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

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

Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Does a logical fallacy or well-known cognitive bias form the backbone of the argument?
The more of these you see present, the less likely the argument is going to sound compelling. Learning to recognize the major “arguments from X” fallacies will serve you in good stead here.

* Does it rely on assumptions that it never gets around to supporting with credible evidence?
Obviously, this is where most apologetics arguments are going to fail. Almost every apologetics work takes for granted that supernatural realms exist, for example; none ever actually credibly demonstrates this to be the case.

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

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

* Does the author use fancy words and convoluted arguments to make him- or herself sound more convincing?
“Immutable!” is the mating call of the Christian nutjob. Often you’ll find a totally indefensible and nonsensical argument dressed up with as many college-sized words as possible. When language obfuscates meaning, you’re likely dealing with a bad argument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Captain Cassidy

I blog over at Roll to Disbelieve about religion, culture, cats, and tabletop RPGs.
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17 Responses to The Handbook: An Overview of the Apologetics Field, and Its (Hopeful) End.

  1. SirWill says:

    Heretic! Everyone knows that UFO was because of this!

    It’s hard to keep Doc Brown from messing around with the timeline, you know. Even three Martys in three duplicate DeLoreans couldn’t do it!

    More seriously, anyway, I have to say I’m -really- tired of all this junk. It can be interesting to figure out how a fictional world might hold together, just as it’s interesting to figure out how our world actually does hold together. Issue is, they’re trying to claim our world -is- the one they’re describing, and they’re both unaware of the mismatch and uncaring of the implications of what their apologetics would say about their god.

    it’s one thing to say that God is mysterious. Another to say he’s obvious. And another to say he’s invisible. Invisible things are, by definition, -not- obvious to our sense of sight. That’s one reason it took so bloody long for people to figure out that air has weight and mass. Well, the Greeks figured it out, but then civilization collapsed and everyone forgot about it for a long time.

    It’s one thing to say God is good. Another to say God is all-powerful. But then you can’t claim he has no choice in something. If he’s all-powerful, not only does he have a choice, but he’s the only one who really -can- make choices.

    Do you know what can’t make any choices at all?

    Things that don’t exist. And, well, nonliving things, because they don’t think. /semantics


    • OMG you’re right about the UFO!

      As to the rest… well, when they moved to an omnimax god, Christians were setting themselves up right there, ya know? No way to reconcile it. “It’s a mystery” worked for a while, but it can’t forever, not for everybody. I never got that “god’s a gentleman” stuff used to excuse his inaction, either.


  2. Glandu says:

    Evangelism is about soft skills. Yeah, 100% agree. That’s why my fundie wife does not even try to evengelize her own daughter. She knows she would fail(she’s far from stupid & knows herself a little bit). Her own father, OTOH, does try, but my daughter is not convinced yet. He’s living 2 hours of flight & 2 countries further, which helps her building defenses. I’m very careful never saying her “this is all BS”, but last time I asked her about what is taught in the church, her answer was “I don’t get it & I don’t like it”. She is 7.

    Another thing : the field went down from “Saint” Augustine to Ray “Banana” Comfort. It’s probably time to stop, before it gets even worse…

    Last thing : it fits with the comments in your previous blog entry : the basis of all those things is the belief in false things, because those people lock their own mind once they’ve decided what reality was. Politics works the same : many people, once they’ve decided that ***ism was about to save the world, cannot change their mind anymore.

    My counter-inuitive opinion about this last point is politically uncorrect. I believe that modern education makes things worse. Especially science teachings. Remember how all the 11-09 terrorists had good scientific diplomas? Science is taught an abominative way, those days, as if it was a truth. Most of the time, the teaching is “here is the proof, now admit this is true. And shut up.”. That’s catastrophic. Students are not taught to doubt their own errors, but to blindly believe the “scientific truth”, as soon as it comes with a proof. Bonus points if the proof is presented by someone with authority.

