A long time ago we talked about apologetics in general and the various styles of arguments Christians like to use to try to persuade people to join and remain members of their religion. We’re going to be closely examining one of those apologetics attempts in the days to come. Today we’re starting off with a refresher course on Arguments from X, since that’s the gist of the particular attempt we’ll be working with. Here’s what they are, how they work, and why they fail. Learn this concept, and you’re halfway done with defending yourself against most homegrown and professional apologists. So strap in and do not taunt Happy Fun Ball!
(The full paper is 75 pages long and can be accessed at this link, if you want to read along for next time! Also, quotes come from their respective original sources.)
The Failure of Apologetics.
I remember being downright shocked the first time I realized that I’d never once successfully used an apologetics argument to sway anybody to Christianity.
Apologists typically claim huge numbers of conversions and improbably high success rates for the books and videos they peddle to Christians, and sometimes you hear a Christian saying that some apologetics book or other tipped them over the edge into belief. It’s not surprising at all to think that Christians themselves put great store by their very own cottage industry.
But in actual lived reality, none of it helped me a whole lot! I literally didn’t convert a single person in my entire time in the religion!
Worse, when I used the popular apologetics arguments of my day–like the one many Christians use to reconcile the contradictions in the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Argument from the Blind Men and the Elephant–I only drove my prospects further away from conversions. Just as Christians discover nowadays, I discovered then that the dazzling promises made by apologists never survived encounters with reality.
This disconnect is the result of one of apologetics’ greatest conceits–and its worst failure.
Selling Nothing At All.
Apologetics, as a field, exists to try to reconcile Christian fantasies with reality.
It does that through a tactic that salespeople have known about since time immemorial: if a consumer doesn’t have any reason to buy something, then the salesperson must spin air into fluff into reasons to buy and cherish that thing.
But Don Draper had one major advantage over evangelists: he was selling stuff that actually existed. He might have had to reach very far to find a compelling reason for someone to buy something he was advertising, but at least at the end of the day no characters on that show had to wonder if Lucky Strikes–or Jaguar cars–or Kodak Carousels–or movies–or securities–or cancer charities–were even real.
Nobody can say the same thing about what apologists are selling. Imagine being told that a brightly-labeled box contains a certain product, but if we open the box we discover that it’s completely empty.
Christians might sanctimoniously tout the superiority of blind faith over rationally-derived trust in an idea, but they are like anybody else in the modern world. They don’t want to feel like they believe nonsense for no good reason, or worse yet that their brightly-labeled boxes are empty. In fact, the more analytical and logical the Christian thinks he or she is, the more important it becomes to that Christian to have good reasons to believe.
Evangelism-minded Christians also figure out very quickly that blind faith might be well and good for believers, but non-believers need actual reasons to buy into their ideology. What these Christians are usually seeking are sales and marketing tips that they think will help them succeed with their chosen mission field.1
Apologetics fulfills both of these needs.
Through the magic pixie dust of apologetics, Christian salespeople try to create arguments that they think illustrate the existence of their god and the validity of their various claims–without having any real, observable evidence they can show their sales prospects.
Arguments Aren’t Evidence.
It’s the most hilarious thing ever.
If any real-world observable evidence existed to bolster Christian claims, Christians wouldn’t need apologetics. Do we need people to go around to persuade others that the sun exists? Or that there’s a formula we can use to calculate a circle’s circumference that’s consistent and reliable?
No, we sure don’t!
That’s only one difference between apologetics and science. Apologists aren’t doing any new research; they’re not discovering anything we didn’t know before about our universe or ourselves. They’re just chewing old soup forever, studying ancient texts and finding different phrasing to warp old news into newsflashes.
That’s why skeptics sometimes mock woo-peddlers of all sorts by calling their shop-worn arguments PRATTs: Points Refuted a Thousand Times. That’s what it feels like: oh JFC, not this idiocy again. We start feeling like we can anticipate every single thing these snake-oil salespeople say like we’re Tom Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow, able to dodge all manner of incoming blows because we’ve simply encountered them so many times.
Sure, we might be surprised by an apologist’s exact approach–or even dismayed to see that we need to lower our estimation of Christians just a little further. But what we won’t be is shocked by some revelation about Christianity itself. We’re not going to hear some super-compelling actual reason to believe. Christians have had almost 2000 years to figure something like that out, and if they’d managed the trick in all that time we’d have heard about it already.
All Christians have, literally, is strings of words–childishly simplistic or fiendishly convoluted, but just words all the same–meant to trick others into thinking that their god really exists.
Next time you find yourself at a bookstore, especially a really big one, go look at their apologetics bookshelf. Think to yourself:
Every single one of those books is just words, words, words trying to spin nothing into something. Not a single one of them contains any real reason to believe in Christianity.
Staggering, isn’t it? And of all of the words, words, words that Christians try to spin into real evidence, none are as vacuous, as sketchy, and as easily debunked as the Argument from X.
Arguments from X, Generally.
The Argument from X is one of the best-loved of all Christian apologetics fallacies. Certainly it’s one of the most common. Generally speaking, here’s how it goes:
Premise 1: Here’s a situation or idea.
Premise 2: This situation or idea could only happen if my supernatural claims were true.
Conclusion: Therefore, Christianity’s claims are based on reality.
