” she asks. “That represents those choices that we make that are probably not the best choice. I want to tell you that red represents that God loves us and that he sent his son Jesus to die for us. And when we accept his love and his forgiveness in our life, he makes us clean and white, just like snow.”

Next Olympics, I want to be an atheist chaplain. My only duty would be to intercept christian chaplains on the hunt. Throw myself between the athletes and the hunters.

Religion Means “This Law Doesn’t Apply To You”

My religion won’t allow it!
We consider it a sin!
If a gay man wants to shop here,
Why, I dare not let him in!
It’s infringement on my liberty—
Repression at its worst—
You’re a bigot, if you force me
Not to be a bigot first!

I’d kill animals humanely—
All my cattle, sheep, and goats—
But the Torah says, specifically,
I have to slit their throats
I’m opposed to simple stunning
But that’s all the law allows
All I want is my exception,
For my right to torture cows!

I’m just looking for a loophole;
There are laws I won’t obey!
I believe in equal treatment,
Sure, but not if someone’s gay!
It’s my right—well, it’s my privilege,
It’s my “free expression” clause
To read, “Only if you want to”
When interpreting the laws

From the first link:

The bill notes that businesses can refuse services and goods only if it furthers a civil union, domestic partnership, or same-sex marriage. The person or business would just have to say it was against their religion. For example, if a same-sex couple wanted a cake for their wedding reception, a bakery could refuse to cater to them.

But… good news!

Tennessee State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) suddenly pulled his sponsorship of the so-called “Turn the Gays Away” bill on Thursday after the controversial proposal was subject to national attention.

From the second link above:

The Danish government has banned shechita, saying “animal rights come before religion”.

Denmark’s Agriculture and Food Minister Dan Jørgensen yesterday signed a regulation preventing Danish slaughterhouses from applying for an exemption to pre-stunning, which effectively bans any religious slaughter in the country.

President of the European Jewish Congress, Dr Moshe Kantor, said: “This attack on basic Jewish religious practice in Denmark puts into question the continuance of community life in the country and follows strongly on the heels of persistent attacks on Jewish circumcision.

Really, though, doesn’t it sound completely reasonable, that you shouldn’t have to follow a law if you really, really, really don’t want to?

Conversation With A Christian…

So… I had a long talk yesterday with someone. It was a ranging conversation, in which we touched on some issues near and dear to FtB readers (I doubt, though, that this person knows FtB exists). He lives in Texas, so one topic was what an idiot Rick Perry is, and republican politicians in general. He was at a loss to explain how any poor person (or any thinking person) could ever vote Republican, other than manipulation of religious views and tribalism….

Which led to a discussion of the republican and tea-party views on creationism and evolution—he offered that no one he knew was a short-earth creationist, but did think that people who thought evolution was “how god did it” were clearly a sort of creationist themselves, and misunderstanding important aspects of the theory. And anyone who thinks humans are special creations “clearly didn’t have a good comparative anatomy class”.

He’d been reading about the writing of the constitution—not Barton (he’d never heard of David Barton, and was appalled at the blatant attempt to influence lawmakers with disinformation), but Waldman’s “Founding Faith”, and when I told him of Chris Rodda’s takedowns of Barton, he put that on his list. He has faced up against people who want prayer in school, and found that the moment he starts talking details—which faith gets to pray on which days, for instance—the demands start to wither and die before he even has to tell them “no”. He knows of, and approves of, the Jefferson bible.

Seems to me there was quite a lot more in this conversation—it was nearly 2 hours—but I can’t think of it at the moment.

Oh, yeah, there was one other topic. He’s on three committees for his church, including the search for a new pastor—the current one is retiring. He’s a very active lifelong believer, and as knowledgeable about the history of the writing of the bible as he is about, say, first amendment school prayer cases, or evolution. He has read not only quite a bit of sophisticated theology and apologetics, but quiet a bit of critical history as well. Frankly, I’ve heard him argue against religious positions far more often than for them (he argues the position supported by evidence, and more often the religious view was being argued out of ignorance).

But he is a Christian, and in his experience more Christians are like him than like the stereotypical yahoos like Rick Perry. I am at a bit of a loss to understand why he is a Christian, but he certainly is one. And I don’t know whether his observation—that he is a more typical Christian—is at all true. (His brother, for instance, is a biblical literalist.)

Sorry, no point here, just thinking out loud…

Which Team Is God’s Team?

You can hear the pundits prattle
Over Denver and Seattle
As they set off to do battle
In the Super Bowl today

And I’m left a bit befuddled
Cos the logic’s gotten muddled—
As I see the players huddled
Not for football, but to pray

Seems a strange thing in this setting,
But I think what I’m forgetting
Is, the Super Bowl means betting
So they’re working on the odds

We can’t tell at the beginning
Which team’s virtuous, which sinning,
But they’ll show us all, by winning,
So we’ll know which team is God’s!

