The Handbook: The Second Big Mistake Apologists Make.

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

The Case for a Creator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re talking to Christians.

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

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

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

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

About Captain Cassidy

I blog over at Roll to Disbelieve about religion, culture, cats, and tabletop RPGs.
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25 Responses to The Handbook: The Second Big Mistake Apologists Make.

  1. SirWill says:

    I recall a book I read, given to me by a friendly old lady who I used to see on a regular basis during my night shifts. I don’t remember the title, but it was about the possibility of god’s existence and the things that point to it. It was a creationist text, but it was much more geared towards apologetics, as it tried to poke holes in science rather than state outright that, say, the Earth was 6000 years old.

    After I read it through, because it was actually somewhat well written, I regretfully informed my friend that the book was good only in the sense in that there was enough style and humor to read it through without falling asleep or throwing it across the room. On every page, I found at -least- three things that were wrong. Either factually incorrect, or skewing data in such a way that it would lead the reader to the ‘right’ conclusion, despite all the counterevidence otherwise.

    I likened an argument in there they used to cast doubt on scientific dating methods. (If I recall correctly. It was years ago and I don’t even remember the book’s title, so I can’t even look the damn thing up) It was said in there we can know minimum ages with certainty, but only those. My reply was ‘If I know a scar on a person is two years old, all it tells me is that the person is -at least- two years old. It doesn’t tell me if he’s two or a hundred and two.’

    There was also a fair bit in there that made me twig onto the author’s agenda. No biologist I know of would describe themselves as an evolutionist in the sense creationists mean it. In the same way I know of no astrophysicist that would describe themselves as a ‘gravatationist.’


    • I bet your co-worker was a little surprised at the criticism of her book–but I also bet she didn’t stop using it as “evidence” for Creationism, alas. And you’ve mentioned a very valuable thing about self-labels. I remember noticing that about biologists as well–they never described themselves as “Darwinists” or evolutionary theory as “Darwinism.” If you run into someone using terms like that or “evolutionist,” you’re dealing with someone sending a coded signal to Creationists. And they do pick up on that stuff.


      • SirWill says:

        She was a friend and a customer, not a co-worker. But that’s not that relevant, heh.

        She understood my reasoning when I pointed it out. Around here, creationist works have to -really- tone it down in order to be taken semi-seriously. The only reason I knew it was really a creationist work and not a badly-misinformed scientific work is not only am I an interested layman in science, I’m pretty keen on when creationists are trying to sneak things in under the radar.

        This book had a lot of falsehoods in it, but it was very carefully tailored in such a way as to not be immediately obvious to someone who simply goes day by day. It never attempted to directly connect its work to the god of the Bible, only referencing other works that do. She was -quite- surprised when I laid out just how sneaky and dishonest the work was.

        I was -not- kidding about the number of things wrong on each page. I actually counted them out when I found them. Doing an average of them afterward, It definitely totaled up to at least six hundred wrong things. They were either scientific errors, moral errors, or reasoning errors. That’s a pretty thick density.


      • Kingasaurus says:

        One minor quibble:

        For some reason, Richard Dawkins uses “Darwinism” all the time as a term – as a synonym for the Theory of Evolution.. Based on his books and lectures, I don’t think there was a time when he didn’t use it. Maybe it’s a UK thing, where they see it the same way as “Newtonian mechanics”, or whatever. I don’t know. The term seems/sounds wrong to scientifically-literate Americans, because it’s the term the creationists use, and the creationists are much more ubiquitous here.

        But Dawkins at least has no problem using it (or even being aware that the term has the potential to be troublesome), though I think he’s been mildly criticized for it.


        • Thank you. I’d never seen him do that. He uses it to describe people who reject Creationism?


          • Kingasaurus says:

            He just uses it as a synonym for the TOE. He doesn’t call the Theory of Relativity “Einsteinism”, but that would be the cosmological equivalent, I guess. As far as Dawkins is concerned, he definitely considers himself a “Darwinist” and therefore accepts “Darwinism.”

            Again, I don’t know if his British colleagues use the terms in question more freely than American scientists, or if it’s just peculiar to him.


        • wscott00 says:

          I have seen Dawkins refer to “Darwinism” as shorthand for evolutionary theory, but I’ve never seen him refer to himself (or other biologists) as “Darwinists?”


  2. Glandu says:

    When I first met my father-in-law, he learned that I was not a strong believer. I was especially not a creationist. So he gave me a little book by W.J. Ouveneel(translated in English) “proving” that creationism is true.

    I began to read, by sheer politeness. After 30 pages, I couldn’t continue. “Science says this, but Bible says that, therefore That is true” was the only argument. Always repeated another way. The book must still be somewhere at home. I won’t read it again, ever, it’s far too tedious.

