A couple months ago I set up a Skype meeting Robin Hanson to chat about the book he's working on. But the first thing he wanted to talk wasn't directly related to the book. He'd read some of my work critiquing Christian apologetics, and said something to the effect of even though people who spend a lot of time arguing about religion are extreme cases, maybe they somehow shed light on the psychology of ordinary people. I didn't have a good response at the time; I had taken a shot at discussing the sociology of apologetics in my first book, but I was never terribly satisfied with that chapter and hadn't thought about the subject much since writing it.
Since then, I've thought about it more, and now have a better answer for Robin. The take-away is that to understand Christian apologetics, you need to see it as a giant exercise is violating Eliezer's advice in the Against Rationalization subsequence, particularly The Bottom Line. What's particularly noteworthy is the enormous amount of effort many Christians put into doing so, rather than just shrugging their shoulders and saying "I believe on faith." (Note: everything I say here is probably applicable to some degree to other forms of apologetics, but I'll focus on Christian apologetics and in particular Protestant apologetics because it's what I'm most familiar with.)
And I need to emphasize from the start that we are talking about a lot of Christians here. Big name professional apologists are rare, but then so by definition are "big names" in any field. Consumers of apologetics are not so rare: countless evangelicals have read C. S. Lewis' apologetic work Mere Christianity and it's number 3 on Christianity Today's list of "The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals." Immediately following Mere Christianity on the list is another apologetic work, Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There. Josh McDowell's The Evidence That Demands A Verdict is number 13. McDowell's More Than A Carpenter has reportedly sold 15 million copies, while Lee Strobel's Case For... books have reportedly sold 10 million copies all together.
I think apologists are best-seen as a highly specialized kind of religious professional, in some ways analogous to priests and ministers. Indeed there's overlap: many prominent apologists have had less well-known careers as pastors, while many evangelical pastors brush up on their apologetic arguments to share them with their congregations.
The second thing you need to understand, if you want to make sense of apologetics, is that apologists are in the business of pretending the purpose of apologetics is something other than what it actually is. This is not something you will learn even from reading many atheist critiques of apologetics, because many critics are willing to politely play along with the pretense that the purpose of apologetics is to open minded-skeptics and debates between skeptics and believers are serious intellectual engagements.
Such politeness may actually be smart tactics, if you are addressing believers and your goal is to persuade them, but that's not what I'll be doing here. Instead, I'll be addressing the mostly-atheist readership of LessWrong, and my goal will be to see what we can learn from apologetics about human psychology in general.
One of the best discussions I've read of the false pretenses of apologetics is a relatively brief section in Robert J. Miller's commentary on a debate between evangelical apologist William Lane Craig and liberal Christian scholar John Dominic Crossan (published alongside other commentaries and a transcript of the debate as Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?). Miller writes:
Why is it that few, if any, outsiders will be persuaded by Craig's apology? From the way he presents it, we get the impression that he thinks nobody who is informed, rational, and sincere could disagree with it...
I used to think this way myself when I was a fervent believer in the power of apologetics. I was a philosophy major at a Catholic college. I was utterly convinced not only that Christianity was the one true religion that God intended for all humanity, but also that the Catholic Church was the one true church that Christ intended for all Christians. From my study of Thomas Aquinas and modern Christian apologetics, I clearly saw that the central truths of Christianity (and of Catholicism) could be grasped by reason if only one was sincerely seeking God's truth, was humble enough to accept it, and took the time to inform oneself and follow the arguments.
All of this made perfect sense to me, and none of my teachers or fellow students (all of whom were Catholics) gave me any reason to question it. I tried out various apologetic arguments on my like-minded friends, who found them quite convincing. Occasionally they suggested improvements in my arguments, but none of us doubted the effectiveness of apologetics. The only real puzzle in my mind was this: since the truths of Christianity and Catholicism are so evident, why are they not more universally recognized? I concluded that those outside my religion or my church just did not know or did not understand these apologetic arguments, or that they were not completely sincere about seeking the truth...
This mind-set held together until I went to graduate school at secular universities and got to know people who had different religions. For the first time in my life, I got to know people who took other religions as seriously as I took mine. I knew these people were well educated and highly rational, and I could tell from our conversations that they were sincere. A few were people of great goodness and spiritual depth. Yet none of them was persuaded by my apologetics.
