One thing that strikes me is how dim a view so many have of apologetics. This is not just from people who aren’t Christian. I see theologians, clergy, etc. who don’t trust apologists. I say “don’t trust” because that’s accurately what people say: there is a perception of apologists or those doing apologetics as people who just want to win an argument. Apologists are viewed negatively with almost universal unanimity by those who are not Christians as well. Such universal aversion, even from within, ought to tell us that Something is wrong with apologetics. I wanted to spend some time to talk about what’s wrong with apologetics. I don’t have any quick fixes; I don’t have any way to repair the damage we apologists often do. I do offer a few possible solutions, so this doesn’t feel as hopeless as it might otherwise.
1. We are too quick to teach rather than learn.
We often have a lot of training and we do a lot of reading. So when someone comes along and makes a “basic” objection to Christianity or a clear mistake, we tend to shift to lecturing almost immediately. Rather than listening to the real concerns of others, we tend to move too swiftly into correction or trying to tell them why they’re wrong. It is rarely, if ever, helpful to try to lecture someone into your own position. Moreover, it shows a remarkable amount of self-importance and arrogance when we assume that others want or need us to teach them. Yes, it’s possible that people we speak with are woefully uninformed on a topic at hand; but that doesn’t mean it is our job to teach them or that they want us to do so.
Possible solutions: Refrain from teaching others unless they ask. Example: The person you are engaging says “Really? I don’t know much about that. Could you tell me more?”
Make every effort to spend at least as much time listening to others as you do talking. Example: You’re speaking with a non-Christian who appears not to know much about the topic; instead of lecturing them so they can learn about it, ask probing questions: “Why do you think that is?” “Have you heard about other possibilities?”
Before jumping into any explanation of something, ask if that is what the other person wants. Example: “May I share my perspective?” Note that genuine listening to their perspective will make it much more likely that they value hearing your own.
2. We believe we are experts where we are not.
I think this one is hugely important. Training in apologetics is a kind of jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none training. You may think you’re an expert in evolutionary biology because you took a graduate or undergraduate level course on it. You’re not. I may think I am qualified to lecture on the history of philosophy given how many philosophers I’ve read. I’m not. No one can be an expert on everything, and becoming an expert on just one thing takes a massive investment of time and resources. But I see and have heard of Christian apologists constantly firing off on things they simply don’t know anything about. It’s okay to have an opinion, but acting as if that opinion is a reasoned response to thousands of hours of study when it is really just a general sense is deeply problematic. Moreover, apologists too often engage in fields where they are not even close to experts, and end up coming off as rather arrogant and ignorant as a result.
Possible solutions: Admit you are not an expert. “I had one class in college on economics, so I am sure you know more than I do. Perhaps you can tell me why you feel so strongly about your differing position?”
Do not lecture (see above!). Unless you have an advanced degree in biology, your attempts to argue that there must be a creator for the origin of life might actually be amateurish without you knowing it. An expert in that field may see you as a fraud. It is okay to say “I don’t know much about this topic, but it seems to me that x requires y. Could you explain why you think differently?”
3. We do not value other perspectives.
Just the fact that someone else is a different religion than your own or -gasp- a different denomination or political party does not mean they are automatically wrong. Guess what, you make mistakes too! Indeed, I have been forced to change my perspective on a large number of things upon deeper examination of the evidence. You’re probably wrong about something, so maybe other people with different perspectives can present great learning opportunities for you or ways to challenge your own beliefs.
Possible solutions: Don’t waste time trying to correct others’ (wrong) opinions. They don’t need that and probably won’t value what you’re doing at all. Use disagreement to come to deeper understanding and respect. Our ultimate goal may be to “win others to Christ,” but we can’t do that if we’re too busy being complete meatheads to everyone we disagree with in the meantime.
4. We don’t actually treat others with gentleness and respect.
I think this is pretty obvious. We all know we’ve seen apologists being totally rude and disrespectful to others. Don’t do it. If you see it, call that out.
