Short Answers to Common Objections
- Christians are also "atheists" when it comes to every other God, whether it is Zeus or Ra or Baal.
- There is not nearly enough evidence to convince me that God exists.
- My assessment of the evidence for God's existence is based solely on reason and logic.
- I have no personal bias for or against Christianity.
- Most Christians believe in Jesus on the basis of personal, subjective experience rather than on the basis of objective evidence.
- Christian theologians have differed wildly over every doctrine of Christianity.
This essay provides answers to common objections to Christianity which I've encountered in my discussions with atheists. Eventually, I may find time to expand on some of these, but for now these brief answers will have to suffice. Note that all of these objections are philosophical rather than evidential. If you have questions about the evidence for the Resurrection or the historical reliability of the New Testament, I have hopefully addressed some of these issues elsewhere.
Theism and atheism are actually best understood as categories rather than particular creeds. For instance, there is no single "atheistic" system of ethics just as there is no single "theistic" system of ethics. Atheists differ radically and substantially from other atheists in many areas such as ethics, politics, ontology, and epistemology. What divides atheists from theists is the belief in the existence of a personal, supernatural God or gods. The nature, character, and identity of this God is what then further differentiates theists into Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Hindus, and Zoroastrians. Consequently, it would be incorrect to say that a Christian is an "atheist" with regard to Zeus. Rather, Christians, pagans, and theists of all types believe in the existence of a personal, supernatural God (or gods) while atheists of all types do not.
We might amend our objection to state that Christians "disbelieve in the existence of every God but the Christian God". But based on the general English usage of the word "existence", I think that this second statement is also false. For instance, because my friend Rob has a degree in engineering, I would disbelieve the claim that Rob actually has a degree in English. However, it would be extremely misleading to claim that I consequently "disbelieve in the existence of Rob." I disbelieve in a claim about one of Rob's attributes, but not in Rob's existence. In the same way, Christians do not necessarily believe that God has the character or attributes ascribed to Him by other religions. But they, like all theists, still believe in His existence.
Short answer: claiming that Christians are "atheists" when it comes to other gods mistakes a particular belief ("God is not like Baal") for a category ("atheism").
First, this objection is necessarily personal. It is possible to claim that our personal, subjective threshold for evidence has not been met, but this fact would only disproves God's existence if we were certain that our personal standard of proof is correct. How do we know it is correct? And what do we even mean when we talk about the "correct" standard of proof?
A second question deals with the burden of proof. The skeptic often presumes that the burden of proof lies with the theist to prove that God exists (the evidence must "convince me" to move from atheism to theism). But why should the burden of proof not lie with the skeptic to convince the theist that God does not exist? We might answer that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." But then we are left asking who determines the definition of "extraordinary." People with different worldviews may share many presuppositions about the intrinsic likelihood of certain events, but in other areas there will be a genuine lack of agreement about what is intrinsically likely or unlikely. For instance, an atheist might consider a miracle wildly implausible. On the other hand, a theist would consider the creation of the universe ex nihilo by anything other than God wildly implausible. We need to recognize that our presuppositions are intrinsic to our worldview and are truly presuppositions. They determine what we consider plausible and implausible, prior to our examination of the evidence. Although this truth may seem unremarkable when we share basic assumptions about reality, it makes an enormous difference when we come to issues that touch on these presuppositions directly (see Resurrection and Worldview for one such example).
Finally, this objection actually addresses the theist's warrant to believe that God exists rather than the question of whether He exists. In other words, it says that the evidence is not sufficient to compel me to believe in God. But our warrant to believe in a fact does not affect the truth or falsehood of this fact. For instance, physicists in the 1910s had little warrant to believe that quantum mechanics was true. But it was true! So even if we grant that theists are not warranted in the belief in God's existence, He could exist nonetheless.
Short answer: first, this statement is personal and subjective. Second, this statement assumes that the burden of proof ought to fall on the theist; how do we know this? Third, there is a difference between claiming that belief in God is unwarranted (i.e. is not reasonable based on the evidence at hand) and that He does not exist. See also The Necessity of Faith and Resurrection and Worldview.
