My Review of the Apologetics Conference

Darrin Rasberry (who is a Ph.D. student in math at Iowa State University) and I went together to the Apologetics Conference 2008, sponsored by the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

This was not a professional conference aimed at scholars but it was still an excellent conference which provoked much thought. We first arrived Friday afternoon and attended Mary Jo Sharp's presentation across town at the Evangelical Philosophical Society National Conference. Mary Jo argued that Christianity did not borrow from the stories of the Pagan mystery religions. She was well informed and made the point that there are some definite and significant differences between these pagan mystery religions when compared to the stories about Jesus. Whether this leads to the conclusion that Jesus must therefore have existed based on her argument alone is left unresolved. She said this was only one part of the whole argument and she didn't have time to go into the other parts. The other parts are 1) "an examination of the Jewish revolt against complete assimilation of the Jews into Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty which resulted in bloodly battles;" 2) "The origination of Christianity out of the matrix of first-century Jewish monotheism;" and 3) "A review of the beliefs of the earliest Christians, namely the apostle Paul, which point to a disgust of pagan religious practices." These three other parts she didn't attempt to present. She did a good job on this! [To read my critique of her "Loftus-Wood Round Two" criticisms on the problem of evil, here's my response].

We walked in just as this was starting and without realizing it I sat down next to Bill Craig near the front. There was someone sitting between us. I saw him and he saw me at the same time. He blurted out "Are you John Loftus?" I had my hat on and he wasn't quite sure it was me since he didn't expect me there. In the quietness of the meeting room everyone heard him say this and saw his reaction to me. And he was genuinely glad to see me again. Wow! What a relief that was, especially after all I write against his arguments. He asked what I was doing there and all I could say was, "I don't know." And I told him how I hitched a ride with Darrin. In any case this was relieving to me. Bill is a warm person who genuinely cares about people regardless of our disagreements. He had to leave just as Mary Jo finished so I didn't talk with him afterward.

But I did have a good conversation with Richard G. Howe, Philosophy and Apologetics professor and director of the Ph.D. program at Norman Geisler's Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College. They had their own apologetics conference earlier in November in which Howe did a presentation on the new atheists where he included me among them! You can see where he did this in his Powerpoint presentation. That's pretty cool, I think. Richard has been assigned the task of reviewing my book in their Christian Apologetics Journal. Richard was genuinely glad to meet me, and I him. I wonder what he'll say about my book?

Probably the most interesting friendship I struck up was with Gary Habermas. He is unlike what I expected, although I don't know why I expected anything different. He was warm, witty, funny, and genuinely friendly toward me. He does not think he has any kind of notch on his belt for helping Antony Flew change his mind, and he openly admits Flew is a long way from Christianity. He says they talk all of the time. I believe he really is a great guy and enjoys people with no ulterior motive. His presentation on the resurrection of Jesus on Saturday morning was probably the most powerful one I had heard before. I actually liked it so much I bought his book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, and he signed it. I'll be reading through it and commenting on it as I go, so watch for it.

I was disappointed that my friend Mark Linville didn't stay around after giving his Thursday night talk on "A Moral Argument for God," but I did buy the DVD. And I had to choose between attending Michael Murray's talk on "Is Belief in God a Trick of Our Brains?" and Dr. Greg Ganssle's talk on Richard Dawkins, so I also bought Murray’s DVD. I did get to meet Dr. Murray and talk with him at some length. He is a warm and extremely intelligent man who freely admits he doesn't have all of the answers. His latest book, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford University Press, 2008) for him is supposed to be a "conversation starter not a conversation stopper." He and I have had some email discussions and he offered some good advice on the book I'm presently writing on the problem of animal suffering for Christianity (more on that later). He seemed actually glad I was going to attempt to further the conversation by writing about it! He is one Christian that is a joy to talk to.

