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?

  1. Learn more about the controversial issue.
  2. 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[1]) 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.[2]

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.[3]

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[4].  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[5]. 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.


[1] “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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

2011/04/25

15 responses to Why Apologetics Sucks

  1. Annie said:

    Preach it. ;P
    I assume the (excellent) parody of Paul/ Galatians in paragraph 11 is deliberate..?

    The real problem is that the church has got its collective head around being “modern” in the sense that having a good argument for everything is essential… but not around existing in a post-modern world. So the logic runs “a positive contribution to the world means understanding why our beliefs are rational/ having good arguments. (Plus) we’re right, so teaching everybody – even if they’re not inclined to think about this stuff lots – some good arguments. (Plus) there’s a verse about “always being able to provide a reasoned defence of our faith” – Paul again, writing to first century Greeks, so obviously massively relevant now(!) (equals) Engaging with faith and thought and the world well.

    Which is deeply flawed and rampant nonsense, but it keeps a lot of quite zealous Christians occupied and out of worse trouble, I guess(!!)

  2. Thrasymachus said:

    Annie:

    You assume correctly. ;) I was tempted to add in Peter 3:15, but meh.

    I don’t really get what ‘being modern’ means. If it is just ‘try to have good reasons for believing stuff’, then that seems a pretty good idea to me. But if they want to do that, partisan shilling is not a great way of doing it. Cheekily, I wonder if apologetics is not so much an exercise in aid of evangelism, but rather in convincing the (now fairly sectarian) Christian community they are a city on the hill.

    But hey, no complaints on my end, as it can be rather funny…

  3. JS Allen said:

    Robin Hanson’s take on this for economics and philosophy, is similar to Lewis’s comment, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered”

  4. Rich Griese said:

    Here is even a shorter explanation

    Bill Craig is a apologist & Bill Craig is a dick => don’t be a dick like Bill Craig.

    Cheers!

  5. Tom Gilson said:

    You have an opinion regarding apologetics. You have posted your apologetic in defense of that opinion.

    From that perspective it’s rather entertaining, don’t you think?

    P.S. Concerning the two options you’ve presented: I’ve just finished reading Richard Joyce’s Evolutionary Morality. When was the last time you read a closely-argued, technical, philosophical work from the perspective opposite your own?

    P.P.S. Concerning your claiming the ground of “rationality” here: It seems to me that if you had been arguing this rationally, you would have been less likely to open your entire presentation with a logical fallacy. Need I tell you which one? Hint: you suggest there are two options to choose between…

    • Thrasymachus said:

      Hello Tom,

      In the sense that I presented an argument for a particular position, I suppose that has a family resemblance to apologetics (esp. via etymology). But it doesn’t really correspond to the uses either in our natural language or stipulated above.

      P.S. It is pretty hard to study philosophy of religion (even as an amateur) and read only the work of non-Christians. So I’ve picked through various bits of the Oxford studies of Phil of R (and Ox handbook of Phil of R) which are from perspectives ‘other than my own': in terms of longer work, I guess the last one would be PvIs Problem of Evil.

      P.P.S. From the hint I guess the fallacy you are insinuating is false dichotomy. But I don’t see it: I’m not claiming the two options are complements. Just that one is epistemically better (and so those practicing the other options are guilty of irrationality).

  6. Tim said:

    Hi Thrasymachus,

    It’s a provocative title and bold introduction, but the argument seems to me to have several problems, chief of which is invalidity. Tom’s right about the false dichotomy. Your article sure _looks_ like it presents (1) and (2) as contradictories. (“Which one of the following two options should you choose?”) Else, one can just opt for the conjunction or perhaps some other unmentioned option (2+n).

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Thrasymachus said:

      Hello Tim,

      I am committed to saying they are contraries (you can’t ‘take both’ – that seems pretty defensible to me). But I’m not committed to saying they are complements (that there are no other possible options). The false dichotomy charge only sticks if I make the latter claim. But I’m not, so it doesn’t.

      So long as we can see that apologetics is generally a (2) strategy, and that it is inferior to (1), then we can see apologetics is bad practice as it’s worse than at least one alternative. There may be epistemic practices even better than (1), but that can be accommodated in the argument without incident. What would defuse the argument would be showing that apologetics is falsely characterised by (2), and is better described by something else which is on a par or superior to (1). That hasn’t happened yet.

  7. Pingback: Greg Koukl fails at relativism » » The Polemical MedicThe Polemical Medic

  8. Tim said:

    ok then, your view entails that (1) and (2) are contradictories, and that engaging in apologetics is irrational. But both these claims are false. First, (1) and (2) are not contradictory since “defending” a viewpoint is consistent with thinking “freely” about it. A good apologist and thinker advances only those arguments that are sound. Second, apologetics is not an irrational programme since it shares in common with every large scale scientific research program exactly those features you find objectionable — namely, the defense of a point of view despite the known existence of controverting evidence (e.g., every academic, scientific journal article argues for a *thesis*, and argues against one’s peers). If Christian apologetics is irrational for the reasons you give, then so is most of our scientific research. That’s a bullet I won’t bite.

