Rick Mattson
InterVarsity Staff
• Traveling apologist: 40+ campuses the
past three years
• InterVarsity Staff, Macalester College,
St. Paul, MN
What to Expect Today
• Learn about
– Atheist beliefs
– Typical objections to Christianity
– Tactics the New Atheists use
Gameplan for responding to atheists
Images to use in conversations
Q&A (brief)
Suggested resources
Not today: a full case against atheism
Rise of the New Atheism
• Examples of 20th century atheist scholars:
Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, Antony Flew,
John Mackie, Quentin Smith
• Postmodernism in the 80s and 90s
lowered the profile of Christian-Atheist
debates by dismantling the power of big
stories (metanarratives).
• Atheism made a big comeback in the
90s and 2000s. See next slide.
Four Horsemen
• Richard Dawkins: British evolutionary
• Sam Harris: American neuroscientist
and philosopher
• Daniel Dennet: American philosopher
at Tufts University
• Christopher Hitchens: (deceased).
Posture toward Religion
• Religion shouldn’t just be tolerated. It
should be attacked, criticized,
• Religion is harmful. Believers are
• The natural world is all there is. No
supernatural or immaterial beings exist.
No angels, gods, demons, ghosts. No
• (for newbies: note definitions of
“naturalism” and “materialism.”)
The Presumption of Atheism
–Atheism is the default starting
point of every discussion.
–The burden of proof is on
theism to show that God
–Example: For the claim,
“Bigfoot exists,” evidence
must be provided.
• Only statements that can be backed
up by material evidence have any
truth value.
• Yes: Scientific statements: “Mercury
levels . . . The rate of decay . . . . The
speed of light . . . etc”
• No: Faith statements: “God exists.”
“Jesus is the Son of God.”
No Evidence for God
• Science: no evidence whatsoever.
• Philosophy: no good arguments. Besides,
philo doesn’t give any material evidence.
• History: no secular historical evidence for
Jesus. Evidence from Bible and believers
doesn’t count.
• Experience: doesn’t count as evidence.
Too subjective.
Jesus Christ is a Myth
• Christ-Myth is similar to the myths of
pagan religions: “dying and rising”
gods such as: Attis, Osiris, Baal, Adonis,
Mithris, etc.
• “Son-of-God” was a creation of the
early church.
• Jesus of history is different than the
Christ of faith.
The Bible is False
• Which Bible? Translations and copy
errors have corrupted the original texts
• Contradictions abound: Geneologies,
empty tomb, chronology of Gospels,
• Archeology: no support for historical
Abraham, Exodus, David, Temple, etc.
• Whatever promotes human flourishing
and happiness should be pursued.
• Whatever causes overall human misery
should be eliminated.
• Anyone who can’t tell the difference is
• Atheists are morally upright people.
• The true account of the origin and
emergence of life
• Blind Watchmaker’s Thesis: Evolution
has no built-in “purpose.”
• Intelligent Design and creationism
represent religion, not science. And
thus don’t belong in the academy.
Against NOMA
• Non-Overlapping Magesteria: Stephen A.
Gould’s notion that science and religion
are not in conflict. They have different
but legitimate domans of teaching
– Science: the domain of empirical facts
– Religion: the domain of ultimate meaning
But the New Atheists say religion has no
Character of God
• “The most unpleasant character in all
of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a
petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak;
a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic
cleanser . . . capriciously malevolent
bully.” - Richard Dawkins
Read the Bible “Flat”
• That all texts in the Bible are of equal
weight. If it’s in the Bible, it applies to
all times/places.
• Example: Wearing clothing of two
kinds of material was forbidden to
Israel (Lev 19:19); this law stands for all
• Since these laws are ridiculous, the
Bible is false and believers deluded..
Theology is Meaningless
• Theology (the study of God) is a
meaningless exercise. It doesn’t
deserve academic respect.
• It’s a study about nothing. It’s like
Atheism re-defined
• Rather than making the positive claim
that “God doesn’t exist,” many atheists
are describing their atheism as a
“lack” of belief:
– Lack of belief in God
– Same as lack of belief in unicorns. Not
“active disbelieve” in unicorns. Simply
don’t believe.
Strict Separation of Church/State
• Politicians who act according to their
religious conscience are in violation of
the public trust.
• Public schools should not be allowed
to teach religion, creationism,
intelligent design, etc.
• Tax-exempt status for religious
institutions is wrong.
Posture/Attitude of New Atheists
• Often characterized by aggression,
anger, ridicule.
• Dismissive
• (but not always. Sometimes respectful,
caring, dialogical)
• 3 questions
• Please be brief
Common Tactics
• Throwing sand in the air: This is the
technique of making a barrage of
objections to Christianity all at once.
