So y’all know I’m working on a common-sense book about apologetics lately, right? As part of researching it, I’ve been coming into contact with a lot of different ideas about apologetics itself as a field. One of the more intriguing of those ideas comes from Myron Penner, a Christian who wrote a book called The End of Apologetics. He did an interview with a blogger when the book came out, and the reactions to that interview were so fascinating that I wanted to show them to you.
The End of Apologetics (Came a Long Time Ago).
Myron Penner is an Anglican priest, one who sounds not only genuinely nice but also passionately committed to his religion. I wrote about his book some time ago, mentioning it in passing as part of our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted. I thought it was a startling cry in the wilderness from a Christian to his tribe, one that demanded that they wake up and realize how ineffective apologetics really is in the modern age.
It’s still just as startling a cry now as it was in 2013, when it was published. I don’t know of any other professional Christians who are out there saying the stuff Mr. Penner is saying. Some of the rank-and-file have certainly realized how ineffective apologetics is, but they’re not going to change a lot of minds no matter how loudly they proclaim that truth. (The owners of the broken system must be the ones to make substantive changes to that system, and until they realize just what’s at stake if they don’t, they won’t do it–they’re scared that any changes would chip away at their own authority or power. The rank-and-file in the broken system can complain all they want, but they just don’t have the authority to make the changes needed.)
However, most non-Christians who tangle with evangelism-minded Christians would likely say that apologetics is about the least persuasive method of proselytization that Christians could possibly attempt. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are literally no apologetics books or arguments currently in use that are even vaguely persuasive to someone who can spot a bad argument and can evaluate a claim against reality. Those are the two skills that stop apologetics attempts dead in their tracks.
There was a time when folks maybe weren’t quite as good at those two key skills, but that time is eroding quickly. At this point, most non-Christians grow up having to learn those skills as part of their self-defense against endless streams of advertising, patter, and come-ons from a thousand thousand different sources–which means that about the only people that apologetics works on are people who either grew up Christian, or grew up in deeply Christian-dominated areas that had effectively gutted education and culture to the point where those skills weren’t taught or valued. Pastors often speak admiringly of how kids these days are sooooo savvy and witty and tech-aware, but that admiration is tinged with bitterness: those exact qualities are why kids these days aren’t falling for Christian proselytization attempts like they used to.
Despite this total lack of effectiveness, Christians spend millions of dollars a year on apologetics books. They go to hundreds of seminars and watch hundreds of webinars and buy books and listen to sermons and absorb debates hosted by apologists who promise them that this time, they’re offering a slam-dunk approach that totally works to engage non-Christians and convert us. And Christians buy their swag–their books, their DVDs, their videos–and click on their blogs to learn this new totally for sure effective approach, this new utterly irrefutable argument, this new completely undeniable listing of pseudoscience and fallacies that zing atheists cold.
The only people who actually profit from these purchases are, well, the apologists themselves. Once their bad arguments get out into the wild, they have little care about how poorly their wielders fare–like a really bad swordmaker who doesn’t care if someone fighting a dragon has their blade fall right off of a weapon in mid-fight. They got their money just like that swordmaker did, and there are always more customers lining up to buy the sub-par wares.
I have never heard of anybody with the two skills I named above who fell for anything an apologetics-wielding Christian said or wrote–and not many more who lacked those skills who did. That’s why I say that apologetics isn’t actually for non-Christians; it’s for Christians.
They may think they’re buying this stuff to provide an adequate defense of their faith to all who ask, as the Bible directs, but in reality they’re actually convincing themselves that their beliefs aren’t totally wackadoodle. They’re bolstering themselves.
What really blows my mind, even years removed from my own time as a Christian, is how it always seems like the people who most idolize the Bible and who most proclaim their dogged insistence on following it to the letter are the ones spending the most money on these third-party books and absorbing all this third-party guff. Worse, those are the exact Christians who are the most likely to use apologetics in trying to persuade others to convert.
For a long time I wondered why that was.
And that wonderment may well have been the beginning of wisdom, when it comes to understanding apologetics.
A Brief History of (My) Time.
When I was Christian, we didn’t really even have apologetics books. I read C.S. Lewis in college for a class and got interested in his ideas, but I didn’t consider them apologetics. I didn’t consider The Screwtape Letters to be authoritative on the topic of demons, and I knew that The Chronicles of Narnia, as fascinating as they were, certainly weren’t a definitive guide to Christian theology. Heck, the author wasn’t even a Oneness Pentecostal.
Otherwise, we certainly had a lot of books in our church’s little bookstore, but we generally knew these books were for us, not for non-Christians. Some of us might have used the arguments contained therein to try to proselytize, but–even in those early heady days of the mid-1980s–most of us figured out quickly that nothing contained in our books was persuasive to outsiders.