  9. Thrasymachus said:

    Learning to defend position Y about X seems pretty incompatible with learning about X. I should perhaps have been clear about intent (although the rest of the article makes that clear). Of course, you might after studying X conclude that Y is the right answer, but that’s very different to learning about X to the end of providing better arguments for Y. This sort of motivated cognition is bad epistemic practice, for reasons outlined already.

    Defending against controverting evidence is fine, as is arguing a case, but this should happen after you’ve looked at the data. It shouldn’t be the case that you’ve already decided the answer you want and you look at the data to shore up your position. Most of us lapse into doing this about lots of stuff (I’m happy to say lots of academics and scientists fall prey to it), but apologists are commonly egregious offenders. Or, as said previously:

    “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.”

  10. Tim said:

    Hi Thrasymachus,

    Learning to defend X is consistent with learning about not-X. More strongly, learning to defend X is consistent with learning to _defend_ not-X. Consider: I, Tim, defend Christianity in the face of objections on a pretty regular basis (for the mundane reason that I think there are better reasons to think Christianity true than false). And yet I could probably argue for atheism better than most atheists.

    If your post is just an exhortation against locking oneself in an “ideological echo chamber,” well and good: none of us should do that. But you claim far more than that. You say or imply that Christian Apologetics is “always irrational.” There are two serious problems with that. The first one is empirical: it’s false that all Christian apologists do the echo chamber thing. In fact, there are lots (I know them) who read the work of their sharpest interlocutors, and try to do so as charitably as they know how. The second problem is a strictly logical one: suppose all living apologists were irrational–indeed, that every apologist who ever lived were irrational; the modal claim that “Christian Apologetics is always irrational” would still not follow. The argument is obviously invalid, and that’s sufficient to undermine your thesis. There is also a third problem. It is related to your invoking intent (yes, I had noticed this): assessing intent is the sort of thing you decide case-by-case, not apriori for a whole class of scholars or an entire discipline.

    Unless I’ve just misunderstood your argument (I don’t think I have), then I don’t think there’s much hope for it. If your concern is just “motivated cognition,” this sounds merely like psychological bias. Don’t conflate it with rational bias.

  11. Thrasymachus said:

    Hello Tim,

    Any misunderstanding on your part is likely due to confusion on mine. Allow me another go (a rewrite of the OP will happen soonish, I hope):

    I am gunning primarily for intent here. Obviously intent doesn’t demonstrate a philosophical argument is poor (straightforward genetic fallacy), but it can underlie an epistemic attack, where the ‘genetics’ of how we come to believe certain things are important.

    So I’d want to say intents are mutually exclusive. If you’re learning about some subject with the intent of harvesting better arguments for your prior beliefs, you aren’t doing it with the intent of learning more about the subject in question. Let’s call this “learning with the intent to better argue for your prior convictions” apologetics (which I was aiming at before, but was evidently being unclear). Obviously apologetics is consistent with both learning more about the subject (it would be pretty hard not to), and with learning to argue for the other side as you suggest – I gather it has been the practice since antiquity for rhetors to practice devil’s advocacy to better hone their craft.

    Regardless, apologetics is irrational. For two-ish reasons. Firstly is the bias point: it take it to be a uncontroversial that folks who are motivated by the intent to support their prior convictions will tend to support these beliefs whether they are right and wrong, and so they are failing tracking. (Obviously, there will be exceptions, but I only want – and need – a trend). So apologetics gives one a jaundiced view of the data, and should be avoided. On reflection, I’d also want to say this is failing a reliable process test or similar as well. If you had an evil epistemic twin who had exactly the same beliefs and arguments you do, but came to those through an urge to defend his original Christian convictions, I’d want to say this Tim is irrational. He’s just a partisan who was lucky enough to stumble onto the right arguments and beliefs.

    So apologetics is irrational. But that doesn’t mean this stipulative definition of mine really fits what we call apologetics. However, to show that it does I don’t need to show anything as strong as “every single apologist engages in bad epistemic practice”. A (significant) trend or bias of apologetics to apologetics is sufficient to say it sucks. That you (and those you know) are noble exceptions to this wouldn’t defeat this point.

    But I need to show there really is such a trend. Happily, I think that is pretty easy:

    1) Many (most) of the Christian universities that explicitly do apologetics (for example Biola) have doctrinal statements which the faculty must abide by, and there are well publicized incidents of academics being kicked out if they don’t (or someone construes their work as disagreeing). So evidently many of the institutions intend that their programs are to supply a case for a particular prior conviction, else they wouldn’t be so keen to get rid of those who find themselves led to disagree with said convictions.

