Atheists typically don't know a lot about Christianity. This is true of prominent critics like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, as well as the run-of-the-mill atheists you may stumble across on YouTube. Indeed, much of the apologetics material available today exists simply to correct skeptics who have a poor understanding of Christian history and theology, because their arguments often crumble as soon as you inject some good scholarship into the debate.
One of the best ways to expose their ignorance is to tell the skeptics that they share a lot common ground with fundamentalist Christians on a variety of important issues. This approach highlights the fatal flaw in their argument by comparing them to the people they most detest. It's terribly effective.
Having recently reread James White's The King James Only Controversy, I think there's another, often overlooked, way to expose the fundamentalist tendencies of the skeptical crowd: compare them to the King James onlyists. Though their motivations are very different, both groups foolishly believe that some kind of conspiracy produced the Bible as we have it today, and they often make the same arguments in support of this thesis.
If you're unfamiliar with the King James only advocates, they believe, as their name suggests, that the only trustworthy English translation of the Bible is the King James version. Modern translations like the NIV or NASB are "corrupt" and were produced to intentionally distort the text.
Anybody with a cursory understanding of the textual history of the Bible knows that that's not correct, but atheist are liable to say something remarkably similar. Richard Carrier, for example, argues in The Christian Delusion that many verses that made it into our Bibles "were snuck in later by dishonest Christians," a point JP Holding called him out on during a debate a few years ago.
Proponents of King James Onlyism are fond of alleging that such dishonesty was rampant among the scribes who copied manuscripts that belong to the Alexandrian text-type, because they weren't utilized by the King James Translators. But as even Bart Ehrman points out in Misquoting Jesus, most of the changes that were introduced into the text were unintentional--misspellings, slips of the pen etc. And when the scribes did make intentional changes to the texts they were copying, it was because they thought they were correcting the mistakes of previous scribes.
The similarities go deeper, however. Both atheists and KJV onlyists will note discrepancies between different manuscripts, often citing the same passages, to support their corruption charges. The only difference is that the latter mindlessly defend the Textus Receptus. But in either case, we can rely on New Testament scholar Dan Wallace for an answer: the original readings of the text are preserved in the extant manuscripts. Moreover, the textual variants both groups cite are usually insignificant, not affecting any serious Christian doctrine. There's no reason to believe that no reliable translation of the Bible exists today, or that the KJV is the superior translation.
In a roundabout way, White discusses this similarity in his book, explaining that KJV onlyism makes the practice of apologetics harder by attacking some of our oldest and best New Testament witnesses. "In other words, King James Onlyism cripples its adherents apologetically in a day when such can have devastating results." (p 88)
So be sure to tell your skeptical friends, their understanding of textual criticism is identical to that of the crankiest, most irrational, tradition-driven Christians who have ever lived. Hopefully that will give them pause before attacking the textual reliability of the New Testament again.
- Will Lawson