Blog Archive


Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

Powered by Blogger.
Showing posts with label argumentation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label argumentation. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why Evidence for God Argues for Only One God

Does God exist? There are many different arguments apologists use to make the case for God's existence, such as why the universe exists at all, the fine tuning of the universe, the existence of moral values and duties, the existence of reason, and so on.

Each of these pieces of evidence for God has merit. However, assuming any one of them is a slam-dunk is a bit foolish. The real power in the arguments comes when we look at all of them together. This is known as making a cumulative case for God's existence. Taken together, the arguments form a very strong foundation, making the belief that God exists much more reasonable than its negation.

I've written previously on the strength of a cumulative case for God's existence. However, an interesting objection to the cumulative case argument was voiced by an atheist named Tyler on the podcast of the UK radio show Unbelievable? hosted by Justin Brierley.  Around the 1:09:10 mark, Tyler asked:
What does it mean to make a cumulative case for God? It seems to me the phrase is used to get around one of the oldest debates in recorded history: How many gods are there? I guess you wouldn't have to call them gods; you could just call them supernatural beings. Does the phrase "a cumulative case for God" really eliminate the possibility that the universe was created by one God and the morals by another? Couldn't all of the arguments for God point to a pantheon of supernatural beings that may not ever exist anymore?

Who God is versus arguments for his existence

 Tyler's question is an important one, not only because it shows a misunderstanding of what the cumulative case is, but also a misunderstanding for the arguments referenced therein. Argument for God's existence, like those listed above, are focused on the idea of necessity. For instance, the Kalam cosmological argument argues for why there is something rather than nothing at all. Such an argument is not limited to only the natural world. If supernatural beings exist, one must account for their existence, too. Those beings are either contingent, meaning they rely upon something else for their existence, or they are necessary--they have always existed, that is they are eternal. Christianity holds that God is an always-existing being that anchors all other existences.

To posit only other supernatural entities that may not even exist anymore runs into a host of problems. First, one must ask "Where do such beings come from? Why do they exist?" I imagine one retort would be "They are all eternally existent!" but this won't do the job. If these beings no longer exist now, it proves they are not eternal.

"Fine," one might say, "They continue to exist as well right now." But we still have some problems. First, there cannot be more than one eternal, all-powerful being. Think about this for a moment. If there are even two beings who claim to have all power, the one thing each absolutely couldn't have is power over the other. If they are equal in power, it means their power is limited by the simple fact the other being exists. So they couldn't be all powerful. Two all-powerful beings is a contradiction in terms. And if they are not all powerful, they are in some way contingent for their power is mitigated. One of the two simply doesn't need to exist since the other can do his job for him.

The moral argument plays out the same way. How can one being be creator and another be the foundation of morals? Does this mean the creator-being is obligated to follow the dictates of the morals-establishing being? Along this line of reasoning, one runs smack-dab into the Euthyphro dilemma Plato spelled out. It again makes these beings contingent, reliant upon something or someone outside of themselves.

Why only monotheism is logically coherent

The Christian who offers a cumulative case for God is doing so in part to explain the existence of contingent things. To suppose multiple supernatural beings then forces the question about their existence, given they are contingent themselves. One must either hold to a contradiction or stumble into an infinite regress, wither of which is a reasonable position to take. Only a single necessary being works consistently given all the evidence presented.

One reason understanding the difference between necessity and contingency is so important is it helps the truth seeker save a vast amount of time exploring different religious faith claims. It shows any faith that posits multiple gods as an explanation for the origin of the cosmos is probably incorrect and monotheistic faiths should be investigated first.

Understanding a Cumulative Case

It isn't the phrase "a cumulative case" that eliminates the possibility of multiple supernatural beings; it is the type of case the Christian seeks to explain. Prosecutors offer cumulative cases in court all the time as they mount many, many pieces of evidence against a defendant stating the best explanation that makes sense of all this evidence is the defendant committed the crime. But the type of case we are making for God's existence is one of ultimate origins. What grounds morality as objective? Why is there something rather than nothing? It is in this way cumulative case arguments are powerful. They make the case for why the best explanation for the existence of all things is a single all-powerful, all-good God who is personal, one who chooses to create with intention.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Good Arguments Aren't Enough in Defending the Faith

Facts, reason, and evidence play key roles in apologetics. Christian defenders spend many hours studying the latest arguments for or against God's existence, the resurrection, or other issues fundamental to the faith. This is good and necessary; familiarizing oneself with the latest arguments on both sides of the divide gives you a greater advantage at presenting the most persuasive case possible.

However, there is another piece that many Christians neglect which is just as crucial: how to engage in a disarming, persuasive manner. James W. Sire makes the point in his book Why Good Arguments Often Fail. He writes:
In presentations of the case for Christ, good rational arguments often do not persuade. I mean by "a good argument" one that starts from true premises and/or facts, makes no logical mistakes (fallacies), marshals a great body of evidence, answers objections, clarifies the issues and draws valid (therefore true) conclusions. 1
Sire then recounts the experience of one young Christian who recounted C.S. Lewis's moral argument to an atheist friend. It didn't stir his friend at all. Sire notes such experiences are typical. He then concludes:
When such rational arguments are made in the field of Christianity, they are often not just ignored but rejected. Why is this?

Aristotle overstated the case, but still we should heed the warning it contains:

Every failure of Truth to persuade reflects the weakness of its advocates.

This is a humbling reminder of our responsibility as Christians: we must make the best presentation of the gospel that we can make. Of course, we are limited in our ability—every one of us, the clever and the not so bright. Our Lord knows this and works around our limitations. But we are responsible to do our best.2
Studying techniques at proper approach and presentation, in other words making your arguments not simply sound but persuasive, is known as rhetoric. Rhetoric is probably a more difficult skill to learn than even understanding the arguments themselves, as there is no one pattern that fits every person or every occasion. It's as much art as science, and it requires the rhetorician to be as good a listener as he is a speaker.

This isn't to say rhetoric cannot be taught. Many techniques do exist to make your case more persuasive. Sire's book is a great place to star to learn how to be more winsome and persuasive in presenting your case for Jesus.

When Jesus sent out his disciples in Matthew 10, he told them, "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Learning rhetoric is obeying his command to be wise in the midst of wolves. Make sure you take some time to learn persuasiveness as well as the facts.


1. Sire, James W. Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ. Downers Grove, IL: IVP /InterVarsity, 2006. Print. 73.
2. Sire, 2006. 73-74.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bluffing is for Poker, Not Apologetics

A few days ago I wrote a blog post arguing one mustn't be a biologist to comment on the evolution debate. The post was well received, but also gathered a few comments, such as a gentleman who responded, "I agree that people shouldn't be prohibited from opining on [evolution] just because they aren't biologists but they should familiarize themselves with the subject matter. Both sides often do not do so which leads to so many angry, pointless arguments." I saw more than one response that commented similarly.

It's interesting that this particular issue generated the responses it did, all basically stating while one needn't be a biologist, they should have taken some time to understand the arguments of evolution before criticizing it. One person even noted that uninformed Christians can make silly arguments, such as "If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?" I've heard such cringe-inducing objections, and they are more damaging than helpful.

Though the article made the argument that non-experts have a chair at the table, I never meant it to mean that one doesn't have to study the subject matter. One should know something about evolutionary theory and the state of the debate before commenting. In fact, I would say the caution offered by my commenters don't go far enough.