    Fits perfectly your description, I fear :(


  3. The Eh'theist says:

    I think modern apologetics exists for the same reason there are companies that make kitchen and exercise gadgets. People exist who feel guilty about not living up to an expectation they have for themselves, whether it’s preparing a gourmet meal for dinner every night or sporting six-pack abs.

    In the case of believers, especially those with friends or family that are “lost” there are self-expectations that they should be able to share their faith so well that faith becomes obvious to the other person and they come to believe. Thus like a gadget in the kitchen standing in for learning to cook, and an exerciser in the family room for actually working out, both of which carry the risk of failure, a believer can purchase an apologetic book and either give it to the person they care about or add it to their library, waiting for a “divine appointment”.

    This lets them feel like they’ve met the requirements of their faith to evangelize without risking rejection from the other person or having their faith directly challenged. If the book doesn’t work or the opportunity never comes, the believer can rest content that if Josh/Lee/Ravi/??? can’t do the job that God won’t expect them to do more than that.

    Meanwhile, just like the kitchen and exercise companies, the apologists create new products, and tweak the same guilt and desires to keep selling to these same people, even though they have clear evidence in their lives that the previous purchase didn’t work. They keep selling the fantasy.


  4. Arkenaten says:

    Strobel is simply a disingenuous half-wit who makes stupid people look smart.
    he arguments are ridiculous, and hackneyed.


    • In that light, it’s surprising he hasn’t run for public office yet.

      Liked by 3 people

    • sjl1701 says:

      Strobel also has overused his “I’m a reporter roleplay”. He has been a preacher/pastor for well over 20 years. It’s time for him to retire that.

      My quick review of his “Case for Christ” book, is “evangelical Christian asks a bunch of evangelical Theologians of similar evangelical points of view softball questions about things they have spent their lives writing about and they, shockingly, come to the conclusion that their version of Christianity is the correct one. And what’s wrong with the rest of you not coming to the same conclusion.”

      His other “Case for” books are equally painful for anyone not a conservative Christian. Although he is better writer than Josh McDowell, if that’s saying anything at all.


      Liked by 1 person

  5. chaya1957 says:

    Research demonstrates that people make decisions emotionally and then seek to validate them rationally. This is no different. A professor of religion said, “Things don’t have to be real to be true.” A world that is 6,000 years old, among other things, is certainly not true. What is true? That a group of unrelated persons form a community around shared beliefs, rituals and values that provides love, acceptance, hope and support through life’s cycles and challenges. There is the dark side of conformity and control also, but this exists everywhere outside of the world of religion also. Both skeptics and religious persons buy books to validate their beliefs, not challenge them, and if you are looking for a lucrative market, the religious world has more people who are book buyers, for one reason, I believe 60 of all book expenditures are by women, and women make up the bulk of the Christian brand of the religious market.

    Skepticism’s challenge is to come up with something that is emotionally meaningful as well as a welcoming, supportive community.


  6. wscott00 says:

    “the real use of these arguments is to prop up already-believing or wavering Christians’ faith.”
    Ha! I just made the same point in a comment on your previous apologetics post…then came here and found you had beaten me to it! (Only fair: it’s your blog after all.)


  7. If religions were true there would only be one and it wouldn’t require faith. If faith was any good they wouldn’t need apologetics. Science converges on a single truth, no matter the starting points, because it is grounded in evidence; Religions diverge even when starting from the same point because there is nothing with which to tell what’s right from what’s wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • chaya1957 says:

      I don’t believe all religions employ apologetics. It seems the primary one is Christianity, likely due to the fact it blended with Greek philosophy, and I understand Anselm was inflluenced by Plato. Some religions, like Zoroastrianism and the Druze do not allow converts, while others, like Judaism and Buddhism, don’t seek them.

      Can you imagine that truth is beyond the human ability to comprehend? Science is grounded in the evidence of today and the evidence and/or our ability to gather it will change. Just a few years ago neuroscientists claimed neurons in the brain do not regenerate, but now we know they do.


  8. Pingback: Weekend Atheism and Religion Report (02/27) | Evangelically Atheist

  9. Pingback: No Apologies | Amusing Nonsense

  10. And it’s not even that apologetics really convince even the Christians. It’s just an excuse for saying they thought about it.


    • About the only apologetics book I remember very clearly from those days was Mere Christianity, which I thought was pretty convincing. I’m sure there were others I read, but none stick out at present. Reading them was a sort of way to engage with doubt–dishonestly though, since I wasn’t reading books that had come to different conclusions than I’d reached.


  11. Hannah G says:

    You said that would be one of the worst Jesus smiles I’d ever seen. You were right. It is, in fact, THE worst. I can’t stop staring…


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