The Handbook: Science- and History-Based Apologetics.

There are a few basic routes that apologists go, and many will mix tactics depending on what seems effective at the time. We’ve covered a few apologetics arguments seeking to argue themselves into the Christian god without any evidence, mostly by trying to demonstrate that it isn’t completely ludicrous that a god might exist fitting the description they’re outlining.

God reposing on Sabbath day. Illustration from...

God reposing on Sabbath day. Illustration from the first Russian engraved Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). They were there, I guess?

Another way of handling apologetics–and an equally common one at that–is to try to argue that the Bible is a trustworthy guide to its god and his promises and threats to humankind because it’s right about everything else within its pages and it never lies, so obviously it wouldn’t lie about the existence of a god. Yes, that is the very epitome of a circular argument: the Bible doesn’t lie –> and the Bible says this stuff is true –> and the Bible can be trusted –> because the Bible doesn’t lie –> so therefore this stuff must be true.

This sort of reasoning is applied to the Bible’s claims about history and science, and the result is that non-Christians will often run into Christians who try to convince us that those claims are totally true and so therefore we should all convert and worship Jesus. The result is a form of apologetics that focuses on making the Bible look like a credible source of information about at least some topics in the hopes of making it look more credible about supernatural stuff.

The Christians using this argument tend to believe the Bible is infallible and divinely-written (or at least inspired), and very few of them know a lot about Biblical criticism or the history of either it or the cultures that produced and compiled it–much less those cultures’ languages and customs. But that doesn’t stop them! They think that if they can only demonstrate that the Bible’s assertions of history and science are correct, that their targets will, as they do themselves, take its word on the other stuff it says about the supernatural.

Here are the ways this form of apologetics fails:

* Often the facts are taken from the Bible itself, which means they’re using the Bible to prove the Bible. You can’t do that. The Bible makes the claims; it cannot also fulfill the claims.

* A fictional work can certainly make true statements about some parts of the natural world and still be fictional. A lot of Harry Potter happens in England–does that mean that wizardry is true? Disney’s The Little Mermaid happens in the ocean and has ships–does that mean mermaids are real? If the Bible did actually get something right in history or science, that wouldn’t be support for its supernatural claims. It doesn’t follow.

* Most of the arguments rely on historical revisionism or pseudoscience. Christianity absolutely abounds with crank historians and pseudoscientists, many of them self-taught or holding degrees from substandard educational groups (to be generous). Real science and history don’t support these Christians’ claims, so obviously they’re not going to pursue those. Pseudoscience and junk history do, so that’s what apologists use.

* Almost all of the arguments use the Bible’s mythology in ways that modern Biblical scholars would find bizarre. It’d be hard to think of a decent seminary that teaches that the Bible’s myths are totally for real or that those myths impart real scientific or historical truths to people. But a great many Christians pass along urban legends (the one about the sun stopping for a day was around back when I was Christian) and try to find some tortured, fractured “logic” that makes the Genesis Creation myths seem more realistic (like how I used to think that “days” could mean ages/epochs).

* In the end, you’ll discover that people going this route will demand that you “just believe” and promise that if you do, you’ll understand like they do that the Bible is totally true. Or they’ll quibble about what “proof” and “evidence” mean, or try to shift burden of proof for their claims, or some other dishonest tactic. If you don’t accept their claims, you’ll be accused of being close-minded.

As you can see, this type of apologetics is likely the easiest of all to dismiss and debunk; it only ensnares those who really have no idea how to properly assess historical or scientific claims and who don’t realize that not a single thing in the Bible really happened the way it says.

That said, should you remain unpersuaded then you’ll get to hear the apologist snarl that you’re just one of those dang mean ole dang ole nachurlists who think everything has to be measurable and true.

Well, yes. And? Why aren’t more Christians like that if they think they have a true Bible?

We’ll talk more about this hatred of “naturalism” that literalist Christians hold next time, but for now, I’ll only note in passing that Christian apologists tend to demonize and denigrate anything that doesn’t help their cases. If this dreaded “naturalism” actually contained anything that helped Christians make their case that their claims are true, then they would be trumpeting its virtues to the skies and preaching it everywhere. It doesn’t, so they must either make it unimportant or vilify it. And yet it’s what they’ve chosen to use to try to demonstrate their claims. That’s got to be terribly confusing for them.

