The Handbook: Wishful Thinking in Apologetics.

The Handbook: Wishful Thinking in Apologetics. March 18, 2015

In the Handbook for the Recently Deconverted, we’ve talked lately about some of the apologetics that are trending among Christians–stuff we’re likely to see as ex-Christians. You can see a more scholarly look at the four traditional classifications of apologetics here from a Christian who seems to know what he’s talking about, but I take a more pragmatic approach to the topic that I think reflects how non-believers actually experience the attempts by Christians to persuade us. I’ve noticed that most apologetics enthusiasts tend to blend these styles, when they actually try anything that sophisticated in the first place. So I’ve chosen to look at the subject a little differently.

After a birds-eye overview of the field, we dove into the ways Christians try to argue themselves into a god, and then we took on the various ways that apologists try to fuse real science and history with the Bible.

Today we’re talking about the apologists who create arguments in favor of Christianity by appealing to what Christians really wish their god was like–in other words, by playing upon believers’ wishful thinking.

I’m not talking about all those “arguments from X” bits of disingenuous skullduggery that Christians often pull, though we’ll be taking those on next time. I’m talking more about a way of describing Christianity in its perfect, idealized state to make people want to remain Christians or become so.

Mere Christianity
Mere Christianity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking all week about how I’d characterize the apologetics of the well-loved author C.S. Lewis. Though non-believers (and quite a few believers) likely know him only as the author of the Narnia series, he also wrote some very well-received books of apologetics like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. His body of apologetics work has influenced Christians the world over for decades; Christianity Today ranked Mere Christianity third in its list of the most influential apologetics books for evangelicals–quite interesting considering he wasn’t anything close to an evangelical himself during his lifetime, but then again, they did go gaga for Mitt Romney–a Mormon–just a few years ago, so who knows what they’re thinking at any given time. Whatever his actual views on Christianity (and those views sound like a very genial form of Anglicanism, which was his chosen denomination), he has been absorbed into the Borg Collective at this point; they think of him as one of their own.

Definitely C.S. Lewis makes some of the same junior-grade mistakes that we see among any evangelical apologists. Don’t get me wrong–I love his writing, even his Christian writing, and it’s not easy to say this, but seriously, his apologetics leaves something to be desired (which I kinda think even he thought). His famous “trilemma” is nothing more than a false dilemma, presenting the options of “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” without even considering any other options like “Jesus was sincere but mistaken” or even “Jesus was a completely made-up character or was seriously embellished by later authors.” But modern apologists like Josh McDowell regurgitate this argument without even crediting C.S. Lewis for it–which I suspect is less a desire to steal from a legend than a reflection of how deeply engrained in fundagelical Christian culture this argument has become.

Mere Christianity is a compilation of three lectures that Mr. Lewis gave. Most of them concern themselves with an argument from morality–something non-Christians are quite familiar with by now. The idea goes like this: Human beings simply couldn’t have evolved a sense of morality on their own, and whenever they try to put together a code of ethics and morality by themselves, without referring to a Great Objective Morality Handed Down by JesusGod, they get totally messed up. So only by referring to a Great Objective Morality Handed Down by JesusGod can human beings be properly moral. Yes, it’s that tired “you can only be good with God/can’t be good without God” thing. But what one really gets from his writing is a sense that he really wants Christianity to be based on some kind of objective morality. He really wants this religion to be the one that offers him the all-singing, all-dancing feeling of having total structure. And I can totally understand that desire. The problem is that since he wrote his book, advances in science–especially sociology and anthropology–have advanced our understanding of morality and ethics; I wonder what he’d say now if he knew about some of those advances. But then, that’s what you get for taking your information about how humans could or couldn’t have evolved from a person trained in history and theology, as C.S. Lewis was. Amazing, isn’t it, how often Christians make that mistake? It’s almost as if they can’t get real biologists and anthropologists to agree with their position.