I didn’t really register the idea of apologetics books–meaning, books meant to persuade non-Christians of the religion’s validity and credibility–until well after deconversion. A boyfriend’s mother had a boxed set of Rick Warren’s A Purpose-Driven Life. She was actually a New Ager of the most eclectic and fluffybunny kind and my brief look at it didn’t reveal anything Jesus-centric, so I didn’t realize it was written by an evangelical megachurch pastor for years. But after that trickle, the floodgates opened.
Now I see that the apologetics category as a whole seems like it’s only growing every year as more and more Christians try to nose into the action before the gravy train departs for good. The worse their religion’s doing, the more of these books seem to be printed.
The books and videos involved in apologetics are very clearly created from the point of view that their materials will be very persuasive to non-Christians. They are as explicit and as transactional in their suggestions for how to engage with marks as any book written by a pickup artist. Despite sometimes being aimed straight at non-Christians, I know of none whatsoever who actually buy these materials except to criticize them. Their audience is actually almost 100% existing Christians, and most of them buy this crap to reinforce their evangelism attempts (the rest are trying to strengthen their own faith).
But as a marketing approach, apologetics has clearly been abysmally ineffective. Christianity is only losing more and more people every year. Conversion numbers aren’t even coming close to matching the number of existing Christians who are leaving–and those conversion numbers are almost always reflective of lateral moves within Christianity, not total non-Christians converting into the fold. The more Christians rely on these sorry and ineffective arguments for their faith, the more damage they seem to do to it.
Now, usually when Christians try a marketing approach that fails this miserably, they are almost completely unable to see that it’s failing–and if they do, often they decide that the failure is happening because they aren’t gung-ho enough about applying the approach. Their solution is often to keep doing whatever they were doing, except more of it and harder (hmmm–we’ve seen that philosophy before in this religion!). They are singularly incapable of making the course corrections they need to recover from a bad idea. Any secular business that had its head in the sand that much would have gone out of business years ago, and one suspects that the chickens are finally coming home to roost for Christianity after its leaders tried that approach one too many times.
Indeed, I only know of one Christian–this one–who is openly asking why the situation looks like it does–and making a solid suggestion for fixing the problem.
And he’s likely finding out why more of his pro-level peers aren’t daring to try it.
The Genius vs. the Apostle.
At the heart of Myron Penner’s work is the concept of the difference between “a genius and an apostle.” By this he means the difference between a singular expert in something versus someone who speaks only to his or her own experience.
If you’re a non-Christian with Christian friends or family, you’ve likely had this sort of experience (this story is from me):
Your dear friend Lynn is upset that you’re not Christian. She suggests that you read her favorite apologetics book because she thinks it addresses your concerns and will persuade you to convert/reconvert. You ask her to just tell you what the book says. She can’t (or refuses to, for fear of messing up). If pressed, she might not even have actually read the book she’s suggesting to you; if she has, she has only the fuzziest and most imprecise idea of what it’s trying to convey. If you do read the book, you’ll discover that actually no, it isn’t persuasive at all. If you say this to Lynn, however, she’ll accuse you of being hard-hearted or not having read it with the right spirit. She doesn’t understand why you weren’t persuaded, while you don’t understand why she actually buys into something so fallacious and obviously wrong if that’s her best defense of that belief.
Lynn is very probably afraid to say something wrong because she’s not an expert–she’s not a genius. She isn’t versed in all these apologetics arguments. The people who make a living selling these books use all kinds of big fancy words and convoluted arguments, and Lynn’s just a hairdresser (or a dog-walker, or the United States Secretary of Education). She’s no expert in Christian theology. She wants you to hear the argument put forth perfectly correctly so you’ll be sure to reach the same conclusions she has.However, she already believes the argument and already thinks that the apologist’s conclusions are sound, so if you do experience the argument in its purest, most perfect form and still reject it, then clearly the problem is you, not the argument itself (and certainly not the conclusions made by it!).
Lynn puts all her faith in Christian apologetics experts to explain why Christianity is awesome. And that, Myron Penner says, is where she’s going wrong.
In Mr. Penner’s view, Lynn should be communicating more like what he calls “an apostle,” meaning that she should be evangelizing based on her own direct experiences as a Christian and by living out Christianity in her day-to-day life. She’s making a dire mistake by handing off her evangelism attempt to a supposed expert. Sure, she’s not a seminary-trained theology expert, but surely her religion does stuff for her that she thinks nothing else can. That’s what she should be talking about, and it shouldn’t be hard for her to communicate this truth in a way that isn’t offensive, harmful, or easily proven wrong.
