Has Christian Apologetics Failed?

Has Christian Apologetics Failed? March 2, 2019

In the past year, I have been writing extensively about the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and what the Church can take away from it. As I and friends of mine have observed, Peterson’s rise has been sparking a surprising and heartening renewal of interest in spiritual things generally and Christianity specifically. Pastors all around the world have reported that people, young men in particular, are literally wandering into their churches for the first time at a shockingly accelerated rate. By any standard, this is good news for Christians. But it’s sparked a certain amount of reflection, some of which I summed up in my last post on the topic, “5 Lessons Jordan Peterson Has Taught the Church.” Today, I want to look at one specific sub-question that Peterson’s rise has induced in some of my discussion circles: Has Christian apologetics failed?

To imitate Peterson’s signature style of question-answering, it depends on what you mean by “apologetics.” And it depends on what you mean by “failed.”

Because “Christian apologetics” is not a monolith, it’s important to make some distinctions when answering this question. Are we talking about Ray Comfort, Sye Ten Bruggencate, and Ken Ham? Or are we talking about William Lane Craig, John Lennox, or Ravi Zacharias? Are we talking about young earth and global flood apologetics, or arguments for the resurrection and the reliability of the gospels? Are we talking about general arguments for theism? Are we talking in broad outline about any attempt to “reason one’s way to God” within what some might pejoratively call a “modernist frame?” It’s not my intent to do a deep dive into all the various and sundry “apologetics cottage industries” here. My point is simply that context matters, and the answer to our main question will vary depending on which context we choose.

Before we decide if apologetics of any stripe has failed, we need to establish what it means to “succeed.” In light of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, people seem to be defining “success” as “inducing an openness to Christianity among atheists.” This is a familiar metric, especially for evangelicals. It gives us an understandable adrenaline rush to see people knocking on the Church’s door rather than vice versa. We want to look out and see our pews full of visitors. We want to hold campus events and “pull them in.” We want long lines of people waiting to ask questions.

It is very tempting to deem pulling in people from the out-group the gold standard by which a thing’s “success” is measured. For years, people have tended to view apologetics as primarily Christians trying to keep each other within the in-group—hence, by this metric, a failure. But setting aside for the moment whether this is actually an accurate description of the apologetics movement, I don’t buy this metric. Because I actually happen to think Christianity is true and rational, I regard maintaining stasis within the Church as a worthy goal in and of itself.

This metric is statistically sloppy as well. Counting the noses of former Sam Harris fanboys who have made a full conversion to evangelical Christianity won’t take into account the many people who would have left the church if it weren’t for apologetics. The reality on the ground is far more complicated than “Christians sitting around agreeing with each other.” Plenty of people inside the church, especially young people, have been on the bubble between faith and no faith as they work through concrete doubts. I have seen it multiple times even just in the small sample size of churches in my small hometown. The myth persists that all Christian kids are perfectly fine until college, whereupon the atheist professor from God’s Not Dead shatters their faith and they come home an atheist. But in my experience, signs of trouble tend to manifest much sooner. It’s just that they are often not properly attended to until it’s too late. More on this anon.

Turning now to the question of how many people apologetics has pulled in from the out-group, it would also be hasty to say apologetics has been a failure here. It’s true that, culturally speaking, we haven’t seen a dramatic Great Awakening of people flooding into churches because they watched William Lane Craig spank Christopher Hitchens on YouTube and saw the light. It’s true that apologetics has never catalyzed a clearly definable “hot spot” of renewed interest in church and Christianity on the scale of what we are currently observing with the Jordan Peterson phenomenon.

But just as it would be a grave statistical error to say that “pro-life Christians don’t care about babies after they’re born” just because the many pro-life Christians who do aren’t constantly tweeting about it, it would be a grave statistical error to say that “apologetics never converted anybody” just because contravening data isn’t making it into large social surveys. This is particularly true when we factor in the quiet, unsung work of “one-dollar apologists,” not just the big names everyone recognizes. I know for a fact that these conversations are constantly taking place on Skype, on email, in private message, and in private offices, and that they are bearing fruit. Often, they are bearing fruit with people who grew up in the church, left, and are only now getting the answers they never got before to their questions. Some of them are pastors’ kids.

This is not the stuff of which eye-catching op-eds and splashy pieces of investigative journalism are made. It is, to a great extent, an underground phenomenon. But it is no less real for being less visible. For that reason, it is imperative that people pause before making sweeping, unqualified statements like “Apologetics has failed,” or “Apologetics doesn’t work.”

Better: “Apologetics doesn’t work, according to my limited anecdotal experience, although of course I and/or my interlocutors could be wrong.”

Or, “Apologetics doesn’t work, because I personally am not sure how to answer certain objections, although it is entirely possible that my judgment is poor and my investigation has been sloppy.”

Or, “Apologetics doesn’t work, from within my particular frame for faith, although admittedly I do not prioritize evidential questions and thus haven’t thought about any of this very much.”

Or, “Apologetics doesn’t work, because something-something narrowly propositional Enlightenment rationalism, although admittedly I just got that from a book, whose author got it from another book, whose author got it from Alister McGrath, so maybe history of ideas by meme isn’t the best way to do history of ideas.

Sorry, I let my snark get the best of me on that last one, but you get the idea. Such qualifying statements, open to correction and open to learning more, would help enormously in the furthering of fruitful in-house dialogue about these questions.

All of that being said, there are still people, some of whom walked away from the Church and are now fans of Jordan Peterson, who will say “William Lane Craig didn’t do it for me.” Craig is not necessarily my personal favorite Christian apologist (don’t @ me), nevertheless he is the name I tend to see most cited as the “poster boy” for Christian apologetics writ large, most likely because he has debated so many New Atheists. And he is a formidable debater, no question. But not everyone has walked away convinced. Why not?

First, let’s be honest: It’s ridiculously easy to generate a long list of objections to Christianity. The phrase “ridiculously easy” is carefully chosen. It takes ignorance ten seconds to ask a question that requires careful scholarship ten pages to answer carefully. Some will automatically take such thoroughness as a sign that the lady doth protest too much. Of course, a brief response will be waved away as embarrassingly insufficient. For some skeptics, this truly is a “heads I win, tails you lose” affair.

Those of us who are familiar with such tactics from long experience have learned to recognize them for what they are and give them little serious attention. Unfortunately, not everyone has, and this is where the trouble begins. The sheer amount of ink spilled on the skeptical side of the topic, some of it by people with an alphabet soup of letters after their name, can catch a wavering young person like a deer in the headlights. The fact that apologists like Craig deliberately adopt a “minimalist” approach doesn’t always aid matters here. Skeptical sophists like Bart Ehrman require a broader set of tools than many apologists have in their toolkit to refute fully. (For that reason, I regard Ehrman as a more serious threat than the likes of Sam Harris. Fortunately, there are more than ample resources against his particular brand of academic sleaze, most recently and notably Peter Williams’ little gem Can We Trust the Gospels?)

At that point, there are a couple familiar scenarios that tend to unfold. The first scenario, which a number of apologists rightly lament, is when this young person actually brings his questions to an authority figure in his church and receives no answers, or insufficient answers. Perhaps the church subscribes to a fideist strain of thought that distrusts questions. Perhaps the people in his church would like to help but are as stymied as he is and unsure where to look for answers. Perhaps they sincerely believe his problems are nothing that an increased dose of prayer and Bible reading won’t cure.

The second scenario, which doesn’t make as good fodder for apologetics presentations but is an equally painful reality, is when resources and people with answers are actually very ready to hand, but the de-convert in progress simply doesn’t avail himself of them. Maybe when he asks his pastor “Since evolution is a fact, what have you got for me?” and the pastor says “I don’t accept the premise, but can we still talk?” he says, “Oh. Never mind,” with no further questions asked. Maybe he gets the idee fixe that as long as somebody, somewhere, can think of some objection to raise to whatever even his best-informed friends provide him, he must remain permanently agnostic. Or maybe he is just embarrassed to ask anyone and foolishly decides to fly by the seat of his pants.

This is to say nothing of the possibility which can never be assumed out of hand, but still is an unfortunate reality, namely that intellectual doubts are increasingly accompanied by an erosion of sound thought on sexual ethics. Sometimes, this erosion comes with a deeply personal price tag. When these things are all braided together, it’s small wonder that the line for the Uncomfortable Truths booth is so short.

All of this information must be kept in our minds as we consider the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. We must recognize the fact that the vast majority of his audience wrote orthodox Christianity off long ago, many of them by way of one of the two scenarios sketched above. But it’s not William Lane Craig’s fault that there are people who lost their faith after trying unsuccessfully to hang it on William Lane Craig. If you are reading this, and you are one of those people, then hear me well: A celebrity apologist on YouTube is no substitute for a friend who will meet for coffee once a week to talk about your doubts. William Lane Craig cannot answer all of your questions, not only because he does not know all the answers, but because he does not know youIf you trawl through some two-hour Christian versus atheist debates and still feel yourself drifting, don’t keep trying to fly solo. Complicated questions are not best settled in two-hour debates, and doubts are not best wrestled with alone. They are best discussed in community, even if it’s only a community of two.

Jordan Peterson has gifts William Lane Craig does not have. He does things William Lane Craig cannot do. And he does it all while not being a Christian, which disproportionately tilts ears in his direction right out of the gate. But this need not motivate a wringing of hands or a feverish reevaluation of our game plan, because apologetics was never about having a “game plan.” It was about illuminating a path. It was about letting people know that God has not left Himself without witness. It was about making resources and answers available for whoever wanted to access them, whenever they were ready. But not everybody is ready. Some people need a push. When they won’t listen to their mom, they’ll listen to the teacher who sits them down and tells them to clean their room. When they won’t listen to the Christian apologist or the pastor, they’ll listen to the psychology professor who says, “No, but really. You should read your Bible.”

Let me close with a true story. A while back, I saw a Peterson fan on Twitter saying that he had converted to Christianity in no small measure with Peterson’s help. I was intrigued, so I asked if he would be willing to share his story with me. He did, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say it was one of the most heartening things I’d read all year. His journey was the kind of journey I wish for every fan of Peterson. Here’s how it goes.

This young man (whose name he hasn’t shared publicly, so for his privacy I’ll call him Jay), shared that he was raised in a religious home, attended private Christian school and considered himself a Christian until age 20. In college, he drifted away after the rational foundations of his faith were eroded by the usual suspects—higher criticism, attacks on the Old Testament legal code, trouble with doctrines like original sin and eternal conscious torment for the damned, etc.

All of this was happening at the same time that Jay’s father was dying of cancer.

After stumbling through this “painful and bewildering” process and emerging an atheist, he quickly began reading Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Richard Carrier. He prided himself on his newly minted commitment to Reason and Logic (TM). While honing his skills as an angry, gleefully vindictive Internet atheist, he was secretly spiraling into depression, which would later develop into a multi-substance addiction. He began to wonder if perhaps there was a God after all—a cruel, evil God who delighted in causing people pain.

But when Jay encountered Peterson, his atheistic arrogance was brought up short. Peterson’s sharp words of tough love about confronting the ugliness within your own heart and setting your house in perfect order convicted him. He looked inside himself and no longer liked what he saw. He began to listen to his conscience. He saw himself in the Cain and Abel story. He saw that he was Cain.

One moment in particular was a watershed: a clip on YouTube labeled “Jordan Peterson–His Finest Moment,” where a very raw, disheveled, sleep-deprived Peterson fairly shouts his Stoic philosophy into the camera. “Pick up your cross, and bear it!” Deep inside, something broke in Jay. Without knowing why, he began to cry. As he put it to me, that was when he began walking down the path “that would lead to the cross.”

