I recently preached a sermon on faith and evidence and while it received a warm reception in the comments section of my blog, apparently the feelings were not universal: an absolutely scathing review was posted just today by the generally amiable Counter Apologist (henceforth CA). How scathing? Consider his opening (f-bomb and all). CA says of my sermon:
“It was absolutely infuriating.
“Throughout the entire sermon I kept having the mental image of Joe Pesci yelling ‘Get the fuck outta here!’ as we went from one doozy to another.”
Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother to respond to something like this, but I’ve maintained good relations with CA for a few years. Consequently, I find myself compelled to respond to this review, no matter how uncharitable, mean-spirited, vulgar, and misguided it may be. Note, however, that in my response I will assume readers have listened to the sermon (linked above). If you haven’t, I recommend that you take thirty-six minutes to listen. That said, if life is just too busy, you can probably make do.
In response, I’m going to focus on how CA misses three important points. By the way, these points are alliterated. Oh, and my sermon also had three points. Clever, no?
Missing the Point on Mormonism
CA begins by stating his “outrage” that I “make Mormons look bad”.
Mormons?! How so?
In the sermon I note how Mormon missionaries attempting to evangelize me have always failed to defend their evangelistic pitch to me with evidence. This anecdotal example offends CA who immediately surmises that I am making a disparaging general comment about Mormonism simpliciter:
“This isn’t a failing of Mormonism so much as it is the escape hatch of a missionary who is outwitted by a skeptic of their religion.”
In other words, it ain’t a fair fight! What is more, CA observes, Mormons have their own apologetics, and so my broadside of this religion is unfair and thus a cause for “outrage.”
Good grief, I make no general claims about Mormonism at all. The point of the illustration is to underscore the importance of apologetics in evangelism: you can’t expect to win people to your view if you’re unable to respond to their objections. To make the point I cite the example of how Mormon missionaries have failed to respond to my objections. This is how I set up the point:
“A way to see how reasonable it [the importance of evidence] is, is to consider it in a different context. So let me change the situation for a moment and let’s consider my interactions with Mormonism, because in this case I become the skeptic and the Mormon is the one witnessing to me.”
Note again that I make no general claims about Mormonism here. Rather, I frame the point in the terms of my experiences with particular Mormon missionaries. In each of those personal encounters the Mormons made extraordinary claims but could provide no evidence to support the claims. For that reason, I was not willing to consider Mormonism seriously.
Hence the lesson: if Christians want to reach skeptics they should be prepared to respond to objections with evidence. It’s that simple. No ground for outrage here.
To close off this first point, I can’t help but note the sad irony that CA accuses me of making Mormons look bad by distorting their views, and yet that very analysis makes me look bad … by distorting my views.
Missing the Point on Miracles
The Mormon bit is only the opening act. CA’s most egregious instance of missing the point concerns the miracles of Jesus. When I cite miracles in the first point of my sermon I do so to the end of illustrating a simple point: Jesus and early Christians (I cite Paul as an example) regularly appealed to evidence to support their claims. To support my claims I point out that Jesus performed miracles as a witness to his authority and Paul reasoned in the synagogue from the Scriptures.
CA appears to miss this point by a wide margin because his comments focus on the wholly irrelevant fact that he is personally skeptical of the miracle reports recorded in the Gospels. He then goes on to talk about what kind of miracle evidence he would find compelling. While that is an interesting conversation to have, it has precisely nothing to do with the point I’m making in the sermon.
The lesson for the audience is this: just as Jesus and Paul each found relevant evidence for their audience to support their claims, so we should find relevant evidence for our audience to support our claims.
And so we have a second impressive case of missing the point.
Missing the Point on Michael
Finally, let’s turn to the last point I want to focus on: Missing the point on Michael (okay, I admit, this last alliterated point is a stretch). So which Michael is this? Shermer, Michael Shermer. (But if you’d listened to the sermon you’d already know that.)