The funny part is, I don’t have a problem with this general idea. I’m on record as roundly criticizing Christians’ over-reliance on experts who aren’t actually very expert in their supposed fields of expertise. Mr. Penner has some other good things to say about apologetics in that interview, namely how the field is abused by fundagelicals who use it to rationalize mistreating others and perpetuating their broken system (though he doesn’t call it by that name, obviously), but that’s the gist of it: Christians have a much more powerful witness if they simply speak to their own experiences as a Christian rather than relying on idiotic arguments to try to zing and bludgeon non-Christians into belief.*
It’s a simple idea, and it freaked out his tribe.
The Predictable Reactions.
When someone suggests that Nice Guys™ shouldn’t approach women unless those women give a clear invitation signal, the Nice Guys™ always go up in arms:
#notallmen are rapists!
OMG I hate all these rules and regulations for interacting! It used to be so easy!
I’m socially awkward so I never notice those signals so I just assume that I can hit on whoever I want!
I need to push myself onto women to make them see how totally nice I am!
(and my personal favorite) How will the human species even continue if men aren’t allowed to flirt with women?
And what all these objections amount to is the same: The guys who dislike the idea of gaining consent before approaching women don’t like the notion of prioritizing their own desires below those of the women they want to approach.
They have very few of these interactions as it is and they know that obtaining consent first will make their interactions dry up completely. It’s not like they were actually getting sex from their approach, but at least before they could comfort themselves by knowing they at least got to talk to a woman. Now, they’re resentful and angry about having to actually consider their target’s feelings before approaching.
Nothing I’m saying here should look remotely new or surprising to anybody who’s ever talked to a Christian bent on proselytization.
Christians have become convinced, thanks to all of their opportunistic leaders, that apologetics is the very best way possible, indeed the only effective way, to engage with non-Christians. So when Myron Penner came along and said “Hey you guys, this apologetics crap doesn’t work and you should stop doing it,” his tribe reacted in exactly the ways you’d expect.
“THE BIGGEST PROBLEM with people like this is THEY, personally, dont see the full evidence so they dont think you can use evidence,” proclaims James. (All quotes in this post, including any bad grammar and misspellings, are from the originals.) But he still doesn’t think that means apologetics is a bad idea. Really, Myron Penner is just conducting “a lame attempt at selling a book and by competing with guys like [William Lane] Craig.”
OrthoRocksDude is very upset about the idea of not using apologetics: “Should a Christian never present an argument for Christianity?” BECAUSE OMG YOU GUYS THE CHRISTIAN SPECIES WILL GO EXTINCT IF I DON’T EVANGELIZE JUST LIKE THIS. One wonders exactly how many faithful Christians this Nice Christian™ has brought to the fold.
No, Really, Apologetics is for Christians, Not Non-Christians.
Greg M. isn’t even particularly sure how he would go about evangelizing a non-Christian without using apologetics. Mr. Penner does try to explain, but you can just about sense the poor guy’s head assplodin’ at the idea of not having a pickup artist routine in hand before approaching a mark. He has no idea in the world how to deal with people if it’s not using what Mr. Penner calls arguments whose “primary value is to be rationally coercive to all-comers.” Greg M. takes a vow of silence at this point.
Jemima, in missing Mr. Penner’s point completely, tells us that apologetics as a field can’t possibly be having trouble because of “the demand for ministries like RZIM, who seem to find their work increasing (among secular audiences) rather than decreasing.” I’m totally sure her sources are both credible and verifiable–but she doesn’t note how effective they are in producing actual Christians. (Personally, I’ve never even heard of this totally successful evangelism business, and I make my living in the religion field.)
Nate says he gets “the feeling Penner has something against reason itself,” and wonders what Mr. Penner even means by saying that apologetics isn’t a meaningful defense of Christianity. I understood what was meant there, and I haven’t even actually read the book yet. Maybe he needs to re-read the post.
ExAstrologer is convinced that apologetics is great because without those arguments (which she conflates with actual evidence for her religion), Christianity “is not the gospel and there is nothing of value there.” The idea of a religion that’s only subjectively true bothers her quite a lot–as it should–but her reaction is to completely reject Mr. Penner’s argument out of hand. Welcome to anti-process!
Sam Smeaton likes apologetics, though, because he’s “one of those people who had serious struggles with his faith, and was brought to a lot of joy upon concluding that there are very valid reasons to believe.” This actually only proves Mr. Penner’s (and my) point, but okay.
The blogger himself made the same last point in the interview itself without realizing it–and Mr. Penner addressed it in a way I thought was pretty good: a Christian who relies on arguments-as-evidence to bolster their faith will end up losing faith once they realize how lame those arguments really are.
