Strobel asks; atheists answer and ask “is that the best you’ve got?”

February 2, 2009 | By | 17 Replies More

Two of my favourite heathens: Ebonmuse and Greta Christina recently answered what were assumed (before they were read) to be atheist-stumping questions, assembled by some bloke called Lee Strobel and posed on Hemant Mehta’s very friendly blog.

The questions, summarised, were of this calibre:

(1) Assuming that events of Jesus’ life are accepted historical facts, please provide a naturalistic explanation of the events following the crucifixion.

(2) The universe is remarkably fine-tuned for life, doesn’t this suggest involvement by a higher entity?

(3) Explain how something can come from nothing.

(4) Do you ever doubt your atheism?

(5) Can we trust our minds to be relaying to us an accurate picture of the universe?

Both Greta’s and Ebonmuses’s responses, while more or less echoing my own thoughts on each topic, are of a succintness and calibre that for now escapes me (but I will have a crack, probably in the comments). Both GC and EM easily debunk such things in their sleep (heck, I suspect most of us atheobloggists have done something similar to at least one of these questions in one or more comment threads on this very blog). In fact, not only do Greta & Ebonmuse passionately yet efficiently dismember each question in their responses, they then link to larger essays written by them previously on the precise topics being raised, showing not only that they’re at least two steps ahead of these Big Theological Guns (excuse me while I put my kevlar jacket back in my wardrobe and stand by that open window) but also that only a committed theologian could attempt to stump atheists with questions they’ve already answered, repeatedly & comprehensively. Additionally, this also shows that these supposedly elite theological SWAT snipers have equally lacklustre skills in both research – especially of their opponents’ viewpoints – and in critical thinking in general.

I’ll leave you with Ebonmuse’s tasty final response:

For me, when viewing all Strobel’s questions, what stands out about them is their ordinariness. I concur with Greta Christina that these arguments, far from being anything new or unusual, are no different – and no more difficult to defeat – than those of the run-of-the-mill amateur apologists that most atheists encounter on a routine basis. That’s not surprising, of course, since most of those people take their cues from the leading apologists.

But for the same reason, it’s meaningful because this should give us confidence – confidence that we truly can stand up to the superstars of modern apologetics and answer the best that they have to offer. It’s not even difficult. Any reasonably well-versed atheist should be able to shoot down these arguments without a problem. If this is truly the best they have to offer, then we can be all but certain that the evidentiary base of Christianity does not have anywhere near the depth or breadth that would justify an atheist’s conversion.

EM makes a good point – the reason the amateur apologists of the type many of deal with daily ask such soft questions is because they’re not asking their own questions! More often than not they’re usually repeating what the apparent best minds in apologetics have to say. If that summarised list up top is the best they’ve got (and I’m yet to hear better from anyone, be they the AB of Canterbury or some comment-thread fundie troll), then they have some work to do – “hard yakka”, as some call it Down Here.

Now, go and read the full questions and the full responses. Very entertaining and well-written, as we’ve come to expect. Check planetatheism.com as well for further responses to these, *ahem*, high-velocity atheist-converting questions.

These top-drawer theos really could’ve saved themselves some time with a quick Google. But hey, these “stumpers” have given many of us something to sharpen our claws on. So, thanks Lee Strobel! Whoever you are.

[edited to include original URL of Strobel’s questions as posed to Hemant]

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Category: Good and Evil, Religion

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Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he's a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator - but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

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  1. I ask, will the apologists answer? | Dangerous Intersection | February 2, 2009
  2. An Atheist Snipe Hunt | February 26, 2009
  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Can't help myself but answer these as posed before reading the sources:

    Q1: Given: Impossible supernatural things happened. Explain how a worldview embracing only the possible explains them. Um, no thank you.

    Q2: The hole is exactly the right size for our particular puddle. How can you not see the intelligence necessary to make such a perfect hole? Silly me, I assume puddles fill holes.

    Q3: Huh? Give an example. If you say "the big bang", please actually learn what that is, first.

    Q4: Did I ever doubt the nonexistence of the invisible friend I never had? No.

    Q5: Absolute trust in our perception? Of course not. That's why we came up with the Scientific Method to confirm reality against our biases.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: Good idea. I will also take this test before reading the article. Then I’ll sit back and enjoy Hank’s article:

    (1) Assuming that events of Jesus’ life are accepted historical facts, please provide a naturalistic explanation of the events following the crucifixion.

