Wednesday, November 24, 2010

16 Atheists / Agnostics & Me: Sounds Like a Good Ratio! Further Adventures at an Atheist "Bible Study" Group With Former Christians Jon and "DagoodS"

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_FOIrYyQawGI/TO1N2hczHqI/AAAAAAAADFQ/t_6Or6RzWKQ/s1600/BibleRipped.jpg

Last night I attended for the third time an "atheist Bible study" group in metro Detroit led by Jon, a former evangelical and friendly fellow, with whom I have debated the Galileo issue. He has a blog called Prove Me Wrong. The first time I went there, several months back, I was invited as a guest speaker. It was simply a Q & A, "grill the apologist" session (due to my dislike of lecturing as my own method of communication), mostly devoted to the usual garden-variety questions about Catholicism. Jon later described the night as follows:

I run a bible study. It's for those interested in understanding the Bible from a secular perspective. We're mostly atheists but we do have some Christian participation. A couple of times instead of studying the Bible I've simply brought in a religious person. So once Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong came. A lot of atheists regard Christian belief as extremely easy to debunk and I thought it would be fun to bring in someone that has thought through common objections and is able to turn it back on atheists. Make them exercise their brains a bit. We had a great time with Dave.

That time, there were eleven atheists and myself. It was the most enjoyable and challenging evening I have ever spent as an apologist in almost 30 years of apologetics. Several of the people said that I had won their respect, by simply showing up and being cordial and willing to answer their questions and do some back-and-forth. For their part (save for just one person who was later kicked out of their group) they were very cordial and friendly.

This is not the stereotypical "angry atheist" group (example: John Loftus' Debunking Christianity blog), with (irrational, self-contradictory) anger against God and Christianity upfront and dominating everything, complete with ubiquitous personal insults towards Christians. No; Jon, to his great credit, is trying to do something different, and to actually seek to better understand Christianity and Christian arguments and to have some real dialogue.

I went a second time and enjoyed some great discussion around a campfire (mostly with the guy who had given me the hardest time in the first meeting: insinuating that I was dishonest or ignorant or both). Then I invited Jon to my house to do a presentation on the nonexistence of Jesus (a position he holds tentatively). That went well, too, and Jon gave the following description of his experience:

I had the opportunity last Friday to sit down with some Catholics and just spend an evening discussing some of our disagreements. It was me along with another atheist (who I met for the first time) and a few Catholics. It was put together by Dave Armstrong. I really appreciate Dave. He's one of those people that is able to sit down and disagree with me strongly, but do it in a way that makes for productive and friendly dialogue. Not all Christians can do this, nor can all skeptics.

Apparently, Jon has a somewhat more favorable view towards my reasoning abilities these days, compared to 26 March 2010, when he wrote (I tease him about this):

As far as apologists go I kind of like Roman Catholics. Dave Armstrong may be extremely irrational. But he's always been fairly charitable.

Last night, the person doing the presentation was a guy who goes by "DagoodS": another former Christian who runs a blog called Thoughts From a Sandwich. He is an attorney; a very animated, thoughtful, academic type (the sort of person I particularly love talking to and learning from). He talked about how Christians defend the resurrection of Jesus; playing "Christian" most of the time. It was historiographically dense (with many "footnote" references to "what scholars today think"), interesting enough, and entertaining on its own level, but ultimately not to my own taste because it was a professorial-type lecture (complete with the white board and markers). It was like being in a graduate-level history class (or maybe a Unitarian Bible study). I want to dialogue (as is well-known to my readers by now), and that never occurred. We all have our preferences.

One of the few critiques I was able to get in at all had to do with the relentless, dogmatic presuppositional skepticism of atheists. DagoodS asked the group (17 including myself) how many believed that miracles occur. I was the only one to raise my hand. Then he asked how many believed that miracles might possibly occur. Jon raised his hand, and possibly one other. Only one or two even allowed the bare possibility. This exactly illustrated the point I was to make.

DagoodS was saying that it is more difficult to believe an extraordinary miracle or event than to believe in one that is more commonplace. True enough as far as it goes. But I said (paraphrasing), "you don't believe that any miracles are possible, not even this book raising itself an inch off the table, so it is pointless for you to say that it is hard to believe in a great miracle, when in fact you don't believe in any miracles whatsoever." No response. I always try to get at the person's presuppositions. That is my socratic method.

This being the case, for an atheist (ostensibly with an "open mind") to examine evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is almost a farcical enterprise from the start (at least from a Christian perspective) because they commence the analysis with the extremely hostile presuppositions of:

1) No miracles can occur in the nature of things.

2) #1 logically follows because, of course, under fundamental atheist presuppositions, there is no God to perform any miracle.

