William Lane Craig explains how to structure a conversation with an atheist

Man teaching a woman how to shoot a firearm accurately
Man teaching a woman how to shoot a firearm accurately

It’s from his latest question and answer on the newly redesigned Reasonable Faith website.

Here’s the question in brief:

I must say I feel completely defeated and I could use your help and insight. I had a discussion over God’s existence tonight and totally botched it!! I feel I did a dis-service to the reasonableness of the Christian worldview.

I’ve been studying apologetics for quite some time. I felt I knew the material pretty well. Now I’m not so sure. Dr. Craig, I know you’re one of the great Christian debaters. When you were younger, did you ever feel you completely botched a debate and felt like a failure? That is how I feel right now!!

Dr. Craig’s response, in part:

So right at the beginning of the conversation, when he says that he is an atheist, it would be important to understand exactly what he means by that. Is he just agnostic or does he claim to know that God does not exist? If the latter, what justification does he have for so radical a position? You might comment on how difficult it is to prove that God does not exist and so express your interest in hearing his arguments against the existence of God. If he just says that “there’s no real evidence for the existence of God,” that’s a perfect opening for you to say, “Wait a minute! You’re a criminal analyst, right? As a criminologist, you must know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I want to hear your evidence against God.”

Or again, when he makes a claim like “there’s no way to know if there’s absolute truth,” you ought to be ready for such an assertion. Take out a pen and write his claim on a paper: “There’s no way to know if there’s absolute truth.” Then show it to him and ask, “Is that absolutely true?” If not, then is it just his opinion? If it is absolutely true, then how does he know it? Isn’t his position self-refuting? Be nice about it. Say, “I’m really trying to understand how your position isn’t self-referentially incoherent.”

When he says, “not knowing is okay and we should be more willing to accept uncertainty,” you should respond, “Have I ever claimed to know with certainty that God exists? I’m just saying that on balance God’s existence is more probable than not.” Ask him if he wouldn’t agree with that. If not, why not?

If he demands evidence of God’s existence, then you should be ready and waiting. I don’t get the impression, Marshall, that you have memorized any arguments and their respective premises. If you have them memorized, that’s the best antidote for becoming tongue-tied. You need to have memorized: “Why, I can think of at least five arguments for God’s existence!” When he says, “Yeah, like what?”, then you recite your list of arguments that you’ve memorized:

1. God is the best explanation for why anything at all exists rather than nothing.

2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.

3. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.

4. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.

5. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.

For the average unbeliever to hear even a list such as this is overwhelming. If he then wants to talk about one of them, recite from memory the premises of that argument, e.g.,

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore God exists.

You may even want to write the premises out on a piece of paper for him to look at.

If anyone ever responds to your arguments by attacking or blaming you personally, like saying you “must live with a lot of guilt and that’s why [you] probably feel the need for God,” just smile and say, “Are you not familiar with the logical fallacy of argument ad hominem?” (It’s evident by this point that you’re dealing with a really snarky person and therefore can afford to be more confrontational.) “Even if what you said were true—which it isn’t—, it has no relevance to the soundness of my argument. If you want to deny the conclusion of my argument, then you must think that one of its premises is false. So I want you to tell me which premise you think is false and why.” If you have these sentences memorized, you won’t feel tongue-tied when he makes his accusations.

In my opinion, Dr. Craig left out a very important point, which is that you need to structure the conversation so that you major in the majors and purposefully set aside any discussion of minor issues. If your atheist wants to discuss whether she is going to Hell, you respond by explaining that Hell is only a problem if the New Testament is an accurate description of God, which depends on whether God exists at all. So we start with God’s existence, and Dr. Craig’s 5 arguments. And, as Dr. Craig says, we focus the atheist on the discussion of whether God exists, and what evidence he has against God’s existence.

I would also say that you need to be ready to discuss the scientific evidence related to the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, habitability, etc. You need to be able to retrace the histories of the discoveries that lead the majority of scientists to accept this data, and name the scientists. That way, when your atheist denies your evidence, you can ask them why they hate science. This is the most powerful argument for theism, in my opinion – the opposition to mainstream science that atheists must necessarily commit to in order to be atheists.

Also, you need to know the minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus, which doesn’t even assume that the Bible is inerrant or inspired or even generally reliable. And finally, you’ll need to know how to spot a self-refuting claim and how to respond to philosophical objections to God’s existence: the problem of evil, the hiddenness of God, physicalist conceptions of mind, etc. But the main point is that you are always on the topic of whether God exists, where your evidence is strongest, until you get that as a solid admission. Never move off that until you get that admission. The Bible should not be cited until you get a solid admission from your opponent on the existence of God.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

3 thoughts on “William Lane Craig explains how to structure a conversation with an atheist”

  1. I love this. It’s important not to have the debate framed as though the believer is on trial, which is commonly how these debates are framed. It’s necessary to question the atheist and try and get them to explain why they believe the way they do.


  2. A person could always make an orgainezwd pdf or a few basic guides saved with basic points and quotes on their phone.
    Almost like carrying a digital witnessing tract of apologetics. Then you can more easily find main points as they relate to the person in question and their main issues


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