I saw an atheist evangelism training video the other day. They didn’t call it evangelism; for them, it was “treatment intervention” to help people made ill by the “faith virus.” It wasn’t about good news, either, as the word “evangelism” implies. Other than that, though, it sure felt a lot like Christian evangelism training I’ve taken part in.
And it’s ironic: The approach this training took was identical to one I’ve seen Josh McDowell use to give Christian youth reasons for confidence in Christianity. I’ve even used the same approach myself.
I’m sure that sets you to wondering: How could one person use a method to train people in the faith, and another person use the identical method to train people out of the faith? I’ll explain that shortly; first I need to describe how the training goes. It’s about asking, “How do you know?”
How Do You Know?
So imagine yourself on an airplane, opening up your Bible, maybe even hoping you can engage your seatmate in conversation about spiritual things. He’s a professorial-looking gentleman, possibly in his 60s. He warms up to you quickly in conversation, showing real interest in what you’re reading, so you get off to an encouraging start.
He has a question, though. “I’m wondering, on a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you that Jonah was in the belly of the whale those three days?” You answer, “Well, first of all it says ‘big fish,’ not ‘whale.’” (Already you’ve noticed that he’s caught up in some misconceptions; you can help him with that.) Then you steel yourself, knowing how some unbelievers ridicule Christians for believing the Bible’s miracle accounts, and you go on, “Other than that, yes, I believe it really happened. I’m close to 10 on your scale.”
Surprisingly, he doesn’t ridicule you. You can tell he’s genuinely interested. He asks, “Really? How do you know?”
There it is, in all its devastating simplicity: How do you know?
How effective is it? Quite effective, in the case of many believers. Consider these scenarios:
“I know it because it’s in the Bible, and I believe the Bible is the word of God.”
“Muslims believe the Qu’ran is the Word of Allah. How do you know you’re right and they’re wrong?”
“Just pray and ask God to show you.”
“I’ve prayed, and he didn’t show me, so how do you really know God showed you?”
“I know in my heart it’s true.”
“Mormons know in their heart that the Book of Mormon is true, so how do you know they’re wrong and you’re right?”
“You just have to have faith.”
“I don’t understand how pretending to know what I don’t know would be good for me.”
Pretending to know what I don’t know is Peter Boghossian’s definition of faith. Boghossian is a professor at Portland State University and the leader of this atheist “evangelism” training. It’s a poor definition, and he has miserably poor reasons for adopting it. I’ll grant him this much, though: Too many Christians rest their faith on weak foundations. For them, faith might really be a form of pretending to know what they don’t know.
Training, Not Teaching
Which brings us to what Peter Boghossian and Josh McDowell have in common: They agree that many believers have trouble knowing, or at least explaining, why they believe Christianity is true. Those of us whose faith is built on reasons like “I know in my heart it’s true” are vulnerable. Boghossian knows it, and he views responses like these as opportunities for “treatment interventions” to help cure people of their “faith virus.”
McDowell, on the other hand, takes them as opportunities to help people understand the difference between weak reasons and strong reasons, and then to guide people into solid reasons to believe.
Brett Kunkle at Stand to Reason gets this. Brett is an outstanding Christian teacher who sometimes plays atheist in Christian gatherings. Why? To help believers experience the assault of atheistic thinking at its best, to know how easily poor reasons for faith can be deflated by the simple pinprick of a quick question, and to motivate them to study and learn the kind of answers that can withstand the pressure. It’s an outstanding training method.
Simulating the Battles
Another teacher at Stand to Reason, J. Warner Wallace, gets it too. He caught me off guard with an article titled, “Stop Teaching Young Christians about Their Faith.” I hate to spoil it by revealing his point, but here it is, and it’s brilliant. Having noted that most young people walk away from the faith after leaving home, he writes,
It’s time to stop teaching our young people; it’s time to start training them.
There’s a difference between teaching and training. Training is teaching in preparation for a battle. Boxers train for upcoming fights. In fact, boxers are sometimes known to get fat and lazy until the next fight is scheduled. Once the date has been signed, fighters begin to train in earnest. Why? Because they know that they are going to eventually get in the ring and face an aggressive opponent. We train when we know we are about to encounter a battle. . . .
The problem we have in the Church today is not that we lack good teachers. There are many excellent teachers in the Church. The problem is that none of these teachers are scheduling battles.
And so Josh McDowell asks questions like Peter Boghossian asks: He’s simulating the battles they’re going to face. He exposes the weak answers and their problems, then he explains the better reasons to believe. He’s not just teaching, he’s training.
Back on the Plane with Boghossian
I’ve had the benefit of being trained by Josh and others like him. I would love to be on an airplane seated next to Professor Boghossian. It might go like this:
“So, Tom, on a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you that Jonah spent those three days in the belly of a whale?”
“Actually it says ‘big fish,’ but other than that, I’m right up there at 10.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“That’s a great question, but I’ve got a better one you could ask me instead. I believe a man rose up alive after he’d been tortured, suffered a brutal execution, and spent three days in a grave. Could we talk about how I know that? You see, the way I know about Jonah has a lot to do with the reasons I know the resurrection happened.”
I don’t know how the professor would answer. If he steered it back toward Jonah I’d ask him why a fish story interests him so much more than a resurrection. (Someone actually tried a tactic like that with me once.)
If he were willing to go with me to the resurrection question, though, I would have a lot to talk with him about. I’ve been trained. I thank God for that. I could talk with him about reasons—solid, substantial reasons—to believe in the resurrection.
Our Children and Ourselves
One final point: I mentioned there was research showing that most young people leave the faith when they leave home. I also mentioned that this atheist “evangelism” trainer is a professor at a state university. Did you catch the connection? Boghossian is an extreme example, but other research reveals that more than half of college and university professors are negative toward evangelical Christianity. Do you have children going off to college? Are they ready for it? (It’s not necessarily better for those who don’t go to college, by the way.)
It’s time to start training our young people. J. Warner Wallace is right about that. I would take it one more step, though: It’s time to start training ourselves. Atheists are getting trained. There are battles ahead. Your faith, and your children’s faith, may well depend on how prepared you are.
Related:Brett Kunkle’s training on how to do an atheist role-play
Image courtesy of Live Lighter.
Tom Gilson is the national field director for Ratio Christi, the chief editor of “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” and the author/host of the Thinking Christian blog.