My Day At An Apologetics Conference March 14, 2012

My Day At An Apologetics Conference

This is a guest post by Andrew L. He is a 40-something business consultant, former Christian, current atheist, and mountain biker. He lives in Denver.

With the recent talk of “crashers” at the Reason Rally, I became curious about what is new in the world of Christian apologetics. So when I saw an interview promoting a faith-defending conference that would feature Lee Strobel, I bought a ticket.

Mr. Strobel is the author of the Case For… books that seem to have persuaded a few to convert to Christianity and annoyed many non-believers with their faux-journalism tone. Mr. Strobel and I have traveled opposite paths. He claims to have gone from atheism to Christianity in his early adult years while I’ve done the opposite by leaving Christianity for atheism. I didn’t lapse out of Christianity; I changed my mind.

During this brief seminar, six “Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask” were raised. Topics covered everything from the basics of “Why believe there is a God?” to (the more currently trendy) “Why believe there is a hell?” in response to questions raised by Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the like. Generally I was impressed with the presenters and their presentation skills. While at times, several of them lapsed into what I call “pastor voice” — that sing-songy, almost hypnotic, rolling speech pattern many pastors use when preaching — they generally did a good job of using interesting stories and hitting the high points in the very brief 20 minutes they had for each question. While, on the whole, I don’t like Mr. Strobel’s writing, he is a good speaker and his natural enthusiasm is somewhat infectious. Presentation counts for a lot — but my bias is for the information, for the facts, for the strength of the argument. Not surprisingly, I was less happy with the argument and information content and I’ll cover these in greater detail below.

The conference was at a large — some would say “mega” — Denver suburban church located on a hilltop with outstanding views of our Colorado mountains. About 600 people were in attendance — doubling my own predicted estimation — and seemed chiefly drawn from the hosting congregation. We were told the conference was being broadcast to several churches, including ones in Australia and Guam.

As the event progressed, it occurred to me that this was similar to sales seminars I had attended for work in the past. We learned how to present the basic case, establish credibility, handle objections, and showcase the superiority of our own offering versus that of the competitors. When in the closing comments one of the presenters asserted apologists are NOT selling fire insurance — meaning avoidance of the fires of hell — the comparison was sealed. We’ll tell you about all the good reasons to believe and all about how great and loving our God is — but if you still don’t believe, well, then you’re hell bound and isn’t that a terrible thing to risk?

After brief introductory comments, Mr. Strobel was the first presenter, answering “What makes you think God exists at all?” He made 4 of the same 5 points I’ve heard repeated for the basic case for any form of theism. (In fact one of the arguments isn’t even Christian in origin; it’s Muslim.) The arguments can be summarized like this:

  • God was necessary to the creation of the Universe.
  • The universe must have been fine-tuned by God.
  • God is necessarily the designer of our biological information.
  • Because we have objective morality, there must be a God.

Since Mr. Strobel knew he was presenting mostly to those who already held a strong belief in Christianity, the content was fairly shallow. I had a feeling that he would’ve gone deeper into his points in front of a group of atheists.

At one point, Mr. Strobel threw out what I considered one of the howlers of the event — something so wrong, it’s funny. Strobel stated that Stephen Hawking‘s claim that the law of gravity favored universe formation was disproved by ancient philosophers who had proven that our universe must have had a cause.

That was the common thread between all four of the arguments. Because of X, which is complicated or perfect, there must be a god. While Strobel mocked Richard Dawkins for “not knowing” that within Christian theology, no one created God, Strobel argued (far more irresponsibly) that God must be uncaused, immaterial, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, and possessing a will — meaning an ability to decide and to take action.

I don’t challenge whether its possible for something to be uncaused; I challenge whether this combination of traits is even possible to exist. What does it mean to be all-knowing – how can one definitively know they know everything? As a child, I was taught that God formed planets and stars; but as an adult, I know how — through naturally occurring phenomena. As science peels the onion of reality, there will probably always be some new complexity that theists can point to and say that only God can account for that. So be it. If Christians are always one or more steps behind on the science curve, it’s their loss, not science’s.

Their arguments (especially the one about objective morality) were so dishonest, I started feeling that the best response would be to not engage them on this point at all, similar to Dawkins’ stance on debating evolution with Creationists.

The next presentation was by Mark Mittelberg, author of the book that inspired this event’s format and co-partner of Mr. Strobel in the apologetics-promoting Institute at Cherry Hills. His topic was “Why trust the Bible; isn’t it full of mistakes?” Mittelberg took what I would call a weak set of examples of discrepancies in the Bible and then attempted — with varying degrees of success — to argue them away. For a couple of examples, he cited the differences in phrasing on the sign posted on Jesus’s cross, the number of animals Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, and the nature of Judas’ death. The problem wasn’t that there might not be some true-but-outlandish explanation that would harmonize the accounts. The problem was whether it’s responsible for us to engage in reconciling these accounts recklessly.

Near the end of his presentation, Mr. Mittelberg implied it was non-believers who wanted to paint Christians into an inerrant corner. But it isn’t my claim that the Bible is inerrant. Take for example, an example not cited by Mittelberg, the differences in the denial of Jesus by Peter in the events surrounding Jesus’ trial. It’s possible to create theoretically-possible-but-very-unlikely scenarios to account for the discrepancy.

None of these examples is necessarily central to the doctrines of Christianity, though they do speak to the honesty and reliability of its writers. There are, however, discrepancies that are central and these would form my questions to the would-be-apologist. Mittelberg spent the rest of his time appealing to his audience to approach the Bible on friendly and positive terms. Such advice is poor preparation for the would-be-apologist who will encounter hard questions, who will contend with the Biblically uneducated, and who will encounter those with open hostility to the Bible.

Next up was Dr. Douglas Groothuis, who heads philosophy and apologetics training at a Denver based seminary. He spoke on the topic: “Jesus was a good man — but the Son of God?” For those familiar with C. S. Lewis’ argument that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord, this was the format this presentation followed with the addition of arguments against the idea that Jesus was also not a legend. It was the most academic of the presentations in tone.

