I am involved in an interesting, crucial, in many ways heart-rending cyber-discussion/debate with an atheist named Daniel. He has his own blog in which he spews vitriol about Christians, the Bible, and religion in general. (He is happy to shoot at Jews and Muslims too, so I guess he is an equal-opportunity religion-baiter.) We have a mutual friend/family member who asked me to get involved with Daniel by commenting on his blog and trying to draw him into a conversation. This is not all that hard to do, since his blog includes an open letter to Christian pastors and teachers daring us to take him on.
He is articulate, logical, and often (with notable exceptions) respectful. He probably pays his taxes and doesn't kick the dog either.
That said, his arguments can be reduced to this: (1) Many fundamentalist and/or shallow Christians he has known have made bad arguments against his atheism; (2) the God of the Old Testament is different from the Jesus of the New Testament; and (3) science is in conflict with much of scripture.
I have tried to focus my conversations with him on the fact that Christianity is not a "religion" but instead is a relationship with God, that love is not a good feeling but instead is a reflection of that holy relationship, and that his own brand of scientific rationality leaves him with no hope.
Here are some of the things I have said to Daniel:
In response to his continued attacks on the general intelligence of anyone who would fall for a religion:
I am not interested in selling you on religion. I am interested in talking to you about a relationship that I have. I know that it is not irrational, but I do not expect you to accept that right now. You can grasp for rationality and "intellectualism" as long as you like - let me know where that gets you. As we carry on this conversation, see if you conclude that I am either dumb or crazy. See if you think I am suspending my rationality. Perhaps I simply know somebody whom you do not know. Perhaps I have exercised faith and seen the result. Yes, you can choose to call me a fool, and I suppose that over the internet you can call me that and still sleep at night, not having met me.
In response to his claim that love is simply a combination of moods and emotions:
You do your wife and those who love you a disservice if you think that their love is nothing but a combination of moods, feelings, and passions. You don't understand the love of Christians for you if you believe that "there's nothing more special about that than love from anyone else." That may be the fault of the Christians who love you, but since I know some of them, I don't think so. I think you are intentionally choosing not to recognize that their love for you comes from something other than their feelings. Given your recently discovered atheism and your cynical attack on what they believe, I expect that their "feelings" and "passions" would not lead to love for you. Love is an action, not a feeling, and love for the one who despises what you believe comes from somewhere other than a good mood.
In response to his attack on the Bible (the typical stuff about how God in the Old Testament, who told his armies to kill innocent tribes, contradicts the picture of Jesus in the New Testament) I asked him what he does with the resurrection of Christ, the presence of the Roman guard at the tomb, and the more than 150 witnesses to the resurrected Christ. He responded that "there is no resurrection" and that the witnesses were "hallucinating or misled" like those who see UFOs. My response:
Well, you can certainly end this conversation if you want by saying "there was no resurrection" without offering a hint of logic or explanation, but I didn't think that was your style. I thought you were the big logician. Are you really saying that the Roman guard, working for the governor on pain of death, was collectively "hallucinating or misled"? And over 150 witnesses were "hallucinating or misled"? That is awfully convenient for you, isn't it - to take an argument you don't understand and just toss it out as based on faulty witnesses? Isn't that akin to that for which you criticize [Christian] people [who claim that the inexplicable in science reveals the presence of God] ... what you cleverly label 'reductio ad absurdum'? Can't you come up with something better than that? I'll help you ... just say ... hmm... that it's all a lie - there were no Roman soldiers there.... Or... Jesus didn't really die on the cross, he just passed out.... Or how about this - the apostles drugged the soldiers and stole the body. At least those make more sense then "they were hallucinating." And as for the 150 witnesses, just say they were all in a conspiracy to start a new religion - Roman law notwithstanding - and it was cool for them to join in this mass lie. Any of those is better than "they were all hallucinating." Come on, Daniel, I am disappointed in you.
In reading your latest posts, I am beginning to understand what I think is the heart of your problem with Christianity. You say this: "My primary issue with Christianity and for that matter Judaism and Islam is these religions are based on the dreams, visions, interpretations of folklore, and/or outright fabrications and manipulation of historical events." This of course dovetails nicely with your "rebranding" argument, wherein you accuse us of tossing out the parts of the "dreams, visions, folklore, and... historical events" we don't like in favor of a flavor of the month.
That would all make sense if it had an ounce of truth behind it, but your premise is wrong. Christianity is not based on what some goatherders in the Middle East said - it is based on relationship with the living God. You can say that I am hallucinating or misled if you want, but short of that (and unless I am just a brilliant liar with nothing better to do than to throw my life away on this tale), you have to deal with my experience with God. That experience is the basis of my belief and my faith - the Bible then becomes, as I have written to you before, a biography of that God and the story of how God has dealt with people in the past. It is authoritative, not because of Obadiah's innate understanding of quantum physics and Nahum's clear explanations of Chinese history, but rather because God reveals Godself to us bit by bit. Yes, ancients living in an incredibly violent world latched onto what they understood of God - God's authority and power - in making some incredibly violent decisions. But God is fully revealed in Christ.
Are there some things in the Old Testament that no longer apply? Of course. That is why the vast majority of Christians don't follow the Kosher laws. That does not mean there was not a time and place for those laws when God was dealing with infant peoples in a new world, but it is equally true that God's dealings with us have evolved as we as a race have matured.
Surely you have seen multiple examples of progressive revelation in other parts of life. Do you have kids? I doubt you explain why touching a stove is bad in the same way to your six-year-old as you do to your 9-month-old. To the baby, you simply say "no" and forcefully snatch her hand away before she is burned. Have you ever coached a team? Surely you don't explain tactics in the same way to a rookie as you do to an experienced all-star. Have you ever taught a class? Of course you start with basics, even skipping some critical elements at first, until there is some understanding of what has to be learned first. Ever seen somebody take a piano lesson? They are at first told NOT to use a pedal, even though pedaling is integral to good piano playing, because they must first learn how to play one key at a time. That does not mean that pedaling is wrong, but it does mean that it would be wrong to reveal pedaling to someone who has not yet mastered Chopsticks.
I think it is time for you to quit picking on strawmen. Yes, it is easy to make fun of people who call themselves Christian and who make bad arguments in support of Christianity. I could do the same thing with shallow atheists, but what would be the point? Get out of the shooting gallery and start dealing with the real issue - the fact that God wants relationship with you, the fact that God demonstrates that desire to you through His love for you and through His children's love for you, and the fact that Christ gave His life for you even while you were (and are) uninterested in His life. Those are the real issues, not whether somebody's view of Jesus contradicts somebody else's interpretation of Second Chronicles.
I have no idea how this conversation will end. Since he and I have never met, it is hard for him to assign credibility to my claims, I am sure. It is easy for him to write me off as, in his words, "misled." So be it.