The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a new report confirming the trends we’ve been seeing for several years. Although Catholic adherence is pretty much unchanged at about a fifth of the population, the religiously unaffiliated, known as the Nones, are growing like crazy, apparently at the expense of Christian Protestants. In fact, the Protestants have just lost their majority in America, and in a couple years, there will be more Nones than there are Catholics. And this is a trend with a sharp demographic edge to it: among younger Millennials, one in three are Nones. For my son’s generation, if this trend continues, easily half of his friends and neighbors will be Nones.
This report, as with others that have concluded similar trends over the past decade, is widely heralded as good news for atheists and bad news for Christians. But some attenuation is necessary: although atheists (and agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, etc.) are included in the “Nones” designation, the former are a subset of the latter. Thus, many of the nones still retain some supernatural beliefs, including affinity for “spiritual” concepts, various forms of theism and deism, and even credulity in garden variety psychics, mediums, and newspaper astrology columns. However, in my opinion they’re much less disposed towards animosity against those who don’t believe in God at all. That is to say, I suspect that the Nones as an inclusive group will have much less of a problem with their son or daughter marrying an atheist, and even voting for an atheist for President.
As for the religious (read: Christian) organizations in this country, this trend does carry some concerning implications, at least inasmuch as they want to keep their adherence up and maintain the kind of cultural influence that they’ve enjoyed for, well, for a long-ass time. In response to the “New Atheism,” I’ve seen the rise of a “New Christianity,” which is just as new and homogenous as the godless socio-cultural movement that has brought us Four Horsemen, provocative advertising, and a robust grassroots community. In particular, there has been an increased theological polarization, typified by the widely different Mars Hill Churches in Grand Rapids (liberal) and Seattle (conservative), especially in regards to the doctrine of Hell. In addition, I’ve noted the rise of massive de-theologized churches, particularly the major megachurches like Prestonwood here in Dallas and Lakewood in Houston.
But another response, which is more popular among the religious denizens of the Internet than it is among the average “pew potato” (a term I borrow with gusto from Robert Price), is an embrace of Christian apologetics. As a Christian, I found such activities pointless – of course Christianity was true, why waste time defending it – but after my apostasy I encountered this realm anew and found unexpectedly kindred spirits on the other side of the theological divide. As such, I find myself perennially attracted to convergences of Christian apologetics, and when I heard several months ago that a Christian apologetics conference was to be held in Dallas, I registered almost immediately.
The scheduled speakers were the best of the best. The keynote speaker was to be William Lane Craig, who is currently the most widely-regarded living Christian apologist, as well as Greg Koukl, Frank Turek, and Ravi Zacharias. In addition to these, were local New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, John Stonestreet, and of course the head pastor of the host church, Todd Wagner.
I walked into Watermark Community Church on a dreary and rainy Saturday morning in Dallas. What took my breath away was the sheer enormity of the facility – the primary worship room holds about three thousand people I’ve been told, and there was overflow space on two different floors, both in a secondary auditorium upstairs that held several hundred, as well as a luxuriously well-appointed coffee shop (leather sofas as far as the eye could see), as well as outside on the patio scattered with wooden Adirondack furniture.
The place was frankly packed. Thousands of Christians (and at least one or two of the opposition) had assembled for the day, for a conference that was run more smoothly than just about any atheist conference I’ve attended, with more attendees, and no doubt half the effort. The megachurch model may not be your cup of tea, but it certainly has mass organization down to art form.
The event was billed as “Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors.” I noted with some disappointment that, for a conference dedicated to the “New Atheists,” there were none on the speaking roster, nor even any atheist or nonbeliever. Right off the bat, I found to be the a significant and egregious failure of the organizers: that it purported to give Christian attendees an accurate picture of atheist arguments, but without consulting any actual atheists. It would be just as unfortunate as if an atheist organization held a conference on Christian theology, headlined only by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other atheists. At least, according to the agenda, Zacharias’ talk (The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists) and Craig’s presentation (Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God’s Existence) promised some degree of focus on the stated purpose of the event.
Todd Wagner began the day with a call to action, arguing that Christianity is the cultural antithesis of modern America. As is typical of many apologetics events I’ve attended, Wagner’s target was not atheism but postmodernism, which demonstrated to me his profound and pitiable ignorance of the modern atheist and skeptical movement. He used his time to encourage the attendees to become active apologists, responding to cultural critics of Christianity with aggressive arguments rather than passive silence. “Don’t avoid having that conversation at the coffee shop,” he urged. “Don’t wish that you had Dr. Craig at the table with you, engage with Christianity’s critics on your own.” And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if teaching people to argue with postmodern strawmen was really going to be an effective strategy.
