Apologists and Apologetics Part II: Talking to Those That Talk to God
A loose abbreviated guide on how to deal with (Christian) god’s special warriors
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Thanks to the late Johnnie Cochran (pictured) for that gem. In his famous defense of OJ Simpson, he used this short rhyme to cast doubt on the guilt of his client, despite substantial presented evidence suggesting his guilt. It was something he repeated multiple times to the jury as though it were fact, despite the lack of substance or truth behind it. I’m not saying this is a tactic deployed by most Christian apologists, but it is illustrative of how certain tactics may be used to overcome arguments of substance. You’ve most likely heard some of their mantras. Below are five examples:
- It takes a lot of faith to believe there’s no God, since it can’t be proven either way. This is categorically false. A simple substitution can display the ridiculousness of this argument. No one will tell you it takes a lot of faith to believe leprechauns aren’t real. This is sometimes followed by an “appeal to popularity”. “There aren’t a billion believers in leprechauns!” This is a demonstrable logical fallacy and should be pointed out as such.
- Science can’t begin to understand how the universe works. God is the only explanation. This is what’s referred to as the “god of the gaps”. This may be the very first argument made for the existence of a deity. It likely originated from the times when there was no explanation for the source of rain, lighting, tides, disease, and so on. Before there was a way to debunk attributing virtually anything to a deity, it would have seemed rather plausible. That excuse no longer exists.
- The existence of love and beauty in the world is evidence of God! No it isn’t. It’s evidence of nothing. This is perhaps the most meaningless argument, but it is used all the time. Its an attempt to conflate a sense of wonder with an Abrahamic deity. It’s basically a spin-off of the god of the gaps combined with a false association.
- Humans aren’t capable of creating anything as complex as an eye, so how could anyone believe it could happen by accident? To this, one might respond that simplicity rather than complexity is consistent of design. The apologist argument utilized here is known as the “watchmaker argument.” There are many rational and effective responses to this sort of argument. Doing just a little research on “watchmaker argument” responses can help someone find the best way to illustrate their position. I threw another mechanism in with the “watchmaker” example here, which I’ll revisit shortly.
- There is plenty of evidence for God’s existence! There were many witnesses of Jesus’ miracles and it has been documented for centuries! This is an obvious circular argument. They are effectively saying the claims of the Bible are true because the Bible says so. The witness accounts contained therein are arguably quite suspect, but unless you’re a Biblical scholar who has researched this at length, you’re probably heading into territory where you have less knowledge than the claimant. At that point it may also appear you have conceded the verity of at least a portion of Biblical claims.
Another tactic of the Christian apologist involves systematic word choice. Any time a Christian Apologist wishes to discuss the origin of the universe, you’ll see particular words used like created and designed. When describing an opposing position, words like accidental, random, coincidence, and chance. The apologist claim terms project certainty, purpose, and imply involvement of a creative being. In contrast, when describing the denial of such involvement, the chosen words project uncertainty, ineptitude, and lack of confidence. If you are engaging with an apologist, you are well within your rights to object to terms used, particularly when they are being used to wrongly characterize your position.
Up next, moving the goal-posts:
This is something that can happen very quickly. You may see someone making a claim that Jesus would have been a Republican, then thirty seconds later, they’re demanding you provide a mathematical proof for the Pythagorean Theorem. Yes, this is hyperbole, but it isn’t too far off from what I’ve seen. The term “moving the goal-posts” comes from sports. Imagine a couple of kids playing a game of backyard football and one reaches the end zone and spikes the ball. Then the other kid picks it up, runs it back the other way, and claims it was a touchdown for himself. Of course the first kid protests, but the second claims the first didn’t reach the goal as it was behind the bushes instead of to them. If you were ever a kid that played in a yard, you have probably run into this. Just like with the kids in the yard, it’s important to make it clear exactly what is in question and what is considered the “goal”.
