Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Two, Part One

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 are being linked up there as I go along.

I originally planned to review one chapter per post, but that’s leading to impossibly long and unwieldy posts that are taking forever to write and that are probably a lot longer than anyone wants to read, so it makes more sense to split them into parts. This post will cover the first part of Chapter Two, in which we learn more about the skateboard.

 

Chapter Two: Learn How to Infer: Learn How Detectives Find the Truth

At the beginning of Chapter Two, the children examine the skateboard to see what they can learn from it. Jeffries shows them how detectives wear gloves to examine things in detail without contaminating them, and how to make lists of ‘evidence’ and ‘explanations’, which is all pretty cool – at least they’re learning something about police procedure. From the evidence gleaned, it looks as though the skateboard has been in there for at least nine years (dated from a sticker on it that has the old name of their school). They conclude that it’s an old skateboard, and Jeffries makes this statement of note:

“Remember, many explanations may be possible, but not every explanation is reasonable. For example, it’s possible that little ‘toolshed gremlins’ crafted the board to make it look old, but that’s not reasonable.”

Well said, Jeffries/Wallace! I hope Wallace makes this point forcibly to Young-Earth Creationists whenever he gets the opportunity. (Um… nope. Looks like he’s all conciliatory and ‘well, there’s probably some truth to every viewpoint’ about it.)

Two side points that struck me regarding the skateboard description:

  1. We learn that Daniel found this skateboard ‘hidden in a dark corner of the shed’. This, remember, is the shed at school, which seems to be where the custodian keeps stuff; it was described in the previous chapter as having rusty tools in it. Why on earth was a child allowed to go poking about in dark corners of this shed? That doesn’t sound safe to me at all. That custodian should be on the carpet for irresponsible behaviour. (Wait – maybe that’s why Daniel was allowed to take the skateboard! Maybe the custodian left the shed unlocked when it was supposed to be locked, and let Daniel take the skateboard in return for staying quiet about it!)
  2. The skateboard has a sticker on with the school name, but (I think this is one place where it’s reasonable to assume from silence) no sticker with the owner’s name. As a parent, I can tell you that this sounds odd; you are not going to go to the trouble of labelling your child’s stuff just to narrow it down to the school rather than the child, and you are not going to buy stickers that have your child’s school on them but not the name. I’d immediately take this as evidence that the skateboard was some sort of school equipment and that they should be talking to the school office to see whether there’s a record of such a thing. Maybe that’s going to get covered later.

Anyway, in the midst of all this we also have another of those CSI Assignment insert boxes, this one telling us to look up 1 Corinthians 2:14 – 16 and asking us what we think Paul is talking about when he describes the ‘natural man’. Since the first few translations I checked didn’t even use the term ‘natural man’ and Katie was getting pretty bored with me going through checking translations, this one was a total non-starter.

(I have finally sorted out which translation Wallace was using; I took the fill-in-the-blank quote he gave us in Chapter 1, stuck the bit we had into Google, and got it from BibleHub. He’s using the NIV. Hooray! But what on earth was the deal with not telling us this? Have I missed something obvious in the book where it tells us which translation it is? I simply cannot see it. )

Somewhere in all this, according to my notes, Katie and I got into a discussion about miracles. Can’t for the life of me work out how this fitted into the text of this chapter; we’d probably started talking about the last chapter. In any case, here it is:

(Me): How do you know miracles can’t happen?

(Katie): I’ve never seen one.

(Me): Well, there are lots of things you’ve never seen, like Australia, that are still real.

(Katie): No. But… have you ever seen one? Has Granny Constance ever seen one? Has anyone you know ever seen one? So, most people probably haven’t seen one, and some people definitely haven’t… if it’s that rare, it doesn’t seem like it could ever happen. Unless that lamp starts flying around, I think it’s pretty unlikely.

 

This seems like a good place to break, as it finishes the section about the skateboard. In the next part, we’ll be back to Jeffries evangelising. Although, fortunately, the smirking seems to have stopped.

 

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter 1

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:

  1. If someone/something could create the universe, then that being could (probably) also do miracles.
  2. 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’s thoughts

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.”

 

My thoughts

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.

Why I’m not a believer – what about prayers and personal experience?

