The ethics of the Apologetic toolkit

To explain why it isn’t completely impossible (or unusually irrational) to hold to a certain form of belief appears to be the chief purpose for all apologetics. With that in mind, it seems to me that there are two fundamentals approaches to the endeavor. Neither, ultimately, is going to dissuade the determined disbeliever from their viewpoint, but one is better designed for the unbeliever and the other better suited to the choir.

To the choir we present the rational discussion of our own beliefs (at least, as far as it is possible). We try to show how our own beliefs fit within the wider world and we try to convey the tentativeness with which our explanations are held. This is because sufficient experience in apologetics involves the acknowledgement that one’s beautiful and universal theory may eventually be proven incorrect. That said, we need this sort of apologetics. It helps us to understand ourselves and our beliefs. It can be a lifeline for a certain type of believer. However, it is rarely effectual in convincing the unconvinced.

To the unitiated, our goal is not to present our beliefs, necessarily, but rather to open their eyes to the world around them so that we might be able to help them see why some people might find a need for our beliefs. In other words, we problematize their understanding. This all occurred to me when I read about the recent debate between two prominent political bloggers regarding the Mormon faith. I have also read the subsequent attempts to explain the faith.

The problem is not that people don’t understand our faith; it is that they think they understand it too well. When entering into this sort of conversation, the skeptical already have many reasons to disbelieve. The goal should thus be to problematize their assumptions regarding why they ought to be skeptical. In my experience, this has been demonstrated by arguing that traditional Christianity bases itself on equally improbable events. One could also point out that there are ethical reasons to be suspicious of the moral superiority of traditional Christianity. In other words, you need to problematize the assumptions of the unbeliever in order to cause them to have any interest in the rational explanation of one’s beliefs that generally appeals to the choir.

Is it ethical or unethical to problematize the belief systems of unbelievers? If it is unethical, how do we make a case for Mormon belief compelling?

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  • Why would it be unethical? Isn’t truth the goal?

  • HP

    It is because we so often make an argument to Anti-Mormons that when they seek to problematize our beliefs they are being unethical. We say that instead of portraying the reasons and ideas behind their beliefs, they just tear down others. In my apologetics, I don’t try to tear down the beliefs of others, but I do try to show that (rationally speaking) they are on ground as shaky as mine is.

  • I don’t think it is unethical to “problematize” various popular Mormon beliefs. We do it ourselves regularly in our internal theological discussions. It is unethical to misrepresent the beliefs of others and that is what I think antis are notorious for doing. Plus they often beg the question by starting from the assumption that we must be wrong because we don’t believe as they do. But I see nothing wrong whatsoever in pointing out that other religions are no more or less clinically provable than ours — especially when the accusation is that ours is indeed disprovable.

    The point is that there is nothing unusual about us taking some things on faith because all religions do that and if secular critics don’t recognize that fact I think it is both ethical and reasonable to bring that fact to their attention.

  • Matt W.

    Beyond ethics, it is problematic to attempt to turn to the idea of christianity having it’s own set of problems, as we ignore the atheist belief system in such an approach, which I find much more challenging than it’s christian counterpart…

  • Too often these debates tend to end up as circular firing squads.

    We forget (and I’m as guilty as any) that the point of Mormonism is to provide another crucial witness of Jesus Christ. Not undermine the existing witnesses.

    You ought to have a look at this essay:

    I think this represents the real challenge that true revealed religion faces. People are increasingly viewing God as a being that has no further work to do in the world. Traditional Christianity does not help matters by positing a static deity who said all He had to say thousands of years ago, who no longer performs miracles, and who no longer intervenes directly in human affairs.

    Traditional Christianity had already embalmed God, Nietzsche simply connected the dots.

    Postulating that “believing in gold plates is no more absurd than believing in a being who walked on water” doesn’t help matters if that’s all we can come up with.

