HAAM Takes on Apologetics – Part 2
If you missed Part 1, go back and start there first.
Welcome to Christian Apologetics
Fellow HAAM member Tony Governo and I were invited to the recent apologetics conference held at Riverwood Church after being interviewed in preparation for it. The title of the conference was “(Un)Apologetic” and its sub heading was “Rational, Gracious, True.” I will say our hosts were gracious, so, as I was about to find out, one out of three isn’t bad.
The parking lot was filling up fast even though I got there early, and just inside the doors it was shoulder to shoulder at the registration desk as people figured out what line they were supposed to be in. The fella beside me nodded in greeting, and I offered a “good morning”, to which he replied “hey, aren’t you the atheist guy from last week?” (referring to the Apologetics video in which I had appeared the previous Sunday). I replied yes, and gave a proper introduction. He thanked me for coming even though I was probably “out of my comfort zone”, to which I responded “actually no, I speak to religious people all the time, though the web and our organization’s outreach programs; and besides, Christians haven’t burnt one of us at the stake in over 200 years, so I feel quite safe”. He laughed.
So began my first Christian apologetics conference. I picked up a cappuccino and strolled over to the book table. Lots of books on apologetics and Christian living, and lots of authors I hadn’t heard of, which is not unusual; even if one pays attention to apologetics, the Christian publishing industry is prolific. In North America there are just under a hundred exclusively Christian publishers pumping out books. One name stood out for me, though – Paul Copan – only because he’s one of those apologists who defends the moral character of the god of the Old Testament. Defenders of genocide stick out in my mind and turn the stomachs of humanists. I picked up his book When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Every Day Apologetics. I opened it to a random page and saw the following: “Lesbianism, though more complex, is often motivated by seeking protection from unsafe men – often because of sexual abuse or witnessing domestic violence.” Eeuw! This is standard apologetic thinking, and it gets worse from there – but not worth the $18 to see just how bad. It was time to refresh my coffee, meet Tony, and head in.
The conference was led by apologists Steve Kim, who holds a masters in Christian apologetics from Biola University, and Dan Rutherford, a pastor/author who gives lectures on apologetics but currently works as the manager of marketing and business development at Fast Air. They use a Ravi Zacharias/William Lane Craig style of apologetics. For those who are not familiar with that, it just means lots of words with not much substance; the basic principles of logic are co-opted when useful and discarded when not.
The conference centered around these two apologists and 4 questions.
1.Why is God hiding? Or maybe he doesn’t really exist?
2.Doesn’t science disprove God?
3. The Bible is full of myths, mistakes and contradictions! Then how can anyone trust the Bible?
4. There are 4200 different religions! How can Christians claim that their way is the only way to God?
A Few Basics about Apologetics
Before we get started on these questions, there are certain points that should be mentioned for the benefit of folks who are unfamiliar with this type of Christian apologetics.
Apologetics is not meant to change the mind of a nonbeliever; instead it’s an attempt to reinforce supernatural belief in those who already believe. No one becomes convinced of the existence of God by the ontological argument, the teleological argument, or the transcendental argument. In my opinion, Christian apologetics is wasted on the rational thinker if conversion is the goal. We can see the gaping holes in their reasoning and arguments, but to be clear, we see these holes not because we are any smarter, but because of how we approach the subject. Humanists/atheists/sceptics approach apologetics with a critical eye and a hope to understand, whereas religious believers are looking for information that will reinforce their preconceived ideas of what is true. For the believer, adding a healthy dose of conformation bias to Christian apologetics seems reasonable and reinforces their beliefs.
Apologists very often work with incorrect assumptions about us (atheists and Humanists).
- First, they believe that atheism is the active rejection of their God; for them, atheism is an assertion, or a blanket statement that God does not exist. This is strange to me because I have never encountered an atheist who holds this position. (Atheism is merely a lack of belief in gods or the rejection of theistic claims.) This tactic is simply an attempt to shift the burden of proof, because in order for many forms of apologetics to work, shifting of the burden of proof is necessary.
- Second, they believe that atheism is also a philosophy, although I don’t know where they get this idea from; and when you ask them what the philosophy of atheism is, they can’t tell you.
- Third, they also assert that atheism is a religion – or at the very least, a worldview.
- Finally, the most important concept that one has to understand to truly grasp Christian apologetics is: The Bible is true (except when it’s not), and this is based on each individual’s interpretation of Scripture. Some get it right, some not, and there’s no empirical way to tell the difference…
With those explanations out of the way, welcome to apologetics.
