Debating an Atheist in a Speedo

The university of Guelph pool is a great place to swim laps and chat with folks in the hot tub. On one occasion, a boisterous young man named John joined us and started chatting up a female student named Dina sitting next to me. Dina shared that she was a Catholic exchange student from Mexico and John responded in no uncertain words that he was an atheist.

“So you’re Catholic?” inquired John.

“Yes,” replied Dina.

“So let me get this straight. You believe that a virgin named Mary gave birth to the saviour of the world because a talking serpent tricked our ancestors into eating some magical fruit?”

Dina flushed red. She hadn’t anticipated that a passing reference to her faith would put her in the hot seat.

“I guess so,” Dina admitted sheepish, hoping John wouldn’t press the matter. “At least, that’s what I was raised to believe.”

“So you are a Catholic because your parents raised you that way? That’s seems kind of weak.”

“It’s not weak,” said Dina trying to correct him. “Catholicism is part of my family tradition.”

“I don’t understand, Dina,” John exclaimed. “Why would you believe in a tradition that’s false?”

“It’s not false! It’s my belief regardless of whether it convinces you.”

This back and forth questioning went on for quite some time. Dina would provide an answer and then John would fire back with an even louder question. It became clear that John was trying to pick apart her faith, so I decided to intervene.

“John!” I interjected. “My name is Thomas and I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. Are you always this loud when criticizing other people’s beliefs?”

He turned and looked straight at me.

“I wasn’t intending to be loud. I’m just passionate about my views!” John said. “Why? What do you believe, Thomas?”

“I’m a Christian.”

“So you believe in a virgin birth like Dina does?”

“Yes. I think a virgin birth is possible.”

“I can’t see how it could be possible,” said John moving his arms to emphasize the point. “Nature does not allow for such things.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Miracles are impossible if nature is all there is. But Christians claim that nature is not all there is. If a supernatural God exists, then he has the ability to cause a virgin to conceive without sexual relations if He wants to. That’s his prerogative.”

John paused pensively for a moment and then continued.

“So God has to exist for miracles to be possible, I get it. But that’s just the problem. Believing in God is like believing in invisible unicorns. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.”

At this point in the conversation, John had me stumped. What kind of claim was this? I had never heard anyone compare God to an invisible unicorn before. So I asked for clarification.

“John, what’s the purpose of comparing God to unicorns?”

“The purpose is to show that no empirical evidence could ever prove such things exist. You can’t observe invisible unicorns, so they are pretty much useless as explanations. The same is true of your God, Thomas. God can’t be observed, and you can’t prove (or disprove) him. So God is a poor explanation.”

I was now starting to understand John’s point. Not only was he an atheist – he was also an empiricist with very strict ideas about what counts as a good explanation.

“John,” I replied.  “Your objection reminds me of a book I’ve been reading on the philosophy and history of science. From what I remember reading, it isn’t true that entities must be observable in order to be good explanations. Just think of the discovery of the Baryon particle in 1964. By observing the collision of charged particles on a photographic plate, physicists found a blank spot where an entirely new particle – the Xi Baryon – was thought to have formed and then disintegrated. The Baryon did not show up on the plate, but its existence – including its size, decay rate, and lifetime – was postulated to make sense of the blank spot and the traces left on the plate by the other charged particles.”

“I don’t follow you, Thomas. What does a tiny particle have to do with the observability of God?”

“It is relevant because the Baryon wasn’t discovered by being observed, it was discovered by being inferred from observations. It was used by physicists as a hypothesis to explain what happened on the photographic plates. The same method of hypothesis can be extended to other unobservable entities like God which are inferred by observing their effects, not by observing them directly.”

“Right!” said John sarcastically. “Now that unobservables are allowed to be explanations, we might as well accept invisible unicorns too!”

“Not necessarily, John. An invisible unicorn leaves no observable traces behind, and even if it did, a unicorn would be a very poor explanation. It’s hard to imagine what would count as good evidence for such a unicorn. Perhaps in the future archaeologists will discover random hoof prints on the earth long after horses have become extinct.  But would those hoof prints be good evidence of the activity of invisible unicorns? Of course not! It is much simpler and consistent with our archaeological knowledge to suppose that the hoof prints are remnants of a distant past, when horses still roamed the earth.”

“But that’s just my point!” exclaimed John. “God, like the unicorn, is a poor explanation of the ‘hoof prints’ we observe.”

