Why Christian parents get nervous about evidence when discussing Christianity

Homeschooling mother Dr. Lydia McGrew explains why Bible-believing Christians are uneasy with the use of evidence on her blog What’s Wrong With The World. (H/T Eric Chabot)

Excerpt:

4) The idea that, if a young person gets deeply interested in Christian evidence, he will go out on the Internet (or at his public high school or secular college) seeking giants to slay and will get overwhelmed. Again, this worry has merit as a sociological matter. That can certainly happen.

That is why we should say loud and clear to Christians interested in this topic: Don’t do that! What do I mean? Just this: Being committed to investigating the evidence for Christianity does not mean that one has to find out every possible thing that anyone has ever said about or against Christianity and know the answer to it. That would be impossible because of the sheer bulk of (ultimately unpersuasive) objections which skeptics can bring up as though they were real problems.

In this context the words of George Horne, an 18th century bishop, from his Letters on Infidelity, are wise and helpful. (Emphasis added.)

In the thirty sections of their pamphlet, they have produced a list of difficulties to be met with in reading the Old and New Testament. Had I been aware of their design, I could have enriched the collection with many more, at least as good, if not a little better. But they have compiled, I dare say, what they deemed the best, and, in their own opinion, presented us with the essence of infidelity in a thumb-phial, the very fumes of which, on drawing the cork, are to strike the bench of bishops dead at once. Let not the unlearned Christian be alarmed, “as though some strange thing had happened to him,” and modern philosophy had discovered arguments to demolish religion, never heard of before. The old ornaments of deism have been “broken off” upon this occasion, “and cast into the fire, and there came out this calf.” These same difficulties have been again and again urged and discussed in public; again and again weighed and considered by learned and sensible men, of the laity as well as the clergy, who have by no means been induced by them to renounce their faith.

[snip]

Many and painful are the researches sometimes necessary to be made, for settling points of that kind. Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject.

And a bit later:

5) The unspoken fear that Christianity cannot stand up to scrutiny and doesn’t really have good evidential support.

Here I do not blame the parents, but not because I share the unspoken fear. I do not blame them, because in most cases no one has ever taught them otherwise. How many pastors and priests have really taught apologetics to their congregations, or even offered such studies as an option? Too few. How many courses on sharing your faith have explicitly taught people not to get involved in responding to questions and objections but just to “share their experience” because “no one can argue with that”? Too many. It’s no wonder then that the congregation comes away with the sneaking suspicion that our Christian faith is no better grounded than Mormonism and that we, like they, must depend chiefly on the burning in the bosom.

And one can always push the blame further back. Perhaps the pastors weren’t taught Christian evidences at their seminaries.

In fact, I would not be surprised if all too many theologians who give high-falutin’ rationalizations for being anti-evidentialist are actually making a virtue out of what they deem to be a necessity. Since they don’t think Christian faith is founded on fact, they might as well make up some profound-sounding theological theory that tells us that it shouldn’t be.

When Nathanael asks Philip, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip simply says, “Come and see.” (John 1:46) And he brings him to Jesus. If you as a parent or mentor to the young are opposed to the study of Christian evidences partly because deep down you suspect that they aren’t very good, I can only say to you as well, “Come and see.”

I blogged about this tendency of church leaders to make a virtue out of laziness and ignorance before.

Here’s a snip:

Suppose a pastor or campus group leader wants to avoid having to learn physics and cosmology, or the minimum facts case for the resurrection, or how to respond to apparently gratuitous suffering, or the problem of religious pluralism. Suppose he thinks that Christianity, if it is about anything, is about his feeling happy and comfortable with a minimum of effort and work. So, he diligently avoids reading apologetics, because learning evidence is hard work. He avoids watching debates on God’s existence and the resurrection, because this is hard work. He avoids conversations with people who do study these things, and implies that there is something wrong with them for studying these things. He endeavors to conceal his laziness and ignorance and cowardice from his flock with much pious God-talk and fervent praise-hymn-singing.