Things were looking up, but something still seemed like it was missing. Jay no longer lived his life with bitterness and resentment, but there was a need that was still unmet. Peterson told him to pick up his own cross, but could he really save himself? He still struggled with a chemical dependence that felt beyond his control. It was around this time that he found Peterson’s appearance with William Lane Craig, in a dialogue titled “Is there meaning to life?” He had written Craig off before (“mostly because he was a Christian fundamentalist who soundly defeated every secular opponent he faced, which was pretty annoying”), but now he listened with fresh ears. Craig’s comments didn’t have Peterson’s drive and unpolished passion, but they made sense. They felt grounded.

Another stepping stone on the journey was the work of my friend Paul VanderKlay, whose YouTube channel I’ve highlighted before. Paul was a Christian who was willing to dig deeply into Peterson’s work on its own terms and unpack the layers behind it without wrapping up all his videos with a five-part gospel presentation. He enjoyed playing with ideas for their own sake. He was willing to learn from Peterson, not just rush to fill in the gaps—although he gently pointed out the gaps where they existed. (You can watch an informal conversation between Paul and Peterson himself hereIn this video, Paul analyzes William Lane Craig versus Jordan Peterson’s approach.)

Finally, one night, overcome with the weight of his sin and poor choices, Jay turned to the one option he hadn’t tried yet: prayer. He couldn’t seem to pull himself out of the pit. But maybe God could. That night, he put his daughter to bed and lay down next to her. With no pills or alcohol, he fell asleep—deeply, fully, easily.

It has been four months since he wrote me. To my knowledge, he is still sober. He tries to read the Bible and pray daily, treating it like an exercise regimen. He is still asking questions, and he still doesn’t have all the answers. But he knows which way to walk. And he has taken for his prayer a line from C.T. Studd (misattributed by some to C. S. Lewis): “That when I die, all hell rejoices that I am out of the fight.”

This is Jay’s story. It gives me joy whenever I think about it. Hopefully it gives you joy too. And hopefully it helps to answer the question we began with. Has apologetics failed? To ask such a question is to make apologetics into something it is not. Who can trace the path of an individual soul? Who can predict the twists and curves, the kind strangers and helpful guides who might point the way forward? Who can predict the prophets who might emerge, gaunt with fasting, haggard with pain, crying “Woe! Woe!” Who can predict the moment when long-buried longing begins to stir? Who can predict when the dam will break, and the tears come flooding? Who can predict when the old, familiar voice will come through at last, calling “Come home! Come home!”

None can know. None can measure. None but God. Into His hands, let us commit our spirits.

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  • Maltnothops

    I’m curious why this essay omitted any mention of non-Christian believers. There are many more of them than there are atheists. How is Christian apologetics doing at winning converts from other religions?

  • @EstherOReilly

    I left them out of this particular article because atheists have formed the overwhelmingly largest group in the particular phenomenon I’m observing in Jordan Peterson’s wake. To my knowledge he hasn’t been inspiring an influx of Mormon or Muslim-to-Christian conversions. Of course that’s an interesting topic for someone else to explore. I recommend Rob Bowman on witnessing to Mormons, and Abdu Murray on witnessing to Muslims.

  • Maltnothops

    II appreciate the reply although I’m a tad confused by your use of Mormons as an example of non-Christian. I haven’t watched any Peterson so can’t comment on him. I thought you were addressing Christian apologetics generally.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Mormons are not Christian, although some deep confusion persists among their own ranks on this point, perpetuated by their leaders.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    I find it interesting that you would recommend to non-believers that they sit down with a Christian friend over coffee to address their doubts rather than carry them into a WLC debate looking for resolution… as if that’s a live option for most non-believers in this day and age. It’s a nice thought (and I agree with you that it’s the best approach) but it’s just not one the Christian community meaningfully affords to non-believers. I’ve been “flying solo” myself for 15 years. It’s not something I chose; It’s something I’ve come to embrace, it having been chosen for me.

    Peterson’s message isn’t designed to be just for believers, which is what differentiates him from the average apologist. He also doesn’t constrain the Christian message (when spreads Christian messages) to an apologetic methodology that effectively alienates the philosophically or scientifically educated. He gives people something to think about, and then trusts them to think about it.

    It’s curious (though unsurprising) that one of the greatest voices for Christianity, today, is someone who is probably not a Christian – and while it’s nice that Peterson is driving so many non-believer-seekers into the churches, I suspect many of them will quickly figure out that the church just doesn’t take Christianity as seriously as Jordan Peterson does, and will soon find themselves back on the streets, engaging with Christianity alone…again.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I was more picturing someone who is already in a church but is “on the bubble,” in my phrase. You are right that it’s more socially difficult for someone who’s a complete outsider. I’m also sensitive to the problem of churches where nobody makes himself available for that kind of conversation. In my experience from hearing people’s stories it just varies–no one size fits all. I’m sorry to hear that nobody was that person for you.

    I don’t consider someone like William Lane Craig to be alienating to the philosophically or scientifically educated. Craig himself is a formidable and very rigorous philosopher. I find that people who think they’ve “refuted” him don’t actually understand his arguments. I don’t always agree with him myself but his work is of a high caliber.

    Definitely think it’s a wild overstatement to say “the church doesn’t take Christianity as seriously as Jordan Peterson does.” Multiple misunderstandings and hasty generalizations packed into a comment like that.

  • Maltnothops

    I suppose this is a matter of definition. I use a very forgiving definition of Christianity. People who think Jesus is a god are Christian. People who don’t, aren’t. I know some folks think believing in Jesus is necessary but not sufficient and I guess you’re in that camp.

  • Bryan Crompton

    I think this is a good assessment and well written piece. The Christian’s command is to love the Lord with all their heart, all their soul, all their strength, and all their mind. The way I view WLC is as someone who tries to remove the perceived barrier of intellectual inferiority many non-Christians see. But WLC doesn’t attempt to win the hearts of people to Christianity, at least not directly. JBP has the passion and charisma to convince someone to give their heart to a cause. He does in this in a way that is grounded in the reality of human suffering and human sin. The hope is the many hearts touched by JBP will find their way to giving themsleves to God.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Well said. WLC is a philosopher, not a preacher. Peterson has the preacher’s touch without the preacher’s faith.

  • kyuss

    i find this interesting. who decided that mormons weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS? you?

  • Richard Elliott II

    Am so glad I read this. I agree with so many of the thoughts laid down here. YouTube really is no substitute for a friend, and for a young person ( or old) flying solo ain’t optimal. Somewhere in the Bible it says, it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. 🙂 When I was young that should have been enuf to get my attention. :). But it wasn’t. We seem to know so much today about what makes people tick. Figure things out. As a boy, when someone would explain religion or Jesus to me it was in this vein: figure things out, see what makes you tick. Made it easy to walk away; go read somethin sexy like Sartre or Hegel or Heidegger (I’m blushing). The metaphor “figure you out” is apropos for it’s literal effect.

    Listening to Peterson back in 2016 performed the same function as listening and talking to John Bradshaw in the early 80s: it helped me order my perceptions and my thoughts again. I didn’t agree ( or maybe understand) much of the content, but their presentations were logical, coherent, made sense. In the case of Bradshaw I was able to unify enuf of my fragmented thinking to make the next step spiritually. I guess it helped that we were already at a church and Bradshaw, at that time, considered his presentations to be Christian outreach. I miss that dude.

    I’m still not a fan of profession apologists, the ones I’ve heard online. Too much of a “locked box”. But I really enjoyed this article. It reflects what I am beginning to realize each and every day: stereotypes suck; people are precious ( even the bullies ) ; Jesus died for everybody. I’m glad I was able to climb off my high horse years ago.

  • Chris Brooks

    Good piece. If I may, I think I’d sum up some of your thoughts as

    If Christian apologetics has failed, it’s because we’ve treated it as a special calling rather than a spiritual discipline.

    And, yes, we can probably learn a little from Jordan Peterson. The overly polished look can be taken as “thinking you’ve got all the answers” which turns people off. That said, Bill Craig does this for a living, and he probably does have the answers if people will just listen.

  • Chris Brooks

    A bunch of us got together and worked out what was necessary to be a “Christian” about 1500 years ago. We call it the Nicene Creed. If you can’t agree to that (without redefining the terms), you’re not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

  • Brian K

    “intellectual doubts are increasingly accompanied by an erosion of sound thought on sexual ethics”

    And we’re done. Impugn my motives and I have zero more time for you.

  • Maltnothops

    Yeah, I know. Someone who accepts every clause of the Nicene Creed except for “begotten, not made” (for whatever reason, he or she is on the “made, not begotten” side) isn’t a Christian in any meaningful way. I’m familiar with that argument. Not persuaded by it though.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    It’s definitely a generalization, but I don’t think it’s a hasty one. I certainly arrive at that position hastily. Quite the opposite in fact. But, as regards this post, the real question is whether the people who the church (and apologetics) have failed will consider it a hasty generalization. Is it to be assumed that the those who’ve been spiritually-inspired by Peterson and come staggering into the church after a decade of absence hoping to find an instantiation of raw, uncomfortable, unsafe, authentic, Theologically-informed, existentially-engaged Christian spirituality…will all of a sudden find it? Has the church something to learn from Peterson, or hasn’t it?

    Craig has done formidable, rigorous philosophy in a couple of narrow areas of speciality (Natural Theology, and to a lesser extent the metaphysics of temporality for example). But, that’s beside the point of my claim that the apologetic methodology effectively alienates the philosophically and scientifically educated…and Craig’s apologetics is no exception. Apologetics has more in common with rhetoric than Philosophy – and Craig is one of the finest rhetoricians of our day. You don’t get much philosophical rigor when Craig is acting in his capacity as an apologist. It’s certainly not Craig who is inspiring non-believers, in droves, to deep, spiritual engagement.

    By the way, the people who “don’t actually understand [Craig’s] arguments” are largely not the philosophically-educated. He does often employ philosophical concepts and terminology in decidedly non-standard ways, which take an extra beat to adjust to, but they’re not particularly complicated (to such an audience that is).

    Craig is also, it should be mentioned, not a very representative case in a certain sense, as he is one of the few folks who is primarily known for their work in apologetics who also has a formal philosophical education.

  • @EstherOReilly

    It’s definitely, we could say, an inaccurate generalization, for a few reasons. First, “the church” isn’t a monolith. Are there significant pockets of the church that traffic in shallow spirituality? Yes, that’s true. I addressed that and subtler problems in the piece I linked in the beginning. I do think Peterson offers some valuable take-homes even for pastors and churches whose heart is in the right place. However, there are still plenty of individual churches across multiple denominations where the faith is taken seriously and practiced deeply. Further, since Peterson himself makes a number of crucial misreads when he approaches the Christian gospel, in that sense he can’t be said to take Christianity more seriously than a sincerely devout Christian since he doesn’t (yet) even have a good grasp of what it actually means. The fact that someone could have the gospel mechanically memorized while not putting it into practice isn’t the point. The point is that a fully integrated Christian, so to speak, necessarily has a much deeper and fuller grasp of Christianity than Peterson does as a self-admitted newb.

    As I agreed above, Peterson has the inspirational preacher’s approach that someone like Craig lacks, which is why he’s been such a complementary help, in a sense. It would be nice if we had more figures within the Church who could bring that combination of learnedness with emotional intelligence, but such figures are very rare. I’m no preacher but I do strive to connect prose and passion to the extent that I can in my own capacity as a writer and an academic.