    If I am forced to assume these events (which, in my mind, are as unlikely as the “fact” that Thor threw thunderbolts), then there couldn’t be a naturalistic explanation. I’ll worry about explaining these events after I actually happen upon credible evidence that these things happened (or that the miracles of Islam happened or that ESP happens or that homeopathy cures people).

    (2) The universe is remarkably fine-tuned for life, doesn’t this suggest involvement by a higher entity?

    Contrary to the assumption of the question, most of the universe is horrifically bad for life. Even if one focuses on those little corners of the universe where life thrives, the existence of these places suggests nothing at all. Consider what it would be like to like rolling five dice one time and watching them all come up 3’s. That would give you only one sample. One sample tells us nothing. It might be a coincidence that the same number popped up on all five dice. Or they could be loaded. I’d have to throw the dice many times to know whether they are rigged to come up as 3’s. But there’s more. What if we could watch the universe unfold 1,000 times and witness life emerging every time? Does that speak to a “Creator” or to the inherent structure of the universe (that life forms spontaneously emerge from matter)? Again, I don’t know. I don’t have enough information. Until I am shown extraordinary evidence that there is an invisible sentient Creator, I assume there is none, since I not seen any convincing evidence of any sort of invisible sentience, much less invisible sentience that takes the form of a Creator (much less a vengeful Creator). I prefer explanations that are less far-fetched rather than more.

    (3) Explain how something can come from nothing.

    I don’t know that something ever HAS come from nothing. I assume Occam’s Razor. To anticipate a follow-up, I don’t now whether the universe ever did have a beginning. I have no idea. I don’t know. I’m proud to say I don’t know things when I really don’t know them.

    (4) Do you ever doubt your atheism?

    I don’t call myself an atheist, due to confusing connotations. I call myself a skeptic who puts my chips on naturalistic explanations. I don’t doubt my “atheism” nor do I profess my “atheism.” In the past few months I’ve rarely thought of the purported idea of God unless someone else brings up the word of the topic. Because I was raised Christian, thoughts that a God might be possible sometimes pop into my head—that’s old habit. Mostly, the concern of whether there is a sentient supernatural being is far from my mind because it is so incredibly far from possible; it’s about as likely as the moon being made of green cheese, in my mind. As an adult, I’ve never assumed that the God of Christianity existed. I have often assumed that Einstein’s “God” exists, however. I ignore atheism much like I ignore theism. We have a planet full of real problems to deal with, and I focus on the real problems. One of those real problems is that many people do hateful things (as well as good things) in the name of “God.” Even though I find myself getting really bored with the questions regarding “God’s” existence, I’m fascinated by the fact that some people claim to believe in “God.” I’m fascinated by the good and bad things that belief in “God” inspires in so many people.

    (5) Can we trust our minds to be relaying to us an accurate picture of the universe?

    No. I can’t entirely rule out that I am hallucinating and that I’m the only person that exists. I don’t assume solipsism, but I can’t disprove it. I do assume that I am in an almost desperate of a state of ignorance beyond the things I encounter in my daily existence. I’m painfully aware that there are many things I don’t know. I can’t entirely rule out the existence of a “God” much like I can’t rule out the existence of Horus. I’m not admitting the existence of God; I have no convincing evidence of the existence of a “God.” Because I acknowledge that I am in such a state of ignorance, I prefer my operating assumptions to be less far-fetched rather than more far-fetched. I thus don’t assume the existence of any “Gods,” especially anthropomorphic Gods. Instead, I assume Occam’s Razor. It works well in 99.9 percent of the things that people do. I take Occam’s Razor as far as I can.

  3. Hank says:

    Nice one Dan.

    In answering the short questions in short form you've more or less said exactly what Ebon and Greta said, right down to (in Greta's case) Douglas Adams' "puddle fallacy."

    Like I said, if this is the best ammo the theopologists have we can put our flak jackets away.

    I liked your answer to (and rephrasing of) Q1 especially. It's staggering that these hotshot religious minds think that it's ok to rest everything on the inital assumption that magic used to happen, even though it inexplicably doesn't anymore, and think that's going to stump anyone who can recognise even the faintest whiff of presuppositionalism.