“I beg to differ. God is not on par with your unicorn example. Traditionally, theists have maintained that God is the best explanation of the most general features of the world. Unlike other hypotheses such as naturalism or invisible unicorns, the God hypothesis makes it less surprising that contingent things exist, that the universe began to exist, that material things obey laws of nature, that states of consciousness exist, and so on. God’s existence makes those aspects of the world more likely, and to that extent, it is plausible to view them as effects of God’s activity.”

John looked at me like I had tricked him in some way. He seemed to comprehend my point that unobservable entities can be explanations, but he could not understand how God would fit the bill.  So he decided to adopt a different approach with me.

“Thomas, I hear what you are saying, but still I don’t buy it. You have your reasons for believing in God. I have my reasons for rejecting God. But even if I were to accept your argument, this God is a far cry from the Christian Deity. You’ve made a huge leap from theism to Christianity, Thomas.”

“You’re exactly right, John. I can’t derive the Christian God from my argument for theism. But my argument does lead to an incredibly powerful, intelligent creator of the universe – a being with many attributes consistent with the Christian God.”

“Ok, so there are similarities between the generic God of theism and the Christian God. I get that. But what does that prove? Nothing. The burden of proof is on you to prove that Christianity is true.”

“No it isn’t, John. I don’t bear the burden of proof, at least not entirely. Atheists say there is no God and that Christianity is false whereas I believe otherwise. Both atheists and Christians are making truth claims, and so we both have to provide evidence for those claims. With that said, there are good historical arguments for the resurrection of Jesus that support the core tenants of Christianity…”

John interrupted before I could finish. “I just don’t see how any arguments can make Christianity plausible. You have no proof of a resurrection, and you can’t base your argument on speculations from manuscripts that are 2000 years old. This is hardly convincing enough to base one’s whole life upon!

At this point, the conversation took a turn for the worse. Whenever I would cite evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, John would reject the evidence as either speculative or lacking in full proof.  Whenever I would remind him that the evidence can increase the likelihood of the Christian God without amounting to full proof, he would switch positions and deny that my evidence made such a God likely. We kept going in circles and it eventually became clear that the conversation was ending. After a few final words, we got out of the hot tub and walked back to the pool locker room where I started taking a shower.

I couldn’t help reviewing the conversation over and over in my head, trying to figure out why it ended the way it did. Where did it go wrong? Were my arguments weak? Had I not articulated myself clearly? There must be another way to get through to John, I told myself.

After drying myself off with a towel, I walked through the locker room corridor and saw John alone, putting his swimming gear back into his gym bag with a serious look on his face. Hoping to ease the tension, I cleared my throat and introduced myself again.

“John. It’s me again. I just wanted to say I respect your views about God. I know we don’t agree, but I’d like to buy you a beer at the pub after you’re done here if that’s alright with you. We don’t have to talk religion. Just have some drinks. What do you think?”

John look surprised, even shocked. What was I up to? He didn’t know what to say.

After a few moments, the serious expression on his face changed into a sincere smile.

“Sure Thomas, I wouldn’t mind a beer. Do you have wheels to the pub?”

“Yes. I can give you a lift there. No problem.”

And so we went. We ordered a couple of beers and our conversation took a noticeable turn for the better. Because I had offered John hospitality, he started opening up about his life and he even inquired about mine. I shared about my recent launch of a Career Counselling business and about my passion for studying philosophy. He then shared about his plan to complete a philosophy major at the University of Guelph and his dream of becoming a motivational speaker after graduating.  As our conversation drew to a close we finished our beers, exchanged phone numbers, and said our goodbyes. He started walking toward the exit but turned around to ask me one last question.

“Hey Thomas. I’ve been thinking. If I ever need some Career advice down the road, may I give you a call?”

“Sure,” I replied smiling. “I’d love to do that.”

John left and I remained in the pub for an extra few minutes, marvelling at how a simple gesture of hospitality could transform a such boisterous young atheist into a civil conversation partner – a conversation that humanized us both.

I don’t know if my apologetic arguments convinced John that day. In fact, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t convinced. But I do know this. When John goes swimming again, he’s going to remember the Christian whose beliefs he attacked, but who bought him a beer anyway.

So what’s moral of this story? Season your apologetic conversations with love. You never know where they’re going to lead.

* This narrative is based on a true story. Some events were fictionalized, but my wearing a Speedo actually happened.*

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