Wyrd Words: The Problem With Apologetics

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

I was recently engaged in a fascinating debate over at The World Table, which is a social media platform designed for people who want to discuss and/or debate religious and political issues in a civil environment.  We were discussing the topic, recently brought up by Mr. Halstead of The Allergic Pagan, of whether or not Latter-Day Saints (AKA Mormons) qualify as “Christian.” Things were moving along productively, with passionate arguments on multiple sides, when the discussion hit a brick wall.

One of rules of civility at The World Table is “Speak only for yourself.” The idea is that a person should not claim to represent the views of their entire community or try to define a community to which they do not belong. So when one of the more active participants began making assertions about the Mormon church (to which they did not belong), the community called them on the violation. Their response was to declare that they were allowed to use the thread as an Apologetics forum and to accuse those who were opposing them of oppressing their beliefs. This quite effectively shut down all productive conversation and lead to a maelstrom of bickering (which The World Table is designed to avoid).

(Behold my awesome art skills!)

This is just one of many reasons why I find the practice of Apologetic argument execrable. Apologetics don’t lead to conversation, and they don’t facilitate respectful exchange. Instead, they make a declaration and then reject anything that may contradict that statement. This is the opposite of everything modern logical thought and scientific practice has taught us.

The scientific method teaches us to observe, gather as much relevant information as possible, and form a conclusion based on that evidence. In the case of the debate in question, this means finding a common definition of the term “Christian” and then speaking with Mormons to determine if they do or do not fit that definition.

In the method of Apologetics, one chooses a conclusion and then finds sources that support it. In this case, the predetermined conclusion was “NO!”, which the writer supported by quoting authors and ideologues that agreed with them, while also refusing to listen to any details that might disprove their preferred answer.

So how does this backward approach to the world manage to survive? The largest contributing factor is a logical fallacy called “Argument from Authority.” When the person above tried to support their argument by citing authors and religious figures that already agree with them (rather than verifiable data), they made an argument from authority. “So-and-so said X, and he’s in a book so he CAN’T be wrong!”  A second contributing factor to the method’s survival is clever application of the “False Dilemma” fallacy. This generally has more to do with the presentation of the issue, than the defense of the issue itself. The false dilemma is a situation in which an issue is presented as if there are only two possible solutions, when in fact there are many. In this case, when the question “Are Mormons Christian?” was presented as a “yes or no” question, the false dilemma was formed. A more logically sound question to pursue would have been “How should we define the term Christian?”  Apologetics are chock-full of these kind of arguments; it’s a tool to corner people and try to force them to choose the solution you support. Usually the options are presented in such a way that only one of the available choices seems reasonable (“If you want to go to heaven do X-Y-Z, or you can burn in hell”). Not a great selection, is there?

Questioning your beliefs, forcing yourself to constantly reevaluate your convictions, is hard. It takes a lot of hard work and courage to be willing to admit that something you may have held dear could be WRONG. Many people either don’t want to go through the trouble, or are too afraid of what they might find. It’s so much easier to bolt your doors, plug your ears, and pretend that troublesome things don’t exist, but all that leads to is stagnation. Apologetics don’t lead to progress, they lead to dogma; instead of embracing discovery, Apologetics labels new information as heresy, or blasphemy.

This isn’t about rejecting someone’s religion. This isn’t a crusade against Christianity (which I use in my examples mostly because Christian Apologists are abundant, well known, and easily quotable). This is a rejection of destructive and faulty logic. We as a society are BETTER then this, and it’s time we proved it. I’m starting right here on Wyrd Words; I’m planting my flag, and declaring this an Apologetics Free Zone.

(Hopefully the first of many flags, let reason prevail!)


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About Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at ASU, focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen, and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. The majority of his work can be located at http://www.heathenhof.com/

  • AskAnAtheistBecky

    The case of Oprah Winfrey contesting whether swimmer Diana Nyad is truly an atheist is another fitting example. Also, you write like a skeptic ;) Probably because you are one ;)

    • Wyrd Wiles

      I take that as both a complement and a point of pride! Thank you :)
      As for Oprah, I would have just passed it off as ignorance, but I can see your point.

  • David Pollard

    Apologetics is the practice of defending a religious position through systematic use of information. Indeed, nearly every post to Patheos could be considered an apologia in some form. Before there were Christian apologetics there were Jewish ones. More recently there were Hindu, B’haia and Buddhist apologetics in various parts of the British Empire to defend against Church of England missionaries. Gerald Gardner’s last two books as well as Phyllis Curott’s “Book of Shadows” could probably count as a Wiccan apologia.

