My nine-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series will also be linked up there as I go along.
I’m going to do these reviews by reading each chapter to Katie and making notes of what she says as I go along, then using these to reconstruct our discussion as best I can in the blogpost. The usual demands of a busy life mean that it’s now a few weeks since I made the initial notes on this chapter, so goodness knows how this will come out; I did type up Katie’s main comments as close to verbatim as I could manage, so the quotes from her should be fairly accurate, but I didn’t type up my part of the conversation, so this reconstruction does involve a certain degree of poetic licence.
Chapter One: Don’t Be a “Know-It-All”: Start Every Investigation Like a Detective!
At the start of this chapter, Daniel has found a skateboard in the school shed, which the school custodian (I guess that’s what we would call the caretaker?) tells him he can have. (We find out in the next chapter it’s been there for some years, so this isn’t as cavalier as it sounds.) Daniel assumes it belongs to a friend of his who likes skateboards, which is Jeffries’ cue to jump in and tell them* that lesson one is ‘don’t be a know-it-all’ and that they shouldn’t assume things – they need to gather the evidence first. ‘To be a good cold-case detective, you can’t start with your mind already made up’, he tells them.
*The book is still written in second person, so technically this should be ‘tell you… that you shouldn’t assume things’, etc. But writing that way is just too weird, so I’ll stick to third person for this review.
Also, Jeffries has his ‘signature smirk forming on his face’ when he starts this conversation. What is it with Jeffries and smirking? Why is Wallace writing him this way? This is supposed to be a tribute to Wallace’s much-respected former mentor; these mentions of smirking just make Jeffries sound so unpleasant. Does Wallace not know what the word ‘smirk’ actually means? Anyway, I shall start referring to him as ‘Smirking Jeffries’.
So, Smirking Jeffries asks for another example of starting with your mind already made up, aaaaand here we go… a boy called Jason gives the example of his next-door neighbours (neighbors, I guess, but sod it, I’m British and I’m doing British spelling) who invited his family to church and who think that Jesus did miracles/came back from the dead, which Jason just doesn’t believe, so aren’t they being ‘know-it-alls’ by ‘assuming all that stuff about Jesus is true’?
Ohhhh, Jason. Oh, sweetie. What have you started there, you?
So, surprise, surprise… Smirking Jeffries is straight onto that one. He tells him that he ‘might have it backwards’. The story continues:
“How do you know they’re assuming it’s true? What if they’ve decided it’s true because of the facts?” Then Jeffries points out, “Aren’t you being a ‘know-it-all’ by assuming all that stuff about Jesus isn’t true?”
“Now they’re jumping to conclusions,” my daughter declared of Jeffries/Wallace, homing straight in on the inconsistency like an inconsistency-seeking missile.
I agreed that this might be true, but mentioned in fairness that a lot of Christians (like Wallace himself) do reach their conclusion because they genuinely feel it’s what the evidence supports. “They’re probably over-exaggerating,” Katie declared. “People usually do over-exaggerate. My side… their side.” She flipped each of her hands outwards in turn to indicate. “So I might say ‘Well, this is probably true but I don’t think this is’, but a Christian might say that it’s all really likely.”
“But remember there can be bias on both sides,” I felt obliged to warn her. We restarted:
So, Jason asks whether ‘this Jesus stuff’ couldn’t just be made up, and Smirking Jeffries tells him:
“We need more information before we make any judgements on the subject. Wouldn’t you agree? We don’t want to start with our minds made up,” adds Jeffries.
And, to underline the importance of not starting with your mind made up, very nearly the next thing we get is another of those little grey ‘CSI Assignment’ insert boxes saying this:
God has given us more than enough evidence to know He exists. Read Romans 1:18-20. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been _________, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
Now read Romans 1:21-23. So why do you think some people still refuse see the evidence?
Nothing teaches children to look at all the evidence like giving them flat statements to accept with no prompt to consider whether they’re actually true or not. Right?
Anyway, I went back to the BibleGateway site and had another fruitless attempt to figure out what translation Wallace was using, which somewhat put the kibosh on the fill-in-the-blank question. I ended up using the International Children’s Bible, so that at least it would be reasonably straightforward for Katie to understand. The verses Wallace was sending us to, it turned out, are a doozy of a passage about how God is angry with people for all being evil and for not believing in him. Yup, exactly the message I want to be drumming into my children, so thank you for that one, Wallace. Really, the passage declares, it’s so obvious that God exists that it’s totally unreasonable that people aren’t believing in and giving thanks to him.
