The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter One)
The debate over the moral merits and truth of Christianity has raged since the inception of the Christian faith. Within that debate are countless hours of arguments and apologetics defending and rebutting both sides of the issue. However recently I came across a slew of Christian books that attempt to better answer what they define as the TOUGH objections of skeptics, atheists, and doubting Thomases (Thomas's? Thomasi?). In particular I fixated on a book by Mark Mittelberg. Mark is an accomplished apologist, best-selling author and someone who charges a 3,000 dollar starting booking fee if you want him to speak at your event or venue.
Mark has written numerous books but the book I want to focus on here is called The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (With Answers). The premise of the book is that they took a survey of one thousand evangelical Christians about what the toughest objections/questions about Christianity are and now Mark is going to offer answers to the top ten most common questions. These answers should put those skeptics in their place or leave them at least more open to your testimony about Jesus and, if you do your job as a Christian correctly, get them on their knees as converts.
In this series of hubs I hope to unpack the responses that Mark gives to these TOUGH objections one chapter at a time. However I am not the target audience of the book, the target audience is young Christians who want to talk their doubting friends into remaining Christian or going back to Christianity. So this will be a look at Christian apologetics through the lens of a former Christian now Atheist who has spent the last few years on the internet debating, researching and questioning all the sides of the argument available.
Any excerpts used are credited to Mark Mittelberg and Tyndale House Publishers and fall under Fair Use Policy regarding critique, criticism and that sort of thing. If you wish to actually read the book it is available on Kindle currently for only ten bucks however I will try to represent Mark's position fairly (though I will not hold back in my rebuttals).
So let's see if the answers Mark has to the tough questions are the stuff of atheist nightmares!
Lee Strobel and Spiritual Vertigo
The book opens with a foreword by Christian Apologist Lee Strobel, the man behind The Case for Christ and other works of Christian apologetics. Strobel eases us into one of the most common tactics regarding Christian apologetics, the use of anecdotes, of personal experiences, to illustrate a point.
Strobel tells the story of what he calls Spiritual Vertigo, being inundated with so many objections and points of doubt that it feels as if the balloon of one's faith is about to burst. He was apparently confronted by a scientist, the Father of some girl who went to his Church, who delivered blow after blow, question after question, and despite doing his best Strobel admits he couldn't answer every single objection.
Strobel brings up this event to warn Christians that such moments of doubt when they are confronted on all sides by objections to their faith are inevitable in this day and age. He recommends his buddy Mark's book as it will help Christians answer those tough questions even calling it the ANTIDOTE to the spiritual vertigo he described earlier. The rest of his foreword is spent talking up Mark as the giant of apologetics that Strobel clearly sees him as. Oh boy, I can't wait to totally become a Christian as I'm reading this and having all of my objections rebutted and tied into neat tidy bows!
The First Question
After the Foreword Mark explains the purpose of the book, which is to help aid Christians everywhere in tackling these tough issues whether it is some doubt they have themselves or they are trying to convince a skeptic. With the talking up that Strobel gave him I am curious to see what Mittelberg has on offer. Perhaps he will be a new creative mind in the Christian apologetics circuit and raise some thrilling new answers I've never seen before.
Finally we are ready to tackle the big questions that the Christians surveyed submitted and the first question is (drum roll please): What makes you so sure that God exists at all? (you can't see, hear or touch God).
It makes sense that this would be one of the biggest questions, in fact the fundamental demand we skeptics have to believers is to PROVE that God exists. Offer us some evidence, some empirical scientific data that has been repeatedly verified or at least a well-reasoned argument that fits in with what objective facts we do know about the Universe.
I do take issue with the fact that the question includes the caveats about not being able to HEAR, SEE or TOUCH God making it as if skeptics are all stubborn six year old children who have to be able to hold something in their hand to believe in it. But let's set that patronizing aside and assume that it's just part of what the survey respondents wrote back to Mittelberg. Let's actually dig into what Mark has to put up as evidence – what is his answer to the undetectable nature of God?