• Defining “Faith” as excluding evidence
and reason.
• Not staying on topic. Instead, returning
to “attack mode” on favorite issues.
• Ridicule as a form of argument.
• Throwing sand in the air: tell me the logic in believing in the
infallible inerrant bible? creation 6,000 to 10,000 years ago?
a flat earth; an earth which is the center of the universe
and around which the sun rotates; the earth standing still?
non-existent archaeological evidence for Israel in Egypt,
Moses and the Exodus? Joshua leading Israel to destroy all
opposing nations in the Levant? A baby born of
virgin? Non-existent prophecies of Jesus which are no
more than lifting verses out of OT scripture and calling them
prophecies; gospels which claim to be eye witness
accounts when said accounts are written decades even
generations later by unknown authors; a NT for which their
are no original copies, copies of copies, copies of copies of
copies of any original manuscripts; gospels never referred
to by church fathers until 180 CE; gospels which are
inundated with contradictions, inconsistencies; a savior
jesus who tells lies and makes promises which are lies . . .
Tactics (cont.)
• Objections based on “Christians
behaving badly” (hypocrisy)
– Crusades
– Inquisition
– Salem witch hunts
– Clergy scandals
– “Religion has been the cause of all the
wars in history”
Responding to Atheists
Show love and respect.
Don’t match their posture and tone.
Take things one issue at a time. Don’t try
to answer all objections at once.
• Keep the conversation on topic. Atheists
like to switch the topic.
• Respect their objections. Don’t assume
it’s all a smokescreen.
Responding (cont.)
• Invite into Christian community
• Read books together (from both sides)
• Teach the Bible:
– Speak the truth in a caring way; trust God.
– Advanced: At some point, common
ground is lost. Time to admit
incommensurability, retreat to Christian
tribal posture, teach from “true”
Responding (cont.)
• Go on the offensive
– Make objections to materialism, unguided
evolution, ethics without God
• Challenge sweeping generalizations
about the Bible, connections with
mythical gods, etc.
– Ask: How do you know?
– Ask: How much do you actually know about
(the Crusades, slavery in the Bible, etc)?
Responding (cont.)
• Insist on your own definition of faith,
not theirs.
– Faith can, in fact, be backed up by
– No one has the right to define your faith
for you (e.g.: “Faith, by definition, is
believing without evidence . . . “)
Responding (cont.)
• Things to do together
– Read books
– Study the Bible
– Attend lectures, debates (or watch on
– Read articles
– Discuss differences in writing (facebook,
email, etc).
– Invite them into Christian community
Images to Use
• Faith and Evidence
– Faith is like skydiving
– Faith is like getting married
• Hypocrisy
– Don’t blame the hammer
– Imposter police
– Joseph Stalin
– Science, geography
Images (cont.)
• Science and faith
– Elephant Traps
– The Novelist
– The Bicycle
– The Bricklayer
– The Shrinking Island
– The Smoking Gun
Images (cont.)
• Historical Jesus
– Massive conspiracy of the early church
– Muslims remain monotheists
• Jesus = Santa Claus, fairies, unicorns
– Why believe in Socrates?
Images (cont.)
• Problem of suffering/evil
– Broken World
– Free will defense (not robots)
– Dysfunctional family
– Big Story
– Suffering Christ
• IVP book next summer: easy-to-use
images and analogies for talking with
• Working title: Faith is like Skydiving
And 40 other easy-to-use images for
dialogue with seekers and skeptics
• “The vast majority of naturalist
philosophers have come to hold . . . an
unjustified belief in naturalism. Their
justifications have been defeated by
arguments developed by theistic
philosophers, and now naturalist
philosophers, for the most part, live in
darkness about the justification for
naturalism.” - atheist philosopher Quentin
• Tom grew up Catholic, struggled with
doubts, attended Notre Dame
(philosophy), embraced atheism,
became a lawyer with a deep sense
of skepticism.
• Came to Christ through persistent,
caring witness, argumentation (e.g.
Case for Christ), Christian community
• Long-time atheist
• Joined thoughtful Christian community
that engaged the life of the mind.
• Remained atheist in this community for
five years.
• Appreciated hospitality, care-giving.
• Finally the arguments made sense.
• Last February gave his life to Christ.
• It can happen.
Visiting your campus/church
[email protected]
• Evangelism, training
• Stump the Chump
• Free for InterVarsity groups
Suggested Resources
• Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Kreeft
and Tacelli)
• Where the Conflict Really Lies (Plantinga)*
• There is a God (Antony Flew)
• Contending with Christianity’s Critics (ed. WL
• Letters from a Skeptic (Boyd)
• The Reason for God (Keller)
• Philosophy of Religion 2 ed (Evans/Manis)
• The Jesus Legend (Boyd, Eddy)*

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