A Response to the Friendly Atheist (Part 2)

Hemant MehtaThis post continues a response to the July 30 CNN opinion piece article by Hemant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist”, entitled “Why are millennials leaving church? Try atheism”. In Part 1, we looked at a number of arguments Mehta makes that I believe are either flawed or weak. Let’s now examine a few more.

“There’s no Proof”

Mr. Mehta says, “The myth surrounding Jesus is part of the problem with Christianity. . . .To believe in Jesus means believing that he was born of a virgin, rose from the dead and performed a number of miracles. There’s no proof of any of that ever happened”.

Says who?

My question to Mehta is the same one I always ask atheists when this argument comes up: what type of proof are you looking for? What kind of evidence, using the legal/historical method that’s routinely employed to validate history from antiquity, will suffice?[1]

As far as Jesus’ resurrection is concerned, there is plenty of good historical and philosophical evidence that has been presented numerous times by many Christian apologists.[2] To hear the top atheists who debate Christians on the resurrection and who consistently use the hallucination hypothesis[3] as their strongest argument against Jesus rising from the dead is to realize how bad their situation really is.[4]

Of course, all they have to do is produce the body of the Nazarene Carpenter and Christianity will be destroyed once and for all. But so far, no success on that front.[5]

As for Jesus’ miracles, again the question is: what proof are you seeking? The fact is, both the New Testament and external Christian sources hostile to Christianity agree that Jesus performed acts that could not be naturally explained.[6] Such acknowledgments led Professor James Dunn to comment: “What is interesting in this testimony [extra-biblical writings], hardly partisan of behalf of Christian claims, is that the accounts of Jesus’ healing and exorcistic success are nowhere disputed, only the reasons for that success.”[7]

The truth is, Mr. Mehta and other atheists like him reject the evidence for Christ’s resurrection and miracles because of their presuppositional commitment to naturalism. The historicity of such events is ruled out in a priori style.

As to open marketplace exchange of ideas, Mehta first says: “Christians can no longer hide in a bubble, sheltered from opposing perspectives, and church leaders can’t protect young people from finding information that contradicts traditional beliefs.”

The fitting word for this comment is ‘preposterous’. Christianity has never hidden in a bubble; unlike other faiths, it has opened itself up to scrutiny and been forever out in front engaging other worldviews (including atheism) in dialog since the beginning.[8]

Admittedly, we do try and educate people from flawed atheistic arguments such as those presented in the Zeitgeist internet movie, which is so factually defective it stretches credulity, or Lawrence Krauss’ widely panned recent book where he attempts to redefine the term ‘nothing’ in hopes of avoiding the conclusion of a cosmic Beginner.[9]

As to Christian apologists and their arguments, Mehta states: “Moreover, blogs and websites espousing non-religious viewpoints and criticizing Christianity draw tons of Internet traffic these days. For every Christian apologist’s argument, it seems, there’s an equal and opposite rebuttal to be found online. I call that “Hitchens’ Third Law.””

I hate to be the bearer of bad news for Mehta, but this is nothing new. Is Mehta not familiar with Paul duking it out with the Epicureans on Mars Hill or Origen’s writings against his skeptical opponent Celsus?  Christianity has always been opposed and will continue to be. What is new is that believers and unbelievers now have a worldwide computer network at their disposal to carry out their discourse, which is great as thousands can now watch live as apologists like William Lane Craig soundly defeat atheist thinkers such as Alex Rosenberg in various debates.[10]

Closer to the Truth

Turning his attention to Christians themselves, Mr. Mehta says, “A 2012 study by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that many Christians aged 18-24 felt that Christianity was hypocritical (49%), judgmental (54%) and anti-gay (58%).” Later, he says that Christian leaders have “played sloppy defense” and failed to address key challenges to the faith and that “more than anything else, atheism’s best advertisements may be the words of Christian leaders themselves”.

Here, in my opinion, Mehta is on much more solid footing.