The Argument from X falls into the category of informal fallacies, which means that one or more of its premises aren’t true. The X in the fallacy name just indicates what that first premise is going to involve. For example, an Argument from Beauty goes like this:
P1: Here’s a beautiful thing.
P2: This beautiful thing could only exist if my god had created it.
C: Therefore, my god exists.
And here’s another very popular one, the Argument from Embarrassment:
P1: Some details in the Gospels sound like they’d have been really embarrassing for the earliest Christians to acknowledge.
P2: The Gospel writers would never have recorded embarrassing details about their founder and earliest members!
C: Therefore, the Gospels are accurate accounts of the life of Jesus.
Where Arguments From X Fail.
When I was Christian, I thought of these numerous arguments as inferring the existence and nature of my god in much the same way as we might infer the presence and direction of the wind by looking at a weathervane. (Indeed, there is actually a sort of Argument from Weathervane, if you were wondering. Charles Spurgeon was probably very proud of that one.)
But these arguments suffer from some very serious flaws.
The premises of these arguments are obviously a big issue, but the fail doesn’t end there. Christians want to use these arguments as a sort of backwards way of inferring the existence of their god, but they’re leaving out a staggering number of steps–all of which must be demonstrated!–before anybody rational could accept that conclusion.
That sunset, or that weathervane’s shift, or that baby’s smile, or our love for our families, or our desire to see justice done, all of it must lead exactly and precisely to this one place. It can’t lead anywhere else. Loki couldn’t have come up with water slides. Kali couldn’t have invented orgasms. Bast couldn’t have bamfed cats into existence. Nope, the X in the argument must come entirely from the Christian god and nowhere else.
Moreover, the Christian reciting these arguments–because almost all of them are learned rote from some apologist somewhere–expects their sales prospect to be led directly to whatever flavor of Christianity the would-be evangelist prefers. Indeed, yes, I’ve heard of Christians who successfully closed a sale, only to see their new recruit heading off into the arms of the entirely-wrong denomination! Oops!
How to Defuse an Argument From X.
The first step in defusing an Argument from X is critically examining the premises.
For example, if the Christian is attempting an Argument from Beauty, it might help to remember that this world may contain a lot of beautiful things, but it also contains a great many disgusting things. Apologists tend to forget that fact in their rush to claim that beauty is some kind of PROOF YES PROOF of Christianity.
Further, people’s notions of beauty might in large part simply reflect eons of evolution. And those notions change, often dramatically–even within a single decade and over just a few miles, or just from person to person.
Second, remember that the conclusion in the argument is always going to be pure conjecture–and it will not follow the premises at all. Would-be apologists simply don’t have any legitimate way to get from Point A to Point B.
Any religious person can assert any god in their conclusion, even one like Russell’s Teapot or the Giant Pink Invisible Unicorn (Blessed Be His Holy Mane). I even nicknamed this problem “The Unicorn Test” a while ago, suggesting that people see if one god’s name can be plastered in just as easily as another one. Congratulations, I’ve told apologists in the past. You just proved that Harry Potter exists.
Also: No, They Are Not Like Weathervanes.
The most damning aspect of Arguments from X might well be that they are not like weathervanes at all.
I’ve often heard Christians say that their god is like the wind and must be detected indirectly, and as I’ve mentioned I thought of it that way too once. Argument construction is one of the ways they try to detect him and show his reality to others.
This is simply a false comparison.
We know that wind exists without having to look at a weathervane. Anybody who’s ever been outside has felt the very tangible sensation of wind on their skin and in their hair. We can reliably measure the force of it and measure what gases make it up. We can create predictive models that show us where it comes from and where it goes–and more importantly why it does what it does. We can even create wind ourselves by blowing air through our mouths (or other orifices).
Like a lot of other things that human beings can’t perceive with their eyes, the wind actually possesses a great many properties that can be reliably and consistently measured. And it’s a good thing too, because we use that knowledge to save thousands of lives (if not millions) from wind-based natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes.
Gang, we found out all of this stuff out through the scientific method.
Weirdly, however, the scientific method has never revealed any supernatural stuff of any kind to be real.
If the Christian god was real and really acted upon this world in tangible ways, then apologetics itself would not exist. It wouldn’t need to exist. People would just measure the actual phenomenon they were asserting, whatever it was. They wouldn’t need to make up arguments to bamboozle people into thinking the phenomenon was real. In fact, anybody could make predictive hypotheses about the Christian god, test those predictions, and refine them. We’d be able to replicate those results and branch off of them to create more hypotheses. We’d always have new information to work with, too: new observations, new measurements, new answers, and most of all new questions sparked by the answers we’d already gotten.
That’s all stuff that comes with real things.
When something’s fake, that’s when an idea needs apologetics.
NEXT UP, we’re going to dive into Lydia McGrew’s particular Argument from X. I hope you’ll join me!
1 “Mission field” is Christianese for “the place a particular Christian is trying hardest to make sales.” A mission field can be an actual mission field and the particular Christian can be an actual long- or short-term missionary, but often the phrase is used by Christians to mean an online forum they frequent, or their workplace, or anywhere else that they’ve focused on trying to make sales of their ideology to others. They think that “Jesus” has told them (through prayer) to evangelize in these areas. See also: “having a burden for something,” used by Christians to indicate a particular area of evangelism interest that they think was handed to them by “Jesus.”
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