    I suppose we disagree that Craig is sloppy or un-rigorous when acting in his capacity as an apologist. It’s possible that we are working with different possible meanings of the word “apologetics.” As I understand the term, it is very much a substantial term. It refers to the presentation of the cumulative body of evidence that points to Christianity. Good rhetoric is a tool that can enhance this, but the focus is on the arguments, and I believe the arguments are decisive in the final analysis. Obviously you disagree, but I do believe that a thorough investigation of the evidence should lead the fully open-minded individual to conclude that Christianity is true. This does, admittedly, rub people the wrong way who feel they’ve paid their dues here and don’t like to be told that they’ve missed a spot (or many spots). It’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s simply true. All I can say is re-open your mind and look again.

  • Jon Altman

    Apologetics is a completely useless discipline. No one who was not already inclined to believe what the apologist argues has changed his mind as a result of the argument.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    Until these Christians can prove god exists & that the Bible story of Christ is true, any apologetics they engage in is moot.

  • people seem to be defining “success” as “inducing an openness to Christianity among atheists.”

    You do touch on this later, but I would say that the main purpose of apologetics is to pat Christians on the head and assure them they’ve backed the right horse.

  • Richard Elliott II

    Why would anyone feel inclined to believe in a god, much less a personal savior?

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    Are you asking me to re-open my mind to the arguments for Christianity, or to re-open my mind to apologetics? Because I am deeply and actively engaged in the study of Christian Philosophy, and the arguments for the truth of Christianity. You don’t know me, but if you did, you’d know that this is the water I swim in. I’m definitely not the person who thinks they’ve “paid their dues” and is free to move on. I have an ongoing relationship with this religion. My disagreements with Christianity (the ones that matter anyway) are subtle, radically complicated, and not even on the radar of the average apologist (let alone the average Christian). It’s me, alone, butting heads with folks like Kierkegaard and Tillich who actually have something meaningful to say about the place my mind is with regard to these topics.

    Definitely something of a disagreement in our conception of “apologetics”, and I have a better sense of where you’re coming from now. I understand apologetics to be – well – a description of the behavior I see among contemporary apologists… something more like “a narrow school of Christian thought consisting of a relatively standardized set of arguments, rehearsed in accordance with a rhetorical (and often polemical) methodology, the primary purpose of which is to provide, to a particular subset of Christians, a reinforcement of their views, inspire a sense that those views are justified, and (often) to foster a sense of hostility or contempt against those who don’t currently hold those view. It’s something like a public liturgy, if you boil away all the spiritual significance of liturgy.

    In any event, I agree with your clarifications about Peterson’s “newb” status. I don’t take him even to be a Christian, let alone a well-integrated one. But, I do think he takes the sort of approach to Christianity that non-believer-seekers just don’t see Christians taking to Christianity these days. I’m not actually much of a Peterson fan myself; I find his ideas interesting and enjoy listening to him speak, but I’m by no means a student of his, and (by now) have pretty much heard what he has to say and moved on. But I understand the non-believer-seeker who has been alienated from the church. That’s my life. I know what their heart beats for, and I know how “the church” has failed them. I’m also a lover of paradox (partly because I’m a lover of Kierkegaard), so, the fact that a newb and plausible heretic is forging a path to Christianity for the people whom the modern church has left behind is…poetic – not to mention a sign of the times.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Ah, well, you’re not the first to hat-tip Kierkegaard with me. I confess he does leave me underwhelmed, as does Tillich. I think I might recall some of the hesitations you’ve expressed before, and I’m sensitive to a point. I’m not the average apologist or the average Christian so I doubt you could really throw me for a loop, but I understand these things can be delicate.

    Yes, that’s definitely quite a narrow description of apologetics and not my conception at all. And even sociologically I certainly don’t sense hostility or contempt towards the out-group in the apologetics circles where I run. Frustration, sometimes, when conversations go nowhere or attempts to share one’s faith are rebuffed in a nasty or time-wasting way, but that’s not the same thing. YMMV.

    I’ve never seen Peterson as a Christian, just someone strangely obsessed with Christianity. I’m hopeful he’ll drift closer as he learns more. He has a lot of room to grow. I hope he gets back to his biblical series some day.

    Without further details, you’re right that I don’t know specifically what your beef is with “the church” or “the modern church.” Just taking a guess I’m suspecting it could overlap with questions pertaining to morality, definitions of sin, etc., in which case we would most likely have conflicting worldviews. I can’t really apologize for the Church for holding the line on those matters, since I do in fact believe that Christian orthodoxy is most conducive to human flourishing.

  • ALL BELIEFS AND WISHING ASIDE, Christian behavior is confused and self-contradictory. The Pilgrim’s Progress is off the table, and the Reformation has lost its way. Anabaptists and Russian Orthodox are the only people taking Christianity seriously, as a life-long path to conform to.

  • james warren

    The exalted, theological titles such as Lord, Son of God, virgin-born, Messiah, etc. applied to Jesus decades after the crucifixion are no longer interesting, compelling or persuadable in today’s global culture.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    If only my issues with the church boiled down to something so petty. I would hope the church has more self-awareness than to pin the disengagement crisis on the unreflective hedonism of the disengaged.

    “Beef” implies some personal grievance, which doesn’t really apply in my case. It’s more like a continuous lamentation over all the ways the church keeps, over and over again, going well out of its way to not be Christian, and how profoundly oblivious it seems to be to that fact. She’s a bit like a child to me, now grown, who has turned to drugs and abandoned the principles she was raised with. I still love her, and that’s why it hurts.

    Remember, we’re not talking about the people who left the church because they were sick of Christianity getting in their way. We’re talking about people who have been hungering for serious engagement with Christian ideas – a hunger the church just wasn’t equipped (if even willing) to sate. Peterson has bread for them. Not patronization, or legalism, or an abdication of personal responsibility, or crass pretension, or cheap, pop-theology, or sheer worldliness posing as spirituality…but bread.

    I’m pleased to hear that you’ve not found out-group hostility in the apologetic circles you run in. I hope that’s not merely because you’re not a member of the out-group.

    It also means that folks like Turek and D’Souza are decidedly not in your circle 🙂

  • Rich

    I have to agree with Bob. Apologetics seems most useful as tool to keep those in the flock motivated and passionate and to keep those in the flock, in the flock. Apologetics certainly has little impact on the hard atheists, the skeptics and those that reasoned their way out of faith. But I doubt it even has much impact on those that simply just drifted away from faith. For those folks, I agree with this article that it is the emotional appeal that has the real potential for effectiveness in bringing people back to faith. This emotional appeal can be like a nostalgic, homey essence, a longing for community/belonging, or a sense of “conviction”. Apologetics then only serves as a way to reinforce that emotional basis for coming back to faith.

  • Mushi Mage

    Peterson’s style of presentation creates a muddle of confusion which inspires the idea of possibility even when a review of what he actually presents often degenerates into incoherence. This is not to say that it doesn’t leave an strong emotional impression which is what many are acting upon.

  • Rich

    Apologetics is really smoke and mirrors. Build up enough weak evidence, it seems like a case to those that wish it to be so. As a committed believer in my youth, I thought apologetics was pretty convincing stuff. In the years after truly disengaging from the faith, I’ve reexamined many of the apologetic points and find them surprisingly unpersuasive of any god, let alone a Christian fashioned belief system. Apologetics only sounds great to those that want it to be great and are otherwise already bought in.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I actually know Turek somewhat, not that we’re close personal friends or anything. I think he’s a talented speaker, albeit his toolkit is limited. I’ve also realized he’s kind of defensive about Andy Stanley, which is disappointing. But I don’t know any reason to lump him with D’Souza, whom I rejoice to say I do not know and have never met. May God bless and keep him far away from my circles.

    Schisms over sexual morality certainly do make up at least a large chunk of the disengagement we’re observing, particularly among Gen Z, so I think it’s a legitimate question to ask even though it may not be relevant to you in particular. As far as whether “the church” is “actually” “holding the line” on Christian morality, once again this is an impossible question to answer without further specifics. In certain areas, there are certain denominations and sub-branches thereof that have been corrupted by unscrupulous individuals. Trivially true. In context I was referring simply to churches that maintain (say) the definition of marriage, or the sinfulness of same-sex activity. Such churches are indeed holding that line, at least.

    “She’s a bit like a child to me, now grown, who has turned to drugs and abandoned the principles she was raised with…” Again, I’m sure we would agree on a number of examples you would like to raise. Heresy has corrupted the mainline: check. Pop theology is bad theology: check. Prosperity gospel = false gospel: check. Reactionary support for Trump is unhealthy: check. Mega-church models are replacing small churches which is causing us to lose church community: check. But you make it sound like there’s literally no church worthy of your active engagement within driving distance. Maybe that’s true. I can’t say. Church-shopping isn’t fun. I’m just saying you come off a bit self-absorbed here. There are good individual churches out there. They exist. You might consider a Lutheran church, if that’s a denomination you haven’t explored.

  • NorrinRadd

    One thing that would rule out Mormons in the minds of most Christians (including me) is that Christians believe that Jesus is “the” God, YHWH, not “a” god.

  • Maltnothops

    You used the word “most” and Chris Brooks pointed out that only some Christians were part of the Council of Nicaea (“history is written by the victors”). As I said, I take a more forgiving view of who counts as a Christian. You choose to do otherwise.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “Build up enough weak evidence….”

    The problem they have is they don’t even present weak evidence. All they present is claims and beliefs.

  • NorrinRadd

    I don’t wish to get into a big debate on the matter, but I will offer a brief… “apology” 🙂 … for my view:

    1) I find it reasonably clear in John 8 that Jesus both self-identifies as “I AM,” and that He firmly asserts that refusal to accept this will result in dying in one’s sins.

    2) In Rom. 10, the well-know confession of Jesus as “Lord” in v. 9 occurs in close proximity to v. 13, a quote from Joel in which “Lord” unquestionably refers to YHWH.

  • Maltnothops

    In other words, someone who believes Jesus died for his or her sins but doesn’t believe it in quite the right way, gets to spend eternity in hell. Yeah, I’m familiar with the “God is a petty autocrat” argument.

  • Julian W

    Hey “Comrad”,

    I’ve read this exchange you had/are having with Esther (and some of your other comments left on other blogs) and I thought you articulated well a lot of the problems I have with apologets, but struggle to articulate. I’d be interested to hear more from you.

    I recently wrote this piece on my blog on the Kierkegaardian critique of apologetics, would you consider getting in touch there?

    All the best,

    Sorry for the interruption.


  • NorrinRadd

    Good for you. Similarly, I’m familiar with the “Anyone who claims to be a ‘Christian,’ IS a ‘Christian'” view that you seem to hold.

    I “choose” to honestly convey my convictions, which in this case are based on what I see in Scripture. If it causes offense, or leads to the conclusion that my God is not the same as someone else’s god, so be it.

  • kyuss

    Peterson’s style of presentation creates a muddle of confusion…

    Yep, he’s a master of the Gish Gallop.

  • @EstherOReilly

    This is not consistent with my experience. I could tell you a story of a guy who came back to the faith because he recognized just how compelling the evidence was, even though it eventually cost him his marriage and his family. So, not very “homey.” Following truth where it actually leads is often not.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    There you are.

    Again, fantastic post!

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    I’m actually rather partial to Lutheranism – again, Kierkegaard and Tillich. But also, my wife and in-laws are Lutheran, and the church we most regularly attend is in the ELCA family.