This doesn't bode well for the rest of the book when we're two pages in and already the author has thrown up his hands in surrender with something so stupid and schmaltzy I doubt Hallmark would print it. This book was published in 2010, it's not that old, and yet here we are retreading apologetics that would have seemed childish back in Jesus' day. God is like LOVE?
What's Love God to do with It?
There are numerous issues I could raise with comparing God to love but the biggest and most obvious to me is that he is talking about the subjective experience of love and ignoring the chemical brain activity component which IS physical. He is trying to make love (and he goes on to include gravity and air) out to be some spooky non-physical force. In actuality things like love, air and gravity are detectable and operate without any issue as PHYSICAL non-supernatural things.
He starts out talking about the love he had developed with his wife Heidi before he popped the question, and during their marriage and wondering if that love is REAL. In other words the love he is talking about is the SUBJECTIVE REALITY, he loves his wife and he knows to his core that he loves her. So God is just something in your head that you KNOW? Well Mark doesn't offer much help when he goes on to talk about his personal experiences with the Holy Spirit and basically confess that YEP, God is just something you have to experience for yourself, like love.
This isn't going well if Mark's intention is to convince anyone that God is an objective reality outside the brains of believers. It's especially troubling when you take into account the fact that something like love CAN be observed, measured and scientifically documented using brain scans. It's true that the subjective FEELING of love is just that, subjective, it is your own personal experience. However we can put people who have that feeling in a brain scanner and observe the brain activity and chemistry that make up love. At the end of the day LOVE is merely brain activity, a certain pattern of neural activity and chemical interactions, although that fact does not inhibit us from enjoying or experiencing love.
In the same vein if Christians want to admit that their God is just a pattern of neural activity in their brains that they happen to enjoy and find enriching MORE POWER TO THEM! But I thought Mark was going to try to give good answers to these TOUGH OBJECTIONS. Let's see something a skeptic or doubter would actually find convincing!
(sigh) The First Cause Argument
So after comparing God to things like LOVE, GRAVITY and AIR Mark finally gets around to delivering the evidence he thinks will answer critics for his young Christian audience. And what does he trot out first? Well I would love to tell you he delivers something totally new that's never been done before in the history of Christian thought but he doesn't. Instead he trots out his own version of the tired old dead-horse First Cause Argument. You know the drill - the Universe had a beginning - therefore it had a cause - we call that cause God.
Naturally he starts by talking up scientists like Einstein who helped discover the Big Bang and the fact that the Universe had a beginning. Like all Christian apologists he ignores the fact that eternal models of the Universe have not all been discredited and that theoretical physics is still very much trying to figure out the Universe. Forget that folks like Dr. Sean Carroll and other physicists are still actively pursuing avenues that don't require the Big Bang to be an absolute beginning to the Universe and that the scientific jury is still very much OUT.
If you'd like to see an actual physicist clash heads with an actual scientist I highly recommend the debate between Carroll and professional philosopher William Lane Craig.
Mark insists, despite ignoring tons and tons of work that physicists have done over the last one hundred years, that the Universe must have had a cause, cannot be eternal and that the closest thing that fits this cause is his God. He also claims that the Universe began ex nihilo, or from Nothing, anyone who has followed modern physics even in passing knows that the Nothing that physicists talk about is not the philosophical notion of Nothing. Personally I don't believe that such an abstract notion of nothing could ever describe any actual state of affairs.
Of course ironically Mark and other ex nihilo fanatics don't actually believe in absolute nothing either for they inject into that nothing the most complex omnipotent thing imaginable, their God, who simply exists with no explanation as to how or why.
A Lack of Imagination
So now that he thinks he has established that there must be a God in the form of a First Cause Mark makes his best attempt at drawing a connection between this God, who created the Universe at the Big Bang, and the God of the Bible. He does this by telling a story about an unnamed airline pilot who didn't believe in God and asserted, as an answer to the First Cause argument, that one could simply say an alien created the Universe. Of course the rebuttal from the Christian side is that this alien MUST BE very similar to the God of the Bible because it must be timeless, spaceless, immaterial, etc.