Dr. Groothuis tried to make the case that because of the Resurrection, Jesus is God. The evidence, also known as the minimal facts case: Jesus was executed and buried in a known grave. Then that grave was found empty. Jesus’ disciples and others claimed to have later seen Jesus alive and this dramatically changed their lives. While I do dispute that all of these are verified by history, especially the known tomb and its empty discovery, I have my own minimal fact problem. While I’m told I should trust that these 2000-year-old facts are historically reliable, these facts convinced few, chiefly fellow Jews, who lived in those times and in close proximity to those events.

“Why choose Christianity over all the other religions?” was the topic of Dr. Craig Hazen, an instructor with Biola’s apologetics program. Through his humor, Hazen was the most accessible of all of the presenters, though some of his humor relied on the stereotyping of atheists and other non-Christians. This really wasn’t a crash course in “comparative religions.” (Who could possibly do that in 20 minutes?) Instead Hazen presented his case for Christian superiority. His points were: Christianity is testable, salvation (meaning eternal life with God) is a free gift, the Christian worldview best fits reality, and Christianity has Jesus at the center (other religions and philosophies attempt to co-opt him). He followed his presentation with a rather rousing call to arms that drew spontaneous applause and left even me slightly emotionally affected.

I didn’t buy his points either, though. Christianity is anything but a free gift — given its demands for life-long dedication. Decision making and ethical behavior are made secondary to the perceived thoughts of God. Knowledge and science are to be trusted only to the extent they don’t contradict written and other claimed revelations from God. That, besides not being free, is actually a very high price to pay. As a naturalist, I find a good fit of my worldview to our reality. Further, how can we know Christians haven’t merely melded their claims of revelation to conform to the reality within which we live?

After a break, Mr. Strobel was up again to answer, “How could God allow so much pain and suffering?” Strobel correctly points out that this is both an both an emotionally challenging problem for those who have experienced significant suffering and is also an intellectual challenge that seems to paint God into a corner of either be uncaring or outright cruel. This is a corner Strobel believes God escapes due to the “fact” that suffering is an outgrowth of sin and outright immoral behavior.

Ultimately, Strobel’s position relies on an appeal to authority — God knows things we don’t, God uses suffering to draw us into belief, God uses suffering to discipline and build character. But these are reasons that only work until you stand back to consider the whole argument. God is so clever He has a reason we haven’t even conceptually considered? An all-powerful God can only draw us to Him by our suffering? God can only build our character through our suffering? These are assertions that simply don’t get the job done. This seems particularly unjust of God given that He supposedly taught the parable of the Good Samaritan — the lesson of which is we have a moral duty to provide aid when needed. It seems decidedly more honest to just acknowledge that suffering is simply a natural part of our existence.

The final formal presentation was by Mr. Mittelberg who answered “Is hell real and does God really send people there?” Mittelberg did a satisfactory job of demonstrating that the Bible teaches that both Heaven and Hell exist. He also cited near death experiences — hard to accept as a serious line of evidence — and a hope for an ultimate sense of justice. Mittelberg then tried to make the case that Hell is just by making the standard claim that it is non-believers who send themselves to Hell. Then Mittelberg presented, fairly unusual among all the theology I’ve heard, his case that there are degrees of punishment within Hell. His example was that Hitler will be punished more severely than a grandmother who simply doubted Christianity.

Mr. Mittelburg followed his presentation with a call (a prayer) to become believers.

Next, all four speakers spoke on what believers can do to initiate and succeed at evangelistic discussions. It was refreshing in its reduced formality. Dr. Groothuis said he’s spent 30-ish years trying to essentially disprove Christianity and he hasn’t succeeded. While that is a suspect claim, I am also left with the clear impression that these men truly believe what they say. While book sales have probably made Mr. Strobel quite wealthy, his work wasn’t chiefly motivated by its wealth potential. I might buy a house or a car from any of them; I just wouldn’t buy a religion.

Too often these presentations relied on fairly extensive appeals to authority or assertions to “just accept this possible explanation since you can’t prove differently.” This doesn’t work for me and my disbelief is largely unmoved by these presentations. In the past, I’ve explained my disbelief to Christian friends by saying my doubts were like thoroughly enjoying a movie and then realizing the next morning that there were all these obvious plot holes. These presentations did nothing to close the plot holes of Christianity.

I left the event with a couple of new thoughts and a couple of new questions. I wonder if structured training regarding apologetics is something that should be offered within our circles so we can discuss and debate right back. Though I would still stack our young defenders against theirs any day, I’ve cringed at the knowledge gaps some people on our side have displayed on YouTube or on blog posts. This need for education continues into adulthood where I may know my biology and Christian philosophy but I could use some help when it comes to the methods of philosophy or the conclusions of cosmology.

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  • JeseC

    I have to wonder if part of the problem is the expectation many people have that a given individual has to have all the answers for everything about their belief sets.  I’ve faced this with much of my religious family – they’ll point to parts of my belief system where I genuinely say “I don’t know” and go “aha, that proves our points are better!”  Of course, they just cover those points with “God’s will” or something.

    But in all seriousness, there will always be experts, and the experts will always know more than your everyday person.  I’m a master’s student in philosophy – despite what many people believe, the years we spend training aren’t just wasted!  A layperson is not going to be able to win arguments against a professional; that’s just how life goes.

    (Incidentally, the causal argument is quite hotly debated within philosophy, with many people arguing that the universe in the philosophical sense – which is broader than the scientific sense – simply always existed.)

  • LutherW

    no one created God, Strobel argued (far more irresponsibly) that God
    must be uncaused, immaterial, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, and
    possessing a will — meaning an ability to decide and to take action.

    Sounds like a ‘universe from nothing’, do they not recognize that they define their deity as nothing with the ability to do anything.

  • Matto the Hun

    Thanks for the post and for going Andrew. It sounds like, with a few exceptions, there was perhaps a lot of playing to the crowd going on. Some of it sounded like the same old same ,old. Mark Mittleberg, from your examples, sounded like he was building an atheist straw-man with those week Biblical discrepancies.

