Don Johnson is a Christian apologetic, talk show host, and author of the book How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy to Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics. He has posted an article in his blog called The Most Common Mistake when Talking with Skeptics. In this article, he makes a case for engaging the skeptic by first asking questions about his background and about the positions he holds, and then listening carefully to the answers. That's very reasonable. This approach is far superior to the typical conversational style we see, where the Christian takes an adversarial stance against the non-believer before the conversation even begins. If more of them would follow Johnson's approach, I have no doubt that these conversations would tend to be more fruitful. But Johnson himself commits the single most common mistake that leads to the ultimate derailment of the conversation.
Johnson starts out with good reasoning about his approach to conversation. He discusses how it defuses animosity, how it prevents both sides from addressing positions that don't exist, and how it offers an opportunity to present the views of the Christian without being too "preachy". So far, so good. But then he says this:
Fourth, it helps bring to light some of the underlying non-intellectual reasons that people reject Christianity. Many skeptics do not base their unbelief on a hard examination of the facts or a deep analysis of the various philosophical arguments. Rather, a variety of other factors are at play, including painful experiences with Christians, anger at God over a heartbreaking loss, and the desire to rationalize immoral behavior. By asking a few questions, the Christian can become more aware of what is going on under the surface.So now we see the presumptions that lie beneath the surface of virtually every Christian, even if they are hidden by a seemingly friendly facade. The Christian regards the skeptic as being irrational, illogical, uninformed, and defiant. And no matter how reasonable the skeptic tries to be, he can never dispel those firmly-fixed presumptions. When they come to the surface, as they inevitably do, the conversation has almost zero chance of moving forward. How can you argue logically with someone who presumes from the outset that you are irrational? How can you make the case to a Christian that your position is based on consideration of the evidence and the arguments when he is convinced beforehand that your position is just unreasonable defiance of God?
Johnson links to another article of his where he explains the irrational or self-serving nature of skeptics' non-belief.
1: Christians Behaving Badly ... If your conversation partner seems more resistant to Christians than Jesus or Christianity, it may be because he has been hurt by believers in the past.Yes, many Christians are jerks. You can say the same of atheists. But what Christian would ever claim that his reason for belief is the bad behavior of non-believers? Yet Johnson would have us believe that this is what motivates non-belief.
2: Heartbreak ... If atheists and agnostics are angry at God, what does that say about their skepticism? It seems to suggest that the intellectual label they wear is motivated by their hurt more than rational analysis of the evidence.Right. I don't believe in God because I'm angry at the thing that I don't believe exists. It all makes perfect sense now. If only I could overcome my hatred of unicorns.
3: Fatherlessness ... the absence of a father, or presence of a defective father (one who is abusive or weak or cowardly, for example) can play a major role in young men becoming atheists.Seriously? This is the theory of Paul Vitz, who wrote a book about it which has now become gospel for gullible Christians like Johnson. But it is not based on evidence, as discussed here by Hermant Mehta. What? Christians believe something without evidence? Perish the thought.
4: Social Pressures ... Again, they are not evaluating evidence and making reasoned decisions. They are becoming unbelievers because they like how it makes them feel to be accepted into the “in” group.Of course. I live in a country that is still predominantly Christian. So naturally, I want to blend in and be part of the crowd by becoming an atheist who will be scorned, ridiculed, and insulted by the majority of people around me.
5: The Cost of Discipleship ... In cases like this, skepticism is simply the rationalization of a desire to stay comfortable. People don’t want to take on the commitment that becoming a Christian requires, so they claim that it must be false.It's obviously much harder to stick to the beliefs you grew up with - all those things that were drilled into you as a young child, that will always be part of you - than to step outside that framework of beliefs and examine them objectively for the first time in your life. Being a believer is so hard. That's why there are so few of them, right?
6: Immorality ... The easiest way to justify sin is to deny that there is a creator to provide reality with a nature, thereby denying that there is any inherent order and purpose in the universe.The best is saved for last. Now, if I didn't know better, I'd think that Johnson is being a wee bit insulting here. I'd think that he is woefully uninformed about the correlation between morality and God-belief. I'd think he is playing the game of We Are Better Than You. But of course that couldn't be true. After all, he's the rational and reasonable one in the room.
So Don Johnson preaches about how to have a conversation with a skeptic. It seems reasonable enough at first glance, but the friendly conversational demeanor is only a cover for the attitude of smug arrogance that lurks beneath the surface. And that attitude is the single most prevalent thing that leads to the derailment of so many conversations between Christians and skeptics. Here's something I think is conspicuously absent from his approach that might actually bring more positive results: humility.