The Handbook: An Overview of the Apologetics Field, and Its (Hopeful) End.

The Handbook: An Overview of the Apologetics Field, and Its (Hopeful) End. March 6, 2015

We’re about to plunge into actual apologetics works and examine their authors’ major ideas and claims. Before we do that, let’s just real quick-like run through the field as a whole so we’re all on the same page.

Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490.
Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Say what you want. I’d be perfectly happy with that study setup.

I’m sure it didn’t take long at all for the earliest Christians to notice that reality wasn’t lining up especially well with their religion’s claims. A tradition arose early on of apologetics, meaning roughly “arguments in defense of Christianity” but more colloquially “making reality line up better with Christianity.” Some of the religion’s very finest minds arose during those first few centuries: Augustine of Hippo and Origen, and moving past them into the medieval and Renaissance thinkers like Thomas Aquinas. If you ever want to give yourself blurry vision, they’re fun to read; they wrote mostly in Latin, and I don’t know about you but translations into English tend to be difficult for me to navigate, but if you can get through it you’ll get a peek into the struggles of those great thinkers. Closer to the modern era we’ve got Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and to a certain extent Alvin Platinga.

All the way on through to about the twentieth century apologists have been trying to get reality to line up, and they’ve generally done it with very complex and difficult-to-penetrate arguments. But modern Christians aren’t trained quite so fully in doctrine or theology; they want easier-to-understand apologetics and simplistic theology they can use in everyday life to soothe themselves in the face of mounting evidence against religious claims–and to zing non-believers, and boy howdy do they ever get ’em both in spades. The current field contains folks like Ravi Zacharias, Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Ray Comfort and his sidekick Kirk Cameron, and, well, a few million Christians on forums and comment threads all with their own favorite homebrew argument they think is some sort of slam-dunk against all doubters (you get bonus dabs on your Bingo card if the Christian tries to involve quantum physics or the multiverse).

We’re going to be dealing mostly with the modern apologists, since most of us don’t really run into the arguments those earlier theologians used. Pascal’s Wager comes up a lot, yes, mostly because it is simplistic and easy to understand; I’ve talked about this one in the past but we’ll apply the checklist to come against it later on. Usually, though, what we hear in our day-to-day lives are variants on the Wager or the newer, talking-point-heavy arguments of today’s apologists.

If you peruse this list of 2013’s top-selling apologetics books or Amazon’s own list of current best-sellers, you’ll notice a few names that are very familiar. C.S. Lewis will never go out of style, I don’t reckon; he’s a beloved grand-uncle in Christians’ minds by now (and it’s not going to be emotionally easy for me to skewer his arguments, know that, please; I still like his writing). The rest of the list isn’t much of a surprise: Frank Turek, Norman Geisler, Lee Strobel, and the like.

While we’re on that topic, I saw only one woman’s name on Amazon’s top 20 list: Nancy Pearcey, whose book Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes contains a glowing forward by her husband and many pages of glowing compliments from what appear to be entirely male authority figures, which my ex-fundamentalist eyes could not help but read as an extended Now y’all jus’ shuddup and let the lil lady talk! stamp of Penis Approval. This is a man’s field; women can write about women’s stuff–babies, love, being properly submissive, “modesty”–but when they venture into apologetics, it is on tiptoe. If you’re wondering, she makes the same exact mistakes that her male peers make, with an argument from ignorance (“We don’t know how to create life in the laboratory so therefore ‘God’ did it”) right out of the gate.

These apologetics authors are on the Top 20 list because they tell Christians what they want to hear: You’re not crazy for believing in this stuff. And they offer those Christians a false assurance that their suggestions and ideas will work to persuade non-believers as well. It’s certainly not non-Christians who are buying this dreck. It’s Christians. They buy it because they’ve been commanded (they think) to evangelize, and that’s getting harder and harder to do nowadays. In the provocatively titled “shots fired!” writeup “Is Evangelism Going Out of Style?” over at Barna Group, their survey found that overall, most Christians think it’s important to share their faith–but most don’t do it. Even among evangelicals, 100% of whom believe by definition that evangelism is important, only 69% of them had actually done so even once in the last year–and the less fundagelical the Christian, the lower the odds of them thinking that way or acting on it. (I hope that stuns you.)