The statistics used by the “friendly atheist” where Christian impressions are concerned are those of David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group (who Mehta loves to quote without the explanations or cures Kinnaman prescribes for the issues he highlights), who found that the term “evangelical” among millennial and similar age groups resulted in nearly half of them having a bad impression, 47% being neutral and only 3% having a good impression.[11] Moreover, a full eighty-five percent (85%) of Kinnaman’s surveyed group said that Christians are best known for a hypocritical lifestyle.[12]

My response here is twofold. First, it should be acknowledged that when the media continually parades the handful of individuals comprising the Westboro Baptist church as something representing Christ vs. the many Christians who truly mirror Jesus, it is no wonder that millennials can sometimes be sour on Christianity. Here I would simply repeat the words of Augustine: do not judge a philosophy by its abuse.[13]

Second, we need to swallow our medicine when it’s rightly prescribed. While the philosophical problem of evil is normally the number one intellectual argument cited by Christian skeptics as to why they don’t believe[14], by far, the biggest reason many unbelievers call out (when pushed)  as to why they ultimately turn from Christ is because they consistently see professing Christians failing to reflect their Lord.[15]

On playing “sloppy defense”, sadly, I’ve seen this happen too many times, which is why I wrote the article “The Tragedy of the Dumb Church” some time ago.

Lastly, it is indeed depressing to see how the various immoral, idolatrous, and downright ignorant actions of certain Christian figureheads have tarnished the Church of Jesus Christ in recent years. Of course, many godly leaders have done just the opposite over their tenures, but their lives are routinely ignored by the press.

Again, while I disagree with much of what Mehta says in his article, on these points he must be given credit and we as Christians need to take action to correct the issues he cites.

The Overarching Flaw

Let’s forget for a minute Mr. Mehta’s primary question of why/if millennials are leaving Christianity. Instead, let’s ask a better question: why does anyone receive Christ and become a Christian?

Some atheists may say it is cultural; they were brought up in a Christian home.[16] Others would cite Freud and say it is because the person has a coping mechanism problem or ‘wish fulfillment factor’[17]. Still other atheists may reference Marx who thought those that clung to religion suffer from a cognitive disorder[18] or as one atheist I dialoged with over email put it, I was “clinically crazy”.

How nice.

Such charges are common. As Christians, we don’t forget Jesus’ own family coming to take Him away (Mark 3:21), Festus shouting out to a crowd that Paul had lost his mind (Acts 26:24), or the Apostle writing to the Corinthians that “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

These facts help us to discover the primary flaw in Mr. Mehta’s article.

The spirit behind Mehta’s argument as to why millennials (and others) are supposedly exiting Christianity is because atheism is ‘coming on strong’ today. Mehta believes that atheism is short circuiting the Christian faith because of the now wider dissemination of atheistic information and campaigns, which wake believers up from their Freud/Marx/other condition so that they see the light (pun intended).

Unfortunately, some Christians believe and employ the same thing only in reverse. It’s as if these Christians and their atheist opponents see the acceptance or rejection of Christ as a battle of sales pitches – the one with the slickest marketing materials, most trafficked websites, longest list of pro’s, shortest register of con’s, and tightest set of logical argumentation will win the day and convince the person who’s on the fence.

There are two problems with this approach. First, the only reason to believe anything is because it’s true, not because it’s appealing. Second, such thinking runs contrary to how the Bible describes the condition of humanity and how people become believers in Christ.

Mr. Mehta and all his atheist brethren need to understand that they, along with all the rest of us who are now believers, are born rejecting God. The Bible says that no one seeks God (Rom. 3:11), all have blind eyes and deaf ears to the gospel message (John 12:40), with minds that are naturally hostile to God (Rom. 8:7) and incapable of accepting Christ on their own (1 Cor. 2:14).

This, again, is the ‘natural’ state of everyone, which is why Jesus said: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44, 65).

Yes, there are very good apologetic arguments for God that contain compelling evidence and solid reason. And all will be flippantly brushed aside by unbelievers and labeled inadequate because of their a priori commitment to anti-supernaturalism unless God intervenes in their life. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as people act contrary to evidence all the time.

Of course, this statement will be laughed at and ridiculed by atheists but it is 100% Biblical.

If millennials truly aren’t coming to Christ, it has nothing to do with Mr. Mehta’s arguments, which are mostly anemic and contain nothing original. Whether they are millennials, boomers, busters, or carry some other label given to them by the secular culture, people become Christians only through the grace of the sovereign God who awakens their hearts (Acts 16:14) to accept His loving offer of salvation (John 3:16) and actually see the truth before them.

This fact of God’s sovereignty should provide peace to all Christians and cause all of us to continue to work hard at making disciples of Christ through our message and our deeds, “in no way [be] alarmed by our opponents” (Phil. 1:28), and know that people such as Mehta have no bearing whatsoever on whether the atheist ranks swell or shrink.

