Doubt, Skepticism, and Unbelief: Arguing Against Christianity

Christian, do you have doubts about your faith? Agnostic, are you not skeptical of Christian truth claims? Atheist, you disbelieve in God, don’t you? Doubt, skepticism, and unbelief are a part of life no matter what you believe or where you fall on the atheist-believer continuum. What are we to do when we face such questions that disturb us from our habitual and daily life patterns? Should we brush them to the side dismissively, bury them deep within in the hopes that they’ll never arise again, or seek to engage them? My goal in this article is to encourage the last of these options: to actively face and engage any doubt, skepticism, or unbelief you might have regarding issues of religious truth and knowledge.

No one likes to be wrong, especially regarding personal beliefs about ourselves or the nature of life. Doubts about what we believe threaten doxastic certainty (which, we should admit, is hard to find) and force us to consider that we might not only be wrong, but we might also need to change. Since beliefs in a large part determine behavior and character, changing our beliefs can have a radical impact on our lives. [1] This reality, whether we admit it or not, can act as a strong psychological deterrent to admitting we have doubts, let alone facing them squarely with the realization that they could change our lives. Yet what is more important, to be comfortable with our beliefs regardless of whether they are right or wrong, good or bad, or to seek to align our beliefs with what is true and good? [2] On the face of it, the second option is the more noble one. If we do take this route, we will undoubtedly face doubt, skepticism, and unbelief at some point in our lives. When this occurs, what should one do?

A Route to Avoid

Personally I am not immune to doubts about my faith. Having grown up in a toxic religious environment and suffered abuse at the hands of a particularly twisted church, I have wrestled with severe doubts about the problem of evil and the goodness of God. This is one reason why I started seminary two years ago, and why I am in an apologetics and ethics M.A. program. [3] Since being in the program I have read and been introduced to anti-Christian writers, thinkers, and debaters (whether they be atheists, agnostics, or adherents of other religions). I think that this exposure has been healthy as it has forced me to think critically about my own beliefs, come to grips with the complexity of theistic belief, and engage those who believe differently than I do in a charitable and friendly way. However, often I find that these apologists against Christianity have little exposure or knowledge of the deep and rich intellectual tradition that has existed throughout Christian history (and which is ongoing today). The wealth of literature put forth by Christian authors on vexing topics like the coherence of God, the Bible and science, the problem of evil, the possibility of miracles, the historical reliability of the Bible and related historiographical studies, culture making, political science, justice and society, wealth and power, and so forth is staggering. Anyone who claims that Christians are, de facto, stupid or ignorant is simply uninformed (I don’t deny that such labels can and do apply to some Christians; but certainly not by anything intrinsic to the Christian faith tradition itself).

Popular atheists more often than not put forward shallow and unconvincing arguments against Christianity. These arguments can carry a veneer of truth and invincibility – and often not little bit of arrogance. Such arguments can be found in Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchen’s god in not Great. Sam Harris does a better job in his books The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, but a careful philosophical examination of these works also finds them to be sorely lacking. In addition to published works, prominent anti-theists go on cultural crusades giving talks, book signings, and debating about issues pertaining to religion and its impact on science, history, and ethics. Sometimes they end up debating a theist who is more than a match for them; for example Laurence Krauss’ debates with William Lane Craig this past summer in Australia (part 1 here; part 2 here; part 3 here). Despite Craig’s good arguments, Krauss persisted in putting forward juvenile, ill-conceived arguments against God that are badly outdated or completely discredited (for example, the “god of the gaps” theory; or a rewash of the Euthyphro dilemma). In addition, Krauss was quite rude and condescending toward Craig and would often change the topic or go off on a diatribe in an attempt to subvert Craig’s objections.

How should someone who either doubts the validity of Christian belief or who disagrees entirely with Christianity go about investigating its truth claims? Needless to say, I would not recommend the belittling and haughty attitude and approach taken by the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Krauss (among others). Instead, attempt to engage theistic beliefs and theists in particular in a genuine way: listen to them first and hear what they are saying and what they believe. [4] Then, if you still strongly disagree and believe they are badly mistaken, employ valid philosophical, historical, and scientific reasoning and methodology to call theistic beliefs into question. A good example of this would be the Australian atheistic philosopher Graham Oppy. He has written some excellent works debating the truth of theism, such as Arguing About GodsOntological Arguments and Belief in Godand The Best Argument Against God.

If you are intent upon carefully investigating Christianity’s truth claims, or perhaps attempting to disprove it entirely, I would encourage you to take the following approach (this is by no means the only approach since the topics you choose to investigate will be determined by what interests and/or troubles you; the point here is this is the methodology I’m urging you to use):

Is the Idea of God Coherent?