The statue of C. S. Lewis in front of the ward...
The statue of C. S. Lewis in front of the wardrobe from his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in East Belfast, Northern Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is not only Mr. Lewis’ argument from morality but also an attempt to pin down what he thought were the ultimate basics of his religion: to define a “mere” Christianity, so to speak. One of the main drawbacks to this attempt is that there isn’t any belief in Christianity that could be considered a universal one. For every single one that could be named–even ones that most people would consider totally basic to the religion, like “Jesus is divine” or “believers will go to Heaven”–you can find Christians who don’t buy into it and go the opposite direction. Other apologists go this route as well–for example, N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, which is ably critiqued by Steve Shives on YouTube. Any time you get wishful apologists, you’re likely going to see this idealized Christianity described–and often the results look totally different, one apologist to the next.

One can’t help but get a whiff of yearning from these authors–they wish there really was a Christianity like that. I remember very well what it was like. That’s why I ended up in more and more extreme versions of Christianity–I was trying to find what I thought of as “the original Christianity,” the real one, the true one. I knew that what I was seeing around me wasn’t what I sought, because I couldn’t imagine the real one leading to so much abuse, hurt, division, discord, and hatred among its followers. There’s no way that a real god, a true god, a loving god could ever allow such a thing.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Christians were arguing about doctrines and practices from the get-go. There wasn’t an original, real, or true Christianity, not even when the anonymous authors of the Gospels first put quill to parchment. It was always fragmented and contentious. It was never smooth and easy or obviously divine, any more than its morality was ever objective or perfect. It was a religion that looks exactly like one would expect from ignorant people trying their best to figure things out with the information they had right then.

And this god apparently jolly well did allow this festering chaos to linger all through the centuries. Now all these evangelicals are charging in announcing that non-believers are inferior because they operate with a “subjective morality” (when they differ from evangelicals on key ideas)–when these Christians are not snidely insinuating or outright stating that non-believers must secretly believe in Jesus (when they agree on key ideas), because only belief in Jesus could ever produce a good person, except when it doesn’t in which case that person’s not really a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.

The merry-go-round involved in this wishful thinking makes me dizzy.

It’s almost secondary, whether or not the god behind all these arguments really exists. If that mattered to the apologists using these arguments, then they’d certainly go about figuring out just how to nail down this “objective morality” and figure out if it really is unique to Christianity or caused by Christianity–and then would work out whether or not this “objective morality” really has a beneficial impact on the societies practicing whatever they happen to think it is this year. And for that matter they’d be asking some hard questions about “yes, but how do we know that there’s a supernatural being handing out purposes like watery tarts lobbing swords at kings?”

So when we look at arguments like those C.S. Lewis puts forth, or any of the other apologists arguing from a position of morality or joy or purpose or meaning, we need to see these arguments for what they are: an expression of their hearts for something like that, and an inability to see those qualities anywhere else. That’s why The Screwtape Letters could become such a classic in Christian literature and its concepts could become accepted canon even within fundagelical circles without C.S. Lewis ever once demonstrating that demons even exist. That’s how Christian apologists can insist that only belief could produce morally good people. And that’s how Creationist assholes can spew filth everywhere about how rejecting Creationism will inevitably lead to disaster and crime everywhere:

That’s the world that would exist if their god actually existed and if their beliefs were actually true.

It’s not that they wish crime and chaos on the world; it’s that such awfulness would bolster their arguments considerably and demonstrate the truth of their words, so it gives them a certain creepily eager quality as they pant and moan over what the world will look like as people continue to discard Christianity, and why they seem so damned eager to see disasters that they think would “cleanse” the world of the people they hate most–and who, by wild coincidence, their god hates as well.

That’s also why they seem so totally freaked out over what equal marriage and abortion-on-demand would do to our society: those are the two most visible signs of people’s rejection of fundagelical control and culture at this point, since the total control over people’s lives and sexuality have become the twin hills that fundagelical leaders have chosen to die on. If their god were real and actually looked and acted like they imagine he does, then absolutely these two issues would likely provoke that being into terrible action. But if one or the both of their imaginings aren’t true, then obviously we won’t see any sort of widespread awfulness–and indeed we are not.

Unfortunately–or fortunately, depending on which side of the church door you’re on, as the years march on and nobody seems to be suffering as a result of widespread acceptance and practice of these two rights and rejection of Christianity’s other claims, as the world seems to be doing just fine (if not better) as more and more people turn away from religiosity toward secularism, Christian leaders are starting to sound more and more out of touch with reality as they threaten and bluster about the terrible risks humanity is taking (and their god is starting to sound more and more grotesque and barbaric, but to fundagelicals that’s another feature, not a bug, of their faith system).

