My relationship with the wider Christian apologetics community can best be described as awkward. A big reason for that is because I aim to spend as much time critiquing bad Christian apologetics as seeking to do good Christian apologetics. The reason for this division of labor is simple: I believe that credibility with one’s target audience is arguably the single greatest commodity the apologist has. And bad apologetics eats through credibility like alien acid-blood through Ripley’s body armor.
As a case in point, consider a recent article featured at major Christian apologetics website crossexamined.org titled “4 Major Reasons Why People Become Atheists.” The article begins with a shameless proof-texting of Psalm 14:1:
“The psalmist David wrote, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There’s no God.” They are corrupt; they do vile deeds. There is no one who does good’ (Psalm 14:1, CSB) The psalmist claims that it is irrational for one to deny God’s existence whether it be by atheism or by alternative worldviews. Atheism has become popular in recent years. But, the pressing question is, why?”
As I point out in Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, this kind of proof-texting is a gross abuse of the biblical passage. Unfortunately, things get worse from there. The author, “Brian Chilton,” (who is currently enrolled in a PhD program in theology and apologetics at Liberty University) then makes the following claim: “Normally, people become atheists for four major reasons.” And the rest of the article is devoted to summarizing those four reasons:
- The person desires moral independence.
- The person holds emotive reasoning.
- The person desires global unity.
- The person desires intellectual neutrality.
I’m not going to bother analyzing any of these reasons. Instead, I’ll focus on Chilton’s claim that people “normally” become atheists for these reasons. While the range of normality is inevitably vague, it is safe to assume that for a state of affairs to be considered normal would require that this particular state of affairs obtain in the significant majority of relevant cases (e.g. perhaps north of 70%). By that reasonable interpretation, Chilton is claiming that in the significant majority of cases, people become atheists for one (or more) of these four reasons.
Okay, so here’s the obvious question: what evidence does Chilton provide that it’s so? Incredibly, he provides a single data point, i.e. his personal experience. He writes:
“I was influenced by some of these reasons to become a theist-leaning-agnostic for a period of time.”
Of course, a “theist-leaning-agnostic” is not the same thing as an atheist. Setting that point aside, Chilton would seem to be reasoning like this:
(1) I became a “theist-leaning-agnostic’ for a subset of reasons drawn from 1-4.
(2) Therefore, the significant majority of atheists become atheists because of one or more of the reasons in 1-4.
I’m not claiming Chilton literally reasons in that fashion. The point, rather, is that he provides us with literally nothing in terms of supporting evidence for his claim. More specifically, he fails to provide any relevant social scientific data (e.g. sociological surveys of atheists) which would support that claim. Presumably, his claim is based on nothing more than his intuition that these four reasons are widespread.
I know many atheists, and I can say emphatically that I rarely encounter individuals whose atheism can plausibly be attributed to those four factors. On the contrary, in my experience, some of the main reasons people become atheists include the problem of evil and suffering (often as personally experienced) along with the failure of Christians to act in a Christlike manner. To take an extreme case that I have talked about on several occasions, Bob Jyono was once a faithful Catholic but he became an angry atheist after discovering that his daughter was repeatedly raped by the family priest. Seriously, can you blame him?!
Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot so that an atheist wrote an article titled “4 Major Reasons Why People Become Christians.” And in this case, the article claimed that people “normally” become Christians due to one or more of the following reasons:
- They fear death.
- They hate science.
- They want a god to damn their enemies to hell.
- They like feeling superior to other people.
And then imagine that the only reason the atheist author of this article provided to support his claim is his own recollection that he once considered that Christianity might be true due to some of the reasons listed in 1-4.
You can bet that Chilton and his friends at crossexamined.org would be among the first to criticize this absurd bit of reasoning. And of course, they’d be right to do so. The same point applies to Chilton and his reasoning.
This fact leads me to ask: who vets the material that gets posted on a website like crossexamined.org? After all, this isn’t some mom and pop apologetics outfit: Crossexamined.org is among the main Christian apologetic websites; it is run by leading Christian apologist Frank Turek and it features many other leading Christian apologists like Bill Craig and Sean McDowell.
To sum up, articles like “4 Major Reasons Why People Become Atheists” undermine the credibility of crossexamined.org and Christian apologetics more generally. That’s why it behooves all Christian apologists to up their game, apply consistent standards, and work to earn and then retain their intellectual credibility.