It isn't simply evolution where Christians need to dig in and make sure they have a proper understanding of the issues at hand. It's any issue where one wishes to engage in a thoughtful defense of the Christian worldview. If you are going to discuss the origin of the universe, the existence of the soul, the historical nature of the resurrection, or any other topic where you are seeking to change minds, you should not try and convince others by faking an answer that you do not know. Bluffing may be a good strategy for poker, but not for apologetics. Apologetics is all about clearing away objections and showing others the truth of Christianity. Pretending you know something about a topic you really don't is contradictory to searching out the truth. So, it means Christians must study these topics to some degree to talk about them intelligently.

Degrees of Knowledge is OK

Realize I'm not saying that one must put in years of study before one can have an opinion on an issue or voice that opinion in public.  That isn't what I'm saying at all. Knowledge is not a binary thing where one is either an expert or an ignoramus. There are degrees of knowledge and understanding.  For example, I'm not a biologist, so I didn't argue with that biologist objector using his area of study. I argued in my original post and also answered him using a philosophical argument, an area in which I have much more experience. That allows me to make statements more confidently and know that I won't fall into a "gotcha" moment because I do know what I'm talking about. It also demonstrates that topics like evolution are not "siloed" into a biology-only or paleontology-only discussion. There are other ways to approach the question.

The Critique Cuts Both Ways

While this article is directed towards Christians, there is one more thing you should realize; this critique cuts both ways. In fact I've found all too frequently that those with whom I've engaged have a very shallow or distorted idea of theology and philosophy. They dismiss a position that looks nothing like what I actually believe. They criticize me for not being an expert, yet they haven't taken the time themselves to familiarize themselves with even the essential Christian beliefs that have been consistently held for centuries.  The New Atheists are famous for their knocking down theological straw men. Such actions have caused thoughtful atheists like Michael Ruse to write articles entitled "Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster."

In all, don't be afraid to speak your mind on a subject. However, if a person brings up a specific fact or point with which you're unfamiliar, don't be afraid to ask for more of an explanation. Find out how just what their objection is. Ask them for some materials where you can read more about that topic. If they are not bluffing themselves, they should be able to help you understand their claim and point you in a direction where you can study it in more detail to see whether it's a valid objection and if there's an answer to the charge. When you study in this way, you will grow in both your knowledge and your faith. But you will know the material; you will have the truth to pull from and the confidence it brings with it.

Friday, July 31, 2015

How Should Christians Engage Others Online?

I went to a wedding recently, where the DJ had all the married couples come to the dance floor. He then would ask couples to leave based on how long they had been married. Ultimately, he got down to the very last couple, a man and a woman who had been married 60 years!

After a round of applause, the DJ walked up to the man with his microphone and asked him "what is your secret to staying married for 60 years."

The man then clearly revealed his secret: He didn't say a word and signaled that his wife should answer.

A smart man knows how to avoid an argument. But you will never be able to avoid arguments in this life. I'm not talking about the shouting matches that end up in people hurting each other's feelings. Those can and should be avoided. I mean arguments like those where both sides provide reasons in a discussion to support their specific positions.

You will be faced with those who will challenge you.

Arguments are a part of life. I had posted a short video explaining the imago Dei – that all human beings are made in the image of God and share certain attributes that God holds. This distinguishes them from animals. An atheist then made this comment: "I think it is more reasonable to conclude that the gods were made in the image of man. (Gods are man-made.) Thousands, or millions, of gods have come and gone before Christianity came on the scene. Hinduism claims there are 330 million gods."

The atheist has made an argument, stating that because the history of humanity is replete with different theories on who or what God is, it is more reasonable to hold that all gods are man-made and therefore to be an atheist. Notice that the original video wasn't trying to prove that God exists, but to explain a particular point of Christian theology. Yet, here was a commenter who challenged the very notion of God's existence.

These kinds of situations come up often for Christians, especially online. You may be perfectly happy with your day so you post a Bible verse or a meme that thanks God for your blessings. All of a sudden, someone is commenting that no one should believe such fairy tales as God or that the Bible is an ancient book full of superstition. What should be our response?

Approaching Conversations Biblically

Luckily, Paul provides us with some guidance. First, he says that we shouldn't avoid all interactions with those who would oppose us. In 2 Timothy, he states that we should be ready for those opportunities, studying diligently to capitalize on them when they come because they can lead to changed hearts. Yet, he also says that one must weigh the attitude and openness of the challenger. Paul writes:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene…

The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Tim 2:15-17, 24-26, ESV).
Gentle correction of those who are in opposition is the appropriate plan. It doesn't mean we must answer every charge; we are not to cast our pearls before swine. But we shouldn't ignore people simply because they have beliefs different from our own. How else will unbelievers be forced to examine their own beliefs and see them as baseless or contradictory? That's why we need to be prepared to argue convincingly and intelligently. Apologetics is part of evangelism and its goal is for everyone to come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil. How are you preparing?

Image licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) License.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Talking Faith Without Fighting (video)

Sharing your faith can be difficult - passionate discussions can sometimes lead to angry words or hurt feelings.  But is this the way we should share the Gospel?

Watch this recent message where Lenny offers some specific tactics for sharing your faith to help you present the truth in a loving, winsome way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jesus and Logical Fallacies: The False Dilemma

There have been many times where I've been speaking to a non-believer who tells me that he would rather place his trust in science and reason than in faith. Versions of this include "facts rather than religion" or "knowledge over ancient belief."

Such objections are certainly not uncommon today, even though they are completely illogical. Each one exercises a logical fallacy known as a false dilemma. A false dilemma tries to limit one's choice between only two options when there may be more options available. To use a popular example, imagine a man on trial. As he sits in the witness stand, the prosecutor comes to him and asks, "Is this the first time you've beaten your wife, yes or no?" Of course, either answer to such a question immediately incriminated the man. The third choice of "I have never beaten my wife" is never offered by the prosecutor, which sets the defendant up with only two options, each of which places him in a bad light.

Why Faith Versus Reason is a False Dilemma

In the objections above, the ideas of faith, religion, and belief are all positioned as incompatible with science, facts, and knowledge. But the assumption that these are incompatible is itself not true. For example, the multiverse theory is based on certain mathematical beliefs and assumptions. There exists no observational data for other universes, nor will there be given that our universe is a closed system. Therefore, scientists who hold to the multiverse theory are doing so based on certain beliefs and a faith in the models they have constructed. Does that disqualify the multiverse theory from being classified as science? Will those skeptics disavow it because they would rather place their trust in reason? Of course not.

Similarly, Christianity is based on certain facts, such as Jesus' resurrection from the dead, based on the historical accounts. Christians use arguments to show that the existence of God is a reasonable position to hold. Reason and evidence are the foundation of Christianity, which just like the multiverse model shows that faith and reason are not exclusive but work in concert.

How Jesus Answered the False Dilemma

Sometimes people offer false dilemmas intentionally as a strategy, such as our lawyer example above. However, it's probably more common for a person to not realize there are more choices than the two presented when he or she is presenting the argument. Still, it is important to highlight the dilemma and show it to be false.