    I still find it amazing that men like Stobel very foolishly shoot themselves in the foot with claims to omniscience and omnipotence. As you lauded to omniscience by itself is problematic. After all, you may think you are all knowing, but if there is something you don’t know, then by definition you wouldn’t know about it. All knowing coupled with all powerful is silly since that being would know the future but would not have the power to change it else it wouldn’t have been the future. Regardless, such claims sound very impressive but amount to nothing more than a five year old’s mentality screaching “my dad’s better than your dad, and he’s the smartest, and the strongest, and the fastest, and knows everything, and is the bestestest at everything in the whole wide world infinity thousand million plus, NO TAKE BACKS!”

  • Matto the Hun

    Stop wondering JeseC, it is most definitely, part of the problem. The same thing even happens in quack medicine.

  • Stephanie Drury at Stuff Christian Culture Likes has a term for events of this nature: theologizzing.

    Softball your questions! Tiptoe around the evidence! Say something in your “pastor voice”! The crowd goes wiiiild!

  • Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting article, Andrew. I think our only hope of communication is this kind of willingness to listen to each other.  Looking forward to more of your observations.

  • Anonymous

    I hate apologetics.  How much do I really *have* to learn about a religion before it’s dismissed? 

    Theists are continually having to tweak and modify their theology to match reality, which seems odd considering that it (the theology) was divinely inspired.

  • The Other Weirdo

    The circles of hell? Seriously? I wonder, can anybody provide a biblical reference which posits  that some people’s punishments in hell will be lighter than others?

  • Anonymous

    A lot of these people don’t even have much general knowledge. They are professional debaters who specialize in a few arguments. They know those few points in and out and can defend them vigorously. But even within that – and especially beyond – they stick to rhetorical tricks to make it appear like they won. William Lane Craig is a great example of that.

  •  They are called apologetics because the person should open with “sorry for wasting your time with these sorry excuses for arguments”

  • Anonymous

     No. Hell definitely exists in the Bible – and interestingly it only came along with sweet, loving Jesus – but the particulars of hell and how it works were only developed in the middle ages

  • Good article. I usually don’t read these long posts but this was interesting. I agree that we also need structured seminars training people on how to debate these latest and most popular apologetic arguments. They’re getting more clever and deceiving in their rhetoric, and I’ve often felt unprepared when trying to understand how to dissect it.

  • I like apologetics. Not because I think the “arguments” are convincing, but I have always been interested in arguing and why people use the arguments they use(especially when arguments have been answered 1000000 times) and why people believe what they believe. Plus, I enjoy learning about religions even if I think they’re all false. 

  • Well, they believe other crazy things. Why not add more shit to the pile?

  • “I’ve often felt unprepared when trying to understand how to dissect it.”

    That’s the point. They want to be confusing so when your head is spinning from being bombarded with bullshit they can look at their flock and say, “See? He can’t refute what I say so I must correct!”

  • Christian apologetics is more of a show than anything. It’s style over substance. So many times, it’s just preaching to the crowd. 

  • Uly

    salvation (meaning eternal life with God) is a free gift

    Gifts are normally free. The “gift” of “salvation”, however, has a whole bunch of strings attached, starting with believing the impossible and ending with doing the unthinkable if God asks.

  • Annie

    Great article, Andrew.  I’m wondering… was there any time for a Q & A session?  I doubt they would open themselves up to that, but was curious.

  • MHVK

    Great report. Thanks for attending for the rest of us. You’re right, Strobel probably believes what he says, but he’s sure found a $market$ for his schitck.

    I’d be interested to see these guys try and hold their own in front of a hostile, knowledgeable audience, instead of a room full of sheep used to nodding and turning their brains off every Sunday morning.

  • Anonymous

    All knowing coupled with all powerful is silly since that being would
    know the future but would not have the power to change it else it
    wouldn’t have been the future.

    An all-powerful being would have the power to change the past as well as the future.

    An all-knowing being would know all of the consequences of his own actions.  A being who is both all-knowing and all-powerful would, presumably, bring about only those consequences that he wants (because why would he deliberately bring about consequences that he doesn’t want?).   Everything that goes on in the world is ultimately a consequence of God’s original act of creation.  One must therefore conclude that everything is and always has been for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.   Nothing happens, has happened, or ever will happen in it that is not part of God’s divine plan.  A natural disaster?  Part of God’s divine plan.  An act of genocide ordered by an evil dictator?  That, too, is part of God’s divine plan.

    Everything at all times must be precisely in accord with God’s plan, or God is not an all-powerful, all-knowing creator.  And that includes this post that I just wrote — God planned it.  “I am God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and I approve Sqrat’s message.”

  • Anonymous

    Incidentally, the causal argument is quite hotly debated within
    philosophy, with many people arguing that the universe in the
    philosophical sense – which is broader than the scientific sense –
    simply always existed.

    Contemporary cosmology holds that the universe (in the scientific sense) had a beginning, but it is moving beyond the notion that “the universe” — despite the etymology of the word — is all there is to physical reality.  See “multiverse.”

    The question of whether the multiverse exists will be settled (if it is to be settled at all) scientifically, not theologically.  Similarly, the question of whether the multiverse always existed will be settled scientifically, not theologically.

  • Nordog

     Of course not.  The circles of Hell come from Dante’s “Inferno”.  However, I think the appeal is found in the idea that punishment is tailored to the crime.

  • Anonymous

    Mittelberg then tried to make the case that Hell is just by making the standard claim that it is non-believers who send themselves to Hell.

    Calvinists hold that every single human who has ever lived goes into the hell box by default, except for the relative handful god decides to condemn to spend eternity in heaven with him, namely, the elect. And this election comes at you irresistibly: If god dooms you to heaven, you cannot escape this fate whether you want it or not.

    Of course, the people who go to hell get the consolation prize: They’ll know in hell that their earthly lives had meaning & purpose after all. ; )

  • Anonymous

    Call me crazy but I think it has very little to do with *why* people believe what the believe but more to do with the rationalization of that belief.

  • Anonymous

    Bad apologetic arguments don’t go away for the same reason that simple conjuring tricks described on the backs of cereal boxes haven’t gone away: They still work on unsophisticated people. Moreover, they have the authority of the canonical Great Books behind them because many of them originated in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas. 