[2] For two good sources see Mike Licona’s “The Resurrection of Jesus – A New Historiographical Approach” and N. T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”.

[3] “I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence . . . is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another. . . . In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted, but encouraged.”

– Atheist Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ” in The Empty Tomb, pg. 184.

[4] For a summarized set of arguments against the hallucination hypothesis, see my presentation here: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/the-resurrection-of-jesus-a-miracle-in-one-of-three-ways, slides 11-20.

[5] The most recent being the widely discredited work of Tabor and Jacobovici in The Jesus Tomb.

[6] See presentation at: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/the-essentials-of-apologetics-why-jesus-part-1, slide 28 for non-Biblical citations on Jesus’ miracles.

[7] James Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003): 671.

[8] See podcasts and presentations to non-believing audiences given by the likes of Ravi Zacharias’ team and William Lane Craig.

[9] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing.

[11] David Kinnaman, Unchristian, 2007, pg. 26.

[12] Kinnaman, pg. 28.

[14] This argument, however, is defeated when analyzed. Peter Van Inwagen says, “It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able tell, this thesis is no longer defended.” Peter Van Inwagen, “The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence,Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 5: Philosophy of Religion,ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991),pg. 135.

[15] For more on this subject, see my article, “The Best Argument against Christianity”.

[17] Sigmund Freud called the hopes offered by religion “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . we disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification”.  Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, (New York: Anchor Books, 1964), pgs. 47,49.

[18] “Religion is the self-consciousness and the self-feeling of the man who has either not yet found himself, or else (having found himself) has lost himself once more. . . .This state, this society, produce religion, a perverted world consciousness, because they are a perverted world. . . . Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people” “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction,” in On Religion, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, tr. Reinhold Niebuhr (Chico, CA: Scholar’s Press, 1964), pp. 41-2.

5 thoughts on “A Response to the Friendly Atheist (Part 2)”

  1. why does anyone receive Christ and become a Christian?

    Well, it seems geography plays a much more determinant role here that any calling by god. Your argument avoids this thorny issue altogether.

    But as for those leaving, Mehta simply raises an overlooked factor: the influence of New Atheists according to many testimonials like some of the thousands found at Convert’s Corner on Dawkins’ site. Mehta’s not not just making stuff up here but pointing out evidence that is being widely ignored: Millennials are being exposed to good arguments and critical reviews by New Atheists that are widely available and many are claiming this exposure to reasoned argument has an effect.

    As you quite rightly point out, the only reason to believe anything is because it’s true, not because it’s appealing. You should have gone further along this line and admitted that there is a significant and meaningful difference between what is true and what only believed to be true (for whatever appealing reason). And the fact of the matter is that Millennials can appreciate the ant-religious argument that reality – and not our beliefs about it, as so many religious folk continue unabashedly to promote – arbitrate this important difference. And when one allows reality to be the adjudicator of claims made about it as non believers do, religion is revealed to all to be an abject failure at producing knowledge about what’s true in reality.

    That insufficiency cannot be blamed on atheists or poorly exercised theology but on a broken methodology accepted by theists to be necessary to support revelations about god even if it is a method demonstrably insufficient and inadequate in every other area of human inquiry. This translates into a recognition that christian claims about the divine through revelation are no different in truth value than other religious claims that stand contrary to and in conflict with it and, more importantly, have no means by this methodology to determine which claim has a greater truth value. This problem is inherent in all religious belief and Millennials know it, thanks in large part to the efforts of New Atheists to expose it.

    Millennials raised and schooled in multicultural settings realize that all religious claims are of a kind that all too often stand incompatible with a methodology that produces knowledge that works – in applications, therapies, and technologies that are very useful – for everyone everywhere all the time. This discrepancy reveals to Millennials the power of the atheist’s argument: that belief of the religious kind produces unnecessary social problems… whether that be the demonstrations by the WBBC at military funerals or muslims protesting in the street the latest insult, the Roman church helping pedophiles escape prosecution or evangelicals attacking the science of evolution with ignorance. All faiths seem to regularly produce spokesmen to be against the practice of homosexuality and equality rights in marriage and those scratching their collective heads at the decline of the religious fail to realize that this approach attacks the rights of lifetime friends of Millennials who see it for what it is: religiously inspired discrimination. Against this backdrop the non belief of atheists is like an oasis of peace, acceptance, and mutual respect for real people in real life that does so based on a reliance and respect for reason… reasonable conclusions arbitrated by reality for its truth value that brings people together rather than divisive faiths that drive wedges into people’s lives on the basis of belief that attempts to impose its message on reality.

