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.
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:
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!