Coherence of TheismFirst, ask whether the concept of the Christian God is coherent. Christians believe God to be an all powerful, all knowing, all wise, perfectly good, ever-present spirit, who is an eternally existent and necessary being. You might find proving the incoherence of God to be harder than you think. Those opposed to Christianity like to caricature the God of Christian theism, often by referring to him as the “old man in the sky” and other such belittling descriptions. Yet to refuse to actually recognize the nature and characteristics of the Christian God is to erect a straw men (or should I say straw god?), since no serious and well-informed Christian believes in an old man who lives up in the sky (nor does Scripture teach such a thing). As should be obvious, before you can refute the Christian God, you must understand who Christians claim their God to be. Be intellectually honest at this point and sincerely attempt to understand who the Scriptures say God is and what he is like, eschewing the temptation to trade on false notions and silly caricatures.

On this topic, I’d suggest looking into reading the following books:

The Problem of Evil

God Freedom EvilSecond, consider whether the evidential/probabilistic problem of evil makes the existence of God unlikely. The problem of evil is complex, but generally it breaks down as follows. We can distinguish between the existential and theoretical problem of evil: the existential problem deals with our own emotional and psychological health as we face evil in our lives; the theoretical problem deals with the logical consistency of the existence of evil and the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. The existential problem is usually of pastoral concern, while the theoretical problem is the subject of discussion among philosophers and theologians. The theoretical problem of evil was first stated by Epicurus and then later by David Hume centuries ago. Hume put it succinctly like this: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion).

Under the theoretical problem, we can further delineate the logical problem of evil from the evidential/probabilistic problem of evil. The logical problem of evil asks if it is even possible for the Christian God and evil to coexist. The evidential/probabilistic problem of evil asks if it is probably that the Christian God exists if evil exists. The logical problem has at this point been universally abandoned since it is nigh impossible to prove that God could not possibly have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil. One might, and many do, argue that it is unlikely that God has such morally sufficient reasons, but certainly it is not logically impossible. Thus, the major philosophical debate at this time centers on the evidential/probabilistic problem of evil.

I’ve diagramed these divisions below:

Problem of Evil Diagram 2

On this topic, I’d suggest reading these books:

The Resurrection of Jesus

Case for ResurrectionIf you think you’ve succeeded in either disproving the coherence of the Christian concept of God or have proved God’s existence to either be logically impossible or highly improbably because of the existence of evil, then you could argue that the resurrection of Jesus as a miracle wrought by God is impossible since it is unlikely that God exists. Yet you would still face the problem of having to explain Jesus’ death and empty tomb, for these are historical facts. If Jesus died and the tomb was found empty, where did his body go? Did his disciples steal it? Did the Jewish chief priests and Pharisees remove it and blame the disciples? Did all those who claimed to see Jesus’ resurrection body have a hallucination? If there are no good naturalistic explanations for the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection appearances, then a supernatural explanation must be considered. If a supernatural explanation (like a miracle) is determined to be the most probable explanation then this actually counts as evidence that God exists – and that theism isn’t incoherent and the problem of evil does not defeat the God hypothesis.

Resources for this topic include:

Conclusion

I don’t suggest this approach because I doubt that Christianity is true and I want you to prove me right. Although I have had many doubts (and still do at times), I currently believe the weight of the arguments favors the rationality and veracity of Christian theism. In addition, I believe that God changes and transforms lives, as I have experienced this to some extent myself and I’ve seen it in others. I write these things to encourage you not to run from your doubts, skepticism, and unbelief – or to fear such things. When you doubt or if you are skeptical of Christian beliefs, please don’t settle for superficial and quaint aphorisms that attempt to substitute for legitimate arguments. Instead, dig deep. Bring serious arguments to the table. Engage with the extensive and rich literature on these three (and other) issues in order to make good arguments that are sound and convincing, and refuse to engage in the false, flimsy and pseudo-arguments of popular atheists today. Take your doubt, skepticism, and unbelief and use them as tools and motivation to carefully examine these things. Are you justified in your doubt and unbelief? Seek to find out. Are there answers to your questions, whether they be existential or theoretical? My guess is that there are. This will certainly take time, work, and effort, but the subject matter is too serious to take lightly. I certainly don’t take it lightly as more than once I’ve considered that if I am wrong about Christianity then I have been massively deceived. Having experienced the pain of deception and the regret of throwing my life’s energy behind something that was false and harmful, I would like to spare you the same.

Notes

[1] For more on the relationship between beliefs, character, and behavior, see J. P. Moreland’s Love Your God with All Your Mind, 2012, pp. 86-90. In addition, our beliefs can also determine relationships, as we tend to gravitate toward those who think and believe as we do.

[2] Admittedly, the concepts of “truth” and “goodness” themselves constitute the subject of beliefs, the meanings of which are vigorously debated.

[3] Many people might assume that one goes to seminary to become further convinced of what they believe or confirmed in their faith. However, surprisingly, seminary is also a place – a safe place – to ask tough questions, to probe doubts and fears, and to seek truthful answers. In no way does it intrinsically serve as a rubber-stamp for settled convictions.

[4] Likewise, I would strongly encourage Christians to do the same with atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Muslims, New Age spiritualists, and anyone else they meet who differs fundamentally from them in their spiritual and metaphysical beliefs.

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