    What they fail to realise – in their very first question, no less – is that it's not just the Christian Bible that atheists reject as factual, it's ALL magic holy texts. Atheist doesn't just mean "non-Christian" – but I wouldn't expect these guys to understand that and to phrase their questions accordingly. After all, their brand is the only "right" one, therefore atheists aren't just flat-out non-religious, they're necessarily "anti-Christian".

    I should ask these of them:

    1. Considering Christianity is only one of many religions which all make similar claims to be the revealed and absolute word of the creator of the universe and all contradict each other, do you think it's more likely that:

    (a) all religions are equally valid

    (b) all religions are equally invalid

    (c) only your religion is valid

    If (c) how did you arrive at the decision that your religion is the "right" one? How do you discount other religions, many with an equal or greater number of followers, which make similar claims to divine inspiration? How do their various claims of divine inspiration, miraculous occurrences and absolute moral authority fail to meet your standards of evidence? What is it about those other religions' claims that makes you reject them, even as you accept similar claims from your own religion? Finally, do you think you would be of the same faith you are now if you had been born & raised in a society where the prevailing religious culture were different (e.g. in an Islamic theocracy such as Saudi Arabia as opposed to a predominantly Christian nation such as the USA or UK)? If you were to contend, for example, that you'd still be a Christian even if your parents, family, friends, teachers and entire culture were Muslim, please explain how that would eventuate. If you were to contend that you'd likely be of the hypothetical faith you were raised in, whatever that was, would that in any way, even hypothetically, affect the truth claims of the faith you have now?

    If (a) explain how that does not make all religions more or less irrelevant. If all religions make similar & valid claims regarding morality, for instance, it follows that following all or, more easily, none of them is equally acceptable to any gods that may exist. If such behaviour as forbidding murder & theft & promoting tolerance & charity is more or less common to every religion, should it not be sufficient to any god that may be observing us that we simply attempt to be "good" – that is, to minimise the harm we do and maximise the happiness of ourselves and others? Considering such morality is more or less universal among all human cultures and that such morality developed independently among cultures separated both geographically and by millennia, is it not logical to assume that such morality is a purely human development and not a gift from on high?

    If (b) well … you're an atheist.

    2. If we accept, for argument's sake, the premise that there is only one true religion and only one revealed truth of the universe, please explain:

    (a) how in every religion there are differing branches who disagree over doctrine, mostly respectfully but all too often violently, despite being spiritual brethren and sharing core beliefs & revelations (e.g. Sunni/Shia, Catholicism/everyone else)

    (b) how acts of sectarian violence are often indistinguishable in nature from violence between competing religions

    (c) how it is to be determined which particular sect carries the one definitive version of the one truth, considering again the commonality of the source material for each faith.

    Considering (a), it seems that the universe's creator was unable or unwilling to share a single, coherent vision of the required religion with a sufficient number of people. If unable, the creator seems limited in its powers of persuasion or revelation and cannot logically be considered omnipotent or all-powerful, as most followers of monotheistic religion contend. If unwilling, this begs the question as to why this all-powerful creator would allow its creation to disagree and argue for centuries, frequently to the point of murderous intra-faith brutality. If the creator is indeed all-powerful yet unwilling, that requires an assessment of the morality of a creator who could choose at any time to intervene and reveal to the entirety of its creation its wishes, yet does no such thing.

    Hmm, that's quite long. Maybe it should just be a post!

  4. Hank says:

    In fact, I have posted them. Sorry to double up!

  5. Ryan says:

    Lee Strobel rose to fame among evangelicals in the late 90's with his two "Case.." books. He was very popular in some of their circles because he was scratching the surface on issues that many had really never considered (i.e Why do we Christians believe what we believe).

    Scratching the surface, however, was the extent of the philosophical or apologetic impact of his books. His books, though touted by some Christians, are written at a popular level for a Christian audience. There are many more thoughtful proponents of Christian theism, not to say that they would necessarily be more compelling or persuade any DI readers. However, to equate them with Strobel is to me like equating Dan Brown's arguments against orthodox Christianity with J.L Mackie's.

    To get a better idea of what the discussion is like on the theist side of the fence I would recommend checking out some of the theists within philosophy of religion, though I won't push any particular authors or books here. They are of course not all theists, and come in many varieties of atheism, agnosticism ect. But they are all thoughtful and serious thinkers engaging in philosophical debate with one another, writing essays and books back and forth over intricate parts of arguments for or against their positions.

