01 April 2010

The atheist "I-have-honest-questions" dodge (NEXT! #21)

by Dan Phillips

Challenge: You're a Christian? Oho. So give me a convincing argument as to why God...?

Response A: I'll be happy to respond, but please answer mine first. How do you convince someone to accept a true, accurate and sufficient answer that he is unwilling to accept?

Response B: I'll be happy to, but please answer mine first. How does one persuade an arrogant blowhard who is unwilling to acknowledge his own biases, presuppositions and errors, and who is unwilling to answer even this question directly, to accept even a completely true and irrefutable answer that he refuses to accept
(Proverbs 21:22)

Dan Phillips's signature


DJP said...

First, I've been encouraged for newcomer's sake to point out that you should click on the NEXT! in the post to see the purpose of this series.

Second, this post seemed appropriate for April 1.

Third, this post seemed appropriate as we head into Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday.

Fourth, this will probably be a one-day meta, for that reason.

David Rudd said...

i guess if i was the atheist, i might respond to your challenge by saying, "it would start with not interrupting me."

David Rudd said...

and then, if i was a clever atheist, i would say,

"good point. we probably shouldn't have this conversation. NEXT!"

James Scott Bell said...

Exactly...I like to ask, "What quantum of proof would you find sufficient?" This brings up a whole conversation on the nature of evidences for other matters which the atheist happily accepts; and shows the "double standard" he's using when it comes to God. IOW, he doesn't expect Abraham Lincoln's ghost to appear right before his eyes in order to accept his past existence, etc.

DJP said...

Yes, Rudd; you seem to manifest a consistent concern to preserve false dignity for horrible, harmful, damaging beliefs. I don't see Biblical warrant for that concern, and I don't share it.

But with either of your non-responses (both of which were anticipated in Response B), that would mark the respondent as not up to a serious discussion, expose the position, and the conversation would be (as the Bible directs) over.

Now let's move along.

DJP said...

That's right, Johnny, along the same lines. As I argue here, by the standard of proof an atheist demands, he can't even compellingly "prove" his own existence.

DJP said...


For this meta, please do not comment until you've read all the preceding comments.


Sir Brass said...

Heh heh, response A is what one asks while Response B is what one is thinking :).

I like it!!

DJP said...

Yes, Sir Brass. Different versions for different situations.

Another proactive note: this post might make for helpful background reading.

David Rudd said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DJP said...

David wants to turn the meta to whether I'm being nice enough to atheists. I don't. You're already on-record on the subject David, as usual, and your opening thoughts are there for all to see, in no need of repetition.

You want to talk about that, my email's up, feel free. Maybe sometime we'll have a post on that topic. Today, we don't.

Sir Brass said...

I'd say that exhorting them to examine their beliefs to see that they are bankrupt is very kind, Dan. Sometimes, like this time, the most loving thing is to bring the roofing hammer down onto their fingers.

Mark B. Hanson said...

I still find it best to ask instead, "If I gave you convincing answers to your qustions, would you then believe?"

This tends to cut through to what the real objections are... and show whether his questions are "honest".

DJP said...

Thanks. I'm not being facetious, btw, when I say we may do a post on the nice-factor someday. David can appositely point to a lot of texts about gracious speech; I can (and would) point to a few others... and, specifically, I'll want to talk about the objective I pursue in such encounters. It doesn't seem to be the same objective that others pursue.

But in this post? I'm just pursuing it. Not talking about it.

DJP said...

Mark, I think that's very useful. But here's what this does, that that one doesn't.

Yours tacitly accepts that the atheist is open-minded to correction. That's what I think it worth establishing at the outset: on what standard of proof?

The reality is that the atheist approaches these encounters with assumptions he doesn't even admit to himself. He approaches you thus: Given that your God does not exist, and that no proof can be adduced for His existence, prove that He exists.

He'll insist that that isn't his position, but it is. And so, of course, given that premise, of course it is impossible to prove that something which can't be true is in fact true -- because if it can't be true, it can't be true. "Proofs" are irrelevant.