    2) Following (1): that many of the courses will be taught by people who are selected for (and whose jobs depend upon) agreement to a certain set of conclusions, and so the ideological echo chamber worry surely applies. That teachers (and students) are happy to continue in these conditions is suggestive they are less interested in just learning more, but learning slanted towards getting a predetermined set of ‘right answers’.

    3) The evangelical philosophical society runs Academic or apologetic conferences (http://www.epsapologetics.com), with the promise to ‘strengthen your witness’. Indeed, the about page promotes it as a way to “wisely and winsomely defend your faith”, … if you want to know how to defend your faith, this is the conference for you!” (the endorsements page strikes a similar note). The speaker list, as far as I can tell, is about attacking particular atheist arguments and defending particular theistic ones. Providing such a slanted programme (by speakers all uniformly on ‘one side’) doesn’t really make a huge amount of sense on trying to educate laypeople about the latest developments in the Philosophy of religion. It makes a lot more sense in a ‘pass out the rhetorical ammunition to the footsoldiers’ sense.

    4) There is a subspecies of apologists called ‘popularizers’, who seem to be explicitly about this ‘provide rhetorical ammo to your ideological clan’ aspect. There are folks like Greg Koukl, who write books with self-explanatory titles like “Tactics: A gameplan for thoughtful dialog with Non-Christians”, or “Making abortion unthinkable: the art of pro-life Persuasion”; or Sean McDowell who lectures on stuff like “Equipping young people with a biblical worldview” or “Passing your faith to the next generation”; or Frank Turek whose cross-examined ministry is explicitly directed to stopping Christian teens leaving the church. It’s pretty hard to fit this sort of stuff in (both the folks doing it, and those who want to fund them to do so) with a ‘free thinking’ model or whatever, but makes much more sense on a ‘we want to convince people (especially our kids) to believe the things we do’.

    5) It is hard to sample apologetics on the internet, so I accept there’s a risk my perception may be skewed (consciously or not). But for what its worth, it looks pretty biased to me. You see stuff that answers Ehrman (or Dawkins, or whatever) spread like wildfire, whilst Ehrman or Dawkins themselves are seldom explained or defended or dealt with charitably (admittedly, theres not much to explain with Dawkins, etc.), and this sort of one-sidedness is endemic, especially amongst amateurs who look a the scholarly literature. People who never read Schellenburg but know all about Doherty and Poston’s reply to his work on hiddenness, and so on.

    The worry about selection bias etc. means that 1-5 might be unrepresentative of what really goes on under the auspices of apologetics. But I’m pretty confident 1-5 are pretty fair about the case of apologetics being the sort of bad epistemic practice of “here are the conclusions we want, how can we best argue for them”. I think in part because the use of apologetics in natural language is about this sort of thing: for freer inquiry not aimed at persuading people to ‘our team’, labels like “Philosophy of religion” and “christian philosophy are used instead” tend to be used instead, ditto the folks who aren’t in it to persuade others.

    This isn’t enough to indict every person who calls themselves (or is considered) a Christian apologist. But it is enough to indict apologetics as bad epistemic practice, indict those practicing apologetics as (in most cases) practicing irrationality, and suggesting we should generally regard avowedly apologetic works and speakers with skepticism. I may be misunderstanding you, but I don’t think your invalidity remarks really touch this argument.

    Best wishes (and Merry Christmas!)

    Thrasymachus.

  12. Gio said:

    Wouldn’t your view on apologetics prevent one from taking any positions on issues? This isn’t an objection (I admittedly am Christian and do read apologetics but I like to think I sample a wide range of positions), but I think that there needs to be a point where, after doing #1 for a certain amount of time (perhaps until a certain amount of knowledge is gained is better), doing #2 justified from an intellectual perspective. This, IMO, is especially the case if you do #2 only until some profound evidence shows up against your position.

  13. Thrasymachus said:

    Hello Gio,

    I don’t think my view on proper epistemic practice bars you from taking a view on issues. You could strongly think that (for example) Catholicism was on the money whilst still sampling the literature in an impartial and ‘free’ manner. The problem comes when you current beliefs effectively slant what you read and consider: for example, convinced of Catholicism, you spend all your time reading books by Catholics arguing why they’re right and Protestants or whoever are wrong.

    So I can’t really see why you should switch to #2 at any stage. What reason is there to do so? It is toxic epistemic practice, and although you might be more confident your views are ‘settled’ after spending a lot of time thinking about them, why risk all the biasing that comes from reading accounts that are telling you what you already are sympathetic to? There’s still a chance you could be wrong, and if you were, you’d want to know about it. What do you lose by sticking with 1?

    Enjoy life,
    Thrasymachus

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