As I mentioned in my previous post, I was asked by a correspondent to read some material from the now-archived site Common Sense Atheism and give my opinions.
One motif I found that surprised me (though it shouldn't have surprised me) was this idea: To test your religious faith, you ought to try to describe it in derogatory terms and admit that this is an accurate description. See if your Christianity can "handle" making this admission.
Apparently Luke Muehlhauser was subjected to this "test" by some atheist when he was in his own crisis of faith. That crisis of faith resulted in his deconverting, and now he is using the same technique on others, since he thought it indicated so devastating a criticism of his own Christianity.
Here are a couple of versions of what we are allegedly supposed to admit is what we believe as Christians.
An atheist on the internet pointed out that I literally believed I had a magical invisible friend who could grant me wishes.
So what I ask of you is this: Try to rattle your own faith. Shake it up. Cause as much doubt as you can. Read what the best of the opposition has to say, and take it seriously. Describe your own faith in the most contentious terms possible (e.g., “an invisible friend who grants me wishes”) and recognize that this is, though not how you would put it, still literally true about what you believe.
Elsewhere he says this in a post on the necessity of being a good debater to engage William Lane Craig. (The post as a whole is making the point that most atheists are not actually qualified to debate Craig, either because they lack information or because they lack debating skill.)
Remember, Craig is defending the theory that an ancient Semitic sky god created the universe with his magical powers, let it evolve in violence and meaninglessness for billions of years, then intervened quite recently by sending a man-god to earth, who rose from the dead into a new body with superpowers and now talks to you and grants you wishes as your invisible friend. That is literally what he has to defend, so one would think that even without equal debating skills an atheist would stand a chance to defeat that theory.
It might fairly be asked why I would write a post on the silly things some dismissive Internet atheist says about Christianity. I might answer in strict truthfulness that I'm writing about this because it's what I happen to have on my mind right now, and I needed blog post material.
But I can do a little better than that: I think this business about "recognizing" that this is "literally what you believe" might very well be effective on some Christians who think that they are being hard-headed and investigating their faith, so I think it's just as well to hit it good and hard. (This is related to my previous posts about what evidentialism isn't. Among other things, evidentialism is not the position that, to test your faith, you need to go to Internet atheist sites and agree to their characterizations of Christianity!)
At the risk of being snarky, I have to say that "Jesus is a magical, invisible friend who grants you wishes" is true except for "magical," "invisible," "friend," and "grants you wishes." In other words, it's completely wrong.
The correction that Jesus is incarnate and hence not invisible is relatively trivial, and I won't dwell on it. There are after all Scripture verses in which Jesus says, "Lo, I am with you always" or "Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them." We can debate whether Jesus meant there to refer to the work of the Holy Spirit, but let that go.
Moving on to "magical": Even though of course Jesus has the power to do miracles, miracles are not magic. The word "magical" is wrong for two reasons. First, magic is literally an art practiced by adepts by which they attempt to manipulate the world, and that's not remotely what miracles are. A miracle is (to treat a big subject briefly) God's engaging in a special act of power to bring about a result that would not occur in the natural order. No doubt atheists find real miracles at least as objectionable as magic (if there were such a thing as magic). In fact, atheists might find miracles even more objectionable than magic. But the point is that the two are different. Second, and to my mind even more to the point, the word "magical" conveys arbitrariness, capriciousness, and triviality. Even if God does choose, in His wisdom, to do a supernatural mighty work (a miraculous healing, for example), such an act does not have those qualities.
That brings us to "friend." Here I have to admit that many, many Christian songs encourage us to view Jesus as our friend and even state that Jesus is our friend. But the combination "invisible friend" is, of course, a form of ridicule. The believer is meant to think of himself as being like a little child who imagines an invisible friend to whom he talks, for whom he saves seats and swings, and who talks back to him. The believer is meant to wince and be shaken by this infantilized view of himself.
Here I think that Christians themselves need to remind each other that we are not taught by Scripture either to expect Jesus to talk to us (though many Christians do look for such experiences) or to think of Jesus in the casual way that might be understood by the word "friend." One can, of course, give a deeper meaning to the term "friend," but we are gravely mistaken if we base our faith on our ability to get what seem to us to be personal, private answers from God the Father or from Jesus Christ to our questions. While I will not claim that all such experiences are non-veridical (that would be presumptuous), I will claim that they should not be treated as the norm in Christianity and should not be the basis of Christian faith. I love many Christian songs about how Jesus walks and talks with us, but I cannot stress too strongly the danger of taking them literally and requiring such experiences for Christianity.
There are plenty of deconversion stories out there (including Muehlhauser's own) of people who believed that Jesus was their friend who literally talked to them and who lost their faith in part because they came to worry that these apparent conversations were figments of their own imagination and thus came to despise themselves as gullible fools with an imaginary friend.
Don't be that Christian.
Which, finally, brings us to "grants me wishes" or "could grant me wishes." Again, here we see the interesting combination of mechanism and capriciousness that was evident in the rhetorical impact of the word "magical." A genie grants you wishes. You call up a genie out of a bottle, and he says, "Master, what do you wish?" Then he has to do what you tell him. Or perhaps the genie says, "You have three wishes," and then you have to choose your wishes carefully. The wishes can be whatever you select, and the genie is bound to honor your requests.
God is not like this, and even the addition of the word "could" to the phrase does not help. God's interaction with our requests is that of a wise and loving Father who decides what is best for us and who often refuses our requests. Most often, as far as we can tell, God does not perform any miracle to bring about that which we request, even when what we ask comes about by Providence and secondary causes. God is simply not in the business of "granting wishes." In fact, Christians are called upon to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. I don't know about you, but taking up a cross was never one of my wishes.
Again, here the saccharine version of Christianity that one sees too much of needs to be distinguished both from traditional and from biblical Christianity. This is not to say that God could not intervene miraculously to bring about some state of affairs or that God never does (after all, the Bible is full of miracles). It is rather to say that God's actions should not be thought of as "granting wishes," as though our feelings were primary and as though God is like an indulgent or capricious grandfather (or a genie) who gives us what we want just because we want it.
The approach of telling Christians that they should "try to shake up their faith" by "recognizing" that they "literally believe" a derogatory characterization is a form of bullying, not a form of argument. It has about as much relation to actual apologetic debate and careful discussion of the truth of Christianity as a Chick tract telling how the Pope enslaved everyone to a belief in a sacred cookie (yes, this is a real thing) has to serious Protestant-Catholic dialogue. Both are forms of ridicule rather than intellectual critique. Ridicule is surprisingly powerful, however, and can be mistaken for critique. Nobody likes to look ridiculous. Realizing that this is what someone else thinks about your religious beliefs, that this is how your beliefs look to the skeptic, may cause doubt by entirely non-intellectual mechanisms.
In general, I have found that deconversions are all too likely to happen when the inquiring Christian is unwilling to "graduate" from a simplistic or childish concept of God to a more complex, difficult, and deeper concept of God. It is rather like a person's deciding that all of science is bunk when he realizes, to his annoyance and dismay, that all physical phenomena cannot be accommodated by Newtonian physics.
I do not have any single antidote for such deconversions, but it would certainly help if we would challenge our young people to move beyond a shallow concept of friendship with Jesus and in particular not to be either emotionally or intellectually dependent upon religious experience.
Tough-mindedness is indispensable for those who are going to encounter a ridiculing world.