    In no sense am I saying that there is no church (as in, no place of Christian worship) worthy of my engagement, nor am I saying that every constituent of the global body of believers known as “the church” warrants my broad characterizations. When I talk about “the church” I mean the same thing you mean when you talk about “the Jordan Peterson phenomenon”. I’m speaking about what a take to be a series of broad trends, and the characteristics I ascribe to “the church” are always macro-level. Yes, exceptions abound.

    It is true that I don’t really expect to find resolution to any of the things I’m struggling with within the context of any church. I’m not exactly a standard case, and (frankly) it’s not the church’s job to cater to me. But “worthy of engagement” is a completely different matter. There are still many good churches out there which have something to offer even to me.

    I lump Turek in with D’Sousa only in the sense that they’re two particular good examples of people who make heavy use of polemicism and a fostering of contempt for the out-group. As apologists go, they’re otherwise quite dissimilar.

  • Maltnothops

    Your first paragraph misrepresents what I wrote. What someone “claims” is irrelevant. I focused on their actual beliefs.

    Your second paragraph is spot on. I completely agree. Other people see other stuff in the bible, speak their convictions, and, just like you, don’t fret about causing offense or having differently conceived Christian gods.

  • Maltnothops

    It is said that greed and fear explain the action of many (possibly most) investors. Both investing and religion (or its absence) are mostly about expectations of and about the future. Consequently, someone might be inclined to believe (or not) in a god from either greed or fear or both.

  • kyuss

    a better question would be: has christian apologetics ever succeeded?

  • Richard Elliott II

    ” greed or fear” Sounds like the Gordon Gekko version of man’s search for God. I don’t know how satisfying Christian life would be in a church where the ministry thought of themselves as “investment brokers for God”. Sounds cartoonish to me. Just sayin.

  • Richard Elliott II

    “Jesus died for everybody” Oh fudge, did I forget something? (Mad Cow disease)

  • HamburgerHelperAgain

    And the alt-right loves Jordan Peterson. Hmmmm

  • Dave Armstrong

    Excellent article. Thanks! Will share on my Facebook page.

  • Maltnothops

    As far as I can tell, there are people who sincerely believe in heaven (greed) and hell (fear). Those notions do seem cartoonish though.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Yay Lutheran, boo ELCA (sorry!)

    Do I perceive a fellow Fiddler On the Roof fan?

  • @EstherOReilly

    ^says person who clearly has no idea what the alt-right is actually saying about Jordan Peterson these days

  • Richard Elliott II

    It was the association of investment banking and religion that I wished to convey as cartoonish. I sincerely believe in heaven and hell. One can get a taste of either right here on this blue planet. No metaphor intended.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

  • Maltnothops

    You asked what might incline someone to believe in a god. I suggested the possibility of reward and/or a concern about harm. As those can be motivations for investors as well as believers, I think the comparison is apt.

  • Richard Elliott II

    Thanks for that correction. I am apologetic. So, instead of greed and fear, the consideration is the “possibility of reward and/or a concern about harm”. I’ll play the role of “the investor” and imagine I go up to Jesus who is visiting today and say, ” Sir, I understand you have said that to those who have — will be given more, and to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. I am a man of means and resources: I have played by the rules, been honest, ethical, and a good Republican. I believe I have qualities and connections that can be of use to you ( I’m up there in the hierarchy ). I would like to hear what I can reasonably expect from a spiritual investment with you?”. What would the possible responses that our Lord likely make? I’m sure opinions vary.

  • NorrinRadd

    I enjoyed Peterson’s conversation with Paul… but… even though he gave permission, I have some doubts about the wisdom of posting it for all to see.

  • LookielouE1707

    So people who don’t agree with you are either ignorant or sophists, (and if they really bother you they are “academic sleaze”) and you can safely dismiss these “ridiculous” people with “little serious attention”? Have you considered the possibility that the hate in your heart has rendered you a clanging cymbal, as Paul would put it, and that impedes your Christian evangelism toward anybody who’s not already the in group?

    No, I’m sure that’s not it. You’re such a loving person! As long as “tough love” is included under that umbrella, a rationalization that covers any manner of hate-filled behavior.

    If your arguments for Christianity were good enough, starter questions/objections would be softball pitches for you – you’d have killer elevator-speech rebuttals available to copy-paste for all of them. But as Einstein supposedly said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. That’s even more true of Christianity than it is of the even less-comprehensible field of relativity, because Christianity is supposed to be comprehensible to – understood by – children.

    Lacking those tools, the only option available to you is to nice people into being part of your in-group. I suggest you work on that. Or not. Feel free to go on telling yourself it’s those other people, not you, who are on the boot end of uncomfortable truths, I’m sure that’ll work well for you.

  • LookielouE1707

    Something that you “worked out” well after the formative years of the faith can be nothing more definitive than speculation. See John 3:16 for a biblical definition of what a Christian is, and Rev 22:18 for what a biblical perspective has to say about add-ons like the nicene creed. Note that the difference between John 3:16 and “anyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian” is that it does not include people who are faking their beliefs.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

  • Chris Brooks

    OK, how about “if you do not believe I am who I claim to be you will die in your sins” (John 8:24)? Mormons do not believe Jesus is the “one and only Son” but one of many. They also believe God used to be a man, that there are other gods, and that they will one day become gods — all despite what God has said. So they’re not Christians.

    Rev 22:18 does not outlaw creeds, but tampering with the words of the book of Revelation. And the Nicene Creed is nothing but a summation of what the Bible teaches. But it is the one pretty much everyone agrees on. If you don’t agree with it, you might still be able to go to heaven, but you can’t be in our club.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    Lol 🙂

    …and yep, you’ve got me pegged, i guess! Love Fiddler On the Roof.

  • What Peterson has done is speak in a language that’s not religious. Atheists, agnostics and non-religious “get it”. They agree with what he says. they pick up on his religious undertones and message. It add credibility to Christianity. That’s why Peterson is a great apologists.

  • Richard Elliott II

    One of the responses I would expect might be: “Come walk with me ; if you can make the time.”

  • Rational Human

    Ditto here. In my quarter century as a strong believer I was enamored with Ravi Zacharias as an apologist for the real thoughtful intellectual Christian. What I discovered once I took off the God goggles was he is a great orator, but devoid of original or convincing content. His talks consist mostly of quotes from other philosophers and theologians woven together and delivered in dramatic drawn out fashion, but no evidence or even a strong rational argument.

  • Rational Human

    Upbringing, culture, familial and social group pressure, threats and promises of blessings and curses in the corporeal and afterlife. That’s enough to incline people towards belief, has been for thousands of years.

  • Rational Human

    By its very existence, apologetics is an admission of defeat. And the fact that every religion has its own apologists, seals the deal. Things that are real have no need of apologists or defenders, they are self evident and consistent, through observation or experimentation. A real God would not require human defenders or apologists.

  • Maltnothops

    In this discussion, greed/heaven/possibility of reward are interchangeable. Same with fear/hell/concern about harm. So no need for you to be apologetic as I didn’t correct you about anything.

    I don’t know if you attend church or not. I did for many years. I remember numerous sermons about both heaven and hell. Ministers seemed to think it their duty to remind congregants that backsliding could result in an eternity in hell — and that would be a horrific experience. I think they wanted people to be fearful of hell. And there were sermons about how wonderful heaven would be. It was presented as something we should want more than anything else.

    With respect to your role play, it doesn’t resemble investing as I know it so I’m at a loss to respond to it. In my experience, investors know that investing could lead to financial reward or loss. It isn’t clear to me why the investor who need to ask anyone what the reward might be. And I don’t have any idea what role Jesus is supposed to be playing. Perhaps the fictional “Mr. Market” that some writers use as an anthropomorphic device to explain markets of exchange.

  • Richard Elliott II

    Sorry, it sounded like you were correcting something. I was being apologetic, in general, nothing personal. Sounded like you were making oblique references to good and bad. I’m sure I was mistaken. I’ll get beyond it.

    Your answer to the question concerning why anyone would be inclined to believe in a god or personal savior was adequate, most truly. I had a grandma (“Granny”) that used to say she couldn’t figure out why anyone would be motivated to do good without the threat of hell. I get it. One church I attend on occasion puts big stress on following the rules, rewards for good behavior, the 10 commandments, the inconveniences of hell . . . the whole bit. I criticized. Then I was reminded that within a 500 mile radius there are 7 state penitentiaries and one federal; with what I already knew to be a revolving door of poverty, crime, drugs among the pop. esp . the young and poor.

    If your church experience overall was as you describe, and is the motivating factor for the formation of your beliefs about God, Jesus, church, heaven , hell, or whatever, I can understand. If you think apologetics suck, I get it. But there are more reasons to practice the art than just trying to woo unbelievers to church, or respect Christian teaching.

    The model of institutional religion as a form of mind control or behavior modification of the masses would be laughable to most clergy. They wish.

    If you think professional investors think investing is no more than throwing monkey muck at a board ? . . . Well, OK. Everybody thinks differently about risk, whether it be their money or their soul. If the “investor” does not consider the nature of the possible rewards and losses he might end up with an unsolicited roommate named Whammer, and a new nickname of his own.

    Someone looking for God, struggling with the status quo, fighting the power, etc. might be what’s called for. If someone, not necessarily you, is just arguing against Apologetics because they have the IQ? For fun. I can only relate what someone told me one time: “Either shit or get off the pot”.

  • Maltnothops

    My understanding of investing is pretty much the opposite of what you wrote. My point is that an investor/believer doesn’t inquire about the rewards/risks of investing/believing only after a lifetime of investing/believing. They do it much earlier. Which is why your role play didn’t make sense to me.

    You asked what might incline someone to believe in a god. I said greed and fear. Had you asked what might incline one to not believe in a god, I would have said greed and fear. Greed and fear drives a lot of decisions.

    I imagine there are many, many gods you do not believe in. (In fact, you probably reject the existence of many more gods than do I; I’ve ruled out very few.) I suspect greed and fear has something to do with the gods you reject and the one(s) you don’t.

  • W Zoorn

    Libertarians sure love him, which on the surface seems odd. On the other hand, given Weber’s analysis more than a century ago, it affirms that Ayn Rand was a complete idiot.

  • Richard Elliott II

    I wasn’t ambiguous. Risks can be proximate or distal. If the role play didn’t make sense forget about it. Your answer to god, or not – god, is the same: greed and fear. If that’s your horizon OK. Don’t be surprised if many peoples’ behaviors seem paradoxical and mysterious.

  • Rich

    Yeah, I recognize there are those that report their journey to faith/back to faith was based on or lead by an intellectual endeavor. I just happen to doubt the veracity of most of these accounts (or at least doubt the emphasis placed on reasoning). This is why church appeals to the unconverted/”backslidden” use such emotional appeals. Dry lectures just aren’t going to bring people to the altar! As to your reference of POST conversion consequences. I don’t doubt this happens with some frequency. It also happens with people switching religions/denominations/spiritual expression or people leaving a faith for no faith. This happens regardless of whether the transition was compelled/lead by emotions or the head.

  • Maltnothops

    “I wasn’t ambiguous”

    About what? Not sure what you’re referencing.

    “Risks can be…..”

    Agreed. In general I think people do a very poor job of identifying risks. Witness, for example, the frequent description of bank accounts as “safe”. Or Pascal’s Wager, which fails to account for the risks of non-Catholic gods.

    “Answer to god, not-god”

    The question isn’t binary, given the number of possible gods and the multiple understandings of any particular. Elsewhere in this thread, for example, you will find people arguing that it isn’t sufficient to believe in the divinity of Jesus to be saved; you must believe in Jesus in the right way.