This is the fourth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

I don’t know whether anyone’s been following this mini-series of posts (probably not, given how long it’s taken me to write it), but anyone who has read through the post series to date may well be wondering why there was even a question in my mind at this point about becoming a non-believer. So far, I’ve written three posts about different arguments for the existence of a god that I came across in my reading, and the overarching theme of all three seems to have been me looking blankly at the argument wondering why on earth this was meant to be even remotely convincing. Why did it take me so long to get to the point of officially declaring myself an atheist, or at least an agnostic?
Well, part of it was the difficulty of proving a negative; I couldn’t prove God didn’t exist, and hadn’t yet realised that that wasn’t in itself an automatic reason for having to take the possibility of his existence seriously without positive evidence for same. And a lot of it was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect; so many people seemed so convinced that God existed that I didn’t feel able to dismiss the possibility just like that. Surely, if I kept reading and looking, I would find a more convincing argument one way or the other? Around the next corner? In the next book on the shelf on the religious section in one of the local libraries? But on top of that, there was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
I tried praying myself, since it seemed the obvious thing to try; if God did exist, this would give him the best chance to let me know directly. Not frenzied wordy prayers, just time in which I did my best to focus my mind on God and open myself to whatever He might be trying to tell me. And, when I did, I certainly noticed something – an inner sense of mental quiet, an awareness of my obligations. I figured that could indeed be God taking the first steps to commune with me. The trouble was, it also seemed the kind of effect that might plausibly be caused by me calming my mind and thinking I was communing with the divine. So which was it? And did the fact that I was even thinking that mean that I was overanalysing it and talking myself out of a genuine relationship with God like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle? Or did it just mean that I was exercising appropriate caution? After all, surely there was a risk that if I was too ready to believe I might talk myself into believing I was communing with God when I wasn’t, in much the same way as I’d managed to convince myself at the age of twelve that our house was probably haunted because I thought I could feel a presence there when I thought about it.
I simply didn’t know. This was such an important subject; surely it was incumbent on me to work out what the answer was! But I only found myself getting more confused. One thing was for sure; it all seemed a lot less clear-cut than the authors I was reading on the subject seemed to think.

And so my teenage years went on…

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument

This is the second in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument almost got left out of this list, as it was such a poor argument I’d actually forgotten about it; however, I was reading John Blanchard’s ‘Does God Believe In Atheists?’, which spends a lot of time on it, and I thought ‘Oh, yes… now I come to think of it, I do recall coming across this when I was researching the whole God subject’. So here it is.

This argument consists of telling the reader or hearer, in impassioned terms, about… well, obviously, about how meaningless lives are without God, with the implication that we should therefore believe in God. Or, to put it another way, ‘We should believe in God because we really want [our version of] Him to exist’.

This is what is technically known as an argument from consequences (or, if you want to get fancy about it, an argumentum ad consequentiam) – the claim that a particular viewpoint is true because the consequences of it being false would be bad. (Or, conversely, that a particular viewpoint is false because the consequences of it being true would be bad.) It’s the logic flaw that’s the downfall of the cancer sufferer who ignored that lump or worrying symptom for too long because they didn’t want it to turn out to be cancerous, the gamblers who convinced themselves that that long shot just had to pay off because they so much wanted it to.

It can work if used as an appeal to emotion, but it’s an argument too flawed to stand up in the light of day. Which is why you will probably never see anyone spell it out quite as blatantly as I did a couple of paragraphs above – if anyone attempting this argument ever did explicitly state ‘And because it feels so awful not to believe in God, God must therefore exist’ then the crashing failure of logic would (hopefully) be far too obvious to take seriously.

(Ironically, if this type of argument actually had worked well in converting me, it would have backfired on any Christian apologist who tried it, since I always found the idea behind Christianity quite horrifying. The idea of God existing – a wise, kind, all-knowing being in charge of the universe and steering its ultimate destiny – sounded lovely to me, and I always hoped my studies would lead me to theism as a conclusion. But the idea that this being had set things up so that people would burn in hell forever simply for having the wrong beliefs? It appalled me. If I hadn’t recognised the fallacy behind this sort of believe-what-you-want-to-believe argument, I’d have rejected Christianity in a heartbeat without further thought, simply because I so much didn’t want it to be true.*)

A more important problem I had with this argument as a teenager, however, was that the premise was so obviously false. Plain and simple, my life did have meaning without God. Plenty of meaning. I loved being alive, I loved enjoying life’s pleasures, I loved looking forward to everything life had to bring. Sure, I liked the idea of a God existing (as long as it was a nice one, not the horrible variety of god that I was hearing about from Christian sources), but I was in no way dependent on God’s existence for finding meaning in my life.

So all of these arguments about how meaningless life was without God got a rather blank look from me. I was sorry for the people who felt that way, who obviously needed very much to hold on to their beliefs and who seemed to struggle inexplicably with enjoying life for its own sake; but their attempts to persuade me that I felt the same way simply fell flat.

 

*Obviously, I ended up rejecting Christianity anyway. But I did so only after spending a lot of time, over many years, reading and thinking about the various arguments and holding myself to strict standards in terms of whether I felt any particular argument actually disproved the belief system or not. It was not just a case of ‘I don’t want to believe it so I’ll assume it’s not true.’ (All of which will make for another post series which I do hope eventually to get round to writing.)