From where I’m standing, it sure looks like the apologists who go this route have a major hard-on for having a true Bible, and yet try to minimize, ignore, or distort any technique or methodology that actually demonstrates the veracity of a claim. They love science, until science doesn’t cooperate. Then science suddenly doesn’t have all the answers and there’s more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in your vain philosophy, etc. etc. Look, we don’t get to have it both ways.

As it is, every single attempt apologists make to bring the Bible into line with the commonly-accepted and well-supported principles of science and history just serves to make themselves look either deceived or dishonest. The Bible wasn’t meant to be a valid source of history and science. That doesn’t mean it’s useless any more than The Epic of Gilgamesh is useless because there really wasn’t a Great Flood or an eternal man dispensing advice to a hero mourning the loss of his friend. It’s a record of its time in a lot of ways and it has some beautiful poetry in it, some fascinating folklore, and more than a few funny and thought-provoking bits. Read metaphorically, taken as a folk history of what the early Jews thought of themselves, their neighbors, their world, and their religious ideas, it is not without wonder.

Read literally, it loses a great deal of its meaning and beauty. It becomes confused and disturbing, dark and weird.

Literalism cheapens it. Literalism demands that readers see every bit of it as breathtakingly important and valuable–and moreover demands that readers see every bit of it as a record of the thoughts and deeds of an omni-benevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god who can literally do no wrong (because anything an ultimately good god does, including genocide, is good by definition, duh).

In the face of such infantile demands, the Bible falls apart very quickly; that’s why atheists often say that the easiest and fastest way to make someone an atheist is to make them read the Bible cover to cover.

One reason I simply can’t accept literalist claims or see the Bible as valid history or science is because I know way too much about it at this point. When I was deconverting, I looked at Bible study as surefire ways to hold onto my faith–because I’d been told all this time that it was! But I found out that the opposite was true. The more I studied the Bible, the more I saw what readers are discovering every single day:

This is not an inspired or infallible or literally true document.

A literal reader will quickly notice all the places where their idolized book simply doesn’t line up with reality. They’ll start seeing all the bits that are boring, atrocious, or otherwise dumb or horrific, all the idiotic rules and weird demands this “god” made of the Jews, all the direct contradictions and repeated stories, and worst of all, all the stuff that seems really important that this document’s inspiration seems to have left out. A lot of work is required to soothe the cognitive dissonance that results from trying to make it all flow together.

The Christians who favor the science/history angle tend to be the sorts of people who are vaguely aware that it’s not a great thing in today’s age to believe nonsense for no good reason. They want to believe things for good reasons, just like anybody else does. Blind faith may be a fine and good virtue to talk about, but in reality Christians want to know that they’re correct, just like non-believers do (and for that matter just as Christians do about non-religious topics, like what diet to pursue, or where to go to college, or what car to buy). The problem is that they’re going about it in a way that is guaranteed to fall apart.

Augustine of Hippo dropped the mic on this topic some fifteen centuries ago:

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. . . Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

Yep, and things are only getting worse.

Here is a very small selection of the charlatans running around Christian apologetics destroying their religion’s slim-and-quickly-shrinking credibility:

William Lane Craig has his Four Reasons You Can Totally Trust That the Resurrection of Jesus Really Truly Happened, all of which are drawn straight from the Bible. WLC doesn’t go outside the Bible at all for anything except his misunderstood or misapplied ideas about science.

Kent “He Sure Wishes We’d Put ‘Dr. Dino’ Here Instead of ‘Convicted Conjob'” Hovind makes a big fuss about being an educated science-denier, but in truth he neither understands science nor got his education from a reputable outfit; here’s an awesome examination of his “dissertation” by someone who actually knows what dissertations should look like (which is a group that does not include Kent Hovind, whose writing sounds like it was originally done with a big crayon on a lined tablet).

