Arguing with Atheists

David Robertson
Friday, February 29th 2008
Mar/Apr 2008

"What do you think of Van Tillian presuppositionalism?" asked the earnest young man in a Starbucks café situated in the Borders store in Leeds, England. Not exactly the question I was expecting at an outreach event discussing atheism. "It's okay," I replied, "as long as you don't take it too seriously." Wrong answer. The next 15 minutes were taken up with this earnest young Christian trying to explain in the most animated terms why I had just wasted my time coming to Leeds to speak in a secular bookstore to people who, in his view, could not and would not listen, because of their presuppositions. The fact that most of the questions came from non-Christians or that many people in the store that night heard the gospel, perhaps for the first time, did not move him one inch. When challenged with Acts 17, he was still unimpressed. I found the whole experience profoundly disturbing, and yet another lesson learned in a year of extensive outreach and evangelism in our predominantly secular culture.

"The Brights"

For me, it all began over a year ago. I walked into our local bookstore and noticed a book by Richard Dawkins entitled The God Delusion. Dawkins is Britain's most famous atheist and his latest book has proved to be his most successful, influential, and lucrative yet. It has been on The New York Times best-seller list for over a year, and has sold well over a million copies in the U.S. American Christians should be aware of this book because Dawkins, and his colleagues, have a specific American agenda in mind. They want to "out" American atheists, making a comparison between themselves and the gay movement. They have gone even to the extent of renaming themselves, somewhat embarrassingly, "the Brights." Dawkins believes that the 14 percent of Americans who say they are atheists are just the tip of the iceberg. He believes that beneath the surface there is a considerable number of Americans who are, in reality, atheists. He also wants to remove religion from public life-and to that end he is conducting an effective public campaign-going on tour, using the media, and organizing the "A" campaign to raise the profile of secularism and atheism at this opportune moment.

On Being a Flea

Although Dawkins and others undoubtedly see the New Atheist publishing phenomena as an opportunity for themselves, it is also an opportunity for the gospel. We should not regard Dawkins as primarily a threat and react defensively. Nor should we regard him as an opportunity to advance our status within our own circles or an opportunity to make money. Dawkins and his followers have been quick to accuse those of us who have responded to him in writing as being fleas, seeking to make a living off his back. Apart from the delicious irony of a man having made millions by publishing old ideas about the non-existence of God, Dawkins is obviously not aware of the limited money to be made in Christian publishing-at least in the U.K.! It has saddened me, however, to see that the number of "flea" books has now rapidly multiplied; with it appears a great many being written, if not to make money, at least to reassure the followers of particular ministries that their "man" is on the ball. Much of what has been written has been written from within the citadel of the church (whether Catholic, liberal, or evangelical) and seems to have been written for the people within. Which is a great shame because instead of speaking about people, we need to be speaking to people (have you ever noticed how much we talk about the gospel, but seem to struggle to actually proclaim the gospel itself to those who most need to hear it?); and we need to be providing our fellow Christians with material that they can use to communicate the Good News to their families, friends, and workmates.

"The Intellectual Capacity of Road Kill"

After reading Dawkins, I could not get away from the idea that The God Delusion was something that should be addressed. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York speaks of "defeater beliefs"-those generally held views in society that prevent people from even hearing the gospel. Dawkins' book contains several of these beliefs and so, with some degree of trepidation, I began a series of articles that were posted on the Free Church website (

The Dawkins website ( then put the article on their front page. The response was immediate. Within a few hours, dozens of comments (most of them hostile) had been posted-over 800 in all. Modern Reformation is a family magazine, so the more vehement of the quotes cannot be reproduced here, but at least let me give you a flavor: "David Robertson is a self-righteous narrow minded, up his own [expletive], thick as pig [expletive] moronic retard! Watch out David, the sky fairy is late for his second coming and will be angry with you. Why is anyone debating with this moron? He doesn't know how to! He has the intellectual capacity of road kill." What is interesting is that comments like this were allowed to remain on the Dawkins website (which self-advertises as "an oasis of clear thinking"!), whilst many of my comments were removed and I have been banned six times. When I asked the webmaster why I had been banned, he stated that it was because my views caused arguments! So much for tolerance, reason, and clear thinking!

Suffice it to say that apart from the personal insults, the arguments largely seemed to be from "the atheist's handbook to attacking Christians." It is only fair to point out that a number of more thoughtful atheists contacted me personally, some to apologize and others seeming to want to genuinely discuss and question.

God or the Green Moustache?