Speeches from the Apologists
Question 1: “Is God hiding? Maybe he doesn’t exist?” – Apologist Steve Kim
Probably one of the most powerful arguments for atheism is divine hiddenness. Steve Kim saves this primary question to the last 10 minutes of his 40-minute talk. Most of his time is spent offering personal testimony, and explaining how the Big Bang theory proves Genesis, and quite a bit of time is spent on William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument. Various other arguments get a mention, such as the ontological argument and the argument from design. In the rationalist community we often refer to these arguments as P.R.A.T.T. (Points Refuted A Thousand Times). I won’t cover them here but if one is interested in looking up the arguments (and learning why they fail), the Iron Chariots website is an excellent resource.
In the last ten minutes, we finally get to the primary question “Why is god hidden?” Kim breaks it down to three points:
- Somehow seeing god would take away our free will. God will not mess with our free will because that would turn us into automatons (or some such thing). Because of his beauty we will have no choice but to serve him. (Christians assume that free will is given to them by god, but they don’t define it, nor can they demonstrate what they mean by it. Humanists and atheists, on the other hand, are generally determinists. We believe that free will doesn’t exist except in a very limited sense, because that’s all we have evidence for.)
I’ve always found this a strange counter to the problem of divine hiddenness, since God made himself known to several characters in the Old Testament. Lucifer himself has personal knowledge of God “in the flesh” so to speak, and it didn’t seem to affect his free will. Unless of course we are to make the assumption that God is controlling Lucifer?
- This one was surprising – God is hidden because, to quote apologist Steve Kim directly, “if your heart is already hardened, it may be impossible for God to turn you around”. This one begs many questions. All people are not saveable? There are things that are impossible for god? Kim ends this point by using Richard Dawkins as an example of a man who has chosen to go to hell.
- Even if god showed himself, many would still not love him. Kim relates the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. After everything God did to free the Israelites, they rejected him and built themselves a golden calf; a false god. All I could think of after Kim made the point was: why would I want to worship a god with such low self-esteem issues?
Kim finishes up by telling us how God has already revealed himself through his invisible attributes, infinite power, and general and special revelations though scripture. And he proves his point thoroughly by using scripture. If our readers are wondering what that means, in the real world we give it a name; we call it nonsense.
Question 2: “Doesn’t science disprove God?” – Apologist Dan Rutherford
I found this question rather strange, as I’ve not heard any one make the claim that it does. A much better question, in my opinion, would be “Does Science disprove the claims of the bible?” But hey, not my conference. I suppose it is easier for an apologist to answer the question if you ask a question that nobody is asking.
The wording of this whole talk was cringe-worthy; it was full of half-truths, blind assertions, and incomplete information, such as:
- Modern science was started by Christianity, and many scientists are devout Christians (we heard this throughout the conference whenever the topic of science came up).
- Absolutely no mention of the religious oppression of rational thought throughout history – Copernicus hiding his manuscripts of Heliocentric theory from the church, Galileo’s imprisonment, Giordano Bruno’s burning at the stake, none of it.
The actual talk had very little to do with the question presented; most of the time was spent trying to demonstrate the compatibility of religion and science. I really hope this speech will be posted publicly; it is so bad that it would make an excellent teaching aid for counter-apologetics.
It’s not without its humour though. In an attempt to discredit Richard Dawkins’ definition of faith, Rutherford offers his own definition – “Faith is an evidence-based commitment established on the empirical and experiential realities, such as history, testimony, revelation, and inference”. Richard Dawkins’ definition of faith comes directly from common usage and the Bible (Hebrews 11:1) – “Faith is belief without evidence; very often belief in spite of the evidence”. The humor comes a little later, when Rutherford cautions the audience not to use ideas that are “unbiblical”; rather ironic, since Rutherford’s definition of faith can be found nowhere in the Bible. For more on biblical faith and how it’s used by Christians, I recommend this excellent article by Aron Ra.
Question 3: The Bible is full of myths, mistakes and contradictions! Then how can anyone trust the Bible?
Question 4: There are 4200 different religions! How can Christians claim there is the only way to God?
The last two sessions were simply a combination of apologetics and a Sunday sermon, grounded in circular reasoning and weak-to-nonexistent evidence. This took the form as arguments such as:
- We know that some of the places and characters in the bible existed; therefore, its true.
- We know that Jesus rose because they found the tomb empty.