The Gospel of Luke provides us with an example of how Jesus faced a false dilemma. In Luke 20:19-26, the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into incriminating himself. Luke tells us that they asked him "Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?" This was cunning, because if Jesus replied that paying taxes was wrong, he'd be considered a traitor to Rome, but if he said it was OK according to the Jewish law (that is the Old Testament commands) to give a tribute to Caesar, then the would be sanctioning support for a Gentile ruler when Israel's only allegiance should be to God alone.

However, Jesus didn't fall for it. Luke reports:
But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?" They said, "Caesar's." He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
In Jesus' answer, he brilliantly splits the horns of the dilemma. There are more than the two options of allegiance to God or allegiance to Caesar. One can be a good citizen of the state while disagreeing with some of its positions. The Pharisees weren't offended at the graven image of Caesar so much that they refused Roman money. They simply didn't want to give it back in taxes. Thus Jesus's answer shows that one can be a good citizen and not offend God. In fact, he may have thought of Malachi 6:8, which teaches that all believers should seek to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Paying for the services of Rome is part of doing justice.

In highlighting the false dilemma the Pharisees offer, Jesus gives us one example of how to better defend our faith. Jesus' use of logic had the effect of silencing his detractors while teaching new truths to his audience. This is just one example of Jesus using logic and reasoning in his interaction with others. We need to prepare ourselves to do likewise.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Are you Ready to Argue Like Jesus?

Are you ready? Do you have what it takes? Are you prepared to argue? Christians today face more opposition to their beliefs than in the past. Those people are going to assert them to us. Therefore, we need heed the charge of the Apostle Peter who commanded that we always be ready to make a defense for our hope in the gospel (1 Pet. 3:15). One way to do this is to learn to argue well.

For many people, that last sentence sounds counter-intuitive. "Didn't your mother tell you it isn't nice to argue?" they may ask. Others think it's downright anti-Christian to argue. But, neither of these responses are true; and that's because when I use the word argument, I mean something different from what they're hearing. When I say the word "argument," I don't mean two people yelling at one another or hurting each other's feelings. I mean something completely different; and it has more to do with growing your understanding than raising your voice.

Why It's Impossible to Avoid an Argument

All people have beliefs. You can't be a functioning human being and not hold to at least some beliefs. Some of them are easily identified, such as "I'm alive right now" or "I'm reading this blog post." Others are a bit more complex, such as one's belief in the existence of God or which political party has better answers for his or her country, yet all these beliefs have some kind of reasoning behind them. It may be that you investigated the data or it may be that you were taught a belief from a young age. The authority figure or your study helped form your beliefs. There are a few beliefs that are self-presenting, like the belief that I am not in pain right now. I know I'm not feeling pain because pain experience is direct and immediate. However, most of our beliefs are formed through other means.

Because each one of us has beliefs, each one of us holds to certain things we believe are true about the world. A belief is simply that, something we take as true about the world. Those beliefs will also shape my actions and reactions to situations around me. If I believe in the power of prayer, that belief is going to play itself out in the action of my praying. If I believe that an unborn baby is made in the image of God, then that will shape my political views on abortion. Your beliefs will always spill out into your actions and touch the people and institutions you come in contact with.

There's the issue, though. Because different people hold different views about the world, it should be no surprise that you will run into people who don't believe things that you hold as true and they believe things you hold as false.  Such contacts mean two people will desire different outcomes to a specific situation, each believing that his or her outcome is the correct one. Just like two cars that are traveling in opposite directions arrive at a one-lane bridge simultaneously, both cannot go on their merry way until the conflicting desires are resolved.

Preparing to Argue Like Jesus

Because you, dear Christian, have reasons for your beliefs, and everyone will face beliefs that conflict with their own, it becomes crucial that you make sure you are better prepared to engage those conflicts. That requires you to learn to argue well. As I said at the top of this post, arguing doesn't mean yelling, fighting, or hurting someone's feelings. Arguing is simply discussing your beliefs with another person, but doing so by providing reason and evidence, or as Michael Palin defined it: "An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition." It means we talk and support our belief with the reasons why we think that such a belief is true.

As I've been saying, this is exactly the way Jesus did it. The Gospel of Luke tells us that "The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him" (Luke 2:40). Jesus in his human nature grew in knowledge. He learned how to speak, and he learned the beliefs of his day. Jesus quoted the Scriptures – do you think he studied them? Do you think he worked at memorizing them? Do you think Jesus was a good student?  Did He study hard? He certainly seemed to know the beliefs of the Sadducees and the Pharisees as he put both to shame in Matthew 22.

I invite you to join me for the next few days as I lay out what well-structured arguments look like, and how you can make them. I also want to show what fallacies are, both to help you avoid them and to pick them out if your opponent should use them. Learn to argue more effectively; you will be following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tips for Sharing Your Faith #4 - Avoid Smokescreens and Dodges

There's an old saying that goes "Do not discuss politics or religion in general company."1 Within any conversation where the participants are passionate about their views, it is likely that emotions can get in the way. The talk gets heated and it degenerates to more seeking to wound the other person or simply trying to protect oneself. This next tip is so important, because it seeks to help you argue well. We will use a single topic to see how each dodge can play out, but this is just for example. Hopefully, you can recognize these and apply them to other discussions as well.

Let's say we are discussing why God is necessary for objective moral values and duties. I've argued here that objective morality requires God to ground its precepts. Perhaps I tweet this article and get several responses. Let's walk through our scenario and see how to deal with each.

1. Be aware of smokescreens

Many times if you raise a point that the other person cannot or doesn't want to answer, they will throw out a smokescreen. Smokescreens are questions or objections that are meant to a) take the pressure off them by bringing up some new subject or problem not related to the issue at hand or b) questions where the questioner isn't really interested in hearing the answer. So, for example, a person responded to my article by writing "Morals can't be grounded in an imaginary being... not grounded in Jesus any more than grounded in Santa." This response is clearly not dealing with the problem of morals being objective versus subjective. It's simply meant to inflame.
Therefore, Someone who wants to shout at you, ask questions but refuses to answer ones you present, or simply barrages you with a barrelful of issues is trying to create a smokescreen. Here's the takeaway:
  • If people are honestly seeking an answer, they will be open to discussion; otherwise it's not worth your time.
  • Ask, "What evidence would you accept in order to change your views?"

2. Keep the focus on the issue at hand

The tactic of trying to get out of trouble by introducing a new subject is known as a "offering a red herring," an idea coined by William Cobbett, who wrote a story about a boy who drags the smelly fish away from a hare's trail in order to send the tracking dogs in the wrong direction2. In my post above, I used confederate money as an analogy to show why morality must be anchored in something bigger than just whatever people want to believe. I had another respondent who began to argue about the value of gold and the economics of the1860s versus today. These had nothing to do with my point, but were distractions. Similarly, you may get "well, if God is moral then why did He let all those people die in the (choose disaster of choice)?" But God's actions are a separate question from how we get meaningful morality. They are red herrings meant to lead you away from your point. Here's the key:
  • Stay on one topic
  • Make sure both parties are responding in a way that moves the conversation forward

3. Note who has the burden of proof

Another dodge that can come up is when a person makes a charge and when you respond to that charge, he challenges you to prove your own position. For example, sometimes atheists simply dismiss my argument and state God is not necessary for morality to be real. At that point they've made an assertion, so it is incumbent upon them to back it up. I would ask something like, "How is it that moral laws are binding upon all of humanity and not merely a preference?" If the person replies with, "Well, atheists are more moral that other people" he's offered a red herring. This is why tip #2 is so important. The more questions you ask the less work you have to do. The objector should be able to provide reasons for his objection. The takeaway is:
  • One who asserts belief should have reasons for why they hold that view
  • You don't need to prove or justify anything, simply ask them the questions

4. Watch for power moves

One time I was walking down a street and noticed a man on a bench who was shouting about the Iran war to the crowd. He spoke in brave tones and seemed very confident. But some of the things he said were very simplistic. I asked him how Just War theory fits in with his position. He actually got off the bench, took me aside and said in a normal voice, "Yes, I know about Just War Theory. I'm a professor as the local college." I asked, "Well, we should talk about it since it isn't quite what you're shouting." He replied, "Well, I have to use rhetoric in order to get the attention of people walking by." I found such as statement educational. The man was intentionally misrepresenting a position to draw attention to himself, but the people wouldn't know because he'd never shout the nuances of the debate.