  • Nordog

     Don’t forget Aristotle.

  • Anonymous

    Shouldn’t we forget Aristotle along with Jesus, as Lawrence Krauss recommends?

  • Slight tangent, but this seems like a good place to post something I found the other day: a listing of 600+ theist/atheist debates

  • Heinrich Kruger

    I was going to comment on this too.  I remember being taught that everyone who ever died without having accepted Jesus as their saviour (except Jews who died before Christianity came into existence) was condemned to hell. To me this seems completely incompatible with the idea that non-believers send themselves to hell. I also think it is utterly incompatible with the idea of a loving, benevolent god (which is why this was a major contributing factor to me starting to question and eventually rejecting Christianity).

  • Thin-ice

    Yes, I love the “Free Gift” concept.

    “Here, take this, it’s a free gift”.
    “No thanks, not today”.
    “Really, I want you to accept this free gift.”
    “Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want your free gift.”
    “Then, if you don’t take it, I’ve got the legal authority to throw you into prison forever.”
    “OK, in that case, sure I’ll take it . . . ”

  • Rwlawoffice

     As a Christian I can attempt to explain this thought. The idea is that having the information to reject God’s existence and the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, then as an unbeliever you will not go to heaven.  It is your choice to make.  You have heard the consequences but you do not believe them. When God created us with free will he knew that some would reject him and if that was the case they would not want to spend eternity with him, so there is another place which is hell.  Hell is described as a terrible place, but whether or not it is filled with fire, etc…, one thing that is a given is that -if it exists then those that are there will know the effect of their choice and will regret it which will cause them great despair and anguish.

  • Rwlawoffice

    Andrew, thank you for a balanced and informative report.  

  • Thin-ice

    Ah, and there you go! The “logic” of the believer is not logic, unless you live in their alternate universe, where even the objective definition of English words lose their normal meaning. It’s impossible to reason with people who twist the normal meaning of words into something else. They are using their Christian Dictionary, not the normal one the rest of us use.

  • Thin-ice

    Fantastic link. Thanks!

  • Edmond

    Hopefully you understand that some people do not “choose” to believe something or not.  They cannot simply “decide” to make their brain accept a claim as true.  They must be CONVINCED by sound evidence and logical reasoning.  Claims that fail to make a good case CAN’T be believed.

    This is not the fault of the person hearing the claim, it is the fault of the person MAKING the claim.  Their claim has failed to live up to the standards of proof that we (all) use to assess such claims.

    Is it the Christian position that such people SHOULD be punished for not being convinced?  People actually DESERVE eternal torment just for being skeptical of dubious claims?

    Those who have “chosen” to believe the message of the bible have actually only chosen to forego evidence before they accept something as true.  They have chosen to ignore their own ability to critically analyze claims.  They have chosen credulity.  I don’t see why that should be rewarded, and skepticism punished.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Because we have objective morality, there must be a God.

    Objective morality exists because God exists, God exists because objective morality exists, objective morality exists because God exists, God exists because
    init: fatal signal: Segmentation fault
    Automatic reboot in 15 seconds

    I sense a problem here. Objective morality is morality decreed by God. If you don’t believe in God, how can you accept the premise of objective morality? No such thing occurs in humans. We don’t all have the same morals and mores. What is repugnant to one person is divine to another, even over some of the concepts you’d want to think were universal (murder, rape, torture, etc…)

    Moreover, it doesn’t help that objective morality is based upon the assumption God’s morals are absolute — but God’s morals are “impossible for mortals to understand,” allowing for Lovecraftian mercuriality. God can say “Never kill anyone. Kill everyone you meet.” The messages are both true, moral, and should both be followed without question. The King in Yellow is a musical performance of the Bible and its innocence and banality will drive the reader mad (but only if they read the second act).

    Or… a more logical interpretation is that various corrupt priests invented the concept of impossible-to-understand-but-universal-morality so that they could justify decreeing orders supposedly from God which contradicted what other priests had said. “God has given me a message! He wants you to gather gold and riches from the neighboring village and bring them to the temple!” “But God told us never to pillage from the weak!” “God is truly mysterious. His ways are not yours to understand.”

  • Heinrich Kruger

     You seem to have missed the point. As advancedatheist said, Calvinism teaches that all humans who ever lived, that did not actively accept Jesus Christ as their saviour, are condemned to hell. This means that every child that ever died before it was old enough to even have any concept of god, ever person who ever died before the rise of Christianity (with the exception Jews that I mentioned before) will be/are/were sent to hell. These are not people who made a choice to reject salvation through Christ, these are people who never even had the opportunity to accept that salvation.

    I know not all Christians believe this, but many do and that is certainly what the Calvinist denomination I was brought up in taught. I had many long discussions with the minister about this in my confirmation class – after I’d already ceased to believe but before I “came out” as a non-believer (I did that by declining to go through with the confirmation rite). He repeatedly assured me that I just had to believe that this is so, that I just had to accept it, that it only seemed wron and incompatible with a benevolent god, because us lowly mortals are incapable of comprehending his grand design.

  • Rwlawoffice

    In all due respect to your minister, Calvin did not teach this.  On the contrary, Calvin taught that through the grace of God all infants are saved. 

  • Rwlawoffice

    Once you are exposed to the evidence you have a choice to make. If you decide that there is not enough evidence for you to believe, then you don’t believe the evidence there is or you determine that you want more and remain skeptical. If you accept the evidence then you believe.

     The same could be said for evolution.  You may believe that there is enough evidence to support evolution yet there are others that don’t think there is enough.  I am sure you would say that those that don’t believe it are choosing to ignore the evidence that exists and (as I have seen here quite a bit), being willfully ignorant.
    So is that the fault of the person hearing the claim for evolution or the fault of the evidence?  

  • Heinrich Kruger

     If you say so. I have not made a study of Calvin and his teachings. Mind you according to Wikipedia: “Calvin believed that humans inherit Adamic guilt and are in a state of sin from the moment of conception … Not only do individuals inherit a sinful nature due to Adam’s fall, but
    since he was the federal head and representative of the human race, all
    whom he represented inherit the guilt of his sin by imputation. Redemption by Jesus Christ is the only remedy.”

