Tactics: Interrogating Hostile Witnesses

What can a Christian do to make any progress in discussions about God with people who disagree?

This is a huge question and a stumbling block for an awful lot of Christians.  They say they want to share their faith and yet they are afraid of doubts, questions and objections.  How can these be dealt with?

Simply, that is how.

Just ask questions.

Let me give you an example of an atheistic approach to rejecting Christianity and then point out a few good questions to ask about it.

Atheist Objection

So when somebody comes up with something like this, what should the Christian say?

The answer is simple.  Just start asking questions.  Here are a few you could ask the atheist:

  • Are you saying God is absent from His Creation?  If so, then prove this assertion.  Of course the atheist is going to have to try to prove the absence of God.  There  are two important things to note about this question and the likely answer you will receive:
    1. First they will almost certainly demand that you provide some kind of proof for God’s existence and presence.  Refuse to do so.  They have made an assertion – God is absent – and they should have to prove it.  This is called the burden of proof and it always rests with the prosecution and not the defense.
    2. The most common answer will probably be to refer to the presence of evil/suffering/pain/injustice as a proof for the absence of God.  Then you will be challenged to prove how God could allow such things.  Do not be tricked!  Instead, demand that they prove how the existence of any of these things requires the absence of God.
  • Are you saying God has the right to judge people for their actions?  This is a much more personal strategy to take.  The reason for this is so that you could follow up with the question “And how will God judge you?”  Of course, they may disagree and say that God does not have the right to judge.  Again, ask them why this should be the case.  If God is the teacher then He has the right to judge the class.  The answer to this line of questioning is likely to be that the atheist feels God has not left sufficient directions for them to follow.  While this sounds noble or right, it is utterly wrongheaded.   Again, do not be tricked into making an explanation.  Rather, you could ask how they know none of the textbooks are correct.  What standards would they suggest for judging religions?
  • What does the classroom tell us about the teacher?  This whole picture provided by the atheist sounds really great as a way of caricaturing religions.  Yet it starts with a huge assumption which the atheist will not be very comfortable with.  The assumption is that the universe (the classroom) has a purpose (instruction) and a destiny (final exam) and a judge (the teacher).  In light of this assumption you could simply ask them what the classroom says about the teacher.  In the Christian religion, the Bible makes it plain that some things about God can be known by Creation.  So ask the atheist – who might now be horrified at the assumptions they built into this scenario – what the very existence of the universe tells us about the Creator of that universe.

These are just a few questions you could ask in response to something like this.  The real key is to answer objections with questions.  As a strategy this has a number of advantages.  One of the most obvious is that it is not offensive to ask questions.  Provided that you act genuinely interested, most people are quite content to let someone else listen to their opinions for a while.  Play up to this tendency!  Ask questions so that you, as the saying goes, “Give them enough rope to hang themselves.”

The second advantage of this strategy is that you will learn about the person while you are asking questions.  Most importantly, you will learn where their real objections to belief in God come from.  This is the area you will want to concentrate on.  Consider a simple example:

I met a woman on the street the other day.  She was very angry with God and spent a long time talking about how God was unjust and not fair.  “How could God allow so much suffering?” she demanded.  When I questioned her about her own suffering she revealed she had cancer.  This changed the whole conversation.

This is the beauty of questions.  Imagine learning this kind of thing about someone!  You would immediately change your way of speaking and the focus of your conversation.  Probably your efforts would become much more effective.

What strategies and tactics can Christians use to be more effective in their evangelism?

Question the Doubters.

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24 thoughts on “Tactics: Interrogating Hostile Witnesses

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  1. Trying to shift the burden of proof around? YOU made the first assertion: “God exists” (not to forget “God is like that…”). And now, instead of proving it, you try to make everyone else prove the opposite? Funny, but nonsense. If I claim there are invisible fairies in my backyard, it’s not you who has to prove there aren’t.
    And no, this isn’t a criminal case, god does not exist until proven non-existent. Funny idea, though. Just don’t expect to be taken seriously.

    What you just told your Christian fellows is simply: “Start by admitting that you have lost the discussion because you don’t have any proof and then try to shift the blame to them.” Well done. Makes things much more easier.

    1. Hi!

      Thanks for the reply!

