Monday, July 24, 2017

Decapitation strike

I'm going to comment on something a friend posted on Facebook. He's welcome to my comments. He said:

One of the biggest problems with modern apologetics and some other Christian activities is that there's too much of a focus on atheism. Atheists are still just a very small percentage of the population. Because of their disproportionate influence in academia, the media, the web, and other contexts, they warrant more attention than their percentage of the population suggests they should get. But they shouldn't be getting nearly as much attention as they're typically given. 
Focusing on America, since that's where I live, the vast majority of Americans believe in the existence of God, but most have a highly deficient view of him. They don't think about him much, and they research the subject even less. To the extent they do think about him, they view him as morally too permissive and religiously too pluralistic. It doesn't take much thought or research to arrive at that sort of view of God, and that kind of God accommodates their preferred lifestyle. The degree to which their view of God resembles them is suspicious. "You thought that I was just like you" (Psalm 50:21). They'll take traditional Christian beliefs, like monotheism, the virgin birth, and Jesus' resurrection, and mix them with other beliefs that are non-Christian or even anti-Christian. Their views aren't particularly coherent, consistent, thought out, or well researched. But they aren't atheists. So, why is there such a focus on atheism when Christians are talking about apologetics, academia, our political opponents, etc.?

To some degree I think he answers his own question. There's greater focus on atheism because secular progressives, in relation to their numbers, have vastly greater influence on law and public policy. Most Americans aren't opinion makers or policymakers. It's the political class that enjoys that distinction.

Because atheists dominate so much of the media, education establishment, as well as state and Federal gov't, they impose change from the topdown. A rudder is only one small part, yet it controls the direction of a supertanker.

Targeting atheism is a decapitation strike. The best way to win a war is to defeat the leadership, not the foot-soldiers. Put another way, we might call it trickle down apologetics. 

In addition, most of us lack direct, mass access to the general public. Although it would be very beneficial to educate the unchurched on Christian theology, it's not like we have a platform on which to reach them. So it's easier to attack pernicious ideas, and hope readers disseminate the material. 


  1. I would add that the arguments made by atheists are often picked up by people who are neither atheists nor Christians. When I used to argue with Muslims on a regular basis I always found it somewhat ironic how they would use atheist resources against Christianity while ignoring arguments made against Islam by the same sources.

  2. Atheists have disproportionate influence, but not to the extent of being the head of the body. In a culture with so much literacy, technology, political freedom, and other advantages that are so accessible to the average person, there's much less of a gap between leaders and laymen than there was in the past. And how prominent are atheists in positions of leadership? When a Congressman or some other prominent political leader is identified as an atheist, his atheism still makes the news and gets a lot of attention as something that sets him apart from the large majority of his colleagues. The Republican party, which is far from an atheistic group, has been the most successful political party in recent years, as we see especially in Congress and at the state level. Most college professors aren't atheists. Given how small a percentage of the population atheists are, they can have a highly inordinate influence, yet still have much less influence than other groups.

    One of the concerns that led me to write the Facebook post Steve quoted above is how an overestimation of atheism has weakened the Christian response to moral controversies. In a lot of contexts, this culture is likely to keep going further down the slippery slope for a while, as we're now seeing with transgenderism, polyamory, and the growing acceptance of marijuana and other drugs, for example. The envelope is going to keep getting pushed. So, Christians are going to have to keep making decisions about how to address these issues, and they're going to have to do so rapidly and with increasing complexity. We're often told that we need to approach moral issues with so-called secular argumentation. (Given that the assumptions behind the alleged secular argumentation support theism, the arguments aren't as secular as most people think.) Supposedly, we need to avoid using religious arguments, such as making a case against abortion from the Bible. Apologists often comment on how important it allegedly is to avoid appeals to religion and religious concepts, even if the appeals involve good arguments and evidence. We're told that people in general or an inaccurately high percentage of people won't accept religious arguments. So, Christians disarm themselves. Instead of using the full arsenal, we only use a portion of it, often discarding some of the best weapons and some of the ones Christians are already most familiar with and would be able to use the most effectively.

    1. i) I think that's partly due to an out-of-date strategy. It's simpler, where possible, to begin with common ground rather than starting over from scratch. However, as society becomes increasingly secularized, there's ever less common ground. So we can't avoid starting over from scratch. But some Christians haven't adapted to the new challenge.

      ii) Some Christians also commit a basic fallacy. You can't simply assert the authority of Scripture when dealing with unbelievers. That begs the question. But, of course, it's possible to present a rational defense for your authority source. We can appeal to Christian ethics and Christian theology so long as we make a case for our sources. Conversely, it's crucial to expose the moral vacuity of secular alternatives.

      iii) There's also the genetic fallacy of dismissing an argument because it's religious. But the salient issue is not whether it's religious, but whether it's true. A religious truth is still a truth. If a critic thinks the religious source of an idea automatically makes that suspect, he needs to provide an argument to justify his secular prejudice.