    That is just my perspective, as a thoughtful Christian who has enjoyed reading DI for the last few months. I hope that nobody finds my commenting here offensive, as I have no intention to be.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Ryan: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It's great to have you join us.

  7. Hank says:

    Hey Ryan

    Don't worry, you're the very antithesis of offensive 🙂 Welcome to DI.

    Erich, base hit on Q1 in my humble opinion! I assume that's what Strobel expects – that we simply accept those miraculous events as factual and then attempt to explain them with our feeble naturalist minds. If you accept the post-crucifixion miracles as factual, even only for argument's sake, there can by definition be no natural explanation – they're miracles! However, since hypothetically is the only way to accept such miracles (if you're at all concerned with logic and evidence), the question is meaningless, especially in the context of the other questions. Not a great start to their salvo I must say. Probably should've been a bonus question. In the full version of the questions by the way, one sub-question boils down to "explain Jesus' empty tomb" – as if the possibility of someone simply opening it and moving the body without anyone seeing requires a miraculous explanation.

    The "fine-tuning" argument comes up so often in apologetics I'm a little surprised they included it – but mostly not. Their research didn't seem to include reading anything by scientists or secular thinkers on this subject – or even Douglas Adams! The general consensus among scientists is that we're basically lucky to be here. I agree with that. Most of the universe is a horrible place for life – the fact that among the trillions of stars in it (separated by light years of freezing virtual vacuum, sparsely populated by planets, most of which would kill us instantly if we found ourselves on one for some reason) only ours has anything living near it speaks to that.

    I don't believe in "something coming from nothing" and I don't know of any atheist/secularist/freethinker/brandless heathen who does. "Let there be light" is something coming from nothing and it raises more questions than it answers. A plausible scenario to me is that the universe we all know and love is part of a multi billion-year cycle of explosion, expansion, heat-death and contraction. Our "big bang" may well just be the latest in a long, long line of similar events. We may not be the only life ever to have evolved, however we may be the only life in this particular cycle of the universe. Previous cycles may have developed lifeless universes or universes teeming with living beings. That could be wrong as hell, but if it is I'll gladly bow to superior knowledge. But damn it sounds cool 🙂 Either way, God taking a day off after creating the universe in six days (and somehow managing to create light before creating the stars that emanate it) is, to put it mildly, somewhat implausible.

    I'm not sure if I've ever "doubted" my atheism since it became apparent to me that I indeed was an atheist. I was never particularly devout even when I called myself a Christian and I was doubting, on and off, the Bible's claims even as a very young believer. Once I realised, not long ago, the reasons I was skeptical of religion (all religion) it became apparent that a serious burden of proof lay not on me, but on anyone making supernatural claims. Not one person making such claims has been able to convince me that those claims are anything more than personal revelation or recitations of scripture – in a court of law those would both be described as "hearsay evidence" and would be unacceptable. I view this "marketplace of ideas" thing as akin to courtroom. There's no crime under investigation and the jury (billions of us) is pretty much out on everything, permanently – but if someone makes a positive claim they must provide evidence for it, otherwise the jury is well within its rights to discount that claim as unsupported and inadmissable.

    As for being able to trust our own minds – well, we can't. Not all the time. People see Virgins in toast, flying purple monkeys in their acid trips, see weapons of mass destruction that aren't there, don't count votes that are there and sometimes shoot people in the face thinking that they're quails. We unconsciously (and consciously) seek things & people which reinforce our own biased views and reject those which undermine them. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, we just get things motherflipping wrong. However, we have a tool that's as close to purely objective observation as you can get – science. The scientific method arose out of the combined desire & necessity to understand the world & universe without our own biases, prejudices, and preconceptions interfering. Charles Darwin, a Christian, found himself unpleasantly plagued with doubts about the Biblical account of creation when he viewed the evidence for evolution – the very evidence he himself had discovered. However, much as he perhaps would have liked to hold on to the Biblical origin of species, he had no choice but to accept what the evidence of his investigations was telling him, lest he betray his intellectual integrity. Truth hurts, as they say. In fact, to the end of his days he and his wife were split over the issue – she never accepted evolution and was I suppose a creationist until her death. They loved each other no less because of this, but Mrs D was petrified she'd go to Heaven and not be joined by Charles – or worse, see him roasting from above for eternity. But that's what we as humans must all be prepared to do in my opinion: see facts as they are regardless of what we wish to be true. We must all be prepared to discard cherished notions if evidence is furnished that refutes them.