  • Adam Greenwood

    A lot depends on the belief that is being problematized. For instance, I don’t think that giving Ross Douthat a greater appreciation of the strengths of the Book of Mormon is intrinsically incompatible with his Catholicism, his Tory populism, or anything else that matters to him.

  • Marginscribbles

    I haven’t yet wanted to add to the success of Richard Dawkins “The God Delusion” by purchasing it…but it seems that this is the method to successfully refute those who suggest that believe in Deity is a delusion or wrong. Has anyone read it or is familiar enough to know if my hunch is on target?

    Of course, not everyone agrees with Alma that “all things denote there is a God,” but many thoughtful intellectuals are able to see the shortcomings of attacking belief.

    There was an interesting article in Saturday’s WSJ, of which I will only post the first few paragraphs:

  • Marginscribbles

    Sorry, here is the post, I don’t know XHTML:

    Faith, Christian Groups Grow in Europe

    Late last year, a Swedish hotel guest named Stefan Jansson grew upset when he found a Bible in his room. He fired off an email to the hotel chain, saying the presence of the Christian scriptures was “boring and stupefying.” This spring, the Scandic chain, Scandinavia’s biggest, ordered the New Testaments

    In a country where barely 3% of the population goes to church each week, the affair seemed just another step in Christian Europe’s long march toward secularism.

    Then something odd happened: A national furor erupted. A conservative bishop
    announced a boycott. A leftist radical who became a devout Christian and talk-show host denounced the biblical purge in newspaper columns and on television. A young evangelical Christian organized an electronic letter-writing campaign, asking Scandic: Why are you removing Bibles but not pay-porn on your TVs?

    Scandic, which had started keeping its Bibles behind the front desk, put the New Testament back in guest rooms.

  • HP

    Thanks, all. I suppose that the issue is that all apologetics assume an attack (necessarily) and therefore they tend to attack the opposing position. I am not certain that pointing out the many travails and uncertainties in Roman Catholic theological history is the way to convince him that he should be more open to LDS faith claims. I am looking for a better approach, but I don’t know anything better than introducing a kind of aporia. Of course, in order to do that, my opponent has to take what I say seriously, so…

    The heart of the Dawkins argument is that secular claims are more easily scientifically falsifiable. I don’t know that we will ever be able to debate that because we ask fundamentally different questions and use fundamentally different proof. We rely on subjective, rather than objective, experience, which is simply unverifiable. Dawkins sees this as a disadvantage and seeks to exploit it as such, but in the process he fails to note his own rather subjective reading of history and the meaning of science. I don’t know that he is even capable of seeing that blind spot.

  • Drip

    I have recently read The God Delusion in its entirety. It was an excellent book that asks a lot of questions rather than presenting evidence or refuting arguments from other books. Granted, the book leans toward atheism because hey, you were born an atheist. Until someone told you you had a sky-daddy you would have never guessed.

    I am not a Mormon. I was Catholic for much of my life until returning home from a tour in Iraq. While engaging in debate and research in writing a term paper for college I’ve become an atheist. This will not change, for the rest of my life, until irrefutable proof of some deity exists.

    HP, above, summarized the book nicely, but I disagree on a key point. That is, that theists and atheists ask different questions and use different proof. In my view, we ask the same questions; the meaning of life, our origins, what happens after we die. The approaches are where we split.

    Atheists, genuine scientists, the rational populace of our planet, approach all new situations in life by asking questions, experimenting or otherwise seeking the answers, and arriving at some sort of conclusion. This conclusions supports larger theories of how life and the world around us works.
    Traditionally, cultures used “goddidit” for everything they couldn’t understand, such as those fundamental questions, but also natural phenomena such as lightning, earthquakes, moon phases and body functions. God had a lot of gap to exist back then, but as humans developed higher levels of intelligence and the ability to explain these things, the “goddidit” bubble has become so small “his works” cannot be observed anywhere but in the human mind.