    2. The failure of some Christians to move beyond unsupported appeals to scripture is a big problem. That's part of what people are (over)reacting to when they suggest that we should only use secular arguments.

  3. Another context in which we see this tendency to give atheism too much attention is in how often Christians (and others) wrongly assume that a person is an atheist. Often, if a person takes a certain moral position or denies that a certain miracle occurred, for example, he'll be referred to as an atheist, even though he isn't one. How often has Bart Ehrman been wrongly described as an atheist, for example?

    There's also a problem with neglecting more important concerns while we give too much attention to atheism. Roman Catholics are a much bigger percentage of the population than atheists, for instance. Yet, many apologists, apologetic ministries, churches, etc. not only give much less attention to Catholicism, but often are even counterproductive in the way they address it. Or what about paranormal phenomena? There are far more people who have had near-death experiences, have had what they believe to be encounters with the dead, etc. than there are atheists. How much do television programs, YouTube videos, and books about near-death experiences and other phenomena influence how Americans view God, salvation, the afterlife, and other major issues? Yet, Christians are frequently much more focused on atheism. I've only mentioned a couple of examples here, but there are others.

    Steve, you commented that "it's easier to attack pernicious ideas". I'd like to see the pernicious ideas of atheism get less attention, so that more attention can be given to other pernicious ideas, which are doing far more damage.

    1. I agree with much of what you say here. Just a minor point: Ehrman has identified himself as an atheist. He alternates between agnostic and atheist self-classifications.

    2. "There's also a problem with neglecting more important concerns while we give too much attention to atheism. Roman Catholics are a much bigger percentage of the population than atheists, for instance. Yet, many apologists, apologetic ministries, churches, etc. not only give much less attention to Catholicism, but often are even counterproductive in the way they address it."

      That's an interesting issue:

      i) I think that's due in part to a strategy of evangelical cobelligerence. The view that Catholic conservatives are our allies in the culture wars. So we will downplay the doctrinal differences. However, that's a non-sequitur. We can do two things at once. We can cooperate with Catholics on areas of common concern while maintaining our critique their theology in areas of where commonality is lacking.

      ii) I'd add that evangelical cobelligerence always carried some baggage. For instance, although Catholic and evangelical prolifers share a common generic position, pious Catholics oppose "artificial" birth control, whereas most evangelicals do not. Some abortionists fault the Catholic position because it gives women no alternatives. And some abortionists mistakenly equate the prolife position, not only with opposition to abortion, but opposition to "artificial" contraception.

      Another example is that most evangelicals support capital punishment whereas recent popes have opposed capital punishment. So members of the alliance sometimes operate at cross-purposes, depending on the issue.

      In addition, Pope Francis is cutting the ground right out from under Catholic conservatives on social issues.

      Finally, there's the danger of guilt by association. The reputation of the Roman church has suffered irreparable damage from the priestly abuse scandal. Evangelical cobelligerance carries the risk of becoming tainted by association.

      ii) Another reason is that some apologetic organizations operate with a "mere Christianity" model. There's doctrinal indifference to classic Protestant distinctives, as if that's somehow secondary. This latitudinarian attitude may be due in part to the decline of countercult ministries.

    3. Regarding the paranormal, many Christians view that with knee-jerk hostility. They haven't carefully thought through the issue. One exception is Mike Licona, who's started to incorporate that into his debates on the Resurrection.

  4. Having said all of that, I do think atheism should be addressed to a significant extent, and it makes sense for some people to be highly focused on it in some contexts. Just as it can make sense for a person who's come out of Mormonism to be focused on ministering to Mormons, the same is true of atheism. It can make sense for somebody who's invested a lot of time and other resources in studying atheism or has a lot of interest in it for some other reason to give it a large amount of attention. It's probably best for somebody like William Lane Craig to keep focusing a lot on atheism rather than turning to Islam, abortion, or some other area in the closing decades of his life. When I refer to giving too much attention to atheism, I'm speaking in general terms that allow for exceptions.

    And I realize that addressing atheism is useful in contexts other than interacting with atheists. As Jayman mentioned, people who aren't atheists often borrow atheists' arguments. And something like a philosophical argument for the existence of God can be used to increase the confidence of somebody who already believes in God's existence, can be used to demonstrate that faith isn't a blind leap in the dark, or can be used for some other good purpose aside from interacting with atheists.

    There's a lot of value in addressing atheism. It's good to have people doing it, including some people and groups who have it as their primary focus. But it can be overdone, and I think it has been in our culture.