Thursday, May 8, 2008

Meet and Greet with Professional Christian Apologists

Some of my family members suggested I come to church recently to listen to a former atheist turned Christian give a talk. I was absolutely interested. I'm never having more fun then when I debate with these kinds of people. I had recently gone out of my way to meet Gerry Matatics in Ann Arbor give a talk, and I spent some time discussing things with him after his talk was finished. He promised to get in contact with me afterwards, but I never heard from him unfortunately. He even told me he'd send books, and I would have read them. But it didn't happen.

So I arrived at church wondering if the speaker would be someone that I would recognize. It turned out that it was. It was Randall Niles, from All About God. I was familiar with him. I've read books from Frank Turek, and I know Turek is associated with Niles. They work in a ministry that focuses on the fact that high school graduates are rejecting their own faith during college.

Niles was one such person apparently, but he returned to Christianity due to his mother's battle with cancer.

What is interesting to me is that Niles focuses on answering objections from skeptics and providing evidence for his faith. Yet these activities appear to have had nothing at all to do with his re-conversion. That's odd to me. When I discuss with Christians reasons for rejecting Christianity I usually focus on things that I found to be troublesome. Why would Niles form a ministry that develops tools that didn't even work on him? I have my theories, but I'll save that for another post.

It's interesting listening to Christians discuss skeptics when they don't believe there are any skeptics present. To me there was a sense in which Niles would try to elicit a "boo, hiss" type of reaction at the mention of an atheist. This is not a big deal to me, because I know the same thing is true if you get a bunch of skeptics in a room and they discuss Christianity. But it's fun for me to burst that bubble and let them know that there are skeptics in the room.

Niles took questions afterwards from the audience, and this is where I let the room know that I was present. I declared myself a skeptic and this is what I asked as best as I can recall. "Randall, would you agree the extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? There are a lot of outlandish claims made in historical books in antiquity. The Temple of Delphi defends itself with technicolor armaments. There is a mass resurrection of cooked fish. We have other people supposedly healing the sick and turning water into wine. We all dismiss those claims without really looking into them, because we understand that these claims were common back then, and the evidence needed to justify them would be substantial. You're telling me that 2000 years ago a man rose from the dead and he was able to walk through walls, teleport, etc. Can you agree that I shouldn't believe you unless you can provide extraordinary evidence?"

Niles replied that he did agree, and he then proceeded to offer some of that evidence. He talked about how people died for this belief, that women are reported as discovering the empty tomb and this is likely to be true because if the story were invented they wouldn't invent women because that would be embarrassing. He also talked about how God is not limited by our 3D world. He illustrated this by talking about how a person in a 2D world it would be unable to understand what we, in a 3D world, were capable of doing, and in the same way walking through walls and teleporting is not a huge deal when you start talking about other dimensions.

These are all points I'd love to debate, but there were others that wanted to ask questions, so I wasn't about to start into it in this venue. I replied that I was glad that he agreed with my point. I sat down to wait and hopefully discuss things further afterwards.

What is interesting is the whole point of Niles ministry is to equip people to answer the objections of people like me. So here I am. Give it a shot. Nobody came anywhere near me. I sat in my pew and nobody came within a 10 ft radius of me.

After the talk I sprinted up to the front to converse with Niles further. About 5 others converged on him along with me. He called on every single other individual before he looked towards me. He even called on a woman that had been seated and rose to stand along with us long after we had started standing. It turned out she didn't have a question, but was there with someone else that had been standing.

Finally it's my turn, and the room is mostly empty. I told Niles that I was glad that he came, and I'm not here to beat up on Christians, but I do enjoy debating with learned Christians that are willing to debate, and so since he's here I'd like to give him maybe just one thing to think about.

I said that he had pointed to Christians dying for the belief that Jesus rose. I explained that we can't assume that the people that died believed exactly like he does about the physical resurrection. In Peter's supposed writings he never says that he believes Jesus is physically raised. He says that Christ died in the flesh, but was raised a life giving spirit. Now, maybe he did believe that Christ was raised physically, but he never says that and what he does say at least suggests the opposite. Paul said that Christ was raised as a spiritual body and that flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God. He says that Christ appeared to him, but Pentecostals say this as well. Once again, maybe Paul did believe that Christ rose physically, but we don't know that he was an eyewitness to that and his writings at least suggest that he didn't believe that. Nothing in his writings suggests he did believe Christ rose physically. Not even Mark, our earliest gospel, says that anybody believed that Christ rose physically. It is only with Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts, our very latest texts, that this is asserted, and this accords very well with typical legendary growth; i.e. later texts are more impressive. So the skeptic has no trouble explaining that people were willing to die for belief in the resurrection. People have experiences where they think Christ appeared and rose, and they might be willing to die for such experiences. We simply don't know what those that died for Christianity actually believed, and this is key to this argument.