      I think you may have not understood the original post fully. The point was an imaginary (although often close to reality) encounter between a Christian and an atheist where the atheist uses this kind of story or picture as a way of mocking and sidelining religious belief. In this scenario all of the assertions are being made by the atheist in the form of the assumptions behind their caricature.

      So, in short, I disagree with you. If someone uses this kind of story as a comparison to Christianity then they are the ones making assumptions and thus assertions.

      There is ample evidence for Christianity and I would never begin a discussion in the manner you have suggested. Rather, I do not have to spend my time disproving someone’s unfounded objection to Christianity.

    1. Thanks!

      In practice, this is also the Columbo approach for me. Act dumb, scratch head, ask strange questions, nail ’em in the last five minutes.

      Columbo ftw!

      🙂

  2. “Are you saying God is absent from His Creation? ”

    No. I’m saying a lot of people claim that some sort of being they refer to as god exists. I am asking for good evidence, have been asking for years in fact, and have been given none.

    “Are you saying God has the right to judge people for their actions?”

    I’m saying that setting someone on fire for disbelieving in them, particularly when they present no good evidence for their existence, if massive overkill and doesn’t fit the definition of ‘justice’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘good’ as I understand those terms.

    “What does the classroom tell us about the teacher?”

    I believe you’re stretching the analogy too far.

  3. You say Atheists must prove God’s absence. This is impossible. I cannot prove the absence of anything, Gods, ghosts or aliens. I cannot prove to you that a ghost or elephant or unicorn is absent from my room at the moment. After all they could be invisible or incorporeal. Therefore the only way we can know anything is if we see proof that it exists. I do not see proof for the existence of aliens, therefore I do not believe in them (even though I do not have proof of their absence). However, if evidence proving their existence was shown to me, I would change my mind. The same goes for God.

    1. This is not what I said. Rather, in the imaginary example I was using, what I said was that if an atheist was going to use the account of religions being like a classroom the the atheist would have to prove God was absent in order for their analogy to hold up.

      I did not state that atheists (All of them) need to prove God’s absence. I did state that some atheists (those who would use an example like this) would have to prove God’s absence.

      I hope the difference is clear.

      1. But all Atheists (by definition) don’t believe in God, so they always think he is absent. So this point will come up in any debate. Even in that analogy, your advice to refuse to explain why you think God exists is terrible advice.

      2. Again, the important thing is to pay attention to what is being said. I was not talking about how to deal with all atheists all at once. Instead, the more general – and important – point is that in a good discussion the person who makes an assertion should be prepared to prove that assertion.

        Christians are generally quite happy to explain the evidence for God’s existence to honest enquirers. I am pleased when I have the opportunity to do this.

        What I do not have to do is to disprove every absurd statement some one wants to make. If they make an assertion then they should prove it.

  4. “What I do not have to do is to disprove every absurd statement some one wants to make. If they make an assertion then they should prove it.”

    in a previous discussion when i asked you what the data was to proof christianity you said the bible proves it and made the challenge.

    “First they will almost certainly demand that you provide some kind of proof for God’s existence and presence. Refuse to do so. They have made an assertion – God is absent – and they should have to prove it. This is called the burden of proof and it always rests with the prosecution and not the defense.”

    your understanding of the burden of proof is backward. in a previous post you stated:

    “You doubt these things happened. fine. Please offer some evidence which says they did not actually occur as the Bible records them. I will make it easier for you. The Bible clearly says (in 1 Corinthians 15) that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then Christianity is wrong. So there, then, is your challenge. Disprove the Resurrection of Christ.”

    if you look up the philosophical burden of proof you will see the wiki entry state that “When debating any issue, there is an implicit burden of proof on the person asserting a claim. “If this responsibility or burden of proof is shifted to a critic, the fallacy of appealing to ignorance is committed”

    your understanding of a ‘burden of proof’ is dependant on what suits you. it obviously suits you to CLAIM the burden of proof is on the non-believer to prove there isnt a God but this is merely a fallacy as you cannot stand up to questioning for the beliefs you have and cannot present evidence or proof to support your claims. that is why your beliefs are on FAITH, and why christianity is one of hundreds of religions which claim divine truth.

    you alter the standard when it comes to defending your faith. as Atomic Mutant said: you would not demand a burden of proof upon someone claiming they dont have fairies at the foot of their garden or an invisible lizard living in their bath for very logical reasons – but change this opinion pretty prompt when asked to prove your own beliefs and switch the burden of proof to suit your agenda. its nothing more than a cheap double standard yet your retort to this straight forward objection is utterly irrelevant.