Thus it's best, or at least useful, to cut right to the root of it. He's stacked the deck. Get that out in the open, then maybe we can go somewhere.

Zachary Bartels said...

Ah, David, you haven't changed since seminary...

Mark B. Hanson said...

You're right, of course - the athiest could simply say, "Sure! If you convince me, I'll convert", and then accept none of the evidence.

It's interesting, too, that the tables are often turned: the athiests present us with their irrefutable evidence against God, and we just don't "get it". Of course to them it means we are stupid or evil.

David Rudd said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brad Williams said...

Yeah, but we all know that the atheist is bluffing anyway. He only wishes to be true what he knows isn't true (Romans 1:19).

DJP said...

Here's the part of David Rudd's comment that is apposite:
not sure what that means, since you didn't know me while i took classes at GRTS and you don't know me now...
although, i'd be happy to meet you for coffee sometime in GR if you'd like to get to know me.

So we've had the point and the counterpoint. Now let's not turn this into the Who Knows David? thread; you two perhaps can correspond offstage.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...


I love your NEXT! posts. I've actually asked an atheist this - whether he really wanted to know, or if he was just trying to argue - and he had no response for me. You can tell the obvious arrogance of the atheist asking this question - he's looking for a fight, not an explanation. I'm sure if the atheist in question had honestly asked, "How can I be saved," you'd be immediate in walking him through the gospel.

DJP said...

Well, there y'go.

I've long said that the sign of an insincere question is that it gets asked and re-asked after it's already been answered. One of my tests (as some will recall from the "you don't believe in Christ unless you believe in universal atonement" guy) is to ask the opponent to put my response in his own words. Surprise! No clue.

Because getting an answer was never the objective. Feeling better about evasion is the objective.

Never forget one thing. Since the Garden, our race has been born with one agenda: to make the world safe for unbelief.

The apologist's agenda is to remove that illusion.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I enjoy these "Next!" posts.

Although I have yet to have an opportunity to employ them, I would use them to see how they play out (provided I could remember them!).

Out of curiosity, have you, DJP, used either responses A or B, in real life with an atheist? If so, how did they turn out?

Did they shrink the belligerence out of the atheist, at least?

Phil said...

Love it.
I too usually ask "If I answered them would you believe" but I think from now on I'm going to be using this one instead, I like the counter-punch effect.
On a side note it's always been a dream of mine to debate an atheist publicly on the existence of God. I would spend all my time disproving the existence of the atheist on stage with me.

DJP said...

Phil, when I was an unbelieving skeptical teen, I kept Christian peers spinning and spinning with my little memorized jabs. I don't remember one thing they said in response.

I think -- now, yea-many years later -- that if one had responded by asking me a series of questions like Mark hanson's and yours, and like mine, put me on the spot... I don't know. It might have given me pause. Hard to say.

FX Turk said...

When David Rudd stops interrupting others, I'll chime in.

Jugulum said...


"Yours tacitly accepts that the atheist is open-minded to correction."

Isn't it true (on Calvinist assumptions) that some of the self-avowed atheists we talk to will be open-minded to correction?

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Atheist: "You're a Christian? Oho. So give me a convincing argument as to why God...?"

Peter: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15)

Response A: "I'll be happy to respond, but please answer mine first. How do you convince someone to accept a true, accurate and sufficient answer that he is unwilling to accept?"

Response B: "I'll be happy to, but please answer mine first. How does one persuade an arrogant blowhard who is unwilling to acknowledge his own biases, presuppositions and errors, and who is unwilling to answer even this question directly, to accept even a completely true and irrefutable answer that he refuses to accept?"

I'll guess that Apostle Peter would probably prefer Response A over Response B.

DJP said...

In a situation where someone is asking a reason for the hope within us? Probably.

Not necessarily in the very different situation I presupposed.

Unknown said...

Ok, I probably wouldn't come right out with the arrogant blowhard thing. Then again, I'm not DJP.

But -

This is an indispensable understanding to have of mockers. The verses you're linking to in Proverbs exist to strengthen us in our faith and to instruct us in our interactions.

