Lee Strobel has written many populist books called “The Case for” something or other (The Case for a Creator, The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for Easter, and some books preying on children also), where he interviews his fellow Christian believers to provide “answers” in a one-sided pseudo-journalistic fashion. As such, he is the darling of believers, who always try to reduce complex moral, epistemic and historical issues to the level of witty little answers. He is also a so-called “ex-atheist.”
The readers of Friendly Atheist sent in questions for a three-part series, taking him to the task about his “ex-atheism,” his ridiculous methodology, and the vacuous nature of Christian apologetics. His answers are, as expected from a champion of Christianity, very arrogant and self-centered (you may read all of them here), as are his books. The interesting part, however, is the last one, for which he asked a number of prominent Christians what they thought the best questions to use on “skeptics” was, and relayed these to us. With his typical arrogance, he claims that “[i]f [these questions are] considered fully with all of their implications, they might indeed plant some seeds [of doubt].”
Is that really true? How troubling are Strobel’s questions? Will they “plant some seeds” of doubt in your average atheist? Let’s check it out.
Just so I am clear here, what mainly interests me in this entry is how much doubt these questions would elicit in the average atheist, not whether the questions can be answered or not. I have in fact already answered many of these questions in the past on this blog.
Historian Gary Habermas: “Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.”
These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.
How is this meant to plant a seed of doubt in atheists’ minds? In order to plant doubt now where none was before, we need to be presented with some new fact or some new way of seeing an already-known fact. Does Hadermas think Western atheists are not aware of what Christians believe about Jesus, or that atheists somehow have never thought about the fact that Jesus is said to have resurrected? The claim that Jesus is our saviour, that he was crucified for our sins, and then came back from the dead is only, well, the very first fact everyone learns about Christianity.
Atheists reject the Bible as a book of historical facts on the overwhelming counter-weight of the moral, ethical, scientific and historical evidence that contradicts it. Some atheists see the Bible as a book of mythology, some as a book which contains sparse facts but mostly myths, and some as nothing more than make-believe. On that basis, how can these so-called “historical facts” give pause to any atheist who has any sort of conviction about the Bible? Either one accepts the Bible or one doesn’t. Unless actual historical evidence can be presented for any of these “facts,” atheists will continue to consider them myths, myths mixed with some truth, or make-believe.
Philosopher Paul Copan: “Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?
I can’t believe that we still have to talk about the fine-tuning argument, but here we are. I can see that this might plant some doubt in atheists who haven’t given any thought whatsoever to the subject, but the theory of evolution, which most atheists are familiar with, provides a simple and clear counter-argument: life adapts to its context (the world, the universe), not the other way around.
The fact that a contemporary so-called philosopher invokes fine-tuning is rather mind-boggling. David Mills compares this to a person who looks at a map, realizes that major cities are always along some body of water, and concludes that it is so nice that water conforms itself to the patterns of human habitation. How can this be explained? The answer is that this hypothetical person has his causality upside-down. It’s people who adapt to the pattern of bodies of water, not the reverse.
Using this sort of reasoning is a sign that someone is very unfamiliar with the basic principles of causality, and probably cannot reason very well. Of course, there are atheists who do not reason very well, so I concede that this line of questioning might be mildly effective.
“And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such ‘injustices’ or ‘evils’ seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?”
I grant that this question will definitely plant seeds of doubt in atheists who have not given any thought to the basic moral issues, and that is a fairly large contingent. Anyone who does not have a conception of where morality comes from, or who relies on the authoritarian narratives which tell us that morality comes from obedience, will be vulnerable to believing in the Christian concept of “might makes right” (God will send you to Hell if you don’t obey, so obey God’s commandments). However, this is doubt born from ignorance, not from healthy skepticism, which apparently doesn’t bother our “philosopher.”
Anyone who has read my blog for any period of time will know my answer, which is supported by all the data we have: the concept of good and evil is part of human nature itself, it is innate. There is no great plan or mystery to this issue at all. Evolution tells us that the tribes, species and groups of species ruled by free cooperation (which is pretty much the diametrical opposite of Christian morality) survive and flourish better than those tribes, species and groups of species that do not. This is why free cooperation is part and parcel of the genetic code of most animals, including humans. It is why we reject murder, theft, and lies, and seek to cooperate with our fellows.
