Ever since joining atheist Twitter, I’ve witnessed nothing but arguments between believers and nonbelievers (and participated in a number of them myself). Some have been very impressive, others less so. Particularly aggravating are those arguments where neither party seems invested in conversation, rather competing to see who can drop the mic last.
Now, I’m not here to diss on your brand of Twitter entertainment. If you like delivering pithy one-liners that rack up likes and retweets, you do you. Christians have historically spent most of their time in power mocking others — when they weren’t imprisoning and killing them. So sure, a little payback is certainly in order, and a Twitter burn is infinitely kinder than death by immolation.
That said, please don’t think that these arguments are going to convince anyone to actually begin to question their faith. As a former Christian, I can assure you that these types of one-liner arguments are exactly the kind of thing we were trained to expect from “ignorant, hateful atheists,” and we were trained to answer these arguments in a way that kept us from ever actually thinking too deeply about them.
Because I’ve seen both sides of this argument, I took some time to compile three bad atheist arguments and their corresponding typical Christian responses. Then, I laid out some alternate questions that atheists can use to get their point across in a way that Christians won’t have memorized responses for. Hopefully, these will provoke actual conversation and sow those mustard seeds of doubt.
Caveat: I’m not saying that all Christians are going to respond in these ways, and I’m certainly not saying that the arguments I advocate for will “win” you the argument. What I can promise is that both you and your debate partner will get much more out of your conversation.
Argument #1: “How can God be real/good if there is evil in the world?”
Every time I hear this argument from another atheist, I roll my eyes. Do you really think you’re the first person to bring up this point? Do you really think 99% of Christians aren’t going to have an answer ready for you? The problem of evil is one of the first things Christianity had to address. How else on earth would they justify the starving children, the existence of cancer, the cities flattened by natural disasters?
Now, don’t get me wrong. The question is valid. It’s just not particularly effective in this case. That’s because Christians have concocted an “answer” that is easily memorized, blocks cognitive dissonance, and while grinds any logical progression to a halt.
The typical Christian response: “Free will and sin.”
The go-to answer for most evangelical Christians goes like this: God gave human kind free will so they would freely love Him. But free will necessarily comes with sin, and sin is responsible for all the evil we see in the world. Jesus Christ is God giving us a “way out,” but He can’t actually get rid of sin (or its effects) without violating our free will. In short: we make our bed, we lie in it.
This is a good answer on a surface level because it doesn’t violate the superlative goodness or power of their deity while also absolving Him of any guilt. In fact, the amount of sin in this world simply proves how much we need Him.
What to ask instead: “Is there free will in Heaven?”
Now, there are many ways you can deconstruct this particular answer, as it is chock full of issues:
- How do you know you have free will?
- How exactly did sin change creation? Is it an active agent with intention and creative power?
- If God knew that Jesus was the only way to save us from sin, why did he bother wiping everyone out during the flood?
As you can see, the problem of evil (and the predictable response) can be a great starting point for further conversation. But by far the best alternate question to the problem of evil is this one: “Is there free will in Heaven?”
This question is damning because it concedes the worldview they espouse, and then simply takes their logic one step further. Most Christians will say that there is free will in Heaven (because for them the concept of determinism even in Paradise is loathesome and goes against their entire doctrine). Once they admit this, they must then explain why there is no sin in Heaven. This means that God truly is capable of creating a world that allows for free will and perfection, making our earthly existence at best a divine fumble and at worst a sadistic joke.
Argument #2: “Jesus is just a myth based on other myths.”
Can we all just agree to stop using this argument as a way to “convince” believers to leave their religion? Mythicism and comparative mythology in relation to Christ are perfectly acceptable personal convictions. If you aren’t convinced Jesus existed, that’s fine (you’re probably right). But it’s meaningless approach a Christian with this kind of conversation starter. It’s basically like a slap in the face, and will utterly discredit you for the remainder of the argument.
The typical Christian response #1: “Most historians disagree with you.”
And they’d be right. Most historians — secular and otherwise — take for granted that Jesus existed. All it’s going to take is a single Google search for a Christian to glom onto the first academic source they see as refutation (the argument of authority is, after all, their primary epistemological tactic). Are they taking into consideration that the act of determining an ancient person’s historicity is by no means a rigorous scientific process? Or the fact that some of the most famous “secular” descriptions of Christ or his followers are now believed to be forged? No. But they don’t need to: they’ll have enough to discredit you in their own heads.
