XFiles Weekend: Apologetics is for believers

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 1: “What is apologetics?”)

Last week, Dr. Craig gave us the first reason why apologetics is important: Christians need it in order to produce a culture whose fictional portrayal of religion makes people more likely to treat false religions as reasonable. Doesn’t seem to me like that makes Christianity look too good, but Hollywood fiction is where he located the cultural impact that needs to be made, and Hare Krishnas in a Hindu culture is the exemplar he offers for Christianity to follow. Moving right along, then, we come to reason number two why apologetics is important.

2. Strengthening believers. The benefits of apologetics in your personal Christian life are huge. Let me mention three.

First of all, knowing why you believe as well as what you believe will make you more confident in sharing your faith with others…

Second, apologetics can also help you to keep the faith in times of doubt and struggle. Emotions will carry you only so far, and then you’re going to need something more substantial…

Finally, the study of apologetics is going to make you a deeper and more interesting person.

Sounds like a sales pitch to me, but then again salesmanship is what apologetics is all about, n’est-ce pas?

The first benefit is definitely about salesmanship, and I can’t help noticing that Dr. Craig indulges in a bit of a shell game in his explanation. The point he’s selling is that a knowledge of apologetics will make you more confident in sharing your faith, but the example he gives is a boast about how, whenever he shows up on a college campus to debate some atheist professor, he typically wins. (Not too surprising, since the atheist is usually ill-prepared to compete in this particular venue, where mere correctness is no guarantee of victory.) Christians come away from these debates feeling like Dr. Craig kicked the atheist’s ass, and are greatly encouraged to share their faith.

Notice the bait and switch, though. These students are not more confident because they themselves have learned the techniques of apologetics in one sitting. Their confidence is based on one man: the man William Lane Craig. It was his victory that encouraged the students, not their own mastery of apologetics. And it was a victory in an arena uniquely suited to producing a winner who isn’t necessarily right, and a loser who isn’t necessarily wrong. Craig is a professional debater, and is skilled in the techniques of making things look right whether they are or not, whereas the college professor’s training and experience eschew mind games and rationalizations in favor of an objective presentation of the facts. It’s a deck stacked against the atheist, and the Christians are naïvely taking encouragement from the fact that a pro is better at what he does than an amateur is.

On the other hand, if William Lane Craig can do it, then other people can too. Apologetics is a highly evolved form of salesmanship, and the techniques that survive to become popular are the techniques that prove the most successful in producing the sale. If any of these students overcome the temptation to just rest their faith on William Lane Craig and actually do study some of the techniques he presents, then it is true, they will be successful. It’s a success based on human effort and literally thousands of years of experience in manipulating human psychology for marketing purposes, but it’s a success. And as I’ve mentioned before, the difference between the skeptic and the believer is that the skeptic thinks being right makes you win, but the believer thinks winning makes you right.

Craig’s second benefit of apologetics is that it will get Christians through times of doubt and struggle. Believe it or not, even Christians have a hard time believing in God all the time. As Dr. Craig suggests, most Christian faith is based on emotion rather than fact. It could hardly be otherwise, since God does not show up in real life to give believers a real-world source for their faith. All they have to go on are their feelings of trust and fellowship and confidence that the things men say about God are really true, even when God fails to behave the way you would expect a loving heavenly Father to act.

Most of the time, this works fine for most believers. But times of trial always come. It may be some kind of personal tragedy, or it might be the sort of quiet crisis that comes from noticing a disturbing pattern in what God does and does not do. And in such times, apologetics gives the believer something to occupy his thoughts until the bad feeling passes. I know this from personal experience. My own favorite apologetic was the idea that Jesus must have risen from the dead, otherwise the disciples wouldn’t have become so bold. That kept me going for about 20 years, until I finally confronted the question honestly and realized that for a believer, “true” doesn’t have to mean literally true.

But I digress. Dr. Craig’s concern is that many believers, especially young believers, fall away without even having a crisis.

A Christian minister at Stanford University recently told me that 40 percent of Christian high school students in church youth groups will quit church involvement altogether after graduation. Forty percent! It’s not just that they lose their faith in a hostile university environment. Rather, many have already abandoned faith while still in the youth group but continue to go through the motions until they’re out from under their parent’s authority.

