Why I Prefer Debating Atheists vs Generally ‘Spiritual’ People

When debating matters of religion, I find myself, curiously, more comfortable interacting with atheists than I am with people of a generally “spiritual” disposition. One purely subjective reason is that I used to be one of those “spiritual” types, and it’s easy to transfer my anger at the foolishness of my former self onto other people who I see making the same mistakes. Beyond that, there are a number of differences between the two types that make the experience of dialoguing with atheists unique. Perhaps my observations might be helpful for others who have an opportunity to dialog with either of the two groups.

First, some clarifications and definitions. For the sake of this article, the term “atheist” will simply mean a person who has a high degree of confidence in the idea that God does not exist, or is at least willing to take that position in a debate with you. A “spiritual” person is harder to quantify, but may be a theologically liberal Christian, Wiccan, neo-pagan, member of a fringe cult, or a hobbyist of one of the eastern religions. They typically say things such as “I don’t like organized religion” and “all paths lead to God.” They often call God “she” or “The Universe” or some kind of divine force, and are friendly to ideas like reincarnation, occultism, and eastern religious practices. I will use the term “spiritualist” to refer to this broad group.

Second, I’m not suggesting there are only two groups. Not specifically included here are those who are solidly entrenched in one of the major non-Christian religions. For instance, a Muslim can be an entirely different breed of debating partner and can take an approach that is similar in ways to that of a Christian. However, it’s a different thing to be committed to the unique truth and fundamental doctrines of a religion versus simply being partial to that religion or just raised in its traditions. There are liberals in both Christianity and the other religions, and those tend to fall into my “spiritual” camp.

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How We Know That Sex is Sacred

Our secular culture has worked very hard to sell us on the idea that there is no particular design or purpose to sexual relationships, consequently, sex may be enjoyed at the discretion of the individual. The only constraints are that it be “responsible” and “safe,” and that the participants are “ready,” “willing,” and “consenting.” Any teleological consideration of its design, such as between a man and woman, or its context, such as in the formal bonds of marriage, have come to be viewed as mere outmoded social conventions. And what Scripture has to say on this matter is of no consequence to the pagan mind (and very often to the modern Christian one as well). However, there are very plain “signals of transcendence,” as Peter Berger would call them, that there is something very special about the act of sex. Here are several that come to mind.

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Them Before Us: Read It Now!

Phrases like “must read” and “essential reading” are thrown around a lot in book reviews.  Them Before Us, by Katy Faust and Stacy Manning, is one of those rare books that truly deserves such a recommendation.  It is culturally important, comprehensive in scope, novel in approach, reasonably argued, and, as a bonus, is an enjoyable read.  Even the introduction by Robert P. George, alone, is worth the price of admission.  My intent here is to give an overview of the main thrust of the book and then finish up by addressing some of the possible objections to it.

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Preach the Gospel at All Times. Use Words, They Are Necessary.

I’m constantly seeing people post quotes like these:

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”
“It’s more powerful to live your truth than preach it.”
“The life you live is more important than the words you speak.”

I’ve even seen Christians cite this as one of their favorites, which is wrongfully attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

I agree with these sentiments in the sense that an opinion or belief by itself does nothing, and putting our beliefs into action is both proof of our commitment to them and can be winsome to those around us.  But, as even Gandhi understands, there is an intimate causal connection between our beliefs and all our outward expressions.  The importance of beliefs cannot be overstated.  Our opinions and beliefs are what cause us to act, guide us in how to act, and to what end we should act. 

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The Gospel in Plain Language

I was recently in dialog with someone about Christian theology, where we were exploring our potential differences in belief or interpretations. I was concerned to advocate primarily for what I call “classical Christianity,” which involves those essential things shared across all of Christianity, and which arise naturally from taking the biblical narrative as reliable and authoritative. Eventually, I was asked to spell out precisely what it was that I thought essential for salvation. Below is my attempt to do this, but I did not want to simply enumerate core doctrine or use “Christianese” language, which can be off-putting or easily misunderstood. I wanted to approach it in a way that someone without prior knowledge of Christianity could understand and lead into the logical need for the Gospel.

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“Love God and Love People”

I’ve been hearing a number of pastors (some very biblical ones even) using the phrase “love God and love people” as a kind of summary of Christianity. There is even a popular song out on this theme, which suggests that to do otherwise is “complicating things” and “to overthink”: we just “gotta keep it real simple.” But to claim that the bottom line of Christianity is to “love God and love people,” without the need of biblical context, is like a coach telling a young recruit that all he needs to do is “move the ball and play fair.” It is true as far as it goes, but it is functionally deficient as a stand-alone statement and assumes a great deal of prerequisite knowledge.

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Is True Faith Blind?

