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Getting Apologists to Go Off-Script

In a previous post about debating on Twitter, I wrote that I conduct most debates these days through the Socratic method. I find this more effective than arguing by assertion, since believers can reply to that with the standard apologetic counter-assertions, most of which they can reel off without even thinking about them. If we want to persuade theists, we need to get them to deviate from this script and start thinking on their own, and I have some suggestions on how to do that.

What I want to propose are imagination-stretching exercises to counter the blunt, unimaginative “that’s just the way it is” rationalizations that are so common in religious apologetics. To defend God against charges of complicity in evil, or sheer incompetence, many theists will assert that he just had to make the world this way or that way, that he had no choice in the matter.

We can and should point out that this amounts to a demotion from omnipotence, of course. But I think a more effective response is to show that even us limited humans can easily think of ways a god could have created the worldthat would be better than religious texts say he did. In this post, I’d like to suggest a few more questions that I think don’t have answers in the standard apologetic script.

Could you come up with peaceful alternatives to the violence in the Bible? In the Old Testament, God enacts his plans by wreaking terrible suffering indiscriminately among the guilty and the innocent. For example, the ten plagues of Egypt: God wanted the Israelites to be freed, but ancient Egypt wasn’t a democracy; it was solely Pharaoh’s decision. Why, then, did torment the entire population with plagues when they had no vote on the outcome?

The same applies to Joshua’s genocidal conquest of the promised land. Rather than ordering his chosen people to slaughter everyone who already lived there, couldn’t God have told Israelites and Canaanites alike that the land was open to anyone who was willing to live in peace with their neighbors? Think of the message that would have sent to future generations, as opposed to the dreadful message currently enshrined in the text: that holy war and genocide are a legitimate way of resolving religious disputes.

All this bloodshed reaches a climax in the crucifixion, which the Bible defends by saying that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). My question is, why is that the rule? Who made that rule, why did they make that the rule, and could they have made a different rule instead? Is it the rule you would have made? If someone committed a serious wrong against you, would you ever require the torture of an unrelated innocent person to forgive them?

Would you heal the sick if you could? Christian apologists have countless well-practiced replies to the problem of evil, countless logic-twisting excuses for why an all-powerful and benevolent deity doesn’t prevent needless suffering in the world. But I’ve found that an effective way to bypass these is to put the question in more personal terms: if you had God’s omnipotent power, would you use it to heal the sick and nourish the needy? If someone who was starving, or blind, or paralyzed, or dying of cancer came to you, and you could make them whole just by willing it to be so, would you do it? (If they say no, ask them if they’ve ever prayed for someone they know to be healed from illness.)

For example, the inimitable Mr. T, though he professes to be an evangelical Christian, said that of course he would rescue children from hunger and disease if he had the power to do it – seemingly not noticing how this contradicts his belief in a god who does have that power but chooses not to use it.

Why is there so much disagreement over how to interpret the Bible? You can tell that this is an effective question by the fact that famous Christian apologists, like C.S. Lewis, told their fellow believers not to talk about religious differences in the presence of outsiders. As I wrote in “One More Burning Bush“:

…different people – all of whom insist that their perception of God is clear, unimpaired, and correct – will nevertheless often disagree dramatically on the characteristics of this being. Some believe that God is loving and forgiving, others that he is wrathful and warlike; some believe that he is personal, others that he is impersonal; some believe that he is infinite, while others believe that he is limited; and so on.

The same thing applies to the Bible, where Christians who all insist that the text is clear and obvious somehow keep coming to dramatically different conclusions about what it actually says, enough to provoke denominational splits and even sectarian warfare. This is true not just of theological issues, like free will versus predestination or the efficacy of infant baptism, but on practical and important matters: capitalism vs. communism, conservatism vs. liberalism, the rights of women, the permissibility of homosexuality, environmental conservation, and essentially every other significant political issue of our time.

Nor is this confined to the present: in past eras, it was the near-universal consensus of the Christian world that God was perfectly happy with the slave trade, with witch burnings, with anti-Jewish pogroms, with torture as a means of punishment, with theocracy and absolute monarchy. Even if you accept for the sake of argument that it was Christian reformers who helped change this, the question still remains, how could all these past generations have been so badly mistaken about what God wants? How did it happen that Christianity was so wrong for so long?

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