Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Section 2, Chapter 1 ("The Educated Skeptic") of Alex McFarland's book, 10 Answers for Skeptics (Regal Books, 2011).

Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch;
nay, you may kick it about all day like a football, and it will be
round and full at evening.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, SR.

A little science estranges a man from God;
a lot of science brings him back.

FRANCIS BACON

The high-minded man must care more for the truth
than for what people think.

ARISTOTLE

Perhaps you’ve met him already: the guy who is too smart to be a Christian. Oh, sure, Christianity is fine if it gives you comfort, but if you knew better, you’d know that there’s really nothing to it—sort of like there’s nothing to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Those are just stories we tell people until they’re old enough and smart enough to know better.

A lot of times, the “educated” skeptic is a college student, home from his first year at college. He’s been exposed to a lot of new ideas and levels of learning he’s never experienced before. A good example of this is Bill Hamby, creator of the Life Without a Net website that caters to skeptics and atheists. Hamby, who says he was raised in an evangelical home, recalls his college days:

“First thing that happened, I took a course in evolutionary biology. I took a course concurrent with geology. I began to see that the world was not 6,000 years old. I had been trusting a very old book [the Bible] when I ought to be trusting some very new science.

Then I took some classes in ethics. I began to see that you can establish a system of ethics without relying on authoritarianism. You don’t need a guy with a stick, holding it over your head. Now I do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.”1

That, in a nutshell, is how a lot of educated people become skeptics.

A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing

A wit once complained about an argumentative, know-it-all friend: “I’m not bothered by what he knows. What bothers me is what he knows that ain’t so.” That’s often the case with the educated skeptic. He might be very well educated, with a host of degrees on his wall. But educated in some matters does not mean educated in all matters, and the educated skeptic might be smart in many matters without realizing that he’s not smart in terms of Christianity. It’s not what he knows about biology, geology or any number of other topics. It’s what he “knows” about Christianity that just ain’t so.

He often has a learned bias against Christianity. In other words, he did not become a skeptic by examining the evidence and coming to the conclusion that he’s skeptical of Christianity. No, often he’s been led in that direction by things he’s read, people he’s talked to and things he’s heard. He often takes pride in his level of education and may be totally unaware of his prejudices or the prejudices of those he reads. He doesn’t see the walls he has erected or the gymnastics he employs to reach his conclusion about Christianity.

Getting Past the Education

When dealing with an educated skeptic, it’s probably not wise to try to convince him he’s wrong about things that ultimately have no bearing on the truth of Christianity. He might be very smart when it comes to such matters. Instead, engage him on those things he knows that ain’t so.

Let’s take Bill Hamby, for example. One of the first “teachings” of Christianity that he called into question was the  claim that the earth is 6,000 years old. His study of biology and geology seemed to provide evidence that the earth and the universe are much older, so he figured there must be something wrong with that “very old book,” the Bible. The problem is that nowhere does the Bible teach that the earth is 6,000 years old. There may be some Christians who believe that, but nowhere does Scripture teach such a thing. So, here’s one strategy for dealing with the educated skeptic: Make sure you clarify what Christianity teaches versus what he thinks it teaches.

The 6,000-year-old earth idea originated with Bishop James Ussher (1581–1656), the Prelate of the Church of Ireland. Ussher postulated that God created the earth at nightfall preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. Ussher was a well-educated man, not some guy making guesses. He arrived at this date by looking at the historical events in the Old Testament that we can reliably date and by going through the various genealogies in both the Old and New Testaments. This process required great depth of learning in history, including knowledge about the ancient Persians, Greeks and Romans, as well as expertise in the Bible, biblical languages, astronomy, ancient calendars and chronology. Ussher’s methodology worked—to a point. To give just a couple of examples, he accurately placed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. and the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

The problem for Bishop Ussher was that he didn’t have access to all the archaeological research and scholarship we have available to us now. For example, few biblical scholars today believe that genealogies in the Bible mention every single person in that line of descendants. For various reasons, including cultural and symbolical, the writers of those genealogies skipped some generations in order to, for example, emphasize certain persons in a lineage. In other cases, if you add up the generations listed, you’ll find that they are all multiples of the number seven, which was considered the number of perfection. I’m not saying that these genealogies are made-up, metaphorical or otherwise not true; I am saying that the writer had a purpose other than a literal, straightline listing of every person in a given genealogical line, and it is the work of hermeneutics to discover this. (Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting Scripture.)

