Explanations and arguments: we come across both, but they’re quite different. An explanation is, “Here’s how I see it,” and an argument is, “Here’s how YOU should see it.” Don’t confuse one for the other.

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Years ago, I came upon a fascinating psychological experiment. Like the best of these, it was very simple.

It’s called the Copy Machine study. In 1977, when giant copy machines were shared office equipment, psychologist Ellen Langer had her research assistants try to cut into the line of people waiting to make copies. They tried three ways. The first approach was to say, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” It was polite but minimal, and it worked 60 percent of the time.

Next, they added a reason: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” This worked 94 percent of the time.

But the final approach was a surprise. They asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” It worked 93 percent of the time. It had the form of the second one, with the “because” clause, but there’s no real reason here.

Langer concluded that the form of the request was the trick, and having a “because” clause is important. It satisfies the subconscious need for a reason, regardless of whether there’s a good reason in there or not.

We find something like this empty “because” clause in many Christian arguments.

Explanation vs. argument

There’s a difference between (1) explaining how you see things or how your worldview fits together and (2) making an argument with evidence to convince me to adopt your worldview. Said another way, the two options are explaining how you see it (explanation) vs. how I should see it (argument). Apologists sometimes focus on (1) and forget that the words coming out of their mouths are backed by zero evidence.

The Strange Notions blog has an example of a Christian explanation.

[Atheist objection:] God is supposed to be all good. But he both permits evil to exist and even causes it through punishments. So God must not be all good.

[Catholic reply:] God is so good and so perfect that he permits evil to exist, and brings greater good out of it.

This reply is Catholic dogma. It’s how Catholics are supposed to think about the problem, and, as an atheist, it may be helpful for me to understand. But use it as an argument, and questions surge forward. How do we know God is good? Why should we think that all the evil in the world is there for a greater good? Why is this the best a perfect God can do? How do we even know he exists? And so on.

As “Here is how I see things,” it does the job. As an explanation that resolves reasonable questions, it fails.

“God did it” is the premiere example of an explanation rather than an argument. It explains part of someone’s worldview, but it’s no convincing argument.

The best explanations are prefaced with something like, “Okay, here’s how it makes sense to me.” For example, “Here’s how it makes sense to me: there is evil in the world, but God permits it and uses it to create a greater good” or “Here’s how it makes sense to me: God did it.” The Christian is making clear that this isn’t intended as a convincing argument.

An explanation has its place, and it may help you understand how something makes sense in a Christian’s mind. But it can be dismissed without consideration if it’s given instead of an argument.

Example 2: Trinity

Another example is the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed explains the incompatible properties that the Trinity must have. That creed is an explanation, not an argument. Imagine trying to explain to a Muslim, who shares the same god of the Old Testament, that the Trinity is not polytheism.

Example 3: consciousness

Apologist Sean McDowell insists that human consciousness must be explained.

Any honest atheist or naturalist would say at least minimally they don’t know the mechanism of how consciousness or mind can emerge from matter. But this actually isn’t a problem for a Christian or a theistic worldview, because God, who is a mind, exists before matter. We’re made body and soul, mind and matter. So it makes sense, if God is spirit, that we would be beings with spirit (@21:45).

God is a mind. God existed before matter. Humans are body and soul. I need to make copies.

Explanations are not arguments.

Example 4: providing evidence

At the “There’s no hate like Atheist love” Facebook page is a meme that reads, “Science is the study of God’s Creation. Therefore, if it doesn’t acknowledge His handiwork in all things it’s not science—it’s pseudoscience.”

In the comments beneath was this (abbreviated) exchange between Carl, who created the meme, and Alec:

Alec: Nice claim. Where is the evidence?

Carl: This is an axiom of science.

Alec: You claim there is a god and it is the work of said god. So, where is the evidence?

Carl: Everywhere

In an open exchange, in response to Alec’s request for evidence, Carl would’ve said, “Hold on—let me be clear. I’m not claiming to make an argument. I’m just explaining how it fits together in my mind. I’m making no demands on you.” In other words, he’d clarify that he was giving an explanation only, not an argument. And, of course, if Carl didn’t feel this way but was presenting the meme as an argument, then it can be dismissed without consideration.

Example 5: illusionist

This example comes from Barry Goldberg’s Common Sense Atheism blog.

Suppose you see a stage magic show with some friends. Everyone loves it. Afterwards, you mention your favorite trick and say that it seemed completely impossible.

One of your friends says that he is something of an amateur illusionist himself and can explain the trick. Everyone leans in.

He says, “The magician used real magic. He cast a spell.”

Is this satisfactory? Of course not—again, it’s an explanation where an argument is expected. To be an argument, it would need to resolve the questions it provokes. Is all stage magic real magic? How did the illusionist get magical powers? How does spell casting work from the standpoint of physics? And so on.

It’s like “God did it”—a claim that generates more questions than it resolves. How did God do it? What laws of physics (both known and unknown) were used or violated?

Another example is the Shroud of Turin, the claimed burial cloth that holds a faint image of Jesus as he was supernaturally zapped back to life. “God did it,” of course, but the same questions are unanswered.


We see Christianity’s explanation-over-argument problem everywhere. Jesus needed to die for humanity’s sins. Why? How does this make sense to someone outside your worldview?

Only with faith can you please God. Why?

Every human is tainted by Adam’s sin. Why?

Next time you read a Christian apologetic, be careful to separate it into explanation and argument. Discard any explanation pretending to be an argument and see if any substance remains.

“God did it” isn’t an argument. It’s just an explanation. You might as well say, “I need to make copies.”

See also: Stupid Argument #20a: Science can’t explain everything; therefore, God

(I apologize for the lack of articles last week! I was vacationing in sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and, in the last-minute rush, didn’t have time to fill the queue. I’m now back where I belong, in windy, rainy Seattle, dreaming of summer.)

[Many Christians believe in] a God greater than which
none can be conceived
but also in a gospel greater than which
it’s totally easy to conceive.
— Josh Watson on Twitter

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CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...