Countering Dawkins & the Atheists: the ‘clarification question’

by Robert Oram

(Article originally posted on April 8, 2016 here)

I’ve just finished reading a good article in last week’s (1st Apr.) English ‘Church Times’ by Rupert Shortt (religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement) in which he responds to what I might call 10 ‘classic Dawkinsisms’ – i.e. 10 typically polemical anti-theism statements.

All of his responses are worthy and well thought out.

But I was struck by the thought that many who read the 10 statements, or who encounter many such statements or provocative questions, might feel uneasy or lack confidence in how they, themselves, would tackle them. So supplementing Shortt’s responses I wanted to make one general point –

There is an underlying (and usually hidden) presumption behind nearly every Atheist assertion and question.

Very often an excellent alternative to bearing the burden of trying to answer the challenge yourself is to pause and simply ask yourself one simple question instead:

‘what is the presumption that my interlocutor is looking to smuggle in here?’

Then simply go after that presumption by calling it out with your own counter, ‘clarification question’!

Rather than you being in the hot-seat, this then immediately passes the buck straight back to the asserter / questioner, and the discussion instantly becomes one where they, first, have to justify their own presumption(s) and so their own Atheism is in the spotlight and in need of defending equally as much as (if not even more than!) your own Theism, that they were previously intent on attacking.

To try and give you a flavour of what I mean, below I have re-posted the 10 ‘Dawkinsisms’ from Shortt’s article, followed by both the (hidden) Presumption and (example) clarification Question(s):

1. “We are all Atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us go one god further.”

Presumption – There’s no more reason to believe in the Christian God than any of the others ever purported. Clarification Question – Are you suggesting there’s no more reason to believe in God than there is, say, Zeus or Thor? – (Most Atheists are then immediately on the back foot because they won’t want to feel like they are conceding any ground, so will feel obligated to say ‘yes.’ Even some of the most basic Christian apologetics here can quickly expose the fallacy of such a position).

2. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Presumptions – i) The God of the OT is ‘fictional’. ii) My Study of the Bible qualifies me to make these judgements. iii) There exists objective standards of virtue, ethics and morality that substantiate and ratify my condemning judgements. Clarification Questions – i) What makes you think the god of the OT is ‘fictional’? ii) How much and what type of study of the OT have you actually done? iii) By whose or what standard are you measuring the moral and ethical standards from which you can make such condemning declarations of another? iv) Isn’t this objection really just an objection against the inerrancy of the Old Testament? How does it negate the logical, metaphysical, and scientific evidence for the existence of God or the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus?

3. “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full, and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”

Presumption – Meaning, Value and Purpose are grounded in the attitude of the individual. Clarification Questions – i) What makes you think that true meaning, value or purpose is something that is just found in one’s attitude? ii) Doesn’t that relegate any notion of meaning, value or purpose entirely to the subjective? iii) You make it sound like one can just invent meaning, value or purpose as one so wishes. Doesn’t that mean that any sort of self-delusion will do? Where can one find any objective meaning, value and purpose?

4. “More generally, one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.”

Presumptions – i) All ‘religion’ is the same. ii) ‘religion’ espouses ignorance! Clarification Questions – i) Do you really think that all ‘religion’ is the same and teaches the same thing? ii) Which ‘religions’ do you think teach that not understanding is a virtue? iii) Being a Christian, I’d want to ask you why you think Christianity teaches that it’s a virtue to not understand? Where have you come across such a ‘teaching’? iv) Why do you think so many millions of Christians read their Bibles? What is it they’re hoping to not understand by reading it? v) Wasn’t it Christians, like Galileo and Newton, who founded the scientific method? vi) Why do you think there have been so many Christian scientists, like Galileo, Newton, Kepler and Faraday, who spent their lives intent on understanding this world and universe – if Christianity taught them to do the opposite? vii) Doesn’t the Bible seem to teach us to do science? (See Psalm 19:1-2).

5. “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told that she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realise that religion is something for her to choose – or reject – when she becomes old enough to do so.”

Presumption – A child’s sense of identity is indoctrinated upon them by their parents. Unless they are referred to in a certain way, a child will not realize that they have a choice as to what to believe in, and what not to. Clarification Questions – i) Do you really believe that most Christians remain Christians because they didn’t realize they had a choice? ii) How does what you say not also apply to children raised by Atheists?