     Regardless, the denomination I grew up in did teach (and expect its members to believe) this.

  • Most Calvinistic theologians have held that those who die in infancy are saved. The Scriptures seem to teach plainly enough that the children of believers are saved; but they are silent or practically so in regard to those of the heathens. The Westminster Confession does not pass judgment on the children of heathens who die before coming to years of accountability. Where the Scriptures are silent, the Confession, too, preserves silence. Our outstanding theologians, however, mindful of the fact that God’s “tender mercies are over all His works,” and depending on His mercy widened as broadly as possible, have entertained a charitable hope that since these infants have never committed any actual sin themselves, their inherited sin would be pardoned and they would be saved on wholly evangelical principles. 

    The angle that interests me is that they talk about heathens, but not unbelievers.  Heathen doesn’t mean atheist.  It more accurately means pagan.  I presume from the Calvinist POV it’s all one and the same.  Of course it also doesn’t mention those who come to the age of accountability having never heard of the Bible.

  • Heinrich Kruger

     Oh, I meant to add this. Even if as you say “through the grace of God all infants are saved,” there’s still the question of all the adults who were never exposed to Christianity. Think every person who lived and died more than 2000 years ago, just about every native African, American, Australian, etc. who died before European colonisation…

  • And of course those rare tribes who remain ‘un-contacted’ to this day. 

  • Congratulations Andrew for sitting through this stuff.
    I regularly have to endure exposure to this kind of apologist nonsense through my employment at a large venue .
    Whenever the evangelicals and pentecostals are in the venue always the longest presentation is why it’s good to give them more $$$, the five star hotels and limo’s aren’t cheap these days.

  • Edmond

    What “evidence” are people being exposed to when they are told about Christianity?  All we have are stories.

    The people who reject evolution don’t do so because the evidence isn’t convincing.  They do it contradicts what they already believe, and they don’t want to let go of what they’ve believed all their lives, even in the FACE of evidence.  They can be shown that DNA contains occasional errors, that these errors result in mutations in offspring, and that those mutations may be detrimental or beneficial to the animal.  If they’re beneficial, then the offspring will be more likely to succeed and breed.  A few million years of this, and one species becomes a completely different.  This can be demonstrated.  We have medical sciences that work because evolution is true.

    In the face of all this, people tend to reject evolution simply because they don’t want to believe they came from lower life forms.  Not because of persuasive (or unpersuasive) evidence, but because the evidence contradicts the bible.

    But either way, this doesn’t address my question.  Is it right to punish people for skepticism, and reward them for credulity?

  • Andrew L.

     There was no Q&A.   Fairly tightly scheduled into a few hours; I would suspect to boost attendance.  All four speakers were confident of their positions and well skilled communicators so I have a hard time believing they would have been intimidated by an open Q&A.   Thanks for the question.

  • Andrew L.

    Thanks for the kind and interesting comments, all.

    I do think that our argument can and should take a stronger position when in debate with apologists or those with theology backgrounds.  We must also match the stridency of those who would harm science education or harm our political processes.  But this is not the discussion most of us are going to find ourselves in. 

    It’s going to be our families, our friends, and random encounters with those who believe witnessing is a great kindness.  And here I think our first impulse should be to let kindness and humor -over ‘winning’ the argument – direct these encounters.  Many have never heard someone say that evolution is true or that not all discrepancies in the Bible can be easily explained away.  We don’t need to explain why our Universe formation model is better than theirs, we just need to explain our model and how grand our Universe is.  Invisible and inattentive gods pale in comparison and will naturally fall by the wayside. 

    I leave you with one of my best lines and the former Christians among us can use it as their own.  “I’m not a lost sheep, I jumped the wall and sprinted away”.  In the moment this brings a smile and almost to a person, they immediately or later ask ‘Why?’.

  • Anonymous

    Well, if you want the most inhuman, immoral, disgusting theology possible, Calvinism it is. Calvinism is completely ridiculous in every aspect.

  • Rwlawoffice

    I disagree that there is no evidence, but it would depend upon what you consider evidence. I myself don’t discount the Bible as evidence if that is what you mean by stories.   I also think that the universe itself is evidence of God. You see the universe but may not view that as evidence.

    As for the reason people don’t believe evolution, you are assuming the evidence you have for it is sufficient and that others disregard that evidence for other reasons. That is not true for everyone, some don’t accept the evidence or think it is convincing at all.  But what you are doing is disregarding the evidence for God as mere “stories” and accepting as true the evidence of evolution.  That shows that you have rejected one and accepted the other.  Just what I am talking about.

    Your question assumes that people that believe do so without questions or doubt and do so blindly. That is demeaning.

    But as for fairness, let me flip that question- Why should those that reject God be treated the same as those that accept Him and the sacrifice made for them? If God says that in order to have eternal life all you have to do is recognize you are a sinner and accept Jesus Christ as your savior, why should he change that for those that refuse to believe and grant them eternal life because they questioned him? 

  • Rwlawoffice

    Throughout the history of mankind God has dealt with mankind in different ways and these different times are referred to as dispensations. God is just and did not hold people to knowledge they would not have. He judged them based on the knowledge that was available to them. For example, before Christ God didn’t hold people to belief in Christ but through his grace he saved them based upon their faith in Him. An example is Abraham who was found righteous by his faith. As explained in Romans there is general revelation that tells people there is a God and they are held to that, so even if they never heard of God but know through this general revelation that he exists through God’s grace he can be saved.  There are examples of people in the bush telling missionaries that they knew there was a God and that people would come to tell them about him.

    Unfortunately, ‘how God works’ isn’t universal knowledge.

    If I believed in God, I’d have to think that Abraham actually failed that test.

  • Piet Puk

    That is where the scientific method comes in handy, it splits real evidence from your kind of evidence.

  • Rwlawoffice

    It is true that there are different schools of thought among believers. 

    At least we humans are lucky that the scientific community has always been in agreement on every subject through out the years and their school of thought has never changed.