So when a book comes out telling a Christian “here’s how you can evangelize and it always works,” you can be certain that that Christian is going to pay close attention. It’s a similar situation to those books that teach parents how to hide vegetables in their kids’ desserts; every parent knows that kids need to eat vegetables, but most kids in our culture grow up disliking their taste. Any book that promises to make it easier to put vegetables down a kid’s gullet without dinnertime turning into World War III is going to be popular. I don’t know how successful these cookbooks are; I grew up loving vegetables, especially raw spinach and green beans, and I’ll eat frozen peas and corn right out of the bag because I have no class that way. To me eating vegetables is quite natural, just as to some Christians the skills involved in evangelism come naturally. Those are the Christians that are writing these books; they think that their approach works, and their followers are hoping that their gurus’ skill can be bottled and bought over the counter. Their authors certainly want followers to believe that their arguments are bulletproof and effective against anybody, not just Christians; many of these apologists market themselves as having once been atheist, though their definitions seem quite suspicious to actual current atheists.

And apologetics in general is considered to be of tantamount importance in getting Christianity back to its former dominance in culture: this Christian bigot flat-out accuses pastors of never “address[ing] apologetics from the pulpit in any significant way,” with the implication being that apologetics would be the key to renewal. I’ve personally run into other Christians who say, as well, that the big problem is that nobody’s evangelizing enough–that if one Christian could convert just one other person every year, that’d be the beginning of a tidal wave of new blood. And plenty of Christian leaders agree, like the Southern Baptist Convention, whose big names think that apologetics is hugely important to evangelism.

Apologetics fans and authors are wrong about their tactic’s effectiveness, either way; a lot of evangelism is about soft skills, not listicles of 50 Reasons Why Christianity Is Totes For Realsies, Y’all (which was the gist of one book I noticed on the list). I’ve never once heard of anybody who converted based on lists and “facts” like those presented in these books. It must have happened at least once, because this is a pretty big world and people can be pretty silly that way, but I’ve never run into anyone who ended up Christian after being apologeticsed at. I’m guessing that the goal here is to embolden Christians, not necessarily to arm them with bulletproof arguments; the hope may well be that Christians will read these books and at least get brave enough to try to strike up a conversation at least once a year or so with a non-believer. So like it or lump it, we’re stuck with apologetics for a while longer.

I’m presenting this part of the Handbook not because I want you to run out and debate everybody in sight. Most of us really don’t care about doing that. You aren’t required to debate anybody at any time. Rather, I’m presenting it because I want you at least aware of the major arguments you’re likely to run into, and where these arguments fail. This is stuff I wish I’d known, way back when; it would have maybe kept me out of the worst that Christianity had to offer and made my deconversion less emotionally devastating. So I figure it’s stuff someone else might want to know.

Here is the checklist by which I will be evaluating the apologetics arguments to come:

* Is it logically sound?

Most of these arguments will be generally internally consistent, but not always. Soundness does not indicate correctness or a correlation with reality, any more than a lack of soundness makes the general gist of the argument untrue. But it doesn’t help much if the apologetics argument doesn’t even hold together on its own merits.

* Does a logical fallacy or well-known cognitive bias form the backbone of the argument?

The more of these you see present, the less likely the argument is going to sound compelling. Learning to recognize the major “arguments from X” fallacies will serve you in good stead here.

* Does it rely on assumptions that it never gets around to supporting with credible evidence?

Obviously, this is where most apologetics arguments are going to fail. Almost every apologetics work takes for granted that supernatural realms exist, for example; none ever actually credibly demonstrates this to be the case.

* Does it rely on outdated science or revisionist history?

Strangely, most of the apologetics books that attack evolution or offer up PROOF YES PROOF of Jesus’ existence seem to rely on really old or discredited sources. I once saw a book attacking evolution (can’t remember the name, but it’s probably not the only one that does this) that used only science books from the mid-1800s to make its case. “Weird” doesn’t even half cover how surreal that felt to read.

* Does it rely on an interpretation of the Bible that scholars wouldn’t support?