This is, of course, ridiculous and shows the lack of imagination of Christians when entertaining highly speculative ideas. That is just what the idea of a First Cause is, a speculation, because one must entertain that something like simple causation can applied to an entire Universe of space-time matter and energy.
And once one has accepted the First Cause one can speculate about any number of things that might be that first cause. Perhaps an Italian Chef from another Universe baked our Universe as a pizza. Does that sound ridiculous? Well so does making humans out of clay, talking snakes and magical trees that give people immortality.
Mark refuses, for even a moment, to let the man in the anecdote have made his point and offers absolutely no evidence or reason why we wouldn't take his statement, that an alien created the Universe, just as seriously as a Christians statement that God did the creating.
This is the problem with the First Cause argument, at base level all it could ever hope to establish is a nebulous and undefined Deism. Even accepting it's premises and conclusion we are left directionless able to choose any God or creation story that tickles our fancy or even make one up for ourselves or we could remain non-believers and just claim that a NON-LIVING cause caused the Universe. And a non-living cause makes more sense since the living God they are proposing wouldn't fit any definition of life we have ever worked with.
Think of the Children?
When I asked my fourteen year old Nephew about this he simply said that it could have been some non-physical particles colliding that created the Universe. If Christians are so ready to posit the immaterial or non-physical there is nothing stopping someone from simply saying that quantum interactions of some non-physical substance started the Big Bang and created time, space and physical matter/energy. It's not good when a fourteen year old kid is smarter than your bullshit apologetics.
Mark must be assuming all his Christian readers are going to be talking to naïve uninformed and illogical people.
The God of the Bible?
In previous hubs I have looked at why the Christian God, creating the Universe from nothing, as defined by apologists doesn't make any sense when you break down each of the big OMNI characteristics. Here, however, I want to briefly look at how the Bible actually characterizes and explains creation and God and how it does not fit in the slightest with what science tells us.
The Bible never contains an accurate description of anything in space or beyond the Earth. The Creation account has God spread a dome, or firmament, over the flat disc shaped Earth and separate the waters below from the waters above. Later, in the account of Noah's flood, God actually opens the windows of heaven, that is he opens holes in the firmament from which the rain comes. This dome over the Earth was what the sun, moon and stars were placed against. This is why stars can fall from the sky in the end of days in the Bible, the Biblical authors had no idea what a star actually was.
So God created the Earth in seven days, well six days really, however Genesis has him create plant life BEFORE he bothered to create the sun. God also makes human beings in his image out of dirt/clay, this implies that God 1) Has an image and thus a physical form of some kind 2) Looks at least vaguely human. In actuality human beings evolved through the same process that everything else did.
The Biblical authors knew very little, if anything, about the natural world when they wrote the Bible. If they had knowledge of science or been divinely inspired by an actual God that knew about reality chances are they would have written it into the creation account. Instead their view of nature and the world are completely wrong and match what we'd expect to see from primitive humans trying to make sense of the world around them and codify myths and stories that explain their origin and the origin and potency of their moral codes/ spiritual beliefs.
The Bible says nothing about a timeless, spaceless cause of the Universe. What it describes is a vaguely humanoid supernatural King who sits on a throne in Heaven above the dome he put over the flat disc of the Earth that he created and shaped using verbal commands.
But according to Mark Mittelberg the God who sent the Angel of Death to kill the first born of Egypt but pass over all houses with the ward of magical sacrificial blood smeared on them is way way more plausible as a creator for the Universe than elves, aliens and all those other obvious fantasies and alternatives the atheists and skeptics might propose in an attempt to make a point.
Now obviously Mark doesn't bring up any of what the Bible actually says about God other than, “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth...” which isn't compelling at all from a scientific standpoint since there are about ten billion years between the BEGINNING and the accretion of our planet.