This means that if the purpose of apologetics is taken at face-value, "apologies are almost always abject failures." However, he writes:
The is another, more promising way to evaluate the apologetic genre. We can determine its audience, not by whom it seems to be aimed at, but by who actually reads it. And we can determine its purpose, not by what the author seems to intended, but by how it actually functions. if we proceed like this, we reach two important findings: (1) the audience for an apology is insiders; (2) its function is to support what the audience already believes.
This is nothing new to apologists, who know full well that their audiences are insiders. (Why else would Craig speak at Moody Memorial Church or write for Baker Book House?) So why do apologists write as if they were addressing outsiders? They do that, not because they are mistaken about their audience, but because that is the convention of the apologetic genre. An apt comparison is the genre of the open letter. An open letter may begin, "To the President of the United States," but both author and readers understand that the real audience is the general public. Readers don't think they are reading the president's mail... Authors of fables write about talking animals because that is how fables go, not because anyone thinks that animals really talk.
While Miller makes good points, he is too kind to treat the pretense of persuading outsiders as a mere genre convention and imply nobody believes it. He certainly seems to have believed his arguments would persuade outsiders when he was a Catholic college student.
Furthermore, both Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel make their self-presentation as former skeptics persuaded by overwhelming evidence a central part of their marketing. Their fans seem to mostly believe the marketing, and would therefore conclude Miller is wrong about the purpose of apologetics. But scratch the surface, and you start to see marketing is all it is. In recent editions of his books, McDowell claims that in college he traveled Europe researching the evidence for Christianity, but I've been unable to find any record of this claim prior to the 1999 edition of The Evidence that Demands a Verdict (the first edition was published in 1972).
Lee Strobel's Case for... books go even further playing up the "former skeptic" angle. They consist of a series of interviews with Christian apologists, presented in narrative form with Strobel feigning skepticism and objectivity while pitching the apologists softball questions. In my experience, many of Strobel's fans believe their reading an account of Strobel's conversion. More attentive readers will notice Strobel only claims to be "retracing" his conversion. Strobel's earlier book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, gives the real story: Strobel started going to church because of his wife, found it emotionally moving, and then started reading up on apologetics to assure himself it was all true.
Apologetics is marketed this way because fans of apologetics want to believe it. And in his reply to Miller, Craig tries to keep up that image of apologetics, even while conceding some of Miller's points. Craig says he publishes at with evangelical publishing houses because "it is extraordinarily difficult to interest nonevangelical presses in publishing a defense of the historical resurrection of Jesus." Somehow, Craig doesn't consider that this might be because the audience for such material is composed almost entirely of evangelicals.
Craig concedes that few outsiders will be persuaded by his arguments, but then says there are exceptions to this rule. He has a couple stories of how, after one of his appearances on a college campus, a staff member from a campus Christian org (presumably the one that organized the event) told him he'd made some converts.
He also tells tells a story about meeting an investment banker who says he had "wanted to believe in Jesus," but had trouble buying the resurrection story. So he joined a small group at a local church and spent some time talking to one of the ministers there, who "laid out for him the evidence for Jesus' miraculous resurrection. After reading a book of evangelical responses to the liberal Jesus Seminar, the man says that "I asked Jesus into my life."
But Craig concedes the people in his anecdotes are unusual, so before I say anything about them, let's talk about the majority of apologetics consumers who are already believers. For many, I suspect, apologetics gives them a few extra good feels about their faith, but that's the extent of what it does for them. Miller certainly doesn't make it sound like his college-age self would have faced a major crisis of faith without apologetics.
For other Christians, however, consuming apologetics is part of a desperate attempt to hold on to their beliefs in the face of doubts. The ranks of the atheist movement are full of ex-Christians who went through an apologetics-reading phase for this reason. My impression, furthermore, is that there are Christians who have succeeded where many current atheists have failed. For example, Christian apologist Mike Licona (who made headlines when he was forced to resign from his position at Southern Evangelical Seminary for his ever-so-slight deviations from the inerrantist party line) credits his mentor in apologetics, Gary Habermas, with saving his faith.
