A couple weeks ago, I was reminded of a well-worn trope in evangelical Christianity.
Alan Noble at Christ and Pop Culture wrote a stellar post about a new movie coming out called “God’s Not Dead.” Noble says,
Have you heard the one about the Atheist University Professor who was famous at his school for mocking Christianity and a belief in God? You know, the one where a brave Christian student finally stands up to the teacher and calmly and articulately reveals the irrational basis of the “professor’s” atheism and thereby causes the professor to flee the room in shame, at which time the student shares the Gospel with his whole class?
…Now, thanks to Pure Flix Entertainment, this story has come to life in a new motion picture, God’s Not Dead.
Ah yes, the Atheist Professor story. I remember this story like it was yesterday. When I was young and my family first got a computer and the internet and AOL (yes, a long while ago), email forwards were all the rage. Email forwards were the original Facebook. As a Christian online in the 90’s, one of the most common forwards you got was the one about the Atheist Professor with No Brain.
The story concerns a brave Christian soldier of the intellect who marches into the violent battleground of a college philosophy class.
As the room falls silent and the angels hang suspended in mid-air, their eyes riveted on the earthly scene, a professor and this brave Christian soldier of the intellect discuss God’s existence. The professor takes the first swing: “There is no god because I cannot smell, taste, hear, touch, or see one.” As the story goes, any typical Christian adolescent would cower in fear at this point. So when our brave Christian soldier of the intellect does not cower, our sense of heroism flares and we admire whoever would think of some clever response to the professor. Thus the soldier retorts: “Has the professor ever smelled his own brain? Tasted it? Heard it? Touched it? Seen it?” At this point an angel smirks. One point for Heaven. None for Hell. Now for the smackdown. “Then, according to my professor’s logic, my professor has no brain.” Here the curtain falls, the whole philosophy class converts to the faith, and all of Christendom rises in one large standing ovation.
Nowadays, of course, people don’t forward emails that much. But this story is still on apologetics websites and once a month or so some evangelical friend of mine posts it on Facebook (along with something like, “Stupid atheists! Har har!”). It was even told at Summit Ministries (a “worldview studies” camp) when I was a teen.
Now back to the important stuff:
Even when I was younger, I had problems with this story. Back then, I was unable to articulate why. But after studying philosophy and the history of ideas in college, I am able to put words to what I was feeling. What I was feeling, honestly, was similar to feelings I had about another common occurrence in the Worldview Studies Movement — what I call the Strategy of Ever-Expanding Absolutes.
One humid summer at the Summit Ministries held at Bryan College in Tennessee, speakers sought to identify the logical inconsistencies of Postmodernism. To do this, they instructed students to play mind games with those who deny the existence of “absolute truth”. If one’s intellectual opponent claimed that, “There is no absolute truth”, one would ask:
“Is the claim, ‘There is no absolute truth’, absolutely true?”
Assuming that the opponent would have to say, “Yes” (which, note, most Postmodernists would not do, for they have a very specific conception of “absolute” in mind which has nothing to do with this mind game), one would then say: “Then the statement, ‘There is no absolute truth’, is itself an absolute truth, thereby demonstrating you’re wrong.” Then, the instructors hope, the opponent will duck by saying, “Well, other than the statement, ‘There is no absolute truth’, nothing is absolute.”
And then one would deal the fatal blow by asking:
“Is the claim, ‘other than the statement, “There is no absolute truth”, nothing is absolute’, absolutely true?”
And, as you can see, the game would continue until — somehow to the benefit of Jesus — one would establish an endless number of absolute denials of truth as absolutely true… and WHAMMO! Q.E.D. Postmodernism is disproved!
Take a moment and consider, even in merely utilitarian terms, the value of “an endless number of absolutely true absolute denials of truth”.
While you could even consider the ethics of such a tactic, just dwell on the practical value. Can the mind game prove Christianity true or false? Can it excuse oneself from listening to the arguments of atheists or agnostics? Can it bring a person to the point of “salvation”? Of course not. While such mind games can identify someone’s position as lacking in logical consistency, this identification does nothing to engage either the world of ideas, the ideas themselves, or even the persons holding the ideas. It has no bearing on whether or not God exists, on whether or not Postmodernism might have some legitimate claims, or anything which acknowledges one’s conversational partner as an intelligent human being.
The Strategy of The Ever-Expanding Absolutes might score big with uneducated Christians and might catch uneducated Postmodernists off-guard. But how does it contribute to substantive dialogue?
It’s the same with the Atheist Professor with No Brain story.
This story makes uneducated Christians laugh. But if you know even a tiny bit of philosophy, it should mainly make you cringe. Because it’s stupid. It’s asinine. It’s like laughing at people who thought the world was round.
First, think about why the story presupposes that any typical Christian adolescent would cower in fear in the same situation. The story presupposes, and Summit Ministries reiterated this, that the typical Christian adolescent does not know the right catch phrases. This is a key strategy in the Worldview Studies Movement: the Strategy of the Right Catch Phrase. The fact is, however, that the right catch phrases will help no one in a decent college philosophy class. So really, if the average Christian adolescent cowers in fear, it is more likely because he or she never read anything of significant philosophical import. Thus he or she cannot know that Empiricism as advanced by David Hume has — even in “secular” circles — shaky foundations.
Second, let us strip the drama away from this soap-opera-like fable. What has our brave Christian soldier actually done? Rather than interacting with his professor’s Empiricism, rather than discussing the ethical and philosophical implications and the historical consequences of this or that philosophy or worldview, the soldier has raised but one rhetorical objection to his professor and none to the philosophical matters.
Think about it: what if the professor had received this email forward and knew ahead of time to have an x-ray image of his brain?
The Christian’s entire argument would crumble because it rested not on serious intellectual engagement. Even if the professor had no such x-ray, he could obtain one. So obviously the brain argument does not get to the heart of the matter. Instead it depends on a strategy of flogging a straw man to death.
You give a mouse a cookie, and he’ll want a glass of milk. You give evangelical Christians an asinine morality tale, never oppose it, let it spread like wildfire and promote it at worldview conferences, and they’ll want an asinine movie based on it.
I think Alan Noble says it best: “This could be the first film to be based off of a chain email.”
So really, whatever the outcome of the Atheist Professor versus Christian Student battle, this much is clear: Christian Art loses.