It’s Easy to Burn a Straw-Man Christian

Atheists are great at being atheists when they only talk to other atheists or construct a straw-man theist and show how easy it is to set him on fire. A recent example is in the premiere episode of the second season of HBO’s Crashing.

A conversation develops between Penn Jillette and Pete (who appears as a Christian in the first season) over the existence of God. The conversation is scripted. I could make an atheist look like an idiot if I got to write the dialog for the atheist. The Christian’s responses are made to sound downright stupid.

This is an old tactic. Galileo did it in 1632 when he wrote Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems where he portrayed the Pope as a “simpleton” by naming him Simplicio. “This allowed Galileo to exploit the traditional straw-man technique to ridicule his opponents.”1

For an authentic and engaging atheist interaction with a Christian, I recommend that Penn listen to “The Great Debate” between Greg L. Bahnsen (Christian) and Gordon Stein (atheist) and watch the short video Cruel Logic. He should also look at the film Collision, an interactive debate between anti-theist Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. How to Answer the Fool is another engaging film (with a companion study guide) with real Christians and atheists. Nothing is scripted.

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Here’s how the dialog went on Crashing between Teller and the strawman Christian:

Pete: Jesus is still my co-pilot. He’s great. He doesn’t drink either.

Penn: Oh, really?

Pete: Very—Very smooth flight.

Penn: I thought there was the wine thing. Isn’t there the wine?

Pete: Ahh — You know — it was one miracle…The rest of the time He was pretty dry.

Penn: You really do believe?

No intelligent Christian would ever make such an argument. But when you’re trying to ridicule Christians, atheists try to make them dumber than a bobblehead. I don’t know any Christian who would support their belief in God by claiming that Jesus did not drink wine.


The staged conversation continues:

Penn: Now, I don’t wanna be dismissive, but you actually believe that there’s a being that cares about, forgive me, your masturbation? Cares about everything you do?

Pete: Yeah, you — you know, we make —

Penn: And you don’t have any gnawing doubts about that? You don’t think that maybe you’re — you’re letting things slide by you that could be more beautiful?

Pete: Like what?

Penn: Like life?

Pete: So you don’t–you don’t believe in something watching us, something keeping all of this going?

Penn: I’m not sure there’s no God, but I don’t know. The most important revolution in human history, more important than agriculture, more important than writing, is the scientific revolution. Came down to three words: I don’t know. And no institution, no church, no king, no power structure had ever said in history, “I don’t know.”

This is typical of Penn Jillette, to bring up something like masturbation. It’s a red herring.

My questions to Penn would be: “Is there anything in the atheist worldview that ultimately cares about anything? Does the cosmos care whether Penn Jillette lives or dies? If someone put a gun to Penn Jillette’s head and blew his brains out, would the evolved carbon unit that pulled the trigger suffer any eternal consequences? If so, by whom or what? Why or why not? And does it matter? Does anyone have to adhere to any cosmic moral (personal or impersonal) judge?”

A true atheist could never live consistently with his or her atheism. If someone came out of a crowd and killed Penn, there is nothing in the darkness of space or in the atomic structure of the cosmos that could or would say that the act was a grave moral evil. Survival of the fittest.

Penn’s permanent end would be no different from that of history’s greatest mass murderers since there is no one to judge beyond the grave. Hitler and others may be vilified on this side of the grave but not on the other side. At death, all the mass murderers of history would be morally equal to Penn.

In fact, the best Penn can say about moral arguments is “I don’t know.” This makes his opinions on morality suspect. In biblical terms, he does know but suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. That’s why God calls such people “fools” (Ps. 14:1).

Penn says he’s interested in “life,” but he can’t account for life. He knows that matter does not spontaneously appear, and yet, he believes in a worldview that life did exactly that. As a stage magician, he and his partner Teller do everything with existing material. They’ve never made anything appear that wasn’t first there, and yet they believe there was a time when stuff spontaneously appeared and evolved into millions of highly complex biological entities that surround us and our world.

He claims to believe in the “scientific revolution,” and yet he denies its Christian theistic origins.

Rodney Stark writes the following summary in his chapter “Science Comes of Age”:

Science arose only in Christian Europe because only medieval Europeans believed that science was possible and desirable…. [A]dvances in both science and technology occurred not in spite of Christianity but because of it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, science did not suddenly flourish once Europe cast aside religious “superstitions” during the so-called Enlightenment. Science arose in the West—and only in the West—precisely because the Judeo-Christian conception of God encouraged and even demanded this pursuit.

In Stark’s book The Victory Reason we find that without a Christian worldview there would not have been the rise of modern science:

Real science arose only once: in Europe. China, Islam, India, and ancient Greece and Rome each had a highly developed alchemy. But only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry. By the same token, many societies developed elaborate systems of astrology, but only in Europe did astrology lead to astronomy. Why? Again, the answer has to do with images of God.

* * * * *

In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done. As Alfred North Whitehead put it during one of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard in 1925, science arose in Europe because of the widespread “faith in the possibility of science … derivative from medieval theology.”2

Penn has no comparable rational system of thought that can account for and give credibility and reliability to science, especially since he trusts an evolved brain and an immaterial mind as the basis for what he declares to be true or false. Astounding! He’s operating within the context of a Christian worldview while trying to refute it. There’s nothing scientific about abiogenesis, and yet Penn believes it. He must believe in the irrationality of a worldview that can’t answer anything while borrowing intellectual and moral capital from the Christian worldview, so he does not have to put a gun to his own head because of the absurdity and hopelessness of a consistent atheistic worldview.

So, what does the former Christian, Pete, do after abandoning his very superficial scripted Christian faith?

[A]fter the conversation, the formerly Christian Pete proceeds to get drunk, join his friends at a Burlesque show, and have a one-night stand with a fellow comedienne he sees at a bar. The last shot is him in bed with the woman, smiling while exciting music plays.

And if he had gone out and killed a dozen people, the moral consequences would have been the same given the operating assumptions of atheism. But in the real world, atheists can’t live consistently as an atheist.

  1. Rodney Stark, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014), 319. []
  2. Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 14. []
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