I was reading a damn good essay earlier about how theists, especially Christians, get it wrong in the debates with atheists. What also stands out in the debates is how atheists get it wrong. The writer is very sincerely trying to make the point that Christians must posture themselves in word and deed as people who make their god look desirable. This comes as no surprise to those of us who studied at Southern Nazarene University. Over and over again in the grad program, Prof. Steve Green emphasized that we are all people know of our god. Words don't mean anything; how we behave will communicate to people what kind of god we serve. It's one the main things I took from my education there, even as my faith was finding no handholds for the deconstructive process I was in.
I like to think of philosophy as therapeutic, as a means of clarifying language. (Yes, I had a heavy dose of Wittgenstein.) It won't tell us very much beyond what someone's words seem to mean versus what they actually mean. Still, that's a valuable tool (and I do recognize that the logic side of philosophy helps us understand more than the meanings of words.) Just allow me to oversimplify, and you'll see where this is headed. When atheists and theists debate god, the field of battle is all wrong. The current tactic when debating scientific materialists is to show why scientific materialism is untenable. This isn't necessarily true, but it does leave more questions open than answered. As if theism doesn't. And that is sort of the point. Neither system works all that well, so both sides attack each other based on the weaknesses of the opponent, never offering a substantive defense of their own weaknesses. Why defend systems when the therapeutic approach shows that both systems suck? Why not allow the questions to be open? Why not admit the ad hoc nature of both endeavors? Why not just admit that there is a ton of shit no one knows? (And if you're wondering, I'm far closer to the materialist view than the theist view.)
If by some miracle a theist was finally able to demonstrate irrefutably that materialism is an empty system, she would not be one step closer to demonstrating the truth of theism. This is what the debaters don't seem to understand. The very best of the modern Christian philosophers, Plantinga, was seemingly aware of this, so he created a fiction called "properly basic beliefs," and then he put "belief in god" in that category. Lovely. No more hard work showing why the hell anyone would believe in this god. It's just properly basic. Now, let's allow the howlingly funny assumption that belief in god is properly basic. Where are you? Deism? Polytheism? Animism? How far does that path take you? It sure as hell doesn't arrive at "Christ Crucified." At that point, the apologists will abandon their faith claims and insist on playing by the same rules as scientific materialists: history, textual criticism, archaeology, linguistic analysis, and so on to prove the superiority of their version of theism over the other versions. Pay no attention to how we got here, folks, just pay attention to where we're headed. Yeah, no thanks.
Back to Professor Jeff Cook's excellent essay. Here's the best line in his argument: "We have not established that Christianity should be revered, nor that it is attractive, nor that it is worthy of affection. We prefer to pull out our five proofs for its 'truth and argue our misguided interlocutors into the Kingdom cold." I have no quibble with the second part. Five proofs mean nothing to someone who doesn't already want to believe. Belief is seldom rational, and it's almost always intuitive when it comes to abstract concepts, except for those who actually do the hard working of thinking things through. As a professor myself, I assure you it's a rare student who thinks things through, and as a former pastor, I assure you congregants aren't any better than their college-age offspring.
As for his first sentence, though, I do have a quibble. It's bigger than a quibble. You will never be able to show me that Christianity is attractive, and not because of all the hypocrites in the world. Shit. We're all hypocrites; we just have different convictions about when to live the lie. I don't believe the story. I don't believe that I need salvation. I don't believe that you offer a remedy to a malady that besets me. I don't believe the whole narrative, and having rejected the metanarrative because it doesn't hold together at all, I will automatically reject the extrapolations that come from it. He speaks of a desire that we already know is there. Fine. But many of us tried for decades to fulfill that desire in the context of your theistic metanarrative, and we have left unfulfilled. Now, that could be because Calvin was right and I am a reprobate, but that just makes your god a dick, and once again, unattractive.
That is why in a debate I don't need to defend a system. I just know yours doesn't work. What's mine? Well, after four decades in a theist worldview, I'm still cobbling bits together. I happily call it ad hoc, and I'm untroubled by it. I don't worry about eternity. Who the hell wants to live that long? Yeesh. I don't worry about sin or forgiveness, except in this material world of hurt feelings and betrayals and sins against each other. I don't worry about hell. What an unbelievable amount of time and energy and paper have been devoted to that most barbaric of obsessions. I don't feel any sense of angels, demons, holy spirits, burning bushes or any other encounter with the holy.
This is not to say I've utterly rejected all concepts of god, and that is why I don't call myself an atheist. I call myself a skeptic because I'm withholding judgment in case more evidence becomes available. What kind? No idea. I reject theism. I reject all the prefixed theisms as well. That doesn't mean I'm a materialist, but it does mean I'm weary of watching atheists defend materialism rather than just go straight to the demand that theists give any shred of evidence of the truth of their extraordinary claims. It's a tedious process, and Professor Cook is right that we do well to ridicule any idea that a story of violence, death, blood sacrifice, invisible creatues, and unverifiable ontological claims could ever lead to a desire for theism. He didn't mean it that way, but I do.