Why Apologetics Sucks
This essay shows three things. 1) Apologetics is irrational. 2) All apologists are irrational. 3) Reasonable people should not take Apologists seriously.
Why Apologetics is irrational
Suppose there is some controversial issue. Also suppose you have a particular view on this issue. Which one of the following two options should you choose?
- Learn more about the controversial issue.
- Learn how to better argue for your view on the controversial issue, and argue against those views in conflict with yours.
I think most of us have a hunch that option 1 (which we’ll call free thinking) is somehow better than option 2 (which we’ll call apologetics).
Is Apologetics fairly described by option 2? Yes: almost all apologetics is covered by stuff like “here are some arguments you can use to persuade your non-Christian friends”, “this is how you knock down argument X against Christianity”, “this is why X, who wrote a book attacking Christianity, is wrong”, “tactics for persuasively arguing your case” and so on and so forth. Take a sample of the articles at an apologetics website like bethinking, or STR, or Reasonable Faith, or the titles of speeches given at a recent Apologetics conference. You probably don’t even need to do that: most apologists, apologetics organisations, etc. make it clear they are ‘providing a defence of Christianity’, ‘equipping you to defend the faith’ or something along similar lines. So describing Apologetics as apologetics is accurate.
Why is Apologetics irrational? Because apologetics is an exceptionally bad epistemic strategy. Given religious beliefs are highly diverse, mutually contradictory, and many seem at least superficially plausible (many can attract agents of considerable epistemic virtue, and there is no great trend of the epistemically virtuous to one religion or another), making it your business to convince others of the belief find yourself with is epistemic suicide. The odds are stacked against you (no matter how epsitemically virtuous you are, the cohort of those with similar or greater virtue will be widely divided, and so most of them are wrong – so probably you are too). Yet, in the probable event that your belief is false, practising apologetics is unlikely to get one to realise the falseness of your view and prompt you to change your mind if it is false. If anything, spending your time trying to enhance the plausibility of your belief is likely to make you stick to this belief despite its falseness.
Free thinking is a strategy that has a far better track record. You may still get it wrong, but the idea of learning about the evidence untrammelled by the aim of spinning it to serve your prior ideology should make you track the evidence far better. If the evidence is slanted against your point of view, our free thinker seems far more likely to notice this and revise their belief, and the apologist more likely to rationalise it away and try and convince others (and themselves ) it is not so.
Why you shouldn’t be an apologist
Engaging in apologetics is always irrational. This is because free thinking is strictly superior to apologetics, regardless of how much you know. Worse than that, apologetics is plausibly worse than simply learning nothing.
Why is that? Why would it not be reasonable for someone to carefully consider the matter, come to a conclusion, and then devote themselves to defending it (per many apologist self-portrayals, such as Lee Strobel). It is rational to be persuaded by a given view in the face of disagreement, even if some of these people are epistemically more virtuous than you. It is also rational to argue for your view, or to try and persuade others towards it. However, is never rational to take the evidence with an agenda to vindicating your view. No matter how much one knows, or how carefully one has considered the issue, one never wants to compromise a clear view of the data. For the fact there are people even more epistemically virtuous than you who disagree completely should raise the fear a rational person’s mind that there is some evidence or argument that refutes them that they are not aware. Consequently, they should want to keep as wide and clear a survey of the data as they can. Apologetics runs counter to this reasonable aim.
Of course, apologetics has some benefits. Given equal time invested, an apologist for Christianity is likely to provide a better case for Christianity than a free thinker who comes to believe Christianity. If Christianity is true, and that it is important for others to know Christianity is true, then it is better to do apologetics: although it is not rational, the prudential consequences of convincing more people outweigh this. The problem, of course, is that this all hinges on Christianity being true. If Christianity is false, doing apologetics for it is bad. So rational people will want to be confident of Christianity being true, but that means free thinking, not apologetics. We can add a lack of epistemic humility to the rational sins an apologist commits.