    “I think you may have not understood the original post fully. The point was an imaginary (although often close to reality) encounter between a Christian and an atheist where the atheist uses this kind of story or picture as a way of mocking and sidelining religious belief. In this scenario all of the assertions are being made by the atheist in the form of the assumptions behind their caricature.”

    The fact remains that in your post you encourage christians to take a line of argument whereby they completely manipulate the concept of the burden of proof to suit their agenda when prompted to provide evidence for their beliefs. The fact it was a hypothetical situation is ENTIRELY irrelevant.

    “These are just a few questions you could ask in response to something like this. The real key is to answer objections ”

    this sums up your whole modus operandi to legitimate criticism from skeptics – deflect from legitimate objections and reasonable criticisms due to a lack of logic and reasonable explanations and deflect with irrelevant questions.

    so to clarify with some various situations

    “person A believes aliens visit him”
    “person B believes in the loch ness monster”
    “person C believes an invisible lizard shares his bed”
    “person D believes they have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe and can communicate with this creator”

    person E thinks that all of these people are delusional and that in fact, these are all figments of these various individuals imaginations.

    taking these disputes over the reality of these situations individually who much provide proof of their assertion in each case and why?

    1. In a previous post, another person responded by saying the Bible proves the point. I do not think this was my comment. Still, it has merit. The Bible records history accurately and so can be relied upon as a source for information about God, Jesus Christ and Christianity. I think the answer is not always as simple as “The Bible says so.” However, beginning with the Bible as a primary source is a good idea.

      What this has to do with the burden of proof I do not fully understand. In my hypothetical example, the person making the assertion was quite clearly the atheist who was denying the existence of God. Their denial – which is not merely a negative assertion but is also a positive one (they are, in effect, saying “I know God does not exist”) should be backed up by some kind of logic or evidence.

      In a debate, when one side has made a case and the other side makes its own case then the debate can begin in earnest. Both sides then have identical tasks in that they each must support their own position and attack their opponent’s position. Primarily, since the opponent’s position is the opposite, attacking their position can be done by merely providing support for one’s own assertion.

      I can provide proof for the Resurrection of Christ but the Bible provides its own proof:
      * The body of Christ was absent from the tomb.
      * The early Christians were eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ.
      * The change in the disciples following the Resurrection of Christ is best explained by an actual Resurrection.
      * The existence of the church points to some event actually happening.
      These are all proofs outlined in the Bible. The person who wants to deny the Bible’s account is not making a mere negative assertion but they are saying “I know/think this is not true.” So to ask said person to provide some evidence for their position is not defying the nature of the burden of proof. Rather, having already provided evidence for the Resurrection, the Christian must insist that the person who denies it also needs to provide evidence for their denial.

      Or they should just be quiet.

      The silly examples about invisible lizards in the bath you gave are not an argument. They are beneath you and atomicmutant and the two of you must know this.

      No one is manipulating the burden of proof. In the example I gave (which is not radically different to my own experience on the streets) the atheist is making an assertion by the use of the story. The Christian then asks for clarity on what they are asserting. At this point the atheist could try to ask the Christian to provide evidence for their own beliefs. As I have already said, this is shifting the burden of proof onto the Christian and is not acceptable. Having made an assertion about the nature of God (namely, that He is absent), the atheist should be prepared to provide evidence for this assertion. Frankly, I do not see why this is so difficult for anyone to understand.

      In all of the examples you finished with, the burden of proof is on the person making the assertion. What is so complicated to see about this? Imagine, for a moment, this scenario:

      Two people, a Christian and an atheist, are in an elevator. Both of them are silent and do not say anything.

      Who has the burden of proof? Neither of them! They have yet to make an assertion. If one of them speaks and says “I believe/disbelieve in the existence of God” then they pick up the burden of proof by virtue of being the one who made the assertion. Is that so difficult to understand?

