When I first gave up my faith in the Christian religion, I became very frustrated with the way debates between Christians and non-Christians usually went. I could not believe that people who held such a silly set of beliefs could actually hold their own against the educated people who were criticizing them. Why was it that no atheist ever took the time to learn a little bit about the methods used by apologists before debating them? It is not as if their methods are hard to discover. Apologists usually do not keep them secret, as they want other Christians to understand and adopt them. There really is no excuse for the ignorance of apologetical method that seems to be prevalent among even the most educated defenders of secularism. One cannot help but think, when they hear apologists twist and turn their way through a debate, that there is something fishy going on. Well, there is, and the sooner the unbelieving community recognizes it, the sooner we can call them out on their little charade.
You see, apologists are sneaky. They know that there are certain things that they should not debate with non-Christians, things that will be very difficult to handle if they are brought up, so they approach debates in very specific and formulaic ways. What I want to do here is give a rough outline of these methods, and hopefully shed some light on what is really going on in these debates. I am not going to engage in any serious defense of naturalism, atheism, or any other non-Christian worldview, nor will I devote a lot of space to refuting arguments for Christianity. That would simply give any apologist who reads this an excuse to focus on something besides my main points. As you read on, you will begin to see why I would worry about this.
There are two primary approaches that apologists take when defending their faith, and each is has its own way of dealing with the challenge of keeping the more embarrassing aspects of Christian theology out of the debate. One is a sort of "minimal facts" approach, and is championed by people like William Lane Craig, the great Classical Apologist of our day. This approach attempts to lock down the focus of the debate onto a specific group of arguments. These arguments usually seek to do nothing more than make the existence of a supernatural being seem more likely than his non-existence. They do not seek to prove the existence of the Christian god specifically, nor are they at all reliant on divine revelation or on the specifics of Christian theology.
This puts the apologist in a great position if his opponent does not see through the smokescreen. As long as he keeps the focus of the debate on these arguments, he has a chance of making his beliefs seem less ridiculous than they are. This is the kind of thing I used to do when I was a "junior apologist." When people would challenge the things in the bible that were obviously mythical, or clearly based on a primitive mindset, or just plain silly, I would respond by accusing them of hiding behind their childish criticisms and refusing to deal with the sophisticated arguments I was offering them. "Are you just going to make jokes about floods and talking snakes all day, or are you going to grow up and deal with the issue of the foundations of morality?" This is not a direct quote from me, but it sums up the attitude I had.
This approach, then, is one that hides the deeper aspects of theology behind a sophisticated exterior of serious argumentation. But it's all just a smokescreen. It's almost as if they are admitting that their religion is actually ridiculous when you look at the details. If they do not feel this way, why do they try so hard to divert our attention from them? The sophisticated arguments, though not always terrible in themselves, are seen to be nothing more than tools. They are used by the apologist as a means to an end. Just as the modern mega-church uses media, performing arts, and emotional manipulation as a way to win souls (which in turn justifies any hiding of the true agenda), the apologist uses these arguments as a way to get the unbeliever in the door. Once converted and safely inside, they'll have to accept the silly stuff without question, but at that point their conscience will have taken over (a.k.a. it will be between them and god) and their intellect won't get in the way quite so much.
The second approach that apologists take to prevent any discussion of the uncomfortable details of Christian theology is the presuppositional approach. This method, championed by Cornelius val Til and Greg Bahnsen, is the preferred method of the Calvinist apologist, and it leaves even less room to engage in genuine debate than the classical method. Presuppositional apologists only argue for the truth of the Christian faith insomuch as they argue against the possibility of it being false. Basically, any worldview other than Christianity fails to account for reality as we experience it, and therefore cannot be true. Sounds fishy, I know, and it is. But, it works very well when you want to shield your belief system from any criticism. The presuppositional apologist does not even attempt to make an actual case for his beliefs. Rather, he simply discusses what he feels to be the greatest shortcomings of his opponent's worldview and leaves it to the opponent to account for them. Traditionally, these accusations involve things like the existence of logical laws or objective moral facts. If the opponent challenges the presuppositionalist in return, the presuppositionalist simply says "Oh no you don't! You haven't answered my challenges against your worldview. Until you do that, you have no rational or moral ground on which to stand while making accusations against my worldview!"
