• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

If Richard Dawkins Showed Up in Sunday School…

…would we be ready to respond?

My most recent column in Faith Today notes that the New Atheists raise Old Questions that can be answered well enough, but only by those who have studied well enough. So are we preparing ourselves to respond properly to such queries?

Here is the article. And I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Faith Today here.

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest of the Not-So-New Atheists continue to provoke believers and unbelievers alike. Little that they raise in their books and speeches is novel. Indeed, much of it seems to stem from difficulties they have encountered far in their respective pasts, rather than anything revealed in cutting-edge sciences or humanities. But this lack of newness should mean we Christians have had plenty of time to get ready to respond to their concerns. Are we?

The following list is a sampling of questions Dawkins or Hitchens asks in one or another of their bestselling books. These are not matters of highly specialized expertise, but instead are the sorts of issues that would arise in a Bible study, or a sermon, or simply a thoughtful conversation among people interested in religion. How well are you prepared to answer them?

• Christians claim that the origin of the universe lies in the creative work of God. But who or what made God? Where does God come from? And to reply that “God has no beginning” is not an answer, since everything comes from something previous.

• Christianity claims to make people moral; many Christians claim that only devout Christians can be good; and many Christians also claim that someone cannot be good without God. Yet many non-Christians are obviously good and many Christians are obviously not good—such as we witnessed in Rwanda, a country whose population was 80 per cent Christian.

•  The God of the Old Testament is a bloodthirsty, jealous, genocidal, misogynistic, bullying tyrant who obsesses about ritual purity and punishes not only individuals but their entire families, and not only their families but their descendants for several generations.

• The God of the New Testament isn’t any better. Bad enough that the God of the Old Testament wanted everyone who didn’t like him to be dead. Worse that the God of the New Testament, according to his main spokesmen—Jesus, Paul, and John—consigns God’s enemies to everlasting torture in hell.

•  The Bible itself is a mess of literary odds and ends, full of absurdities (e.g., Moses wrote Deuteronomy, which contains an account of his own death and burial), disgraces (e.g., laws calling for the stoning of disobedient children), and historical mistakes (e.g., Luke contradicting the archaeological facts in his introduction to the nativity of Jesus).

•  The Gospels in particular cannot be taken seriously as history. They were composed long after the events they purport to depict. They were written by highly biased authors. They contain obvious borrowings from other cults of the Roman imperial world. And they cannot agree with each other on detail after detail, from the correct chronological order of events to how many angels were supposed to have appeared at Jesus’ empty tomb.

None of these questions are new. And none of them are difficult to respond to, so long as you have a proper understanding of two subjects: theology and the history of the Bible’s composition. Yet how many of us feel prepared to answer them?

Yes, most of us will never tangle with a Dawkins or a Hitchens. But we will encounter intelligent friends or family members who struggle with one or more of these issues. We will raise children who ask such questions. And we ourselves, if we pause to search our hearts, will find that we, too, have been troubled by one or more of these matters.

Apologetics—the part of Christian thinking that helps people understand why Christians believe—helps draw seekers in, yes, and helps keep antagonists at bay. But apologetics also helps each of us to grow up in our faith: both in knowledge, yes, but also in assurance.

So let’s have sermons that tell us why we should believe as well as what we should believe.

Let’s have robust adult Christian education courses and conferences that lead us through the Big Questions and Christianity’s good answers.

Let’s read books that prepare us to help other people with their doubts—and to help ourselves with our own.

And let’s therefore be preaching, teaching, and discipling in such a way that the next generation’s Dawkinses and Hitchenses will have more and better to go on.

We had best not delay. That generation is in our homes, in our youth groups, and in our pews right now. And they won’t be with us much longer.

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This article originally appeared in Faith Today (January 2011): 54.