These apologetics are likely the easiest to deal with, though also likely to be the most dearly-held by those who offer them as “proof” of a god. Familiarity and experience are the dread enemies of wishful thinking. All we need to do–if we choose to engage, of course, always; we might not and that is totally our right either way–is establish what the Christian in question is claiming will happen if his or her claims are true, and debunk them. For example, of the many states in the United States that have allowed same-sex couples to access their inalienable right to marry, none have actually been hit by a meteor as Pat Robertson has threatened on behalf of his invisible bully friend. And at this point most people know a lot of non-Christians who are perfectly good people who nonetheless reject every single one of Christianity’s spurious claims–as well as a great many Christians who are absolutely terrible people who are very gung-ho and hardcore in believing those same claims.

I really don’t think Christians realize that this style of apologetics, more than any other, is intended for them, not for non-believers. I hear these sorts of arguments quite often, but the people wielding them never seem to notice that in order to buy into their claims or agree with their conclusions, the audience has to agree with the entire series of nested assumptions they’re making in order for the argument to work. Even more than presuppositional arguments that just assume that it’s all true to make obfuscated, scholarly arguments to argue themselves into a god, the wishful apologists assume dozens of facts about the supernatural and about society–while ignoring vast swathes of easily-available information and and easily-obtained data–to make their own arguments sound persuasive. And it can sound quite lovely, their vision for what the world would look like if Christianity were true and if it actually did for believers what most Christians think it does, and even moreso their vision of this unified, properly-understood Christianity that totally makes everything perfect.

A pity it just isn’t true.

Signs of a wishful apologist:

* Phrases like “objective morality” and “post-Modernism.”

* Claims that Christian societies are more functional or that rejecting Christianity leads to crime or dysfunction.

* Excessive rumination about what a post-Christian society would look like, especially if there’s some Tribulation-style fantasizing going on.

* Speaking over non-believers’ experiences by claiming they all secretly believe in Jesus if they’re decent people. (It’s the Bizarro No-True-Scotsman; you’re a Christian whether you like it or not, if you are a good person.)

* Claims that the Bible is very easily understood and put into practice.

* An insistence on there being some very clearly-understood, accessible version of Christianity that is universal, Biblically sound, and morally tenable.

* A certain amount of ignorance about what human beings are actually like–in or out of Christianity.

* A blithely insulting view of non-Christians.

The second someone points out that Christians can be terrible just as non-Christians can be wonderful, the argument falls apart and now the apologist has to account for why that might be–in the doing making another series of assumptions and ignoring yet more information and data. But that’s not the only way to defuse this type of argument.

Some questions you might ask about a wishful argument:

* Exactly what parts of this claim can be tested and observed to be true?

* Exactly what happens if this claim is or isn’t true?

* What is the falsification of this claim and how does that pan out?

* Do people really act like that?

As you can tell, a lot of this wishfulness happens in the course of creating an “argument from consequences,” which is a fancy way of saying that Christians are arguing about what would happen if their claim were true or untrue rather than actually demonstrating whether or not the claim itself is true.

Ultimately, our task as humans is to do what we can with the information we’ve got. Even if that information makes the universe seem a little scarier, wishing it was different doesn’t make it so. If there isn’t a Universal Law-Giver, as Christians imagine their god to be, then it’s on us as people to try to figure out how to get along and how to get what we want out of life while stepping on as few people as possible. It might not be quite as glamorous as having a god loftily handing down laws and precepts, but it does save us the trouble of having to spend books upon books upon books, and centuries after centuries after centuries, trying to bash an ancient book of mythology into a half-assed guide to life in the modern age. We can cut straight to the chase as we work out a morality that works for our society and advances us in knowledge, compassion, and justice without wasting that time and effort.

Next time we’re going to look at more of these “arguments from X” apologetics attempts–hope you’ll join me!

Tangentially Related:

* “Red Jacket on the Religion of the White Man and the Red”: a Native American punctures the balloon of idealized Christianity presented to his council by an aspiring missionary. No punches pulled, but amazingly diplomatic as the speaker outlines why he rejects Christianity.

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