In fact, when I read Eliezer say that, in the Orthodox Judaism of his childhood, "You're allowed to doubt. You're just not allowed to successfully doubt," this struck me as a pretty good expression of an attitude that's common in evangelical Protestant apologetics. They may not take it as far as it's taken in Eliezer's account of Judaism—they don't raise doubts just to have a competition over who can come up with the most complicated explanation—but there's a resigned recognition that doubt is inevitable. So they talk about struggling with doubt, dealing with doubt, overcoming doubt, living with doubt. The message is that doubt can be embraced or at least tolerated, as long as you don't, as Eliezer would put it, doubt successfully.
Apologetics, though, seems to serve another, stranger purpose. Once, in college, I attended an apologetics talk put on by the local Campus Crusade chapter, and after the talk ran into an acquaintance who I got to talking with. He explained friends of his had told him about how Christianity had saved their lives, which made him want to convert, but he wasn't sure he could really believe it, hence going to the talk.
This seems to be part of a pattern with other stories I've heard, like Lee Strobel's story (the relatively unvarnished version from Inside the Mind...) and Craig's story of the investment banker: people decide they want to convert for emotional reasons, but some can't believe it at first, so they use apologetics as a tool to get themselves to believe what they've decided they want to believe.
In "The Bottom Line," Eliezer imagines the owner of a box paying a clever arguer to argue that there's a diamond inside. This is, in effect, the role of apologists, to make a living as clever arguers serving people who've decided they want to believe certain religious doctrines are true. As someone who's had rationalist instincts since before I knew anything about rationalism (as an intellectual tradition or movement), part of me is surprised that this would ever work. Shouldn't it be obvious to people that they're fooling themselves?
On the other hand, it says something about people's need to feel rational that they would go to the trouble, rather than just satisfying themselves with believing on faith, as many religious believers seem to do. In fact, this need may be more widespread than most people realize. In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer reports on a study that found that while even most religious believers tend to assume other people believe for non-rational reasons, when you ask religious people about their own reasons for their religious beliefs, they're more likely to cite the argument from design than faith.
(What does all this mean for domains outside religion? I'm not actually sure, though there's some rather obvious connections you could draw with people's information-consuming habits in other areas. But that's a problem for another day...)
Christian here (and very long-time lurker), of more or less the "I believe on faith" stripe. I've noticed that in addition to the uses you mention here, /Mere Christianity/ serves as a summary of doctrine. (I can't really speak to other apologetics.)
I've found that Sunday school and sermons generally incline much more to vague, feel-good platitudes than to actual, you know, positive or normative claims. You're left in this position of "OK, I have [for whatever reason] bought into the Church and its credibility---now what do these people actually believe? How can I draw on the collective experience of all these people?" /Mere Christianity/ tells you what, exactly, the vast majority of those people you find credible believe.
Further, it does so in a way that attempts to make those things plausible and memorable, even though you believe them not because of the Lewis' attempts at plausibility, but because of the credibility of the people who've given their assent to those things. This is much more readable, enjoyable, and amenable to discussion than a catechism. It's sort of like worked-out examples or concrete special cases in a textbook.
One of the things that I think many atheists misunderstand about Christian belief is the degree to which it has to do with belief in the sense of having trust for particular people, not only the sense of having credence in a proposition.
I was reminded of this a while back when talking with a young Christian boy, a relative of mine. He had said that he believed something-or-other — I think the proposition was that the Devil exists; or possibly that temptations to do bad things (like get in fights with his brothers) are caused by the Devil. I asked him why he believed that. His answer was that he believed it because his guardians and teachers had taught him that it was true; and he trusts them.
This creates an interesting trap for teaching rationality: If someone ties credence in particular propositions to their trust in particular people, then asking them to doubt the proposition can come across as a threat to their relationship with the person. Many people are taught when they're young to regard "I don't believe you" as a bit of an insult. So to someone whose reasons to believe rest on trust in individuals, even saying, "I don't believe the Devil exists" carries the implication, "I think your guardians and teachers taught you wrongly."