As for Dawkins' book itself, it is an uncompromising and relentless attack upon religion and especially upon the God of the Bible. Having "proved" there is no God, Dawkins then goes on to deal with other issues like the roots of religion and morality, the Bible, what's wrong with religion, and why teaching religion to children is a form of child abuse. Much of this is badly argued, bitter, and continually uses the worst examples of "religion," the imbalanced and the extreme as though they are normative.

What is really surprising is the weakness of his core argument in chapter four. His basic "proof" that there is no God boils down to the question, "Who designed the Designer?" "Who made God?" is a question I am used to hearing from six year olds. I was shocked to find it being asked several times by a professor from Oxford and a man advertised as one of the top three intellectuals in the world. Dawkins clearly does not understand or accept that no Christian believes in a created God. Yet whilst he mocks and dismisses those who think that the God who created the universe is perfectly capable of raising the dead, he is prepared to accept as a serious proposition that the complexity and constants within the universe that allow life in the first place can best be explained by a multiverse. In other words, he argues that you could exist in several different universes, in one of which you may already be dead and in another you may have a green moustache! If it is true that "those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad," then Dawkins ridiculing of those of us who believe that an Almighty God could raise his son from the dead, whilst asking us to seriously accept the possibility that we exist in a parallel universe (with or without our green moustache) is clearly evidence that we are on the eve of destruction!

Lessons for the Church

The constant e-mails, writing of articles, reading numerous books referred to me, and the engagement that has resulted with many different people has been an exhausting, stimulating, depressing, yet encouraging experience. I would like to humbly suggest that there may be some lessons here for the church.

The God Haters
Firstly, we must acknowledge that, whilst for some people there are profound intellectual questions, for many there is a deep-seated emotional and psychological reaction to God, perhaps caused by some form of religious abuse or maybe just good old-fashioned sin. Dawkins delights in beginning public lectures on his book with a reading from chapter two, which is a most bitter and blasphemous attack upon the God of the Old Testament. This generally receives a warm round of applause. Why? Because it is perceived to be daring, challenging, and most of all because it reflects the emotive anger of the God haters.

Coming out of the Cocoon
Secondly, we need to emerge from our cocooned world. I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard from Christians in the U.S. that atheism is not a problem and that it really has nothing to do with them. After all, is it not the case that 86 percent of Americans profess belief in God? What politician could get elected in the U.S. if they stated they were an atheist? Has atheism not been defeated? Alister McGrath's excellent book, The Twilight of Atheism, argues that the century of atheism has gone; but I suspect he was being a little premature. In the U.S., the trouble is that atheism has largely been equated with Communism and specifically Russian Communism. It is true that there are not many Stalinists in Savannah; however, whilst it is the case that the vast majority of Americans proclaim some kind of religious faith, we too can easily forget that a significant number are in fact functional atheists. In other words, they are cultural Christians who accept belief in God as part of the American culture, but they live as though there were no God. Dawkins et al recognize this and their appeal is largely to provide an emotional and intellectual apologetic for the way that modern man lives.

In terms of emerging from our own-as we would say in Scotland, "wee world"-we need to engage in marketplace evangelistic apologetics. Our publishing, preaching, and proclamation should be done in the secular marketplace, not in the Christian market-place, otherwise we are not communicating the gospel. Indeed, the very concept of a specifically Christian market-place is biblical nonsense-resulting in the world's methods being brought into the church and, just as devastatingly, the church failing to get into the world.

What has surprised me is the extent to which the evangelical church in the U.S. seems to be unaware of the dangers and the opportunities presented by the New Atheists. My publisher informed me that at a recent Christian booksellers' convention about 50 percent had never even heard of Dawkins. I began a lecture at a Reformed seminary in the U.S. by asking how many had heard of either Dawkins or Sam Harris. Much to my astonishment only a handful of the students had heard of them and most thought it was irrelevant. Needless to say, we had an interesting lecture and feedback! Of course, there are exceptions to this ignorance and apathy-the fact that Modern Reformation is dealing with the issue is one encouragement, as is the Turning Point Foundation ( in Birmingham, Alabama, who do excellent work. Somehow they managed to persuade Richard Dawkins to debate with Dr. John Lennox, also of the University of Oxford. That debate is well worth listening to and John Lennox's book, God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried Religion?, is in my view the best response to the New Atheist publishing that I have read.