This is why students must be careful when arguing with their professors during class. It's important to try and be heard, but it's also important to realize that the dynamics are such where the prof may do whatever it takes to save face. The takeaway is:
  • Don't get "shouted down" – assert yourself as having a right to be heard!
  • The man with the microphone always wins

5. Don't let emotions ruin the conversation

Of all the tips I've presented, this one is probably the most important, since Christians are just as guilty of it as those they interact with. If your discussion with another person starts to turn where you can feel the blood rising in your face, it is probably time to take a break. As I said at the beginning, passionate beliefs can turn into more heated arguments. But this is exactly the wrong way to share your faith! Be firm in what you believe and don't let people abuse you, but you should never alienate the person because your emotions got the better of you. Take a break, ask to come back at a later time and finish the conversation. It's better to part ways and have the opportunity to be heard another time than it is to offend someone to the point where they will reject your message because they associate it with a vindictive messenger.

To see all the posts in this series, click here.


1. Hill, Thomas E. Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms a Guide to Correct Writing. Chicago: Hill Standard Book, 1886. Print. 151. Available via Google Books here.
2. "Catching a Red Herring." Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Tribune, 02 Feb. 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Strength of a Cumulative Case

Modern movie-making has come a long way in terms of special effects. Audiences gasp in awe during scenes in adventure stories such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the heroes stumble upon extraordinary locations during their quest, seeing things few humans have ever beheld. Our exploration of the Christian faith can give us a similar sense of awe as we travel through its unique tenets, finding new ways of thinking about things we believe and the way God works in each of us. Some of its grandeurs and vistas are as breath-taking as climbing to the rim of the Grand Canyon, looking out and trying to take in its vastness. Of course, the Canyon is so massive that we only get a glimpse of one small portion. We can never see it all and see it intimately at the same time, but still understanding there is a greatness there that we can at least begin to appreciate. This really is how it feels to seek out knowledge of the one True God.

Seeking to find out if there's a God is a basic part of being human; it's one of those "big questions" that I talked about before. As human beings, we want to know where we came from, why the world works the way it does, and how things will eventually turn out. Belief in God begins to answer these questions. It becomes the very first step in defending our faith, since it entails ideas that we will use in the rest of our journey.

So as we start to scale the tall cliffs that show us the existence of God, it makes sense to take the advice of our wise friend Pooh, above, and understand exactly what it is we're looking for. The basic notion that there is a God is nothing new; all societies have held it in some form since the beginning of recorded history. But what does the notion of God really mean? We assume that when we say "God," everyone understands what we are talking about, but this may not be true. Therefore, if we're going to look for evidence that God exists, it becomes necessary for us to define just what qualities we should be looking for at a minimum. What are the things that make God, God and everything else not a god? We're not looking at all of God's attributes right now, just something that differentiates God from everything else.

A fourfold cord: presenting a cumulative case

In beginning our climb to discover the reasons for believing in God's existence, we want to make sure we're on the firmest footing possible. I am going to be building what is known as a cumulative case argument for God's existence. A cumulative case argument is one where we have several different arguments all pointing to the same conclusion. What a cumulative case argument is not is a series of arguments meant to be safety nets for each other. Let me try to clarify this a bit more.

In rock climbing, there are different techniques used to help aid the climber and ensure his safety. Some will use a system of ropes and anchors to climb up a tall face —the climber will be attached to a safety rope by his belt, and as he makes his way up the face, he will nail an anchor to the rock that holds a clip. He then clips his rope to that anchor and continues up. This way if the climber slips, he may fall a ways, but the anchor will catch the rope and he won't fall all the way to the bottom. If that anchor pulls out, then the next anchor will hopefully catch him, and so on.
If an explanation rejects God and suggests another reason for the evidence of existence, design, morality, and history, that explanation should:
  1.  Offer an account for each of these points that is stronger than God as an explanation, and
  2.  Offer accounts that are all consistent with one another in explaining the evidence we see.

This is an example of building a case with "leaky buckets." The idea is if one argument is found to be weak or has a hole in it (like a bucket that has a leak), there's another bucket underneath to catch the water. Each argument doesn't really strengthen the case, is simply helps catch any mistakes. If our climber has a series of bad anchors when he slips, then he'll never reach the top of his climb and it will be pretty scary coming back down!

Another way to climb is to tie off the rope at the top of the cliff before the climber starts his ascent. The rope can help support the climber as he climbs and it's safer, since the rope is anchored to a solid object before the climb even begins. The climber can also know the rope reaches all the way to the top, so he knows he can get there even if he's pulled up. Now imagine that our climber doesn't have just one rope that will hold his weight, but four ropes attached to him instead, all anchored from the top of the rim. Each rope can stand on its own and support the rock climber's weight, but weaving four different ropes together makes a support system so strong, it's nearly impossible to fail.

This is the type of evidence for God I offer. Each of these four arguments goes "all the way to the top" in supporting the existence of God. Each can hold its own weight. But taken together, they point very strongly to God's existence. You may hold some doubt concerning any one of these arguments, but once you put them together, their total becomes amazingly strong. And remember, any other theory for how and why we're here should 1) offer an explanation of each of these points that is stronger than what I'm offering, and 2) offer accounts that are all consistent with one another in explaining the evidence we see to give us good reason to choose to that argument over a belief in God.


Image courtesy MakKuyper and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When an Atheist Says it's OK to Rape Her Sister

I couldn't believe my ears. Did she really just say that? I was standing in front of a young woman and her sister on the University of California, Berkeley campus. A friend and I had engaged her in a conversation about objective morality and here she was saying it wasn't even objectively wrong if a person wanted to rape her sister—and she was saying this right in front of her!

Let me give you the whole story. As part of our apologetics missions trips, we go to places like the Berkeley campus, engage people in conversation, and share Christianity. If Christian students learn how to defend their beliefs in a place like this, they will have no problem doing so in their own colleges.

On this trip, I saw a young woman holding a campaign sign for her friend who was running for student council, and I struck up a conversation. We began with simple questions such as "Do you believe in absolute right and wrong?" She replied that right and wrong are relative to the individual. I asked, "But you're campaigning for your friend. By campaigning, you are implying that he would do a better job representing students than the other candidates. Doesn't that imply a concept of right and wrong?" She quickly deferred, stating that the reason she was helping him is simply because he had helped her in the past. He asked her to help, and so she is doing so. There's no admission of an objective right or wrong in this.

