Randal Rauser: Is the Atheist My Neighbor?



Very honest and applicable to any religion.

(Daniel Deen) #44

I have not ever been part of a formal debate. My experience with apologetics and evangelism has always been simple conversations with others. Sure, the conversations will sometimes turn into something more like debate, although within the confines of a conversation it is more akin to what philosophers call an argument. The key for me is to always be able to leave the conversation/argument on terms that people want to come back for more. It isn’t always possible to preserve the possibility of future conversations, but I work hard to, no matter how heated the conversation might get, to leave channels open to further contact. Ruse really is a great example of this and I learned a lot from him as I listened to him engage with others from all different sorts of backgrounds on a variety of topics. Conversation is definitely a lost art, but it seems it might make a comeback as more of us push this conversational sort of approach to Christ and culture issues.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #45



Good example.

(Randal Rauser) #47

I would interpret this as vocation or calling, a recognition that we have a transcendent claim on our lives to pursue a particular course of action – in this case, parenthood – and this vocational call derives from our creator and sustainer.

I once described this sense of personal vocation with the following example:

"John Rabe was a German businessman working in Nanjing, China in 1937 when it became clear that the advancing Japanese army was soon to overrun the city. Given the notorious reputation of the Japanese for brutality, the obvious course of action beckoned: flee the war-torn country by retreating to the safety of the West. But instead, Rabe reflected as follows:

'under such circumstances can I, may I, cut and run? I don’t think so. Anyone who has ever sat in the dugout and held a trembling Chinese child in each hand through the long hours of an air raid can understand what I feel. The rich are fleeing, the poor remain behind. They don’t know where to go. They don’t have the means to flee. Aren’t they in danger of being slaughtered in great numbers? Shouldn’t one make an attempt to help them? There’s a question of morality here. And so far, I haven’t been able to sidestep it.” (Transcribed from a dramatized reading of Rabe’s testimony in the documentary Nanking .)"


(Randal Rauser) #48

Debates can be useful, but when I do a debate, the best moments come afterward when we all go out to a pub. That’s when you begin to get beneath the surface and hear what really makes people tick.

Last year, I did a short book tour in Arizona with Justin Schieber promoting our book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. Rather than do debates, we each shared a bit and then took questions from the audience. The first question I got in Tucson was, “How old were you when you were first brainwashed?” Lol.

By the way, that brings me to the point that when people were raised in fundamentalist Christian communities and then they apostasize, they generally bring their fundamentalism with them. Thus, for every Christian I’ve met who thinks that every atheist hates God, I’ve met an atheist who thinks that every Christian rejects science and reason in favor of their divine security blanket.


We’ve been going through 1 John (currently chapter 3) in church, and the following quote applies:
10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

I struggled with this question during the Ebola crisis, as we knew some who stayed, and some who planned on evacuation, should the plague come. You probably know the story of Kent Brantly https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_Brantly. I was not in Africa at the time, but my wife and I wondered what we would do if we were. It was more poignant as my brother and in laws live a few hundred miles from the outbreaks. I suppose I would have stayed to take care of patients (with all due caution) and my children and wife would have left.

I am sure that that is a grey area for many people, but I wonder specifically how objective morality would benefit clarity here rather than subjective morality.

In college, I was stunned in Cultural Anthropology class to hear an American student say, just like Scrooge, “Why don’t we just allow the Ethiopians to die in their droughts? That would get rid of the extra population”

(Randal Rauser) #50

At this point, we move from metaethical questions (e.g. the truth-conditions of moral statements) and into normative ethical questions. Much ethical debate in the last two hundred years has been based on act-based moral theories, primarily deontology and utilitarianism. On these theories, ethics largely focuses on identifying particular rules or ends that will guide our action in liminal cases like the Ebola crisis.

But in the last 30-40 years there is a growing recognition that these act-based theories are critically limited. Instead, many ethicists are proposing a return to a virtue-based approach to ethics in which we focus not on liminal cases of moral crisis but rather focus on inculcating particular virtues such as courage, selflessness, and compassion. As we inculcate these virtues, we become people of virtue and we naturally develop the wisdom to know how to act in liminal cases.


“Faithful in little, faithful in much”?

I am not sure, but the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, speaking truth to power, seems to actually mirror this line of thought–demanding integrity in those who are associated with power and moral crisis.

(Abe George) #52

Hello sir,
Could you say what place that would be? I mean, in what context it would be appropriate (given that you’ve explained in what way it isn’t appropriate? I think that place would be pushing your opponent to give the best possible form of their worldview, rather than getting away with giving just a very attractive version of it (while also getting away with caricaturing any opposing worldviews).