Engaging and Equipping
Thirdly, we must learn to engage with the arguments that are put forward. We must equip and encourage our people to do so. The work of people such as William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, and Alister McGrath is essential. There is a danger, however, that we reduce apologetics to the level of an Oxford tea party debate wherein those interested in "that sort of thing" get involved and excited, but the average believer-thinking that "apologetics" is only for those who understand or at least have heard of Wittgenstein or Nietzsche-remain untouched and unequipped. If we are only talking to ourselves, then we are not taking the opportunities afforded by the New Atheist publishing to tell people about Jesus. I wrote in the first letter to Dawkins:

Your book comes across as a desperate attempt to shore up secularism's crumbling defenses. To that extent it reminds me a lot of some of us in the Church, who faced with what seems to be overwhelming odds and staring defeat in the face, sometimes issue evangelistic tracts, articles and books which rather than really being aimed at the conversion of unbelievers are really designed to shore up the faith of the faithful.

Perhaps we should reflect upon whether our evangelistic and apologetic material really is scratching where our society itches.

Proclaiming Christ
Fourthly, our apologetic must be Christ-centered. In that respect I wonder if much of the Christian church has been diverted from the central message of the gospel. In particular, are we not in danger of allowing the evolution/creation debate and the culture wars to divert us from the centrality of the Cross? Dawkins' whole argument is based upon two propositions-firstly, evolution is true; and secondly, because evolution is true then religion in general and Christianity in particular is false. Many modern Christians seem to work on the basis that we should go for proposition one. This seems to me to be playing right into the atheist fundamentalist's hands. It reduces the gospel to an in-depth scientific argument about origins, it creates division within the church (Christians have at least three different positions on the subject; young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and theistic evolution), and it allows Dawkins and his allies to fight the battle on their territory using their weapons. Would it not be better, whilst not ignoring the question of evolution, to start our apologetic a bit earlier-with the creation of the universe and the fact that the universe itself is surprisingly balanced? (I am not surprised that far more cosmologists than biologists tend to be at least theists.) We must also include the whole question of the moral sense that we have the nature of humanity, the Bible, and above all Jesus Christ. Is he not after all the supreme proof of God-"the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his being" (Heb. 1:3)? The answers are in Christ.

Dinesh D'Souza's book, What's so Great about Christianity?, is being seen in the U.S. as the answer to both Dawkins and especially Hitchens' God Is Not Great. It is a good book, well written with a good deal of valuable material within it; however, it does not live up to the publisher's hyperbole as the next Mere Christianity. It will be successful within the U.S. because it appeals to the "America is great because of Christianity" mindset; but outside the U.S., and indeed outside the Christian community within the U.S., it will have little impact. The issue is not "What's so great about Christianity?" but rather "What's so great about Jesus Christ?" Telling your typical postmodern/pagan secularist that Christianity is great is a much harder sell than showing them that Christ is great.

Ecclesiological Evangelism
Fifthly, we need to realize the importance of the church in bringing the gospel. Far too often we have developed an individualistic mindset, which sees salvation only in a "personal" sense, and as a result we have become spiritual consumerists, going from church to church or relying on parachurch organizations to provide our particular felt needs at any one time. Ecclesiology is essential to evangelism. Why? Because people need to meet Jesus. And we meet Jesus in preaching and sacrament, through which the Spirit prepares a new society whose good works glorify the Father and are a testimony to the world.

I regularly conduct apologetic evangelistic meetings in secular venues such as Borders, Starbucks, etc. These normally consist of a 20-minute talk followed by an hour of questions and discussion. It has been thrilling to be able to proclaim the beauty and the glory of Christ to those who are in desperate need of him. But it is incomplete. My aim is to remove some of the "defeater" beliefs that prevent people from even considering Christ, and then to be able to say to them, "If you want to meet Jesus, then go to such and such a church." The church is central and core to a biblical evangelism.

Are Calvinists Cuckoos?
Finally, it is vital to me to understand that a biblical church and biblical evangelism come from biblical theology. I am somewhat puzzled that the Reformed church seems to have adopted the "cuckoo" method of evangelism. We let the charismatics and the Arminians do the fishing, and then when they bring the birds into the nest (forgive the mixed metaphor!) we pounce and teach the new converts "the way of God more perfectly." The reason this puzzles me is that if what we proclaim is the Bible, if it is the Word of God, then surely what God has given should be the most effective and fruitful form of evangelism. If our theology cannot be lived and proclaimed to unbelievers, then in what sense can it be termed biblical theology? My own personal experience has been that having spent years studying the teaching and theology of the Bible, I am astonished how directly relevant it is to the questions and problems that people in our society raise. We do not need to make the Bible relevant. It is. We need to be more biblical, not less. And armed with the Word of God, prayer, and the Spirit, we can walk boldly through the open door that the Lord has provided for us at this point in history.

Friday, February 29th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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