The Handbook: The First Fundamental Mistake Apologists Make.

The Handbook: The First Fundamental Mistake Apologists Make. February 22, 2015

Sometimes you’ll hear this aspect of apologetics called “presuppositional,” which means the field relies on assumptions to move forward. If Christians had to demonstrate that there actually is a supernatural realm and that it has deities and demons and angels in it who can interfere with this world before they could move forward with any of their arguments, there’d be no apologetics as a field at all. So instead apologists simply take for granted that their assumptions about the world and about the supernatural are true. Not only is it much easier to go that route, it’s absolutely essential.

That’s one of the reasons why apologetics, as a discipline, doesn’t actually convince many people to convert to Christianity–unless they’re either at a really vulnerable moment or never learned how to critically examine apologetics arguments. We live in a culture steeped in assumptions about the supernatural–from daily horoscopes to ghost stories to near-24/7 religious immersion to chain forwards, even as far as conspiracy theories, pseudoscience quackery, and fad diets, many folks in this culture are primed to be at least receptive to the ideas that apologists take for granted. Someone who is aware of the assumptions being made and demands evidence for those assumptions before taking the plunge might be mocked and criticized by Christians, but such a person is not going to be swayed.

But that exact same reason is why apologetics makes so many Christians more certain of their faith. They already buy into the assumptions made by these arguments’ creators. They’re already totally on board. Some might kind of understand that the arguments rest on assumptions that are never credibly supported, but the conclusions sound right so they aren’t quite as worried about that problem as they should be. Apologetics is meant for them, not for non-believers. If apologetics was really meant for non-believers, then its serious flaws would have been addressed long ago.

And as long as Christians don’t sweat too much why they believe what they do, everything is okay. As soon as those assumptions get challenged, trouble looms ahead as inevitably as the waterfall at the end of a river in a movie.

That’s why one of apologists’ chief tactics is–as William Lane Craig demonstrates so often–to flat-out declare those assumptions as truths and proceed from there to the shitty argument, willfully ignorant of the fact that what is created is in essence a circular argument. By getting that elephant–Christianity’s total lack of credible supportive evidence–declared to be a non-issue, apologists are able to get to the stuff they really want to say, and their audiences are able to more easily dive into the topic alongside them. This strategy is a very clever one; it absolves Christians of the very question of evidence. Back in my day, I interpreted this tactic as implying that there was no need to demonstrate the credibility of those assumptions because they were all foregone conclusions. I thought there was so much evidence that nobody needed to stop and reiterate it all, in the same way that biology takes for granted that evolution is a real thing that actually happens in the real world; that millions of experiments as well as findings in dozens of related fields all support evolution’s predictions and claims is a fact that does not have to be rehashed every single time someone writes a peer-reviewed paper about some aspect of it. When apologists I was reading didn’t dwell on demonstrating that the supernatural was real or that Jesus was divine, I took it as meaning, in the same way, that these sorts of claims had already been well-established.

If that trick doesn’t work, apologetics authors and speakers can always demonize the very need to demonstrate those assumptions, or they’ll say that they’ll do it later on and then never get around to it. Either works; Christians have been primed to think of demands for evidence as antithetical to having faith, and few people nowadays of any religious persuasion have the attention span needed to remember that the apologist never did get around to providing that proof that was promised. I’ve seen both in action. I often get told that if I don’t accept the “truth” of these assumptions then that’s just proof that I don’t have enough faith (yet)–and that I clearly didn’t have enough faith to keep believing those same assumptions when I was Christian. Or I’ll be told that if I can’t get on board with apologists’ assumptions, then it means that “God” hasn’t seen fit to magically make me believe them. I’ll hear that people aren’t allowed to–or able to–question or “judge” this god, or to make demands for credible evidence about him. By this evasion, they mean I’m not allowed to make demands of those arrogant enough to presume to speak on this god’s behalf or to question anything regarding the myths about this god, obviously, since no god is actually speaking to anybody in the real world–and they’re likely really hoping I don’t figure that out.