As you can see, there is some brilliance in this approach. Law students should all take a course in presuppositional apologetics. Perhaps used-car salesmen should as well. But unfortunately, the effectiveness of this method depends solely on the way the opponent reacts to it. If the non-believer takes the bait, the debate is pretty much over. The presuppositionalist can simply sit back and shake his head at anything his opponent says in defense of the non-Christian worldview, and no challenges to the Christian worldview will ever be able to get off the ground. But if the unbeliever does not take the bait, the presuppositionalist has no leg to stand on. All the unbeliever has to do is say something like this: "Whether or not I am able to answer to your satisfaction the challenges presented against my worldview, what reasons do I have to accept the truth of yours?" That's it. The debate is immediately in the hands of the unbeliever once he utters those words.
This is due to the fact that the presuppositionalist simply refuses to default to the aforementioned "minimal facts" approach if his initial offensive assault fails. This is admirable, in a sense, but it is really just a product of the Calvinist mindset. Calvinists do not believe that the unbeliever is genuinely an unbeliever. They are convinced (by the bible, not by evidence. See how it works now?) that anyone who denies the truth of Christianity is intentionally self-deceived. Everyone, they believe, actually has an inner knowledge of god and is constantly suppressing that knowledge in order to carry on in rebellion against him. Furthermore, they are incapable of actually turning to god and becoming true Christians on their own. Only god can change their hearts, because they are too evil to do it themselves.
As can be expected, this brand of theology has a profound impact on the way one does apologetics. The presuppositionalist will never take the minimal facts approach because he believes it to be pointless. No amount of evidence can convince the unbeliever to become a believer, because the unbeliever secretly knows the truth already and is suppressing it. Therefore, any argument made on behalf of the Christian position is a waste of time.
Why does this put the debate into the hands of the unbeliever? Because as long as he rejects the presuppositionalist's demands (that he give a full and satisfactory account of the foundations of his worldview before attempting to challenge the Christian worldview), he can take the presuppositionalist's theological position apart piece by piece with no challenge whatsoever. You see, the presuppositionalist knows that the Calvinist worldview cannot be defended against criticism by unbelievers. It is a worldview that nobody would accept on any grounds other than the presupposition that whatever the bible says is true. That is why it is the presuppositionalist, and not the classical apologist, who argues that the Christian has no business using "worldly philosophy" as a source of truth alongside scripture. No, all philosophy must be rejected as a foundation of knowledge. It is scripture alone that can be turned to for truth. Therefore, the presuppositionalist will simply assert that, according to his presuppositions, his worldview makes perfect sense and is immune to criticism (the presupposition being that the bible is completely true and right about everything, despite any evidence to the contrary). He will not go any further than that, because the unbeliever still has not defended his worldview against the initial accusations brought against it. But as I said, the unbeliever simply has to reject such absurd standards and move on.
How does this look in practice? Here's an example. An unbeliever could point out that the Christian god cannot be a foundation for moral truths because he created the majority of human beings purely for the purpose of having them rebel against him and then burn in hell for eternity. This he did for his own glory. It does not matter how the presuppositionalist tries to justify this (Trust me, I've heard them all), he will never be able to make it appear as something that is not wholly evil. But he never gets that far. If the unbeliever makes this accusation, the presuppositionalist simply asserts that the unbeliever has no objective moral standard to appeal to in order to make such judgments and therefore cannot accuse the Christian god of being a moral anything, much less a moral monster.
What should the unbeliever say in response to this? "Even if I was a totally amoral person in a totally amoral universe, how would that keep me from being able to criticize your moral system on its own terms?" This one sentence would blow the smokescreen away, and the believer would be forced to face the music. It really is that simple.
This is not to say, of course, that the unbeliever should not answer the challenges of the presuppositionalist. Nor should we ignore the arguments of the sneaky classical apologist. And of course we should be able to explain the foundations of things like morality and logic from our perspective. But, this does not mean that a) we have to do so in a way that will satisfy our opponent (who will always refuse to be satisfied) or b) that we cannot challenge the Christian worldview on it's own terms. Remember, they are arguing for a whole worldview, and it just so happens to be falling apart at almost every hinge.