Unlike the previous objection, this objection stresses that the standards used in our assessment of God's existence are objective standards, rather than subjective, personal standards. However, it is unclear how anyone can claim their beliefs can be totally objective given that all chains of reason or logic start with certain presuppositions or axioms. These presuppositions or axioms, by definition, cannot be based on reason or logic alone. Furthermore, not all human beings share a common set of presuppositions. Thus, the set of axioms that we hold must include some element of personal, subjective preference or choice that cannot be defended by an appeal to reason or logic.
For instance, if I were to claim that the physical world were a remarkably persistent and self-consistent illusion (as do many Eastern religions), could you disprove this conjecture with an appeal to reason and logic alone? If not, then there must be a personal, subjective component to our belief in the real existence of the physical world that is independent of reason and logic. Perhaps even more compelling is the question of why we believe in the trustworthiness of reason and logic in general (or our own reason in particular) as valid means to truth. This belief certainly cannot be based on reason and logic, since their validity is precisely what we are trying to substantiate!
Short answer: all chains of reason and logic must begin with presuppositions or axioms which are not based solely only on reason or logic. Therefore, no one can claim that their beliefs are based solely on reason or logic. See also The Necessity of Faith and Resurrection and Worldview.
There are two major problems with this objection. First, if we consider the claims of Christianity, it is hard to see how almost anyone could be truly objective about its claims. For instance, Jesus taught that God is good and holy, that man is sinful and faces either eternal joy in God's presence through repentance and faith in Him or eternal punishment in Hell. Only a sociopath could regard these kind of options with anything like objectivity. This is true not just of Christianity but of any religion that addresses eternal questions. In fact, personally speaking, the only reason that I can regard the claims of Islam or Zoroastrianism or Greek paganism without terror is that I have concluded (as a Christian) that the claims of these religions must be false if the claims of Jesus are true. Similarly, I question whether anyone could really regard the claims of Jesus with equanimity unless they have already concluded that they are almost certainly false.
Second, we can perform a thought experiment to test our objectivity with regards to Christianity. Imagine that Jesus suddenly appeared to us in an undeniable way and told us that the Bible was absolutely true in everything it said: about heaven and hell and sin and God's wrath against evil and our need for salvation. Would we immediately begin to love and revere God? Would we join a local church, turn our whole lives over to the Lordship of Christ and proclaim his forgiveness to our friends and family? If not, then we have a clear motivation to find the evidence for Christianity insufficient. There is clearly something besides the truth or falsehood of Jesus' claims that will obscure our efforts at objectivity. Obviously, the fact that we dislike the claims of Christianity does not make it true. But it does move us outside the realm of "objective, disinterested observers." Certainly, the same logic applies to Christians, who have a personal desire to find the evidence for Christianity sufficient. I am merely trying to point out that no one ought to claim pure, disinterested objectivity with regard to the claims of Christianity or any other religion.
Short answer: Christianity and many other religions address questions that have immediate implications for our daily lives, our personal happiness, our moral obligations and our eternal welfare. No human being can possibly be a completely objective, disinterested observer when it comes to such questions. See also Why I am a Christian.
First, this statement cannot be used to support the claim that Christianity is objectively false unless we also assume that personal, subjective experience is not a valid means to objective truth. On what basis do we do so? If a friend tells me that they spent the previous night reading alone in their room, I tend to accept their testimony about their personal, subjective experience without independent verification because their claim is relatively mundane. So clearly, I accept personal, unsubstantiated experience as a valid means to truth in at least some cases. The main reason that we discount personal experience as a valid means to truth in general has to do with extraordinary claims. If my friend told me that they spent the previous night floating in midair, I would demand additional evidence given how extraordinary this claim is. However, our definition of "extraordinary" is intimately related to our worldview presuppositions as discussed in Question 3, and is therefore ultimately dependent on our presuppositions about the nature of reality.
