In arguing for enlightenment and empiricism against the
forces of unreason and obscurantism, we face difficulties in the modern
world which those of previous ages didn’t have to deal with. The
internet and social media have given the masses unprecedented access to
historical information and summaries of known arguments which make it
hard to achieve new progress. This essay offers some ideas for
effective discourse in the modern environment.
Arguing Against Christianity
I take it that our starting point can be to simply deny the existence
of God as atheists have always done. We can back this up impressively
with a veiled appeal to science: “There is no empirical evidence
for the existence of God!”
In the modern environment this has to be done carefully and we
may have to carefully select the audience within which this argument
will be effective. As a soundbite it’s good, but we mustn't be
drawn into questions about the definitions of individual words. Once
someone defines God as “creator of everything” we get into
the whole philosophical morass of whether the existence of everything
counts as evidence of its creator. “Empirical” is also
problematic; once someone notices that it means “obtained by
observation or experiment” we may be faced with questions about
whose observation and experimentation is meant. And the veiled appeal
to science itself can let us down. In previous centuries, most
prominent scientists believed in God; they claimed that because the
world had a rational creator its laws would turn out to be rational
too. Even in the present there are no more atheists among scientists
than among the general populace.
What's more, we run into particular trouble over
“empirical” at this time of year (Easter). Around this
time, the Christians start claiming that the man Jesus was also God
Incarnate or “the Son of God”, and that he returned to life
after being killed. This outrageous claim, if true, is exactly the kind
of evidence which we want to maintain doesn’t exist.
Historians and scholars have let us down badly here. The
counter-argument that Jesus of Nazareth never existed is a non-starter
because historians say that he and some of his associates were real
historical figures. The written evidence about key episodes of his life from independent witnesses
is hard to dismiss. It almost looks like a conspiracy between ancient
and modern historians because even the ancient non-Christian ones
credulously refer to his resurrection every single time they mention
his crucifixion by the Romans.
We are betrayed too by archaeologists, who too-often report finding new
copies of the original writings and confirming little details of the
area in and around Jerusalem which those writings mention.
However, they have made some progress this year. Until recently the
Christians were able to taunt us that they had more evidence for their
Christ than we had for things we definitely believe in history, such as the
invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar. At last, though, the
archaeologists have found a few signs of Caesar’s landing in
Kent. Progress at last.
But let’s not get bogged down into discussions about mere evidence.
We don’t want to appear to be in the situation of denying things
which are actually accepted by experts in the field. That would seem to
put us in the same boat as climate-change deniers and moon-landing
conspiracists, which would be ridiculous.
The result of all this is that it's unfortunately not possible to refute
the Christian claims by denying the reality of their founder and the
things he did. We must therefore use misdirection. Chocolate may
work briefly. More seriously, shifting key ideas about the person of
Jesus can get us out of our difficulties. For example, “he was
just a good moral teacher”; “he was actually a rich
man”; “he was actually married and has descendents
today”; “he was actually the rightful king of the
Jews” – any of these can act as a good smoke screen to
distract the Christians from weaknesses in our case (but beware; there
are many discussions of those diversions online). In extreme cases we can even
resort to shifting attention away from this annoying man entirely and
focussing instead on unrelated scandals in the church or claims that
wars are caused by religion. Again, use caution and don't get
deeply into examination of evidence, because such claims often fall
when others produce actual statistics.
At all costs, discussion about Jesus should be kept away from the
things he actually said about himself. Once someone sees that he
actually predicted his death and resurrection, and the prediction is on
record as being used against him at his trial, the claimed events can
seem to take on vastly greater significance.
Before this point is reached it’s probably best to just reset the
whole argument by saying again loudly that God doesn’t exist. The
alternative is unthinkable. We could end up having to accept that He
does exist; that He has revealed Himself by entering our world in the
person of His Son; that He loves us so much that He died for us to take
away our sin, and that if we put our trust in Him we can have eternal
life in His Name.