  • The difference is that science is a process, not a body of knowledge. Science is useful not because it’s right or wrong, but because we can prove parts are wrong.   There is no process  to determine the correctness of theology.  Every minor denomination, not to mention every religion, has their own version, and there’s no way to test or verify any of it.  It’s your word against everyone else.    Via the scientific process, the body of knowledge can be improved.  In fact, that applies to the body of theological knowledge as well. I would argue that the only time theology improves its understanding is when it’s pushed by the weight of science.  In most of the world that has already occurred with evolution.  The US is a bit of a holdout against the genetic evidence that we are more closely related to chimps than chimps are to gorillas.

  • Rwlawoffice

    Actually that is not really how theology changes over time.  it is a process that is gone into with great study, academic thought and peer reviews. If you look closely at the major christian religions, the differences (other then between catholic and protestant) are mainly on how they emphasize different aspects of things, not on the basic points. 

  • Edmond

    How do we know that any god ever said that?  Piet Puk is right, the scientific method will help separate REAL evidence from the stories that you wrongly identify as evidence.

    The existence of the universe is only evidence of the existence of the universe.  That does not automatically tell us about any gods.  Many religions have different stories about how it happened.  Are they all “evidence”?

    Stories are NOT the same kind of evidence as evidence that is physically measurable, testable, falsifiable, demonstrable and repeatable.  They just aren’t.  Otherwise, ALL the stories of the world would count as evidence.

    If someone says “Let me tell you about the Good News!”, that does NOT count as evidence.  If someone says in reply “Um, I’m not really sure that your Good News is true”, that does NOT count as “rejecting” evidence, because none was presented.

    God really punishes people who “reject” him through this kind of exchange?  He actually creates living, FEELING beings, capable of pain and joy, and he’ll punish them with eternal torment UNLESS they pick the right religion out of thousands, and do so with no supportive physical evidence?  And this is called “fair”?

    If god’s caveat for eternal life is that I never question him, then he can keep it.  That’s a twisted system if I ever saw one.

  • Rwlawoffice

     Edmond, in all due respect, scientific evidence is not the only type of evidence that exists. For example there is historical evidence, documentary evidence, eyewitness evidence, etc…

  • Piet Puk

     Yet none of these show evidence of your god.

  • Edmond

    What kind of evidence tells us that animals can talk?  What kind of evidence suggests that you could collect 2 of every animal on Earth, feed and water them all together on one boat for an extended period of time, redistribute them to their locations around the globe, and then expect them to survive as the predators pick off the prey in the first week?  None that I know of.

    Even historical and documenary evidence must be inspected closely to determine if it is true.  The world’s best biblical scholars can’t even agree on the AUTHORS of the books.  Eyewitness “evidence” can be sketchy, and has to be inspected even MORE closely.

    When scientists want to learn about the universe, they actually dig in the ground to see what the Earth has to tell them.  They point telescopes at the stars and planets to learn about them.  They don’t  go looking into an ancient book about magic written by shepherds.  They find the BEST evidence for determining truth about our world FROM our world.

    It’s pretty ridiculous that a god would PUNISH people for relying on that kind of evidence.  It’s disrespectful of the process of learning.  It suggests that someone is a “bad person” just because they rely on empirical evidence over scripture.  This is not appropriate behavior for a god, let alone ANY human-made justice system.

  • Rwlawoffice

    So you want to use the evidence you will accept as the only evidence you think is valid and then say there is no evidence.

  • Rwlawoffice

     I disagree

  • Edmond

    Hating this narrow format!  Meet me at the bottom.

  • Piet Puk

    I don’t care.

  • Edmond


    I’m not sure what you want to call “evidence”.  If the stories of the bible count, then so do the stories of the Koran, the stories of the Hindu religion, the stories of the Shinto religion, etc etc etc.

    Eventually, we have to agree on what is “evidence”.  The amazing stories in the bible require some amazing evidence.  AMAZING.  The bible suggests that animals can talk (and that the people who hear them will not be surprised in the least).  Where is the evidence for that?

    I think you also want to use only the evidence that you accept, but you want to say that god loves you for doing it your way, and that he hates me for doing it my way. 

    Why?  What does god have against people who rely on physical evidence?  Why does he reward people who found the RIGHT religion out of thousands?  Why should I be punished if I think that stories about talking animals are nothing but stories?  Why should I be punished for recognizing that the world is FULL of religions and scriptures?  Why should I be punished for being cautious about all the claims of these religions?  This makes no sense.

  • Rwlawoffice

     The claims made in the Bible can be tested.  I admit that some of them are supernatural claims that  cannot be tested through purely natural means.  But that does not mean that claims in the Bible are not tested through other means.  For example,  how would you test if Alexander the great ever lived through the scientific method ? You readily can’t but you could through historical evidence. To say God must provide to you the prove you need in the manner in which you need it is like me telling a astronaut to prove how a rocket gets into space without using physics or math. 

    God does not hate you at all.  In fact He loves you. Jesus came to die for all sinners, including those that don’t believe in Him. But you need to accept what is being offered to you. Yes that takes faith but it is not a blind faith.

    Whether you recognize it or not you act on faith everyday. You don’t demand scientific proof for everything you do. If you did you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning for fear that not everything has been proven to your satisfaction from a scientific method. So maybe you should ask yourself why you demand that kind of proof from God before you will accept Him as being real? What makes this a special case where you will only accept this type of evidence?  Why use a standard that you know can’t be met in order to reject Him?

    Now about talking animals- some people think that these stories  are symbolic and not literal.  That doesn’t disqualify them from being saved.  I believe that god created the universe, but that it is more then 6000 years old.  That doesn’t affect my salvation. (In fact that is not even in the Bible).

    I have heard some people say here that they would believe if God showed himself to them so that they could see him with their own eyes. I am sure that others could see the same thing and still not believe.  In fact, that is actually predicted in the bible itself. 

  • Rwlawoffice

     Something I forgot to include- Some people do look at the physical, natural evidence of the world and the universe and fund proof of God.  For example, if you believe in the law of cause and effect and you believe that the universe was caused, then it follows that something that was uncaused would have to have caused it. Some believe that this is evidence of God. This is a much more complicated argument than we can get into here.  I am just mentioning it to say that some people look to the natural world and see evidence of God.