    This is versus the standpoint of religion, whereas someone has this awfully convenient setup with leaders, books, rules, and literature (plus a mighty hungry pocketbook) that you initiate/join into, and all your answers are there. Huh, how about that. Just join, and all those hard questions you used to have about life with vanish in a puff of “goddidit.” Just start with the conclusion and find supporting evidence (no matter how logically fallible) as needed in all cases. Rewrite your doctrine in case of crises/widespread rebellion/scientific breakthrough (Mormons, you should be familiar with this).

    Those with an underdeveloped rationale put dollar signs in the eyes of hucksters like John Smith and L. Rod Hubbard. Religion is a multi- multi- multi- billion dollar, usually tax-free, enterprise to give folks without that rationale a cookie-cutter book, leader, and way-of-life to follow (yours too). It’s a nearly self perpetuating machine, from leadership, to collecting the money to getting new blood. The only thing it needs is the next sufficiently depressed, depraved, or dumb human being to come in contact with.

    I suppose then, we do look for different proofs. One seeks proof of said deity or any supernatural phenomena, while the other seeks a page number in their convenient book o’lies to refresh their delusion, their proof.

    In retrospect I could have been nicer, but then again, I would like to see religion eradicated in my lifetime. It only benefits the group (not society or individual) and creates more hate than love in the world.

  • HP

    “Granted, the book leans toward atheism because hey, you were born an atheist. Until someone told you you had a sky-daddy you would have never guessed.”

    There simply isn’t any evidence for this and there is an awful lot of evidence against it. It appears that the human default is to believe in (or create if you prefer) a higher power. This, of course, doesn’t mean that there is a higher power, but it is misleading to argue that everyone is born an atheist when there is no evidence to support that.

    “Atheists, genuine scientists, the rational populace of our planet, approach all new situations in life by asking questions, experimenting or otherwise seeking the answers, and arriving at some sort of conclusion. This conclusions supports larger theories of how life and the world around us works.”

    Drip, believers do that, too. They just do it using different ideas about proof and different ideas about argument. Your statement supports my point, although it appears that you don’t understand that. Put another way, both arguments are equally rational, they just operate using different axia.

    “humans developed higher levels of intelligence and the ability to explain these things, the “goddidit” bubble has become so small “his works” cannot be observed anywhere but in the human mind.”

    This is a small point, but it is a pet peeve. People were not demonstrably unintelligent prior to modern technology. There has been no observable increase in intelligence since we became homo sapiens sapiens. They did not invent God because they were unintelligent and people do not dismiss him today because they are more intelligent. There is no factual evidence for such a claim.

    Also, I don’t know that I agree that the ‘goddidit’ bubble has shrunken so much as it as taken on different questions. Science and scientific inquiry is excellent at discovering the how behind certain natural phenomena. It continues to fail to explain the why, and I don’t understand how it could begin to explain the why in the foreseeable future. Religion has always dominated the domain of the why.

    “Just start with the conclusion and find supporting evidence (no matter how logically fallible) as needed in all cases. Rewrite your doctrine in case of crises/widespread rebellion/scientific breakthrough (Mormons, you should be familiar with this).”

    Certainly this is an unkind/straw man depiction of centuries of believing thought. If nothing else, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens certainly are not immune to working backwards from a conclusion (or attacking straw men).

    “In retrospect I could have been nicer, but then again, I would like to see religion eradicated in my lifetime. It only benefits the group (not society or individual) and creates more hate than love in the world.”

    Drip, I wouldn’t describe your tirade as unkind so much as terribly clueless. Good luck with your journey.