Dr. Greg Ganssle (lecturer at Yale University), did a fine talk on Dawkins's The God Delusion book. It was fair and balanced. He claimed Dawkins criticisms of the traditional arguments for the existence of God do not work. He claimed that Dawkins's argument that the influence of Christianity on the world has been mostly negative doesn't fit the facts, since the "record is mixed" and it's not as bleak as Dawkins would have us believe. Then Ganssle focused on what he calls Dawkins's best argument and admits it's a good one. In his handout it's this:
1 A universe made by God would be different than one made by natural occurrences.
2) Our universe fits better with a naturalistic universe than with a theistic universe.
3) Therefore our universe is more likely to be a naturalistic universe than it is to be a theistic universe.
Ganssle says Dawkins's argument is about "fittingness." "A natural universe with complex life would included a long period of biological development through a process something like natural selection," whereas a theistic universe would most likely not (emphasis his) include a long process of biological development. There are many other options in a theistic universe for the creation and development of life." So he granted Dawkins his argument! It's just that he went on to argue that the world is ordered and susceptible to rational investigation by conscious agents who have significantly free agency in a world with objective moral obligations, and that these facts fit better within a theistic universe. Afterward I asked a question about these other so-called facts. I said something to the effect: "Why do these other facts fit better in a theistic universe when the theistic notion of God has the same problems? Theists must explain how God can be rational, free, self-conscious and must explain where God got his morals from too. So there are problems wherever the buck stops." My point was that if he grants Dawkins's argument then these other so-called facts are not an answer to Dawkins since we all have the same problems. He recognized this and said Christians must deal with these problems and that they have done so. Afterward we talked more about it.

Some of the Christians heard that two atheists were in attendance and I'm pretty sure they could find out who we were if they asked around. These Christians were warm and friendly toward us. A few of them treated me like some sort of celebrity, taking my picture and asking questions. That was interesting and a bit strange to me.

On Saturday afternoon after the conference was over Paul Copan asked Darrin and I to come into the presenters room for a discussion and some food. Bill Craig, James Sinclair and Gary Habermas joined us. What a delightful conversation we had about the issues. Gary and I talked about the resurrection and we found it interesting how much we were able to grant each other: that I think Paul wrote I Corinthians and Galatians, and/or if needed that a deistic god existed, and how he could grant me that most of the ancient people were indeed superstitious. He asked me a few questions and said he would tell his students how I answered them. Since Habermas maintains he has read everything written about the resurrection he asked me about my chapter on that topic. I had to candidly confess I didn't think that he would find anything new in it, but he said he's going to get my book and read it.

Darrin was the focus of Bill and Paul though. I think they thought he might be more open to their arguments. Perhaps they thought I was a lost cause! ;-) They discussed the Kalam argument and Calvinism. Darrin will tell us later how he thought it went. But Darrin thinks Calvinism is entailed by the Bible and that Calvinism is what led him to reject Christianity; that is, if Calvinism is true then Darrin wants nothing to do with Christianity. So Bill and Paul were actually trying to explain to Darrin how that Calvinism was not the correct interpretation of the Bible. I interjected with this comment: "So, you're trying to convert an atheist by convincing him that the Bible doesn’t support Calvinism," and I smiled. They said it's not unheard of, and Bill said to me, "you were an Arminian so you could explain to Darrin why we're correct about this.” He remembered my background. But I was of no help to him. I said I now think the Bible was written from different perspectives and that we can see both trains of thought in it, some supporting Calvinism and some supporting Arminianism because it's inconsistent with itself. He leaned back disappointed in my answer.

All in all it was a rewarding trip, but unfortunately I came away from it more convinced than ever that Christian theism is a delusion—a conclusion I’m sure they are disappointed to learn, even if their reception toward us was warm and winsome.

What I've written only highlights some of my experiences. Thanks to a few of you who donated some money on the sidebar to help pay for my expenses (I still need some financial help since I didn't work while I was gone and there are bills to pay). Paul Copan even refunded my money for registration. Thanks also to Abdu Murray of Aletheia International who let me stay the night with him and for sharing with me his story of how he left the Muslim faith for Christianity. He bought my book and I look forward to his response to it.