    1. there is an important difference

      between bein’ brought together

      on the level-o’-form

      and begin’ brought together

      on the level-o’-spirit

      togetherness in the world is an arbitrary temporary unity

      togetherness in spirit is all-inclusive and eternal

      since we experience ourselves as bodies

      and only intuit we are spirit

      we must do all we can

      to promote Love

      w/in our self

      and among our selves

      Oneness is what underlies both science and theology

      understandin’ this

      is why we possess cognition

    2. tildeb wrote: “Millennials are being exposed to good arguments and critical reviews by New Atheists that are widely available and many are claiming this exposure to reasoned argument has an effect.”

      I don’t think it is the case that the arguments of atheists are so good. I think it’s the fact that young people have not been made aware of how bad they actually are. In other words, they look and sound good on the surface. When you delve into them, you find their fatal flaws.

      Many young people who leave the church have never been provided with the information or the methodology needed to ferret out the problems with atheists’ arguments. Every church should offer courses in apologetics so they are prepared to respond to the challenges atheists provide. They need to be taught how to recognize invalid arguments.

      I also think that some young people, when they get out on their own, are thrilled that, away from home, they can now revel in the sins that God asks them to give up. When you get right down to it, very few people reject God for intellectual reasons. Emotion and desire has far more to do with it.

      As for finding an “oasis of peace”, I can’t see how atheism provides that. It offers no meaning for life and no moral standards to live by — unless of course atheists borrow those things from Christianity — which they do! It’s a complete lie that living as one wants to live without being answerable to God brings peace. The opposite is true. It brings turmoil. But it’s only when a person gets right with God that he or she discovers that.

      As for “religiously-inspired discrimination”, atheists offer “non-religious discrimination”. What makes that preferable?
      Lastly, if we want to quote Barna, we should quote those studies that show that the number of kids from Christian homes leaving the church after entering university or the workforce is actually quite small. Are atheists inflating the numbers because it suits their purposes?

      1. MLC, it sure would be nice to find out why allowing reality to arbitrate claims made about it contains a mysterious ‘fatal flaw’… especially when so much practical stuff comes from this method that works for everyone everywhere all the time. I know you want to suspend reality for claims made about some other reality for which you have zero evidence in favour of, and New Atheists have compelling evidence against, but a supra-reality – a supernatural – that just so happens to mesh perfectly with the beliefs you hold to its ‘explanation’ for some interventionist, creative, divine, causal agency that seems to be like the mole in the game whack-a-mole… a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t peekaboo god. Coincidence, I’m sure. And by bandying about metaphysical notions in logical form, you can even show why this agency exists, along with why up means down and black is really another kind of white when you squint at it just so.

        Word games is the sum total you offer as a response to reality and more and more people just aren’t buying it.

        But a growing number of the younger generation in particular is on to you and the theological word games apologists and accommoidationsists love to play, and that is in large part due to New Atheists willing to stand up and criticize religious privilege in the public domain and show why and how it has net negative effect.

        I am quite familiar with young people and they are for the most part terrific citizens. Your focus on their rejecting god so that they can ‘revel in sin’ is bizarre when you consider the terrible cost many have to undergo to stand with their intellectual integrity and honesty intact and declare their reasonable non belief in the face of manipulative social and familial pressures to pretend otherwise.

        It is not easy living a self-made, self-owned, life. It is not easy being independent, being responsible, living ethically, living with respect for reality (rather than promote other people’s beliefs about it to superior on the basis of someone else’s authority), living with mature self-made goals and self-made purposes within various human communities to which one chooses to belong and participate. It’s always easier not to strike out on one’s own, to remain dependent, and be not be fully responsible for dealing with all that real life may contain. So I give kudos to anyone who has the intestinal fortitude to be independent, to live honestly and openly and be the unique person each of us is. It is these folk who self report the oasis of peace with their integrity fully intact once they discard the beliefs they have been told to carry and replace them with ones near and dear to their hearts and what makes it content. They own their beliefs, and they have built a life based on them, including a very strong moral core. This may explain why non believers do not run around raping a pillaging due to the loss of a divine supervisory, punishing father figure; they are quite capable to police themselves and to greater effect than any comparable religious group operating under some other authority than real life fillwed with real people. I say this because rates of all kinds of negative social behaviours are much lower for populations with majority rates of non believers, which stands absolutely contrary to what we should find in reality if your assertions about negative effects from non belief were true. The facts stand against you, MLC. But you seem willing to call such facts bad arguments with fatal flaws rather than a revelation that perhaps your beliefs are not reflective of the reality you are attempting to describe.