Josh McDowell wrote one of the most influential apologetics works, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, wherein he explains all about how he was an agnostic, which sounds much more like he was in that rebellious teen phase that many young Christians of his generation experienced, because specifically this: he actually thought he’d become governor of his state eventually. Heard of any agnostic governors lately? Yeah, I thought not, and in the 1950s amid the Red Scare I’m sure that idea was even less likely. But he threw it all away to serve others in Christ. (Aww, ain’t he super.) His book explains a number of reasons why he thinks the Bible’s accounts of history really happened. As you can guess, critics have taken down his attempts to “prove” the Bible true; here’s one of the best extended critiques in text, and if you prefer videos, here’s a link to Steve Shives’ really good page-by-page takedown of Mr. McDowell’s claims. As a spoiler alert, I’ll just mention that of the errors I listed at the top of this post, this fellow’s work hits every single point and then some, and that my “verdict” is that Christians should be ashamed of referring to his work.

Lee Strobel goes Josh McDowell one better; instead of being an ex-agnostic, he claims to be an ex-atheist and journalist who set out to figure out if Christianity was true or not. I’m not sure he understands what either atheism or journalism involve. The result of his slipshod, one-sided, self-serving “investigation” is The Case for Christ, a catchy title that is now sitting on Amazon’s Top 20 Apologetics sales list. Mr. Strobel makes the same mistakes the rest of the lot make; he uses the Bible to “prove” the Bible, ignores anything that contradicts his desired outcome, misrepresents or ignores opposing viewpoints, and makes a lot of mistakes with his history. But, undeterred, he’s come out with a whole series of “The Case For X” books, including The Case for Grace and The Case for a Historical Jesus. He’s found an angle that works, clearly.

Major Creationist “scientists” like William Dembski are trying to prove that evolution is a total lie, which they mistakenly think will somehow prove their literal view of Creationism to be true and make people realize that Jesus is totally real too. It doesn’t work that way, obviously; disproving evolution would be a stupendous achievement, but even if Creationists succeeded in doing so, it wouldn’t mean that Creationism would win as the “last idea standing”–and it wouldn’t make people turn to Christianity. Creationism is not only bad science, it’s bad theology–and it’s a doctrine that is starting to do the religion a lot more harm than good.

When I survey the landscape of apologists arguing for the veracity and objective truth of the Bible’s history and science claims, I see a hinterland of bizarre, offbeat, fringe hacks who peddle their snake oil to believers who don’t understand that what they’re reading and hearing isn’t true–and who are so desperate to find something, anything that supports their ideology that they’ll flock to anybody who tells them what they want to hear.

Worst of all, though, those Christians who get all hung up on this style of apologetics can’t understand that their efforts are completely for naught.

Christians don’t understand that when they try to tell us that their Bible’s history or science claims are true, they are undermining their own credibility–and they lack the self-awareness to realize it.

I really think that’s what educated folks mean when they talk about the milk and meat of faith: when a Christian realizes that nothing in the Bible really happened the way it says, then that’s when growth can really begin to happen one way or the other, while clinging to literalism leads to most of the ills we see in the worst parts of the religion. As it is, the second a Christian tries to sell me on the idea of anything in the Bible really having happened, I know that person isn’t going to be right about much else. Their operating framework is flawed; their basic assumptions about the world are incorrect. It’s like how I don’t trust anybody who tries to make genocide and rape sound morally acceptable–I’m not on the same operating plane as such a person. A Christian who’s really bought into literalism isn’t going to care about proper science or history any more than an atrocity-apologist is going to understand why people keep harping about consent.

I’ll be looking at why literalism is so important to the Christians who buy into it the next time we meet. See you Thursday!

About Captain Cassidy

I blog over at Roll to Disbelieve about religion, culture, cats, and tabletop RPGs.
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20 Responses to The Handbook: Science- and History-Based Apologetics.

  1. Beth Caplin says:

    Whattya mean mermaids aren’t real?!

    Okay, being serious…how do we for a fact that NOTHING in the Bible actually happened? Not even any of the battles? Forgive me for sounding stupid, but…nothing at all?