Mortimer Adler

When discussing the evidences for Christianity, it is no surprise to get pushback from unbelievers. What’s surprising, though, is to see opposition from self-described Christians. This is often expressed in some form of the question, “what room is there for faith if you are giving people evidence?” or “I don’t have any need for proofs, I just believe.” This is a misunderstanding of the definition of faith, an underestimation of their own use of evidence, and an abandonment of a rich heritage of aid and inspiration to the church. For those who identify as Christian, yet believe there is no room for evidence in “faith,” I offer these questions.

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Answering the Cults: A Common Defense

Is it really necessary to understand the cults of Christianity in order to refute them? Do we need to have an exhaustive knowledge of their books and doctrines before we are qualified to offer a critique? I submit that it is not. There are certain claims and issues common to most of them that allow a categorical response to be made.

There is at least one thing common to the derivative religions of Christianity, like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, various lesser-known cults, and even Islam. Each of them similarly claim that the historic church has gotten things mucked up, and that they, through the illumination of their own founder, have recovered the true teachings of Christ. What this means is that a successful response to this charge would serve equally well against any of these groups, and would undermine their most foundational claim to legitimacy.

I propose a two-stage approach that might look something like the following.

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Dying for a Legend

I’ve been doing a series of short apologetics posts on Facebook in which I included this claim:

Even most critical scholars accept these minimal facts: Jesus died on a Roman cross. His followers actually believed they’d seen the resurrected Jesus. Their lives were transformed as a result – even being willing to die for their story. These things were taught very early in history. James and Paul were skeptics who converted based upon their experiences.

It resulted in the following conversation on martyrdom, the integrity of the disciples, and the reliability of scripture. There’s even some talk of C.S. Lewis, Jedis, and a hypothetical Gandhiite religion.

(Names have been changed to protect anonymity.)

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Is it Just For God to Command That We Love Him?

As Jesus affirms, the most important command we have from God is that we should love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  If we are commanded by Him to do so, and held accountable for not doing so, how is loving Him a virtuous act of free will?  Is God a petty tyrant to command that we love Him and punishing us for not doing so?  I’d like to first clarify the nature of God’s commands, then address why this command is particularly sensible.

God, by nature, represents the true, just, good, and beautiful.  He does not arbitrarily command things for His own idle amusement, as though He might have preferred war over peace or adultery over fidelity.  What He commands is according to His very nature, and since the universe and everything in it was made by God, then His nature is reflected within it — within us — and it is made to operate best according to that nature.  You might just as well wonder why a father tells his son he should change the oil in the car he regularly borrows.  He should do it both because of his father’s position of authority, but also because it is in his best long-term interest.

So, it is correct to say that what God commands is true and good, but also that He commands it precisely because it is true and good.  Indeed, there is a very real sense in which anything that is true and good is commanded by God, and the very act of commanding it is His means of educating us about both these things and about Himself.  Truth and righteousness are inseparable from God and what He decrees.

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The What and Why of Apologetics

What is Apologetics?

The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia, pronounced, “ap-ol-og-ee’-ah.”  It is used numerous times in the New Testament, but the verse most commonly cited, and most relevant to the enterprise of apologetics, is 1 Peter 3:15.

Always be ready to give a defense [apologia] to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.

The verb form of this word, apologeomai, means: to make a defense.  Here we are speaking particularly about a defense of the Christian faith, though the word can and does apply in other contexts.  The evangelist is one who is in the business of advancing the message of Christianity.  The Christian apologist is one who is in the business of defending its claim to truth.

Anyone who has tried to share the gospel has certainly met with resistance.  This may include such questions as, “How can I trust that the Bible is not corrupted?” or “How do I know your religion is the right one?” or “Why would God provide just a single narrow path?”  Perhaps the resistance may take a more passive form (especially so in modern times) with statements such as, “That’s just your truth” or “I’m glad you found something that works for you.”  Scripture indicates that we should be ready with an answer when we meet these inevitable challenges lest our message fall on deaf ears.

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Santa Claus Morality

“I think [heaven is] a bad concept to have because then everything you do, you want to do good things in order to get to Heaven. Then everything becomes a selfish act, and I hate that, it creates bad patterns in your mind. I like doing things not as a means to get into Heaven but for the sake of doing it themselves.” — Natalie Portman, actress

“The threat of damnation is designed to be an incentive to right action; but this is a phony morality. Humanists think we should do good for goodness’ sake, not for the selfish prospect of reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment.” — Dan Barker, atheist and former pastor

“I believe in goodness for goodness’ sake, not because you’re getting some reward in the afterlife. If you’re being good for an award, then what sort of person are you anyway?” — Bill Maher, political satirist

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This common objection is meant to be a defeater for the concept of Christian morality, but it really does nothing so much as to demonstrate a deep intuitive knowledge about morality. Claiming that we ought to “be good for goodness’ sake” assumes four very important things about the nature of morality.

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