    And now, my own questions for the theologians: http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/02/02/i-ask

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    (3) Explain how something can come from nothing.

    Explain where the god-of-the-Bible came from.

    (5) Can we trust our minds to be relaying to us an accurate picture of the universe?

    No, but we have no other tool with which to establish *any* picture of the universe, so our mind is the best we can do. Not surprisingly, many religious leaders advocate distrusting our minds and, instead, blindly trusting them.

  9. Edgar Montrose says:

    Q1: I am reminded of a course in formal logic that I took many years ago. One bit of knowledge from that course has stuck with me through all these years. I'll quote directly from the textbook [1]:

    The preceding discussion [of consistency in logical premisses] incidentally provides us with an answer to the old riddle: What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? The description involves a contradiction. For an irresistible force to meet an immovable object, both must exist. There must be an irresistible force and there must also be an immovable object. But if there is an irresistible force there can be no immovable object. Here is the contradiction made explicit: there is an immovable object, and there is no immovable object. Given these inconsistent premisses, any conclusion may validly be inferred. So the correct answer to the question, 'What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?' is 'Everything!'

    How does this apply to Q1? "Assume that a miracle occurred, and also assume that it can be explained without using miracles (making it, by definition, not a miracle)." One is trapped in a contradiction just by attempting to answer the question.

    [1] INTRODUCTION TO LOGIC, Irving M. Copi, Macmillan, 1978

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Edgar: Good points. Your comment reminds me of advice I learned somewhere in my distant past: 95% of answering a question productively is working hard to ask it correctly.

    There's nothing like sloppy framing of a dispute or an inquiry to send us off to waste our time in lengthy (often heated) argument.

  11. Hank says:

    I like it Edgar. Like I said I knew they were on a tough wicket with their very first question, so thanks for sharing that bit of wisdom!

    I really think there just have to be theologians etc. out there who can ask better questions than "First assume my mythology is true, then explain my mythology using your naturalism". When you open a debate with a question which is internally inconsistent you resemble a 9th grade debate team, not a top gun apologist.

  12. Edgar Montrose says:

    Further to the point, if one accepts the premisses that an occurrence is a miracle and that the same occurrence is also not a miracle, then according to the rules of logic, ANYTHING can be used to explain it. That is to say, a completely and irrefutably correct answer to, "Assuming that events of Jesus’ life are accepted historical facts, please provide a naturalistic explanation of the events following the crucifixion," is, "Forty-two." (Though any other explanation would be equally correct.)

  13. Edgar Montrose says:

    Now that I think about it, the same argument applies to question #3.

  14. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich wrote, "There’s nothing like sloppy framing of a dispute or an inquiry to send us off to waste our time in lengthy (often heated) argument."

    Case in point: the Bush administration claiming that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attack and was an imminent threat to U.S. national security.

  15. jer says:

    when in a court room, if you are trying to get your point across you always say, "lets go back to the beginning"…..

    well, no of us were there, so, the next question is "how does anything get it start" ?

    By those who were there and wrote about such things, they saw or knew to be true.

    they say on their parchments that there was a man who called himself Jesus, and astounded all those around him with miracles, and each of these events were carried thru to the present.

    if we deny these events, then we should deny all of history, since none of us were there.

    i guess its a thing of what each chooses to believe, and the simplest thing to believe is that there must have been some higher power that started the very first beginning of life.

    atheists choose not to believe such, which is their right.

    but why do they spend so much of their lives dis-believing others beliefs of faith, when atheism is not a religion, and where is the problem?

    why do atheists want to take away the beliefs of those who do believe, what harm is there in those believing and those who dis-agree.

    I say that atheists must be poor card players since they bet there is no God , and when the final bell is answered ,if there is a God, they will loose badly, and if there isnt , what have belivers lost ?

    Actually nothing but our beliefs, but playing the odds that, "back in the beginning", it is written about these things of Jesus and God, or history….and in one hundred years , when they write about 9-11, none will be alive, but will they still dis-believe ?

    I like playing the odds, and if i am a big winner, great, but better than being an atheist, and not believing, just because they werent there . the loss is to great.

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