        A public domain free of religious privilege is not discriminatory and it does not favour non belief. This is a typical religious trope. It is neutral. And it must be neutral if it is to offer religious freedom to all. It is the religious who advocate most strongly to effect public institutions to favour religious belief (beliefs that they just so happen to support) that harms the principle of freedom of religion. I don’t expect you to grasp this argument. But many young people do because they bump up against religious privilege all the time and know how much it curtails their freedom in the name not of principle but piety. And that’s not a good reason unless one is already convinced that piety trumps good reasons… which undermines the very notion you’ve put forth in your response, namely, that the religious have better and more reasonable arguments. You don’t or they would be used to effect.

        1. I don’t recall MaryLouiseC isolating a “public domain free of religious privilege” as her exemplified form of perceived ubiquitous atheistic discrimination. This might be somewhat of a subjective example (but from my view this has been ardently pervasive), from what I’ve run across with atheist friends, acquaintances and gauging the litmus test of internet article comments sections that deal with anything remotely religious or scientific (ala huffpost as it regards theories and discoveries about the universe), there is an overwhelming vitriolic, demeaning, condescending and hateful group-attack/self congratulatory mentality and tone employed almost (see ALMOST) exclusively on the atheistic side.

          As it concerns the internet comment aspect, it usually erupts from either an assumed believer simply posting a piece of Scripture that might relate to the article at hand or an atheist will bait the entire situation with something like “Oh man, I can’t wait to see what the Christian Fundies will say to make this (article) coincide with God….etc. It STARTS there, and though there may be the occasional religious person spouting angry words back (and usually in an apologetically and Biblically divergent way), most of the comments take the tone of simple defense or affirmations of Scripture while the other side (and this is my metaphor) take on the enraged blood frenzy and wanton verbally violent attack of a shark pack on the Christian who dared voice their belief/conviction. The commentary usually derides the person’s intelligence or devolves into character debasement via cliche tropes like “your sky fairy, flying spaghetti monster, mass hallucination, you haven’t evolved properly,…etc), though these quips sometimes are indeed backed with a popular or residing scientific theory to bolster their verbal malice.

          You must understand that respectfully providing that scientific information (true or not) devoid of the spleen-fed utterances would be perfectly acceptable and indeed would be an “open forum”, but there is so much pervasive unadulterated hate and condescension on the atheistic side online, in classrooms (another experience I and others have had via hatetheist-fed classmates and Christian-derisive profs and even “friends” of mine who know my faith and dogmatically push the current accepted scientific paradigm around me while critically bashing Christianity as well (these attacks usually focus on fringe hate, self-righteous or scripturally unsound Christian groups and leaders (westboro baptist, joel osteen, benny hinn…etc), all which the Bible warns about anyways…and honestly Jesus and scripture seems to be less “forgiving” and lenient toward those misrepresenting the faith under the guise of religiosity more than those who simply reject the Christ-message anyways). “Be hot or cold or I shall spew thee out of My mouth”

          Biblical veracity and constant admonishments to its own adherents to check-themselves and re-assess to discern orthodoxy and orthopraxy from wayward, selfish, hateful thoughts/beliefs is such a beautiful and uniquely humbling aspect to Holy Writ. With this in mind, just as there can be false scientific fringe ideas and conspirators, so there also can be in the religious camps. In any case, my acquaintances usually tap into these Scriptural aberrations and demagogues and they then blanket Christianity as a whole to these vile misrepresentations. Point being, the culture of hate and discrimination toward Christianity via many (though not all) in the atheistic camp has their clawing fingers prying open and infiltrating believers in many different media and high profile platforms. It all comes down to delivery, tone and word-choice that helps hold aloft the head of the discrimination beast or the olive branch of open and respectful dialogue…the latter usually being the venue for a changed heart or mind.

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