I pressed on, "What about absolute morality? Are there not certain things that are always wrong?"

"No," she said. "I hold to certain values because of my culture and what works for her, but there is no absolute standard for all people."

"So stealing isn't wrong? If something of yours I stolen, you wouldn't think the person is wrong that did it?"

"It's wrong for me to steal, but another person may need to."

I'm familiar with such dodges. It's easy to try and justify certain circumstances where a crime like stealing can be used to wiggle out of an uncomfortable situation. Therefore, I pushed for a more black and white example. "What about something like rape? Isn't that always wrong? If a man came up to your sister and grabbed here, and he fully believed that he had the right to take her. He felt convinced that he should be able to force sex upon her, wouldn't it still be wrong for that man to rape your sister? You wouldn't try to stop him?"

She simply replied "Well, I guess if he truly believed he had the right, then it wouldn't be wrong for him."

Calling out ridiculousness

As you can imagine, her sister wasn't very comfortable at that response, yet she stayed silent through the exchange. Here's the point, though. This girl was intelligent. She had been indoctrinated with a relativist view of morality and she didn't want to abandon her views. As I've written in the past, it is really hard to change a belief. In our discussion, she was not willing to give up on her relativism no matter what I said. Even in the rape example, she had to admit that rape can be OK if she was going to save face. I've had similar experiences with other topics, such as people trying to justify homosexuality even when their position leads to incongruities like the permissibility of incest or bestiality.

Sometimes, Christians who wind up in a discussion that takes such a turn throw up their hands in frustration. They simply don't know what to do next! How do you argue with that?

Here's my solution: call their bluff. A lot of people see these kinds of talks like a chess match. You make a move and they counter with a move of their own. The woman above was trying to remain consistent, but she was doing so because to her the entire conversation was in the abstract. The best thing to do is to break that mindset and bring it back to reality.

Upon her reply, I looked her straight in the eye and said, "You're lying. There's no way that if a man was really attacking your sister you would excuse it. You'd be screaming your head off calling for police or anyone to come and help because you really believe that rape is wrong. While you have an intellectual argument for the opposite, in real life you would never let that happen. There are people who truly believe that what's right is whatever is right for them. We call the sociopaths and we lock them up because they are a danger to society. Right now, in our discussion, you're simply trying to win the argument, but you're doing so at a tremendous cost to the truth. I am truly scared if you really believe that something like rape has any permissible circumstances."

At all times I kept the conversation civil and never yelled or pointed a finger. I did make my final statement with some level of authority. She didn't agree with me, though. She maintained that this is what she believed so I thanked her for her time and walked on.

You may believe such interactions are wasted, but they are not. That woman will continue to think about that conversation and what she said. (Her sister probably wanted to have a conversation with her, too!) But God can use small things like this to provoke people to reexamine their position. Changing beliefs takes time and one must have patience even when the other person's position shows a contradiction.As you go to defend your faith with others, don't let silly statement get a pass. The statement that rape can sometimes be OK is an outrageous statement to make. Imagine any newspaper or politician announcing such a thing. Outrageous statements need to be met with an appropriate amount of incredulity. Be courteous and respectful, but don't accept them in these conversations any more than you would anywhere else. Ideas have consequences; don't allow for their abuse.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Let My People Think!

Whenever I take kids on one of our Apologetics Missions Trips to Berkeley, I invite some of the most well-spoken atheists I can find to present their views before the students. This shocks some parents initially, but I explain that when high school kids hit college, they will be hearing such arguments anyway. In this controlled setting, we can hear some of the best arguments atheism has to offer, allow the students to then question the presenters, and ultimately show how the truth of Christianity is so much more convincing than the arguments against God.

Thus I was extremely concerned when I heard a news report about a local school district near my home that has come under fire for assigning a critical thinking research project to its eight grade students. The assignment reads, "When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence," according to the LA Daily News web site.1 The assignment goes on to say that there are those who deny the holocaust as an actual historical event, and the students were to gather evidence and write a paper arguing why they believe the holocaust was either real or propaganda.2

The Los Angeles Anti-Defamation League has objected to the assignment and complained to district officials.3 Spokesman Matthew Friedman stated, "To have students try and determine whether or not it happened, they're gonna go online and they're going to Google the Holocaust and come across sites that look very slick and very persuasive, but are really bad history and propaganda for anti-Semites, and that's not what we want them to be doing."

I must say that Friedman's and the ADL's objection falls flat. Do I think there is any doubt that the Holocaust happened? Of course not. Do I think such a research project is dangerous for eighth-graders? On the contrary, I think NOT teaching them how to weed good arguments from bad ones is. In the Internet age, we're awash in faulty arguments and bad logic. Kids today need to learn how to separate what is written from what is true. Friedman's concern that kids will come across sites "that look very slick and very persuasive, but are really bad history and propaganda" is moot. They are seeing them now, and not just with the issue of the holocaust. Isn't it better to show why "slick and persuasive" doesn't make a view true than to forbid exposure to any opinion deemed unworthy by… who exactly? Don't we want our kids to know that other views exist, even if those views are foolhardy?

There are many examples of the ruling power only presenting a single point of view and dismissing all others as "foolish" or "not worth considering." That's the first step to establishing a culture of propaganda. Even if the position is as ridiculous as denying the holocaust, it is important to show that we don't need to hide certain views, but expose them to the light of scrutiny. Thomas Jefferson is claimed to have said "The man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies."4 Any fool with a modem and an opinion can post online; how are our children supposed to learn how to weed through the junk so they can find the truth, especially if that truth may not be held by the majority? It is restricting thought rather than investigating it that I fear more.


1 Yarbrough, Beau. "Rialto Unified defends writing assignment on confirming or denying Holocaust." Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Accessed 5/5/2014.

2 The assignment text reads, "For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page."

3 Powell, Amy. "Rialto Unified School District under fire over Holocaust assignment." KABC 7 Eyewitness News Report. Accessed 5/5/2014.

4 Boller,Jr. Paul F. Presidential Campaigns from George Washington to George W. Bush. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).19.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beware of Straw Men!

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger was originally cast to play the part of the Tin Man instead of the Scarecrow. According to Wikipedia, he longed for the part, though. Luckily, he was recast as the straw-filled character movie audiences have come to know and love. Bolger's character is someone you would want to embrace, a true friend who can sing and dance his way into your heart.

However, many times I find people much too easily embracing another type of straw man, one that should be avoided at all costs. I'm referring to the straw man constructed by those arguing for one particular position over another. I've discussed some of the different ways to argue about a position. I don't mean a fight, but the rational exchange of ideas. Sometimes when building their argument, people make mistakes. These are known in logic as fallacies and the straw man is a classic fallacy. Basically, one constructs a straw man when they argue against a position that the other person doesn't hold, or they mischaracterize the other person's position. Usually, this kind of mischaracterization is used so that, like a straw-filled sparring dummy, the person's argument is easier to knock down.

Examples of Straw-Man Arguments

Some examples of straw-man arguments are easy to see. In their book The Fallacy Detective, Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn use the following example of a straw man:

POLITICAL CANDIDATE A: Due to this year's budget problems, I think our state should decrease the amount of money going to the schools. This would solve the problem. We could bring the amount of money back to normal next year.