What got my attention me about these particular responses was that they weren’t really about evangelism–they were about individual Christians’ own reactions to what Mr. Penner was saying. These Christians were trying to reassure themselves of the value of apologetics more than anything else.
Post-Modernism Ain’t the only River in Egypt.
A number of people had a problem with the suggestion to quit trying to evangelize using apologetics because they thought it sounded suspiciously “postmodern,” which is one of the current bugbear boogeymen of fundagelicalism. They may not actually totally understand what it even is, but damned if they don’t totally oppose it.
Clay Jones condescends with: “You do realize, Myron, that most of us full-time apologists begin our apologetic witness by refuting postmodernism, right?” And a lot of Christians there went off on a tangent about postmodernism along with him.
Jacob, in that same postmodernism tangent, realllly doesn’t like the idea of evangelizing without apologetics because “watered down whitewashed stripped from its truth Christianity is no Christianity.” He doesn’t actually explain what the difference is, but I’m guessing he uses slang insults for liberals a lot.
Kevin Harris just wants to know: “Not to be snarky, but did word not get up to Canada that Postmodernism never happened?”
Not one of these people are actually asking how effective apologetics-based evangelism is. They just got a bee up their butts about OMG POSTMODERNISM and lost their shit.
OMG William Lane Craig Fans Ahoy.
I lost count of how many William Lane Craig (WLC) references there were in that comment thread. Considering how awful that man’s arguments are specifically, it’s astonishing that Christians hold him in the great esteem that they do.
That said, Mr. Penner himself says in the comment section that he does use WLC “as sort of representative of the type of apologetics i am against.”
This esteemed and well-educated minister was of course then told at length by some random Christian necro-posting to the thread that he simply must be misunderstanding WLC’s work. Yes, really. (No, he isn’t.)
Attack of the Lame-o Christian Comebacks!
Palatable Gospel swings in to save the day with an expansive (and extensive) shitty parable comparing Christianity to a miracle pill. I’m not actually sure if he’s for or against apologetics in the end, but he sure is hopping excited about something. I hope he finds out one day that Christians are really bad at making parables.
Susan Gerard insists that anything done with improper motives is going to be “harmful not only to the body of Christ but to all observers.” This means that apologetics is perfectly okay as long as the motivations behind its use are okay. She does not state how we are to know if an apologist’s motivations are pure, nor how we should go about removing the platform from an apologist whose motivations have been found to be impure.
Rick just can’t let go of the idea that apologetics mightmightmightmight be effective “for some people,” so the individual salesbot needs to “determine what is best for his/her audience.” He does not, however, offer any ideas about how such a salesbot would tell which approach works best for which audiences, nor how to evaluate the approach while in use. I’m guessing he usually discovers to his delight that apologetics is the perfect strategy to use for whatever person he’s personally evangelizing.
Luke Breuer is still clinging to the idea that apologetics’ goal, which is to knock non-belief sufficiently enough that it might make Christianity look more plausible, is actually a great goal. He also believes that his faith system “works” and that this fact can be demonstrated, but doesn’t actually say how that demonstration might look in practice. A pity James Randi’s group isn’t doing their million-dollar offer anymore. (They were actually still running it in 2013–Luke missed his chance to get rich!)
A Sign of the End.
The reason I chose this particular Christian’s post and this particular interview was because I thought it offered, in its brief comment section, a perfect encapsulation of why Christianity is falling apart–and how Christians themselves, the ordinary rank-and-file who are tasked by their leaders with bringing in new blood to replace all the old blood geysering all over the walls of their religion’s emergency room, are the ones who are helping ensure that disintegration.
Christian leaders themselves know that they are mostly speaking to their choirs when they talk about evangelism. Their range is very limited. Except for random personal encounters and the few revival/outreach efforts that still ensnare a few non-believers here and there, they don’t get a chance to try to proselytize much. The real evangelism in Christianity happens with the pew-warmers they’re preaching to.
That’s why Christian leaders keep pushing their followers to go out there and proselytize, and why they keep developing new and innovative arguments and techniques for those followers to use–and why they keep trying to mold their followers into people who don’t mind pressing themselves on their marks to make a sale.
This idea of trusting the apologetics arguments and pickup artist techniques sold by so-called experts more than trusting one’s own personal experience has come to completely dominate Christian evangelism–and the one guy I’ve ever seen who dared speak out against that misplaced trust doesn’t appear to have fared well against his outraged tribe.
So… humanity is winning, is what I’m saying.
See you on Thursday!
* Understand, please, that I don’t think Christians’ experiences are that powerful of a witness either, but at least it’s not anywhere near as offensive a proselytization tactic as the arguments hawked by the smug gits who pass for apologetics experts these days.