A Surprising Tactic

I want to let you in on a little epiphany, a moment of revelation I had while prepping for my national radio debate with atheist and Skeptic magazine founder, Michael Shermer.

I had an insight when I was preparing to debate Michael Shermer on Hugh Hewitt's national radio program.  (transcript here)  Here’s the “inspired” insight: Sometimes it’s better to move towards an objection rather than away from it, to embrace a charge, rather than run from it.

I was first exposed to this maneuver in a movie. In the opening scenes of “Clear and Present Danger,” a man with connections to the president was found dead in what appeared to be a drug deal gone bad. To contain the PR damage, the president’s advisors suggested he immediately downplay the relationship and distance himself from the problem.

Analyst Jack Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) suggested just the opposite. “If they ask if you were friends,” he counseled, “say, ‘No, he was a good friend.’ If they ask if he was a good friend, say ‘We were lifelong friends.’ It would give them no place to go. Nothing to report. No story.”

In other words, don’t run from the problem; run towards it and defuse it. Don’t evade; invade. Embrace it, undermine its relevance, and take the wind out of its sails.

In certain situations we face, that’s good advice. For example, I fully expected Shermer to fire off the atheist’s standard response to evidence for intelligent design: “If you argue for ID, then you’re going to have to deal with the problem of imperfect design.” In other words, if God designed living organisms, their design would be perfect. Clearly there are flaws, however. Therefore, there was no designer.

If that point came up, I planned to follow Ryan’s recommendation. I’d say “Michael, you’re absolutely right. If I’m going to argue for an intelligent designer, then I am going to have to deal with that problem. But you’re not going to get off that easily. One anomaly doesn’t nullify the overwhelming evidence for design. That would be like denying a wristwatch was designed because it ran three minutes slow. You’re straining at a gnat, but swallowing a camel.”

This challenge to ID isn’t really an argument against the evidence for design. It’s a distraction from that evidence. By moving toward the challenge, I’d blunt the objection by telegraphing to the radio audience I was aware of the difficulty and wasn’t shaken by it. Shermer would have “no place to go. Nothing to report. No story.”

As it turned out, that issue didn’t come up, but something like it did. Shermer pointed out that if the Bible is a guide to morality, then I’d have to pick and choose which biblical commands to embrace. My response: “You’re absolutely right, Michael.”

Yes, I explained, I would have to do the hard work of sorting the rules out. But that’s true of every ethical system, even his. I faced no bigger challenge than he did with his “objective” evolutionary morality. I agreed with the problem, then denied its significance.

I’ve heard Christians stumped when atheists charged, “There are lots of gods you don’t believe in, too: Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, etc. We atheists just believe in one less god than you.”

It turns out the atheist is exactly right on this point, but it does him no good. Believing in one less god than a theist is exactly what distinguishes atheists from monotheists. Nothing meaningful follows from this observation. The flummoxed Christian could have simply said, “Yes, you’re right. You do. And what follows from that?,” then watch the challenge fizzle.

In the future, I plan to take this tack more often. Maybe it would be a good move for you, too. They say, “This is a problem,” and instead of backpedaling, we move towards it and embrace it. “Yes,” we admit, “that is an issue, but it’s not ultimately relevant, decisive, or damaging when you see it in perspective and consider the evidence.”

When a naysayer raises an objection, it is meant to push us off balance and put us on the ropes in a defensive position. In some cases, stepping forward instead of backwards changes that dynamic and the objection goes dead in the water.

Greg Koukl

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