    “If fear and greed is your horizon…”

    It isn’t. It was just one possible answer to the question of what might incline one to believe or not believe in any particular god. There are plenty of others.

    “Don’t be surprised by behavior…”

    I rarely am. People’s behavior, in my experience, is generally consistent with their premises and not necessarily with mine. When I don’t know someone, I view behavior as an indicator of otherwise unknown premises.

  • Nathan Prindler

    “It takes ignorance ten seconds to ask a question that requires careful scholarship ten pages to answer carefully.” Hahaha! How true.
    Beautiful piece, Esther! When I saw the title my first thought was, “that’s like asking, has the Gospel failed?”

  • Theodore A. Jones

    Every “gospel” that asserts “Jesus died in your place”, “Jesus’ murder paid your sin debt”, etc. is a gospel that fails.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I mean, you’re free to believe or doubt what you like, but in my experience people are frequently, overwhelmingly grateful for the information they get from some of these “dry lectures,” often for the first time. This includes deconverts. It helps, of course, if the person conveying the information is also a personal acquaintance who has established a relational connection and can discuss the questions over lunch or Skype, not just from a podium. But people *want* to know the truth. They don’t want to be patronized.

    “Dry lectures just aren’t going to bring people to the altar!” is precisely the temptation I’m trying to get people to resist with this piece. Slow and steady is not as exciting as quick and dramatic, but it will lay a foundation that might actually last when once it’s laid. It’s the same temptation that pushes campus leaders to the debate format over a lecture format. It’s what the students will come out to see. But the two hours and thousands of dollars put aside for yet another half-baked, insufficient two-hour debate could have been saved and spent instead on two hours dissecting (say) a book by Bart Ehrman.

    My point was simply that it’s false to say apologetics is just a security blanket or a bubble bath giving people what they already want to hear.

  • Rich

    “My point was simply that it’s false to say apologetics is just a
    security blanket or a bubble bath giving people what they already want
    to hear.”
    I know you earnestly believe this and I would expect those inside the fish bowl to see it this way. l’m sharing my opinion as someone that used to be in the fish bowl and now can look at this more objectivelyI’ll say this, it’s harder I’d love to have a scientific analysis of all this. I

  • Richard Elliott II

    Yeah, lot of people are suckers for melodramatic confrontations. I can be one of ’em sometimes. I think it’s a maturity thing.

  • Rich

    “My point was simply that it’s false to say apologetics is just a
    security blanket or a bubble bath giving people what they already want
    to hear.”

    Maybe. It certainly isn’t very effective at the stated goal of bringing people to the faith. Whether or not it is part of the intended goal, it sure seems like it’s been much more effective at reinforcing the validity of the faith and/or energizing the believer. As I reflect back on my period of faith, I loved apologetics, tracts and testimonies. Though I didn’t recognize it then, all these tools to reach the unbeliever were very important in reinforcing the “truth” of my faith and generating confidence and excitement in the faith.

    “..people want to know the truth” I disagree. As a passionate truth seeker, truth usually seems elusive, mundane, and isolating. Many people don’t wish to invest in truth seeking, many others prefer to identify with a story/belief system in which they have significance, to have a sense of belonging and to hold an alternative to the mundane.

  • @EstherOReilly

    No worries, I saw both the old and new versions.

    “It certainly isn’t very effective at the stated goal of bringing people to the faith.” But the whole point of my piece is that this should not be the “stated goal,” particularly if we are defining “bringing people to the faith” as “inducing people to gin up a particular kind of emotional experience and utter a particular sequence of words.” I don’t worry about getting butts in pews as an end in itself. If I spend a month with just one individual who lost his faith ten years ago and is now building a new foundation and getting solid answers to his doubts, that’s worth no less than fifty people who impulsively answer an altar call (half of which might have left the church again if you checked in on them five years later).

    I think this was in the old comment, but you mentioned that you could see how I would feel this way inside my “fishbowl.” I can’t speak to your background, but my background was very different from what I think you’re imagining. I did not attend an evangelical church. I was exposed early and often to sophisticated concepts in philosophy and the history of ideas. I read some of Christianity’s most hard-core skeptics before I even got to college. I attended a public university where I double-majored in philosophy and math. So if “being constantly exposed to a wide variety of ideas and research” constitutes being “in a fishbowl,” then I guess I was in a fishbowl? Idk.

    I know you don’t want to hear this, because you want to pack “apologetics” safely away in the box marked “in-group wish fulfillment,” but you seriously need to consider the possibility that you missed a spot here–or a lot of spots. I know something about epistemology, the nature of evidence, the character of testimony, and probabilistic modeling. I didn’t get those tools from Sunday school. Christianity holds up just fine when I apply them to it. I don’t know what objections in particular had force for you. But I’ve listened to skeptics give it their best shot, and I’m just not convinced, not because I’m looking for an excuse, but because I know what a good argument looks like, and the arguments are simply not very good. I’m not saying that to rub your face in anything. I sincerely want to help people who have just been confused here. I understand why you might not be convinced right away, so I’m not telling you to take my word for anything. But I’m asking you to at least consider the possibility that you’ve got this backwards. Consider that you might be the one in the fishbowl.

  • I personally prefer the lectures. I want to learn, not be emotionally manipulated. As an atheist who dares not expose myself as such I’m listening to sermons every week that knock down straw men.

    So I do look for answers online, but articles I find that promise to answer my specific questions generally involve streams of “logic” attempting to show that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says.

    A series of Bible studies with my wife and her cousin, a minister whom I could trust not to out me, were starting to cause my wife to doubt, so I chose not to pursue that further (though sometimes I wish I had). (Sadly, he died of cancer a few weeks ago.)

    I don’t watch videos, and I despise debates. I read and study. But like many atheists, it was Bible study that led me out. The Bible isn’t going to change anytime soon, and it’s impossible to un-read it.

  • Lacunaria

    I’m so sorry to read how trapped you must feel — to hide your doubts and conclusions, and paradoxically struggle with protecting your wife from her own doubts and questioning, and then to lose a confidant in your cousin-in-law.

    I think some popular Christian beliefs need to be reconsidered in order to make greater sense of the Bible and a moral God. Otherwise, Christians are more likely to abandon the Bible altogether.

    For example, many Christians interpret Gehenna as eternal torture, while others interpret it as a consuming fire where the point is destruction, not torture. Similarly, if predestination is interpreted as totally deterministic, then it causes all sorts of unnecessary moral paradoxes with free will and makes God evil. Ironically, it can be incredibly freeing for Christians to realize that God’s will is not always being done on Earth, which is why we are taught to pray and work towards it.

    Of course, atheists tend to attack the least defensible interpretations of the Bible and treat Christianity as a monolith, while Christians defend their particular interpretations and beliefs. So, sadly at best we talk past each other, and at worst and most often, we don’t talk.

  • Rich

    My fishbowl reference was not meant to be a personal dig but rather a generalization about the objectivity of bought in group participants evaluating this same groups ideology (apologetics). From inside, the perspective will always be influenced by the water we swim in and the bowl itself. Yes, you might say those on the outside are in some other fishbowl. To varying degrees, we are all in some kind of fishbowI, as it’s impossible to have pure objectivity while we are in the process of having a human experience. That said, I consider myself to be a pretty objective individual!

    In my Christian experience, I found apologetics to be very compelling. When I left Christianity, I left because the story no longer made sense, the result of various subtle and subconscious considerations. Initially, I remained a Christian defender/remained a fan of Christianity/Christians as I still felt a kind of emotional connection to the faith and those believers I associated with. After some years had passed without much more consideration of Christianity, my paths crossed with a fervent believer who encouraged me to listen to some apologetic tapes. I agreed and was even excited to give this a fresh look. Upon listening, I found myself disappointed (yes disappointed) that these arguments gave me nothing substantial to consider. All that changed was my perspective… Anyway, if it works for you great!

  • Since my denomination is the supposedly non-denominational Church of Christ, the teachings about predestination don’t really apply. (The teaching there is that God predestined his plan, not individuals.) The reason I’m no longer a believer has to do with having had a fundamentalist belief, and realizing that the first parts of the Bible contain a mythology that even fundamentalists don’t actually believe. They simply impose their New Testament beliefs onto the stories.

    I realize (and realized as I was transitioning out) that liberal Christians have no such problem. I just couldn’t find a place in the Bible where it would have transitioned to “facts” from what begin as myths, then transition to legends, then to embellished history. The liberal view seems no more likely than the fundamentalist view. In fact, Jesus seems to be a product of the times, believing in eternal reward / punishment as did most of the society, except for the Sadducees who saw this as being unscriptural. Seems that the common people picked up a lot of their beliefs from the Zoroastrians (unseen armies of evil as well as of good). And of course there’s the doctrine of the Logos, which totally goes over the heads of the fundamentalist. I sometimes wonder whether John (or the author) was doing a “Paul at Mars Hill” kind of thing there, trying to bring in a certain audience. Or maybe he was actually on board with that particular belief and had merged it with Christianity in his own mind.

    I guess I’m off topic here. Anyway, I’ll keep reading.

  • @EstherOReilly

    “It’s impossible to have pure objectivity while we are in the process of having a human experience.” That would need to be parsed out and terms clearly defined, but I do believe it’s possible to approach questions like “Is Christianity true?” in an objective and rational manner. Setting aside bias that would taint the search for answers is difficult, but it’s not impossible. Plenty of people have done it.

    “When I left Christianity, I left because the story no longer made sense, the result of various subtle and subconscious considerations.” Obviously without further details I can’t tell to what you’re referring here, specifically. Are you referring to Jesus’ passion and resurrection story? The arc of prophecy? Old Testament conundrums? If the latter, I’m as dissatisfied with most stock apologetic responses as you probably are, but it doesn’t change my conviction that the cumulative weight of the evidence still points towards Christianity’s being true.

    “My paths crossed with a fervent believer who encouraged me to listen to some apologetic tapes.” Again, without specifics I can’t evaluate the quality of these tapes. Depending on the flavor of apologetics on offer, again, maybe we would agree and it wasn’t substantial. On the other hand, maybe you had a mental block that wasn’t allowing you to appreciate the force of an argument that should have given you something substantial to consider.

    “Anyway, if it works for you great!” I tend to avoid “works for me/works for you” language, as it seems to cloud the issue in a subjective haze. To say that something “works for me” carries the implication that this is just what I personally find satisfying, but if you don’t find it satisfying then your perspective has just as good a chance of being right. Again, since these are objective questions with objective answers, and since the quality of arguments, evidence, etc., can be weighed in objective ways, that seems like the wrong kind of frame for these things.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I can attest that hard-core Calvinism hasn’t been helpful to people in the process of deconverting.

  • @EstherOReilly

    “The first parts of the Bible contain a mythology that even fundamentalists don’t actually believe. They simply impose their New Testament beliefs onto the stories.”

    Are you referring to the Genesis narratives? Not sure which “New Testament beliefs” you have in mind. I myself didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist background, although I don’t think all forms of creationism are poorly evidenced. I would fall into an Old Earth Creationist camp, broadly. There’s a lot of hype around what’s been “debunked” that turns out to be mostly spin once you clear away the noise and look at what the data actually say.

    “Seems that the common people picked up a lot of their beliefs from the Zoroastrians.” Do you have some primary sources pointing to that?

    As far as John and the gospels go, I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by a lot of the scholarship that’s grown up around those too. Lots of hand-waving, jumping to conclusions, extrapolation, etc. It always surprises me just how cheap some of the shots from Ehrman and Co. actually are (like saying Matthew has Jesus sitting on the donkey and the foal at the same time, instead of the coats, which is the obvious antecedent of “them”–really?) I have to think Ehrman himself doesn’t even drink all his own Kool-aid, but he can get away with it because he knows his audience won’t care or know enough to nail him. That just rubs my fur the wrong way.

