Last week I was referred to, in a critical article, as an “apologist.” I confess that I winced every time I read that description. I’ve never regarded myself as an apologist, and find it quite irritating when the label is applied to me. What then am I? On this website I describe myself as a “philosophical theologian;” on Twitter I use: “philosopher,” “theologian,” “writer,” and “researcher.” My academic background – what I actually studied and graduated in at university – is philosophy and theology; my major research interest being philosophy of religion. For this reason I suppose “philosophical theologian” is the most accurate label, if a label is required.
To some minds, however, this doesn’t exclude my also being an “apologist.” It might be thought that since I occasionally criticize atheist arguments or (less often) advance arguments in favour of theism, then I must be an apologist. But surely that can’t be correct. Take atheist philosopher Stephen Law, for example. Law writes articles and essays in defense of atheism, he has taken part in debates with theists, and has advanced a number of arguments against theism or doctrines of some particular brand thereof. And yet we would not fairly and correctly call him an “atheist apologist,” despite the fact that he frequently engages in the sort of activity that might rightly be labelled an “apologetic” – a defense of one’s believings or disbelievings in some matter.
So, how do we distinguish between apologetics and philosophy of religion?
It’s not not terribly easy to say. The lines are often blurred and we even find individuals who engage in both – the most obvious example being William Lane Craig, who is rightly considered as a “philosopher of religion” or an “apologist.” Moreover, there are those who are incorrectly called apologists despite the fact that their work has obvious apologetic import – Alvin Plantinga, for instance. In any event, even though presenting cut-and-dried criteria isn’t possible, and even though the two areas often overlap, to my mind there are a number of general features distinguishing philosophy of religion – or philosophical theology – from apologetics.
Firstly, and most importantly, we must ask ourselves what are the aims. In philosophy of religion – or philosophy generally – the aim is to discover truth and rationally compelling arguments wherever they should lead. By contrast, apologetics is often the defence of what one already believes, a search to find arguments for conclusions already arrived at, and to persuade others of one’s conclusions using arguments, even if those arguments are not the reason why one believes himself. We might put it thus: philosophy of religion asks: “is X coherent and true,” whilst the apologist asks: “Since X is coherent and true, how can we prove it and persuade people.” In speaking of the “paradox of apologetics,” Paul Draper describes the difference this way: apologists seek to justify their religious beliefs; philosophers of religion seek to have beliefs that are justified. He goes on to argue that the nature of apologetics – seeking to justify one’s religious beliefs – is inevitably biased and therefore cannot ground justification. Thus, “paradoxically one cannot obtain justification for one’s religious beliefs by seeking it directly.” We must, then, seek truth rather than justification. Of course this isn’t non-problematic, and frequently it isn’t clear whether someone is doing apologetics or philosophy of religion, but that there is a difference somewhere here seems relatively clear.
Secondly, and following from the above, philosophers of religion must accept risk in a way apologists rarely do. For the apologist – again, generally – philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. By contrast, for the philosopher of religion philosophy will – if necessary – criticize theology and contradict its deliverances. Philosophers must be – and often are, in my experience – much more prepared to abandon even the most cherished beliefs they hold. Apologists tend to have a much greater sense of allegiance to their beliefs, such that even the thought of abandoning some belief is anathema.
Thirdly, philosophers of religion test and critique their own position just as often as they construct arguments for it, and often assist others in doing so. For example, Alvin Plantinga (incorrectly called an apologist, in my view) has on occasion spent hours with critical colleagues to help them be even more effective in their critique. I’ve never witnessed the same charity from “apologists.”
Readers who regard themselves as apologists might well be spitting feathers by now. And perhaps this response is justified and I’ve been unduly harsh. Part of the problem is that the word apologetics can mean different things and be used in different ways. In its simplest form it means merely to give a defense of what one does or believes – like Socrates giving an “apology” to the Athenian court when faced with the charges of denying the gods of Athens and corrupting the youth. Or Paul Draper giving a defense of naturalism. Or Alvin Plantinga rebutting the problem of evil. If this is all we mean by “apologetics” then anyone who ever argues for a position they hold or who defends it against objections is engaging in “apologetics.” But, of course, “apologetics” means more than this. So much so that an entire industry has sprung up in apologetic writing, by authors correctly labelled “apologists.” I’m thinking here of people like Lee Strobel, Frank Turek or J Warner Wallace. What Strobel does, for instance, is not what I do. Strobel can barely bring himself to be critical of a single theistic argument or piece of Christian evidence. If he is critical at all he passes over such arguments in silence so as to focus only on those things he thinks helps sell his beliefs to others. His work is largely about giving answers, the sort that come well-packaged and shrink-wrapped. It’s far too neat to be identified as philosophy of religion, which is a much messier business. No-one could accuse Strobel of criticising Christianity and theistic beliefs just as much or more than atheism – a charge a Christian apologist levelled at me last week.
I suppose ultimately it’s this kind of popular “industry apologetics” I have a strong aversion to, and this that I have in mind when I reject the label of “apologist.”
Stephen J Graham