  • Piet Puk

    “Whether you recognize it or not you act on faith everyday. You don’t
    demand scientific proof for everything you do. If you did you wouldn’t
    get out of bed in the morning for fear that not everything has been
    proven to your satisfaction from a scientific method. So maybe you
    should ask yourself why you demand that kind of proof from God before
    you will accept Him as being real? What makes this a special case where
    you will only accept this type of evidence?  Why use a standard that you
    know can’t be met in order to reject Him?”
    Because everyday life is real, and all the gods that people believe in are not.

  • Piet Puk

    Not this again..
    Please give us your defenition of evidence.

  • Rwlawoffice

    You have made it clear you don’t care no matter what it is so I don’t think I will go through that excerise with you.

  • Piet Puk

    That is correct, I don’t care.
    It is your delusion that interest me, and because you failed to answer this question the last time I asked, I was just interested how your would dodge the question this time.

  • Rwlawoffice

     Thank you for confirming you did not want to get into a sincere conversation. Now I know to ignore your comments  in the future.

  • Edmond

    You are not answering my questions, and the replies that you ARE giving are cloudying the issue further.  Let me try to clarify.

    God may not “hate” me (assuming he exists), but are you saying that he is prepared to subject me to eternal torment simply because I came to different conclusions than you?

    If I decide that the Shinto religion has all the answers I seek, will I go to Hell for that?  If I find that Hinduism seems to make sense, will god punish me for “rejecting” him?

    This reduces religion down to a guessing game, and rewards those who guess right.  This is NOT a just system.

    And yes, I DO rely on the scientific method over blind faith.  I get out of bed in the morning confident that the materials and machines that run my world have been thoroughly tested before they were put into place.  They were studied and measured and built by people who understand the physics of manufacturing, and what safety protocols should be in place.  This is all predicated on the functions of science.  This IS the same kind of evidence I require of gods.

    It is my principle not to accept claims as “true” until there is at least SOME evidence to support them (this doesn’t mean that I assert they are false, only that I haven’t yet accepted them as true).  You are saying that god will punish me for sticking to these principles.

  • Piet Puk

     Nice dodging.

  • We can agree to disagree on what constitutes evidence, but a problem arises when you want me to change my behavior based on your evidence.

  • Rwlawoffice

     I apologize if you feel I am not answering your questions.  Yes pursuant to the Christian belief, if you reject God and refuse to accept Jesus Christ as your savior, you are not saved. The reason you do that is really irrelevant. If it is because you think another religion is the true religion or because you don’t believe there is enough evidence it really doesn’t change the outcome.

    Now before you claim that this makes Christianity arrogant for thinking it has the only true answers, then understand that this claim can be made about every religion and even atheism.  All are claiming that they have the truth because if one is true, then the rest are by definition false.  I know this doesn’t sit well in today’s post modern society where there is relative truth, but if you think about it, it is done in other areas of our life all day long. For example, as a scientist you may claim that you have the answer and if you are correct, then all others who claim to have the answer are wrong.

    Finally in regard to your claim that you get out of been confident that the materials have been tested etc..   I hope you recognize that this is a confidence that is not based upon proof, but on faith.  You don’t know who designed them, or who manufactured them. You assume that only products like this would be placed into the market without any real evidence that this is the case.  In the end it is faith. Faith based upon the evidence you accept as valid, but faith nonetheless.

  • Rwlawoffice

    I am not asking you to change your behavior in the least.  you are free to do just as you please.  

  • Piet Puk

    Wow, comparing fairy tales with everyday material stuff. Not very convincing.

  • Edmond

    If it’s based upon evidence, it’s not “faith”, by definition.  Faith is belief WITHOUT evidence.  I may not have absolute certainty that the materials I rely on in my daily life are 100% safe, but I have GOOD REASONS to assume they are.  There are government regulations to ensure that they are.  The economics of industry ensure that manufacturers are motivated to comply, to maintain good word-of-mouth to sustain sales.

    And when they aren’t 100% safe, there are processes in place to correct that.  The bible doesn’t have that kind of quality control process.  What’s wrong in the bible STAYS wrong.

    But I’ll tell you what, if god IS real, and he sends people to Hell for picking the wrong religion, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him.  That’s a TERRIBLE system, which rewards guillibility over reason and critical thinking.  Why should people go to Hell for picking the wrong religion??  Why should that be how things work??  That would be an injustice.  It would be repugnant, and no god who adopts (or creates!) such a system could be described as “just” or “moral”.  He doesn’t seem to care about principles, he doesn’t seem to care about good deeds or kindness, he doesn’t even care about cautious pragmatism and skepticism.  He only cares that you pull the “correct” mythology out of a hat (and a hat biased on where you were born and what culture you grew up in).

    Atheism is not a “religion” and it doesn’t make any claims.  Being an atheist allows me to say that I don’t know who created the universe.  I make no other claims.  I simply say we should not be jumping to conclusions about anyone ELSE’S claims until we see some proof.  Christianity seems to say that this position is evil, and deserves to be burned forever.

    If such a system COULD be proven to be true, I would reject it for its vileness.

  • Rwlawoffice

     Actually what you have described is blind faith, not faith.  For example, I have faith that my wife loves me because I have evidence that I rely upon  but I can’t prove that scientifically.  On the other hand, if I had faith that Taylor Swift loved me it would be a blind and baseless faith ( and weird).

    As for your rejection of God, even if he was proven to exist according to your satisfaction, that is your choice and your free will. Frankly, I find his system far more fair and moral then the ones you may think He should have come up with. For example, if you want it based upon works, then which works? How many? Do bad deeds take away the good ones and by what amount? Whose standard do we use to determine what is good and what is bad?  I would venture to guess that in the event you truly accepted God and believed him to exist then your feelings about the system he set up would change because you would also accept the truths about him and Christianity as set out in the Bible.

    Finally, what you describe as atheism is really a agnosticism. As an atheist you are not saying you don’t know if there is a god, you are really saying you know there is not God. You ay try and leave the door open for further evidence, but you are making a positive statement of the lack of an existence of God. 