Eventually, some member of his church asks him to go for lunch with an actual non-Christian family member. The pastor agrees and when he meets the unbelieving family member, he has nothing at all to say about typical challenges that unbelievers face. He has no knowledge of evolution, the problem of evil, the hiddenness of God, or the hallucination theory. He has never read a single atheist, and never read a single piece of evidence to refute them from Christian scholars. He lacks humility, refusing to admit that other Christian scholars may know more than he does because they have studied other areas. Needless to say, he fails to defend God’s reputation to the non-Christian. What will he say to the members of his flock about his failure? How will he justify his obstinate refusal to do what everyone else in the Bible does when confronting non-believers?

Well, consider this review of a recent book that defends the Gospels and the historicity of the resurrection by one such fideist pastor.

He writes:

There are, however, two significant shortcomings to the book.

First, Cold-Case Christianity places far too much emphasis on the role of extrabiblical sources. No doubt there is a legitimate role for biblical archaeology and extrabiblical writing from antiquity. Christianity is, after all, a faith firmly rooted in human history. But there is a grave danger when truth is suspended because of an apparent lack of corroboration from extrabiblical sources. And Wallace, I’m afraid, wanders too close to this dark side of apologetics.

All of chapter 12, for instance, is devoted to proving the Gospels have external corroborative evidence—“evidence that are independent of the Gospel documents yet verify the claims of the text” (183). Wallace then addresses the historicity of the pool of Bethesda and makes another worrying statement: “For many years, there was no evidence for such a place outside of John’s Gospel. Because Christianity makes historical claims, archaeology ought to be a tool we can use to see if these claims are, in fact, true” (201-202, emphasis added).

In other words, Wallace seems to suggest we cannot affirm the truth of the Gospel accounts without the stamp of approval from archaeology and other extrabiblical sources. Such reasoning is dangerous, not least because it cannot affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. But also, it places the final court of appeal in the realm of extrabiblical sources rather than of God’s all-sufficient, all-powerful Word.

That is a textbook definition of fideism – that belief is somehow more pious and praiseworthy the less evidence we have. And the best way to have less evidence is to study nothing at all, but to just make a leap-of-faith in the dark. Of course, a leap-of-faith can land you anywhere – Islam, Mormonism. Presumably this pastor is like the Mormons who eschew all evidence and prefer to detect the truth of Mormonism by “the burning of the bosom” which happens when people read the all-sufficient, all-powerful Book of Mormon. His view of faith is identical to theirs, and 180 degrees opposed to the Bible. He has made his leap-of-faith, and that leap-of-faith is not accountable to arguments and evidence. His faith is private and personal, based on his own feelings. He considers it blasphemous to have to demonstrate what he believes to those who disagree with him. Where is this in the Bible? It’s nowhere. But it is everywhere in anti-intellectual Christian circles.

[…]I think that Christians are much better off following the example of authentic Christian pastors like R.C. Sproul, who, in a conference on evangelism, invited Dr. Stephen C. Meyer to present multiple lines of evidence from mainstream science to establish the existence of God. The only reason not to take this approach is laziness, which leads to ignorance, which leads to cowardice. And failure. It is pastors like Pastor Bungle above who are responsible for the great falling away from Christianity that we are seeing when we look at young people. Pastors who pride themselves in refusing to connecting the Bible to the real world, with evidence and with policy analysis, are causing young people to abandon the faith.

I think that many people who reject Christianity can point to a general impression that they got from Pastor Bungle and his ilk that faith is somehow different from other areas of knowledge and that it was morally praise worthy to insulate faith from critical thinking and evidence. Pastor Bungle could never justify his view by using the Bible, but a lot of church leaders have that view regardless of whether it’s Biblical or not.

The really troubling thing that I see again and again in the church is when pastors base all of their opposition to behaviors like abortion and gay marriage on Christianity. This effectively makes it impossible to do anything about these issues in the public square, because Christians are then taught to have nothing persuasive to say on these issues to non-Christians. It’s like pastors are more interested in striking a pious pose with their congregations instead of studying secular arguments and evidence so they can equip Christians to actually solve the problem.