Greg Koukl, of the apologetic ministry “Stand to Reason,” and author of the book “Tactics,” was no stranger to me, and indeed I’ve taken him to task directly for the errors he’s made when talking about stem cell research (since ignored). Koukl continued Wagner’s theme of Christianity being “under assault” by the culture at large, and downplayed the wide variety of criticisms as coming from people who may be gifted with intelligence, but who are spiritually stupid. In his available time, Koukl engaged with more atheist strawmen, under the guise of presenting the “worst” arguments against Christianity. I, for one, really wished that he had spent his time contending with the best arguments, but such was the case. Koukl brought out the postmodern horse for another enthusiastic drubbing, declared that Christians should no longer use the word “faith” to describe their worldview, and took shelter from ad hominem attacks on Christian “stupidity.” Now, although these kinds of attacks may be common (and ancient, going back at least as far to the second century with Celsus), these certainly don’t qualify as arguments in my mind, bad or otherwise. But there is a fair point to be made when Christian adherence and atheism can be predicted, at least in aggregate, by educational attainment. Rather than engaging with this point, Koukl danced behind accusations of name-calling, another in a growing series of lost opportunities during the conference.
Dan Wallace was the next speaker, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. As a New Testament Greek scholar, Wallace is beyond comparison, and has been involved with several recent Bible translations, as well as several debates with Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Through rehashing his debate with Ehrman last year at SMU, Wallace argued that the manuscript evidence of the New Testament is better than any other ancient document, and provides sufficient reliability to support current orthodox doctrine. Although interesting, as one side of a debate it didn’t really help the audience evaluate the evidence critically, nor did it hold my attention to any significant degree. Instead, I met up with an atheist friend of mine who’d come to the conference as well, and we headed out to the spacious patio with box lunches to make some Christian friends.
We ended up settling on a large table that was occupied by a young pregnant woman named Tricia, who was pleasantly shooing other people away from the other seats she was trying to save for her husband, Daniel, and their friends. When they arrived, I munched on turkey and wheat while making superficial pleasantries. Eventually, Daniel asked if I was a member at Watermark, or if I’d come from a different church. “None,” I replied, “I’m an atheist, here to soak in all the apologetics that I can.” To his credit, this didn’t seem to faze Daniel at all, and he was curious to know more. His first concern was about whether or not I was an actual atheist or just an agnostic (because, obviously, one would have to know everything to be an atheist). I gently corrected him on that point, and explained the basic differences in terminology, from atheist to agnostic, as well as freethought and humanism. It pained me terribly to find someone at a conference focusing on atheism who was so overtly ignorant on the basics of that definition, as well as its surrounding philosophy. I was able to share a bit more about my religious background, and the arguments that I found particularly compelling against Christianity, but the lunch hour swiftly drew to a close.
Next up was Frank Turek, who is the co-author with Norman Geisler of the uncontroversially-named book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.” Turek has a dynamic stage presence to be sure, but also seems… uninterested in inheriting the earth, so to speak (someone with a less charitable assessment would simply write him off as an insufferable jerk). His assigned topic was the Problem of Evil, which is my personal favorite, and indeed is really the only problem worth talking about. His first move was in disproving the idea that the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. I’m right there with him generally, but he made a rather obtuse argument along the way, claiming that in fact the existence of evil is proof that there is a God. For if there is evil, there must be good. And if there is good, there must be a God. QED. He then went on to challenge the idea that God should protect Christians from evil and suffering, by pointing out first that God didn’t promise to do so, and that suffering is a good thing anyway. After all, Jesus suffered, and we want to be like Jesus, right?
He then addressed the question of why God doesn’t just stop evil in general by countering with the Free Will defense. That is, if God stopped me from murdering a million people he’d be interfering with my free will, so it’s just better for everyone that I go ahead with my genocidal plans. This argument of course does nothing to address natural evil, and further I find it to be invalidated by the concept of Heaven, in which free will ostensibly exists coincident with a sinless environment. Finally, Turek claimed that there is a purpose for evil in the world, because the ultimate purpose is for everyone to know Christ, and evil and suffering are motivations to bring us closer to Him. So it all works out in the end, and we don’t need to worry about six year old kids getting cancer because God needs more converts. All in all, a pretty disappointing presentation, at least on my assessment.