    As soon as Mohammed Atta & Co were presented the “proof” that only jihad would save their own souls, they blindly followed the leaders(a building engineer & a doctor, users of science, but not makers of science). Paradoxally, ignorant people, while more likely to be trapped at first, are much more likely to exit this BS as soon as they see cognitive dissonance. They have not been trained to distrust their own instinct, and will make the bulk of ISIS’s deserters, for example.

    That’s why modern christians desperately are trying to mimic science. In style, not in substance. They see that the power of the “proof” is strong on people’s mind, especially in the modern, educated world. So they are trying to use it as a tool to their evangelizing tasks. Because it seems to work. And sometimes it does. Christianity may lose millions of believers each year, yet new ones are still being recruited. Is smaller numbers, of course, but still. A proper “proof” placed at the emotionally accurate instant is usually a very powerful tool. Even if this proof is just a cargo cult proof, that tries to look like a scientific proof, without any substance.

    Fortunately, it requires talent for using that kind of “proof” efficiently. And Talent does not scale with methods & little books to blindly follow, so really efficient evangelist are not that numerous. Others are just cargo cult evangelist.

    (For those who son’t know what cargo cult is, this old Steve McConnell blog entry is wonderful : )


    • That’s a neat point about why smart people seem to fall into this stuff so often. In the novel For the Win (Cory Doctorow, I think? It’s good reading) it goes into a lot of detail about why that is–the last thing I’d ever want to do is make it seem like I think Christians are nitwits.

      And I’m really glad your daughter’s escaping the worst of the indoctrination. Sounds like distance protects her to a great extent.


  3. Peter says:

    I have concluded that apologetics are now primarily used by Christians to help them when their faith is challenged rather to persuade non-believers.

    It was Justin Martyr in the 2nd century who was considered the first Christian apologist. He was seeking to argue that Christianity was intellectually respectable and was compatible with the best thinking of the Greeks. That is, Plato saw the truth dimly, which was fully revealed through Jesus.

    I listened recently to some Ravi Zacharias talks. His talks are very well presented however I did not find his logic compelling. Basically he argues that world only makes sense when one adopts the Christian world view.

    The challenge for Christianity is actually the lives of Christians. There seems little evidence that Christians on the whole are much more moral or happier than the rest of society, despite propaganda to the contrary.

    Further challenges are the history of the church. I defy any Christian to study Christian history and not at the very least be troubled.

    The next challenge is the apparent errors and inconsistency in the Bible. What must disturb apologists who look into the story of people who have deconverted is the number of people who found that it was more detailed of the Bible that led to their faith being challenged.

    The final challenge is the lack of much supporting evidence for Jesus and the Resurrection outside of the Bible. Most people accept Jesus was a real person, but the reports on his life are either Christian scripture or external reports from 50 years later or more based on what Christians had said.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An excellent summation!


    • Mau de Katt says:

      A lot of C. S. Lewis’s apologetics (and even the base of his religious belief) is the notion of the Platonic Ideal; it even shows up at the very end of the last of the Narnia books, where Heaven has more and more layers of perfection the farther up and in you go in it. (Which leads to Heaven itself being a kind of multiverse, kind of like Zelazny’s Amber, if I understood these concepts correctly….)

      What’s odd about Lewis being so faved by RTCs today is that back when this whole modern Culture War/Christian aMurrica/fundagelical apologetics craze started in the early 80’s, he was regarded with suspicion if not outright rejected as “counterfeit” because of the heavy Greek-mythological base of the Narnia books, as well as Lewis’s love of Catholicism. But now he’s Conservagelical’s Grand Old Uncle? Seems today’s RTCs do bow to popular pressure, after all. ::wry grin::


      • He was indulgently tolerated as okay in my neck of the woods; we all read his work but kept in mind that he wasn’t a proper fundamentalist and maybe couldn’t have been in his day (yes yes I know). Read it, enjoy it, take it with a grain of salt. Now I hear Josh McDowell parroting his apologetics routines.


