New Atheism, Intentional Ignorance, and Apathy

Over at erstwhile atheist blogger Paul Jenkins’ site, he posted the following:

At Choosing Hats, contributor McFormtist considers what constitutes successful apologetics. As the type of apologetic usually in question at Choosing Hats is “covenantal” or “presuppositional” apologetics, and my own limited encounters with presuppositionalists have led me to the conclusion that presuppositonal apologetics is spectacularly unsuccessful in the declared purpose of apologetics in general, naturally my interest was piqued.

Early on in the piece comes this:

Our theology dictates to us that it is God who changes men’s hearts. As Reformed Christians, we understand that God in His Holy Sovereignty is superintending everything that comes to pass, including the salvation of men, and that the conversion of men starts and ends by God’s active working in their hearts, and this moving is not dependent in any way upon man’s efforts, whether they be those of the evangelist or of the one being evangelized. (Eze. 36:26, John 3:8)

…which I found puzzling (emphasis in the original). If “…this moving is not dependent in any way upon man’s efforts, whether they be those of the evangelist or of the one being evangelized,” then apologetics would seem to be irrelevant. If the moving of men’s hearts is not dependent in any way upon man’s efforts, the whole enterprise seems redundant. I posted as much (albeit briefly) as a comment to McFormtist’s post.

McFormtist was good enough to reply, and it was in the reply that I saw the recurrence of a theme I’ve encountered before when Christians are questioned about their evangelism. They don’t do it because of its results — the purpose of apologetics is indeed irrelevant to its effect. They do it because God told them to do it. It’s all about obedience. Men must do what God tells them to do, regardless of whether it makes sense or leads to unintended consequences. That’s unintended by man, of course: God works in mysterious ways — who can fathom the depths of His intention?

This theme is also present in the Westboro Baptist Church. When Shirley Phelps-Roper and her husband Brent were guests on the Skepticule Extra podcast, they made it clear they were not concerned with the effect their uncompromising brand of evangelism (if you can call it that) might have on the people they were picketing. The results of what they did were irrelevant to them and their purpose. Their only purpose — a purpose they appeared determined to pursue regardless — was to obey God. Anything else was a side-issue and of minimal importance.

So, coupling God’s “mysterious ways” with His commands interpreted from scripture, we end up with groups of devout believers earnestly carrying out incoherent actions for reasons they accept they cannot understand. These people are doing incomprehensible stuff and they don’t know why.

What I find absolutely amazing is the utter, abject ignorance displayed by this response. Paul is seemingly incapable of distinguishing between Westboro’s hyper-Calvinism and the historic Calvinism McFormtist elucidates, for one. What makes this extremely puzzling is that Paul is from England, where the hyper-Calvinist movement had a significant impact on society. Further, the seemingly insulting comparison between the two smacks of well-poisoning. It would be similarly accurate for me to make some imagined argument about Stalinists and apply it to him, personally. That is, it wouldn’t be accurate at all. It would just be gratuitous well-poisoning. Secondly, the description of Reformed believers as “carrying out incoherent actions… they cannot understand” is quite inaccurate. It is not simply a matter of obedience. If all he took away from McFormtist’s comment is “obedience”, he really should consider reading past “first of all”, which necessarily implies that there will be a “second”. The second point he makes in his comment is, essentially, that God uses means to accomplish His ends. It is hardly the case that we don’t know what we’re doing, why we’re doing them, and are doing so knowing that they don’t make sense, or are incoherent. This is a ridiculous assertion in a number of ways. What is incoherent is Paul’s insistence on misrepresentation, and his puzzling ignorance of what he professes to be denying. There is a robust, systematic, and well-established doctrine of evangelism and apologetics present in the Reformed system of doctrine. If he hasn’t figured this out by now, he had better get on top of things quickly, or stop commenting out of ignorance, before he embarrasses himself further.

It is hardly true that we don’t know why we either proclaim or defend the Gospel. This could not be farther from the truth, and his insistence on this as accurate representation is quite incomprehensible. First, Scripture tells us exactly why we should do either of these things, and tells us so in detail. Second, it is not the case that we do so without an understanding of why, or what it all means. We are also told this, in detail. Even a cursory examination of any number of systematics could shed substantial light on this area for Paul. Since I see no evidence that Paul has actually studied any of the aforementioned systematics, I don’t feel that duplicating their work, or explaining it, is warranted. It would be quite easy for him to avail himself of the massive amounts of free resources available in regard to practically any theological topic, but like most atheists, he seems to be content to argue from ignorance. Should he desire to rectify this situation, I can recommend that he peruse one of our confessions, at the very least. Should he want to know, in depth, what it is we actually believe, he could pick up an e-copy of Gill’s Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Hodge’s systematic theology, or any number of other resources. I’m not going to engage in remedial Theology 101 for his benefit.

There is a robust and detailed doctrine of evangelism and apologetics detailed by Christian doctrine from Scripture, contra Paul’s puzzling claims. Being ignorant of that body of doctrine is no excuse for making unsubstantiated claims concerning it. Comparing historic, orthodox groups to modern, heterodox groups on superficial similarities is also contraindicated, and frankly, fairly petty. We’re not like Westboro. Cheap rhetoric like that only serves to weaken your position, not strengthen it.

Leave a Comment