Otherwise, we're kind of like the people who say "If we just listen to the terrorists, they won't hate us anymore."

Solameanie said...

Troublemaker. ;)

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...


"Will be" and "are" are two different positions. Look at the nature of the question: it's not for correction. This atheist is standing like superman in front of a gunman yelling, "Shoot me, shoot me!! Your bullets will have no effect!"

You can only bring correction to a heart that is humbled. As someone else has already pointed out, perhaps this response of Dan's will be the instrument that makes the Atheist question his motives, and by God's grace he'll repent and be saved.

Solameanie said...

BTW, I should have also said that this post is actually very timely if you've been following the news lately. Virulent atheist Christopher Hitchens has been making the interview rounds in light of the ongoing sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. In my view, Hitchens is a textbook example of the type of atheist you're depicting here.

DJP said...

David and Webster, good comments, both. Love your last line, David. Too many Christians seem to be more concerned with being liked than with casting down strongholds and leaving men without defense.

David, the thing is, in B I never say that the questioner is a blowhard. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't.

He can show by his response.

DJP said...

Yes, Sola. Wilson absolutely shredded and dismantled Hitchens' case, and Hitchens just went on as if it had been a distant cricket.

I wonder if Wilson ever tried, "Summarize my argument for me, would you please?"

Jugulum said...


I can't tell whether that comment (7:59AM) was a response to TUaD or me... But it kind of works for both.

So, you're not saying this is the right response to give to every atheist who asks us for arguments--but it's good if the atheist asks in a certain way, with a certain attitude? Is that it?

Something like, "If they ask with arrogance & dismissiveness, point that out"?

Figuring out the right reply looks like a difficult task of discernment, actually. Along the lines of Proverbs 26:4-5:
"4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes."

DJP said...

Exactly, Jug, and exactly — respectively.

I don't know that A would ever be inappropriate in such an encounter with a person who calls himself an atheist. Honestly, I think of atheism as like homosexuality in one respect: if someone says he's one, you know something is seriously and fundamentally wrong with how he looks at things.

Jugulum said...


Yes, there's a difference between "will be" and "are"--and I did mean "are".

When we meet a self-avowed atheist, God might have already started them toward regeneration & humble repentance. We don't know how much God has already done in them.

If we're talking to an atheist who isn't speaking with arrogance, we shouldn't assume anything about how closed-off and stuck-in-their-arrogance they are. If they are speaking with arrogance (like in the original Challenge), that's another situation.

Though we don't want to assume too much, even then, do we? I don't know where the proper discernment lies, here. What's the threshold?

Perhaps a safe rule would be, "If they manifest arrogance, point that out."

DJP said...

Sure. You can always escalate. In fact, usually easier to escalate than, uh, de-escalate.

Jugulum said...

"You can always escalate. In fact, usually easier to escalate than, uh, de-escalate."

Well-said, Response B being more escalated.

Nash Equilibrium said...

I think that's a good point about arrogance. There are some people who haven't thought much about God and just assume they are atheists. I think they can be reasoned with.
Then, there are the atheist crusaders who are smarter than everyone else because they are atheist. They are almost universally arrogant and fit most of the scriptures that Dan referenced.

Larry Geiger said...

"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "

John said...

Never forget one thing. Since the Garden, our race has been born with one agenda: to make the world safe for unbelief.

The apologist's agenda is to remove that illusion.

That's an interesting perspective. Fig leaves, my friend.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...


Amen to that.

Penn Tomassetti said...

It's clear from the expression,"Oho", that this hardened, dim-hearted atheist has no interest in hearing any "convincing evidence" for God. Seems the real motivation is to mock (Psalm 89:51).

Kurt said...

Ok, I am coming around to your viewpoint. I was a fan of evidentiary apologetics, but haven't had much actual luck with it - I can hear the guffaws already. On occaision it has helped to clear the minds of those who wanted to believe but thought that science disproved Christianity.

After the previous series of red-neck posts, I went and read some blogs by atheist scientists to research this topic a bit, and found their argument is - drumroll please - the fact we are here is absolute proof that natural processes created us.