I get the allure of devil’s advocate debates, but I’m not sure how far it benefits anyone other than the two debaters, two people who are very committed to their worldview that it is very unlikely that they’ll change each other’s minds on a stage in front of a thousand people or so. No question that it is a good intellectual exercise for the people involved. Perhaps it would be a good idea within a group of friends who meet up as a discussion group of sorts, but I’m not sure who would benefit from it in a public event.

(Randal Rauser) #53

I’ve done many debates, some on university campuses, others in churches, and still others on radio and podcasts (and many are available on YouTube).

When I do formal debates, I employ humor and a touch of self-deprecation to lighten things up. I also stress that debates should be the beginning of a conversation rather than the end, and I typically state my own caveats about the limits of the debate form.

Having said all that, the fact remains that debates are a great way to get people in the door: bottom line is, “God’s Existence: A Debate!” is more likely to attract an audience than “God’s Existence: An irenic conversation.”

In my experience, audiences definitely benefit from devil’s advocate debates. I’ve been on the radio show “Unbelievable” 7 or 8 times doing various debates, and I have heard from many listeners that the devil’s advocate debate I did with Ruse was one of their favorites. Debaters are challenged when they try to defend a view they don’t hold, but audiences are challenged as well. Devil’s advocate debates are powerful tools for undermining the tribalism that is epidemic in our culture today.

(Randal Rauser) #55

While I do debates, I much prefer conversation. Here is an exchange I had at a large suburban church with my atheist co-author of An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar in which we took questions from the audience. People really appreciated this exchange and were particularly moved by Justin’s vulnerability in sharing his own story and the tension he experienced with his family after walking away from the church.


@Abe_George Here’s a link from BBC regarding arguing from the other person’s point of view.

“Wanting to make unbiased decisions wasn’t enough. The “consider the opposite” participants, on the other hand, completely overcame the biased assimilation effect – they weren’t driven to rate the studies which agreed with their preconceptions as better than the ones that disagreed, and didn’t become more extreme in their views regardless of which evidence they read”

PBS ran a special on breaking down prejudice in a Western (I think it was Montana) town between white villagers and Congolese and Mideastern immigrants when a group specializing in integration had leaders meet each other and “argue” from each other’s views (role play) as to how they felt. There have also been articles on breaking down barriers in Psychology Today, I think. Dr Rauser’s blog has various portions about steelmanning.https://randalrauser.com/2018/06/overcome-your-cognitive-bias-with-the-50-50-rule/

Somewhat humorously, I learned about this by accident in middle school. We were home on furlough and attended a very conservative Christian school which in 1985 believed that rock music gave birth to violence. At the time I was 13 and I sided with them, but they divided us up arbitrarily into 2 groups–one that agued against, and one for, the premise that “listening to rock music causes violence.” I was on the side opposing my view. At the end of the debate, I learned that there really wasn’t any convincing evidence that rock (even Christian rock) caused violence. I had changed my views.

Good question.


I did watch that presentation with Justin Schieber a few months ago–a very irenic and informative conversation.

(Randal Rauser) #59

I addressed part of your 1 Pe 3:15 comment above. Let me pick up the rest here.

First, let’s note that this text – often taken as the locus classicus for apologetic work – is only one possible justification for apologetics. Another is the Golden Rule. If a Mormon or atheist wants me to consider their worldview, they should (1) provide reasons for me to consider it and (2) provide responses to my objections to it. And that’s what I see Paul doing when he reasoned from the Scriptures in the synagogue and he reasoned from the Stoic philosophers in the public square. Likewise, we should look for accepted authorities and accessible (i.e. plausible) arguments as we seek to make our belief commitments appealing to non-Christians.

So Peter is dealing with a particular context in which Christian discipleship has a particular meaning which is somewhat different from what it is today, and in which the skeptics of Christianity had a different perspective than skeptics do today. Nonetheless, the commitment to apologia is still driven by a love of neighbor and the Golden Rule, and should be contextualized appropriately as we become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22).

And I think that these principles are generally applicable. In any disagreement, if the issue is important and we care for the person that we believe is incorrect, we should seek to find contextual (i.e. incarnational) ways to persuade them with reasoning that is valid and accessible/winsome. For one person, that might be a logically valid syllogism, but for others it will be a powerful story.

(Randal Rauser) #60

Thanks! After that event we both spoke at the young adults group and these 18-30 year olds got to hear an atheist talk about faith, doubt, and atheism and a Christian friend of his (ahem, me!) offer (what I hope was) a pastorally sensitive and yet logically rigorous response.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #61

I am on board with this. Thanks.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #62

I tend to agree. This is the Veritas Forum model too and it works really well.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #63

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(S. Joshua Swamidass) #64