  5. the only point worth responding to is the following

    “Their denial – which is not merely a negative assertion but is also a positive one (they are, in effect, saying “I know God does not exist”) should be backed up by some kind of logic or evidence.”

    you are again distorting the truths of atheism to suit your purpose. no atheist can prove God does not exist and no atheist should claim they know God does not exist. they/we merely believe there is no evidence a God exists – if reasonable evidence comes into existence to suggest there is a creator many atheists would then accept this evidence and accept the existence of a God.

    atheists have no emotional reasons to NOT believe in God, if there were evidence proving existence in a creator it would not be in our best interests to deny it or argue against it but as it is there is no evidence to believe we were created at all let alone by one of the specific Gods of the creation myths

    1. No, I am most certainly not distorting the position of atheists. The term itself carries the meaning of absolute negation. To claim atheists are merely unconvinced is to be disingenuous. An atheist is, by definition, someone who believes there is/are no God/gods.

      Are there emotional reasons why someone might not want to believe in God? Yes, there are. For example, someone who was abused by their father might have an emotional reaction to the idea of a heavenly Father that caused them to reject God. Much of the formulation of the problem of evil is an emotional reaction against God. There are a also moral reasons why someone might reject God.

      1. “An atheist is, by definition, someone who believes there is/are no God/gods.”

        No. An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe there is a god or gods.

        Close, but different.

      2. To be fair, there are differences in how people define the term atheist. Strictly speaking, it means “No god” from its background and parts. There is variation within the atheist camp. This puts atheists on a kind of continuum from pure agnosticism right through to militant atheism.

        What has been occurring for about 160 years is the attempt by atheists to claim they are simply not convinced by theism or that they lack proof of theism and so they are atheists. I think this is just playing word games. If someone is genuinely in the position of not having proof or of finding the various pieces of evidence to be inconclusive then they should probably be called agnostic – meaning “without knowledge.”

      3. ” Strictly speaking, it means “No god” ”

        Incorrect. Atheos would mean ‘no god’. Atheism means ‘no theism’, or ‘no belief in god.

      4. This is really splitting hairs now. Are you suggesting that atheism is merely a lack of belief in God? Because this is quite clearly not how the term is defined by philosophers, dictionaries and theologians.

      5. Yes, yes I am suggesting that. Because that’s what the word means.

        All you need to be an atheist is lack a belief in a god or gods. Anything else is more than atheism.

  6. what you said was that “(they are, in effect, saying “I know God does not exist”)” which is entirely untrue.It is you who is certainly being disingeuous by exaggerating the atheists position to KNOWING there is no god/gods when no sane atheist would claim such a thing. This is entirely untrue.

    1. Here is the definition of atheism supplied by the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

      “Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”

      The New Dictionary of Theology writes:

      “Atheism is the view that holds that God does not exist.”

      The Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions defines atheism like this:

      “Disbelief in the existence of God; to be distinguished from agnosticism, which professes uncertainty on the question.”

      Quite plainly what I have said is not regarded as untrue by an awful lot of very intelligent people. Maybe the stating of it is uncomfortable. Yet this is the logical conclusion of the matter. If a person professes only to *think* God does not exist then this person is not an atheist, they are an agnostic. If a person goes beyond this and denies the reality of God then they are an atheist. Perhaps some people are not actually atheists but rather are simply Anti-Christians.

  7. The definitions you provide do little to support your position. You state that:

    “If a person professes only to *think* God does not exist then this person is not an atheist, they are an agnostic. If a person goes beyond this and denies the reality of God then they are an atheist.”

    but this is NOT the conclusion to be drawn from the quote you yourself provided that atheism is

    “Disbelief in the existence of God; to be distinguished from agnosticism, which professes uncertainty on the question.”

    Given this definition of atheism the person who thinks god does not exist is an atheist, not agnostic as you claim.

    An agnostic by definition does not necessarily think/believe that god does not exist as you claim which is why there are agnostic theists: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_theism

    Your understanding of agnosticism is waaaaay off the mark, which explains why your views on atheism are so false to as insist that atheists claim to KNOW that God does not exist rather than not believe in the existence of God. which is not supported by the definitions of atheism you quote.

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