    • I’m sorry, truly. I can’t think of anything besides one thing: David really was a king, just a petty king of a tiny backwater rather than a glorious Jewish nation as depicted in the OT. The battles and city-destruction usually had happened many, many years (centuries usually!) before the OT’s writers put anything down about them.

      An event consists of people, time, and a place. Sometimes the Bible gets one right but not the other two; sometimes it gets two right but misses one (generally its time); usually it gets all three wrong. It’s not a history at all.


      • Beth Caplin says:

        Can you recommend any sources?


        • I don’t know of anywhere that specifically talks about just what in there is true, but a good place to start is the YouTube-available lectures of Dr. Hector Avalos, who used to be a Christian. (A quick link; the first two are excellent.) talks a lot about this topic as well, as does RationalWiki, whose writeup of the Exodus should be required reading. You can’t go wrong with Rosa Rubicondior’s blog and TalkOrigins’ index of Creationists’ Claims if you’re wondering about that. Richard Carrier and John Loftus eviscerate the New Testament authors’ various bits of historical revisionism. POCM handles the weird and frequent similarities between the Bible and pagan mythologies. Our friend Brian blogs over at A Pasta Sea and frequently takes on the Old Testament’s pseudohistory; he’s been taking Genesis chapter-by-chapter for a while now and it’s downright eye-opening. I don’t think any of the people I’ve mentioned would be considered cranks by any stretch of the word.

          It doesn’t take long to notice that when you start digging into the Bible, you discover nothing whatsoever looks like you thought it did. I’ve been trying today to think of anything in it that actually is accurately depicted, and aside from the one thing I named–that King David did, indeed, exist at about the time the Bible thinks he did (though he wasn’t as powerful as the Bible implies he was, nor was his kingdom mighty or large), I truly cannot think of anything off the top of my head that accurately depicts events (events being: people + place + time + correct description of what happened). Maybe one of the other folks around here could add something but I can’t think of anything else. That isn’t something to gloat over IMO; it’s just mythology. We don’t gloat that Olympus doesn’t house Zeus and the rest of the Greek gods, after all. If the Bible were 100% accurate, that accuracy about history or science still wouldn’t mean its supernatural claims were compelling. But it isn’t accurate by any stretch, which makes the other claims much more suspect.


          • Mau de Katt says:

            …King David did, indeed, exist at about the time the Bible thinks he did (though he wasn’t as powerful as the Bible implies he was, nor was his kingdom mighty or large)….

            From what I remember of it, Richard Gere’s movie King David got a lot of this right (and predictably enough was excoriated for it) — the violence in the Biblical accounts (actually underplayed from the Bible), God being depicted as a cruel and fickle tyrant, and the all-around scruffiness and less-than-majestic scope of the Davidian kingdom and royal city, not to mention the general living conditions of the time.

            Christians wanted The Ten Commandments; instead they got pretty decent source-and-period accuracy.

            (Though the whole David & Bathsheba thing was whitewashed from “the royal abduction and rape of a desirable woman and subsequent murder of her husband to cover it up” to “Rescue by the Heroic King of the Beautiful Damsel from her Brutish and Abusive Husband”… had to have the Grand Romance in there, after all….)


          • I’m going to have to catch that movie now.


          • Kingasaurus says:

            Cass and Beth,

            If anyone is interested, I personally like a NOVA documentary from a few years ago called “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” In two parts, two hours total:

            It’s definitely for a popular audience without much of a background in the subject, and it is a bit more sympathetic and soft-pedaling to the traditional positions than I would like. But generally speaking, it talks about the Documentary Hypothesis (for those who don’t know) and pretty much confirms that the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan were bogus – the “Israelites” always lived in Canaan and there was no period of bondage in Egypt.

            It gives good facetime to Old Testament minimalists like Israel Finkelstein and William Dever. For reasons like that, I recommend it. Because of the way it is structured, it also attacks the traditional view and highlights what secular scholars really think about biblical construction without appearing to be made just by a bunch of stereotypical shrill atheist “debunkers.”