(sigh) The Fine-Tuning Argument
In his next section Mark delves into yet another tried and true apologetic argument, the teleological or Fine-Tuning argument. Within the first few sentences of making his point Mark inadvertently gives us an opening into why the Fine Tuning argument is wrong.
During this paragraph, in which Mark is talking about how the beauty of nature proclaims the glory of God, Mark briefly mentions UNIQUE plants that grow in ravines or down along hillsides. What he's talking about are plants that have carved out a niche evolutionarily. Plants that, perhaps, don't grow anywhere but there. Plants that seem perfectly designed to suit their environment. In bringing up these plants Mark reveals one of the primary problems with the logic of the Fine Tuning argument. Mark is content to think that things are God ordained from the top down when in actuality nature builds beauty and complexity from the bottom up with no supernatural agency required.
There are species that live in only one small niche, one environment, one highly specialized corner of the ecosystem. Take, for example, the animals that reside down in the ocean at hydrothermal vents. For many of these species this is the only sort of place they can thrive and reproduce. To a Christian, looking at nature from a top-down perspective, it might seem like the environment was designed (fine tuned in fact) for these sorts of organisms. In actuality however nature doesn't work that way, rather it is the organisms that adapt, through natural selection, to their environments.
I've talked about Fine Tuning in other hubs quite a bit but the fundamental fallacy is the same, the assumption that somehow the Universe is designed to be a place that life can develop and thrive or even that life can exist at all. They are imbuing with agency and purpose a Universe that is mostly hostile to life because, as I pointed out, most life has very specific conditions which it can thrive in or adapt to.
If you remove certain species from deep within the ocean they will die at certain depths near the surface because they evolved to survive under the immense pressure of the deep. If you remove human beings from the surface of the Earth and put us in space without a pressure suit we too will die before long. We are actually in a very precocious place with tons of things, from asteroid strikes to disease epidemics, that could end the human species in a very short amount of time. Far from the special-snowflakes of the Universal wizard that made us we are adrift on a speck of dust in an indifferent Cosmic ocean.
Any set of circumstances or parameters the Universe has are what they are from the bottom up and as far as we can tell there is no reason to assume that anything is dictated or written into stone by some supernatural agency. Any state of affairs became the way it is because of a string of causes and effects so stating that “if X wasn't the way it was Y wouldn't have been the result” is meaningless. Assuming that our existence is the sole purpose of a Cosmos with billions of Galaxies is arrogant and downright silly. Supposing it was true, however, one cannot simply use our existence as evidence of a God anymore than the existence of a volcano or a butterfly mean that there are gods for those specific things.
If gravity wasn't the way it was, or any of the other constants Mark and his fellow Christians crone on about, things would undoubtedly be different. But assuming that some divine power DECLARED or DECREED or PROGRAMMED everything to turn out exactly the way it is now is absurd without some evidence to back that up. Perhaps if the Universe really was our playground and we were able to breathe in it and fly from planet to planet with ease we might be able to argue that things were designed for us by some patronizing deity.
And, as always, even if you accept that some higher power must have set the base parameters of the Universe you have no reason to assume that that higher power is the Biblical God. You may as well assume the Universe is simulated in some interdimensional computer run by a team of interdimensional super-nerds.
The Fine-Tuning of God
Ironically Mark's God, over thousands of years of refinement, is the thing that has been fine-tuned to always fit into the ever-shrinking voids of our own scientific ignorance.
Over the centuries Christians have shaped and molded God from the being who could not defeat Iron Chariots who used the Earth he created in six days as a footstool into the all powerful all loving immaterial thing that lives beyond time and space and caused the Universe to begin existing 14 billion years ago. If someone was convinced by the First Cause and started with a clean slate and simply read the Bible without the modern apologies of today's Christians I can't see how they would ever make the connection.
