Evangelism training or I Was a Teenage Evangelical

Even the atheists agree: William Craig thrashed Christopher Hitchens in their recent debate. In The West Wing, we see Bartlet preparing for a debate as real politicians do, by practising against someone playing his opposition, presumably having studied the other guy first. Craig is formidable, but his arguments don’t change, so it’s odd that his opponents apparently don’t take advantage of knowing what he’s going to say. Transcripts and audio of his previous debates are available, and his arguments are also in his book, Reasonable Faith. Chris Hallquist responded convincingly to the arguments in Reasonable Faith: a review like that should be a starting point for anyone debating with Craig.

Anyhoo, Hallquist’s review of Craig’s book brought back some memories of my time in evangelicalism, specifically about how I was taught to do evangelism. (Reminder: Evangelicalism is a particular subset of Christianity, emphasising the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for personal repentance and faith; people who believe in evangelicalism are evangelicals. Evangelism is the process of making converts; people who try to make converts are evangelists. Clear? Then off we go.)

When I tap on the dashboard, I want you to recite “Two Ways to Live” as quickly and as safely as possible

Sometimes non-Christians are disturbed to learn that evangelicals commonly receive training in evangelism, as if such training were somehow cheating. But there’s nothing inherently sinister about wanting to be better at evangelism, especially if you value the sort of propositional consistency I’ve mentioned previously: evangelicals who evangelise are anticipating-as-if there’s a Hell, rather than merely speaking-as-if they believe it (I’ve previously mentioned an evangelical evangelist who definitely anticipates-as-if there’s a Hell).

The training provided to a typical church-goer doesn’t cover spanking ill-prepared atheists in formal debates, but rather the every-day evangelism which is the responsibility of every Christian. It might start off with overcoming the British reticence about religion to get Christians to casually mention to friends and colleagues what they do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The church itself would put on fun events (film screenings, dinner parties, Ceroc nights) to which you could bring non-Christian friends, and there’d be a “short talk about Jesus” in the middle. Once people know you’re a Christian, you might get to talk to them about it, so the training goes on to having conversations about Christianity with non-Christians, maybe learning some sort of salvation schema like Two Ways to Live and some answers to common questions.

What kicked off memories of this was Hallquist’s review of Chapter 1 of Craig’s book. I remember being told to try to move the conversation away from issues like theodicy or the reliability of the Bible, to personal issues of sin and repentance. If you watch the BBC documentary on Deborah Drapper, you’ll see her doing this several times, using Ray Comfort’s Are you a good person? script. If you’d like to see Christopher Hitchens win for a change, you can also listen to an unfortunate Christian trying the script on him.

Bad faith

The advice to move the argument to personal issues reflects the common evangelical belief that philosophical debates and requests for evidence are a smokescreen: the non-Christian knows there’s a God really but just doesn’t want to worship him. One Biblical source for this belief is this passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where Paul says that God’s nature is clear from creation, so that people who don’t worship him have no excuse (verse 20).

Hallquist quotes Craig:

[W]hen a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. — William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, my hyperlink

Craig advises Christians to ask objectors “If I answered that objection, would you then really be ready to become a Christian?” This is something like the rationalist technique of getting to the core of disagreements by asking “Is that your true rejection?” (see also The Least Convenient Possible World). However, Craig departs from the rationalist use of this technique in that he seems to argue it cannot legitimately be applied in reverse (“If I substantiated that objection, would you be ready to leave Christianity?”). He also takes the stance that non-Christians are culpably arguing in bad faith.

Hallquist’s review does a better job of arguing against Craig than I can, so you should read that if you come across assertions that Christianity is evidenced by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, or indeed, if you should happen to get into a debate with William Lane Craig. Rather, as is traditional, let’s end by drawing out some practical applications, and then go in peace.

Evangelism training

  • One of the less memorable new phrases invented by Neal Stephenson in Anathem is Hypotrochian Transquaestiation, which means “to change the subject in such a way as to assert, implicitly, that a controversial point has already been settled one way or the other”. Watch out for this, for example, in the switch from discussion of the existence of God to whether you are a good person.
  • Cognitive biases exist, and seeking a person’s true rejection is a useful technique if the debate seems to be going nowhere. However, it cuts both ways, so…
  • Beware of your conversational role. If you’ve accepted a passive role as potential buyer and the evangelist’s active role as sales-person, there are thoughts which won’t occur to you (like the seeking the evangelist’s true rejection).
  • If you’re aiming for dialogue rather than the buyer role, it’s probably not worth discussing things with someone who sees every argument you raise as evidence of your culpable self-deception. Craig’s position on an atheist’s motivations together with his experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit serve as a fully general counterargument to anything the atheist says (but note that knowing Craig is in possession of this argument doesn’t itself invalidate his specific arguments). If you find yourself in conversation with an evangelical evangelist, it is worth asking whether they agree with Craig.
    • One exception where it would be worth arguing is if there are people watching, as in a public debate, online, or if you found yourself at one of those evangelistic dinner parties.

