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How to Debate a Christian Apologist

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Recently there seems to have been a rash of debates between atheists and Christian apologists. Of course, we had the much-ballyhooed debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye on creationism versus evolution (“Ham on Nye”), which only served the purpose of giving Ham’s ridiculous beliefs attention they did not deserve. And, it got Ham enough money from donors and taxpayers to complete his theme park.

However, most debates involve an atheist scientist, philosopher, or former clergyperson against a Christian theologian or clergyperson. Occasionally we have an atheist layperson against a clergyperson. It is very unwise for a layperson to debate a theologian.

In the latest debates I have watched, as well as many others I have witnessed over the years, including several of my own, the Christians are almost always very smooth and well prepared. The reason is not that their arguments are so persuasive but that they generally have spent years in front of religion classes, lecture audiences, and church congregants, polishing the same old arguments.

And, after you have watched or participated in a number of these events, you find there very seldom is a new argument. All have all been refuted many times, but most in the audiences do not know that.

Atheists, on the other hand, with one or two exceptions, do not make a living promoting atheism and so have a much tougher job preparing for these debates.

Certainly atheist debaters will make their own arguments for atheism during their opening statements. I advise, again from observation and experience, that they limit these to their particular areas of expertise and avoid subjects outside those areas.

During their opening statements and throughout the debate, apologists are likely to make arguments with which atheists may not be so well versed. So, when the time comes for rebuttals, atheists often cannot provide cogent responses, or any responses at all, and so lose debating points.

An experienced debater will make note of every point his or her opponent makes and try to provide at least a one sentence response. That will prevent the opponent from coming back and saying, “My atheist friend never replied to this point.” This takes experience. I never had enough to be good at it. In a debate, impressions are more important than the substance of an argument and not answering a point makes a bad impression.

In what follows I will provide a primer on the most common arguments made by apologists and suggest canned responses. By memorizing or bringing notes containing these responses to the debate, the atheist can be just as smooth as the preacher.

I do not provide any technical details. These suggestions are meant to be short, punchy statements to use during your rebuttals, which are usually time-limited. If you are a cosmologist, biologist, or biblical scholar, you don’t need me telling you what to say on those subjects. If you are a non-expert on any subject, you should not say anything about it beyond your competence. Your opponent may call you out on it. I have seen that happen.

Note that there are a lot of arguments that could come up. Not all will be used in your debate because of time, so you need to study your opponent to learn his favorites. But you also need to come prepared with all of these responses to avoid as many surprises as possible.

Dan Barker, who is probably the most experienced atheist debater, with over a hundred under his belt, offers this advice:

“Debating is tough. As you say, there are so many ways the ball can bounce. But you are right that we should try to touch on every point raised, at least minimally.

But I learned a long time ago that it is impossible to say it all in one evening event. (Written debates are different.) So don’t try to ‘squeeze it all in’ or it can look frantic, rushed. Concentrate on our best knowledge. As long as we are prepared with some kind of adequate response to every possibility, as you say, then we can lead with our strength and do our best to impress the audience. Few people will walk away remembering even 10% of what was said, so impressions are important. Humor helps. A relaxed attitude helps. Confidence helps. Kindness and charity toward our opponents, some well-turned phrases and pithy one-liners, an attitude of honesty help. Sometimes an audience member will walk away with nothing more than an impression, a leaning toward or away from one of the debaters, which will influence their future learning.

. . . in addition to the facts.”

I will mainly emphasize scientific arguments, that is, those based on empirical evidence or lack thereof. However the atheist debater is very likely to be confronted with any one of many possible philosophical arguments based on logic alone, so I will present these first.

God can be proved to exist by logic alone. For example, we have the ontological argument, which appears in many forms. It was first proposed by St. Anselm in the 11th century. He defines God as “a being than which no greater can be conceived.” If such a being only exists in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater being. But we cannot imagine a greater being than God, so God must exist in reality.

You are right; this argument has been proposed in many forms over the centuries. All have logical flaws. As for the original Anselm argument, it can be used to prove the existence of many nonexistent things such as the perfect pizza.

But there is a basic point to be made here. Ontological arguments are defined as those made from logic alone with no reference to observation. But no logical deduction can tell you anything that is not already embedded in its premises. All logic does is draw the conclusions that follow from those premises and check for any inconsistencies. Only by observation can we demonstrate whether the premises accurately describe or reflect the real world.

Science and religion are compatible as evidenced by the fact that many scientists are believers.

They are actually a relatively small minority. Only 7 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, the elite of American science, believe in a personal God. Believing scientists compartmentalize their brains, leaving their critical thinking skills at the lab when they go to church and leaving their Bibles at home when they go the lab. God is not a coherent part of the scientific model of any believing scientist.

Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their contradictory views on the source of knowledge. Science assumes that only by observation can we learn about the world. Religion assumes that, in addition, we learn by revelations from God.

Science was the result of Christianity, which introduced the use of rational thinking. Galileo, Newton, and other early scientists were Christians.

Science was well on its way in ancient Greece and Rome. But the Catholic Church muffled science when it took over the Roman Empire in the 4th century, ushering in the 1,000-year period known as the Dark Ages. This ended with the Renaissance and the rise of the new science, when people could once again think and speak more freely. So it is ludicrous to argue that science was a product of Christianity.

While it is true that great Christian theologians, notably Augustine and Aquinas, applied rational thinking to their theology, they viewed science as a means to learn about God’s creation. They always insisted that revelation rules over observation. Galileo was the first true scientist of the modern age when he insisted that observation rule over revelation. That got him into trouble.

Of course Galileo and Newton were Christians. Their only other choice was to be burned at the stake. Atheism did not appear openly until the French Enlightenment a century later. That light was produced by the mind, not the flames engulfing a heretic.

The obvious presence of design and complexity in the world, especially in life, proves there was a designer.

That was a good argument prior to Darwin when people had no idea how life came about. Darwin showed that complex organisms evolve from simpler ones by purely natural processes, without the need for a more complex designer. It is important to note that Darwinian evolution implied many predictions that could have been falsified but were not. For example, evolution requires that the sun and Earth are much older than seemed possible at the time from physics. It was not until the twentieth century, with the discovery of nuclear fusion as the source of energy for the sun, that this problem was solved.

In physics as well as biology, simplicity begets complexity. A beautiful snowflake comes from unstructured water vapor. The notion that intelligent design is necessary for the complexity of the universe is completely wrong.

Many Christians believe in evolution.

Not really. Surveys indicate that what most believe in is God-guided evolution. That is not evolution as understood by science. That is intelligent design. There is no room for God in evolution.

Science still has not shown how life began.

That is true; but it does not follow that life had to be created by God. To assert that, you have the burden of proving that science will never discover the natural origin of life. We have no reason to think that’s impossible. The basic ingredients of life are copious in space. Amino acids were produced spontaneously out of simple ingredients in the lab in 1953 by graduate student Stanley Miller after running his experiment for only a week.

The big bang proved the universe had a beginning. Everything that begins has a cause. Therefore the universe had a cause, which was God (Kalām cosmological argument).

Modern cosmology implies that our universe began in total chaos and so possesses no memory of a creation or creator. A number of models, fully worked out mathematically, show that no laws of physics were necessarily broken to produce the universe. Quantum mechanics demonstrates that not everything that begins has a cause.

The universe began with a singularity that marked the beginning of time.

A singularity is an infinitesimal point in space with infinite energy density. Quantum mechanics shows that such singularities do not occur in nature. I am surprised this argument continues to be made by apologists. One of its creators, Stephen Hawking, abandoned it almost 30 years ago. See his book A Brief History of Time, which came out in 1988.

Modern cosmology now has strong reason to think that our universe is just one of an endless number of universes called the “multiverse.” The multiverse is infinite and eternal; it had no beginning and will have no end. There was no need for a creator because there was no creation.

We cannot detect universes beyond our own. Therefore they are not science.

Science deals all the time with objects, such as quarks and black holes, that have not been directly detected. Since multiple universes are strongly suggested by modern cosmology, they must be considered when we debate theological questions. As long as they are not ruled out, they cannot be used as a god-of-the-gaps argument for the necessity of a creator. What’s more, other universes are in principle detectable by their effects on the cosmic microwave background.

Where did the mass and energy of the universe come from?

The total mass-energy of the universe is zero with the positive energy of matter exactly balanced by the negative energy of gravity. This proves it could have come from a prior state of zero energy without violating any laws of physics. In one published scenario, our universe came from an earlier universe by quantum tunneling.

How can something come from nothing?

“Nothing” is notoriously difficult to define. To define it you have to give it some property. But then if it has a property it is not “nothing.” So this is an incoherent question unless you define nothing as an empty vacuum. In any case, the multiverse didn’t have to come from anything. It always was.

Atheists claim that the universe just “popped” into existence. I can’t believe this. It’s preposterous.

Just because you can’t believe it, doesn’t mean it could not have happened. A number of plausible scenarios for the natural origin of the universe have been published by reputable cosmologists in reputable scientific journals. If you insist they are impossible, then you have the burden of disproving them.

By Victor Stenger, Physicist, PhD, bestselling author.

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