    While apologetics may be something people do, I’m not aware of any faith that *requires* their adherents to engage in them (ie The Great Commission does not require this specific method of witnessing) If this person understood community rules prior to engaging in discussion – and then proceeded to make these statements regarding someone else’s religion, he wasn’t practicing his religion – he was acting out in bad faith.

    • Wyrd Wiles

      I would counter that there is a difference between defining belief, or writing a persuasive article, and religious apologetics. The first two are explanatory, or expressive, while apologetics exists to try and prove a claim. For example, it would be the difference between me saying “I follow Odin, and this is why…” V.S. “The Aesir are the only REAL gods, let me prove it to you”. Now if I could somehow summon up the objective proof of divinity that mankind has been searching for for centuries, that would be one thing. That would be following the evidence to a conclusion. However, making the assertion that MY gods are the only REAL gods and then finding random data points to try to support my claim; would be apologetic, and backwards. All of this is to say nothing of the logical gaps and grand assumptions that usually come with the territory of religious “proofs”.

      As far as your assessment of the individual? I agree entirely. In a forum created for interfaith discussion, he effectively shut down inter religious communications with a few short lines. Which was sad, and I hope the conversation can reopen at a later date, once people have better laid out the expectations for participation.

      • http://www.rjosephcapet.com/ Race Joseph Meredith Capet

        This all becomes a question of semantics rather quickly. As you have noted, Christian apologetics is highly developed, so using their terminology as a starting point isn’t a bad idea. Christian theologians generally date their apologetics from second century Christian writers, such as Tertullian, who wrote books defending Christians from the common accusations against them in the Roman Empire. Many of these works revolve around the theme, “We are still loyal subjects of the Emperor and no, we don’t eat babies on Sundays.” Using the definitions of Church theologians, every time a Heathen says, “I am still a responsible citizen and no, I don’t burn people to death in a wicker man every solstice,” he or she is engaging in apologetics. Now, Tertullian and many of those other early writers were also polemicists against heresy in the Church, but that is a separate function that should not be confused.

        The lines get blurry, though, when the follow-up to “I follow Odin, and this is why…” is “…because the Aesir are the only real gods.” This is many people’s legitimate position, and because simply stating that doesn’t actually clarify or explain the “why”, they end up compelled to explain why they believe the Aesir are the only real gods. This can be done reasonably and respectfully, as it is in the works of apologists like Thomas Aquinas or Cornelius van Til.

        Are there tremendous gaps in the logic of Aquinas’ arguments? Sure, but there are in everyone’s arguments. “Reason” and “logic” don’t work in a vacuum; they are great tools for extrapolating from a given set of axia, but they cannot a priori establish true axia. The scientific method itself rests on a number of unprovable assumptions: matter is real, I as an observer am real, the input of my senses can be trusted (at some level) as reliable data, effects proceed inexorably from mechanistic causes… Scientists don’t have a convenient holy book in which these are written, but they have to be assumed for the discourse of science even to function; when they are questioned, the questioner is ejected from the discourse, decried as a “mystic”. This isn’t an effort to discredit science at all, it is merely to point out that all of us function on assumed, unprovable beliefs, and that when others do not share those beliefs the very possibility of fruitful discourse and discussion begins to break down.

        That is why religions have points of dogma. It is not to close off conversation, but to enable conversation to happen. It ensures that the data points chosen in discussion are not “random”, but are shared points of reference. Can that framework be abused when bad logic is applied to those axia? Sure it can, but that’s just bad logic in apologetics, not apologetics itself.

  • Jake Adams

    Years ago my brother and his wife belonged to one of those “fly by night” churches (the kind where the pastor has no training and got his ordination off the internet). They practiced apologetics as a rule. my favorite was that Christianity was the oldest known religion because their Pastor said so because he said he read it in the bible. When I asked about Judaism and other older religions. I was told the bible says they are all false. So I am used to these kinds of arguments sadly.

    The biggest problem is that, in most religions, you have Pastors that inject their personal opinions into their teaching and most of the laity aren’t as knowledgeable of what their holy book says to call their Pastor on it.

    • Wyrd Wiles

      My personal favorite is “The Bible must be true, because The Bible says it’s true”. I’ve never understood the idea of subscribing to a faith, but not bothering to learn about the details. (It’s not an exclusively Christian phenomenon either. I’ve met Pagans who are the exact same way. I just have trouble understanding why…)

  • Bonnie Koppell

    To quote Rabbi Harold Kushner- “The four holiest words in the English language are, ‘I may be wrong.’”

    • Wyrd Wiles

      Fantastic quote! I’m not overly familiar with Rabbi Kushner’s work, but after looking him up I think that is an error I should correct. My favorite gem that I found while looking him up was :

      “Good people will do good things, lots of them, because they are good people. They will do bad things because they are human.”