21 thoughts on “Evangelism training or I Was a Teenage Evangelical”

  1. I haven’t found a recording of the debate yet, but there’s some notes available here.

    After reading that list, I’m in no mood to track down a recording of more ninny nonsense. I got enough from watching that 4-on-1 debate the other day, with Hitchens and the Christian dudes. I couldn’t even stomach all the absurdity in that one, and switched off at the first closing speech.

    I can’t understand how a seemingly intelligent adult could make those arguments without going red from embarrassment at the same time. The creation of the universe requires a cause, but that cause is uncaused? I’m guessing this uncaused cause will step back another couple of removes if/when things like brane cosmology become more commonly known. There is no gap small enough that an all-powerful being can’t slip through. They’re like octopuses that way.

    I sometimes wonder if the stupidity is the point. Like the Jam sketch: stupid people are very good at winning arguments because they’re too stupid to know they’ve lost. (And everyone else just stands agog, unable to believe anyone has made that argument in good faith.)

    But in the end, I think debating matters like these is bit like debating creationists and Holocaust deniers. It’s just giving them validity where none existed and an excuse to make claims about the “obviousness” of the argument from resurrection…

    1. The creation of the universe requires a cause, but that cause is uncaused?

      Craig’s speciality, the Kalam cosmological argument, differentiates between things which began to exist (like the universe) and must therefore have had a cause, and things which did not begin to exist (like God) and therefore don’t have a cause. There are problems with it (like cherry picking the physics that agrees with him, and the difficulty in identifying the creator with the Christian God who manifested in Jesus) but the standard objection to the standard First Cause argument doesn’t work against the Kalam argument.

      I sometimes wonder if the stupidity is the point. Like the Jam sketch: stupid people are very good at winning arguments because they’re too stupid to know they’ve lost.

      I don’t think Craig is stupid, nor do I think that there should be no platform for people like him. If that’s what you’re implying, I disagree. Craig is not in the same class as Holocaust deniers or YECs, although I think he’s leaned towards ID on occasion.

      I do think it is inconceivable to Craig that he might be wrong, because, after Plantinga, he regards belief in God as properly basic. He’s not someone you’d go to if you wanted a genuine dialogue about religion.

      Still, it’s worth debating him precisely because he has philosophical qualifications and does not make arguments that are prima facie stupid: he is one of the stronger proponents of theism around, and you should argue against strong proponents to argue an idea honestly (according to this rationalist, anyway). And he just keeps beating atheists, because they don’t prepare and can’t match him as a public speaker.

      1. It’s always seemed likely to me that the kalam cosmological argument originated when someone tried the argument “Everything has a cause; therefore the universe has a cause, et hoc dicimus Deum”, was dismayed to notice that he had just proved that God had a cause, and instead of deciding that his intuitions about causes were unreliable looked around for the simplest available workaround.

        1. Maybe, but hasn’t the Abrahamic God always been thought of as uncaused?

          It looks to me a bit more that previously people were using faulty arguments based on God being caused.

          1. I’m pretty sure no one was ever using an argument based on God being caused.

            The thing about the kalam cosmological argument is that its key axiom seems very unnatural. I mean, I can see how you might think you’ve had a fundamental metaphysical insight telling you that *everything* must have a cause; but “everything that begins to exist”? It just looks so very much like a patch, a workaround, a hack.

            It’s not perfectly arbitrary — it’s not as bad as if it were “everything that isn’t God has a cause” or “everything whose name begins with U has a cause” — but it’s enough to arouse suspicion.

            Of course this doesn’t invalidate the argument: the quality of a logical argument is not dependent on the motivations of the person who thought it up. (Though — I mention this just for completeness — the same doesn’t go for the evidential value of a pile of evidence.) What invalidates it is that there’s more reason to think the key axiom false than to think it true; that it’s far from clear that the universe “began to exist” in the relevant sense; and that even if everything in the argument works it proves far too little. (Maybe the “cause” of the universe is The Laws Of Physics, or a bored graduate student in another universe, or some mathematical theorem, or something. Craig claims that a “conceptual analysis of what it is to be a cause of the universe” fixes this problem; I don’t believe him. I haven’t read his attempt at such a conceptual analysis, but I have read attempts at the same sort of thing by other Christian philosophers and they were laughably bad.)

      2. … but the standard objection to the standard First Cause argument doesn’t work against the Kalam argument.