  2. The Eh'theist says:

    It was very shocking for me when I realized that historical proof of places and customs didn’t make the stories in the Bible true. Now if you had the cheque to the Last Supper, like Father Guido Sarducci, that would be some evidence of the stories themselves. But we never get that sort of evidence, or if we do, it is shown to be fake (like the burial box of Jesus’ family).

    Reading this made me think that it might be fun, if confronted with someone that was a 100% literalist who wanted to keep going on the topic, to bring up every unpleasant and embarrassing verse in the Bible and insist they verbally affirm their belief that it is 100% true (i.e. I believe that God literally promised that the chosen people would be born to a man who married his half-sister. I believe that God literally saved the only righteous people of Sodom and Gomorrah so they could have incestuous sex with each other in a cave. I believe that the all-loving and merciful God literally had bears kill dozens of young men because they mocked someone’s baldness. And so on.)

    It’s one thing to say one believes the whole Bible, another to affirm each individual bit of bizarre narrative. I think it would be interesting to see at what point their affirmation of the literal truth of the Bible would start to wear thin for them (much like during the Scopes trial), or if they would be able to proudly affirm the whole thing (I would probably avoid them after that if nothing troubled them). One might even film it so that their testimony could be shown on YouTube for their friends and family to see (which might accelerate their decision to stop affirming the literal nature of the Bible). Of course the downside would be having to listen to the whole thing.


    • I’ve seen Christians spin every one of those events you listed to become perfectly moral and good acts, including the bear attacks on the kids (the trendy explanation is that the “kids” were bandits and the bears were attacking them to protect the prophet–I know, I know; it’s crazypants). But it’s funny to see them trying this hard. I think that kind of video would be a total hoot.


  3. Pingback: The Handbook: Science- and History-Based Apologetics. | Christians Anonymous

  4. SirWill says:

    This is what gets me. While I’ve no doubt that WLC’s bunch would be quite happy to see his arguments convert nonbelievers, they definitely are geared more toward his current flock to keep them spending money on his books and the donation pile. It’s quite a comfy life, I bet, and after doing it for so long, I doubt he has any other useful skills. I just can’t see him as a baker, even at a crappy donut shop. He’d probably mistake the flour for cleaning solution and would only notice the mistake when bubbles pop out of the customers’ mouths. If then.

    Hovind, on the other hand, I smile at. Not because his arguments are any better, (they’re way, WAY worse) but because he’s bought into his own lies so completely that he thinks that everyone is as dumb as he is. He’s on the verge of getting out of prison for his tax fraud, and what does he do? Exactly what he was told not to do on pain of getting more time in the prison cell.

    Who knows? Maybe he’s like Uncle Joey, and just enjoys being in prison so much that he doesn’t want to leave? That he’s got people on the outside crying ‘He’s being persecuted for his faith!’ doesn’t hurt either. It’s as close as he’ll ever come to being a celebrity. Too bad for him it’s as a laughingstock.

    Strobel’s reasoning sucks terribly, so much so you can’t be convinced by him unless you either know nothing (about anything at all, in which case, how are you reading?) or you’re already convinced for bad reasons elsewhere and want more ‘proof’ about what you already believe. Which is fine….for someone who wants to be comfortable, not for someone who actually wants to know anything.

    As for Dembski and the Disco institute, (not Discovery Institute, because that’d imply they’re discovering something. Disco, because what they want to find is already dead as a scientific idea, they’re just desperately electrocuting it to jerk it into a semblance of life) I would feel pity for if they weren’t so horribly dishonest -and- capable of doing enormous damage to millions of people if they got their way. These are a bunch of smart people who could be doing useful things, all the way from figuring out ways to cure cancer (on the high end) or digging ditches (on the low end. Ditches don’t dig themselves, you know) if they hadn’t figuratively sold their souls to a propaganda mill for money.

    Anyway, off-topic here. My very nice gaming laptop just screwed up pretty bad here. It’s got two linked hard drives to form one massive drive, which is great. Lots of space for games and stuff!…until one dies, as one just did. It was fixable…by wiping the drives and not reformatting the second, dead drive. Completing a reinstall now. It’s a pain finding drivers for hardware when you lack the cds or dvds for them.

