The Top 5 Problems with Contemporary Christian Apologetics
I spend a lot of time criticizing contemporary Christian apologetics. Since I am myself a Christian apologist, that might seem a bit strange. But it is, in fact, simply a practical outworking of my commitment to what I call the 50/50 Rule:
50/50 rule: devote as much time to (a) defending the beliefs of your opponents and critiquing your own beliefs as you devote to (b) critiquing the beliefs of your opponents and defending your own beliefs. (Read more here)
In short, the 50/50 rule is an attempt to embody the Golden Rule in civil discourse by debating and dialoguing with others the way you’d have them debate and dialogue with you.
With that in mind, this article is focused on a type of self-critique, though in this case not specifically critique of my beliefs, per se, but rather of some weaknesses in current Christian apologetics more generally. And so, without further ado, I will now count down the top five problems with contemporary Christian apologetics.
5. Lack of imagination
I’ve touched on this problem before in the article “Apologetics and the Problem of the William Lane Craig Clones.” The basic problem is that there is an inordinate focus on a limited set of arguments and topics. For example, while I think the Kalam cosmological argument and the argument from intelligent design are both interesting and well worth debating, they both receive excessive attention at the expense of many other worthwhile arguments.
This is not a new problem: in the above-linked article on the “Craig Clones”, I make reference to a famous paper by Alvin Plantinga from more than thirty years ago in which he challenged Christian philosophers to explore more arguments and lines of evidence for theistic and Christian belief. And I’ve certainly tried to do that in my own works as in my defense of an argument from answered prayer (in God or Godless) and an argument from the mathematical structure of reality (in An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar).
One of the points I’ve often strived to emphasize is that the strength of arguments is always contextualized. I summarize the point in 59 seconds here. In that brief, 59-second treatment, I point out that good arguments must be accessible and persuasive. But both accessibility and persuasiveness are relative to individuals and that means we should be seeking to explore and develop more diverse arguments for our views. Most skeptics are already familiar with the Kalam and intelligent design arguments. So perhaps it is time to explore some other arguments that might find a more welcoming reception.
4. Excessive Focus on Debate
These days, so much of apologetics is focused on debates. When I first got into apologetics in the early-mid 1990s, it was primarily by way of watching VHS cassettes of William Lane Craig debates from our university library. Everybody loves a good dust-up, right?
Perhaps, but on the downside, the entire debate format tends to reinforce tribalism (more on that anon), competition, and spin-doctoring/motivated reasoning to the end of winning the debate. Set against that backdrop, is it any surprise that both sides often think they “won”? For further discussion of this problem, see my article “The Problem with Debates.”
3. Lack of Focus on Emotional Intelligence
I find that many amateur apologists focus a lot of effort studying arguments and evidence, memorizing various formal and informal logical fallacies. But they spend little time pursuing the emotional intelligence required to read a room, to identify the intended audience of an exchange, and to present oneself in a savvy and winsome manner so as to appear persuasive to that audience.
In my opinion, every apologist should put some readings on emotional intelligence and persuasion psychology on their reading list. What good is it if you win every argument but lose your audience?
Tribalism refers to heightened in-group loyalty to the point of discouraging critiques of in-group members and their arguments. Thus, time and again I encounter atheists and skeptics who are surprised that I devote significant time to critiquing various aspects of Christian apologetics. Consider, for example, my extensive and unsparing critiques of William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide or my critique of Andy Bannister’s claim that a recognition of human dignity requires belief in God.
While people are often puzzled that I would critique Christian apologists like Craig and Bannister, the fact is that Christian apologetics is not served by remaining silent when you disagree with the arguments of your fellow Christians. And when we challenge those on “our side” who offer dubious arguments, we undermine tribalism and raise our own credibility as honest and fair-minded people who really care about getting at the truth rather than merely reinforcing tribal boundaries.
This is the biggest problem, in my view. And it is exemplified in Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently published new edition of Evidence that Demands a Verdict. (I review the book here.) In that review, I define fundamentalism as follows:
“When I use the term, I intend to signal a position that evinces a particular set of characteristics commonly associated with the Protestant fundamentalism that arose a century ago and which has remaind [sic] a significant force among North American Protestants for the last several decades. These characteristics include biblicism, biblical literalism, rationalism, triumphalism, and binary oppositionalism.”
In my experience, most (Protestant) apologists either lack any formal theological study or their only exposure to Christian theology is through fundamentalist theologians (e.g. Wayne Grudem) and conservative institutions (e.g. Biola University).
As a result, many of these individuals end up with a narrow understanding of the Christian tradition which is manifested in a tendentious understanding of “biblical inerrancy”, a skepticism of evolution and contemporary science, a simplistic soteriological exclusivism, a single theory of atonement (penal substitution) and posthumous judgment (eternal conscious torment), and so on.
And the next step is that these apologists often confuse and conflate their own Protestant fundamentalist tradition with the broader Christian tradition. (For a particularly telling example, see my review of the book An Introduction to Christian Worldview.) But the Christian tradition is far broader and more nuanced than many Christian apologists realize. In short, they have yet to understand, let alone defend, that which C.S. Lewis called mere Christianity.
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