        But only by fiat. There are no objective differences one can draw between the universe and a deity other than *defining* the latter to be uncaused.

        Craig is not in the same class as Holocaust deniers or YECs, although I think he’s leaned towards ID on occasion.

        I think anyone who goes out of their way to ignore the lack of evidence for what they say should fall into the general category of denialist. It’s trivially true that the best way to win a debate is to talk shite. Debate (and court rooms) are the worst places in the world for determining facts for this reason. They’re just a cheap game to get attention (a fact Hitchens recognises: “available in all good book stores”).

      3. the difficulty in identifying the creator with the Christian God who manifested in Jesus This is a problem with the Kalam cosmological argument because the Kalam cosmological argument doesn’t attempt to demonstrate that Yahweh is the creator, only that there is some God. As Wikipedia says:

        This is not so much a logical flaw as a fundamental limitation; after the Kalam argument attempts to demonstrate the existence of the first cause, other arguments are typically introduced to attempt to establish its nature. This is the line that Craig describes when claiming that “the simple syllogism lying at the heart of the Kalam cosmological argument should be supplemented by a conceptual analysis of what it is to be a cause of the universe, an exercise which serves to recover many of the traditional divine attributes.”

        1. Kalam cosmological argument doesn’t attempt to demonstrate that Yahweh is the creator, only that there is some God

          You’re right, the Kalam argument doesn’t purport to describe the creator. But I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Craig say that natural theology allows him to adopt a higher prior probability for the Resurrection, say, which does seem to be taking it too far: who’s to say that the creator (or indeed, creators) are the sort of beings who’d want to resurrect Jesus?

          ISTR he doesn’t make that argument directly in the Craig/Ehrman debate, but that debate does seem to be an example of Craig saying that the Resurrection is not terribly unlikely if you think there’s a God who’s interested in resurrecting Jesus, which seems to be begging the question a bit if Craig’s objective is evangelism.

          (Of course, he may have other natural theological arguments in mind, but Kalam seems to be his favourite.)

    1. While I was at university, I did have what the CU people always referred to as “good conversations” with some of my friends. ISTR that stuff was mostly about issues that matter to students (booze and sex, except we were at Churchill, so more booze than sex) rather than the evangelical worldview. One time I actually managed to have a late night conversation with a friend where I basically went through the entire Two Ways To Live thing. I was very pleased: there’s a feeling among some evangelicals that “the gospel” (by which they mean something like TWTL) is sort of like magic and the important thing is just to get it out there as much as you can and God will do the rest (memory verse: Romans 1:16). Sadly for me, my friend said “Well, if I believed there was a God and he was offering me this gift, I’d take it, but…”

      CICCU itself moved away from the “gospel is magic” thing a bit in my later years at Cambridge (I don’t know what they’ve done since I left). The Paradigm Shift mission (Lent 1998) was the last one while I was there, and the approach had changed to the one used by Nick Pollard in his book Evangelism made slightly less difficult, where you’d identify a person’s current worldview and try to point out the problems with it (Pollard has a couple of articles on the Bethinking.org site: here and here which outline this method). I was living out by that point so didn’t get involved in the college stuff. I remember trying to hand out a copy of John’s gospel to a friend and being a bit downcast when she refused to even read it.

      It was much harder as a worker rather than a student. I think colleagues knew I was a Christian, but it wasn’t the sort of thing we talked about at work. The dancers I socialised with knew, but you just don’t get the same late night conversation thing when everyone has to go back home at the end of the evening. I was just too wimpy to invite people to the “evangelistic X” (where X=dinner party, film night, whatever) events my church put on.

      Edited: in retrospect, having a LJ and writing about Christian stuff might have been a good way to broadcast it in a non-cringy way, however, I don’t know whether I’d have had robhu‘s problem of being zerg rushed by evil atheists whenever I tried it. I was an atheist before LJ got popular in my friendship group, so I never found out.

      1. I think part of the reason why robhu gets zerg-rushed by atheists is that he was himself an (outspoken) atheist for so long, so lots of the people following his LJ are — unless they’ve all run away now — from the atheist crowd rather than the evangelical crowd.

        Sadly for me, … Fortunately, surely. You wouldn’t want *that* on your conscience now, would you? 🙂

      2. Sadly for me

        Or possibly it was a lucky escape for you?

        there’s a feeling among some evangelicals that “the gospel” (by which they mean something like TWTL) is sort of like magic

        That must have been pretty hopeless; from my naive perspective the worldview in TWTL seems really quite horrible.

        the approach had changed to the one used by Nick Pollard

        That approach seems quite sensible—it’s a good idea to think systematically about your own worldview and the extent to which you can justify it. But as an evangelical technique it must rely on a bit of misdirection to hide the fallacy “your justification of your worldview has a minor inconsistency, therefore Christianity is true”. Pollard doesn’t explain how to do this in the articles you linked to, but maybe his book has some suggestions.