The typical Christian response #2: “All those other myths were just predictions leading up to Jesus.”
Yes, there is going to be a level of overlap between Jesus and other superhuman saviors in the zeitgeist. The world was very small then, and empires like Rome and Egypt were good at disseminating versions of their mythology into smaller civilizations, and those mythologies in turn were very good at morphing and mutating to survive different cultures. No one can deny that. But to use this kind of comparative mythology to disprove Jesus is dangerous, not least because I’ve heard many a Christian simply say: “Those other myths were just preludes to Jesus. It was God getting us ready for Christ.”
And to them, this makes perfect sense, because A) prophecy is a real thing in their worldview and B) it doesn’t occur to them to wonder if the adherants of Mithraism would have considered Jesus to be a precursor to their messiah.
What to ask instead: “How much do you know about the gospels?”
Yes, okay, maybe Jesus did exist. Let’s go with that for now. But how much do you know about the books claiming this? How sure are you that the gospels are, in fact, God’s word? Maybe sprinkle them with some fun facts:
- We don’t have any of the original copies of the gospels, or the names of any of the authors.
- The gospels were written between 70–95 A.D., which makes it unlikely that any of them were true eyewitness testimonies.
- The four gospels we know today are only a small part of a large canon of conflicting literature written by different sects of Christianity trying to gain prominence.
- There are other (now unpopular but once just as authoritative) gospels that talk about baby Jesus killing another kid for being annoying, giant walking, talking crosses in the sky during the resurrection, and an extremely homoerotic relationship between Christ and his disciples.
There are so many ways to start the conversation about the historicity of Jesus and the accuracy of the gospels without going with an attempted “gotcha.” The best ways to talk to Christians about this issue is to make some initial concessions, no matter how you personally, and then slowly and subtly introduce the controversy.
Argument #3: “Evolution is true and therefore God is not the creator.”
Many Christians seem to think that atheists and evolutionists are synonymous, seeming to forget the number of theists who also accept evolution as scientific fact. The thing is, many atheists seem to forget them as well. They act as though proving evolution is the equivalent to disproving God, and unfortunately that simply isn’t the case.
Sure, it can be a helpful step in the right direction and cast doubt on the accuracy of biblical accounts, but in no way does the acceptance of evolution necessitate that a Christian gives up their God belief.
The typical Christian response: “God created evolution.”
The thing is, no one knows how the universe was actually created, what that singularity truly was. Scientists have some good ideas about the subject, but for the most part all intellectually honest people are left saying: “I don’t know.” Enter the Christians, who are quite sure they do know. They know the singularity discussed is God, and that’s all that matters to them. Evolution is still a result of God’s initial creative effort, and therefore (as long as they aren’t biblical literalists) their faith is left untouched.
What to ask instead: “Why is it that most of the universe is completely inhospitable to human life?”
There is an inherent anthropocentric undertone to most Western religions, and Christianity is no different. The earth — and the humans on it — are the apple of God’s eye. (Just ask Galileo about his experience with the Church when he suggested a heliocentric understanding of the universe.) The world was made for humans to conquer, to rule over, and the story of salvation hinges on the assumption that human fate is the crux of creation.
The thing is, 70% of this earth is covered in water, which doesn’t make sense for an athropocentric planet. The fact that we score only an 82% on the “habitability index” suggests that we aren’t, in fact, at a position in relation to the sun that is just right for human life (an argument many theists like to make). Move beyond our own planet and things get a lot more dire for humans: we die instantly in a freezing, airless, infinite vacuum of outer space. If God created this universe in order to bring about human life, why did He do such a terrible job making sure we weren’t going to die in it?
Granted, having these conversations are not mindless entertainment. They are good-faith efforts to connect with someone from the other side, anticipate their objections, and help them move beyond their dogmatic, reactionary responses to a deeper understanding of their own internalized logic. And it’s not for everyone. Certainly, it’s not your job as an atheist to enlighten others. That’s an emotional burden that can’t be placed on you.
But if you are looking to inspire a conversation, if you do want to get a better understanding of where Christians are coming from, and if you have the time to help them start to see the holes in the fabric of their presuppositions, this is a better way to do it.