Yeah, circular thinking, pure assumption. Self-proclaimed scientists who have thrown empiricism out the window. The irony alone is mind-boggling. And those same blogs contained emphatic denials that assumptions on their part are involved. Pretty much confirms what y'all have been saying all along (I like that word "y'all").

Given that, I'll leave y'all with this anecdote:

My dad is an atheist, PH.D. in physical chemistry, post doc in microbiology. Came to the conclusion that Darwinian evolution is baloney. Still believes in natural processes, just that we don't know what they are. He thinks scientists who defend evolution are mediocre scientists, using bad arguments to defend against religious nut cases. He affirms us nut cases need to be kept out, but thinks the bad arguments are stifling research.

The quote:

"I wanted to write a book to stimulate research into other areas (than Darwinian evolution), but I couldn't figure a way to write God out of it".

He never wrote the book, didn't convert either.

DJP said...

Larry Geiger:


...and timely!

DJP said...

Penn: thanks. It's hard to keep within the brevity of my Next! format. "Oho" was about the third version, picked for that purpose.


DJP said...

Kurt, thank you, that is really interesting. I'd be interested to hear more about your dad. Is he still with us?

As to evidenciary apologetics: I definitely think there's a place for it. If you haven't already, read the essay I link to in my 5:34 AM, APRIL 01, 2010 comment. It's my best effort to combine presuppositionism with the use of evidence.

John Salmon said...

Why not just answer the atheist's question directly? Answering a question with a question was often Jesus' method, but He knew what people were thinking already. We don't.

DJP said...

You read all the comments, and still don't know why, John?

Jesus also answered questions with questions, in exactly such situations as I'm envisioning (Matthew 21:23-27).

Kurt said...

Thanks Dan, I didn't mean to imply I was ditching evidentiary apologetics, but that I am warming to presupposition(al)ism as a necessary part of apologetics.

I read your essay, I believe fulfilled prophecy is the strongest argument for the supernatural origin of the Bible, and proof of the transcendance of God, so nice to see you make that a core piece of it.

Was there any particular aspect of my Dad's thoughts you are interested in? He is retired but still with us at this point.

Terry Rayburn said...

Response C:

I'd be happy to respond. But first let me ask you, "Can you articulate what the Gospel is, the Good News about Jesus Christ, as taught in the Christian Bible?"

Or, alternatively, if you can't articulate it, may I state it briefly, just so we know which God we're talking about?

"[The Gospel, and by inference ONLY the Gospel] is the power of God for salvation, to all who believe..." - Rom. 1:16

Ya never know.

donsands said...

"A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion."

And perhpas this same fool is the one who says there is no God.

Good post again. Kepp em comin'.

Have a peaceful Maundy/Holy Thursday evening.

donsands said...

Oh, and that Proverb was 18:2, from Dan's link. Sorry about that chief.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Atheist: "You're a Christian? Oho. So give me a convincing argument as to why God...?"

Response (D): I'd be happy to respond. But first let me ask you: "What do you mean by saying 'Oho'?"

Penn Tomassetti said...


I thought "Oho" was funny and original. You are like an artist when it comes to words.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Atheist: "What do I mean by 'Oho'? I was just trying to stifle an oncoming sneeze. I hope that's okay with you."

Janice said...

Dan, this is gold! Thank you! Exposing the motive of the question seems to be the key in not getting into a “round and round the mulberry bush” discussion with atheists. I always make the mistake of trying to answer every question. Then, like you pointed out, the atheists just keep asking the same questions that you answered before. It’s like they don’t really care about your answers, they just want to skewer you.

There is Biblical precedent for your NEXT! responses. Jesus exposed false questions when he knew the questioners were not trying to find out truth, but just trying to trip Him up (and even though we can’t read minds like Jesus can, we still have the good sense to know when someone is just trying to pelt us with obnoxious questions). Remember the taxes questions by the Sadducees (I think?) and Jesus asked them, “Whose face is on the coin? Then render to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”. It’s like Jesus was saying, “Yes, I’ve got a longer, more involved answer to that question, but I’m giving you the terse answer because I know you are really not inquisitive. You’re just trying to get me in trouble.”

