Debating Atheists: Introduction (part 1/5)

factOn November 27, 2016, I debated a local atheist leader, retired podiatrist Dr. Gil Shapiro, the spokesperson of Freethought Arizona (video here). I’ve blogged on general post-debate thoughts here but now will cover a series of five consecutive blog posts covering each of the four arguments that the atheist couldn’t answer. This is no credit to my debating skills or subject knowledge which are nothing special, but it does show how classic arguments for the Christian worldview can be powerful if we keep it simple. My hope is that this will serve as a good outline to keep in mind when you engage with skeptics in your own community, the water cooler, or the next family dinner table.

By far, the most difficult part of debate prep was planning my general approach. Knowing my opponent helped. In a story by the local paper leading up to the event, the AZ Daily Star quoted Dr. Shapiro saying, “There is the religious view and the secular point of view, and there will be some things we can’t move on our position, but there will be some things that we can.” In this spirit, I researched claims from renowned atheists and non-Christians and arrived at four aspects of reality we can all agree on even though we may come to different conclusions. They are:

1) the arrival of the universe from nothing

2) the arrival of biological information from dead matter,

3) the arrival of evil, and

4) the arrival of Jesus.

This was a community event between two amateurs so I had to stick to the basics. As a full time detective, I’m not a biblical scholar, scientist, or philosopher so I wasn’t going to get fancy. That’s why I proffered four facts that enjoy the vast consensus of scholars regardless of religious or non-religious bias. I was also intentional on my topic selection. After all, what could be more pressing for the Christian worldview than creation, sin (evil), and the resurrection? I framed the debate using only commonly accepted facts both Dr. Shapiro and I could, in principle, agree on, and provided an explanation that best fit the facts. If my logic was valid and the facts true, the conclusions I offered would remain standing as the most reasonable. At the end of each of the four separate arguments, I told the audience I would wait to see what my opponent would offer as a better explanation of these facts. In his rebuttals, he gave a lot of criticisms but never answered my challenges directly. Not only was my opponent silent in presenting an alternative explanation for any of these four facts, he didn’t offer any explanation at all.  So, if the challenges I presented demand an explanation, the Christian explanation won by default.

Christianity won because the evidence was better and the reasoning clearer than what my atheist friend offered. We all know that debates are won or lost by much more than the content. If I came across condescending or frustrated, all the evidence and logic in the world wouldn’t have helped me. Good manners and graciousness are critical. My goal was to be bold and nice at the same time. While his arguments were lacking, I owe thanks to Dr. Shapiro for keeping things cordial as well. He’s a gentleman.

A quick note about scholarly consensus is important. Few of us have the time or training to master all the arguments so it helps to stand on the shoulders of scholars who do. I’m not suggesting an appeal to authority or majority can replace sound reasoning. Surely, scholarly consensus alone isn’t an argument. It would be fallacious to appeal to the majority since the majority can be wrong and the number of noses is irrelevant to the truth of a proposition. What this shows is that each fact has been defended in published work and debated among experts on all sides of the issue. When scholars committed to a worldview contrary to Christianity concede these facts, they do so in spite of their desires because of the weight of evidence and because intellectual honesty compels them. That’s what we want it to do for our unbelieving friends as well. We just need to point this out.

To show how this works, I’ll release four short blog posts to unpack each of these facts over each of the next four weeks. When combined together, these four facts make a cumulative, or “minimal facts,” case we can use to show our skeptical friends to infer important conclusions that point us to God based on facts even atheists grant. Inspired by what Gary Habermas has done for the historical case for the resurrection, these facts can be extended into an overall case for Christianity. The compelling force of Habermas’ work is showing the mass concession by scholars from non-Christian, even hostile, worldviews on relevant facts surrounding the death of Jesus. It’s easy to point out Christian scholars in support of our views, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but citing a skeptic who is an authority on the topic blunts the bias objection from the start.

It’s not only skeptics who need to hear this. When I speak at various Christian groups, I’m constantly surprised by how many intelligent and faithful Christians don’t know how widely accepted these facts are either. Without the facts, they risk being forced into defending ideas already settled among the experts. To suggest that Jesus died by crucifixion, for example, might sound like a religious claim, not a historical one. Once we learn that the most skeptical scholars accept Jesus’ crucifixion, however, it should cause our skeptical friend to question her own reasons for denying it.

Many of the scholars I’ll cite are the same ones our skeptical friends are learning from. So if our friends are persuaded by atheist writings of Dawkins, Shermer, Hitchens, Krauss, Erhman, Carrier, and others, get ready to hear what they have to say now!

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