  • Lacunaria

    Thanks for your response! Esther asks good questions that I’m curious about as well, so I’ll look forward to your exchange with her.

    Overall, I see far more variation within Judeo-Christianity and their interpretations of Biblical Hebrew and Greek, than just between “fundamentalists” and “liberal Christians”. e.g. I’d agree with the Sadducees on death but also that Jesus was a game changer. I also don’t read John’s “logos” as complex doctrine so much as that Jesus was God’s plan for salvation.

    In any case, I just wanted to mention Bible-based alternatives that you or your wife might find useful to explore since they don’t require abandonment of Christianity or God altogether.

    For what it’s worth, I think you are on-topic regarding how Christian apologetics have specifically failed with you.

  • Lacunaria

    Christian apologetics are most valuable and useful to Christians, just as atheist apologetics are most valuable and useful to atheists — because it roughly matches and defends their existing beliefs.

    But given the extreme emphasis on evidence and proof, I would expect atheists to be far more humble and uncertain than I’ve found. e.g. how do you build your own faith? Do you believe in free will?

  • Lacunaria

    libertarian != alt-right. The alt-right’s collectivism conflicts with the individualism of libertarianism.

  • @EstherOReilly

    That’s loosely inspired by an old quote by the classic apologist George Horne. Here’s the original:

    “Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject.”

    My God, he predicted the Internet!

  • @EstherOReilly

    Thanks Dave! Nice to get some ecumenical feedback.

  • John Thomas

    My personal view is that apologetics cannot or should not be “one size fits all”. People are different in the way they look at the world. Some (Conservatives) feel the need to preserve which they believe to be traditional Christian worldview. So they feel the doctrines of Trinity, virgin birth, physical resurrection and deity of Christ are non-negotiable even if apologists find it difficult to impress it upon the non-believers. Some will feel the need to add concepts like Original Sin, total depravity, penal substitutionary view of atonement, justification by faith, eternal conscious torment etc. to that list of non-negotiables. Others (progressives) want to reconcile Christian faith to modern worldview as much as possible. But conservatives would want to cast progressives as not really Christians and discourage their efforts at apologetics. But reality is that Conservative apologetics will work for those who have that outlook and progressive apologetics will work for those who have that outlook. Personally, as an agnostic myself who think that a version of Christianity can be made persuasive to a larger modern audience, I am more persuaded by the likes of Marcus Borg, Brian Mclaren, Richard Rohr, Rob Bell etc to be a Christian than say, William Lane Craig. Similarly arguments for God from Neoplatonist and Aristotelian-Thomist framework (as done by the likes of Ed Feser) are more persuasive to me than the arguments given by William Lane Craig. But it is just me; I know few friends who are evangelical Christians, who has said to me that their faith got strengthened by Dr. Craig’s arguments for God and historicity of physical resurrection of Jesus. But I am more persuaded that resurrection initially was more likely a spiritual phenomenon and tied to the faith of the initial disciples rather than literal event in history. But again,it is just me.

  • Rich

    Agree with all of this (and for that matter, most of your earlier comments)! There are a lot of humble atheists. They just don’t happen to be the most engaged/vocal with the active social media presence (just like social media brings out the biggest Christian knuckleheads..)! But you are right that there should be humility and uncertainty – I’ll add “from everyone!”… I can have productive interactions with those of most any belief if you have a good attitude, are respectful, humble, etc! Unfortunately, these seem like rare occurrences!

  • I’d like to preface my reply by saying that I am not a Bible scholar. I’ve studied the Bible my entire life, but with a Church of Christ slant. I didn’t go to Bible college, let alone seminary. I’m well aware that I could be wrong. These are just the things I’ve learned in the 7 years since I first realized (at age 52!) that much of what I’d believed all of my life about the Bible was just plain wrong.

    By the “early parts” of the Bible I mean not only the creation story, but the implication in places (like the Song of Moses) that the gods of other nations are real, just not 1) their god, the LORD God of Israel, and 2) not nearly as powerful. Also it seems that the Bible early on does not support the idea that the LORD and the Most High are not the same god. (The Masoretic text obfuscates Deuteronomy 32.) By the time we get to Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the other gods start to seem like they were never real in the first place.

    Off-hand I don’t have any references pointing to the adoption of Zoroastrian ideas, but my understanding is that they believed in a good god and an evil god, Ahura Mazda being good, and Angra Mainyu being evil. (Yet somehow they were/are monotheistic?) According to “the Cylinder of Cyrus the Great”, he sent the people of all of the nations, not just Israel, home to rebuild their walls and worship their own gods, in order that good would prevail. (See here.) You don’t see that sort of thing in the Old Testament — you see only the invisible armies of the LORD, not armies of Satan. When you get to the New Testament the demons are everywhere, and of course there’s a war in Heaven in Revelation 12. (Digging a bit, some sources claim that Cyrus the Great could not have been a Zoroastrian because he was not a monotheist. The Cylinder of Cyrus claims that the god Marduk chose him to be king, though we don’t know that he himself made this claim.) Can it be said for certain that they got these ideas from their time in Persian captivity? No, but they don’t seem to have had any such beliefs beforehand. Then again, maybe I’m missing something that’s in the Old Testament.

    Jumping to what you say about Bart Ehrman and the colt/foal, I really think he’s just pointing out that Matthew didn’t quite understand Zechariah 9:9. That’s a very human thing, and perfectly acceptable if you don’t take the scriptures as having been virtually proofread and purged of human error by the Holy Spirit. Someone might say that this view of scripture is a strawman, but it’s what I was taught and it’s what is still taught in a lot of churches. I suspect that this overly-simplistic view of inspiration is a big part of the reason for the increase in the “nones”. I have said elsewhere that had I been raised in a liberal Christian denomination, I might never have deconverted.

    I wandered in to your blog from a link on the Patheos front page, so I’m jumping in having not read what you’ve written before. I’m not especially well prepared for this discussion at the moment. At the same time, I didn’t want to leave it hanging since you were expecting a reply.

    Your post struck me as being really thoughtful and I plan to follow you in the future. I’ll put Peter Williams’ book in my Nook queue.


  • Susan Steinkraus

    Your fellow Patheos blogger, Mike Glenn, thinks people are leaving Christianity because when they attend church they “don’t meet Jesus”, whatever that means. Here’s an excerpt from his recent post: “We went to church and we were entertained and impressed, but we never met Jesus. Now, when the world comes to our churches, we don’t have anything that matters because, well, we don’t know Jesus either. Perhaps instead of focusing on saving the world, the church should focus on finding its own salvation first. I’m convinced when we find Jesus again the community will find the church again.”

  • Theodore A. Jones

    Finding Jesus is not the problem. The problem is, as Jesus says, there are only a few that find the gate. There is not any apologist who has found the gate and none of them ever will.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I’m familiar with the way Craig argues for the resurrection, although I don’t think it works to get people to the point where physical resurrection actually seems more likely than a spiritual phenomenon. But I think that when you go deeper and actually look at the evidence that the gospels as a whole are straight reportage reliably communicating literal facts, it’s quite strong. I’m not persuaded that a naturalistic explanation actually explains all the data once we take that deeper look. If that’s true, and if the gospels are a reliable record of true events about Jesus’ own self-understanding as well as his death and resurrection, then people who try to get rid of Christian doctrine and worldview are in trouble because they’re forging a path contrary to the message God has actually reliably conveyed to us.

  • Susan Steinkraus

    What do you mean by “finding the gate”? Apologetics is the practice of trying to explain and justify religious doctrine. If you mean that no apologist has been able to explain or justify the doctrines of Christianity, then I agree with you.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    No apologist nor any contemporary church’s pastor is teaching the soteriological doctrine which has been perfected in regard to the sin of murdering Jesus Christ by crucifixion.

  • Susan Steinkraus

    I’m sorry, I still don’t understand. “Soteriology” means the doctrine of salvation by blood sacrifice, like Jesus’ death, right? Are you saying that no pastor is teaching salvation by Jesus’ death?

  • Theodore A. Jones

    See “Webster’s New World” pg. 1280 to correctly define soteriology.
    There is no religious apologist, pastor of any contemporary church, Sunday school teacher or otherwise that is teaching the soteriological doctrine which was perfected in regard to the sin of murdering Jesus Christ. Clear?

  • John Thomas

    For a believing community, gospels can be viewed as a whole as straight reportage reliably communicating literal facts, but why would somebody outside believing community want to do that? They would want to look at those documents with same amount of skepticism as any other document of that period and do a critical analysis of the events reported especially where they differ to see what could have been the original reporting and possibly actual event. And contrary to how many Evangelical apologists want to impress upon others, I believe that gospels were written primarily for the believing community for spiritual reflection resulting in spiritual transformation and moral edification. I don’t think straightforward reporting of history was the objective of the original gospel writers. There could be some history here and there at the core, but at various instances, they stray from actual history to a narrative that would create an element of awe in the readers to enhance their spiritual experience.

    As far as I see it, there are three stages of how an event gets written down: one the actual event, two how the event was first narrated as a story for the posterity and three, how the event was eventually written down. From my critical reading of the gospels, it seems that story of historical Jesus most likely ended in his death. But his followers believed that God didn’t abandon his righteous ones in the final scheme of things and therefore raised him from dead in three days (Hosea 6:2) into his right hand in heaven. But how do you narrate a story of someone raised from dead? As far as I see it, empty tomb is the only way to do it. That is why Mark just ends at empty tomb and story diverges at the point.

    Personally I believe that initial followers of Jesus had the same amount of faith that author of Wisdom of Solomon had when he says:

    “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our instruction. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected. Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls; for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.

    But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. Though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones. But the ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves who disregarded the righteous man and rebelled against the Lord.” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:12 – 3:10)

    I fully agree with what Dr. Roy Hoover, Jesus Seminar scholar who had spent his entire career studying Bible especially NT and other Judeo-Christian documents around that period, had to say in his opening statement as part of his debate with William Lane Craig abut resurrection of Jesus (listen from 19 minute mark onwards):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B06CyR0zdRM

  • @EstherOReilly

    I agree that the gospels should be viewed with as impartial a view as any document. But when they are viewed thus impartially, in my judgement they hold up. As for your opinion that their goal was not accurate reportage, that’s just an opinion. It doesn’t engage with the serious body of evidence pointing to the conclusion that this is precisely what the gospels are. Forgive me if I’m not convinced.

  • John Thomas

    So when gospel of Matthew says when Jesus died, that “the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people”, you take it as accurate reportage of the events that happened in Jerusalem?

  • BLG

    Esther, as a Lutheran pastor (LCMS), I really enjoyed this article and am just beginning to explore some of your other articles. You present a very encouraging, hopeful picture for reaching others with the Christian faith. Thanks for this!

  • @EstherOReilly

    So glad you were encouraged! Thanks for reading!

  • Roger Morris

    I turned to Christian apologetics ten years ago in an attempt to give my non-rational, emotional, psychological and largely inherited (both culturally and familiarly) Christian faith some rational warrant and respectability. I was right into it. I knew all the rational arguments. I followed all the big names in Christian apologetics, read all the books, listened to all the podcasts, went to a few conferences. I even had an apologetics blog.

    About three or four years ago, I realised it wasn’t working for me. In fact, I think it actually drove me to my current position of relieved, peaceful, honest, genuine skeptical agnosticism. I realised that for me this was the most comfortable, low-energy, high enthalpy state in which to exist.