On the other hand, it is emotionally perfectly okay to throw away all the inconvenient parts of science, because those scientists were usually not a part of one's family or circle of friends. They were just some strangers, and offending them indirectly is no problem -- even suggesting that they devoted their whole lifes to spreading lies and participating in evil conspiracies. That's still emotionally more acceptable than imagining that my Mommy and Daddy lied to me every day for my whole life.
I heard that small children get offended by hearing that their favorite teacher was wrong about something. But somehow this effect gets weaker as they grow up.
A part of it may be realising that humans make mistakes, even humans we love and respect. But I suspect another important part may be that as we grow up, the details of beliefs of elementary-school teachers are forgotten, and the high-school teachers don't have the same impact on us because we meet them older. At some moments people realize their own parents make mistakes, which starts with a big disappointment, and then gradually becomes just an acceptable fact about fellow humans.
So seems to me there are circumstances which make "this is what people I love and respect believe; thinking otherwise would mean betraying them" thinking stronger or weaker. Typical religious education has a few aspects that make it stronger: it starts at a small age, it is reinforced periodically, it is a belief of community instead of just individuals, and it is intentionally connected with strong emotions. There are whole institutions built for this purpose, it doesn't just happen accidentally. Many kinds of manipulation, lying, and em... (read more)
There are some comments here making a parallel between religious apologetics and some local applause lights (rationality, atheism, cryonics). I think there is some important difference, but it's hard to show exactly what it is. Also, I am not familiar with a lot of religious apologetics -- maybe some of it is more analogical and other is less.
I think the difference is in the attitude of the audience (the real target audience, as this article emphasises) towards the discussed topic, and the -uhm- tone of the author's voice (optimistic or desperate). Here is how I imagine a finctional LessWrong-ish apologetics:
"Dear rationalists! These days science is more unpopular than ever. People have many doubts. They say: no one has ever seen an atom with their own eyes. Scientists speak about interference of quantum particles in their laboratories, but no one has ever travelled to a parallel universe and back; some sciensists even doubt those universes really exist. Futurists often get their predictions wrong.
On the other hand, modern life offers a lot of temptations. You can read your horoscope and know what will happen to you. You can pray for success, and become successful, even withou... (read more)
So, is the main purpose of apologetics generating fictional evidence that people can find religion convincing for reasons other than social pressure?
Nonbelievers don't buy this fictional evidence, because for them the "convincing" parts aren't really convincing; but that's okay, because they are not the target audience. Fresh converts find satisfaction in knowing that although they personally joined for social reasons, there were other good reasons for joining, too. Believers are reassured that it is okay to ignore all evidence supposedly against religion, because someone else can explain it all, and that the evidence is really on the side of the religion, as confirmed by the fictional stories of conversion after facing the evidence. Doubters receive guidelines for doubting unsuccessfully, which prevent some of them from finding a way to doubt successfully.
"Connections you could draw" seems like an understatement. Coming from a family that wasn't religious but was very political I don't see any significant difference between religious apologia and political apologia.
I'm not even sure I see a difference in function between religious apologia and atheist apologia. Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens --the most prominent anti-apologists-- do not optimize for de-conversion. They are/were popular because of their popularity among unbelievers. They probably have a slightly better ratio of agreeing to disagreeing readers than Christian writes. But that is probably just because there are more Christians. They probably are also slightly more successful at converting, but that is probably just because they are right. I'd bet most people buy their books to feel more secure in their worldview and more confident in their intelligence and ability to win arguments. They confirm beliefs and flatter egos and make it easier for their readers to signal... (read more)
A big part of what Dawkins and others do is signalling high status of atheists.
To explain, imagine that you have two groups A and B living next to each other. Members of the group A have regular meetings listening to guys who say offensive stuff about the group B. ("They are fools, they are immoral, they will be punished in the future and they deserve it.") Speaking these offensive things is socially acceptable; actually it is kind of a taboo to point out their offensiveness. The freedom of group A to speak offensive things about group B is considered one of the most important rights in the society. -- On the other hand, members of the group B are taught that in privacy they are allowed to politely disagree with the teachings of group A, but in any confrontations being extremely polite is critical to their being good citizens. No matter how unfair the group A is towards them, the group B is not socially allowed to defend on the same level.
Guess which one of these two groups has a higher status.
