Expertise, Apologetics, and David Marshall.

Recently I ran into this debate between David Marshall and Richard Carrier regarding whether or not belief in Christianity is “reasonable.” It got me thinking about apologetics generally, and about this new name specifically because I’d never even heard of him till now. Today I want to talk about how apologetics plays into right-wing Christians’ distrust of education and credentials, and what David Marshall’s brand of apologetics represents in the religion.

That angel is not holding a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, that's for sure. (Credit: "Bodleian Angel", Charles Clegg, CC license.) The official site of the Bodleian Library.
That angel is not holding a copy of The Case for Christ, that’s for sure. (Credit: “Bodleian Angel”, Charles Clegg, CC license.) The official site of the Bodleian Library. Do they let people get buried here? They’d better.

Experts Who Aren’t Expert.

A while ago I wrote about fundagelical Christianity’s weird relationship with experts. Such Christians hugely distrust education and professional training, yet ache and yearn for the stamp of legitimacy that both can provide to those who can reasonably claim them. (In the same way, they bad-mouth science and the scientific method constantly, but then get downright giddy when they think, almost always falsely, that one of their claims might maybe possibly pass muster with scientific standards.) They may hate the idea of education, training, and credentials,* but they’re well aware of the importance that non-Christians (and many Christians, to be fair) lay upon these qualifications. So the field of apologetics is rife with very expert-sounding authors and speakers who might or might not actually have any real expertise in whatever it is they’re discussing.

I wish to draw a careful distinction here between old-school apologetics and the newfangled fundagelical variety. Ray Comfort has as much in common with, say, Thomas Aquinas as Iggy Pop does. Some of those classic apologetics works are intricate, well-considered, and reasonably robust when compared to the over-simplistic and belligerent works we find ourselves confronted with today–not that today’s fundagelicals will ever read any of those older authors past, perhaps, some C.S. Lewis. (Yes, I am totally telling modern apologetics to get offa my lawn.) When I talk about “apologetics” in this post, I mean that second, modern kind, the kind that fundagelicals are most likely to read, thrust at non-believers, and parrot bumper-sticker “zingers” from.

Christians mistakenly think that apologetics has two goals:

To reinforce Christians’ faith by giving them good reasons to believe; and

To reach lost souls for Jesus.

… And here is the real reason why modern apologetics exists:

To sell stuff to overly-trusting Christians with more money than critical thinking skills.

In that sense it is wildly successful.

But there’s a serious catch to the festivities. Generally speaking, apologetics is the attempt by Christians to explain why reality does not line up with their supernatural claims. But real experts don’t generally agree with those claims, and their work doesn’t usually lead to the conclusions Christians want to hear. So Christians turn to false experts who are willing to say the correct things.

That’s why there is a huge market for bullshit in Christianity, especially in fundagelical branches of the religion, even in the face of repeated and humiliating debunks by critics. As long as Susie Cru and Johnny Homeschool are willing to plunk down their hard-earned cash in some Christian bookstore somewhere for apologetics works, someone else is going to be happy to shear these innocent sheep of that green fleece of theirs. Back when I was Christian, I was barely even aware of apologetics books or authors, but the field has exploded since I deconverted–and I suspect this growth is happening because of fundagelicals’ increasing distress over the challenges being posed to their overreach, claims, and demands.

Sometimes an apologist will position his or her work as if it’s aimed at non-believers and is meant to persuade the skeptical. Nothing could be further from the truth. Non-Christians do not generally buy apologetics or consume it for any reason other than to debunk it. We know that the arguments contained therein will be riddled with logical fallacies, distortions of fact, and sometimes outright falsehoods. We know that their creators are almost always pseudoscientists and junk historians–and that these apologists falsely present themselves as more qualified than they are. We expect very little, and that’s exactly what we get.

This apparent dishonesty begins at the beginning of apologetics works. As we briefly touched on regarding Shane Hayes, when a Christian seems reluctant to share important details, usually there’s a very good reason for it. Though Christians can rationalize most oversights away or apologize for them if they’re noticed at all, to critical thinkers these omissions can seem distinctly dishonest. When someone falsely presents as an expert, that dishonesty undercuts the very process of our assessment of information. Whether we’re buying a car or deciding if the Gospels are really a trustworthy source of information about a particular deity, unless we’re going to go out and do the hard work necessary to become experts in a topic, then we must rely on people who have already done that work. Part of figuring out whether or not someone’s a reliable source of information involves figuring out if they have proper qualifications in that field or not. It’s not a guarantee that that person’s information will be reliable and true either, no, but it’s a start.

Now, we don’t want to fall into an ad hominem attack. That’s when we disqualify someone from speaking based on some personal attribute or problem that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. For example, someone might say, “Morgan isn’t qualified to speak about alternative energy because of a sexual transgression committed ten years ago,” or “Robin sounds annoyingly bossy, so I’m going to ignore that warning about swatting that sleeping grizzly bear on the noggin.” If someone’s saying something that is true, then ultimately it doesn’t matter if that person is unfaithful or bossy, faithful or chill.

However, saying that someone has no qualifications whatsoever in a field isn’t an ad hominem. It’s relevant information. It’s as reasonable for me to distrust apologists talking about Biblical history as it is for me to distrust a random stranger I met at a bar who wants to extract my wisdom teeth. This disqualification isn’t happening because I personally dislike apologists or because they’re offending me in some way, but rather because I know that their conclusions and findings are going to be highly suspect compared to those I’d get from someone who’s done the hard work of gaining credentials in his or her field and who actually knows how to assess and analyze claims and information–especially if the apologist’s findings hugely contradict those of real experts.