    I finally realised that any Christian faith would – necessarily – have to be non-rational, emotional, psychological and existential. Evidence and rational arguments – usually post hoc – ultimately have little to offer.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I do think apologists can sometimes lean too heavily on certain stock arguments, but beyond that I wouldn’t be able to guess where specifically you lost interest. I suppose “working” is a word that can fudge. If you define “working” as putting you in a constant state of comfort, low energy, and high enthalpy, then yeah, I guess Christianity might not “work” in that sense, but in that case, join the club. Whoever sold it to you that way was…well, selling something.

  • meugene

    “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins” – Spurgeon

    The same thing could be said for biblical apologetics of all kinds—historical, theological, or scientific. It either solidifies one’s faith in the Rock of Christ, or is a stumbling block to those who have hardened their hearts to God. The question asked is whether or not it is an effective tool for bringing people to Christ; or whether it is primarily a tool for preserving the faith of those who already believe. In reality, it is both.

    By God’s grace, I was already saved by “traditional” means (teaching of God’s Word by the Holy Spirit) when I discovered creation apologetics. And to this day, the scientific evidence of Creation and the Flood still thrills my soul and solidifies my faith.

    My father, on the other hand, had a difficult childhood, overbearing parents, and could only believe in reason based on tangible evidence, not a nebulous “touchy-feely” faith. He was an amateur geologist and rockhound whose education had grounded him in the theory of evolution and an ancient earth. He attended church from time to time, but never put his faith in Christ, because he “knew” science was right, and was incompatible with the Bible.

    Until he actually “stumbled” upon the truth—through the logic and reason of Creation apologetics that demonstrated scientifically how the world we observe today was shaped not by billions of years, but by a world-wide flood as described in the book of Genesis. It was creation science that caused the glacier of doubt to recede in my father’s heart, and which led him to the solid Rock of Christ.

    One of my most treasured memories of my dad was hearing him pray aloud. At the dinner table. For the very first time. He didn’t pray long, and he didn’t pray often. But I knew then that he knew the Savior. And he was still a man of science and sound reason.

    And so yes, apologetics makes a difference in the lives of believers and unbelievers alike. Everyone needs to hear the truth; but not all will receive it:

    “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” —Romans 1:20

  • CdnLongbowman

    The problem is that a good many of the popular apologetic points are weak, philosophically. Try something like Edward Feser’s “The Last Superstition”, in which you’ll find much more robust argumentation as approached by a full-time former-atheist philosopher. The issue with many apologetics approaches are that they’re attempting to convince, not entertaining an arena of ideas with objective tools, the end goal being the acquisition of truth. More basic philosophy is needed to defeat that commonly held idea, for instance, that “evidence” is the prime deciding factor in whether or not there is a God (ala the approach of scientism/rehashed logical positivism), as opposed to the question being answered by an exercise in deductive logic, i.e. Aquinas’ “Five Ways”. There’s a staggering and unfortunate philosophical incompetence that pervades all aspects of western culture.

  • alexguggenheim

    Much of Christian apologetics has been co-opted by social/racial justice proponents in both, articulating and financing theological apologetics.

    WCL is fantastic on some things but on social issues and the relentless creeping and strangling of Evangelicalism by utterly shallow but prominent and dominant groups such as the leftist Gospel Coalition lead by social Marxists such as Tim Keller, Russell Moore and Al Mohler who use white racial shaming and western cultural shaming tactics as arguments (moral posturing) helped by their black sycophant anti-white ministers such as Thabiti Anyabwile along with a renunciation of the biblical doctrine of nationalism, all of which are practical problems for which people want and need answers, it is little wonder Evangelical apologetics are failing and Jordan Peterson is rising because he actually does have many answers though at times theologically he is lackng. He is not a cuckold advocating we accept dispossession, they are. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    One other very important point is that Jordan Peterson makes himself accessible and subjects himself to rebuttal constantly. These other personalities isolate themselves and arrogantly refuse rebuttal.

  • phil8

    Jesus said, “I will build my church…” He is using all kinds of gifts, and apologetics is certainly one of them. Be ready to give a defense…

  • helenmarplehorvat

    Fab article Esther!

  • CdnLongbowman

    Most of the people that say this typically don’t have a very strong rational ground for their belief system, as much as they think they do. Often it’s an emotional issue they don’t want to admit is emotional (i.e. the practical problem of suffering), or it’s because they believe they hit the bottom of philosophy with someone like Plantinga. It’s also largely the fault of apologists who focus on apologetics and not on sound philosophy. Dig deeper. Dig into Aquinas and the like, i.e. Edward Feser’s “The Last Superstition”. If you sincerely believe Christianity is non-rational, you are severely mistaken and are likely including metaphysical baggage that shouldn’t be there (i.e. reductionism).

  • CdnLongbowman

    For instance, even the very idea that a defense of theism needs to include “building up evidence” fundamentally demonstrates an ignorance about the nature of philosophical argumentation, and the logical consequences that follow. Read an actual heavy-hitting philosopher like Edward Feser and see if you come up with interesting refutations without committing one of the tremendously numerous and uninteresting fallacies most new atheist intellectual figures continually parade around, such as thinking that the cosmological argument (as put forth by Aquinas) is arguing that *everything* has a cause.

  • CdnLongbowman

    Nonsense. There are plenty of worthwhile figures that converted as a result of following logical where it leads. Read Edward Feser, a former atheist philosopher.

  • CdnLongbowman

    Your screen name and comment are too obvious a giveaway into your presuppositions.

    Have you ever read Aristotle, or Aquinas? Furthermore, why would sound ideas not need defending, or more accurately, demonstrating to be robust and true?

  • CdnLongbowman

    Ditto on A-T Philosophy. It’s aimed as being less “apologetic” and more “sound philosophy”. I find these arguments a great deal more fundamental and convincing than most. Someone like Craig does make a sound case for i.e. the resurrection, though, but that requires addressing the presuppositions (which Aquinas does, on a fundamental level) which one incline one to throw away the idea of the event as impossible.

  • Rational Human

    My presuppositions are as few as practical – I exist in the universe I experience, there are other things in this universe that also exist independent of me, and I can experience the world around me through my senses, and my senses are reliable. These are all subject to revision, if the evidence mounts that my senses are not working properly, or my brain is damaged, I would have to alter my presuppositions to align with reality, not the other way around.

    I have read fairly widely, but I claim no expertise or allegiance to any particular philosophy. What point were you making?

    Yes sound ideas and truth are defensible, demonstrable, and falsifiable. But apologists do not deal in falsifiability, and certainly not in demonstrations. They deal primarily in arguments, philosophy, and sophistry. Are you here to present a robust demonstration of your “truth”, sans philosophical obfuscation?

  • CdnLongbowman

    “No allegiance to any philosophy”
    The presuppositions you mentioned are a good place to start, but everyone holds philosophical assumptions, whether they are examined or not. Metaphysics is inescapable.

    “They deal primarily in arguments, philosophy…”
    So if the discussion about metaphysical assumptions (i.e. materialism vs dualism, etc) and ontology (does God exist, how can we know, etc) does not rest on philosophy (logical deduction) and argument (an exercise in logical deduction), then how are they to make demonstrations?

  • Rational Human

    Why go beyond my presuppositions? To scaffold your unsubstantiated beliefs, or wall them off from challenge?

    If your god exists only in the realm of metaphysics, then I need not be concerned with it. Unless you are claiming your god can cross the chasm to manifest in the physical realm? If that is the case, then I can reasonably expect that it would be demonstrable, without need of any philosophy or argument to buttress that plain demonstration.

    Did Yahweh deal in philosophy or in tangible demonstrations of his existence and power? Did Jesus drone on about ontology, or did he provide plain, in your face proofs of his authority over the weather, disease, physics, and death itself? And did he promise his followers would do these works and greater works, or that they would master ontology, teleology, and metaphysics?

    Put up or shut up.

  • CdnLongbowman

    Ah, the predictably aggressive hostility. Hopefully we can grow up and move past that, if you’re actually interested in discussion. I’m not yet convinced you are.

    I didn’t say go beyond your presuppositions. I said you hold presuppositions you’re not aware of.

    For instance, I could point out that the Catholic Church has a large database of miracles in which natural causes are ruled out as far as reasonably possible. I could point out a ebook like “Bridges for Honest Skeptics” which has compiled a few medically verified miracles, complete with documentation and medical reports. I can point to dozens of extensive accounts of completely changed lives and behaviour, or the regular activity that goes on in a great deal of churches around the world in which people speak into each others’ lives with a miraculous degree of precision, using information they couldn’t have known outside of divine revelation. I can present you with instances of highly specific insight that a person did not understand upon hearing it, only to have it come precisely true a decade later.

    But, like most people who extensively insist on evidence, rather than seeing the need for discussion at the level of the indispensable foundation of reason, this won’t be enough. Nor is the historicity of the gospels enough. In many cases, examples of the miraculous immediately in front of their faces are not enough. The reason these are not enough is because this evidence is dismissed a priori, because it’s already been decided, by means of philosophical argument (whether in the form of assumption or conscious argument), that God doesn’t exist and these things are impossible . It’s little more than circular reasoning — God doesn’t exist because there’s no evidence. Miracles are not evidence because they’re impossible, and must be explainable by science. Miracles are impossible because God doesn’t exist. Etc.

  • Rational Human

    Ah, the predictable passive aggressive snobbery and condescension. It’s not enough you pretend to know the mind of god, now you presume to know my mind as well? Go “know” yourself. Is that too aggressively hostile for you?

    Your collection of anecdotal propaganda does not impress me, not because I presuppose no god, but because I believed in all those tales for a long time, until I finally dug into them, and found them mostly anonymous, unverifiable, unrepeatable, unfalsifiable. Unexplained medical events are just that – unexplained. So some doctor have an incorrect diagnosis, or a disease responded to treatment or Sent into spontaneous remission..so what? Someone did a cold or warm reading or predicted something that coincidentally happened…so what? For all your philosophical blabbering, your epistemology and standard of evidence sucks. The “historicity” of the gospels? !?!? Please. “Changed lives”? Cmon, grow up. People of all or no religions change all the time, for better or worse, for any number of reasons, none of them requiring a supernatural explanation. Ubiquity of experience is not evidence for any god, it’s evidence of the universal human experience.

    Every time we subject miracle or prayer or divine intervention to even the most basic of test under controlled conditions, it fails. Every. Time.

    Don’t tell me about some vague ache or pain that was “healed” in some faraway place where no cameras happened to be. Don’t tell me a hundred of those stories. Show me a “healer” that can walk through a children’s cancer ward in a western country in 2019 with video cameras following, and leave 100% healthy children in his wake. For starters. That would not explain or excuse the centuries of misery your God allowed or decreed prior to that, but it would at least open the miracles claim for discussion.

    As I said before, put up or shut up. You have had 2000 years to prove your claims, times up. No more philosophical arguments and word games, no more bluffing. The hand has been dealt, the bets have been laid, time to show your cards.

  • CdnLongbowman

    “Your collection of anecdotal propaganda does not impress me, not because I presuppose no god, but because I believed in all those tales for a long time, until I finally dug into them, and found them mostly anonymous, unverifiable, unrepeatable, unfalsifiable. Unexplained medical events are just that – unexplained. So some doctor have an incorrect diagnosis, or a disease responded to treatment or Sent into spontaneous remission..so what? Someone did a cold or warm reading or predicted something that coincidentally happened…so what?”
    I’m not sure how a medical records of impossible events are unfalsifiable or unverifiable. Similarly throwing away evidence as a “wrong diagnosis” is blatantly speculative. If you’d like to add to the list, see Craig’s “Fine Tuning” argument, which can be taken as evidential. This is doing precisely what I mentioned, which is throwing what could legitimately be seen as evidence (evidence is compiled, after all) as mere coincidence or the like, despite the fact that evidence of a different nature with the same weight would readily be accepted in a different context.
    Also, the idea that these need to be repeatable in a clinical setting once again contains a philosophical presupposition, namely that God is Santa Clause in the sky who will bend to our whims, an idea no theist worth their salt has ever posited.