  • JD Henry

    Since you like to cite logical fallacies, how about looking into the Straw Man fallacy? Your “The Apologetic Method” seems to be derived from anecdotal blog entries and then you simply make up the “The Apologetic Method.” The easiest “intellectual” pursuit is that of a skeptic, as anyone can sit back and play skeptic. You simply dream up impossible standards that never seem to apply to the skeptic, then like all elites, simply ban those you disagree with.

    What I can’t figure out is why the skeptic is never skeptical about their smug skepticism…but maybe that’s just me.

    • Wyrd Wiles

      (Since you like to cite logical
      fallacies, how about looking into the Straw Man fallacy? )

      –The “Straw Man” Fallacy: A misrepresentation of an opponents
      position, which allows the speaker to attack a facsimile of the
      opposing argument, without ever addressing the actual points made by
      the speakers opponent. –

      This would imply that my goal was to disprove a specific Apologetic
      argument, when in fact my goal was to point out the flaws in
      Apologetic argument itself. It’s the difference between telling a
      scientist that you disagree with their findings, and pointing out an
      error in the method they used to test their findings.

      (Your “The Apologetic Method” seems to be derived from anecdotal blog
      entries and then you simply make up the “The Apologetic Method.” )

      My “Apologetic Method” was constructed based on a combination of
      my personal experience at The World Table (which was the focus of the
      story), hours of research on statements made by Christian Apologists
      (again, because they are abundant and well known, not because I have
      a case against Christianity), and a study of Apologetic DIY methods
      and materials.

      I researched the above materials. I formed a number of hypotheses
      (the product you see above was NOT my first draft), and I tested
      those hypotheses against the examples brought up in my research until
      I was able to find the line of best fit. The “Apologetic Method”
      you see in my article above is the product of the Scientific Method.
      If you would like to submit new evidence that you believe may alter
      of contradict my theory, my contact information is readily available
      online.

      (The easiest “intellectual” pursuit is that of a skeptic, as anyone can sit back and play skeptic.)

      (http://religions.pewforum.org/
      Statistics don’t seem to support this supposition. The vast majority
      of people find it far easier to believe their chosen Authority without
      objective evidence, then to question their assumptions. Given that
      religious skeptics only make up about 4% of the U.S. population, I would
      counter that it is likely far easier to be believer than a skeptic.

      (You simply dream up impossible
      standards that never seem to apply to the skeptic, then like all
      elites, simply ban those you disagree with.)

      I submit that the standards of logical debate, and acceptance of new
      information are completely possible. As for their application to the
      Skeptic I would refer you to my explanation for my “Apologetic
      Method” above, in which I applied the standards that I espoused in
      the article to form my conclusion.

      In the conversation that I referenced in this article, I was not in any
      position of superiority or control; I was merely a participant. Thus
      the title “elite” would be inappropriate. In addition, the
      apologist was never banned from the conversation. His methods and
      application were questioned, but he was in no way prevented from
      speaking.

      (What I can’t figure out is why the skeptic is never skeptical about their smug skepticism…but maybe that’s just me. )

      Accusations of smugness aside, questioning WHY one is questioning is
      a practice as old as the first philosophers. It’s always good to know
      what leads you to pursue a particular line of questioning. It is my
      belief that all questions are worth asking, that’s what scientific
      exploration is all about. As I explained to my eldest sister in my
      first article here at Agora; never accept ANYTHING without
      questioning. The moment you stop bothering to think for yourself,
      someone else will start thinking for you.

  • Wyrd Wiles

    Disqus seems to be dropping my replies for some reason. JD Henry, I have linked my response here, as I believe my comments are being dropped due to length: (http://i996.photobucket.com/albums/af90/alyxanderfolmer/logic_zpsa8d5ca61.png)

  • John W. Morehead

    Great post that I found through my participation in TWT. Glad to talk with you there.

    On your essay, as an Evangelical I’ve noted the limitations of apologetics. More often than not it works to confirm the faith of the apologist than engage one’s conversation partner persuasively. It also tends to objectify others and creates a defensive response in others. Previously I’ve suggested to Evangelicals that their approach to apologetics can be significantly revised in an essay at Patheos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2012/11/a-fresh-agenda-for-apologetics-in-the-21st-century-3.html. More recently I’ve enjoyed Myron Bradley Penner’s book “The End of Apologetics,” the thrust of which is that Evangelicals have uncritically imbibed the assumptions of modernity and in so doing have undercut a truly Christian form of engaging others. Beyond that, I found his discussion of the politics of apologetics and his idea of apologetic violence against others very helpful for critical self-reflection: http://johnwmorehead.blogspot.com/2013/06/myron-penner-and-apologetic-violence.html


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