Also, being loving does not mean being sweet, smiling, and agreeable in the face of attacks such as these. Sometimes the more loving thing to do – if we want others to know the truth and obey God and not go to hell – is to expose disingenuous questions. Like getting the atheist to face the fact that he does not truly disbelieve there is a God, but that he simply hates the God he knows exists.

DJP said...

Very well-put, Misty.

Kurt said...

Since this thread is likely to close soon - here goes as requested:

My dad's thought processes went something like this:

Fruit flies have been irradiated in labs for decades to induce mutations.

quote: "(With irradiation) you can make a fruit fly with four wings or none, or even a wing on its nose, but in the end it is still a fruit fly."

He saw this as evidence that random mutations are inadequate to explain the production of new structures, and hence, speciation in general.

My dad had other arguments, but the above was his best one IMHO (not to be confused with OHO).

This guy harps on the same thing (great website BTW): http://crev.info but comes to the correct conclusion (Christianity). His fruit fly articles were priceless.

The science blogs I read concurred with my dad: "we don't understand all the mechanisms yet", but a glib "we will find it someday" attitude prevailed.

My dad admitted he was unable to come up with any plausible scenario to account for speciation that didn't involve ID (Intelligent Design), and since that was anathema to him, he just kept his mouth shut. I commend him for his honesty however, better than the mediocre scientists he denigrates.

Sir Brass said...

Kirby, that response itself is bothersome. Care to elaborate on why you wouldn't want to give a defense of the faith to one who asks (even if in the end his motive is only to hear himself speak)? What about what others around you who are listening? Do you care so little about them that you'd blow off an opportunity to speak to this man about the truth of God and the gospel that they might hear as well?

Just some honest questions for thought. I have to admit, though, shamefully to having thought this response before simply b/c I didn't want to deal with the atheist at that point in time. Doesn't make it RIGHT, however.

Kirby L. Wallace said...

To clarify...

I'm not wanting to be crass or rude for no reason. The point is simply this:

Faith is a gift from God. If they have not been given this gift, they will not - and cannot accept the truth no matter what their "honest" question is.

There is no way to "argue the faith into them". The prerequisite is faith; faith is not the goal. It is not the result. They must HAVE faith already, and for those that do, they believe the Gospel the very instant that they hear it.

They simply need to hear the Gospel, and I will preach to them nothing else. I do not care about thier honest questions. They are irrelevant no matter what they are, with the possible exception of one question: "Brothers, what must we do to be saved?"

That's an "honest question" I will attempt to answer because it stems from a faith that they already, clearly possess.

But if your question is only designed to satisfy curiosity on some bit of minutia that has absolutely nothing to do with "God have mercy on me, a sinner", then I will not waste their time or mine.

Jesus did not say anything, ever, about coming here to convert goats into sheep. His work was to SEPARATE the goats from his sheep and to FIND HIS SHEEP.

They are out there. They recognise His voice the very instant that they hear it. They just need to hear it. And His voice is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe!"

Until that message is heard... Until that question is answered... I will entertain no others with the lost.

Now, once saved and INSIDE the church, I think they are entitled to all kinds of q&a if they like. INSIDE the church, as a bona fide believer, I'll gladly engage in near full-on battle; because such is edifying **IF** you are a believer first!

That is all.

Kirby L. Wallace said...

Dan... Did you read Frank's article, the one just before your's? ;-)

Rachael Starke said...

Misty, that was great.

The post was great too. A little tough for my tired brain to sift at this late juncture, but the comments thread helped.

DJP said...

Well, as I close the doors, let me say that I don't at all agree with Kirby's perspective, as I'm understanding it. Nor did Paul on Mars Hill.

Having said that, though, I return to a note I sounded at the start of the meta. It is no part of my objective to send someone off holding a damning or harmful belief and feeling good about it, or feeling that the noisome lie was respectable, solid, and valid.

So until the next Next!... or well, really, until tomorrow: nighty-night.