Does this mean anyone who tries to argue for Christianity is irrational (why stop there, anyone who argues for anything is irrational?) Not at all. If someone, after free thinking on religion finds themselves convinced by Christianity, and further tries to argue in its favour too, they are not being irrational. They only become irrational if they lock themselves in a Christian ideological echo chamber and spend their time trying to defend Christianity and attack other beliefs ranged against it. What one should do instead is carry on as they did before: continue free thinking about the issues, and if that happens to supply one with further reasons in support of ones view, so much the better – if not, one should be grateful for the correction.
Dealing with apologetics, dealing with apologists
Most of us lapse into apologetics without realising it: we do so when we go looking for evidence that confirms our beliefs instead of evidence in general, when we treat countervailing evidence as an enemy (‘but this means I am wrong!’) rather than a friend (‘this is not what I expected, maybe I should change my mind’), or when, when presented with an argument ‘against’ our position, our first impulse is not to seriously entertain it, but rather look for ways to undermine or defeat it. This identification of our beliefs as some object to be valued and protected rather than an estimate to be revised in the light of new information is one of the most persistent and recalcitrant cognitive biases, and almost all of us are guilty of it to some extent or another. It certainly is not unique to Christian Theism. Whatever you believe, you should avoid lapsing into apologetics, and so training oneself to free thinking, and developing insight as to when you are practicing apologetics are very good ideas to keeping rational.
Apologists are prevalent (in part because apologetics can be seen as an intermediate level exploit of human rationality). How should you interact with them? How do you know someone is in thrall to apologetics: everyone will profess that they are merely following where the evidence leads. Yet not all who profess they do really are, and you shall know them by their fruits. If someone claims to be a free thinker, and yet their entire intellectual diet is devoted to material that defends, that attacks opposing beliefs, and so on, then it is a pretty fair bet they are doing apologetics instead.
Apologists are neither epistemic peers, nor are they competent judges of good arguments (it is hard to think of a worse strategy to assess argumentative worth than apologetics). Consequently, their attitudes about the truth of Christianity, or the merit of the arguments in favour and against, do not track the truth. Further, it seems unlikely that they are likely to change their mind (even if they should), and any case they present will likely appear more convincing that it should be taken to be – because their craft is devoted precisely to enhancing the plausibility of their case.
This does not mean that their arguments must be false (straightforward ad hominem), but it does give good reason not to take them seriously, and indeed to neglect to interact with them save in very special circumstances. Although apologists can be useful to provide their ‘side’ of the story, their assessment of the argumentative terrain is worthless, and at worst the arguments they present you need to be checked (as apologists are likely to selectively cite authorities sympathetic to them and other biases that need to be corrected to get a clear view of the evidence). If you are also in the business of presenting arguments to others which you think should convince them to your side, apologists are slightly more recommended – again, though, they are strictly inferior dialogue or debate partners than a free thinker on the other side. In most circumstances, therefore, they are better off ignored and avoided.
 “Free thinking” is sadly a title taken by many fairly thick Atheists. Here, free thinking is taken to mean attempting to survey the evidence as fairly as possible without letting one’s precommitments colour ones assessment.
 A more technical way of looking at it. Agents performing apologetics are more likely to ‘stick’ with their beliefs, and the degree to this ‘stickiness’ is irrespective of truth: Catholic apologists are more likely to stay Catholic than catholic non-apologists to a similar degree that Protestant apologists are more likely to stay Protestant than non-apologists. Thus the ‘ideological stickiness’ that happens from practising apologetics fails to track, and so is a bad strategy: it will make you stick to your convictions whether they are right or wrong.
 Whether apologetics is epistemically worse than nothing depends on whether the knowledge you gain when learning to argue your side is ‘worth’ the bias it introduces. My hunch is that being biased is more dangerous than being ignorant.
 Not necessarily, though. It might be that apologetics only provides pseudo- convincing arguments, whilst free thinking provides the breadth to make a properly convincing defence. That may be unrealistically romantic. Of course, the argumentative gap between free thinking and apologetics is unlikely to be great, which further undermines these reasons for doing apologetics.
 That said, modern Christianity, particularly the more evangelical wing, seems to emphasize Apologetics (and thus apologetics) a lot, so it is one of the worse offenders at propagating this anti-epistemology.