I remember the excitement of first getting into apologetics. I was in my late teens and had just given a rather ropey performance in a debate about the existence of God with an atheist friend who had studied some philosophy during his first year at university. I thought I’d better read up on the matter, so off I trotted to the local Christian bookstore, where after browsing a few shelves of apologetics books I came across a small plainly bound black book called “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by some guy called William Lane Craig. I bought it and devoured it, reading it over and over and committing the main lines of the argument to memory. This was the first time I had ever read a philosophical defence of the existence of God, and I was hooked.
I began to find other books – taking a keen interest in teleological and cosmological arguments in particular. Soon, I was studying philosophy of religion academically through my degree programme and began writing papers and essays (often for fun, not just for assignments) on many of the arguments for the existence of God. I also took to debating in internet chat rooms with (as I then saw) idiot atheists who were too stupid to see that God’s existence was obvious, and too thick-headed to grasp my wonderfully crafted (plagiarized) theistic arguments.
In short, I had become an arrogant young apologist. True enough (as the Bible points out), knowledge puffs up. I was often disrespectful, condescending, patronising, and, frankly, an insufferable arrogant ass. Sadly my case is not an isolated one. I have a far more modest assessment of theistic arguments these days, and finally came to admit that my faith didn’t – and never did – rest on any of them. But I still see my younger self out there on the internet, arrogantly bludgeoning atheists with apologetic arguments – calling all those who don’t see or admit the obvious truth of God’s existence either thick or dishonest.
Here’s my message to my younger self:
Keep in mind that few arguments for any philosophically significant conclusion is so obvious that those who don’t accept it are either stupid or wicked. There are usually thorny philosophical problems lurking in the background of any neat little argument. Take the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) that had me enamoured for years. It’s beautiful in its simplicity – three short premises and BOOM! we have proved the existence of God. Regrettably the simplicity is merely prima facie simplicity. There are many issues and assumptions lying behind the KCA. For instance, it relies on the A-Theory of time being correct – that temporal becoming is a feature of reality. If the B-Theory is correct then the KCA cannot succeed. Many of those who triumphantly proclaim the KCA as a clear proof aren’t even aware of these different views of time. Personally I prefer the A-Theory, but it’s probably a minority view in both philosophy and physics. This fact alone should be caution against using the KCA as a clear proof of God. It simply isn’t.
The same goes for any other theistic argument. They are always more contentious than young apologists typically realise. This doesn’t mean, of course, that theistic arguments are of no value. There are several which I think do lend some degree of evidence to theism: I particularly like the Leibnizian contingency argument, the fine tuning argument, and cumulative case arguments from the nature of humankind as conscious, rational, free agents with moral obligations. But none of these is obviously conclusive, and it’s important to see that when anyone examines an argument their current worldview forms part of the lens through which they see it.
Which brings me to my second point: remember that the vast majority of Christians do not come to faith as a result of apologetic arguments. Sure, we know of several high profile cases of thinkers who changed their mind for evidential reasons – CS Lewis, Antony Flew, Lee Strobel, or Alister McGrath – but most of us who give a positive appraisal of apologetic arguments are already Christians or theists. So, to you young apologists pushing your apologetic wares all over hyperspace, take note that most of you didn’t come to believe because of the arguments you now offer to your atheist interlocutors. Like me you probably discovered these arguments as a theist. Most of us – theist and atheist alike – are not the wholly rational creatures we like to portray ourselves as. Many proclaim to be objectively following the evidence wherever it leads, but very few are really doing anything of the sort. Many are, as William James pointed out, simply reorganising their prejudices. We are, for better or worse, heavily influenced by social, cultural, and psychological factors which greatly shape who we are, how we think, what background beliefs we hold, and what strikes us as plausible or implausible. This is why highly intelligent people can look at the same body of evidence and come to radically different conclusions.
Which brings me to my third point: keep in mind that no matter how smart you think you are there is someone smarter who disagrees with you. As a theist it should be humbling to recall the names of atheists or sceptics such as philosophers JL Mackie, Michael Martin, JL Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, WV Quine, Paul Draper, William Rowe, Kai Nielson; or scientists like Stephen Hawking, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Alan Guth, John Nash, Peter Higgs……. When you’re tempted to consider an atheist too stupid to grasp your neat apologetic argument please recall any of these names; the philosophers listed have a sounder grasp of the philosophical issues at stake than you do, and likewise the scientists have a sounder grasp of the scientific issues. None of these can plausibly be written off as ill-informed or wicked.
The more observant reader will detect a common theme here: show a bit of intellectual humility. Ultimate issues are tricky and contentious with plenty of room for honest, rational disagreement. Accepting this fact will make you engagements with the “other side” a little bit sweeter. After all, did you ever hear a former atheist say, “I came to faith thanks to a smarter-than-thou theist who patronised and berated me with genius apologetic arguments”? No, you don’t, so stop doing that.
Stephen J. Graham