  4. Dave says:

    I think a lot of Christians are like I used to be – full of doubt and desparate to make this doubt go away. I would justify my belief with apologetics books without really breaking the surface of the weak arguments presented. Years ago when I was in the process of deconverting I mentioned to my sister that religion seemed to make no sense and she hit me with the old liar, lord or lunatic argument. It struck me that someone who really wants to believe doesn’t need much to back up his or her belief. They use these quotes in much the same way they use Bible verses to justify their beliefs. Apologist writings become part of the canon.


    • Agreed, and then once they have become part of the canon, nobody has to think about the argument’s validity in the real world. It’d be like questioning what Bruce Wayne’s name is. A while ago Neil was writing about how some of these folks fling Bible verses around like they’re Jedi mind tricks–seems like they do that with these shorthand apologetics arguments as well. It’s a way of stopping thought.


  5. Mau de Katt says:

    I was a lousy evangelist, mainly because I’ve always been a lousy salesperson, even if the product is one I strongly believe in and support. (My mom, on the other hand, was one of those “could sell ice to Eskimos” type… lol….) And my own “born-again” conversion didn’t happen because of arguments or apologetics, either; I was “saved” because the group I belonged to, our HS/College-aged choir at my church (mainline Presby, but the young & charismatic preacher, as well as the choir director, were both heavily evangelical) seemed to have “something” that I didn’t, and I wanted it, whatever “it” was. (I was also a social outsider and incredibly lonely, as well as an undiagnosed & untreated chronic depressive, and the biggest “it” that the choir members had was the strong camaraderie and togetherness that a shared belief & “in-language” brings, but I didn’t recognize that at the time. Being “born-again” on a very emotional weekend practice retreat gave me my “in” ticket to the group and language, along with the incredible euphoria of emotional catharsis (during the “salvation prayer” process and sudden “belonging,” which I took to be (and was indirectly told was) the Infilling of the Holy Spirit that was promised to True Believers.

    in short, what “brought me to salvation” was the witness of doing, not the witness of saving.

    And what led to my eventual deconversion was my years-long examination of all the apologetics literature, older and newer, because I needed to be a “good Witness,” regardless of how poor a salesperson I was. I believed if I could explain it to my own satisfaction, to understand all the nuances and details right down to the core, then I could properly explain it to others — I had to really believe it, to internalize it, in order to properly share it. But the more I examined the arguments of apologetics, the more problems I found; and the more I tried to solve those problems to my own intellectual and belief satisfaction, the more they fell apart, and the less the arguments made sense.


    • Mau de Katt says:

      Um… make that “witness of saying”….

      And many apologies (heh) for the many Grievous Violations of the Proper Use of Parentheses Principle. ;-)


    • I’m glad you got out of that mess and I wish I could have been so methodical about it myself.


      • Mau de Katt says:

        I wish I could have been so methodical about it myself.

        Well… I’m also more than a bit OCD.


      • Mau de Katt says:

        To be fair, that time and situation itself wasn’t really what I would call a mess. In many ways it was one of the happiest times of my life, and I really enjoyed those people, and belonging to that church. I just couldn’t accept the belief structure any more, or the intellectual and emotional (and dare I say “spiritual”) damage it causes.

        Funny thing, too, about that whole “born again” weekend… even though I don’t buy the Evangelical Christian line anymore, I still do believe something meaningful happened that weekend. What it was, I do not know… but I’ve had a lot of those kinds of “meaningful spiritual experiences” over the years. And, they aren’t restricted to Evangelicalism, or even Christianity. ;-)


        • Same here. It’s okay to have those experiences and to treasure them–and we don’t have to know exactly what happened to find them meaningful. And I’m glad it wasn’t all bad. My experience wasn’t totally awful either; I met some lovely folks and had some good times. I just couldn’t do it now, knowing what I know.


  6. Pingback: The Handbook: Wishful Thinking in Apologetics. | Roll to Disbelieve

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