Talk show host Frank Pastore: “Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.”
How do you expect to plant seeds of doubt in someone when you don’t even try to understand what that person believes? Most atheists do not claim to know astrophysics, abiogenesis, or neurology. None of these scientific disciplines are necessary to be an atheist. Therefore this question is a complete failure at making atheists doubt. No atheist believes that he must know everything in order to be an atheist.
Equally importantly, neither is it necessary to know everything to be a Christian. Can Frank Pastore “explain how something [the universe] can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life [clay], how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source [God]”? If not, why should we? If all he has to offer is “God did it,” which is not an explanation, then why should atheists feel like they have to offer explanations? Of course, a “talk show host” would probably have some glib, side-tracking response to these questions, but the fact remains that Christianity in itself absolutely does not answer these questions.
Historian Mike Licona: “Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?”
This is a different tack, for sure, but a dubious one. After all, if the goal here is to instill doubt, why ask a question that would only really apply to people who already have doubt? If one does not doubt one’s atheism, then the answer will simply be “no,” and the question is irrelevant.
Should an atheist doubt his atheism? Maybe so. But since atheism is a negative position, what is there to doubt exactly? Should one wonder whether the Christian God just might exist after all? But how can an atheist change his mind on the subject unless some new evidence is presented to him? Merely asking what troubles you is not new evidence. One may be troubled by plenty of things, but if one already deconverted despite these troubling things, it is of little use to rehash them.
If we accept this line of reasoning, then there is one equally problematic issue. If the atheist is a materialist as well, then what evidence could he accept for the existence of a non-material being? Any evidence presented could equally be evidence for the existence of some material being or process. Therefore, to a materialist, any such argument is necessarily an argument from ignorance. To the Christian, the fact that any evidence for their God is, from a logical standpoint, equally justifiable as evidence for natural processes should be “most troubling.”
In short, this question does not at all introduce doubt, since it only applies to atheists who have doubts in the first place.
Author Greg Koukl: “Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?”
I have already grappled with Koukl’s rhetoric before, where I refuted his attempts at rationalizing the Problem of Evil. He has the unfortunate tendency of oversimplifing issues using cutesy analogies and false dilemmas, and he is doing the same thing here.
If we look at what Pastore said, Koukl is doing the same thing here but using more sophisticated terms: he is trying to equate atheism with astrophysics, and make atheists feel guilty for not knowing astrophysics as well as he thinks he does. As such, it no more instills doubt than Pastore’s questions. No atheist I know equates atheism with knowledge of astrophysics.
In fact, to answer both Pastore and Koukl’s implicit premise, there were atheists far before the development of astrophysics or biology. What would these two pulpit-bashing Christians make of Epicurus, who first conceived of the Problem of Evil millenia before the principles of evolution or the Big Bang were discovered? What would they make of that great man, Robert Ingersoll, who lived and died before all these advances of science, and yet advanced ideas so powerful that they resonated with the United States of his time? What about the innumerable atheists that came before either of them? Were they all crazy? And what about the Pirahã tribe in Brazil, whose people have never known science and yet hold no supernatural beliefs whatsoever?
The fact is that all of these people don’t really have that much more knowledge of the scientific issues than Pastore and Koukl do, who look at science strictly to rationalize their archaic beliefs. Pastore and Koukl can no more explain how a God-centered universe can produce good or evil than Epicurus or Ingersoll could explain the eras of the Big Bang, and yet we hold neither side to their scientific ignorance. Why therefore hold present atheists to their scientific ignorance?
The fact that atheists and Christians are both perfectly content even in a situation of scientific ignorance prove that people can make up their minds about things with or without science. Science is a fine adjunct to any sound reasoning process, but unless we are looking for answers about the functioning of some natural system, science cannot replace sound reasoning.
I said that I would examine each of these points, not for their truth, but for how much doubt they might generate in your average atheist, as they were promised to do. The end result? I find none of these questions particularly troubling or conducive to doubt. Only atheists who have given no thought to any of these issues might be shaken and might have to ask someone else to explain some of these points. But atheists with the merest understanding of philosophical issues will not be troubled. This is a major failure for Strobel.