5. We are too dismissive of the difficult history of Christians and Christianity.
“That’s a ad hominem!” “That’s a genetic fallacy!” “That was so long ago and not my denomination!”
Yep. We have all done this when confronted with the very real, long, horrible history of Christians behaving badly. Antebellum slavery, Crusades, witch hunts, inquisitions, the list can go on and on. If your gut reaction to that list was to say one of the above, you’re part of the problem. Martin Luther was anti-Semitic, so were a boatload of the Reformers. Maybe instead of dismissing that history, we ought to apologize for and reject it. It would go a long way.
6. We dismiss concerns of others by calling them logical fallacies.
There was a little bit of this seen in the previous point, but we apologists love pointing out fallacies. I know I do. It’s kind of like the “Gnostic” card for theologians, it gives a thrill to bust your opponents’ use of the genetic fallacy. Boom, argument won, right? Well, maybe, but it hardly comes across as “kindness/gentleness and respect” when you’re talking to someone at Thanksgiving and telling them they’re guilty of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Fallacies are a real thing, but it’s also possible to misidentify a fallacy and make a fallacy fallacy, as I call it: saying someone is being fallacious when they’re not. Indeed, many fallacies can be too liberally applied: the fallacy of appealing to an expert may be mistaken, but if 99% of all experts in a given field agree on something, that ought to give us pause if we disagree. Again, we’re not experts on everything.
Possible solutions: don’t jump to conclusions regarding fallacies. If someone is truly engaging in a lengthy argument with you, maybe it’s okay to start pointing them out by name, but it usually doesn’t expand the conversation.
Instead of calling fallacies by name, which may come off as throwing your learning in someone’s face, just explain the issue. “You suggested Lutheranism must be false because Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. I agree he was anti-Semitic, and I think that is deeply, horribly wrong. It is possible to be wrong about one thing and right about other things, though, don’t you agree?” It takes more work than shouting “genetic fallacy, you lose!” but it may get you farther in conversation.
7. We over-value our heroes and under-value our “foes.”
William Lane Craig said it, so it must be true, right?
Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic approach can’t be wrong, can it?
Yeah, we have heroes. They make mistakes, too. Just because William Lane Craig did a Defenders podcast about something doesn’t mean he actually is right about a specific doctrinal point. Moreover, we’re too willing to look over real moral or philosophical failings in our heroes. It’s okay to acknowledge that someone we admire can be wrong about something. They certainly are. More importantly, it is altogether possible that some of the “arch-enemies” of Christianity have some things right. Richard Dawkins. The name alone is enough to raise hackles for some, but we should not dismiss everything the man says. He is truly an expert on evolutionary biology who taught at Oxford as a Professor for Public Understanding of Science! Is it possible that we might gain some understanding of science from the guy? Probably. Yes. We would.
Possible solutions: Be ready to admit when your favorites get things wrong and be willing to acknowledge it.
Read works by others with the intent to understand what they’re saying rather than exclusively to refute it.
8. We do not practice what we preach.
I heard it time and again in apologetics classes: “Christianity is offensive enough, we don’t need to make it more offensive.” The general implication was that we ought not to add baggage to Christianity that might drive others off. But far, far too many apologists are all too willing to dismiss others’ real world concerns as the ramblings of a “social justice warrior” (itself seen as a bad thing) or to write off ethical concerns as beneath us. Yet it is definitely not wrong to say that Jesus loved the poor, warned the rich, and came for the sinner. Those “social justice” concerns that altogether too many apologists write off as some kind of conspiracy of atheists are truly concerns of the Christian and found in the Bible, which exhorts us to “do justice.” Yes, yes, I now: “justice” may look different to different people. But before you rush off to dismiss others’ concerns, maybe spend some time listening to why they have whatever catch phrase written on their T-shirt or why they feel so strongly about a topic that they’re marching for what they believe is justice. Genuine, caring listening–especially to those with whom we disagree–can go a long way to heal the perception that Christian apologists currently have.
