Christianity is fascinating. The stories of the Bible, the miracles and teachings described throughout? It’s endlessly curious, with more nuance than it is often given credit for, particularly among my fellow unbelievers.
Far too often, unbelievers pick up on caricatures of Christianity — shallow exaggerations or distortions that can be easily mocked in textbook examples of the strawman fallacy.1 Adam and Eve, for example, get replaced by “a mud man and a transgender clone rib woman.”2
If, however, our goal is to address what the Bible says and to use what it says as an argument for why people shouldn’t believe it, we’re going to need something beyond a quick joke or meme. We’re going to want to understand why Christians believe what they do, what their theology means, and how we can best interact with them in the real world.
Christians aren’t stupid, regardless of what you might’ve heard in the seedier atheist circles, and their apologists and theologians know their religion better than most of us “on the outside” do. I promise — I’ve been there, on the inside of not only casual Christianity, but of absorbing all I could in terms of apologetics, or the art of providing a defense for something, in this case what the Bible teaches.
I bookmarked dozens of websites and read through as much of them as I could handle. The CARM apologetics notebook was a prized possession of mine years ago, and I sat attentively and excitedly for a Ken Ham presentation. Apologetics was my jam, and that’s not to mention my endless obsession with theology, both in reading it and discussing it with my closest friends.
Apologetics is the jam of many churchgoers, and despite whatever faults it has, it does one thing well: It inoculates believers against baseless attacks against Christianity.
Well, what do I mean by that? Consider the following events found in the Bible:
- God speaking through a burning bush
- God speaking through an ass
- God creating Eve from a rib
- A serpent speaking more persuasively in Eden than I ever managed in high school public speaking classes
- Jesus rising from the grave
They’re examples of the Bible’s diverse and myriad miraculous or supernatural events.
Events which, by definition, defy natural or scientific explanation.
“I don’t see how anybody can believe the Bible! It’s full of absurdities — you can’t even get past the first few pages without being expected to believe that a snake can talk!”
I saw that sort of objection a lot as a Christian, but as an atheist, I see them even more often.
Objections of that sort, however, make no sense. They require judging the world described in the Bible from a wrong frame of reference. When I read the Bible, yes, I do so with the understanding that animals cannot speak to humans as described in its pages; however, the speaking animals of the Bible aren’t objectionable to me as the world carries with it an important assumption which I don’t have about my own world.
Just as it wouldn’t make sense to complain that “Kirk disappearing from the bridge of the Enterprise and reappearing on an alien world makes no sense!” when those sorts of events occur in a world with generally functional transporter technology, it doesn’t make sense to kvetch that “Donkeys can’t talk!” when those events occur in a world wherein a God exists that can cause that to occur.
Two Points of View
I mentioned earlier that I attended a presentation by Ken Ham, and during that presentation, he hammered repeatedly on a key apologetic principle:
Christian apologists and creationists approach the world with the assumption that God is real, as opposed to skeptics and scientists who rely more upon an evidence-first approach to the universe, of which any sort of god would be beholden as well.
Please read that again because it’s an important point, one which I sincerely wish that my fellow unbelievers would understand.
The larger part of the Christian faithful are not going to respond to strawman representations of their religion or dismissals of absurdity — from their point of view, of course their religion will be absurd to an outsider.
“Silly Christians, believing that a serpent talked Eve into eating what she shouldn’t; how can they believe that! Serpents can’t talk!” says the atheist, to which an honest and perfectly valid response from the Christian might be, “You’re right, snakes can’t talk! But Satan can, and that was him the garden tempting Eve, not a literal garden-variety snake.”
This changes the conversation such that using hastily prepared memes and oft repeated objections just won’t cut it, and it works the other way too: If an unbeliever points out that the Earth is billions of years old, a young-earth Christian will provide the honest and perfectly valid response that God created the universe, that his account indicates that he did so far more recently than even a million years ago, and that he cannot lie, so there must therefore be something wrong in what the unbeliever knows about the world.
Does “honest and perfectly valid” mean correct, true, and representative of an objective reality? No. In using that phrase I mean only that within the framework — or worldview — which the Christian approaches reality, they are being consistent. I’m also not saying that that framework is reconcilable with secular sciences, but I am reminded that in those sciences, we have both gravity and quantum mechanics, which separately describe different aspects of the universe very well, but which conflict where they might overlap.
