Are You Thinking Like an Atheist?
Why is it that so many Christians believe that thinking about God, understanding systematic theology, or doing apologetics should be something so easy that little thinking is required? In fact, some of them believe that loving God and neighbor requires nothing more than praying a prayer, reading a daily devotional, and going to church on Sunday. Because they don’t question the existence of God, they can’t imagine why anyone else would. Sadly, such shallow thinking has more in common with modern-day popular atheism than it does with historic Christianity.
There are many atheists who maintain that if God exists it wouldn’t be that difficult to know. This is simply a species of the argument from divine hiddenness (i.e., if God exists, then His existence should be obvious to everyone). Why on earth would anyone need formal training in theology, philosophy, or apologetics to learn about God?
At Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College, (SES) we believe that this attitude has led to confused thinking about how to actually do apologetics, which leads to shallow (if not false) thinking about who God is. This can, in turn, lead to dangerous consequences for evangelism. Allow me to illustrate.
Are You Prepared?
My ten year old is a pretty smart guy. He makes good grades, is a math wiz, and can recite numerous sports statistics. He understands that when his allergies are acting up he needs some allergy medicine, or if he has a fever, he knows he needs some Tylenol. But exactly how much medicine should he take? How will those medicines interact with other medicines he may be taking or medical conditions he may have? How did that Tylenol come about in just the right combination of chemicals so as to help rather than harm him? He doesn’t know the answer to any of these questions.
My wife, on the other hand, is a clinical pharmacist. She knows the detailed answers to all of those questions and more. I recall helping her study for her pharmacy boards many years ago. The chemistry she had to study, the names she had to pronounce and recall, and the drug interactions she had to memorize were mind-boggling. We appreciate, and utilize often, the expertise of pharmacists like my wife. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say, “I reject the study of pharmacology because God wouldn’t make chemistry and the human body so difficult to understand that someone must take a class to be trained. Those pharmacists should just stay in their ivory towers and quit confusing us with their terminology and study.”
Similarly, my ten year old can know that nothing comes from nothing, and right now he’s content with knowing that God is the cause of the universe. But can he answer challenges from atheists like Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, Betrand Russell, or J.L. Mackie? Can he rightly refute the claims of the cults and their misunderstanding of God? Can he adequately respond to popular aberrant doctrines taught by some influential evangelicals? Can he explain how critical theory and modern “social justice” is antithetical to the Gospel? Many questions about God raised by both atheists and Christians require a good deal of background knowledge and, dare I say, philosophy in order to appropriately answer. The fact that someone is a Christian or has read one (or several) popular apologetics books does not necessarily make them an expert on the deeper issues that often need to be addressed when such questions are asked or challenges are raised. It is simply a fact of reality that many of these deeper issues are difficult to understand, and, sadly, the church as a whole is often ill-equipped to effectively respond.
If we understand the need for intense and difficult study in order to comprehend the inner workings of the human body, why would we expect less intense study when learning about the infinite Creator of the human body? In our society where bad ideas are simply absorbed into the cultural ethos both inside and outside the church, we must be prepared to think well, to think deeply, and to effectively engage the intellectual obstacles standing in the way of the Gospel.
Wading in Deeper Waters
Yes, God’s existence is obvious enough that my ten year old can understand the basics, but we’re not all ten years old. In order to understand the details, we need to put aside childish thinking (1 Cor. 13:11) and devote time to thinking deeply about reality and the conclusions that follow. We should also appreciate those who have devoted their lives to studying these things in order to help equip the rest of us and not be surprised if we don’t instantly understand every detail they communicate.
I want to challenge my brothers and sisters in Christ to not think like an atheist. Do not be content with what is often incomplete and unreflective thought. Our faith (and our knowledge of God’s existence) must be built upon deeper foundations that are not so easily disturbed by the tired old fallacious comments made by those who oppose the Truth. We must be careful to build our understanding of God upon reality rather than on our emotions and oft-times misdirected thinking.
The truth is, some of us are closer to my ten year old than we should be regarding our knowledge of theology, philosophy, and apologetics, while others are closer to my pharmacist wife. But all of us are capable of learning from each other and going just a bit deeper each year. That doesn’t mean we will, or even have to, understand the deeper philosophical arguments and the like (I certainly don’t plan on studying pharmacology any time soon!). But it should at least mean we recognize their existence and appreciate that we can learn from those who do understand them (and point unbelievers to them when needed). It’s okay that we’re all at different places on this journey as long as we all remain teachable and willing to learn. As Mortimer Adler notes,
“Not only must we honestly announce that pain and work are the irremovable and irreducible accompaniments of genuine learning, not only must we leave entertainment to the entertainers and make education a task and not a game, but we must have no fears about what is ‘over the public’s head.’ Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up the ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles. The school system which caters to the median child, or worse, to the lower half of the class; the lecturer before adults-and they are legion-who talks down to his audience; the radio or television program which tries to hit the lowest common denominator of popular receptivity-all these defeat the prime purpose of education by taking people as they are and leaving them just there.”
In a desperately lost and confused world, the truth and clarity of the Gospel must be communicated and defended now more than ever. We cannot remain where we are and expect to impact this culture for Christ. The fact is, there are some reading this article who need to take the next step and become formally equipped to proclaim the Gospel, engage the culture, and defend the truth. Perhaps that even means enrolling in a certificate or degree program at a school like SES. To learn more about why a seminary education may be right for you, and what makes SES a unique option, please download our FREE ebook today!