The Handbook: The Second Big Mistake Apologists Make

The Handbook: The Second Big Mistake Apologists Make February 27, 2015

Last time we talked about apologists, we talked about their first big mistake: that they start with a conclusion and find some kind of logic that will get them to that conclusion. That’s called arguing top-down. In bottom-up arguing, one starts with observations and measurements and builds the argument around those. The reason an argument’s basis is really important is that if an argument is built purely around what the arguer wants to be true rather than what actually is true, then the conclusions are less likely to reflect reality. In the same way, if an argument is based around reality and the observations one derives therefrom, the conclusion is far more likely to reflect reality. Since it’s more than possible to construct a logically-airtight argument about something that isn’t true, it’s really important that we touch base with observable reality at all stages of an argument.

The Case for a Creator
The Case for a Creator (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Oh, so he’s a biologist now?

Apologetics starts off not caring about what’s actually observably true–and those who get into apologetics are quite proud of that fact. They reel in the unwary by a variety of methods of demonizing reality and those who do care about what’s observably true. That’s when you’ll see Christians throw around terms like “Darwinist” and “naturalist”–which are not terms used by those who reject apologetics to describe themselves; these are names that are solely found among apologists, and they are solely used as pejoratives to denigrate observable reality and make pseudo-science sound more convincing. Apologists quite literally want to embarrass and shame people who care about observable reality into maybe not caring about it long enough to get their arguments made. The only way their arguments can possibly succeed is if audiences let go of the need for credible verification of a claim; there’s no way these arguments can succeed without that suspension of disbelief.

The problem we encounter, after that initial issue with not wanting to base their arguments on observable reality, is that the arguments apologists are making are–even if we discount that problem–largely unpersuasive even on that level.

The second big mistake apologists make is falsely representing their arguments as persuasive to their audience.

Lee Strobel, one of the big darlings of apologetics, wrote a book I’ve often seen bandied about, The Case for Christ, in which he represents himself as having been a non-believer who was persuaded by what he found to become Christian. He represents his argument as being a winning “case” for Christianity’s truth claims. But I’ve never met a critical thinker who was ever persuaded by his work. More often one sees reactions like this one, wherein his work actually solidified someone’s rejection of Christianity’s claims. And as Hallq points out here (Less Wrong is a great site generally), Mr. Strobel’s representation of himself is less than honest and more than a little self-serving; in reality, he didn’t start creating an apologetics argument for Christianity till becoming “moved” by regular church attendance.

We’ve talked numerous times here about Christians who represent and market themselves as having been “atheists” at one time. And they may well believe that they really were atheists. But when one delves into just what they believed, we quickly discover that almost every one of these claims used a definition of atheism that atheists themselves would largely reject. Our friend Neil may well have nailed down what the problem is when he wrote that the version of atheism that Christians are using doesn’t look a damned thing like actual atheism–but does look an awful lot like what Christian apologetics writers and pastors think atheism looks like. That appears to be exactly the kind of atheism Lee Strobel is claiming for himself. If you don’t mind seeing one of the very worst “Jesus smiles” you’ll ever encounter, you’ll very quickly notice that on his very own “About” page, the very first words on it are “Atheist-turned-Christian.”

Atheism is the trendy background for Christians to claim nowadays, but you know how it is when something trendy gets over-embraced and misapplied by too many people; the whole concept gets spoiled and starts to backfire. At this point, the second some Christian tries to say that he or she was an atheist before conversion, the audience just cringes; we know what’s coming, and we’re not often disappointed. Christians, however, eat this stuff up with a spoon, lick the bowl, and cry for more; these apologists are telling them that their arguments are so persuasive that a science-embracing, critical-thinking-valuing, and edumacated intelleckshul DARWINIST NACHURLIST fell for them.

This falsehood serves two purposes: First, it tells these Christians that the apologist’s argument simply must be true because obviously it worked on someone who didn’t already buy into its premises. Therefore, if one of those gol-danged nachurlists refuses to bow under this argument, it’s not because the argument is shitty but because of some other sinister motive.

Second, these Christians start thinking that these arguments would work on other atheists of the same stripe and rush right out to try them out. I’m sure it’s a huge shock when they don’t get anywhere near the same response that their apologist heroes get!

I’ve seen Christians get downright indignant when their favorite apologetics argument gets shot down in flames; they often take it like a personal affront, and I can certainly see why. When I reject an argument that a Christian found convincing, I am in effect saying to that Christian, you might have fallen for this guff, but I’m too smart for that, duckie. Not only that, but I’m saying that the Christian him- or herself got taken in and is a fool. As the saying goes, there’s not really a polite way of telling someone that he or she has bought into something that isn’t true; no matter how kindly or nicely one phrases a rejection of apologetics bullshit, at some level Christians know that their own abilities to discern the truth have been (rightfully) called into question. Nobody likes to feel like an idiot.