  • Piet Puk

     “You ay try and leave the door open for further evidence, but you are
    making a positive statement of the lack of an existence of God.”
    Same for all other gods, and unicorns and goblins and all other mytical creatures. They are all in the mind, and that’s as real as they are gonna get.

  • Edmond

    Not at all.  It is possible to be BOTH agnostic AND atheist.  Atheism is NOT a positive statement that no gods exist.  Atheism is the position of not holding a belief in a god.  It is not necessarily the position that no gods exist.  I hope you can see the difference (it can be tiring explaining it).

    I don’t see how god’s guessing game is “more moral” than basing redemption on good works.  If god is so “all-knowing” then it shouldn’t be too hard for him to figure out WHICH works, and how to subtract the bad, etc.  Personally, I’m not proposing ANY system, so I don’t need to think up any standards for using one.  As far as I’m concerned, there is no afterlife at all.

    But I KNOW that my system would be more moral than the one Christianity proposes.  If I were god, and I were handing out eternal life, I would give it to ALL the sentient life that I had created.  I would not favor one group over another, no matter WHAT they believe.  I would not create feeling beings and then throw them in the trash just because they ran into the wrong missionaries.  I would not care which of my creations “rejected” me.  If I created them, if I gave them brains and feelings of love and sorrow, then I’m responsible for them.  ALL  of them, no matter WHAT religions they like.

    Since the Christian god does not reward according to good works, there’s no reason he can’t use this system.

  • Rwlawoffice

     Edmond the Oxford dictionary defines atheism as a denial in the belief or existence of God.  It defines agnostic as one who holds that the existence  of anything beyond the natural world unkown.  There is a difference.

    The god I worship would say that the evidence He has given meets your definition. In fact, before the fall of Adam as described in the Bible , man did have eternal life. He also gave man free will and this is what messed it up.  Sin is what corrupted the world God made, God didn’t make it this way.
    That was the risk he ran when he made man with free will.  The same free  will you now use to question why he did this way and reject him for it.

    And when he gave his son to die for all of them and show them the way, he did so out of love. If through the free will he gave to all people you chose to not follow that or believe that, that is your choice. 

  • Edmond

    getting too narrow, starting another posting…

  • Nordog

     “Not at all.  It is possible to be BOTH agnostic AND atheist.  Atheism is NOT a positive statement that no gods exist. ”

    What would you call those who positively assert that there are no gods?  Are they not atheists?

  • Piet Puk

    Weird, I found another definition by the Oxford Dictionary;
    “atheism:disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.”

  • Edmond


    First, I’m sorry the dictionary has mislead you.  There IS overlap between agnosticism and atheism.  Check your dictionary again, most give more than one definition for a word.  In any case, I’m an atheist and I’m telling you what it means.

    Second, you speak in contradictions (as does Christianity, as do most religions), and I’m not sure why you don’t see it.

    An omniscient god cannot “run a risk”.  Omniscience precludes that possibility.  An all-knowing being knows all outcomes to all actions.  There is no “risk”.  The universe would exist exactly as he engineered it.  If he wanted to be different, he should simply have engineered it differently (a similar argument exists in the gay world: if god wanted everyone to have opposite-sex desires, that’s what they’d have).

    Another contradiction:  Jesus did not “die” nor “sacrifice” anything.  He came right back to life and became god.  If that’s a “sacrifice”, sign me up!  And it doesn’t make any sense that this should show people “the way”.  The guilty are not absolved by punishing the innocent.

    But all of this is tangent to my point.  You equate “disbelief” with “sin” and I just don’t see it.  What have disbelievers done wrong?  Who have they harmed?  Why is this a sin?  Why does it merit punishment?  Are you saying that my partner’s 86 year-old grandmother is going to Hell because she’s Shinto?  Because she was born in Japan and exposed to Shinto beliefs all her life, she deserves to be tossed into a lake of fire?  FOREVER?  THIS is the action of a loving god?

    This simply makes NO sense.  In a world FULL of competing religions, each with their own scriptures, missionaries, clergy, rituals, churches or temples, etc etc etc, it seems that the WORST standard to use for deciding who gets tortured and who gets raptured is their religious belief.

  • The online Oxford dictionary says:

    disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

    Most of us on here will argue that the latter is more accurate and true to the Greek origins of the word.

    For agnostic it says:

    a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

    We could spend days arguing semantics, but please at least recognize that the vast majority of atheists see themselves ‘agnostic atheists’.  We don’t believe in any gods, but we know one can never disprove all gods.

    The media recently made a bit deal out of Dawkins describing himself this way.  It’s nothing new.  It’s the way he’s always described himself.

    You can pick whatever dictionary you want, but when anyone on this site says they are an atheist, they probably mean they lack belief in any gods.  To tell them what they really believe would be like us ‘correcting’ your own view of your own theism.

    For Nordog, those who positively assert that no gods exist (and pressed, I’ve never actually met anyone who holds that position beyond rhetoric) they are gnostic atheists (or hard atheists).

  • Edmond

    Ok, atheism is not NECESSARILY a positive statement that no gods exist.

    There are both kinds.  There are agnostic atheists (sometimes called “weak” or “soft” atheists) who do not hold any beliefs in any gods, but admit that it isn’t possible to know, and then there are gnostic atheists (sometimes called “strong” or “positive” atheists) who claim that they DO know that there ARE NO gods.

    I find that second position to be as untenable and undefensible as theism.  I also think that this kind of atheist is rare.  Most are the agnostic kind.

  • Rwlawoffice

    I agree I don’t want to argue semantics.When this topic comes up, people are concerned how they are defined. I am curious why it is important for an atheist to say -I am not saying there is no God, i just don’t believe there is?  Why be equivocal? Why be concerned about the positive assertion?

  • Piet Puk

     Beacause it  does not matter, like disbelieve in fairies and all the other gods.

  • Because sometimes people use the gnostic atheist definition to set up a strawman and say atheists don’t understand logic.  It only matters when it matters, and then it doesn’t.

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