Last weekend, I attended the Reynolds vs. Barker “Does God Exist?” debate at Houston Baptist University. Though I’ve viewed many video-recorded debates, this was my first opportunity to attend one in person and my first chance to see Dr. Reynolds engage a non-theist, so I awaited the night of the event with great anticipation.
I’ve been closely acquainted with the Christian apologetics world for quite some time. I’m familiar with the work of prominent atheist thinkers, but I’d actually never heard Dan Barker’s name before, which I thought odd. I resisted the temptation to research him prior to the debate; I wanted to experience the exchange with an open mind, giving Barker every benefit of the doubt in regard to his graciousness, intelligence, and competence in the subject matter. I am well aware, and I openly acknowledge, that there are atheists in the scholarly community with these fine attributes, and I sincerely hoped Barker would prove to be this type.
Unfortunately, only thirty seconds into his opening statement, my hopes were dashed. After strongly praising HBU faculty and staff for their kind and respectful manner toward him, he pointedly commented, with a condescending air, that Christians of his acquaintance are good people, and that in his experience, they are often “much better people than the Jesus they worship.” I stared at him in disbelief and disappointment. That statement was completely irrelevant to the topic of the debate; the question of whether or not God exists is a different question than whether or not Christian doctrine is true. So then, what was Barker’s purpose in making a statement that was so deeply offensive to the very portion of the audience he desires to win over to his way of thinking? We don’t even have to wonder how many Christians listening to him said to themselves, “Wow, I want to be like that guy.” None.
This ill-conceived tactic turned out to be representative of the remainder of his debate participation. He was bent on throwing out mocking ridicule of Christianity (completely off-topic, by the way), making straw men of various doctrines, and spouting quite a few of pop-atheism’s fallacious talking points (garnering applause and cheers from supportive audience members who were, sadly, oblivious to the poor logic being used).
At one point, Barker unwittingly revealed his own dishonesty. In a discussion on morality, he said that if people need to believe in God in order to be better people (morally speaking), then by all means, the atheists want them to have their belief in God and be better people. What? If that be the case, what on earth was he doing up on the stage? If his statement is true, then why do so many atheists of his ilk dedicate their careers to attempting to discredit Christianity and convert people to atheism? His words directly contradict his actions.
For the remainder of this post, I’d like to examine two of the more absurd arguments Barker used in the course of the debate.
1. The relatively low rate of prayers being answered is strong evidence against the existence of God.
Let’s think about this. If God exists, hears all prayer, has the power to act in response to prayer, and has comprehensive knowledge of the world (past, present, and future), what should we expect to be the case regarding how often people get what they pray for? I would argue that what we observe is exactly what we should expect. We have severely limited knowledge of how the events of our lives are interwoven into the tapestry of human existence, and we aren’t aware of what the full future ramifications would be should we receive a certain thing we’ve been praying for.
There have been dozens upon dozens of times when I have fervently prayed for something that did not come to pass. However, sometimes much later, I was clearly shown how God protected me by NOT granting my request. There’s an old country-western song chorus that goes, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayer.” Boy, do I ever. I can name several cases in my own story where a “yes” to a prayer I prayed would have turned out to be personally devastating, altering the entire course of my life in a decidedly negative way. It is a beautiful sign of God’s goodness and faithfulness that his answer to those prayers was “No.”
Now, I know that there are many cases that we don’t gain understanding of in this life, such as a sick child dying despite the desperate, prayerful pleas of his parents. Why, we ask, would God not grant that petition every time it’s prayed? We don’t know—because we are not omniscient. Scripture tells us that in this life we see through a glass darkly. It also tells us that we live in a fallen world where we will have both trouble and triumph, probably more of the former than of the latter. (I mean, look at the fates suffered by some of Jesus’ disciples and by members of the first-century church.) It is frustrating and painful when tragic events take place, despite prayers for an alternative outcome. But this isn’t logically inconsistent with the existence of God. Yet, we can be 100% sure that if atheism is true, all the atrocities and tragedies that have taken place in human history were for nothing and will never be redeemed for good.
2. Religious experience is widespread among all different faith traditions. Even an atheist can replicate the goose-bump-inducing emotions and transcendent feelings through concentrated meditation. All of it can be chalked up to neurochemical activity. Therefore, such experiences are not indicative of the existence of God.
There are several problems with this argument. First of all, it limits “religious experience” to physical sensations and emotions, but if someone were to ask me about how I experience God, those things would not even be near the top of the list. I’m not a particularly emotional person by nature, and I don’t spend time trying to manufacture warm-fuzzies about God. Many of my experiences have been much more substantial, such as how I’ve been spiritually and intellectually transformed over the decades since trusting Christ, and also witnessing the outward signs of the same kind of changes taking place in the hearts of other Christians.
Then there are the crazy strange coincidences—times when several uncontrollable pieces of a precarious life situation fell into perfect place against all odds and expectations, for me or for someone I’m close to. Divine protection through “unanswered” prayer is also very significant to me. Yes, I have had subjective experiences (which I will not describe here) with the immaterial Good and the immaterial Evil; I consider those encounters strong justification for my beliefs. Of course I have deep emotions towards God. But my trust in Him is holistic—intellectual, spiritual, and objectively experiential—not the result of some kind of euphoric episodes. Regardless, it does not follow that just because people of many different faiths claim religious experiences that all reported experiences are authentic or that none of them are.
At this point, I’m no longer surprised that I had not heard of Dan Barker before. The arguments he offered were far from formidable, and some were woefully outdated (“Who made God?” “Hitler was a Christian” and “Snowflakes prove that nature can produce things that look intelligently designed but actually aren’t”). His often patronizing tone and his failure to properly represent (grasp?) the history of ideas, logic, hermeneutics, and theology are probably mortifying to the more erudite atheist community. It’s likely they want to be better represented.