    “For all your philosophical blabbering, your epistemology and standard of evidence sucks. The “historicity” of the gospels? !?!? Please. “Changed lives”? Cmon, grow up. People of all or no religions change all the time, for better or worse, for any number of reasons, none of them requiring a supernatural explanation. Ubiquity of experience is not evidence for any god, it’s evidence of the universal human experience.”
    Hand waving and scoffing are not refutations. And as much as you’d like to escape the necessity of argument, it is precisely what you are doing in this discussion. Furthermore, it is blatantly demonstrable that people do not drastically change either their behaviour, way of thinking or the direction of their life in any sort of common or predictable matter. The fact that clinical psychologists, treatment centers, self-help gurus, etc, are so common and have such longstanding patients is an obvious testament to this fact. Furthermore, the sort of change I’m talking about isn’t “for better or worse”.

    “Every time we subject miracle or prayer or divine intervention to even the most basic of test under controlled conditions, it fails. Every. Time.”
    Re: above. God has never been claimed to be a heavenly vending machine. But most of this isn’t all that relevant, mainly because:

    ” That would not explain or excuse the centuries of misery your God allowed or decreed prior to that, but it would at least open the miracles claim for discussion.”
    “No more philosophical arguments and word games, no more bluffing. ”
    Once again, this is a philosophical topic. The problem of evil is at root a logical one, as is the discussion of God’s characteristics (such as omnibenevolence), whether or God would allow suffering, etc. You continually hand waive and scoff at the idea of philosophical argument, while making an argument about why arguments are worthless. You make arguments about the validity of evidence, while again continually stating that philosophical “blabbering” (read: argumentation) is worthless (or “bluffing”, or “word games”).

    As Edward Feser writes:

    Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require “getting outside” science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.

    “As I said before, put up or shut up. You have had 2000 years to prove your claims, times up. No more philosophical arguments and word games, no more bluffing. The hand has been dealt, the bets have been laid, time to show your cards.”
    Aristotle wasn’t bluffing. Neither was Aquinas. Neither was Augustine. Etc.

  • Rational Human

    I never claimed adherence to scientism , another straw man that you delusional theists like to deride and scoff at. “Well, you can’t prove science is true using science, that would be circular” …says the person who believes the bible is true because the bible says it’s true. I’ve heard it all before, it’s self refuting, like saying “everyone has faith”, You don’t know if you are a brain in a vat, blahblahblah.

    Craig’s fine tuning argument is best refuted by Douglas Addams puddle illustration. Watch Sean Carroll eviscerate Craig in their debate on YouTube. Christian apologist trying to argue cosmology with a real cosmologist, embarrassing himself.

    I tell you what – when religion, or revelation, or prayer, can be shown to demonstrably obtain more reliable results than science in the real physical world that we inhabit…You give me a call.

  • CdnLongbowman

    another straw man that you delusional theists like to deride and scoff at
    Why you can’t seem to avoid using pejoratives is beyond me, but anyway, this is not an inherently theistic position (claiming it to be so is a straw man in itself). This is argued by plenty of competent atheist philosophers.

    I never claimed adherence to scientism
    You’ve stated and implied, in multiple ways, that philosophical argument is of no value in this discussion and that you only value empirical evidence. You don’t have to claim an adherence to something to adhere to it (unwittingly, it seems), nor to obviously demonstrate said adherence in your claims (“They deal primarily in arguments, philosophy…”, “For all your philosophical blabbering…”, “You have had 2000 years to prove your claims, times up. No more philosophical arguments…”).

    From Lewis:
    The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears…. Unless Reason is an absolute — all is in ruins

    From Feser:
    The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy. Nor is it these presuppositions alone that philosophy examines. There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a “cause”? Is there only one kind? (Aristotle held that there are at least four.) What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws—concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on—and indeed in language in general? Do they exist over and above the particular things that instantiate them? Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured. As the conservative philosopher John Kekes (himself a confirmed secularist like Derbyshire and MacDonald) concludes: “Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.”

    “I’ve heard it all before”
    You claim to know all this already, and yet you still don’t see that you hold relatively obvious presuppositions that both inform and contradict your position. The questions we are discussing lie flatly in the realm of philosophy, as do the presuppositions that evidence reigns supreme and trumps argumentation, etc.

    “says the person who believes the bible is true because the bible says it’s true. ”
    I would similarly argue that this kind of thinking is circular. Most competent theistic thinkers do. Aquinas certainly never arrived at Biblical truth via this idea, and I certainly don’t hold it.

    You don’t know if you are a brain in a vat, blahblahblah.
    The fundamental question about whether or not our senses and rationality are reliable are relevant and necessary questions, but this has nothing to do specifically with what’s being discussed here.

    Craig’s fine tuning argument is best refuted by Douglas Addams puddle illustration. Watch Sean Carroll eviscerate Craig in their debate on YouTube. Christian apologist trying to argue cosmology with a real cosmologist, embarrassing himself.
    All that Adams’ puddle illustration refutes is his understanding of the fine tuning argument. This isn’t difficult to see if you’re at all familiar with it. But this is beside the point: the main issue at stake here is that while evidence for God’s existence is obviously important, the question of God’s existence lies inextricably in the realm of logic and deduction. Furthermore, the metaphysical assumptions that even make empirical evidence remotely viable as tool of knowledge (that there are reliable patterns of cause and effect, that final causes exist, that universals exist, etc — see Aristotle) also render scientism impotent and necessitate God’s existence. At least, it is argued so by Aristotle and Aquinas:
    Feser again:
    … For example, a line of thought deriving from Aristotle and developed with great sophistication by Thomas Aquinas holds that when we work out what it is for one thing to be the cause of another, we are inexorably led to the existence of an Uncaused Cause outside time and space which continually sustains the causal regularities studied by science, and apart from which they could not in principle exist even for a moment.
    If you have something of value to contribute in this regard I’d be happy to listen, but I think this discussion has probably reached the end of its usefulness to anyone else reading, if they bother to (and no, the Dawkins reply of “well what caused God” or arguments about special pleading simply demonstrate elementary misunderstandings about what Aquinas and Aristotle are saying). I wish you well, sincerely.

  • Rational Human

    Jeez Louise…Aristotle and Aquinas, Aquinas and Aristotle, enough already. I get it, you are a Thomistic Aristotelian. You are aware that both had their detractors, right? Lots and lots of philosophers have come and gone, and you have cast your lot with these two. Good for you. I see your T &A, and raise you a Kant and a Hume. Now what? Where does that get us?

    I admit that I tire of these discussions because I don’t have the interest or time to become expert on all of these philosophers. You can call me a presuppositional material evidentialist if it suits you, because at the end of the day, if your God’ existence is only in the realm of logic and deduction, and not in the material world, then your claims boil down to magic and faith, like every other religious claim.

  • CdnLongbowman

    I’m not sure why group labels are required. I cited philosophers who had something to say about the topic at hand, something to which you’ve contributed little other than angry condescension.

    “You are aware that both had their detractors, right? Lots and lots of philosophers have come and gone, and you have cast your lot with these two. Good for you. I see your T &A, and raise you a Kant and a Hume. Now what? Where does that get us?”
    As with most people with more than a layperson’s understanding of philosophy, obviously. As an aside, my “lot” is not cast. I didn’t “choose” them as if they happened to be the most appealing flavour, nor does the fact of other philosophers’ existence have any bearing on the objectivity or validity of Aristotelian (or any other, for that matter) philosophy.

    Kant is worth reading into, but it should obvious that there have been a great number of people who have addressed Kant’s arguments, Feser being one of them. I sincerely doubt you’re interested in discussing Kant’s philosophy as it contrasts with that of Aquinas.
    Secondly, you do not “raise” Hume above Aristotle (or Aquinas, for that matter), assuming one has a shred of intellectual honesty and cares about following reason where it leads as opposed to picking whose conclusions one already agrees with. There have been many writers who have addressed Hume, atheist and theist alike; as Anscombe said, he was “a mere – brilliant – sophist“.
    In terms of “where does it get us” — I’m not sure why mentioning that detractors exist carries weight in discussion. I can be a “detractor” about the moon landings’ legitimacy, but that doesn’t mean I have anything interesting to say on the topic.

    “I don’t have the interest or time to become expert on all of these philosophers. ”
    Reading enough to at least understand the fundamental nature of reason would likely serve you well. Perhaps then you’d stop equating logic and reasoning with “magic and faith” and treating philosophical argumentation as if it were some sort of arbitrary exercise in sophistry.

    ” if your God’ existence is only in the realm of logic and deduction, and not in the material world, then your claims boil down to magic and faith, like every other religious claim.”
    Caricatures abound. Round and round we go. If it’s important for you to have the last word, go ahead.

  • Patrick Edgington

    What of Faith Esther? Rich used the term repeatedly and in its most typically secular fashion. He also puts the question into the arena of intellect and emotion, Christianity is life and death not an argument. Scripture says the matter of Gods being is settled and that all are without excuse. I say apologists seem to be following the wrong god home.
    Peter said But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:
    The heart referenced by scripture is the core of a persons being, the will, the Spirit which at other times is said to be dead in trespasses.
    Apologetics gives reasons for the hope that is found intellectually.
    I like logic and I am fine with a good intellectual argument. There are plenty when it comes to God the Father and Yeshua, but that isn’t Christianity and in the pretence that it is only harm has been the result. Now rather than the reality of God being in the world what we have is religion, traditions, hypocrisy, things Christ stood in opposition of. Worse His name and character are slandered.
    Faith has nothing at all to do with doctrines; it is new life where before there was none. Eyes that see where before there was darkness. Ears that hear, a core willing, able to respond to God.
    God has never been the question we are.
    So is Peter who clearly had faith….substantive faith that through which the dead were raised, the physical nature of the creation was temporarily altered…IE he walk on water all be it briefly, speaking of the apologetics we see in Christianity; that you are addressing?
    I say no.
    He is speaking of faith.
    What the world has become convinced is gullibility…
    Suffer the little children to come unto me and in no wise prevent them for it is to such as these the kingdom belongs.
    It is not foolishness to know the truth.
    We like to think truth and intellect are synonymous, we like very much to run things past our own inner rationality. Isn’t that exactly what we heard of happening in the garden?
    Has apologetics failed?
    The answer depends….
    Are you a man making an argument for a God that has never asked you to do so?
    Are you a chrsitian small c that is attempting to enter the kingdom on the wide road?
    Are you inwardly dead looking to convince yourself and others that there is life there after all?
    Are you a legalist?
    There are many possibilities where the apologetics of the day might be seen to have been effective but salvation IMO isn’t one.

  • José María Dorantes Bolívar

    It could be that people who approach Christianity through Shapiro and Peterson actually do so for political reasons: remember that their speeches are of opposition to the left, culturally and legally. Perhaps Christianity, as a position frequently faced with the left, becomes attractive to these young people, not because of its true value, but because of its political utility.

    In such a circumstance, apologetics would be failing, to not realize that they have to present defense against this trend, which uses Christianity as a political weapon.