POLITICAL CANDIDATE B: My fellow citizens, is this what you want in a candidate? Someone who is against our schools, against our children's education, and against our futures?

As you can see, Candidate B does not talk about the question that Candidate A is focusing on: solutions to a budget problem. Instead, Candidate B misrepresents Candidate A's position to make it sound as if he is seeking to cut school funding because he doesn't want schools to succeed. It's much easier to win an argument in the minds of the people when you create a faulty position and then turn around and argue against a position that the other person never took. That's why the Bluedorns classify a straw man as an attempt to avoid the real question.

When defending one's faith, this kind of switch happens far too frequently. Here are some classic examples:

CHRISTIAN: Without a wholly good God, there is no way to ground moral values. Therefore atheism cannot hold to objective morality.

ATHEIST: How dare you Christians say that because I'm an atheist I cannot understand what it means to be moral!

In the above exchange, you can see that the Christian wasn't discussing whether the atheist could recognize or comprehend what it means to be moral. That's a knowledge question. Rather, he was making the claim that there is no logical basis for believing such morals, even though they are recognized, should carry authority over someone's actions. This is known as the moral grounding problem.

ATHEIST: Science is based on reason while religion is only based on faith.
In such a statement, there are really two straw men. The one easier to identify is that religion (usually meaning Christianity) is only based on faith. This simply isn't true as Christianity from its very beginnings have relied on the evidence of the eyewitnesses and the empty tomb (ref Acts 2:32, Acts 3:15, 1 Cor 15:3-8). Even so far as appeal to the crowd with phrases such as "as you yourselves know."

Secondly, the statement mischaracterizes science as somehow being completely devoid of passion or bias. The history of science argues otherwise, with huge fights breaking out over various positions. Because money and position are now a part of the scientific process (most on the university campus has heard the canard "publish or perish") it is easier for people to inadvertently become biased in their research. In fact, that's what this recent article in the science journal Nature warns. They noted within the field of pharmaceutical development "Science's internal controls on bias were failing, and bias and error were trending in the same direction — towards the pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positive results." This doesn't mean that every scientific discovery is biased, but it does demonstrate that science is not somehow immune from bias any more than any other field of study.

Imposing a straw-man fallacy during an argument is not playing fair. It judges another person for a view that he or she doesn't hold and then pretends to make the perpetrators seem more intelligent than they are. If we are going to engage others, we must make sure that we properly understand their specific position. Tomorrow I will talk more about that.

Monday, March 03, 2014

What Does 'the Bible Is Inerrant' Really Mean?

The question over the reliability of the Bible is one that Christians must deal with from time to time. However, I've found that there is just as much confusion from believers as there is from skeptics concerning this issue. One such point of confusion is the reliability of biblical texts.

Because the King James Version of the Bible had such an enormous impact on the English-speaking world, many people still consider it the definitive version of the Bible. There are some, though, who take this idea ever further and hold that the King James translation is somehow inspired itself. I had written on this some time ago, but I still receive questions from people discussing the issue. I'd livke to let you "eavesdrop" on one such question I received recently. My correspondent wrote the following:
You know, I keep hearing that our Bible The "King James" version, is not necessarily the true and accurate version and that these new translations have searched and found a more accurate account of what is true. I have a very big problem with what has been said. First of all, if there are any errors in the Bible, then it is not the true Word of God. So when the Bible says that it is the inerrant Word of God, then that would be a lie.

It also says to not add or take away from the book and that is being done. If we cannot believe that we have the one and only true Word of God without error then why even read it? I read on one of your articles that only a hand full of men translated the "King James" but that over a hundred translated the NIV. To me that makes absolutely no difference. God could use just one man, if he so chose to, so just to say that more men studied and wrote more about what is right, is null and void. God knew what we needed and used the men he wanted to use and it has to be 100% accurate or we may as well not believe any of it. By changing the Word of God (and the beauty of the words), there is confusion in the church. Who can follow along with what is being read and preached if there are dozens of different translations and why would we need God to speak to us about what he wants for us to get out of His Word if several different men are writing different versions of the Bible? We don't need a bunch of different versions, we just need to ask God to show us what he has for us in the verses that are being preached or when we read by ourselves. Besides these people are making millions of dollars by writing different versions and trying to make it easier to understand by their understanding. Not only that but it is a tool of Satan to keep confusion in the church and in the minds of the people. What about the versions that leave the blood out of the translation? It is playing with fire to mess with Gods Word and there is no reason to change it or try to simplify it.

Thanks for listening. I love the Lord Jesus with all my heart. He is my Savior and I love His Word
Notice some specific piece in this letter. The questioner is concerned with the concept of inerrancy, but she has taken that too far, to mean that the KJ translation must be inerrant. Inerrancy has never been held to such a strict standard, though. She then equivocates the idea of retranslating the Bible to "changing the Word of God." She also appeals to "the beauty of the words" so there is more than a mere concern over accuracy here. Lastly, she believes that different translations somehow make the text say different things. (The point about versions that "leave out the blood" is in reference to Colossians 1:14, where the KJV reads "In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins" while all the modern translations don't include the phrase "through his blood" as it is missing from the oldest manuscripts.)

My goal in online exchanges like these is to help people see the problems to which a faulty view leads. I want them to realize it themselves instead of just telling them they are wrong. So, I usually begin with a question that they should agree with. My initial response was this:
Hi and thanks for your concern. I appreciate your love of the Bible and your desire to follow God's word. But before we get too far into the discussion, I'd like to ask you a question. In 1631, Robert Barker published a version of the King James Bible, but when typesetting Exodus 20:14, he accidentally left out three letters. Unfortunately those three letters make up the word "not" so his version of Exodus 20:14 read "Thou shalt commit adultery." I am absolutely certain that Robert Baker had no malicious intent whatsoever. He made a mistake, that's all.

My question: Is it possible that the King James Bible could have other mistakes as well, and if so how would we tell?
My correspondent's answer was quick, although it missed the point of the initial question a bit. However, she did get to the crux of the issue.
Hi Lenny,
Thanks for answering my email. In my "King James" Bible, the word "not", is not left out, so where do you get your information?

How can anyone believe that there are errors in God's Word? Which part then would you believe? Have you gone to the Lord to ask the truth of His Word? Just asking!!!!!

Thanks again.
I replied:
Thanks for the exchange! I sure appreciate you reading and dialoguing. Many different people print the KJV. My claim was about one of the printers from every early on. (This version of the Bible was dubbed "The Wicked Bible" and you can find more information on it here.)

Your question is a really good one. How can anyone believe there are errors in God's word? I for one don't. I believe that God inspired the authors to write the very words that He would have them write. I also subscribe to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. I make a big deal of this point in my article "Is The Bible Completely Error Free?"

However, while the Christian church has always held that the original writings by the Biblical authors are inerrant, it has NEVER held that someone couldn't make a mistake in copying or translating the work. The Jehovah's Witnesses offer a distorted version of the Bible in their New World Translation. Wycliffe translators working with indigenous tribes have made may errors in translation, sometimes simply because they didn't know the language that well.