3) The New Testament documents are fundamentally untrustworthy and historically suspect, having been written by gullible, partisan Christians; particularly because, for most facts presented therein, there is not (leaving aside archaeological evidences) written secular corroborating evidence.

Some atheists (like Jon) even claim (or suspect) that Jesus didn't exist at all (making such a topic even more absurd and ludicrous (given that premise) than it already is in atheist eyes. Yet they think that such an examination of the Resurrection is an objective endeavor on their part, as if they will come to any other conclusion than the foregone one that they have already decided long since, upon the adoption of their atheism? And we are the ones who are constantly excoriated for being so "inflexible" and "dogmatic" and "closed-minded" to any other truths besides Christian ones?

The lecture went on for two hours in the library room where the group met, and then we went to a restaurant. Over there, I wasn't seated next to either Jon or DagoodS (there were about 13 people present), so further discussion with them wasn't possible. Instead I talked a lot about the problem of evil and God's supposed serious deficiencies, with a third person, with the person on the other side of me asking me intermittently about purgatory and limbo and indulgences.

I was able to get in at least one important point with Jon at the restaurant. He was making fun of the popes taking many centuries to decide the dogmatic question of the Immaculate Conception of Mary [1854]. So I noted (with some vigor) that people (not just atheists but also Protestants) are always criticizing popes (and the Church as a whole) for supposedly declaring things by fiat and with raw power, apart from rational deliberation and intellectual reflection (which is a myth), yet on the other hand, if they take centuries to let the Church reflect and ponder important issues (this example, Mary's Assumption [1950], papal infallibility [1870]), by not yet declaring something at the highest levels of authority, then they get blasted for being indecisive and wishy-washy and lacking authority.

It was a classic case of the Catholic Church always having to be criticized, even if there are simultaneous contradictory criticisms taking place. It's the amusing, ironic spectacle of people illogically falsely accusing us of being illogical. If we do one thing we are wrong and stupid and illogical because of thus-and-so. If we do the exact opposite and contrary of that, we are still wrong and stupid and illogical for reasons that utterly contradict those of the prior criticism. And so on and on it goes. The only thing that critics of Catholicism "know" is that the Catholic Church is always wrong. That is the bottom line. We seem to be everyone's favorite target and "whipping boy."

DagoodS' specialty (like that of many atheists of a certain sort; especially former Christians) is relentlessly trying to poke holes in the Bible and dredging up any conceivable so-called "contradiction" that he can find. It's the hyper-rationalistic, "can't see the forest for the trees" game. As I've often said, such a person approaches the Bible like a butcher approaches a hog. Their mind is already made up. If they go looking for errors and "contradictions" they will assuredly always "find" them.

And if a Christian spends the great deal of laborious, tedious time required to debunk and refute these in order to show how they are not, in fact, contradictions (as I and many others have done), they simply ignore that as of no consequence and go their merry way seeking out more of the same. It never ends. It's like a boat with a hundred holes in the bottom. The Christian painstakingly patches up the last one while the atheist on the other side of the boat merrily drills another one to patch. I'll play the game for a while and every now and then but it is never to be taken too seriously because it is, quite literally, just a game in the end.

I have actually debated DagoodS several times in the past on the Internet, and have critiqued his deconversion story (atheists invariably despise the unmitigated gall of a Christian daring to do that!):

On the Alleged Contradictions of 2 Samuel 24, and 1 Chronicles 21 and 27

Alleged Contradictions Regarding the Twelve Disciples of Jesus

Discussion With Atheists on Hell, the Argument From Desire, and God's Justice and Ours (+ Part Two)

Dialogue With Atheists on a Supposedly Sexist, Misogynist Bible and Christianity, and on Female Atheist Disdain for Christian Women as Abused "Sheep" [his words are in purple]

"DagoodS" Deconversion Story, Part I: Projection, Open-Mindedness, and Presuppositional Issues

Critique of "DagoodS"' Deconversion Story Meets a Sudden Premature Death

Now that I have met the man, and had no chance to interact with him last night for more than 90 seconds, I may try to set aside some time in my busy schedule to debunk more of his skeptical excursions undertaken for the purpose of undermining the trustworthiness and inspiration of the Holy Bible. In all likelihood, judging from his past responses, any such replies will have no effect on him, but they can help Christians see the bankruptcy of atheist anti-biblical arguments, and those on the fence to avoid falling into the same errors of logic and fallacious worldviews built upon such errors.

And that is the whole goal of apologetics, and particularly the dialogical apologetics that I specialize in: to help people (by God's grace) avoid theological and philosophical errors and to be more confident in their Christian and Catholic beliefs, by understanding solid intellectual rationales for same. We remove obstacles and roadblocks. What the person will do with that information is a function of their minds and free wills and God's grace, and that is out of the apologist's hands.