Maybe the group A are Muslims, and the group B are dhimmis. Or maybe the group A are Christians, and the group B are atheists.
People like Dawkins are demonstrating that it is not on... (read more)
This sentence is messed up.
The article's conclusion is that "people decide they want to convert for emotional reasons, but some can't believe it at first, so they use apologetics as a tool to get themselves to believe what they've decided they want to believe."
So we expect apologetic literature and speakers as a market niche wherever there are emotionally manipulative (claimed) rewards and punishments attendant on belief. Some rewards and punishments are quite real, like social status, praise, and condemnation. Others are fictional, like afterlives and the deep satisfaction of living according to divine law.
Similarly to mainstream religion, there is plentiful apologetic literature, speakers, and films for political ideologies. The social rewards of being in a political group are real; the future consequences that are promised if only enough elections can be won may or may not be real.
Given religions where beliefs are not rewarded or punished, we'd expect little or no consumption of apologetics. Shinto, neopaganism, and Unitarian Universalism fit that. However, there is certainly plenty of apologetic literature for secular humanist atheism, which also lacks the rewards/punishments. That looks ... (read more)
I think concluding the real purpose of apologetics is for the believer fans because they are the ones who read most of it is bad reasoning.
Is the real purpose of a national army so that people can run and participate in training exercises? The armies of so many countries are hardly ever used for what they say they are for.
I have been atheist since I was about 12. I have consumed some apologetics along the way, usually having it recited to me by someone I was talking to or having it highly recommended to me by those people. Curious as to whether I wa... (read more)
I would be interested in parallels between Christian apologetics and cryonics apologetics...
Or perhaps it is a matter of inferential distance? There is little point in booming religion to atheists. Few will be convinced. Those on the edges, though, and those within who have never really thought about their religion, will be more fertile ground. Think of it as triage: saving those who both need saving, and can be saved.
To what extent are postings such as this apologetics, by this understanding of the ... (read more)
I answered this poll with "LessWrong has had no particular impact on my beliefs regarding religion" but that's not really true.
Reading LessWrong actually made me less antagonistic towards religion, since I didn't start reading about cognitive science and sociology until being prompted by reading LessWrong posts. Reading that stuff made me realize that there isn't some "rational little homunculus inside that is being ‘corrupted’ by all these evolved heuristics and biases layered over it" but that we are biases and heuristics; religion isn't some alien thing to be removed from the planet, but more like something that we should harness and possibly try to make healthier versions of.
I'd actually be surprised if LessWrong made many deconverts (though such people would be interesting to hear from, if they exist). The Sequences take atheism and a vague respect for rationality for granted, and focus on arguing about other topics. And the Sequences have shifted my beliefs around on some of those other topics, most notably Bayesianism.
The comparison to apologetics is more apt, I think, for sites like Rational Wiki, which Konkvistador aptly described as, "what a slightly left of centre atheist needs to win an internet debate... an ammunition depot to aid in winning debates."
Articles like Belief in Belief and A Parable on Obsolete Ideologies were instrumental in my deconversion.
Thanks for that comment. Re-skimming those articles, those are both good examples of LW articles that don't assume atheism from the start. Which isn't true of a lot of articles on LW, but it's good to remember it's true of some of them.
I deconverted in large part because of Less Wrong. Looking back at it now, I hadn't had a strong belief since I was 18 (by which I mean, if you asked most believers what the p(god) is they'd say 100% whereas I might have said 90%) but that might just be my mind going back and fixing memories so present me thinks better of past me.
I'd be happy to do an AMA (I went from Mormon to Atheist) but a couple of the main things that convinced me were:
Seeing that other apologists could make up similar arguments to make just about anything look true (for example, other religious apologists, homeopathy, anti-vaccines, etc)
Seeing the evidence for evolution and specifically, how new information supports true things. That showed me that for true things, new information doesn't need to be explained away, but actually supports the hypothesis. For example, with evolution discoveries such as carbon dating, the fossil record, and DNA all support it. Those same discoveries have to be explained away via apologetics for religions.
Bayesian thinking. I have an econ background so kind of did this informally but the emphasis from less wrong that once you see evidence against you need to actively lower y
One could argue that LW just made the inevitable happen faster, though.
