As I argued in my response to Dan Barker's book, the interface between Christians and atheists can't simply be argumentation and debate. Actual, mutual understanding is needed (and atheists can't simply claim to already have this understanding by virtue of formerly being Christians). Christian "apologetics" should not simply be studying how to craft the perfect argument to persuade skeptics and detractors; it should be the pursuit of dialogue and real relationships with people of different beliefs than yourself. Promoting understanding, not persuasion, is the goal of the following two parables.
Disclaimer: The following parable requires some basic knowledge of calculus to fully appreciate. If you're feeling rusty, please review the basics of differentiation and integration.
DedifferentiatedSuppose, in some kind of alternate reality, mathematics was not pursued by science and engineering but by religion. Specifically, you have been raised in the holy faith of calculus. which believes that the culmination of all mathematics is the laws laid down by the great mathematician Isaac Newton. At your church, the preaching, teaching, and fellowship all revolve around the proclamation of the following eight laws, which you have been taught from childhood and which are supposed to be able to explain all manner of differentiation and integration.
One day, feeling curious and less than satisfied with what you've been taught about the clarity, harmony, and sufficiency of these laws, you decide to try to apply them all by yourself. You quickly run into difficulty. You try testing the inverse relationship of differentiation and integration on a simple function, but get the following by applying the laws:
You arrange a meeting with your pastor for some answers. You show him your calculations, you show him the pages with the odd functions in your Bible. He closes his eyes, sighs, and shakes his head. He says, "Newton sometimes works in mysterious ways. For now, it is ours to have faith in the perfect correctness and completeness of the revelation he has given us, and to trust that one day he will make everything clear."
You don't find this answer very helpful or even credible at all. If calculus is so correct and complete, worked out by the smartest man who ever lived, why does it seem like it has contradictions and flaws, and why doesn't even your pastor know about it? You decide to turn to the internet, posting your questions on some calculus forums in hope that someone else out there has the right answers, though you're starting to wonder if there is no "right answer".
But the answers aren't much more helpful either. Some internet mathematicians say that these questions, don't bother them because they "feel in their heart of hearts" that Newton's system is correct and complete. Some make wild arguments about the order of nature and internet stories of people seeing Newton's laws show up on their toast. Some intellectual types try to redirect your questions or answer ones you never asked, explaining from their ivory tower that your church's teaching isn't true to Newton and drawing up pages of proofs and derivations of their supposedly-perfect system from algebra (if Newton was real, why would he make the truth so incomprehensibly complicated?). Some go on the offensive, asking, "How dare you question Newton?"
You start broadening your search, asking liberal mathematicians who only accept the first two laws and even followers of the antimathematician Leibniz you once considered heretics, but really it's starting to seem like there is no grand, mathematical system for finding derivatives and integrals. You finally reject the faith you once held and decide to pursue an BA in English.
This parable is largely a response to the other atheist book I read, Deconverted by Seth Andrews. He describes four kinds of people he interacted with in his doomed search for answers, represented above: the feeler, the folklorist, the theologian, and the foot soldier. Obviously I would fall into the theologian category. It sounds like Andrews saw the (partially true) answers the theologian types were giving him as overcomplicated, overconfident, grasping-at-straws attempts to explain away what he saw as increasingly obvious evidence for Christianity being a bunch of baloney. The parable is an attempt to show what this might have looked like to the theologians he was talking to--an unreasonable demand to have truth conform to expectations of simplicity and rejection of evidence that said otherwise as "explaining away' the obvious. (e.g. answering some Biblical questions by bringing up the need to read the Bible in its original context, which he dismisses but which I see as "obvious")
A New Sect of IslamSuppose that in the near future, in Iran, a new sect of Islam emerged. This movement worshipped a previously little-known, poor, itinerant Muslim imam (teacher) named Isa. This man's life was little-documented at the time, but he was believed to have been stoned to death as a heretic in 1980, the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Isa had been killed for claiming to be God, unthinkable blasphemy in Islam, but nonetheless after his death the cult he had led continued to persist and even grow, proclaiming that Isa really was God and was equal in stature with Allah, though somehow, mysteriously, one in spirit with him. Despite continuing, fierce persecution, the cult of Isa continued to spread, both inside and outside Iran, in the east and the west, converting not just Muslims but people or all faiths, finally gaining widespread, international attention in the present day.
Obviously not all of the parts of this story align perfectly with the gospel accounts. The point is that the emergence and persistence of an Islamic sect that holds a multipersonal view of God is just as unthinkable today as the emergence of a Jewish sect that held a multipersonal view of God in the first century. Judaism and Islam are both strongly monotheistic religions. The very existence of such an offshoot sect begs the question, how can this religion have possibly formed around a belief that completely flies in the face of the most cherished beliefs of its parent religion, and how can it possibly continue to hold traction and convert believers of this parent religion?
Again, to use another analogy, this would be like an explosively popular Christian denomination emerging, converting many existing Christians, while proclaiming that we should actually be worshipping Michael, with God as his assistant. It's that different. Atheists, who are inclined to see all religion as equally superstitious nonsense held by people who will believe anything, may not see any difficulty with how this could happen, but in my opinion it is even harder to explain than the resurrection accounts.