ADDENDUM:
Related Posts From Others

Atheism and Miracles: Is It Really About Evidence? (Stan Williams)

Dave Armstrong vs. the Atheists (Protestant apologist Cory Tucholski)

[features much participation of "DagoodS" in the combox, and my own as well, including lengthy discussions concerning what occurred at the atheist meeting dealt with in the post; what I was claiming and not claiming about his presentation, etc.]


16 comments:

Jnorm said...

Great post Dave!

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks much. I hope you and all my readers had a blessed holiday yesterday.

DagoodS said...

It was nice to finally meet you, Dave Armstrong. A few points…in my defense.

I don’t try to “poke holes in the Bible.” I attempt to poke holes in certain claims about particular Bibles. For example, you touched on contradictions. As you and I agree there are contradictions in the Bible, this wouldn’t pertain to you, but to others who claim inerrancy, I do question the viability regarding the claim. The same way you would.

As to naturalistic presupposition…I agree that is a difficulty for the apologist in discussing the Resurrection. Alas, it is part of human make-up. We all have biases. As a naturalist, I am going to look for a natural explanation. As a theist, I could understand a theist looking for a supernatural explanation in certain events.

If the apologist agrees the evidence for the Resurrection is not persuasive enough to convince a naturalist a miracle occurred, I am perfectly fine with that. But many apologists—especially those using the Habermas method—appear to claim the evidence is sufficient to even convince a naturalist. In those situations I try to explain why the evidence is not enough. Why we have legitimate (often un-addressed) concerns regarding the evidence claimed.

*shrug* If you are saying it is useless to even discuss the assertions surrounding the Resurrection unless the person is first a theist—I would think this provides support to the reasoning that the evidence is insufficient to prove a miracle happened.

I.M Fletcher said...

You're doing good work there Dave. I definitely wouldn't have the patience.

I.M Fletcher said...

ps, if there were no apparent "contradictions" in the Bible, then atheists still wouldn't be happy. They would point to the fact that the whole Bible must have been written or edited by one person, which is why all the accounts match up exactly.

You just can't win with them.

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks much, I.M. Yeah, I agree; atheists will always find something to irrationally agree with. When one adopts radically false premises, that is how it goes.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi DagoodS,

Thanks for droppin' by!

It was nice to finally meet you, Dave Armstrong. A few points…in my defense.

I don’t try to “poke holes in the Bible.” I attempt to poke holes in certain claims about particular Bibles. For example, you touched on contradictions. As you and I agree there are contradictions in the Bible,


I think there are very few, and what few there are are due to manuscript discrepancies, and what minor ones can be found (about numbers or whatever) do not affect any Christian doctrine.

this wouldn’t pertain to you, but to others who claim inerrancy, I do question the viability regarding the claim. The same way you would.

No one denies that it takes faith to believe that the Bible is inspired.

What I have shown in past dialogues with you, I think, is that many of your alleged contradictions simply aren't that in the first place, by the rules of logic that atheist and theist agree upon. In other words, it is a logical discussion, not a theological one, when the claim is that contradiction is present.

As to naturalistic presupposition…I agree that is a difficulty for the apologist in discussing the Resurrection. Alas, it is part of human make-up. We all have biases. As a naturalist, I am going to look for a natural explanation. As a theist, I could understand a theist looking for a supernatural explanation in certain events.

No quibble with that statement!

If the apologist agrees the evidence for the Resurrection is not persuasive enough to convince a naturalist a miracle occurred, I am perfectly fine with that.

It is scarcely possible, like I said in the post, to convince an atheist / agnostic of the Resurrection, since all miracles are denied from the outset. So the discussion has to first be, whether miracles are possible and whether they have in fact, occurred.

But then that discussion itself necessarily goes back to theistic arguments about God, since God is necessary to perform the miracle in the first place; otherwise, the laws of science and nature determine what happens.

Therefore one has to engage in two HUGE discussions before we even get to a sensible, constructive discussion about Jesus' Resurrection.

Dave Armstrong said...

[cont.]

But many apologists—especially those using the Habermas method—appear to claim the evidence is sufficient to even convince a naturalist.

I am sort of in the middle. I think the evidence is sufficient, but the hostile premises of the atheist / agnostic are so contrary to it that he or she cannot be convinced, on that basis. It also takes faith to believe, and that faith is given only by God's grace (I'm sure you're familiar with that aspect of Christian theology). If that grace is rejected, then the person won't believe in a thing like the resurrection because the faith required is not there. It does take faith. If Habermas is discounting that, then I have a problem with his analysis. But I don't think he would deny what I am saying here.