The last talk, by professional apologist Steve Kim, mostly compared Christianity to other religions, discussed the supposed historical accuracy of the gospels, and ended with an emotional and graphic description of Jesus having his flesh ripped open by a cat ‘o nine tails and full details of crucifixion.
Now crucifixion, as the ancient Romans practiced it, is grotesque, and represents the pinnacle of human cruelty. If you’ve read about it in historical records, you can’t help but be emotionally moved. I would actually not recommend reading accurate historical accounts of this torture process if you have a weak stomach. Apologist Steve Kim used a graphic account of this torture to elicit an emotional response in the congregation, in order to sell his religion and make it seem more real. I found that despicable and at the same time ironic, as Christians the world over celebrate this slow torture and agonizing death as a good thing.
One part of the conference I was really looking forward to was what they called a “panel” (not to be confused with a discussion, as there was little of that). It was about a half an hour long and consisted of myself and four other panelists: a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Jew, and a Muslim. Each panelist had previously been sent a list of 10 questions that may or may not all be covered, so that they could prepare. During the briefing immediately before the panel, this was reduced to two questions, one of which wasn’t even in the original 10. It was also explained that we had a minute (an actual minute) to introduce ourselves and explain the core of our religion. I did suggest that a minute was cutting it quite thin, and corrected Dennis as I have had to do every time he brought it up … Humanism is not a religion.
Dennis explained that there would be a rapid-fire round of yes/no questions, but no Q & A afterward. Of course, from a humanist perspective, I found the questions fairly easy to answer. However, they were not easy for the other folks on the panel. The question “does your religion offer salvation” is not a yes/no answer for the Sikh, Buddhist, or Jew, and even the Muslim put her hand up half way. The final question, which was the same for all of us, was “How does your religion help us going forward?” This question was incredibly vague, and I had to ask for clarification. I must say it give me great pleasure to tell Dennis on stage that again, Humanism is not a religion.
Impressions and Conclusions
Overall, Tony and I found that this apologetics conference was kind of what we expected – self-serving and predictable. At various points during the conference we found we knew the answers, including the apologetics arguments they were going to use, before they used them. If they had allowed liquor, Tony and I could’ve made an awesome drinking game out of it. I guess if I had to choose the one thing that bothered me the most, it was the feeling of disingenuousness. I do realize that the purpose of these conferences is to equip religious believers to defend the faith; however, what they’re being equipped with is neither rational, gracious, nor true. Many of the folks I spoke to during the breaks, much to my delight, could see the missteps and the logical fallacies in the apologists’ arguments. Of course, there are still plenty of credulous people in the crowd ready and willing to believe. I don’t believe that apologetics helps the average Joe in the pew understand his religion any better; it’s probably closer to a form of mental masturbation for the true believer. In fact, not being honest with parishioners may be a detriment to their religious belief in the long term.
Two odd points to note. First, during the conference there was no mention of Humanism other than on the panel (discussion), and I was the one to mention it. A Humanist appeared in one of their videos and on their panel. But neither apologist touched Humanism with a 10-foot pole.
Lastly, I’ve come to the conclusion that apologists, at least at this conference, either hate Richard Dawkins or think he is the pope of atheism. His name came up a lot, in quotes from his books and films. Keep in mind that the two apologists spoke four times for 40 minutes each time, and in that time Dawkins cropped up either by mention or direct quote 23 times (yes, I counted). Contrast that with quotes from other atheists – Lawrence Krauss, and Bertram Russell got one quote each, and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris got a mention each.
In the end, I can’t speak for Tony, but this will be probably be my first and last apologetics conference. If it is ever the case that I’m invited to another, I’m going to have to ask for equal time.
(Un)Apologetic was an effort for Riverwood Church to explore a “robust defense” of their faith. It consisted of the conference and a series of six videos which have just been completed. If there was ever any doubt that apologetics suffers from internal conflict, it was revealed for all to hear in the words of the speakers as they contradicted each other.
As explained in Question 2 (above), apologist Dan Rutherford claims that faith is based on evidence and reality. But in the last two minutes of the final video (Evil and Suffering), Riverwood’s pastor, Todd Petkau, states (paraphrased) “After logic, reason, theories, and evidence, we still need faith”.
It seems that Pastor Petkau has a different definition of faith than apologist Dan Rutherford. Petkau’s faith appears to be based on something other than reason and evidence. Looks more like belief without evidence.
Pastor Petkau ends the series with the question “Is Jesus enough for you?” As a Humanist, I can honestly say no. We can do so much better.
– Pat Morrow