I can see why Christians are more concerned than non-Christians might be, though. If we put our stamp of approval on anything that turns out to be poorly-constructed or untrue, then our credibility is going to take a serious hit. Christians have a particular reason to dread such a denouement, though, since most of ’em think that a god is inhabiting them and helping them figure out what’s true and what isn’t. I know I certainly did; I thought that that “still, small voice” inside me was a deity who was subtly guiding me and keeping me from buying into something untrue. Entire books and websites exist to help believers develop “the gift of spiritual discernment.” So if a Christian turns out to be majorly wrong about something, then obviously their discernment was off as well–and nothing stops that discernment from being off elsewhere.

Thankfully, at no time in history before now has it been so easy to find resources with which to combat apologetics’ bad arguments. Back in my day I had to figure this stuff out all by myself. But you’d never know that such a wealth of criticisms and debunks exist if you were only going by Christians’ behavior and publishing output.

Here’s an example of what I mean by that statement. One of the best takedowns that I’ve seen of The Case for Christ is a YouTube series by Steve Shives; here’s the introduction to it and it’s probably not a bad idea to clear your schedule to watch the whole thing. Another excellent book about it, if you’re more into written stuff, is The Case Against the Case for Christ, by Robert Price. And here’s an extensive review of Mr. Strobel’s book that outright refers to him as a “skilled propaganda ghost writer” who blatantly misrepresents his biographical testimony to sell books to evangelical Christians who have been pre-primed–by their leaders and by apologetics writers like himself–to denigrate and ignore observable reality so they can build their worldview around stuff that hasn’t been demonstrated to be real.

And chances are that not a single Christian pushing The Case for Christ has ever heard a single idea in any of those works, though they voice generally similar concerns.

Non-believers, however, are not the audience for apologetics books, any more than Christians are the audience for these critical takedowns. Christians for some reason don’t go seeking criticisms of their favorite apologetics works; when presented with a formal critique of something they think is true, they tend to drill down even harder on their mistaken beliefs. From what I’ve seen of actual comment threads, if a Christian shows up in such a discussion, it’s usually to evangelize or make vague threats about Hell.

There’s not much point to even bothering with an honest investigation, however, for a Christian. Even if Christians were to discover that the arguments in apologetics are unpersuasive and possibly even detrimental to Christianity’s goals, many of them would avoid casting aspersions upon them for a variety of reasons. I myself once had to grapple with that exact dilemma–that if I exposed a false claim, I might be stepping in the way of some lost soul’s salvation. When I began to realize that Jack Chick’s anti-Catholic tracts were, um, less than reality-based (to put it as charitably as possible!), I had the same dilemma. As shitty as these apologetics arguments are, Christians are convinced that someone, somewhere won’t be saved without them. And nobody wants to be accused of that worst of Christian sins, “divisiveness.”

Many of us non-Christians have either had these books directly pushed at us or have had these works’ arguments used against us. Because apologists build their arguments from the top-down from conclusions that Christians themselves already believe are true, and because apologists tend to belittle anybody who disagrees with their approach as “naturalists” and the like, Christians are a uniquely fertile field for the seeds thus sown. They read apologists’ books and watch these videos and interviews without any real interest in figuring out if they’re actually based on anything real or not.

Christian culture itself encourages this mindset. One of the biggest names in the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, has called apologetics “the evangelistic wave of the future.” Considering that evangelism is the conversion of people to Christianity, one can guess that Mr. Land mistakenly believes that apologetics is a great evangelism tool.

Our budskie Lee Strobel himself not only thinks that apologetics “is not merely an option” but a requirement for Christians, he goes on to assert that Christianity is “on the cusp of a golden era of apologetics.” I’m sure he does believe what he says, considering that apologetics pays his bills. Other big names like Ravi Zacharias, a noted apologetics bullshit artist author, has on his Wikipedia page that he got drawn to the field as a way of converting people to Christianity and “to train Christian leaders”–at least he’s got one for two, huh? One Christian pastor claims that he’s seen apologetics convert tons of people, though in truth it sounds from his own writing like even he doesn’t even realize that he knows perfectly well that the real use of these arguments is to prop up already-believing or wavering Christians’ faith.