7 thoughts on “Why Christian parents get nervous about evidence when discussing Christianity”

  1. It doesn’t worry me that my children might get excited about the evidence for Christianity and try to go out and fight battles. I fully intend to not only allow them to do so, but encourage it. However, I don’t want them to go out by themselves or while untrained until they have significant battle experience. Thus, I fully intend to provide opportunities for them to join the fight and gain experience in providing evidence and destroying the arguments of the opposition in a low risk situation because I (or another trusted, experienced adult) will be right there to help.

    If you think about how Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses do their training of missionaries, it’s really smart (even though their theology is wrong). They always send a younger, less mature missionary out with an older, more mature mentor. The younger one usually does the talking. But if you’ve ever debated with them you know that as soon as you start bringing out evidence that contradicts their view, the older one steps in and tries to redirect the conversation and then, if they aren’t successful, the mentor removes both of them from the conversation and the premises.

    Of course, Christians don’t have to be so afraid to have their youngsters hear opposing views as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. But it is smart to have a more mature Christian work with a younger believer when they are getting started to help teach them tactics and strategies and to keep them from being overwhelmed. Ideally, this should be Christian parents training their own children, giving them experience, and running interference where necessary. But there should also be training like this available within Christian churches as part of making effective disciples, not merely pew sitters. There is no much that is more effective at creating smart, effective, tough Christians that are passionate about defending the faith and doing it well than some time spent in the trenches, having real discussions with unbelievers.

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  2. One of the best things that ever happened to me was a visit from a small but determined group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was in my mid twenties, and realized then that I really didn’t know what I believed, why I believed it, or if it was true or not. I ever so carefully stepped out into new territory, allowing myself to question for the first time if what I knew about God was real. I found several outright mistakes and many mistaken and harmful cliches, but the truth on which my faith was built IS solid. It was a huge relief and a wonderful learning experience. I continue learning wherever I can.

    What would be the top three books that you would recommend for learning more about God (besides the Bible, of course, which should always be read over and over)? Do you know of any books that teen boys might understand and which would benefit them? We are going to have a half hour drive to school every morning starting in a few weeks, and we could add a bit of book reading to our prayer and Bible study on the way there.

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    1. Yes, the best basic books on apologetics are:

      1) Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace
      2) The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona and Gary Habermas
      3) Is God Just a Human Invention by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow

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  3. “The really troubling thing that I see again and again in the church is when pastors base all of their opposition to behaviors like abortion and gay marriage on Christianity. This effectively makes it impossible to do anything about these issues in the public square, because Christians are then taught to have nothing persuasive to say on these issues to non-Christians. It’s like pastors are more interested in striking a pious pose with their congregations instead of studying secular arguments and evidence so they can equip Christians to actually solve the problem.”

    I imagine that this is largely because many Christians do not see how a secular approach to ethical questions can be fruitful. Many of them perceive, quite plausibly, that on the assumptions of modern secular society, it is more or less impossible to justify our distinctively Christian moral positions; and that the modern scientific method, however useful it might be in its own sphere, cannot be a path to moral truths.

    When we divorce our ethics from their distinctive metaphysical moorings, what we are left with are purely pragmatic, consequentialist, and/or utilitarian arguments – hardly desirable for a Christian who rejects pragmatism, consequentialism, and utilitarianism.

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    1. Yeah, that isn’t going to work. You could only discuss moral issues with Christians, then, and that might make you feel pious and spiritual, but it doesn’t achieve results. And, being a practical software engineer, I care about results.

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    2. I hope you are not implying that Christian positions on abortion and gay marriage have no grounds apart from the Christian worldview. Philosophers of mathematics generally agree on many mathematical truths, but disagree sharply on the foundations of those truths. One might plead ignorance as to how morals are grounded but still hold to certain positions on moral issues.

      We need to understand that we are not just believers but also activists. We have a duty to persuade the public to hold the right positions on ethical issues because such people influence the laws and conditions that we all have to live under. No fault divorce, for example, has been destructive, even for strong Christian families. Abortion has killed tens of millions of Americans.

      You wouldn’t require that someone share your metaphysical moorings in order to sell something to them, why should it be different when selling our positions on controversial issues?

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