Niles responded by saying that by "spiritual body" Paul meant orientation, not the substance of the body, and also that hallucinations are not group events. He said a few other things that I don't remember. None of it really dealt with what I was saying.

So all in all, it was a good time for me. I get the impression that Niles is not quite up to the level of sophistication of someone like William Lane Craig or Greg Koukl. Craig will not admit that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and he has better spin on the physical resurrection issue. I can kind of tell from Niles' website that it's more of a surfacy treatment of the issues. Apparently that's his niche, which is fine with me. For my part I'm looking forward to the next Christian apologist that wants to descend into my region of the country. And I keep track of their schedules.


Anonymous said...

Maybe he is more concerned about reaching the reachable, not wasting time debating the dogmatic skeptic who has already rejected the answers to the questions he is asking.

Jon said...

Well, I don't feel that way. I'm more than happy to reach out to people that have already rejected the answers to the questions I'm asking, such as Randall Niles, and even you, anonymous. As long as you are friendly and kind that is.

DagoodS said...

Anonymous 11:42,

You raise an intriguing question—what IS Mr. Niles doing? You indicated “reaching the reachable”—but look where this talk took place. A church. I submit the vast, vast majority of people there were the “all ready reached”! Perhaps one or two brought a non-believing friend, “the reachable”—but this would be a huge minority. I’ve logged my hours in these events. I know who comes.

Be that as it may, we have three groups:

1) The already reached;
2) The reachable (as you call them)
3) The skeptic.

I suspect the percentages were at least 95% the first group, 4% the reachable, and 1% (Jon) the skeptic. And that is a big “if” there were 4% reachable.

Still it’s fine that Mr. Niles addresses the reached. After all—this is what apologetics is—a defense of the faith. Who better equipped to defend, then the faithful themselves? And what better way than to be provided information?

Yet shouldn’t this be GOOD information? Accurate information? If, as Jon states, he used “die for a lie”…well…this is NOT accurate information. What happens if the “all ready reached” rely upon Mr. Niles’ expertise, and then happen across a skeptic who points out the problems in this claim? Would you agree it would be better to equip the “all ready reached” on ALL the arguments, both pro and con? So when faced with someone who has actually studied it, they can respond accordingly?

And if Mr. Niles is talking to the 4% “reachable”—should they be fully informed? Given both sides of the prospect before coming to a decision? If I told you I only want you to hear one side, and not what my opponent said, or what others who have questioned my convictions—would you find that suspect?

What would you think of a Muslim or Mormon or atheist who insisted you only heard his/her Muslim, Mormon or atheist side? Wouldn’t a Christian want to present their case as well?

If Christians hold truth, they should welcome skeptics like Jon. Why? Because truth will out. They should welcome such questions to demonstrate the depth and strength of their persuasion. Why shy away from it?

Further, are you saying it is impossible for Mr. Niles to learn anything from a skeptic? Is it possible Jon could address questions skeptics (and maybe even some of those reachables) have, and Mr. Niles could provide an adequate, unheard of response? As much study as we have all done—we can always learn more.

On a humorous note, the last church I attended had a night they literally called “Skeptic’s night.” They asked for skeptics to appear and “ask the hard questions.” I went, and kept my mouth shut to not cause dissension. Afterwards, I introduced myself to the pastor leading it, explained who I was, and asked whether he would respond to some of this skeptic’s questions by e-mail. More privately.

He agreed and we exchange 2 or 3 e-mails. He He He. His last e-mail suggested “Skeptics Night” was not for me for the same reasons you indicate—they aren’t looking for skeptics—they are looking for seekers. He also indicated he did not have time to engage with the questions I raised, and suggested I look elsewhere.

‘bout the 4th or 5th pastor who suggested I “look elsewhere.”

Why is it these apologists only want to talk to people who already believe exactly as they do, or people who haven’t any knowledge on the subject?