Desire Matters, Truth Matters More – Alex Gabriel and Jeff Cook on “Unbelievable?”

Alex Gabriel of The Heresy Club, one of my favorite online atheists, was a thoughtful and precise presence on Christian radio show Unbelievable? - a show which “gets Christians and non-Christians talking”.

Listen to Alex discuss God with Jeff Cook, author of Everything New, and elucidate some of the strange holes in Cook’s (I thought rather weak) arguments. Cook is right when he argues that many emotional factors come into play when we determine the truth of various beliefs we are considering. He is right, too, that we all look at evidence through our current frameworks of understanding – indeed, that what counts as evidence can sometimes be affects by the frame through which we look. But he’s on rather slippery ground when he argues, as he seemed to in the program, that therefore the primary task of apologetics should be to provide emotionally-compelling ‘reasons’ to believe in God, almost as if the fact of the matter is of no consequence.

Intriguingly, Cook’s writing has appeared on Patheos, where he argues that “much of Christian apologetics and evangelism in general are often misguided because right thinking is held up as a more valuable target than one’s hopes or desires.”

Now, I’m not someone who looks askance at emotional appeals and intelligent angling of an argument toward a particular audience. Much of my work with atheist groups concerns convincing them to be more strategic in their presentation of Humanist values. As Cook says, “the way truth is presented matters”, and we should pay much more attention to the emotional impact of our arguments. Indeed, I find Cook’s persuasive strategy quite astute:

It seems then that enticing the passions and wills of those who do not follow Christ is far more important than targeting their intellect with arguments for God’s existence. Showing that God is desirable will be the primary target of the successful 21st century apologist, for wanting God to exist opens highways for subpar apologetics; yet a closed heart will not here the voice of wisdom.

If we remain chained to the modern idolization of reason, and fail to see human beings as composed of body, mind and soul, we will lose both the rational arguments in our culture and our opportunity to promote sanctified bodies, minds and souls. Such mistakes must stop.

True: forget that people aren’t reasoning-machines and you aren’t likely to persuade them of anything much. You have to appeal to Pathos and Ethos as well as Logos.

However, if you are to be an ethical apologist, it is absolutely necessary, before developing a persuasive campaign, for the would-be persuader to be sure of the solidity of their arguments. It is not enough to simply paint a rosy picture of a God people might like to believe in: it’s incumbent on the apologist, from an ethical perspective, to be sure their Logos is sturdy enough to rebut criticism  The fact that your emotional campaign works better is no evidence that what you’re selling is a good product. Furthermore, it would be highly unethical to hide from scrutiny aspects of your “product” which are less appealing simply because you want people to desire it – and there are lots of aspects of the Christian God which many have good reason to find unappealing. In the show I was not always convinced Cook was as scrupulous as he might be about these matters.

In any case, listen to Gabriel debate Cook here. You can listen to my three appearances on the show here, here, and here.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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