If all else fails, then I can be accused of being perfectly on board with the assumptions being made but having some diabolical ulterior motive for denying the truth of them. I “just wanted to sin,” and if I accept that the apologists’ assumptions are true then I apparently can no longer sin with impunity (because Christians never knowingly sin, and someone would happily sacrifice an eternity of bliss just to have sex–since that’s what “sinning” means to almost all Christians trotting out this old chestnut). But if I deny those assumptions then I am not morally bound to obey Christianity’s many behavioral rules or to constrain myself from breaking any of them (what I would say about this one idea is a whole other blog post all by itself, but the short answer is that this sentiment is breathtaking bullshit). So obviously I would need to lie about whether or not I think apologists’ assumptions are true.

“Debating” apologists gets so frustrating. We both come at the world from such different places. I learn new things so I can grow in understanding of reality and the people and world around me; those who love apologetics, by contrast, assimilate and synthesize debunked and weak (but impressive-sounding, to those who don’t know better) talking points in order to regurgitate them in support of a desired conclusion and thereby to persuade others of those conclusions.

In any other rational discussion, if people want to argue about exactly how Krypto flies, they will first establish that Krypto actually exists.

Apologists, by contrast, are happy to assume there really is a Krypto in the first place and leap off from there.

I’m also a comic book and gaming nerd, and those sorts of friendly debates can be a lot of fun. I’ve spent more hours than I want to think about arguing about exactly what elves in such-and-such gameworld “should” act like in a given situation, or how the mechanics of magic in that-other gameworld operate. It’d be beyond boorish to stop and furiously ask how we know elves or magic even exist. To have these arguments, participants all have to assume that they’re talking about the context of a particular setting or gameworld, one in which these things can or do or should exist. If that was what apologists were doing, then that wouldn’t be too bad.

But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re not arguing from the context of a shared hobby/fandom or a pretendy funtime roleplaying game universe. They’re trying to make a case for a religious idea, one that has repercussions in the real world, one that they want other people to also buy into and follow along with them, one that impacts them in their real everyday lives and that they think impacts their audience in the the same way. Using our Krypto example, if someone was trying to tell me that my eternal fate depended on believing in Krypto’s existence or that the character could influence my everyday life, then yes, it’d matter quite a bit if he was actually a real dog and not just a comic-book character.

Because there is no more evidence supporting a god’s existence than there is supporting the existence of Krypto the Superdog or elves, apologists have to find some way to make people either forget to ask about that evidence or to make them think that showing evidence isn’t necessary. That’s why apologetics, as a field, is inherently dishonest.

Something real doesn’t need apologetics to make its case. Nobody has to argue about the moral imperative of there existing Fuji apples, or debate about whether or not the grocery store on the corner sells them. We can see that Fuji apples exist and we can go look at the grocery store’s produce section to see if it stocks them. I don’t need to make long, elaborate analogies about Atomic Theory; I can run experiments that demonstrate that it is true. I don’t need to shame people into recognizing that hand-washing is important; I can show them that it is absolutely necessary to wash one’s hands avoid spreading germs and diseases. And if a god existed, especially a “personal god” like the one Christians claim they have, there is absolutely no way that objective, credible proof of that god’s existence wouldn’t be visible everywhere, to everyone on the planet. It’d be as obvious as the apples in a fruit bowl. Nobody would need to construct elaborate arguments about it.

Out of everything I wish bothered Christians, I wish it bothered them that there is no evidence at all for their apologetics assumptions and that all they’ve got is words, words, words that ultimately add up to exactly jack. If they wanted me to think their religion was based on objective facts, apologetics accomplishes the polar opposite of persuading me of that position: it makes me wonder why they are using apologetics instead of showing me those facts they imply they have.

I find apologetics hugely dishonest because it not only rests on unproven, unverified assumptions but either brushes aside or ignores that it’s doing so. Not credibly supporting its own underlying assumptions is its first big error–and its worst, most egregious one. Not that there aren’t many others, and we’ll talk about more of those later. See you next week!

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Related:

* Has Science Buried God?. A transcript of a debate between WLC and Lawrence Krauss in which Dr. Krauss flat-out accuses WLC of lying his ass off whenever he thinks he can get away with it. The only thing I admire about WLC is that he’ll put his debate videos and transcripts up on his site even though he and his religion both off looking worse in every one of them. At least he’s not trying to hide it, though I suspect that, as Robert Price has suggested, WLC knows he can’t actually demonstrate a single thing he claims and is hoping that sheer emotional manipulation and dishonest wordplay will carry him to victory.

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