        My own very limited experience of being evangelised was of attending an event being run by Christ’s College Christian Union. (They were offering free food.) They had an invited speaker, who was some kind of evangelical minister, and he presented a version of C. S. Lewis’s trilemma argument (liar, lunatic or lord?—a kind of proof by alliteration).

        I spoke to the minster after the speech and took him to task for presenting such a silly argument, which I said was hardly likely to convince anyone not already a Christian. He freely admitted the logical flaws in his presentation, but said that this was the kind of thing people expected to hear at these events. His own personal justifications for belief were quite different—he appealed, if I recall correctly, to his personal experience and to Paley’s argument from design—but he said that these kinds of justifications didn’t go down so well with the members of the Christian Union, who had invited him to speak.

        problem of being zerg rushed by evil atheists

        Zerg rushing, or the possibility thereof, forces players to build tough defences early. So you can see it as an encouragement to do the right thing, rather than a problem.

        1. That must have been pretty hopeless; from my naive perspective the worldview in TWTL seems really quite horrible.

          I think the unbeliever is supposed to realise “why, yes, I do deserve to go to Hell”, with the assistance of God, specifically the Holy Spirit, a process called conviction. But yes, it does pre-suppose a worldview where everyone believes in the divine right of kings.

          But as an evangelical technique it must rely on a bit of misdirection to hide the fallacy “your justification of your worldview has a minor inconsistency, therefore Christianity is true”

          Pollard’s deconstruction stuff is meant to deal with the problem that most people just aren’t very interested in Christianity (people who comment here excepted 🙂 Apathy is worse than opposition for evangelists, in some ways the hardest person to reach is someone who says “I’m sure Christianity is very nice for you”. Pollard is trying to motivate people to look again at what they believe. You’d hope he’d follow that up with specific evidence that Christianity is true, but I guess there’s an element of the fallacy involved.

          They had an invited speaker, who was some kind of evangelical minister, and he presented a version of C. S. Lewis’s trilemma argument

          The trilemma isn’t a great argument: perhaps Jesus was honestly mistaken, for example, or perhaps he didn’t say all the things reported in the gospels. Modern evangelicals are a bit more ambitious with it than Lewis was. He came up with the trilemma to argue against people who are vaguely CofE by default and think Jesus was a great moral teacher.

          Zerg rushing, or the possibility thereof, forces players to build tough defences early. So you can see it as an encouragement to do the right thing, rather than a problem.

          True, but it can lead to a hostile environment. Perhaps the Unified Atheist Allegiance should nominate one representative per post.

          1. The trilemma isn’t a great argument

            It clearly needs a rebuttal by alliteration: perhaps mistaken, misreported, or mythical?

            But also Lewis’s argument ignores the fact that it’s normal to pick and choose what we take from great thinkers and writers. Just because we admire some parts of a body of work or thought, doesn’t mean we have to buy the whole package. We can admire Charles Darwin’s work on natural selection without having to also accept his views on race, say. It’s a common evangelical line of attack on evolution to pretend that we have to accept all Darwin’s views or none of them. I guess it’s psychologically effective, but it seems pretty dishonest to me.

            Unified Atheist Allegiance

            Atheist Swarm Overmind, surely?

        2. a kind of proof by alliteration: it also has a variant that relies on proof by assonance: “mad, bad or God”. These important proof techniques are unfortunately not covered in most introductory courses of mathematics or philosophy.

    1. Suber’s article is good. He lures you in with his taxonomy of rudeness, and you’re thinking “Boy, he’s got their number” (where “they” are the logically rude people I disagree with, obviously), but then he says that any system which purports to explain disagreement with the system has the potential for rudeness, which obviously includes systems I accept.

      If all systems are prone to logical rudeness, is it better not to have systems? I’m not sure I agree that a believer in a system faces the the choice of rudeness or apostasy. It is much easier to adopt a position for the sake of argument if the system does not say that those outside the system are culpable: Craig’s system is more rude than, say, a post-modernist’s (but that does not mean it is less likely to be true). That said, I have not seen Craig fall back on logical rudeness in debate with outsiders (Reasonable Faith is addressed to Christians).

  2. Paul: If you read my new book you’ll come back to faith! Just kidding. I like your blog. Have you read my memoir “Crazy For God”? You must know my family name. Since I also left the evangelical fold and was once a leader (in the weird nepotistic manner of US evangelicalism) you might like the book. I write for a living. Best, Frank Schaeffer frankaschaeffer@aol.com

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