I think the church is really failing these kids. Rather than provide training in the defense of Christianity’s truth, we focus on emotional worship experiences, felt needs, and entertainment. It’s no wonder they become sitting ducks for that teacher or professor who rationally takes aim at their faith.

There’s lots that could be said here, but I want to withhold comment until we read one more passage from a few paragraphs later.

Recently I had the privilege of speaking at Princeton University on arguments for the existence of God, and after my lecture a young man approached me who wanted to talk. Obviously trying to hold back the tears, he told me how a couple of years earlier he had been struggling with doubts and was almost to the point of abandoning his faith. Someone then gave him a video of one of my debates. He said, “It saved me from losing my faith. I cannot thank you enough.”

I said, “It was the Lord who saved you from falling.”

Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If it’s the Lord who keeps the 60% who don’t leave, why is it the church that fails the 40% that do leave? This is the kind of rigged scorekeeping that constitutes Christian “evidence”–and Dr. Craig sees nothing wrong with that! Give the credit to God even when the works of man are the direct cause for the success, but blame the failures on men even when kids are coming to “God’s house” every week for that 2-way personal relationship God allegedly wanted badly enough to die for, and yet somehow never shows up for in the real world. In both cases God’s participation and contribution are conspicuous in their absence, but the Christian response is to give Him the credit anyway when things go right, and to make men the scapegoat when things go wrong.

This is why I question Dr. Craig’s solution to the problem of teenage apostasy. These kids are losing their faith because God’s failure to show up in real life makes all the worship and indoctrination and religious obligations seem irrelevant and pointless. And that’s because, in the absence of a real God Who actually shows up in real life, they are irrelevant and pointless. Dr. Craig does not address this problem because he can’t. There is no work of men that can be the things a real God would do if He were actually the kind of God that Christianity preaches. So Dr. Craig substitutes a different work of men, proposing that parents should indoctrinate their kids from infancy in the sales techniques of Christian apologetics, so that they can spend their whole lives working to sell it–to themselves as much as to anyone else.

Honestly, I find it hard to understand how Christian couples in our day and age can risk bringing children into the world without being trained in apologetics as part of the art of parenting.

See what I mean?

The last benefit is that studying apologetics will help you escape the superficiality of American sports-and-entertainment-obsessed culture.

Studying apologetics is going to take you beyond all that to life’s deepest questions, questions about the existence and nature of God, the origin of the universe, the source of moral values, the problem of suffering and evil, and so on. As you wrestle with these deep questions, you yourself will be changed.

He’s partly right. Asking deep questions has the potential to make you a deeper person. Unfortunately, however, even though the questions themselves may be deep, if you satisfy yourself with shallow and superficial answers, you’re really no better off than when you started. And apologetics has no answers beyond a shallow and superstitious Goddidit. In fact, much of apologetics depends on the believer being so shallow that he will automatically reject any discussion of origins and morals and theology that lasts longer than a sound byte in a public debate. If people really thought deeply and objectively about the arguments made by Dr. Craig, he would not fare as well in the auditorium.

I’m giving Dr. Craig two out of three on this one. Yes, apologetics will give Christians greater confidence to go out and argue for their faith (at least until they meet someone who knows the right responses to their arguments), and yes, apologetics will help Christians get through the times when even they themselves find it hard to believe God is real (do geologists ever have times when they doubt the existence of rocks?). But on this last point, no, I’m sorry, the answers offered by apologetics do not make you any deeper, nor do they offer any insights at all into the phenomena they purport to explain. They are simply a shallow animism only circumstantially different from the naïve and credulous superstitions of our earliest ancestors.

Next week, the third and final purpose of apologetics: winning unbelievers. Stay tuned.

2 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Apologetics is for believers”

  1. Len Says:

    I like the way Dr Craig says:

    It’s no wonder they become sitting ducks for that teacher or professor who rationally takes aim at their faith.

    So he knows that questioning Christianity rationally is likely to make people see that it’s not what they thought.

    And I guess that in the last quote, you meant “…the source of moral values…” 🙂

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