XFiles Friday: How one atheist lost the battle for his brain

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 1)

We come now to a section in Chapter 1 entitled, “Can the truth be known? Knock, knock…” Given how much emphasis they put on the fact that truth exists in the earlier sections of Chapter 1, and given the crucial role played by the “Truth can be known” portion of their argument for God, you might think that this section would discuss how the truth can be known. It doesn’t. Instead, it tells a story of how they converted one unbeliever who was unprepared to answer their scripted questions. If we look more closely at this story, we can see some key points where Don (the victim) lost the battle for control of his mind.

The witnessing script goes like this:

Question 1: “Can I ask you a personal question?” People rarely say no, but no matter what they say, you ask Question 2.

Question 2: “If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?”

Wouldn’t it be fun to respond, “Well, God, I suppose the reason you should let me into heaven is because you loved me so much that you gave your own life so that I could be there, and you’d look pretty dumb if you turned me away after having done all that work to get me in.”

In Geisler and Turek’s story, Don (the victim) gave the witnessing team a moment’s fluster, but they came back with a clever retort and got Don to admit he was an atheist. From there, they maneuvered him into conceding that he was more of an agnostic than an atheist, and more of an uninformed agnostic than an agnostic on principle. From there they talked him into reading a book of apologetics, and eventually converted him.

The first crucial battle that Don lost was when he told them he was an atheist.

“You’re an atheist?”

“That’s right!”

“Well, are you absolutely sure there is no God?” I asked him.

He paused and said, “Well, no, I’m not absolutely sure. I guess it’s possible there might be a God.”

Tricksie tricksie, my precious. The witnessers’ first gambit was to conflate the idea of the Trinity’s existence with the idea of the possibility of something that might be called a god. The question in the heading for this section was “Can we know the truth?” The answer is yes we can, because truth is consistent with itself. We can know that the Gospel is not telling the truth about God, because what it says about Him is not consistent with itself or with verifiable real-world truth. So the witnessers cleverly distract the victim’s attention with a very broad, abstract, and ultimately irrelevant question about the theoretical possibilities.

This accomplishes two of the witnessers’ goals. First, it puts the victim in the affirmative state of mind. As any expert salesman can tell you, getting the customer to agree with you about something–anything–is a key psychological factor in getting them to agree to buy what you’re selling, later on. The second goal is to put the victim into a state of mind where he thinks, “Hey, these guys do have something to share with me that I didn’t know.” By getting him to agree that he actually does affirm the possibility of the existence of God, he is implicitly assuming the role of their disciple. It may be a reluctant self-subjugation, but it’s an opening that well-trained witnessers can work with. And this team is ready to take on the challenge.

“So you’re not really an atheist, then–you’re an agnostic,” I informed him, “because an atheist says, ‘I know there is no god,’ and an agnostic says ‘I don’t know whether there is a God.'”

“Yeah…alright; so I guess I’m an agnostic then,” he admitted.

Now this was real progress.

And they’re correct. Psychologically, they’re doing beautifully in setting this poor guy up. Once you’ve got the customer to agree with you once, you get him to agree with you again.

“Well, Don, there are two kinds of agnostics,” I explained. “There’s the ordinary agnostic who says he doesn’t know anything for sure, and then there’s the ornery agnostic who says he can’t know anything for sure.”

Don was sure about this. He said, “I’m the ornery kind. You can’t know anything for sure.”

Recognizing the self-defeating nature of his claim, I unleashed the Road Runner tactic by asking him, “Don, if you say that you can’t know anything for sure, then how do you know that for sure?”

Yep, they baited the trap, and Don fell right into it. By the clever semi-rhyme of “ornery/ordinary,” and the reverse psychology of using a negative term like “ornery” to lure the unbeliever into thinking this was the option that would cause Christians the most trouble, they tricked Don into taking an untenable position. Don’s already in trouble for buying the equivocation fallacy of equating the existence of the Christian God with the possibility of the existence of any god at all, and now he’s just digging himself in deeper, just like they’d planned.

I could see the lightbulb coming on but decided to add one more point: “Besides, Don, you can’t be a skeptic about everything because that would mean that you’d have to doubt skepticism, but the more you doubt skepticism the more sure you become.”

And of course, poor old Don fell for that one too. Superstitious people seem to have a hard time understanding skepticism. They think that to be skeptical, all you have to do is doubt and deny things. That’s not skepticism, however. That’s merely denial. Skepticism is the opposite of gullibility–it’s when you aren’t willing to just take someone’s word for it in the absence of supporting evidence (or in the presence of contradictory evidence!). It’s not only possible but desirable to be skeptical about everything, including skepticism. The way you practice skepticism towards skepticism is by considering it in the light of the evidence. And what the evidence shows us is that skepticism often saves you from those who would exploit your ignorance and gullibility. Too bad Don isn’t more skeptical!

He relented. “Okay, I guess I really can know something for sure. I must be an ordinary agnostic…”

I continued, “Since you admit now that you can know, why don’t you know that God exists?”

The correct answer at this point is that there are significant, irredeemable inconsistencies in the various Christian accounts about God–conflicts between different Christian teachings, conflicts within the teachings held even by the same group, and of course major conflicts with what we see in the world around us. Don, unfortunately, is not prepared to bring up any such issues. Don’s response?

 “Because nobody has shown me any evidence, I guess.”

It’s about time to close the sale. This pigeon is ready to pluck. He’s gullible and ignorant enough to fall right into their scripted routine, and they’ve got him all prepped and ready for some serious indoctrination. They give him a book full of the arguments of men, and he’s hooked. Today he’s a deacon and a church bus driver, ready to spread this pattern to other people as well.

What’s interesting about this little scripted encounter is that there is absolutely nothing Christian about it. Get Don to the closing, and you can hand him whatever book you want: the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Bhagavad-gita, the Aquarian Gospel–anything. The section “Can the truth be known” is a story about setting up your average Joe to swallow whatever line you feed him. Truth has nothing to do with it.

One Response to “XFiles Friday: How one atheist lost the battle for his brain”

  1. XFiles Friday: Gimme a bunch of whoppers, hold the Father « Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] course, all be equally false). But then I read the opening paragraph: The moral of [the story about the atheist who lost his brain] is that complete agnosticism or skepticism is self-defeating. Agnostics and skeptics make the […]

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