“This is all a bit weird,” Katie told me. “People say that people don’t thank God – but what proof do we have that a god even exists? And also I think it’s a bit sexist – they always talk about God, but Christianity never says things were made by a goddess. Why couldn’t they be a married couple, a god and a goddess, sharing everything? That would be fair. How do you know God has made everything? That just drives me round the bend. People saying this stuff with no proof whatsoever. The assignments are kind of boring, I must say.”
The last part of the passage claims that people who don’t believe in God are fools. I asked Katie how she felt about that.
“I don’t believe in God, and I’m one of the cleverest people in my class,” Katie retorted. “So take that, computer-written script of some sort that started off as a book that I’ve never read because it’s boring!”
I pushed a little harder, curious as to how she’d react to apologist arguments. What about the claim that we could see God’s actions in the world and therefore it was silly not to believe in him?
“Hey,” she declared, “it’s silly not to believe there are flying pink elephants, because look at all the destruction they’ve caused! But that doesn’t make them real!”
I did feel I had to raise the obvious objection to that one: “But we can see there aren’t any pink elephants flying through the sky. Let’s face it, they’d be pretty noticeable.”
“So? They might be very shy pink elephants, and,” she leaned in towards me for emphasis, “I never stated the size.”
I went back to the question at the end of the insert box; ‘So why do you think some people still refuse see the evidence?’ [sic]. It’s rather an odd question for Wallace to have put in at this point in the book; he hasn’t yet given us any evidence, but he’s talking as though he has. From the cite of the Romans passage, it looks as though the evidence he’s referring to is meant to be the existence of the universe. I asked Katie why she thinks some people don’t see this as evidence for believing in God.
“Well, I think it’s because we’ve got no proof it was made by God.”
“So how do you think the universe came into existence?” I asked her, curious to see what she’d say. She pulled the computer towards her and typed in ‘SIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’
We went back to the story (well, I told her how to spell ‘science’ and then we went back to the story). Smirking Jeffries tells Jason it’s a great question and he’s glad Jason brought it up (yeah, I bet he is):
“As a matter of fact, it’s a lot like a cold case. It’s a mystery we can investigate, just like the Case of Jesus – or the Case of the Mysterious Skateboard. Why do some people think the Jesus stories aren’t true?”
Nitpick alert – surely this is the Case of Jesus, if you’re going to call it the Case of Something? I’m puzzled as to how it’s ‘just like’ the Case of Jesus. Think that was a mistake. Anyway, Jason answers Smirking Jeffries’ question by saying that Jesus does miracles ‘and that’s impossible’. SJ asks him if he’s sure about that, and then goes on to talk about the origin of the universe:
“I mean every ‘natural’ thing – all space, time, and matter – came from nothing. That means whatever caused our ‘natural’ universe was something other than natural.”
[… a bit more about the skateboard] “But we know skateboards can’t create themselves, and space, time, and matter can’t create themselves either. So whatever creates the universe must be something other than space, time, or matter.[…]”
So, SJ tells the students that something or someone must have created the universe. And, of course, he’s steering them towards this being someone. A creator.
“You are talking about God, right?” Daniel offers.
“Sure,” says Jeffries. “But for today, let’s just agree to keep an open mind and be ready to listen and learn.[…]”
Good advice, Jeffries, so let’s start by remaining open to the possibility that the universe might have been created by a natural process we don’t as yet know about, or possibly even some type of creator that wouldn’t at all match the mental image it’s now fairly obvious SJ has of a god.
Anyway, the point SJ is trying to make here is about miracles; his argument is that if a being exists who can create the universe from nothing, then surely that being should be able to suspend the natural laws of said universe from time to time; i.e., do miracles. I asked Katie what she thought of that idea.
“I suppose so,” she said thoughtfully. “But… well, I’m really good at imagination. That’s what I’m good at. But I’m not so good at other things. So maybe he created the universe, because creating things out of nothing is what he’s good at, but he’s not so good at, say, sports. Or doing other miracles.”
Very interesting point, I thought. Even if we did someday prove that the universe was deliberately created, that would still not mean that we could assume anything else about the abilities (or motives, for that matter) of the creator. It’s a point I wrote about on my previous atheist blog, here.
