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!)


Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

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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/


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