(sigh) The Moral Argument
I've talked about morality in many many hubs and it is by far one of the worst arguments any believer could ever make for God. Even Mark doesn't spend all that much time on it, outlining it over the course of a few pages as he has for most of these arguments but digging into none of the very obvious objections that any skeptical and empathetic person would ask of a Christian when they bring up morals (of course that's because the whole EVIL issue is going to be addressed later in the book).
Of course Mark doesn't understand how atheists think about morality. In fact he thinks morality is a "big challenge".
Social Animals vs the Supernatural
Some atheists, such as Sam Harris, DO think that objective morality is possible without any supernatural spookiness. Harris, and others like him, claim that because behaviors have consequences, and those consequences are objectively real and have some kind of effect on human well-being that is objectively measurable, that morality can be objective in respect to human well-being.
Personally I am skeptical of this claim, I see such a morality as still being somewhat subjective since one person's pleasure can sometimes be another person's pain. However it is true that we can use science and objective facts about harm/benefit in tandem with our natural empathy to help form better moral systems.
One thing seems obvious to me, moral values do not come from supernatural beings giving us commandments or authoring morals on the "tablets of our hearts". Human beings have been fumbling around in the dark experimenting with morality for thousands and thousands of years with no evidence of any guidance. Furthermore it makes little sense pre-defining God as "that which serves as the source of human morality" so that you can use morals to argue God into existence.
The truth is the origin of morality is not even a tough question for atheists to answer, it merely takes a basic understanding of animal behavior and evolution.
Human beings have moral codes because human beings are social animals. We evolved to need cooperation to survive, it's part of the evolutionary niche that we fit into. You know the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” this is a perfect expression of how human beings evolved to thrive, in groups. Our young spend quite a few years being vulnerable and weak not to mention the nine month gestation period and the fact we usually only have one child at a time. This works however because we have also been afforded the basic framework for positive social interaction and group cohesion.
Due to empathy and the ability to consider hypothetical scenarios we have a basic and completely natural framework from which to build our moral systems. That is to say we can think about how our actions and the actions of others affect us, affect our community, etc and due to empathy we can empathize with those who might be victims of someone else – or even our own – wrongdoing.
Now as we have slowly but surely climbed out of scientific ignorance and gained understandings of psychology and medicine we have gained a better understanding of what is harmful and what is beneficial. Science has helped us gain an objective understanding about things that used to be very much prone to being subjective.
If you haven't noticed the last 150 years or so have seen a steady decline in violence and barbarism. You might think that the world has gone to shit or actually gotten worse but you'd be completely mistaken. Think about it. Due to the advent of science and reason in the last 150 years we've done away with slavery in the Western world, we've made equality for women and minorities a priority and in most First World countries there are now laws demanding that such equality be respected. And, of course, just recently, we've had pushes for the rights of gays so that they can be considered equal under the law in regards to marriage.
We've also seen major pushes to eradicate and learn all we can about diseases and disorders of all types. We've gone from a psychology that straps people down and electrocutes them or lobotomizes them to a psychology that helps people maintain productive functional lives as much as possible through medication and therapy.
Obviously we still have a ton of work to do on all fronts to keep things moving and keep moral progress rolling but if you read the Bible you will find a regressive and brutal morality both in the actions of the Biblical God and in the beliefs of those who wrote about him. The parts of the Bible that do talk about love and mercy pale in comparison to the horrendous cruelty and evil committed and condoned by Yahweh up to and including the pointless and brutal blood sacrifice of his only son.
Christians would love to take credit for the rise of these better morals, as Mark argues in his book objective Christian morality is the only way we can comfortably condemn the Nazis for what they did (no word yet on whether we can condemn God for standing idle as his chosen people where killed though).
Same Old Lame Old (or So Far, So Bad)
I was really hoping when I started reading that Mark would deliver on Lee Strobel's glowing recommendation and offer some really good answers but here he is retreading tired old ground that atheists and skeptics have had answers for for decades if not longer. Now I understand that he is attempting to set up young Christians who have never experienced any “spiritual vertigo” with basic ground work for trying to explain why they believe in God however the reasons/arguments he is giving them are only going to be successful against those who either are on the fence or who already have some belief in God and just need reassurance.