Just considering Classical Studies, students in that field have a hell of a tough road on their way to full credentials–a road that is much tougher than the comparative dilettantes at the seminary next door. Nobody’d say that a reputable seminary is easy, but seminaries typically have a very different focus than a Classical Studies curriculum does. For the most part they’re training future ministers and doctrinal scholars, not producing historians and scientists. A Classical History  scholar looks very different from an apologist. Such a scholar not only has to know a whole bunch of ancient languages, but must also be familiar with a slew of ancient authors’ work as well as the modern schools of thought analyzing it, and must possess the methodology needed to assess and test claims about historical events and ideas. It takes many years to gain that knowledge and skillset. Just as archaeology doesn’t look like an Indiana Jones movie, Biblical scholarship involves a whole lot more than what apologists can typically offer.

When I was Christian, I ran into a lot of people who presented themselves as experts in a lot of fields–history, science, astronomy, geology, biology, the occult, Biblical history, Classical history, you name it–but who weren’t actually experts in those fields. Eventually I learned to check the credentials of anybody claiming expertise. After I deconverted, I realized that as diligent as I thought I’d been, I hadn’t been anywhere near diligent enough. I can’t imagine that Christians today are doing much better than I was back then.

Now Let’s Meet David Marshall.

About ten years ago, David Marshall threw his hat into the apologetics ring. Despite how relatively quickly the skept-o-sphere decoded his general playbook, he kept flailing away at his main interest, which appears to be persuading skeptics of the historicity of Jesus and the Gospels. He presents himself as an expert in Biblical history and analysis.

So what are his credentials?

That’s a damned fine question.

If you go to his Amazon author page, you’ll find a lot of fluff there about his childhood years, his love for strawberries, and his Christian bona fides–including where and when he converted (or rather, affirmed his faith; he grew up Christian). You will learn more about his favorite dog as a kid than you will about his qualifications for writing apologetics. Compare and contrast with the Amazon author page for William Lane Craig, which almost immediately sets out his qualifications, and with the one for Sam Harris, which follows the same lines. Examining the back of one of Mr. Marshall’s books, we discover nothing else about any actual qualifications this person has for writing about history or science. But he implies even in the comments of atheist blogs that he’s a historian (he’s comment 43). Despite his grandiose claims and behavior, I couldn’t find a single bit of information about where he got his education and training. Even his official blog is conspicuously and completely lacking this information.

Matthew Ferguson, who writes an absolutely fantastic blog that I wish was updated more often, addressed one of David Marshall’s downright bizarre attacks on him, and then–when Mr. Marshall made an equally ridiculous second attack on him–recently wrote a far more comprehensive takedown of the fellow’s work. If Mr. Marshall doesn’t realize, after reading these posts, that his ass was well and truly handed to him, then he’s the only one who doesn’t; they’re hilarious.

If you want to see more, then here’s a link-love post on John Loftus’ blog and a critical look at David Marshall’s shoddy analysis skills and his willfully ignorant, weirdly aggressive behavior, and of course the debate I mentioned at the start of the post, which we’ll discuss later. It won’t take long for anyone to see why real historians seem kind of annoyed by David Marshall.

In Mr. Marshall’s blustering, in his anti-intellectualism (seriously, he called one of his books Why the Jesus Seminar Can’t Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could: A Populist Defense of the Gospels), and in his constant smug assertion of superior expertise that he simply does not possess, David Marshall speaks to the very hearts of fundagelicals today.

He tells them, in essence, Forget all those meaniepie atheists. We know the real scoop and they don’t (the poor things!). You don’t need no book-larnin’ and edumacashun. All you need is Jesus–and some iffy English translations and quote mining of outdated and poorly-written secondary sources. See? You can outdo any historian who’s spent years learning this stuff, just like I have. You’re right, they’re wrong, and they’ll learn this truth to their detriment one day if they don’t listen to us.

The real surprise is that he’s not way more popular with Christians than he is. There isn’t a lot of difference between him and David Barton, Ken Ham, or even Donald Trump. Apologists like him are another symptom of what ails Christianity–and a sign that its time is winding down. Modern fundagelical apologists show us that the tribe is drilling down even harder on enforced ignorance, that their eyes are looking backward toward what they think is some happy mythical past rather than forward, and that they still haven’t quite come to grips with their own looming loss of privilege. Their favored type of apologetics reassures them that not only should they not worry about any of that, but that what they’re doing is perfect, reasonable, and divinely-mandated.

Make no mistake: what we are seeing in modern apologetics is a circling of the wagons, not an offering of the olive branch, and that’s why it will continue to fail to persuade anybody with an ounce of critical thinking skills even while it grows more and more popular with its backward-looking audience.

Join me next time for a rundown of the debate itself. See you soon.


* I probably don’t need to mention here that the reason fundagelicals dislike expertise, credentials, the scientific method, and objective peer review is that none of those things actually support fundagelicals’ claims. Indeed, the whole reason that apologetics is as infested as it is with pseudoscience and junk history is that on those few occasions when a fundagelical thinks that a finding in science or history might support his or her claims, it gets brandished like a buster sword.

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