Anyway, to summarise Wallace’s line of argument here:
- If someone/something could create the universe, then that being could (probably) also do miracles.
- Therefore, we shouldn’t let the miracle stories put us off the Jesus story.
Interestingly, this is exactly how I used to feel on the subject; when I was investigating Christianity myself, I never saw the miracle accounts as a reason to discount the stories in the Bible. (There were, as I discovered, plenty of other reasons, but that’s another blog series for another day.) However, what I didn’t really realise or take into account back then was the extent to which human beings throughout history have been willing to believe unquestioningly in miracle claims. There were plenty of non-Christian examples of this in the time and area where Christianity first originated, and most of us would be perfectly OK with dismissing those miracle stories as rumours and legends.
So… sure, it’s theoretically possible that any given miracle story we might come across, including the ones in Christianity, might turn out to be the exception that is actually genuine. It’s just that any given miracle story is colossally, overwhelmingly more likely to have a natural explanation. That’s why I now think the appropriate response to any miracle story is skepticism rather than open-mindedness.
Anyway, this seems to be the end of the session for this week. SJ tells the children to ‘keep an open mind and be ready to listen and learn… don’t assume the story about Jesus is impossible’ and sets them the assignment of seeing what they can learn both about the skateboard and about Jesus. ‘Start with the biggest miracle of all: His resurrection’ he advises them, his openmindedness apparently not extending to phrasing such as ‘claims about the resurrection’ or ‘his alleged resurrection’. We also get another grey insert box, this one about open-mindedness: ‘Don’t allow your doubt to stand in the way of the truth, and don’t start an investigation assuming you already know the answer. Be open to following the evidence wherever it might lead.’ This is great advice, but it is also so at odds with the statements we’re given in other insert boxes. All this reads as though Wallace wants the readers to believe they’re making a genuinely open-minded examination… while all the time he’s steering us towards the conclusion he’s already drawn.
Katie was enjoying the read and review so far: “It’s quite entrancing,” she told me. “Is that the right word?” We talked it over and agreed that ‘gripping’ would probably work better. However, she was a bit fatalistic about the possibility of drawing any final conclusions from debates like these. “I don’t know why, but I feel like there is no true answer, because people are born and they just end up thinking their way, because they just do. Their DNA says that, and that seems to be pretty much it. So they’re going to over-exaggerate evidence on their side and… under-exaggerate? Is that a word? Anyway, they’re going to over-exaggerate evidence even if they’re not trying to.”
Before reading this book, I’d vaguely assumed it would take the same sort of format as what I’d seen of Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity; illustrative anecdotes interspersed with his arguments. In fact, of course, he’s done something different; written it as a fictional story about children investigating Christianity as part of their police academy cadet classes. Under the guidance of a police officer who’s clearly trying to steer them towards Christianity. With no indication that any other activities have been planned for said classes. (I mean, there’s been nothing in the way of “This week I was going to show you how we fingerprint suspects, but what would you think of giving that a miss and talking about this instead?”)
The result of this in practice is that Wallace has actually written a story about a police department running a Christian evangelising group and falsely advertising it to the children as a police academy class.
In addition to all the ethical questions this raises (including the uniform! The children supposedly have new cadet uniforms for this course! Who paid for these? Their parents? Did they know their money was actually going on outfitting their children for a Christian evangelising group operating under false pretenses?) I’m wondering, here, about Alan Jeffries. The real Alan Jeffries, that is; Wallace’s former colleague on which Smirking Jeffries is explicitly based. While Wallace clearly meant this as a tribute to a mentor he greatly admired, it does mean that the fictionalised version of Jeffries he has written is portrayed as
a) following a particular belief system which not everyone follows and to which some people do have vehement objections, and
b) using sneaky, unethical, and I suspect actually illegal tactics in an attempt to convert others to this belief system.
And, since it seems a fair bet that Wallace doesn’t see any problem at all with any of this part of the storyline…. I’m just hoping that Wallace did actually think to check all this with the real Jeffries in advance and make sure Jeffries was OK with it. Because if anyone tried this on me, then, while I would appreciate the thought and the knowledge that I’d made this much of a long-term impact on them, I also wouldn’t be too happy about being portrayed that way. Maybe Jeffries is fine with it – I don’t want to make assumptions – but I hope that’s the case and I hope Wallace did check.