As we approach game time, and every conceivable bit of trivia has been milked for its own 2-hour sports-TV retrospective, one of the variables examined is the role religion plays among the players. Yesterday’s NJ.com article “Super Bowl, 2014: Religion runs deep for many NFL players and teams” examines the phenomenon:

Each Friday afternoon, about 10 players from the Seattle Seahawks gather around Karl Payne in a room deep inside the team’s headquarters in Renton, Wash. They come carrying Bibles, notebooks and pens, dressed in their team-issued blue-and-gray sweatpants and T-shirts for an hourlong Bible study.

Payne might lead a discussion on the Book of James, outlining lessons about controlling what you say, how the price of your soul is the same as the next man’s and how challenges can either bury people or spring them to success. Or he might open a discussion, inviting the men to share their thoughts and talk about the issues they are confronting.

I have heard fairly often about the strong role of religion in sports–from controversy over prayers before games at public high schools, to a recent article on a very religious college coach in Connecticut, to Tim Tebow–but it seems to me a subject with more popular than scientific writing. The above quote, for instance, describes what the article calls a team where, in particular, several players are driven by their religion. But in a nation of 80+% Christians, the 10-player bible study group represents under 20% of the 53-player roster. Naturally, more players are Christian than attend the study group, but is having a couple handfuls of very devout players unexpected? Or simply reflective of the population from which players are drawn?

Clearly, not all NFL players are Christian, or even religious. Tebow’s requests for others to join him in prayer have not always been welcome, for instance. I have not been able to find, in any journals of sport, psychology, & religion, any information as to actual numbers–are professional (american) football players any more religious than anyone else? (Vyse reports that superstition is more prevalent among better athletes–more chances to pair success with a superstitious behavior, so no surprise there–but there are good reasons to suspect that athletic superstitions are quite different from institutionalized superstition.)

I have written before about this silliness. At least, I always assumed it was silliness to think that praying about football would matter–especially when fans and players on opposite sides desire opposite outcomes–but no less than William Lane Craig assures us that nothing is too trivial for God:

I think the overriding thing I want to say is God’s providence rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event. That includes every fumble, every catch, every run. All of these things are in the providence of God, and therefore, we should not think that these things are a matter of indifference. These are of importance to God as well even though they seem trivial.

And I don’t want to hear about praying for everybody to be safe and uninjured, and to do their best. If you wanted them safe and uninjured, enough to do more than to pay lip service, there are real world things that can be done. As is, the very hits likely to be cheered the most also happen to be the ones most likely to cause brain injury.

Which cannot be treated with prayer.

Rendering Unto Caesar

A little-known sacrament, hidden from view,
But it’s there if you happen to search…
Is the sacred ability—really, God’s right—
For a renter to park at a church.

The law is the law, and the rule is the rule,
Though enforcement has been, well, relaxed…
For over a decade, they’ve taken in money
But this year, their profits are… taxed!

University parking is scarce as can be;
The demand far outstrips the supply
Local businesses often will lease out some spots—
If they’re taxed, they don’t often ask why.

But churches are used to more delicate treatment
They’re not just a business, their business is God’s
And churches, of course, enjoy tax-exempt status—
It’s not like the faithful are frauds!

The church provides parking, on tax-exempt land,
That sits empty the rest of the week
So it’s “render to Caesar”, and time to pay up,
The end of their non-paying streak

They’re grudgingly paying their taxes this year;
The power of Christ can’t compel—
I still have a question they don’t want to hear:
Can we sue for back taxes as well?

Oh, the little things that show up in my aggregator! A couple of churches had been renting out parking spaces in a university town, and are shocked–shocked, I tell you–to receive a tax bill for their commercial and non-religious enterprise.

Two churches in downtown Durham that rent parking spaces to students and other motorists received an unpleasant surprise last year: A property tax bill.

Leaders of St. George’s Episcopal Church and Community Church of Durham say they’ve leased parking spaces for more than a decade without issue. Both plan to challenge the $2,737 assessment.

Ten years of windfall profits! If they didn’t expect to be taxed, they couldn’t have been making much money from them–as churches, this was probably very nearly a charity, right?

Durham Tax Assessor Jim Rice discovered last year the churches were not being taxed for the parking leases. At the time, he said, each church leased 30 spaces for $600 each.

Rice set the value of each church parking lot at $90,000. Based on that figure, the churches owed $2,737 for the 2013 tax year. Both have paid the tax bills.

“For whatever reason, they were never assessed in the past,” Rice said of the church lots. “There is no reason the taxes should not have been assessed.”

Other non-profits in town are taxed when they profit from leasing property–including another church that leases office space. No persecution here, just a case of presumed privilege, and an assumption that the rules don’t apply.

Frankly, ten years worth of back taxes would likely help the town… I doubt very much that they will go after the money, though. Even if it is legal, it will be viewed as attacking churches.