  • entropy

    If I’m allowed to contribute my two cents (I’m frankly intimidated by you guys, but then again, it feels good to be around people who are smarter/have more factual knowledge than you, so what the heck!), I think, HP, that in the particular context of our religion the reason that apologetics do not problematize the already existing assumptions of the unbeliever/different-kind-of-believer stems from the reason young and naive missionaries worldwide know nothing about controversial topics in Mormonism, let alone how to address concerns such topics may arouse in potential investigators. The whole “milk before meat” thing (and one of my biggest pet peeves). For instance, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m under the impression that the Church believes that under the assumption that Joseph Smith, in fact, did restore the Gospel, any later problems cease to exist. When a concern is aroused, one only needs to hear the beginning of the first discussion again, and all the problems will be automatically resolved. I see a sea of problems with this particular approach. First of all, a ton of churches claim to be the One True Church based on the Restoration. So even if you believe in the Restoration and the Book of Mormon, how do you know if you should go join the LDS church, the Community of Christ, the FLDS, even, not to mention all the others? All these churches have had some problems in their history and all of them have deviated in some way or the other from what was taught by JS (which is always conveniently explained by continuing revelation). Or can you go join the AUB, who consider themselves to be a part of the mainstream LDS Church despite the fact that the LDS Church excommunicated them? As an investigator I could have used some explanation of some of the issues that seemed contradictory to me, but none came from the missionaries who not only didn’t know the answers, but were grossly misinformed (or were unwilling to give me the “meat”). Same thing with the apologetics. Suppose I’m a Molly Non-Mormon who watched the Larry King show (yes, the one where Pres. Hinckley said polygamy is not doctrinal), and am surprised to hear that, since I always thought that’s what the LDS church was all about. So I go to FAIR to get a confirmation, since I figure that anti-mormons might be biased. And what does FAIR say? Well, FAIR gives an answer intended to comfort women who grew up in the Church and didn’t want to go to the Celestial Kingdom for fear God will force them to be polygynous wives. Of course, THEY are going to read it and rejoice in their hearts that they might actually escape that possibility, but I, as Molly Non-Mormon, see very clearly that polygamy is very-very doctrinal, so I decide that either the president of the Church was lying to America on Larry King, or that he is clueless about the doctrine of his own church. Either way, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from it. It takes an LDS apologetic to realize that maybe Pres. Hinckley meant that it’s not doctrinal to practice it in the most conventional sense, in the sense that most of the world sees it, etc., but why don’t they explain it to people who can connect the dots and realize that if the definition of marriage in the LDS church is different, the definition of polygamy might also be different? They could very easily explain all that, yet they seem hoping no one will ask. I have had friends (converts) leave the Church after being members for several years when they found out there was supposed to be a Heavenly Mother (as relatively publicized as this doctrine is). It just seems that, although more willing to talk about controversial issues, mormon apologetics are generally as reluctant to foresee possible assumptions the non-believer might be coming in with as the church they belong to.

    Seth R., don’t forget that Nietzshe is dead, which we can actually verify, unlike his claim:) (To prove that God is dead, one needs to also prove that there was a time when God wasn’t dead or existed at all).

    Drip, I just love your comment. Especially this part: “This will not change, for the rest of my life, until irrefutable proof of some deity exists”. Like HP said, both ancient and modern people tend to explain the Universe in ways that seem most convenient to them. Yes, logic is very convenient and I like using it, otherwise I’d be lost hopelessly in this illusory world. I guess we’ll just have to wait until you do a term paper on causality, relativity or quantum mechanics and see what happens. I personally refuse to believe in causality until irrefutable proof of causality exists (I hope you see the oxymoron here). I simply adopt a world view that makes most sense to me (again, “making sense” is an extremely subjective claim). And you are doing the same, whther you like it or not. So be nice!:)

  • HP

    “I’m under the impression that the Church believes that under the assumption that Joseph Smith, in fact, did restore the Gospel, any later problems cease to exist.”

    To my knowledge, we aren’t under this assumption. There is the argument that if Joseph Smith was called to translate the Book of Mormon, and if he did so by the power of God, then he was a true prophet of God and his subsequent revelations, which include those leading to the founding of the church, are also true. There is also an argument to be made for the revealed nature of Brigham Young’s succession as leader of the church. Those are perhaps neither here nor there, however. The truth is that we don’t use Joseph Smith’s status as a prophet to explain away the stake president who cheats on his taxes or the home teacher who molests children. We may use the idea of the true church to give the church leader’s the benefit of the doubt when we don’t understand the motivation behind a given doctrine or directive, but it isn’t a cure-all, nor should it be treated as one.