Since we don't have any of the original writings, we need to go back and compare all the copies that we do have and make sure that the copies that have mistakes (like leaving out the word "not") are corrected. That is one reason why your copy of the KJV doesn't have this mistake. The original translators of the KJV didn't have nearly as many copies of the texts as we do today, and they didn't have as many early copies—copies that were less generations removed from the original writings.

I hope you can see how all this makes a big difference in understanding inerrancy. Let me know if you'd like more detail about it.

In a previous blog post, I showed the importance in asking questions in doing effective apologetics. Here is another example that allows for discussion while developing a rapport with your interlocutor. I'm not done with this exchange, though. In part 2, I go into a bit more detail as I continue my conversation. I hope you'll join us.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Understanding Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

One of the bigger misunderstandings when conversing with others is the issue of necessary and sufficient conditions. Recently, my friend Max Andrews posted an article to his blog entitled "The Incoherence of Claiming to be an 'Ex-Christian'". You can read the whole post, but basically Max argues that folks like atheists who hold that they were one Christians but now are not are actually stating a contradiction. To be a Christian, one must believe things like God exists and that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were real events. In fact, one must trust in those beliefs, relying upon them for one's salvation. You cannot be a Christian without being saved, so, salvation is necessary to be a Christian. And it is necessary to believe in God's existence and the resurrection of Christ in order to be saved.

The problem comes in, then, when an atheist says that he or she is not now a Christian. Atheists reject the very points that are necessary to be a Christian at all. But that's the rub. If you claim that you used to be a Christian, you are then saying that the concept of being a Christian can obtain. Thus, you are also saying that God does exist, that Jesus did die and rise again, and any other point that is also necessary for salvation also obtains. But at the same time, as an "ex-Christian" you are denying these very points!

As the comments on Max's article seems to show, there are a lot of people who are confused about the concept of necessary and sufficient conditions.  These distinctions are crucial in clear-thinking and I found a wonderful video that pretty clearly spells them out. I hope this will help you better in your conversations.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Identifying an Argument - Looking for Hidden Premises

Our culture is changing. The Christian worldview, which was widely accepted when I was a kid has given way to a much more fragmented view of reality. Because of this, Christians cannot assume that those we share with will have the same framework on matters of religion, morality, God, or even the nature of truth. So, it becomes crucial that we learn to listen well, identify the beliefs of those with whom we're conversing, and understand what kind of argument they are making for their position.

As I said last time, many times when people give reasons for their beliefs, they express only part of what they believe. In order to build an argument, the conclusion must follow from the premises, but many times, one of the premises is only implied, not specifically stated. Let's look again a couple of objections we normally hear from non-believers: "I see an abundance of evil in the world. So, God does not exist."

Here we have a premise ("I see an abundance of evil in the world") and a conclusion ("God does not exist"), but how did the person get from the premise to the conclusion? Christians are aware of the evil that exists in the world just as much as anyone else, but they believe in God's existence. So, there must be a something that's implied in the statement, but not said. Now, we don't really know what that second premise is, but we may be able to take a guess. It seems that by using the word "abundance," the speaker is trying to say something about the amount of evil in the world. Maybe he or she thinks there is too much evil. So, I can make an initial assumption that the person is trying to argue this way:
  1. If God exists, He would not allow an abundance of evil in the world. (Hidden Premise)
  2. There is an abundance of evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.
That argument is valid, in that if both premises are true, the conclusion follows. Before the conversation goes any farther, though, one should make sure that the assumption you make is the correct one! I can't stress this enough. It isn't enough to think that you've figured out your debater's opinion, you need to ask and clarify it with him or her. So, you may want to ask "Are you saying that if God exists, He would not allow an abundance of evil in the world?" By verbally expressing the hidden premise, you can confirm the person's argument and you know you are moving in the right direction instead of arguing against a position the other person doesn't really hold.

Now, you can begin to focus on the problem with the argument. It isn't at all clear that premise #1,the hidden premise, is true. How do we know that God does not allow a certain amount of evil for a short time in order to achieve other ends? How do we know what "an abundance" means? How do we know that the world wouldn't be even worse than it is now except for the restraining hand of God (think the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future II)?

Here's another "I don't believe in God. How can you believe in an all-loving God that would send people to hell?" This one is a bit trickier, since it's a single sentence, but you can at least identify that the questioner is juxtaposing God's love with His sending people to eternal punishment. So we build the argument by rephrasing the question as different statement:
  1. You believe in an all-loving God.
  2. You believe God sends people to hell.
  3. If an all-loving God exists, He wouldn't send people to hell. (hidden premise)
  4. Therefore, the God you believe in does not exist.(implied conclusion)
You can see right away there are a couple of different ways you can take this argument, the most effective would be to question the hidden premise. Why should someone believe that an all-loving God wouldn't send at least some people to hell? Did Hitler deserve hell? Is it all-loving to allow criminals to escape without penalty? How does an all-loving God promote justice?

By trying to identify hidden premises and the underlying arguments your challenger is making, you can hone your discussion to a more fruitful area. The key here is to keep asking questions until you understand all parts of the actual objection. Then you can begin to argue more effectively.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Identifying an Argument: Looking for Trigger Words

I've been taking some time on this blog to discuss ways to witness and defend your faith more effectively by using logic and argumentation. This isn't some stuffy, intellectual exercise. Using logic is simply thinking in an orderly and intentional way. It allows one to be persuasive while avoiding errors in thought. In fact, logic is the very tool one can use to identify errors in thought, which means that it can be a great help in identifying why the reasons another person gives for their beliefs may be flawed.

Being thoughtful and building a proper argument for one's beliefs takes a little work. As I mentioned in my previous article, when building an argument one normally supplies reasons for why he believes the way he does. The reasons for a belief could be labeled the premises while the belief itself could be labeled the conclusion.

While many Christians who seek to defend their faith may be familiar with some of the formal arguments and can present them as such, it is just as important to learn how to listen effectively and define the argument your converser is making. Identifying the arguments that another person is voicing can sometimes be a bit more difficult, since conversation doesn't normally present itself in a formally organized way. You must listen carefully and try to identify booth the belief and the reasons why the other person holds that belief if you want to be fair and address the belief as he or she holds it. Luckily, there are ways you can learn to do this with more ease. The biggest help is to look for what I call "trigger words" that separate a belief and its supporting evidence.

Trigger words are simply words in English most people use to show reasoning. We do the same thing when we talk simple arithmetic problems, so I will use those as an example. Usually, you would see a problem presented this way: "If Johnny wants to take three apples in his right hand and four in his left, how many apples will he have?" The word "and" in the sentence above signals that this is an addition problem. If the sentence would have said "less than" it would have signaled a subtraction problem. The words help you understand the nature of the problem itself.

Similarly, there are trigger words that signal whether a person is making a conclusion or providing a premise for his belief. Here's a short list of words that will frequently be used as triggers to signal a conclusion:

Conclusion trigger words:

  • Therefore
  • Thus
  • So
  • Hence
  • Implies
  • Indicates
  • It would follow
  • It's likely that
  • It stands to reason.
Thus, if a person states "I've read about so much fossil evidence, it's likely that evolution is true," we can see the trigger words of "it is likely" showing that the person is drawing a conclusion about the truthfulness of evolutionary theory based on the reason (premise) of an abundance of fossil evidence. Another may be "I see an abundance of evil in the world, so God does not exist." Here, the word "so" acts as a trigger. It points to a conclusion drawn from the previous statement.