CA describes the point in my sermon where I recount the time that Michael Shermer appeared on Unbelievable and was asked what kind of event would persuade him a miracle had occurred. He replied that if a limb regrew immediately following a petitionary prayer, that would convince him that a miracle had occurred. However, later in the show he retracted that statement and suggested rather that even in this case he actually wouldn’t conclude a miracle had occurred. Rather, he’d assume there must be some natural capacity in the body to regrow limbs.
This is how CA introduces my use of this anecdote in the sermon:
“Randal moves on to one of his favorite stories about Michael Shermer being a closed minded fool on an apologetics podcast.”
To begin with, prefacing the discussion by labeling the case as “one of his favorite stories” rings a sour note of condescension. (Yawn, not that story again!) But at least we can say this much: CA is definitely consistent in maintaining his utterly withering tone.
More importantly, I don’t suggest in the sermon that Shermer is a “close minded fool.” On the contrary, this is how I immediately follow up the story:
“Let me add I do think that the process of transferring from one worldview to another is complicated and people don’t typically change their entire worldview over one piece of evidence. But nonetheless I have to say that it seems to me that at this point he was dogmatically closed to the consideration of this kind of evidence.”
Note two things about my disclaimer. First, it’s clear that I’m not trying to score any cheap shots here. Rather, I emphasize to my audience that we ought not be too quick to judge Shermer because worldview conversion happens slowly, and as I suggest, folks are typically reluctant to accept evidence that disconfirms their worldview. Having said that, I do opine that it seems to me Shermer is so closed off to disconfirming evidence that he is in danger of irrationality. Needless to say, this nuanced and tentative judgment is very different from CA’s suggestion that I cast Shermer merely as a “close minded fool.”
This brings me to yet more irony, for if anyone is uncharitable in their treatment of Shermer, it is CA for he brusquely states that Shermer is simply “being stupid.” Note the contrast here: I exercised charitable nuance while speaking extemporaneously about an atheist to a Christian audience. By contrast, CA lacked charitable nuance while writing about that same atheist to his readership.
One more thing: I can’t help but flag yet more irony. If CA is correct in his analysis of miracles then Shermer is not, in fact, “stupid” to disbelieve in miracles even if a limb regrows after a prayer. Why is that? Well, consider first CA’s analysis. As he writes: “on my proposed miracle framework, where we have repeatable, verifiable miracles only happening with one religion – we get enough background knowledge to trust historical miracle claims and believe that a god exists.”
Note that the scenario Shermer describes is a single instance of a limb regrowing. Since this is not yet part of a repeated sequence of events, by CA’s own definition it is not yet adequate to invoke the miraculous. And thus, by CA’s definition, Shermer is being smart, not “stupid.”
An Addendum: Swearing a Lot
I could have left my rebuttal to those three points but as I conclude I find myself compelled to comment on the vulgarity of CA’s review. Here’s another sample. He writes indignantly:
“Start giving me some specific, unique, repeatable Christian miracles that I can fucking witness and I’ll start believing!”
Yes, another f-bomb. Indeed, CA swears with a frequency that rivals the Goodfellas screenplay.
Now of course bloggers are free to use whatever language they want. (And I’m a big Goodfellas fan. Indeed, twenty years ago I had the VHS tape!) But if bloggers are free to cuss gratuitously, then I’m free to point out that doing so never makes you sound more intelligent, self-controlled, or deserving of respect. On the contrary, to a reader like me it smacks of a juvenile enfant terrible rebellion.
This is how CA begins his conclusion:
“The actual handling of evidence and trust that Randal engages in is largely on point, my ‘Get the fuck outta here!’ reactions are based on the idea that we have anything remotely like the kind of evidence Randal refers to.”
This is a revealing statement for two reasons.
To begin with, the stuff CA appreciated is the stuff the sermon was about. The sermon was concerned with defining faith as trust and explaining its relationship to evidence. And on that topic CA admits that it was “largely on point.”
Meanwhile, the stuff that was the subject of CA’s rage and vitriol — particularly the evidential strength of New Testament miracle reports for the contemporary self-styled skeptic — has precisely nothing to do with the sermon. Thus, the entire review is an exercise in missing the point.
And now, if I may close on a note of weary candor: reviews like this provide a prime example of why I increasingly find work in apologetics to be depressingly futile and unrewarding.