In those situations I try to explain why the evidence is not enough. Why we have legitimate (often un-addressed) concerns regarding the evidence claimed.

Yeah, that's fine. I just think that the premises involved are crucial, and the role they play are profound and compelling according to your own worldview. And they need to be discussed as well. I always go to the premises because I am a socratic in methodology and that's what socratics do.

*shrug* If you are saying it is useless to even discuss the assertions surrounding the Resurrection unless the person is first a theist—

I would never say that. That is more the position of presuppositionalist apologetics, which is mostly the reformed / Calvinists and some Baptists. That has never been my point of view at any time.

I would think this provides support to the reasoning that the evidence is insufficient to prove a miracle happened.

I assert both: the evidence is sufficient, but people's opinions are formed from their presuppositions and natural biases, based on what they read and who they hang around with.

I think almost exactly the same about God. I believe that knowledge of Him is innate in human beings and evident from observing nature (Romans 1). But for many reasons, this can be unlearned (again, due to influences that a person chooses, and environments), and so there is such a thing as an atheist or an agnostic.

Paul said...

Two comments.

* You have to love this statement, "As far as apologists go I kind of like Roman Catholics. Dave Armstrong may be extremely irrational. But he's always been fairly charitable." Good you can keep your sense of humor.

* It's important to address atheism. IMO, more people need to do it. Dawkins and Hitchens have gotten a lot of press play even though they have nothing new to say. Kudos for your efforts.

Luminaria2112 said...

But Dave? I thought being "irrational" was half the fun! Good on you!

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks Paul. I appreciate it.

But Dave? I thought being "irrational" was half the fun! Good on you!

It must be for the atheists, since they indulge in a great deal of it! :-)

Dave Armstrong said...

Protestant apologist Cory Tucholski has written a very nice companion-piece / observation:

"Dave Armstrong vs. the Atheists"

http://josiahconcept.org/2010/12/04/dave-armstrong-vs-the-atheists/

Stan Williams said...

Dave. One of your more interesting posts. Makes me wonder if a film documentary might be of value. Might make an interesting set of programs for my Nineveh's Crossing Presents television series. But alas, time, time, time. All these great ideas and no time...or at times money.

A couple of "logical" comments however:

a. As a physicist (in part) and a Christian (hopefully, not in part) I have never believed that miracles need to break a natural law. Miracles seem more like paradoxes to me. A paradox is a contradiction without all the data. That is, a contradiction, when all the data is collected, still does not make logical sense. But a paradox only appears as a contradiction until we have all the data. Thus miracles are more likely paradoxes. We don't understand the physical world that much, so miracles look like contradictions. More...

Stan Williams said...

b. My thinking about miracles was informed by Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky where he argues that the Plagues of Egypt (Moses) were the natural result of Earth's collision with the tail of a comet. Another example is the fictional (but logical) account of the protagonist in "A Yankee in King Arthur's Court" predicting a solar eclipse. Such events seem like miracles of an angry god until we understand the naturalness of it.

c. This throws a monkey wrench into the atheist's arguments about needing "legitimate" evidence to "unanswered questions". The atheist is demanding omniscience of the universe of knowledge. Something he/she will never have (unless they are "lucky" enough to get to heaven). Their illogical demand to be "god-like" in terms of knowledge (either now or at sometime in the future) cuts them off from the revelations that only faith and inform them about. More...

Stan Williams said...

That last "and" was to be a "can". (See what mistakes and knowledge can impart?) Something does not make sense (like my last sentence) until new data is provided (it's a "can") and suddenly the mystery makes sense. All human history is filled with such examples, especially in the history of science. What mankind thought was witchcraft of the 18th century is today "modern medicine" or "medical miracles."

d. Thus, the atheist, by his claim of of omniscience (there IS no God) errors in believing he knows all there is to know. And that his life demands to know something before he acts on it... as if his "knowledge" when he "knows" is perfect and not capable of making a typo.

e. This is the role of Christian Faith, without which few of the scientific discoveries would have been possible. Perhaps explaining such a supposition is for another time, but here's the crux of how Faith is irrevocably tied to scientific discovery -- Faith informs us that the natural world has a mystical purpose, and thus it is ordered and structured. That supposition allows science to use syllogisms to construct hypotheses, and then use logic to test them. Without Faith there is no purpose of the universe, and thus no order that benefits the well being of mankind.

x. But the "x" factor I am always reminded of is this: If human kind are just animals and only a notch above rocks, then why do humans and only humans wear clothes?

Dave Armstrong said...

Excellent comments as always, Stan.

I got my copies of What Catholics Really Believe today. They look fabulous! I love the different fonts and all the illustrations. Very sharp!