6. “Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether they are ‘valid’, let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”

Presumptions – i) Atheism is the only ‘compatible’ world-view. ii) It is the ‘incompatibility’ of different faiths that leads to directly to (unwanted, evil etc.) consequences. Clarification Questions – i) when you say ‘faiths’, I assume you mean ‘world-view’? And that would include Atheism within what you say? ii) What do you mean by ‘incompatibility’? iii) Since when did mere ‘incompatibility’ alone lead to the ‘consequences’ that you allude to? iv) Isn’t ‘incompatibility’ to miss the point? Isn’t the common theme a lot more to do with humanity’s propensity to do evil in the name of a particular world-view…including Atheism?!

7. “I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.”

Presumption – Rational thought and human understanding can only be achieved through science. Clarification Question – Yes, I agree, it is thrilling that humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding! Did you know that some of history’s most prominent and influential scientists who pushed the boundaries of our understanding were Christians? (Like Galileo, Kepler, Faraday, Newton etc.) For them, rational enquiry and the pursuit of God went hand-in-hand.

8. “The only watchmaker is the blind forces of physics.”

Presumption – This is just a brute presumption of Atheism! Clarification Questions – i) How do the laws of physics make anything by themselves? ii) Don’t forces and laws just govern how processes and mechanisms work rather than actually make anything themselves? You also need an intelligent agent or pre-existent matter or energy, too, don’t you? iii) Do you think something really can come from literally nothing? iv) Aren’t the laws of physics quite complex and yet ordered and utterly reliable? How do you think such laws permeate from random, mindless, chaos if there is no ‘God’ behind them? v) If the only ‘watchmaker’ was physics and chemistry, then how do we account for rationality and knowledge? (See – ‘The FreeThinking Argument’ Here)

9. “Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women, and he was locked up for life. George W. Bush says that God told him to invade Iraq (a pity God didn’t vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction).”

Presumption – i) Belief in God is delusional. ii) Atheists are not delusional Clarification Questions – i) In your experience are most Paranoid Schizophrenics Christian then? (It’s curious, I’ve never met any!) ii) Didn’t the Atheist Friedrich Nietszche end up going insane?

10. Isaac Asimov’s remark about the infantilism of pseudoscience is just as applicable to religion: ‘Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold.’ It is astonishing, moreover, how many people are unable to understand that ‘X is comforting’ does not imply ‘X is true.’”

Presumption – Belief in God is just wishful thinking akin to a ‘comfort blanket’. Clarification Question – i) In what way does Asimov’s comment not also apply to Atheists? ii) Do you think the Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel understood that ‘X is comforting’ does not imply ‘X is true’ when he wrote – “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that”? – (Nagel, Thomas, The Last Word, pp. 130–131, Oxford University Press, 1997)

Now many will quite rightly think, as a Christian witness my aim is to help ‘win the soul rather than win an argument’. Correct. But it seems to me that, particularly in the privileged secular West, many folk need first-and-foremost to be challenged. They need cajoling by someone to ‘think about what they think they think,’ because in so many ways they haven’t thought things through and have just lived by socio/culturally driven presumptions.

If we as Christian witnesses can be surfacing & challenging these hidden presumptions, that so many Atheists and secular folk just instinctively hold to, then these may well be crucial seeds or ‘stone-in-shoes’ that can, inch-by-inch, dust away the misconceptions that intrude in hearts and minds that leave them closed to Christ and the salvific work of the Holy Spirit. So, next time you manage to strike up a discussion about your faith and you’re promptly faced with a testing objection, and many of these can come in the form of a question, try thinking, firstly:

What is the presumption that is being smuggled in here?

For more on the importance and use of questions in our apologetic and evangelistic engagements I heartily recommend ‘Tactics’ by Greg Koukl –

Rob Oram is curate (trainee minister) at Holmer Parish church in Hereford, England, having trained at Ridley Hall theological college (Seminary) in Cambridge. He has a passion for evangelism and apologetics and longs to see a new movement of Christians focussed and equipped on winsomely challenging the prevailing culture of our secularist society, with the gospel of Christ. He is married to Melissa and has 3 children and 1 grandchild!

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