Since sentence structures are flexible, it is not always the case that the second clause in a sentence is a conclusion or that the conclusion uses those trigger words. Sometimes, it's the premises you must be looking for. Your discussion may go this way, "God cannot exist because there are so many religions that contradict one another," or "If your God existed, He would do something about evil." The words "because" and "if" are trigger words to show that a premise is being employed. Here are some more to look for:

Premise trigger words

  • If
  • For
  • Because
  • and
  • Since
  • In that
  • May be inferred from
  • Given that
  • Seeing that
  • Owing to
One more thing in my examples above: they hold what I would call a hidden premise in each of them. A hidden premise is a premise that isn't stated but implied. I will get into more of that next time, but for now it's enough that you learn to identify premises and conclusions in conversations with people so you can begin to argue more effectively.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Tools for the God-Fearing Mind

Jesus commanded us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but many Christians simply don't know how to love God with their minds. Before we can think rightly about God, we need to learn to think rightly, to think logically. In this talk, Lenny teaches you how you can tell the difference between good arguments and bad ones and how you can offer unbelievers rational, persuasive arguments for your faith.

Friday, January 31, 2014

To Better Share Your Faith, Maybe You Should Just Shut Up

I've recently been discussing how Christians can us reason and logical argument to help their witnessing efforts. (You can read the previous articles, here, here, and here.) I believe in studying hard and understanding the issues. I believe in learning and providing good answers when others pose objections to Christian positions. I definitely believe in engaging others and always being ready to provide an answer to anyone who asks about the hope that is within you.

However, I've also seen conversations where spewing all those answers and all that knowledge at another person had the opposite effect: it drove people away from the faith. It isn't because the answers weren't sound; it's simply because the Christian wasn't really listening to the other person. Sometimes it's better to ask a question and then shut up for a while and listen to what the other person has to say.

Ask for Their 'Testimony'

Listening and seeking to understand the other person's feelings is a hard skill to learn. Many people have told me that they have been frustrated when talking about religious ideas because they felt that their questions were being ignored or not taken seriously. Even Christians who pride themselves on their ability to defend the faith can fall into this trap.  In our conversations, we can get so caught up in planning our next response that we aren't even hearing what the other person is saying right now!

If we are going to be effective in sharing your faith, we as Christians need to slow down and really listen to what the other person is telling us. We need to hear not only their objection to a specific point, but to how they understand Christianity and belief as a whole. A good way to do this is to simply ask them for their testimony.

Let me give an example. I once invited a lady from the Jehovah's Witnesses who was going door to door inside to talk a bit. I asked her about her belief in who Jesus was and what the Watchtower said about him. She gave all the standard answers. We began discussing how about how Jesus could not be a created being and it looked like it was going to be a standard “You say , I say” type conversation.

However, I then asked, "Can you tell me what attracted you to the Jehovah's Witnesses?" She replied that she originally wasn't that religious. She had a brother who was mentally impaired. She loved her brother dearly, even though he used to do certain things—things which she deemed unspeakable and unforgivable. Because of his condition, her brother died at a relatively young age. She knew there was no way he was going to heaven, given his actions, but she couldn't bear the thought of him being in hell. So, she said she started on a religious journey and "searched out different faiths until I found the Jehovah's Witnesses."

Listening Changes Conversations

Now, we had been talking about the nature of Christ, but do you think arguing Hebrews 1:6 or Granville Sharp's rule will be effective in such a situation? I immediately switched to the orthodox ideas of grace, forgiveness, and God's mercy as well as His judgment.

I think that listening is a key element that is many times missing from our apologetic today. You don't see many apologetics books written about how to listen well.  But asking some good questions like “How did you come to your beliefs/non-belief?” or “What is the most attractive thing for you about holding that position?” can give you great insight into the person with whom you're conversing and help you have a much more fruitful exchange. It also shows that you actually care about that person and what he or she thinks; you aren't just looking to put another notch on your Bible.

We need to remember that each encounter we have is with a person who is an individual with different motivations, background and feelings than our own. We should treat them as such and try to understand each individual before jumping too quickly into an answer. By listening, we will become more effective in defending our faith.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Beginning to Argue Effectively

In my previous post, I discussed the need for Christians to engage others by using argumentation. We use argumentation while looking for fallacies for flaws to determine unsound or invalid arguments and assertions by others, all the while seeking to find the truth of a matter. Arguing in a logical, thoughtful manner helps us look for the flaws in other people's stances and helps us to effectively assert our own. Arguments highlight those things that can change a belief.

In fencing, there is a technique to sparing with an opponent. It isn't always a hard attack. There is some give and take. One may lunge and thrust, but one must also be able to guard and parry. Similarly, when arguing, one must be skilled in providing a thoughtful exchange. One must know the techniques in arguing and how to properly argue. It is tragic that so many Christians today seek to engage those who hold to different beliefs with the truth of the gospel, but offer terrible reasons for their beliefs. I think Christianity has the best arguments, but without an understanding of what comprises a sound argument, many people are coming to a sword fight with boxing gloves, and they will only get themselves skewered as a result.

Learning the structure of a well-formed argument belongs to a field of study known as logic or critical thinking. Logic teaches one what the components of an argument are, how to properly argue, and how to identify others' arguments. It will also teach how to identify flaws or fallacies in arguments.

How to Build an Argument

So what makes up an argument? What are its components? The biggest component is the conclusion. The conclusion of an argument is the main fact you are trying to get across. This is where we are going; this is our destination. If you are to map out an argument the conclusion is the endpoint. But a conclusion cannot rest on its own. Just as the roof of a house needs walls to hold it up, a conclusion needs one or more facts or reasons to support it. These facts or reasons are known as premises.

As an example, we can look at the following argument:
  1. The Esposito family watches hockey.
  2. Hockey is a sport.
  3. Therefore, the Esposito family watches sports.
This argument presents two premises or facts: The Esposito family watches hockey, and hockey falls inside the category of sports. Knowing these two premises, one can now have knowledge that the Esposito family is a sports-watching family. Now, you may not know our family, or you may not know if we would be the type of people who would watch sports or not. But if you know statement #1 is true and statement #2 is true, you can safely conclude that the Esposito family watches sports. You have gained a new fact based on the first two facts that you already know.

Let's look at another, the Kalam argument for the universe's existence. It is formed like this:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe must have a cause for its existence.
The conclusion we are arguing towards is that the universe had to rely on something else for its existence. Like our previous argument, the first two statements are the premises that hold up the conclusion and if we know both of those facts, we can know that the universe doesn't exist because of itself, but must rely on something or someone else for its existence.

It is the strength of gaining new information from facts that we already have that makes arguments so powerful. While knowing that my family is sports fans is not particularly interesting, knowing that we must look outside of the universe for its cause helps up on our way to making an even bigger argument, one that argues for God's existence. However, when we talk with others, we don't always get to hear their arguments in such a straightforward manner. In my next post, I will talk about ways you may identify arguments that your interlocutor may be making in casual conversation.
Come Reason brandmark Convincing Christianity
An invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics

Mary Jo Sharp:

"Lenny Esposito's work at Come Reason Ministries is an invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics. He is as knowledgeable as he is gracious. I highly recommend booking Lenny as a speaker for your next conference or workshop!"
Check out more X