9. We circle the wagons.
There’s not an easy way to say this, and I’ve said it a few times already: you’re wrong about a lot of things. No one’s perfect; it’s okay. But if your gut reaction to someone’s challenge to your belief is to double down rather than even listen to their perspective, that might mean you need to spend some time really thinking about that topic. Simply standing up and re-asserting you’re right again and again doesn’t actually engage anyone else.
There’s a lot wrong with apologetics. A lot. I say this as someone with an advanced degree in the field. Hopefully reading this will lead to some introspection, and some other bloggers going and writing their own reflections, and maybe some changing of hearts can happen. We need to fix apologetics. We need to take seriously the fact that it has such a negative perception, even within the church. It’s not a matter of arguing more–it’s a matter of truly taking feedback and acting on it. I hope this helps.
Posted at Peaceful Science: https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/whats-really-wrong-with-apologetics/5523
Thank you for sharing and for the kind words. Can’t comment over there currently because can’t remember my password for Disqord or whatever but appreciate it.
I’ve been meaning to tell you, I almost always read your posts in my email as you send the whole post not just a taster like most. Assuming others do the same it means your stats of visitors will be understated.
Re the topic, I saw one site showing how to prove JWs wrong with a napkin and John 1:1. I wonder if the author has dialogued with JWs as I have because I think the average JW has thought a lot more about John 1:1 than the average evangelical having had it thrown at them since their inception. And the attitude that it’s our job to prove others wrong is an example of the problem you address.
I honestly had no idea that was happening about the email. I didn’t even know there’s an adjustable setting. I’ll have to dig around on my computer when I get the chance. Would certainly like to have those stats, if I’m being honest! Appreciate you letting me know.
Also yes, that’s something I’ve certainly been guilty of as well. Ignoring the complexity of issues is quite easy to do and makes us come off poorly.
I think that’s true of all of us!
Could you let me know if the most recent post or if the next one shows the partial post?
Ah sorry. Yes the system now shows a partial post which you have to click to read the rest.
I find your remarks in this post to be the same of my own concern when being involved in apologetics. Recently, I have been taking lessons from Greg Koukl on his Columbo Tactic, and have found this apologetic approach to not only be practical, but also winsome. I have found that whenever I use the Columbo Tactic in conversation with my peers or loved ones, it has avoided many of the problems you have addressed here with general apologetics.
Good point–I think this “tactic” can be quite helpful, though I’d be hesitant to fully jump on with calling apologetics “Tactics,” as it makes it once more feel combative. I have benefited from Koukl’s book, for sure.
You said in your post, “The person you are engaging says ‘Really? I don’t know much about that. Could you tell me more?'” In my experience, people never ask me questions in return. They are happy to talk about themselves and what they believe, but I’ve never had anyone say to me anything close to “Could you please tell me more?” I know I can say, “Would you like to know what I think?” but sometimes that is SO awkward. This is not only true for apologetics and faith issues, but also in everyday conversation. It is always so one-sided. I ask tons of questions (because I genuinely enjoy getting to know people) but rarely do other people show an interest in getting to know me. I suppose it is just another byproduct of today’s selfie-obsessed culture.
I have occasionally had someone ask that but I think it’s also okay to share your own ideas with the big caveat that it is when you’ve established a relationship.
I’ve found it’s hard to convince an unbeliever with evidence and logic. I believe apologetics is more beneficial for Christians than non-Christians- it solidifies their faith and completes their understanding of the basic doctrines. With unbelievers I try to just quote scripture and leave the convincing to the Holy Spirit. “My word will not return to me empty”
This is a great post, JW, and I agree that we need more humility and respect when it comes to defending our faith. One thing that turns me off from a lot of atheist writings is the amount of ridicule and sarcasm they employ and unfortunately, there are many Christians who write like that too or parrot points they don’t really understand. If we remember that everyone holds their beliefs dearly and that we should be more concerned with the individuals themselves, that will help.
Some more: no one is converted through reason alone.
One must address the whole embodied person.
Presence, suffering with, is more powerful than arguments.
Yes! Thank you.