Defining your own terms:
This part gets a little tedious (as if the rest hasn’t been). Like a game of Scrabble, you’re going to be better off if you agree upon a dictionary first. If there is more than one definition, you may have to specify to which one you’re referring. Semantics can bring confusion to the most reasonable and rational positions. There’s a lot of ambiguity in words. Creative word play can be fun, or it can be weaponized. This tactic as I’m describing it, is about traps. While I find it to be a particularly unethical (dishonest) tactic, it is demonstrably common. Here is a short list of trap words and phrases, often used in combination:
atheism (you will nearly always have to define this)
macro/micro evolution (they want to separate these because it fits a science denial narrative)
If someone asks you if there is such a thing as objective truth, they’re probably not asking you a sincere question. While your first thought may understandably be, “Of course. Facts don’t require opinions,” a simple “yes” answer may lead to an onslaught about the unquestionable divine origin of “the real truth” in the Bible. You may then find yourself wondering how you ended up there from responding to “Atheism is a religion,” which, by the way, is a (dishonest) taunt.
When you’re asked what appears to be a simple question with a simple answer, you have to realize the motivation behind asking it. Consider this carefully before answering and make sure to get rid of ambiguity regarding your statements. You may find yourself spending a large amount of time defending something that seemed rather obvious. Falling into these traps can lead to confusion, frustration, and may cause you to appear as such. It would be naive to think this might be unintentional. I hate to assume nefarious motivations of our apologist friends, but failure to consider this will eventually provide an undesirable result.
If this all sounds a bit cynical, it’s because it probably is, but that doesn’t void its validity. Many sincere Christian apologists truly believe they are doing good. As they have been taught to believe, all good things come from (the belief in their) god. As benign as that sounds, this belief also often causes them to think a lack of belief is associated with evil or foolishness (backed by Biblical content).
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt; their acts are vile. There is no one who does good. -Psalm 14:1 (thanks, BibleHub)
Well that’s not very nice, is it? The Christian Bible teaches a lot of rather hateful things, but those who choose to follow it tend to be dismissive of many of its verses for one reason or another. This is what is commonly referred to as “cherry picking”. Apologetics teaches its practitioners how to rationalize inconsistencies and effectively argue for specific interpretations.
In fact, the portions of the Christian Bible that all Christians agree on can be summarized in a sentence or two and it reads like a blurb in a newspaper obituary:
Jesus, son of Yahweh, was born of the virgin Mary and died on a cross. He lived til his mid-thirties and told everyone how to act until he was crucified, placed in a tomb, and reappeared outside the tomb at the end of the weekend to announce his eventual return, but has not been seen in the 2000 years following.
Nothing else in the book is taken as the inerrant word of an infallible deity. This is especially true when you consider the number of versions and translations of the “word” there are. If you’re so inclined to research this, you can expect to find between 50 and 500 versions in English alone. New King James version implies that there have been at least two different versions made since King James took the throne and that at least the first required his approval. Whose word was it again?
Back to my point about apologetics. There are Christian apologists for many interpretations ranging from a total denial of the last two millenia of scientific discoveries to a denial that there is any conflict between the Bible and scientifically described world we live in. As an atheist dealing with a Christian apologist, you may find it helpful if you can determine what the apologist believes to be true. There’s no point teaching the facts of evolution to someone that believes the story of Noah is allegorical. It’s also not much use trying to discuss dark matter with someone who refers to the Dark Ages as the “good ol’ days.”
As I mentioned, the Christian apologist may have invested a significant portion of their education and life in the defense (or promotion) of their particular beliefs. If you wish to publicly debate them, keep this in mind. They have thought their position through as you have, and for whatever reason, have come up with conclusions that will differ from yours. As they are humans with feelings, you’ll have a more positive experience overall if you can remain respectful of the person, even if you can’t respect their position. This is not only for their benefit, but your own. Spreading knowledge is an admirable endeavor. Being divisive or hurtful is not. Though there are no necessarily shared beliefs among atheists, your interactions may color someone’s opinions about atheists in general. Please make sure your personal beliefs are represented as such and you might be able to help someone who is choosing whether to conform or think for themselves.
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