What Can We Learn About Human Psychology from Christian Apologetics?

by ChrisHallquist 7 min read21st Oct 2013162 comments


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...)