If you’ve reached my site through this discussion with Chris Sinkinson about his book Confident Christianity on Unbelievable, welcome! I want to thank Justin Brierley for inviting me to participate in the discussion and for being a fair-minded moderator, and Chris for his charming, intelligent, upbeat approach to the topic.
A little about me: my blog, Temple of the Future, exists to present a passionate, activist vision of Humanism for the 21st Century. I advocate a Humanism that is unapologetically atheist, and at the same time engaged fully with the great moral issues of our time. I pursue my vision for Humanism mainly through my work as Research and Education Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and particularly through the Humanist Community Project: an initiative which aims to build values-based communities for nonreligious people. If you want to know more about me, go here. If you want to know more about my outlook and ideas, try these introductory posts. For an introduction to the Humanist Community Project, look here. For a single-shot expression of my Humanist worldview, I recommend listening to this talk.
For those who want a longer expression of my views on apologetics – not a topic I discuss frequently anymore – this post is for you. My three basic arguments against apologetics – and we only really addressed the first of these in the radio show – are these:
- The Problem of Evidence: There is insufficient evidence to believe in the truth of Christianity and the existence of God and, this having been demonstrated repeatedly, it is a “waste of time” to do apologetics.
- The Problem of Priorities: Apologetics is a distraction from healing the sick and feeding the hungry. We should respect, as Humanist philosopher Felix Adler put it, deed before creed. Human needs come before metaphysical quibbles.
- The Problem of Morality: Our shared human problems can only be solved by reason, and to promote unreason, as some strands of apologetics do, is therefore a moral failing. Apologetics also has some very immoral outcomes.
The Problem of Evidence
On the first point, I hold that there is simply insufficient evidence, and no compelling reasons, to accept the truth-claims of Christianity. None of the logical arguments in favor of the existence of God are cogent. The evidence supporting the central claims of Christianity (such as the resurrection) is exceptionally weak by any reasonable standard. And, most damning, prominent apologists – even ones who stress the importance of reasons and evidence – accept this to be the case. William Lane Craig is the best example, who said:
“God has provided a more secure foundation for our faith than the shifting sands of evidence and argument…I hold that argument and evidence play an essential role in our showing Christianity to be true, but a contingent and secondary role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true. The proper ground of our knowing Christianity to be true is the inner work of the Holy Spirit…[God] has given us the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as the proper foundation for our knowledge of the great truths of the Gospel.”
I submit that if “The proper ground of our knowing Christianity to be true is the inner work of the Holy Spirit”, and if “argument and evidence play…a contingent and secondary role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true”, then the apologist has essentially conceded the case to the atheist. Any reasonable proposition should be believed on the merits of the arguments and evidence which support it, not on the basis of “the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit”.
And it is striking that both Chris and Craig say that they became Christians not because of the strength of the arguments in favor, but for other, primarily personal reasons. Craig says:
“I became a Christian my third year of high school, not through any careful consideration of the evidence, but because the Christian students who shared the Gospel with me seemed to be living on a different plane of reality than I was. Their faith in Christ imparted meaning to their lives along with a joyous peace, which I craved”
Chris spoke in similar terms about the Christians he encountered: “There was something they had that I didn’t have.”
After that experience came the rationalization of the choice to believe. And that, for me, is the wrong way round. If you are rationalizing a decision which fills a deep yearning within yourself you have to be extra-skeptical of the evidence, and I think the evidence for Christianity doesn’t stack up.This is particularly clear when it comes to the resurrection, for which there is shockingly little good evidence. If you ask yourself, as I asked Chris, “What evidence you would require to believe a friend who claims they had literally come back from the dead during a week in which you had not seen them?”, you will see the problem clearly. Any reasonable person would expect evidence far in excess of the evidence we have to support the resurrection of Jesus.
And so apologetics fails due to lack of evidence.
The Problem of Priorities
I also think that debating whether God exists demonstrates a lack of perspective. We live in a world of extraordinary human suffering, and settling the metaphysical questions regarding the existence of God will not necessarily alleviate that suffering one jot. No one can honestly claim they know for sure what happens after we die. But we do know for sure that, in this life, we can act to make a difference to those who are in pain.
Apologetics is a distraction to the cause of improving human wellfare.
Promoting Humanism – Reason, Compassion, and Hope for the future – is different. Promoting reason is a good priority because it results in increases in human welfare. New medical treatments and new technologies frequently improve real human lives. Promoting compassion (a necessary companion to reason) results in increases in human welfare. Promoting god, or defending Christianity, on its own, does not. And so it is a misplaced priority in a world of hunger, pain and suffering.
The Problem of Morals
Some forms of apologetics – not the form of apologetics that Chris was primarily advocating, but some – are also morally suspect. By promoting blind faith over reason, some forms of apologetics actually hold back human progress. They stop people questioning oppressive practices, stop people taking life-saving medicines, stop people loving their gay children. And this is morally unacceptable.
And, indeed, some forms of apologetics result in astonishingly amoral outcomes. William Lane Craig famously has defended the slaughter of the Canaanites as part of his apologetics:
“But why take the lives of innocent children? …God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel… Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.”
It’s difficult for anyone who cares at all about human beings to stomach an argument which literally claims that the slaughter of children is a good thing. But these are the webs which even some very intelligent people are entangled in when they seek to justify the works of God. Craig’s words here are evil, and all moral people should repudiate them.
I knew a man in my first parish who had lost most of his eyesight after he was shot in the face after a drug deal gone bad… The loss of his sight devastated him, but it also profoundly humbled him. “As my physical eyes were closed, my spiritual eyes were opened.”…With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?
Here, Keller argues that there are “good reasons” for a man getting shot in the face and becoming mostly blind. Where do such arguments end? Am I to believe there are “good reasons” when a young athlete is paralyzed in a car accident? When a woman is beaten by her husband? When a child is raped by their father?
People often say “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” These examples show, rather, that if God is alive, everything is excused.
These wicked arguments stem directly from attempts to apologize for God – from doing apologetics – and show the moral dangers when people try to justify the unjustifiable.
There is much more to be said regarding apologetics. These arguments are mere sketches. But I believe that the strength of my case is undeniable: while I respect and value the attempt to justify one’s worldview through argument and evidence, I think that in the case of apologetics for the Christian faith the attempt is unsupported by reason, distracting from the real moral problems we face, and immoral.
Apologetics is a waste of time.