Literalism–as espoused by fundagelicals especially–and so-called “clobber” verses about homosexuality and women’s rights typically require a way of looking at the Bible that actual Bible scholars don’t tend to agree is the right way of looking at it. Nowadays, when I run into a Creationist or someone who thinks anything in the Bible literally happened the way it says it did, or a Christian who thinks anything in it is easily understood or plain to see, I know I’m dealing with an extremely oversimplified, even childish way of looking at the Bible. And please know that smart people can easily fall into this way of thinking. Thinking Creationism is true doesn’t make someone stupid. But the hermeneutics (that’s a fancy word that means “a method of interpreting the Bible”, and every single person looking at the Bible uses hermeneutics of one kind or another–even me, even you) involved in seeing the Bible in the way I’m describing are ridiculously primitive. Nothing in the Bible is easy–you might expect that, if it were divinely-inspired, but it isn’t easy–or divine. Not to be Captain Obvious here, but it’s a complex document written by many people over many years with many agendas, and their goals and methods were far from unified or consistent. We want to show respect to that complexity where we can, like we would with any civilization’s mythology. Grappling with this complexity has kept Jews busy for many years, but in Christian apologetics the document becomes so “easy” that even a child can write about it–and I’d be shocked to learn that none have. (And the funny thing is, these “easy” interpretations tend to bring up a lot more problems than they solve!)

* Does the author use fancy words and convoluted arguments to make him- or herself sound more convincing?

“Immutable!” is the mating call of the Christian nutjob. Often you’ll find a totally indefensible and nonsensical argument dressed up with as many college-sized words as possible. When language obfuscates meaning, you’re likely dealing with a bad argument.

* Does the author try to use big science-y words that he or she doesn’t understand?

If quantum physics or the multiverse come up, this is not likely to be a good argument–nor is any about evolutionary theory that is given by someone with no background whatsoever in biology. Any branch of science sufficiently advanced enough to seem magical will be sold as PROOF YES PROOF that Jesus is real. Now, sometimes you’ll run across someone with that background talking about this stuff. Education isn’t magic either, and if someone’s motivated enough then the cognitive dissonance required to hold both to religion and to understand the science involved in one’s field can certainly be managed. But you should be quite leery of an apologetics author who strays into fields far outside his or her own expertise.

* Can this argument also be used to prove unicorns exist?

If you do some word substitution and discover that the Christian’s argument could also easily prove that unicorns exist or support the notion of, say, a UFO landing in Mobile, Alabama on August 1, 1825, then it is not a compelling argument in favor of Christianity (but would, it must be conceded, explain a lot about Mobile, Alabama–HEY-o!).

* Does the author sound like a complete dick?

It doesn’t matter how grand or amazing the author sounds or how amazing his or her argument; if there’s no love present, then that author is just making noise for his or her own benefit. That’s not me talking, either, that’s the freakin’ Love Chapter of the Bible. When you hear an apologetics author saying insulting things about non-believers, trying to sell atrocity apologetics as the actions of a loving god, or threatening people with horrible fates if they don’t fall into line, you’re dealing with someone who thinks winning matters more than being correct, and that is going to mean that their arguments are quite suspect.

Nothing on this list automatically, in and of itself, disqualifies an argument, but the more items on it that an argument checks off, the safer you are in dismissing the argument.

Things might be changing for the better, all that said. One book that came out last year and got an Award of Merit from Christianity Today was The End of Apologetics–and it’s on my to-read list at this point. In it, Myron Penner tries to make the case that Christians need to quit using apologetics like they have been of late, that not only are they doing it wrong but they’re causing people to flee further and further from Christianity–both of these being points I’d fully agree with. (Of course, based on the preview of the book at least, he seems to make many of the same intellectual mistakes that his apologetics-loving peers make, but at least he’s trying.) It is Mr. Penner who declares that if his vision is right, then (emphasis his):

. . . Christians will need not merely to have a humbler apologetics, in which they say the same things, make the same arguments with the same basic goals–only in a nicer way. Instead, Christians need an entirely new way of conceiving the apologetic task.

I couldn’t have said it better. But as long as Christians cling to these folks as prophets and parrot their arguments at bone-weary non-believers, we might as well take a look at ’em so we’re not taken off-guard. So we’ll see you on Saturday when we start off with the actual arguments in question!

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