A more significant problem with trusting personal, subjective experience arises when different people claim to have experienced objective realities which are mutually exclusive. For instance, a Mormon might claim to have had a near-death experience in which she encountered a Mormon Jesus while a Muslim's near-death experience features a Jesus who affirms the authority of the Qu'ran. Because the objective realities to which these subjective experiences refer are mutually exclusive, one or more of these experiences must be false. However, it simply does not follow that all such experiences are false.
Imagine that I meet a man at a bus stop who claims to hold in his hand a winning lottery ticket. Despite the improbability of his claim, I might be inclined to believe him given his evident sincerity. Then imagine that I meet another man who also claims to hold the winning ticket to the same lottery. Because their two claims are mutually exclusive, it follows that one of their subjective experiences must be false. But the most that I can conclude is that subjective experience alone cannot be a reliable guide to what is true. It simply does not follow that both of their experiences are false. I happen to strongly agree that subjective experience alone is an unreliable means to objective truth. But dismissing it entirely from consideration involves strong epistemological assumptions that seem to me to be unjustified.
Second, if this statement is taken to undermine the objective truth of Christianity, then the same objection could be applied to almost any worldview. Without a doubt, there have been numerous atheists who were atheists not on the basis of objective evidence but because atheism was the state-supported and state-endorsed view promulgated by the various totalitarian regimes under which they lived. There are many more who are atheists primarily because of terrible past experiences they had with Christians. There are others atheists who know very little about religion and whose arguments for atheism are simply not good arguments. Do these facts prove that atheism is false? Of course not. No doubt there are intellectuals and non-intellectuals who endorse almost every worldview known to man. But the existence of such people neither proves nor disproves the validity of these systems.
Short answer: Subjective experience is certainly not reliable as a sole means to objective truth given the variety of subjective experiences. But the subjective basis for many Christian's beliefs can only be an objection to the truth of Christianity, if we are certain that subjective experience is never a valid means to objective truth. How do we know this? Second, the same argument can be applied to almost any worldview including atheism. Many people hold true beliefs for bad reasons, but this fact does not invalidate the beliefs themselves.
There are two huge problems with this argument. First, it is primarily a theological argument. How do we know that God, if he exists, would not allow error of any kind into the church? In fact, if the letters of Paul and the other apostles are any indication, there were people in the early Christian churches who held all kinds of wrong ideas and yet were considered -by Paul and the other apostles- to be real Christians.
Second, although I would not minimize the theological differences between major theologians of history, I think it a gross exaggeration to claim that there is no core doctrinal agreement amongst them. In fact, the situation seems to be quite the opposite. Every major Christian theologian (especially those quoted most frequently by the Neoatheists) would affirm the major historic creeds of the Christian church, the deity of Christ, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of atonement, the historicity of the Resurrection, and the authority of the Bible. In fact, if I look at my own personal spiritual influences as a Christian, I find that they include men from all kinds of denominations, including Charles Spurgeon (Baptist) Tim Keller (Presbyterian), Martin Luther (Lutheran), John Calvin (Presbyterian), C.S. Lewis (Anglican), and David Martin-Lloyd Jones (Methodist). Again, I am not denying that there are areas in which these men disagree seriously. However, it seems to me quite disingenuous for a skeptic to throw up his hands and claim that there is such disagreement that the Christian message is utterly obscure. If I could presume to speak for these men, I think they would unanimously affirm (with the apostle Paul) that the core of Christianity is and has always been "Jesus Christ and him crucified". Matters of other doctrine are important but ultimately secondary and should be faced only after we have answered the question: who is Jesus?
Short answer: although Christians certainly disagree in many areas of theology, the central message of Christianity ("Jesus died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification") has been affirmed by every Christian theologian throughout history, including those cited repeatedly by the Neoatheists. See Who is Jesus?
- A Letter to Agnostics, Skeptics, and Atheists
- The Necessity of Faith
- Why I am a Christian
- Resurrection and Worldview
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is a phenomenal book. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.