Given how important Christian leaders tend to think apologetics is, and how valuable they think it is in converting the “lost,” it can feel downright surreal to a non-believer to see them cling to these bad arguments and keep parroting them over and over again in hopes that maybe this time they’ll catch non-believers at a bad time and “get through” to them, or at least plant some seed that might blossom later in the form of a conversion.

But there are cracks in that wall. C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend, “a Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it.” In fact, this hero of Christianity wrote in the same letter that he thought apologetics in general was “very wearing” and “not v. good for one’s own faith,” and he wished that people would quit trying to get him drawn into discussions on the subject. And this is the fellow that is considered one of the top apologetics authors in the entire field, one of the granddaddies of Christian bullshittery!

Christians who do start caring about that little detail of veracity run the risk of losing faith in the entire business of apologetics. When our dear friend Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie finished writing a literal book about apologetics back when he was Christian, he realized something that no doubt filled him with trepidation:

I wrote a book once which encapsulated all the lessons I had learned after 20 years as a Christian and discovered almost immediately after writing it that I no longer believed a word of it.

It’s a dangerous thing for a Christian to get curious about just how persuasive an apologetics argument is, as Neil discovered. I am downright baffled about this insistence Christians keep maintaining about how apologetics will, even if it doesn’t outright convert someone, play a huge role in getting that person converted eventually. If I found out that something wasn’t true and an invalid argument in and of itself, that wouldn’t incline me to buy into its overarching opinion. Rather, it’d make me wonder why that opinion requires bullshit to support itself, and where that opinion’s real basis in fact was.

You know what would make me believe that a given mythological being was actually real? Credible evidence for that being’s existence. If someone wants me to believe that unicorns were real, then a really good start would be clear, undoctored photos of the beasts, DNA tests of their tissues, and videos of them running around and stuff.

Arguments about how unicorns simply must exist and trying to cast doubt on skeptics’ a-unicornism would not do the trick. Snidely referring to a-unicornists as “materialists” or “Darwinists” wouldn’t work either. Nor would sanctimoniously opining that unicornists don’t need no steekin’ evidence. And neither would calling a-unicornists “close-minded” when they ultimately reject these unpersuasive arguments. Every one of these tactics is nothing more than an attempt to stop people from questioning the claim that unicorns exist and to hand-wave away the lack of real evidence involved in these arguments.

Worse, these are all tactics that are commonly used by Christian apologists. They work marvelously well–to keep Christians themselves from venturing too far into critical questioning of their claims, and to keep those Christians from taking seriously the criticisms of their favored apologetics argument.

These tactics then trickle down into believers’ heads, and get trotted out against non-believers.

Folks, the apologists who teach Christians to use these tactics aren’t talking to non-believers at all.

They’re talking to Christians.

Just as Christian apologists aren’t really talking to non-believers when they make their actual arguments, these apologists aren’t really responding to critics themselves when they talk about “Darwinists” and “close-minded” people. They’re actually modeling how they think Christians themselves should react to rejections of their parroted arguments. It’s almost tragic to see Christians run out and try to do the same stuff to non-believers in their own circles of acquaintance, and instead of succeeding they only manage to drive non-believers further and further away, when the whole reason these responses are given by apologists is to keep these Christians themselves from thinking too much! Apologists surely know by now that such demonization has never once worked to make a reality-embracer suddenly stop embracing reality long enough to absorb an apologetics argument. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to show Christians how to avoid embracing reality–and how not to let reality-embracers harsh their buzz.

What ought to shame Christians enormously is that when their arguments fail, instead of finding the evidence that actually would compel belief, they instead denigrate and demonize not only the desire for credible support for claims but those who demand that evidence. But then, I stopped thinking that apologetics is meant to convert people a long time ago. That’s just the stated goal. The actual goal is to keep Christians’ butts in pews, and apologetics does succeed at that–sort of. As the hemorrhage of Christians from church rolls continues to worsen and worsen, I don’t think even that comfort is holding.

Apologetics is not persuasive to non-believers. But it’s hugely persuasive to those who either already believe or who aren’t well-trained in critical thinking skills enough to recognize a bad argument when they see one. As our society starts becoming more aware of those skills, Christian apologists really only have one option: to drill down harder on false arguments and to demonize reality (and those who respect reality) even more. They’re certainly not about to start offering the exact evidence non-believers say would convince us–an insularity of thought which is in a lot of ways a big failure all its own.

The reason I’m talking so much about the general failures of apologetics is so that people who are new to the field of apologetics (or seeing that field through new eyes) can be thinking about those failures as they engage with its arguments. We’re going to talk about that insularity of thought next, and then we’re off to the actual arguments themselves. See you next time!

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