Yes I imagine the moral argument might sound somewhat persuasive to a naïve child who is first starting to doubt the religion of his parents but who still has some emotional or mental investment into Christianity. If Mark's goal is to win back Christian youth who have been momentarily swayed by their doubts or some arguments they've encountered than he has a good chance. If however he hopes to convince someone who has done their research and is good at critical thinking than he has his work cut out for him.
And in an act of laughable irony Mark condemns something the Bible condones during his morality segment. He talks about a culture where women are kept as sex slaves and beaten at will ironically not realizing that sex slavery and beating of slaves are both condoned in the Bible (Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20, Judges 5, etc).
Those Angry Atheists
At the end of the chapter Mark coaches the would-be Evangelists that are the target of this book. Rather than talk about any of the intellectual or moral objections atheists might have to Christianity and the Bible or simple belief in God Mark tells them that usually atheists have personal or emotional issues or just have had a bad experience in their life in regards to Church or God.
Rather than prepare these young Christians for the actual reasons why so many object to Christianity Mark instead focuses on the personal and emotional reasons that might have some people hung up. What he's talking about here are not atheists who have thought long and hard about the subject or spent time researching and debating and getting all sides of the argument. What he's talking about are people who have some emotional reason, not an actual objection, and how because of THIS you can't always convince them of God's existence.
It isn't that there are any legitimate concerns that atheists have about the existence of God, it's that they are all self-deceived in some way and simply need emotional spiritual guidance to get over it. Instead of saying anything intellectual or offering any real evidence Mark is instead focusing on the tried and true tactics of religious apologetics, to go after not those who think critically or skeptically but to only go after the doubters who they can emotionally leverage or trick with simple pat answers and bad arguments that are decades old. Anyone who doesn't respond to those must be one of those “angry atheists” who made a bad “lifestyle choice” (I'm guessing he's talking about homosexuality or drugs there.)
I apologize if this review turned into a rant and a half but I really was, for some reason, expecting a best-selling Christian author whose books get good reviews to have something new or interesting to say. Even the Amazon reviewers seem to suggest that this guy's answers have worked for them in starting up and continuing conversations with agnostic and atheistic friends.
I've only identified as an atheist since late 2009 and before that I was an agnostic for a few years. I can say without a doubt, putting myself in the shoes of past me, that these arguments would not seem at all convincing then and they seem even less convincing after five plus years of exploring all that the atheist vs theist debate has to offer. Even way back when when I was a Christian the only argument of these three that would have made sense was the First Cause argument because it is built on what seems like a very sound intuitive observation – causation.
But as I've said even the First Cause argument gives us only the notion of a vague immaterial something that transcends the Universe. There is no way to know and no reason to speculate that this thing was a living being and, in fact, a timeless, spaceless immaterial living thing would violate all the rules we know about for living things.
I was really hoping to see something spectacular or clever that might make me think and pique my interest. The thing that aggravates me about some believers is that they see atheists as closed-minded jerks who simply don't WANT to believe in God. While I may have no desire to believe in the Christian God I certainly wouldn't classify myself as someone who doesn't want there to BE a God of some kind. In the same way that I would be quite interested to find out if there was intelligent alien life I consider myself quite interested in whether or not there is anything out there we'd want to term a god.
Chapter One of Mark Mittelberg's The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (With Answers) reads more like it should be titled “How NOT to convert an Atheist” (which was one of the alternate titles I considered for this series). It trumps up and rehashes old arguments that would only be convincing to someone not engaged in critical thinking or proper skepticism. Join me for the next installment when we'll look at Chapter Two and talk about whether Evolution makes belief in God obsolete.
Also I apologize that this one was so long but if you stuck with me until the end I'm glad! Thank you for reading and feel free to disagree in the comments!