    Also, I don’t generally think of Larry King as an anti-Mormon. That said, I don’t know what you mean by doctrinal in the context of polygamy. Are you arguing that it continues to be the doctrine of the church to engage in temporal plural marriage? Because it ain’t. Are you arguing that the scriptures say that polygamy is the norm? Because they don’t. Are you saying that this is something that the Lord occasionally commands his people to do for reasons known only to him? We probably believe that. So, I don’t yet know what you mean. For that matter, what do you mean when you say that the definition of marriage and of polygamy is different in an LDS sense? I am curious.

  • entropy

    HP, I don’t think of Larry King as an anti-mormon either, I was just saying that someone that heard that interview on Larry King (where Larry King was behaving decently and professionally, but the questions and discussion were not very in-depth) and was surprised to hear that polygamy is not doctrinal in the LDS Church would probably google mormon polygamy and get a lot of links to anti-mormon websites that cannot always be trusted.
    I agree that the testimony of the Restoration should not be treated as a cure-all, but then again, I don’t think explaining the occurrence of crime or abuse in individual members is really what apologetics should be or are about. Most people understand the distinction between individual conduct and the policies of the whole organization. People are mad at the Catholic church not because individual priests were molesting children, but because the church knew about it and did not properly punish the clergy. Reciting individual examples/lack of known examples of wrongful conduct by clergy/members with Church callings is not going to convince any intelligent person that a certain religion is wrong/right/has a right to exist, unless this religion claims that its followers are perfect or encourages/covers up such conduct. So such discussion, in my opinion, can be used neither as an apologetic tool or as an argument for corruption of a certain church. I thought, though, that you were referring more to the doctrinal/historical issues that are problematic in traditional Christianity and the LDS Church. I think it’s ethical for apologetics to address such issues with regard to both. I guess the point I was trying to make is that, if you want to truly show someone that a certain faith is right/legitimate, you should not only problematize the assumptions about Christianity in general, but also address shady issues withing the Church itself. This is far more likely to leave a positive impression with the person who you are having this discussion with because they will see that you’re open about issues that can be found problematic and willing to provide context in which they cease to appear problematic, instead of hoping they will never come up.
    About polygamy: I’m sure you’re aware of the current temple sealing policies that no one has declared null and void yet. We currently have two apostles and a ton of general male membership sealed for eternity to more than one wife at a time. Not so with living women. I believe the fact that sealing to all the husbands of deceased women is only allowed so that their descendants feel they’ve covered all the bases. Now, for traditional Christianity there is no such thing as eternal marriage. They believe that a marriage ends with death of one of the spouses, and no marriages take place in the afterlife. So as far as traditinal Christians or the legal system can understand, polygamy is not currently practiced within the LDS church. Although the Church is very quiet on the subject, their policies and some statements made by GAs indicate that polygamy is still very much a part of our doctrine. Doctrine is a slippery word, but if you admit that celestial marriage (in the sense it’s used today, as a marriage that can last for all eternity, no matter if there is one wife or ten) is doctrinal, you inevitably have to admit that polygamy is doctrinal also. Let’s examine that statement by Pres. Hinckley. “I condemn it, yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal.” Now, granted, before they were discussing splinter groups, like the FLDS. He never, not once, mentions the word “polygamy”. He refers to it as “the thing” and “it”. However, the only thing that “it” could be referring to in that sentence is polygamy. Now, what he implied at the time of saying that, we’ll never know. But anyone who saw the show/read the transcript, could only possibly interpret “it” as “polygamy” period, not “polygamy as practiced by splinter groups”. You’ll see what I mean if you look at the transcript. Now, what does he mean by “practice”? Practice in this life? Perhaps. But then, does he consider celestial marriage a practice? If it is a practice, then polygamy is a practice. If it is doctrinal, then polygamy is doctrinal.