Connotationally about "just made the inevitable happen faster": Sometimes the timing makes a huge difference. For a man, being just a few years late may result in a marriage where "coming out" would mean losing all contact with their children. For a woman, being just a few years late may result in being married to an old polygamous guy and having no chance to get even high-school education.
All the religion needs to win is to keep you long enough so that it can keep your children, too.
I believe the reasonably public case is the blogger at Unequally Yoked, who credits the posts on How To Actually Change Your Mind on pushing her towards Catholicism.
I know of at least one other, but his is not my story to tell.
When there's no “I'm not going to vote; just show me the results” option, it's likely that a few people will answer at random.
How about updating the LW code to add the "just show me the results" option automatically? Or perhaps add a link to display the results without voting.
Yeah, I am suggesting work for other people that I wouldn't do myself...
I once attended an apologetical talk given by the Christian Union at my college. (They were offering free food.) The invited speaker presented a version of C. S. Lewis's trilemma: liar, lunatic or lord? (a kind of proof by alliteration).
I spoke to the speaker afterwards and took him to task for presenting such a silly argument, which I said was hardly likely to convince anyone not already a Christian. He freely admitted the logical flaws in the trilemma argument, and said that his own personal justifications for belief were quite different—he appealed, if ... (read more)
Each compartment has its own threshold for evidence.
The post reminded me of Christians talking bravely about there being plenty of evidence for their beliefs. How does that work?
When evidence is abundant we avoid information overload by raising the threshold for what counts as evidence. We have the luxury of taking our decisions on the basis of good quality evidence and the further luxury of dismissing mediocre evidence as not evidence at all.
Evidence is seldom abundant. Usually we work with a middling threshold for evidence, doing the best we can wit
Your link to "Against Rationalization" is broken.
Back when I was religious, I initially just believed everything, and worked hard to optimize my life based on those beliefs. After some exposure to some atheists online, and realizing that a significant number of scientifically minded people were irreligious, I started inventing apologetics for explaining why I had those beliefs. I was concerned about the loss of social status that being religious might bring me, and wanted to mitigate that risk by having some ready arguments. I never really bothe... (read more)
As a former Christian who was an active apologist for the faith, I think one of the keys is the presupposition that God exists (and perhaps that it is likely that God is like the Christian God).
From there, you can build a pretty sophisticated and coherent theology that, when maintained through prayer/devotion/church attendance, is a suitable apologetic that is basically invincible to reason.
So, there are (roughly) three "levels" of apologetic in my mind...
Apologetics to support the presupposition that a god exists.
Apologetics to support the
I think you mean "assure" himself, but I'm not actually sure.
Why this fascination with Christian apologia? Rabbinic writings are at least as clever, if less known outside Judaism. Islam is similar, too. LDS, what have you. There are versions of clever arguers in almost any religion, why pick this one? Actually, if you pick a cause and want to come up with the best argument for it, just hire Yvain to steelman it for you. The downside is that he will not stop there and proceed to write just as convincing a counter-argument, as our reactionary friends know too well
This is at least cursorily addressed in the post; Christian apologia is the subject he's already familiar with. Writing the post didn't require him to develop some new expertise.
Probably not, but:
The Catholic Church has (at one time or another) ruled out as heresy every way to model the Trinity. LDS does not seem to require strict logical self-contradictions.
While getting your own planet when you die is an additional detail with no evidence behind it, you might well expect some such result from a benevolent deity.
Orson Scott Card tries to make their beliefs sound like modern multiverse/macrocosm theory.
Becoming a deity yourself brings Mormonism close to something an intelligent creator might do. Of course, you wouldn't expect people to die before that point. Even if we depart from LDS orthodoxy by accepting re-incarnation, the lack of childproofing safeguards creates a problem for any variant that refuses to go full Truman Show.
I'm reminded of this piece. It's very long for an internet piece so I'm going to summarize. Some of this is my own words, some directly copied. It in general describes the different perspectives of the brain's hemispheres, based on The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist.... (read more)
This is very interesting, but why is it posted to Main?
I don't get this part. Why have they succeeded and how have other atheists failed? There's a few other typos and grammatical slips that other commenters have ... (read more)