There’s one theme that runs throughout a lot of the arguments here, and it deserves to be highlighted on a page of its own. That theme is the Real World Context of apologetics. Christians and other believers like to argue apologetics in a highly personalized, subjective, and abstract context, a realm in which different plausibilities can be debated in a way that allows you to choose whichever one you like best. If we are arguing about whether or not God exists in the real world, however, we need to keep in mind the real world context (RWC) of the discussion, because it’s important, and because believers typically drift away from it as quickly as they can.
The real world context of apologetics is this: God does not show up in the real world, in any literal, objectively true sense of the expression “to show up.” He does not manifest visibly, tangibly, or audibly, nor does He interact with reality in any way that would allow us to verify the interaction and/or His connection to it. Atheists and agnostics have been pointing out this kind of thing for centuries, but the common Christian-vs-atheist debate tends not to deal too much with the inevitable consequences of God’s absence, which are tremendously important and which make the debate very uncomfortable for the believer.
For example, in God’s absence, our sole source(s) of information about God are the stories, superstitions and subjective feelings of men. This means, for example, that it is not possible for anyone to have faith in God, since the only available option is to believe in the stories that ordinary men tell about God. That’s faith in the men, not faith in God. Believers like to think they’re doing something noble by defending their faith, as though they were defending God, but if the RWC is that God is absent and that all faith is faith in men, then the nobility rather evaporates. You can think you’re making a sacrifice by denying the plain facts in favor of a vocal and unshakable faith, but if your faith is only a baseless trust in the stories of men, in defiance of the facts, then you’re not being noble and faithful, you’re merely being stubborn, gullible and silly.
For another example, take the “God works in mysterious ways” argument. It’s all very well to argue that God is so smart He can think of answers we can’t dream of, but in the RWC of God’s absence, we’re not dealing with a God whose ways perplex us, we’re only dealing with men whose stories about God are blatantly inconsistent with what we find in the real world. If the question is “2 + 2 = x” and we come up with the solution “x = 5″, the problem is not that you are so dumb compared to God that you can’t see how 2 + 2 could equal 5, the problem is that we’ve come up with the wrong solution. So it’s important to keep the RWC in mind whenever believers start offering vague, philosophical speculations about how an infinitely wise God might be able to resolve the contradictions in the stories men tell. God’s not here; the contradictions are, and such contradictions are the hallmark of untrue stories.
Or take personal testimonies. I’ve had people tell me some amazing stories about how God appeared to them or spoke to them or even physically touched them, which they offer as evidence that God is real. But the RWC is that God does not show up in the real world, so there’s a contradiction in their stories. The only way their stories could be literally true, and not be autosuggestion or some other form of mistaken perception, is if there were no compelling reason why God could not show up in the real world. You can’t claim both that God did show up and that there’s some prefectly good reason why God can’t show up. (Though in practice believers can and often do make both claims, sometimes at the same time!) It’s a logical contradiction: either there’s no reason why God can’t show up (in which case the rest of us ought to see and hear Him as well) or some critical factor prevents God from showing up, in which case the believer’s testimony is not valid evidence of a real-world encounter with God. The RWC of God’s universal absence shows us that the believer’s testimony is mistaken, at best.
There are other ways in which the RWC has a direct bearing on the debate between believers and skeptics, but the point I want to make is this: for the believer, the RWC takes all the satisfaction out of witnessing. That’s very important, because while we’ll almost never talk the believer out of his or her belief, we can make it unrewarding for them to go around and try to convert others. The goal of Christian apologetics is to dazzle the believer’s mind with speculations, philosophical debates, and emotional appeals in order to distract them from the unpleasantly godless reality that surrounds them. By continually redirecting the believer’s attention to the RWC of the debate, the skeptic can turn witnessing into a direct confrontation with reality–the last thing the believer wants. If we consistently take this approach, in conjunction with the other tools of the Unapologetic Toolbox, we can eventually bring the believer to the point where all he can do is quote the old Monty Python line: “Oh, you’re no fun any more.”