I’m not arguing here for an old earth or a young earth. The important points are that the Bible does not teach that the world is 6,000 years old, and that many Bible-believing Christians come down on different sides of this issue. Help your educated skeptic understand this is not a non-negotiable point of Christian doctrine— and therefore not a compelling reason to reject Christian faith

An Appeal to Authority

In addition to understanding the things the educated skeptic “knows” that just ain’t so, it’s helpful to understand his approach to knowledge. As I said earlier, this skeptic takes pride in his level of education, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to recognize the prejudices he brings to the discussion, nor the prejudices of those he reads. He doesn’t see the barricades he employs/contrives to reach his conclusion about Christianity. He puts great stock in authority— teachers, university professors, writers—who write things he’s predisposed to agree with…

Skeptics will go to extraordinary lengths to deny the obvious if the obvious might cause them to question their skepticism. Often they have accepted a proposition without seriously examining it. Consider this example from discussions about the origins of life. Without God, the only explanation for life on earth is that it came about by natural causes, without any direction or creative activity by a supernatural being. One such view is called “spontaneous generation”—basically, that life just happened when inanimate matter suddenly came to life. That theory was pretty well disproved by the mid-nineteenth century, but without it skeptics and atheists have a hard time explaining the origins of life.

George Wald, a Harvard University biochemist and Nobel Laureate, sought to defend spontaneous generation, although not in terms previously used. He wrote:

When we consider the spontaneous origin of a living organism, this is not an event that need happen again and again. It is perhaps enough for it to happen once. The probability with which we are concerned is of a special kind; it is the probability that an event occur at least once. To this type of probability a fundamentally important thing happens as one increases the number of trials. However improbable the event in a single trial, it becomes increasingly probable as the trials are multiplied. Eventually the event becomes virtually inevitable.

I think a scientist has no choice but to approach the origin of life through a hypothesis of spontaneous generation… One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles2

The impossible becomes possible with enough time.

But impossible is impossible. There’s no time element to it. It’s like one hundred trillion times one hundred trillion times one hundred trillion times zero equals—zero! Of course, the scientist does have a choice: to consider an explanation that might involve something outside the scientific-materialist worldview. When he refuses to consider such an explanation, he has, in fact, made a choice...

Keep in Mind

When dealing with the educated skeptic, be sure to be respectful of his education, but don’t be intimidated by it. Be aware that, as the wit said, it’s not so much about what he knows but about what he knows that ain’t so. Clarify his position and then present how his understanding of Christianity is often at odds with what Christianity actually teaches. Also understand that usually he has not been convinced by any evidence but in spite of the evidence. He’s often taking his cues from others because their positions support what he is already inclined to believe.

Endnotes:

1. Bill Hamby, quoted in an interview with Alex McFarland, October 18, 2010.

2. George Wald, “The Origin of Life,” Scientific American, August 1954, vol. 190, pp. 44-53.

Alex McFarland, religion and culture expert, is a renowned expert in Christian apologetics (one who explains and rationally defends faith). Dr. McFarland is the host of the TV program Sound Rēzn, airing across the country on the National Religious Broadcaster's Network and he also co-hosts Explore the World with Marvin Sanders on the American Family Radio Network, airing on nearly 200 stations. He is the author of many books including 10 Questions Every Christian must Answer. Alex speaks to adults and youth throughout the United States. 

Publication date: July 5, 2012