    Still, I have a feeling the apologists would have considered my bricked laptop to be a ‘mysterious feature’ of the all-wise Laptop Designer. Good thing I’m savvy enough to salvage it, even if it’s now got half the space it did before. But hey! Least it’s fast on bootup again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good luck with the lappie. Sucks when that happens. And yes, it’s not only embarrassing that these apologists are going on about these flat-out errors like they’re some glorious, I dunno, pfft, evidence and all or something. (Loved the BttF ref–and perfect for Hovind, who seems addicted to prison–or at least I must imagine he is given how quickly he’s heading back there.)


  5. Peter says:

    Thanks for the very interesting post. It was fitting to quote Augustine who recognised in his day (late 4th/early 5th century) that people were using a ‘god of the gaps’ approach to science. Augustine said such an approach was foolish it was like building ones house on sand, not rock as the next advance in science would sweep away their faith. How much has changed in 1600 years?

    On interpreting Genesis Augustine commented:
    “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we may find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. We should not battle for our own interpretation but for the teaching of Holy Scripture. We should not wish to conform the meaning of Holy Scripture to our interpretation, but our interpretation to the meaning of Holy Scripture.”

    I do wonder what an intellectual giant like Augustine would make of today’s arguments? I doubt he would be out looking for Noah’s Ark.

    One thing that did puzzle Augustine was why during his day the gifts of the spirit so evident in the account in Acts seemed wholly lacking in the Church.


    • That worried other theologians of his age as well. I remember reading about one of them who was deeply concerned that so soon after Jesus’ life and death there ought to be something indicating he’d existed at the time he was supposed to have existed, but there just wasn’t any real indication he’d ever lived or died. That was worrisome. It should have been. Even in my days as a Christian it worried me that the stuff the OT and NT talked about never, ever, ever happened in real life. Did God–who was the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow–suddenly decide to shut down the miracle factory once Jesus died? Or had those miracles never happened? Worrisome.


      • Peter says:

        I have seen various healings apparently occur, but in most cases I found that the healing was ‘temporary’ making me wonder how much it was Psychological.

        I have also been involved in churches where people speak in tongues, but always seemed to me suspect. People don’t know what they are saying in these cases. Makes it very hard to prove. The general disorder involved made me doubt any sort of Holy Spirit based inspiration.


        • I know exactly what you mean. I was in a tongues-talking denomination at the end of my time in Christianity as well. At first it seemed so miraculous, but then I began feeling very uneasy about that sense of disorder you mention. I didn’t think of the word then or until you said it now, but yes, that’s what it was like. It was confused, disordered, frenetic, chaotic. In a way religion can be ecstatic like that and it’s okay, but it didn’t seem right in this case at all. It bothered me. Plus, every person “speaking in tongues” seemed to sound almost exactly alike (even in churches far apart from each other–I attended Pentecostal churches in Maryland, Houston, Louisiana, and Oregon)–like how uneducated Westerners imagine Aramaic would sound. Where was the guy babbling in French or the lady telling visiting Dutchmen their life stories? Why did it always sound like ancient Aramaic? So confused. And yeah, the miracles never turned out to be actual miracles for me, either. I was married to someone on the ministry team at most of our churches–a lay preacher and youth pastor–so we were around a lot and heard about a lot of these miracle stories. But never once did I hear or see anything that turned out to be real or true. It was always psychosomatic or temporary at best–maybe wishful thinking on the part of those who thought they could see a bit better or walk a bit now. I can’t imagine any of it was really divine intervention.


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  7. Pingback: The Vast Comfort of Literalism. | Roll to Disbelieve

  8. Dear gods! I’m reading the link on Kent Hovind’s “thesis” and geez! What a horrible person! I just got to the part where he blamed Japanese war atrocities on Shinto. And just. I mean. Ugh!

    I know that there are people like this, and I’ve even heard with my own ears people be horrible like this, but I’m flabbergasted every time. I’m pretty sure that even when I *was* a conservative Christian, somebody saying stuff like this would have stopped me in my tracks.


  9. Pingback: The Handbook: Wishful Thinking in Apologetics. | Roll to Disbelieve

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