Then, suddenly in his last few minutes Turek took a bizarre turn into political issues, urging all the attendees to read the Manhattan Declaration (which had been signed by Todd Wagner) and get involved politically to support Christian values (read: the Republican Party) during this year’s general election. It was a strange departure from his assigned topic, but it did admittedly segue into the next talk by John Stonestreet, a Fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and host of “The Point” radio show and podcast. Stonestreet’s presentation was a focus on our American culture, and how far removed it has become from Christian values. This was another one that I largely skipped, although I noted with some interest how little he referred to the New Atheist movement, and preferred to rail against the acceptance of homosexuality and religious critics in general.
The penultimate presentation was from Ravi Zacharias. I was really looking forward to seeing Zacharias speak, as he was the only notable apologist that I hadn’t yet seen in person. His talk at least claimed to address the New Atheists, but I didn’t see any of that in the performance I witnessed that day. Rather than a coherent defense of Christianity, Zacharias rambled and mumbled from one topic to then next, first criticizing secularism in very general terms, then pluralism, and then skepticism. Connections between these concepts were tenuous, aside from the fact that each were bad, and that each were causing the degradation of society by distancing it from Christian values. Somehow, with these three concepts loose in our culture, we have lost any sense of shame, any capacity for reason, and any sense of meaning. I’m sure it made sense to Zacharias, and I hope that it resonated with the other attendees, because to me (sad to say) it appeared to be someone just on the cusp of senility.
While disappointing, even Zacharias couldn’t quite compare to my utter disgust with the conference’s finale. William Lane Craig, who along with Todd Wagner was the architect of this conference, brought us a debate with an actual New Atheist, no less than Richard Dawkins. Or, maybe not an actual New Atheist. More like a virtual New Atheist. Or, well, a non-existent one. Because William Lane Craig debated an empty chair that was supposed to stand in for Richard Dawkins. Just like Clint Eastwood did to Obama at the Republican National Convention. In fact, that’s where he got the idea. An idea that was, in Craig’s mind, somehow a good idea to repeat. And then he proceeded to lecture an imaginary Dawkins about the Kalaam Cosmological Argument or some other such nonsense, I don’t really know, because I really wasn’t paying attention at that point. I was watching, dumbfounded, while Bill Craig, the most highly-respected Christian apologist in all the land, debated an empty chair in a conference that he himself had organized.
Now, before I get too carried away, what were the positives of this conference? Well, it brought the issues of apologetics to the forefront of the membership of a large and somewhat influential church here in Dallas, even if it was a bit poorly executed in terms of content. But I’d also say that given the tremendous response in terms of attendance, there’s a substantial audience for these topics in mainstream American churches, even nondenominational megachurches, which may not be populated exclusively by pew potatoes. And that, if nothing else, is encouraging because it presents me, the DFW Coalition of Reason, and anyone else who is interested with the conflict between faith and reason with a fertile population of Christians who are hungry for something more than just repetitive worship music and cherry-picked scriptural platitudes.
In the end, however, nothing else really captures my assessment of the conference better than Craig debating an imaginary Dawkins. Craig, Todd Wagner, and the folks at Watermark had an excellent opportunity to really help their members engage with the New Atheism, if only they’d thought to invite some, you know, actual atheists to the party. And Dallas is the perfect place for it – we have an incredibly active Coalition of Reason here, with as many as three thousand nonbelievers in our ranks, the vast majority of whom are former Christians. If Craig and Wagner had really wanted to learn about atheism, we’d have been more than happy to help. And I really do think they need the help: after absorbing this conference, if the Christian attendees think they’re prepared to engage with the atheists that I know in town, they are woefully misinformed.
Indeed, an atheist friend of mine who regularly attends the Watermark “Great Questions” class asked his Christian classmates (all of whom had attended the conference) the next Monday if they even knew what a “New Atheist” was. None of them had any clue. One wonders if the same could be said of Todd Wagner and Bill Craig.
If anything, this conference provided them with just enough information about apologetics to give them the confidence to go out and get exposed to more persuasive arguments on the atheist side. I suppose I should thank Watermark for the long-term boost in our local atheist contingent, but that’s really not what I’m after. What I would be most appreciative of is being taken seriously enough by local religious leaders that they recognize that most of the the people active in the local atheist movement are people who’ve left the very pews that these leaders preach at every Sunday. Until religious doubt is given a fair assessment and sufficient respect by apologists and other religious leaders, I’m afraid that megachurches like Watermark are fighting a losing battle. Because as the next generation comes up through the ranks, as the Pew Research indicates, the number of people who think religious organizations like Watermark have the answers is going to dwindle into insignificance.
Podcast cross-posted from Apologia