Monday, April 21, 2014

How Do I Defeat Objections to Christianity?

My fellow Christians who are interested in apologetics, we have a problem. What is it?, you may ask. Well, we are quite zealous to defend the faith. And that is good. When we see a problem, or an objection, or an argument against the truth of God or Christianity, we want to prove it wrong. But almost every day, I see Christians chasing rabbit trails, or responding in odd or unhelpful ways. So I want to offer what I think will be some helpful, but possibly random, tips. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; feel free to comment what you think in the section below!

1.     Don’t feel you have to prove everything wrong.

An interesting fact about those of us who love apologetics and are zealous to defend the faith is that we are all too quick to shoulder the “burden of disproof.” It happens so much that skeptics have become quite used to it. They come in, fire off a string of barely related assertions and demand that their charges be addressed. Let me tell you, Christian, you don’t have to disprove a single thing. Why should you believe anything without any reasons to believe it? Only once a clear argument is made should you discuss it. This leads us to my next tip.

2.     Focus on one argument at a time.

This may come about by simply requesting that you only talk about one thing at a time with an objector, or both of you agree to one central topic. Things will get plenty complicated in a good debate as it is. Trying to have several at once will lead to mind-numbing confusion, frustration, weak or missed arguments/objections, or all of the above.

3.     Figure out precisely what is being claimed by the argument/objection.

Sometimes arguments are hopelessly ambiguous. That is, the way a proposition or premise is worded could mean two or more things, and you have no way of knowing which is meant. Usually, it makes a big difference. So you can do one of three things here: you can guess which one is meant, and then try to show the entailments based on those guesses. This is by far the most work, and I don’t recommend it, because, usually, you will have wasted your time on everything but the right meaning. Next, you could lay out the meanings, and ask which one is meant. This is better, but the objector can always backtrack and claim he meant something else entirely. Third, you could simply say that you don’t know what is meant, and could he clarify. The only danger in this is if the objector doesn’t seem to know how to clarify this; then it might look like you’re just engaging in sophistry. Here’s a recent real life example, paraphrased: “An all-good God is incompatible with millions of years of suffering that is not logically necessary.” Well, what does this mean? Does this mean logical compatibility, where we think the two premises involved in the claim engender some kind of logical contradiction? Does this mean how God would act, given some contingent suffering, is not to allow it? Does this mean some third thing? It’s difficult to know, and you could go down various roads depending on the answer.

4.     You must either: attack the validity of the argument, show one of the claims in a valid argument is unjustified or false, or else show that it is irrelevant.

If the skeptic has clearly defined his terms, you unambiguously know what the argument is asserting, he’s focusing on one argument, and he has provided reasons to think that argument is successful, then it is only at this point you are forced to deal with it. Here you have three options. The first is simple enough, but it’s relatively uncommon that people make this mistake (at least on non-complex arguments or objections). It’s still worth testing out. Check if an argument is logically valid. Without going into too much here (since you can get a good working knowledge of validity from so many other places), an argument is deductively valid if it is impossible that its premises are true and its conclusion false. I’ve seen too many Christians try to jump in and defeat arguments that just aren’t logically valid. Something like “There are many religions, it is arrogant to assume that any one of them is true; therefore, God does not exist.”[1] Challenge them to re-work their argument to make it valid before continuing.

If it is valid, or after they have fixed it, check to see if the argument is relevant. It won’t matter if they have a valid and sound argument but it doesn’t impact what they think it does. This actually happens more often than you think. “God requires faith; faith is belief without evidence; therefore, you believe without evidence!” And how, precisely, would this invalidate God? I’m not ecstatic about saying we believe without evidence, mind you, but this argument certainly doesn’t show that God does not exist or that Christianity is false. It doesn’t even show that Christianity is irrational. I should write a post about why that is so. The point is, however, that merely having a valid and sound argument isn’t even good enough—the argument has to be relevant.

OK, so suppose it checks out as valid and relevant, then what? Then, and only then, do you undermine support for the premises. Notice this is not the same thing as proving them wrong! When you remove justification for holding a belief, the belief could still be true, but you’ve just removed the reason for holding it. Obviously, showing that a particular belief is false accomplishes the same thing, with more force, but it’s not necessary to take on that burden (see above).

In most of my conversations with skeptics, I’ve noticed that they have a very naïve view of epistemology—and many Christians fall into the same trap. What do you guys think? Have any comments or stories? Share them below!

[1] Arguments like these can usually be rescued with an additional premise or a re-wording, and then you can continue.


  1. You forgot #5. If you have given the argument/claim significant thought and the above four steps have failed, submit your question to Randy Everist!

  2. I think the validity condition is a huge one. In all honesty, most arguments you see/hear in everyday life are not even logically valid. There's no point in trying to refute one of these premises when you can just point out that it isn't valid and that solves the problem.

    As to figuring out what the person is saying, I think it's good to recommend to the person to put the argument in premise/conclusion form. That way there are no strawman arguments and you can see if the argument is even valid. Some people might object to this, but it is often hard to try and pick up an argument from just a wall of text. Instead, the wall of text should support a premise instead of the argument being found somewhere in there.

    Brett Lunn

    1. I agree with what you have said here, and I think it's very valuable. Thanks for your insights Brett! :)


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