And where Christianity and unbelief meet, we aren’t going to reach a place of mutual edification if the most effort we can put forth is recycling the same tired memes, stereotypes, and strawman-based objections of each other’s points of view.
We Must Dig Deeper
On the Christian side, for those who choose to try to convince people intellectually of the merits of Christianity — or for having biblical history taught in schools alongside secular histories and sciences — they must do so according to the rules of those secular sciences, by following the scientific process that gives any and everyone opportunity to revolutionize our understanding of the world.
And on the side of unbelief, we must understand that mocking Christians has a number of problems.
- First, we serve to reinforce their faith, for which the Bible explicitly tells them they will be persecuted; if your goal is to expose the problem of faith, fulfilling prophecies for the faithful isn’t going to help your cause.
- Second, when we mock and insult the faithful, we reinforce every negative stereotype about ourselves that is held among so many within Christendom.
- Finally, we so often show our own ignorance of Christianity, its history, or its holy book. Christians are just as human as anyone else, and humans tend to be a curious sort; if we’re willfully exposing ourselves as a source of tainted information (or FUD, if you will), why would those that we’re misrepresenting want to actually listen to us?
So What Then Can We Do?
Look, I get it. Making fun of religion or “evilution” is fun, and it’s hard to resist the attention social media gives a good insult.
But is your goal to actually make the world a better place?
Christians, I implore you to stop caring about creationism, the evils of atheists, the “gay agenda,” and any other “godless” left-wing nonsense that you’ve been taught to fear.
Focus on being faithful to your God, as the New Testament so often admonishes, by living your life in a way that improves the lives of everyone around you — give freely, tend to the needy, be models of forgiveness and love, and all that goes along with these things.
There are mighty needs in the world, and I promise you that if you want Christianity to grow and thrive, doing these humanitarian works will let it do just that — and I can’t imagine that anyone will object to your work!
Unbelievers, I charge you to hold yourselves to the same standard to which you would hold Christians — if you’re going to mock them for not understanding science or atheism, you better make damn sure that you understand the Bible beyond what a few dozen memes and recycled talking points from prominent atheists tell you to believe. To wit, Adam and Eve had more than just two sons, and the gospel writers knew what Jesus said when he was alone in the garden because God was writing through them.
If we’re going to botch simple story details in the Bible, we’ll never be able to properly discuss theology 101, let alone anything more interesting with our Christian brothers and sisters.
Oh, and if you see Christians doing good work in your community, shut up with the protesting — join up and do good work with them (if they’ll have you — don’t be a jerk about it) or get out of their way.4 Let good things happen, be grateful when they do, and focus your efforts where they matter: spread knowledge, encourage creativity and curiosity, and push for secularity in public spaces (healthcare, education, law enforcement, government, etc.).
So It Goes
I make no defense for Christians who seek to legislate their religion onto others as that concept is foreign to the Bible and does nothing to further the good that Christianity ought to be doing in this world, so while you don’t need my blessing to go out and oppose religious platforms encroaching into things which affect everyone, you absolutely do have my blessing regardless.
Ideally, even Christians would actively resist their religion being used in those ways.
That isn’t the case, at least not always, however, but I do know we aren’t going to encourage believers to work with us so long as we continue going out of our way to mock, deride, and insult those who think differently than ourselves while simultaneously refusing to even properly understand their point of view, we’re never going see the sorts of change we want in the world.
As an atheist, it’s super easy to say that the world would be better with fewer “thoughts and prayers” American conservative-style Christians who refuse to bake cakes for gays and place blind “patriotism” over humanitarian crises.
But a world full of angry atheists who spread only misinformation or blatant lies and hate about the religious of the world is hardly any better.
Imagine if we stopped enjoying our echo chambers and started listening to each other. Imagine if we cared less about “owning” each other in debates and more about edifying each other, encouraging the best parts possible out of both sides.
I know that’s a tough mountain to climb. Join me, won’t you?
- In a strawman fallacy, a person claims to have bested someone else’s argument(s), but they have only responded to and “defeated” a corrupted version of the original argument, a “strawman” that is easier to knock down.
- These sort of arguments go the other way too, with creationists mocking evolutionary theory by saying “if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?” for example.
- The history in Genesis describes the Bible’s origins of all people; the Old Testament laws condoning slavery were given specifically to a small nation of people, not to the whole world. That certainly doesn’t excuse the slavery, but it also doesn’t mean Adam and Eve being “Old Testament” is problematic.
- This is a lesson I really need to learn myself.