I’m asked questions from time to time and thought it might be fun to answer a few of them here on my blog, so here goes:
Questioner: Apparently only 5% of Christians became Christians at any age after school. So apparently very few mature, developed adults – among all the other rational decisions they make – choose Christianity. Is this a failure of rational arguments for the Christian God? Or some other deficit of the Christian message? Why is that message failing to land with rational adults? Why is Christian apologetics failing to create adult converts?
Trying to adress the relative strengths and weaknesses of various apologetic arguments isn’t possible in this short article. However, I sense something else beneath these questions: perhaps a challenge such as “if Christian apologetic arguments are so good, why do they fail to convince anyone?” Surely if the arguments are any good they would convince people.
By way of response, I would first like to challenge the assumption lurking behind these questions: namely, that rational adults have examined and found wanting the case for Christianity. Not only is this false with respect to Christianity, it’s false with respect to many other areas in which adults have a range of firm opinions: politics and ethics, for example. In my experience it’s exceedingly rare to find an adult who has arrived at their viewpoint on any of these matters as a result of anything even remotely resembling a process of patient and sustained rational reflection. Did the UK population arrive at its decision to leave the EU as a result of a careful study of the – often quite intricate – political, economic and social arguments for and against membership of the EU? Did the US population elect Donald Trump after reasoned political and social reflection? I suspect not. Popular opinion can be a fickle thing.
Now, I don’t wish to slam “average Joe” for this failure to engage in serious intellectual spadework. The simple fact of the matter is that adults tend to be caught up in the business of life. We work, have hobbies, watch TV, play sports, watch our kids play sport, do housework, go shopping, plan holidays, meet friends in the pub, and volunteer for charities. We’re busy. Very few people have the time to engage in the serious intellectual effort that philosophical arguments require. Many might also lack the talent required for doing so. Moreover, after working all day and entertaining the kids all evening, philosophical spadework is the last thing on most people’s minds; and besides, Game of Thrones in on.
As a result, most people simply absorb their worldview and basic assumptions from their socio-cultural milieu. It’s not that people in Saudi Arabia conclude, after rigourous rational reflection, that Islam is true, whilst people in the secular West do the same and just happen to conclude differently. We might easily imagine a Muslim in Saudi Arabia running an identical challenge to atheism as the one we see in the question above with respect to Christianity. Further, these worldviews and basic assumptions that we imbibe from an early age from our surroundings come to form the framework against which we measure and evaluate various claims. If a socio-cultural milieu is heavily secular, it will be incredibly difficult for religious ideas to gain a fair hearing or be taken seriously, no matter how good the arguments may be. The question, I think, fails to appreciate the massive influence that our socio-cultural context has in the formation of our beliefs.
Further, it is well known amongst educators that young people are far more malleble in their view of the world. Their opinions are still forming. They tend to be more open to change and new ideas. By contrast, adults tend to harden, and rarely change their minds with respect to their fundamental belief system. Don’t challenge us with ideological change that threatens to turn our world upside down! We’re too settled and don’t value the upheaval that such changes inevitably bring. This provides fairly good motivation to avoid or resist those things that threaten our equilibrium. The philosopher William James argued for the importance of the will in the formation of our beliefs. I think he’s fundamentally correct to point out that if our will doesn’t want to believe something, our mind will find a way to resist it.
But what about those rational adults whose job it is to reflect on these issues: professional philosophers, and philosophers of religion in particular? Sure enough, they too are affected by their will and their socio-cultural context, but aren’t they at least less affected than Average Joe? Maybe, maybe not; who knows? Let’s grant they are indeed more “objective.” What we find when we look at professional philosophers is a group of people more likely to be theistic than faculty in many other disciplines. In fact, in the philosophy of religion, theistic – and explicitly Christian – philosophy has undergone a renaissance in the past generation, with many of the leading influential figures being Christian theists. Consider one such philosopher – Peter Van Inwagen – who was an adult convert to Christianity, and who is one of the most respected philosophical academics, and arguably the best metaphysician writing today. Or perhaps we might think of Antony Flew – the poster boy of intellectual atheism for half a century – who converted to a form of deism late in his life due to a number of philosophical arguments which were outlined in his final book. In passing we might also note CS Lewis, who was converted due to certain arguments and went on to have an enormous influence.
In any event, though, we’re being naive if we persist with the concept of professional philosophers objectively pursuing the evidence wherever it leads. There are reputations to be upheld, careers to protect, and egos to be stoked. Alas very few academics drastically change their opinion about anything major once they’ve committed themselves in print.
Lastly, we need to have a proper idea of what apologetics can reasonably achieve. Very few apologists would be naive enough to think a person will fall on his or her knees and get gloriously saved upon hearing an apologetic case for Christian theism. It does seem to be the case for some, of course. William Lane Craig regularly receives testimonies from people who have embraced or returned to Christianity upon hearing a debate or reading an article. However, Craig himself doesn’t believe that apologetic arguments save anyone. Conversion occurs only in response to the work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life, and sometimes (albeit rarely) that work is achieved through theistic arguments. An argument might simply be the initial eye-opener, or the thing that gives a person intellectual permission to follow their heart when they find themselves moved by the Holy Spirit. As a result, Craig (amongst others) expects apologetic arguments to be rejected by most people most of the time. One of the reasons why he persists in apologetics is because he claims that the success rate amongst certain influential people or “culture formers” is higher than average: doctors, engineers, lawyers, and so on. So, whilst apologetic arguments are rejected by most, they are more successful with those who are more culturally influential. These persons in turn help to change the cultural mileau to one in which Christianity is more likely to be viewed as a live option for intelligent people.
Moreover, apologetics can play an important role in the life of the believer. It assists them during periods of doubt. It provides confidence that their beliefs hold up intellectually. It also challenges defeaters of theistic beliefs – such as the problem of evil, divine hiddennes, or the coherence of theism. So, even if Christian apologetics has limited ability in convincing people, it might still have a crucial role to play in the maintaining of Christian belief in the lives of many others.
The central point here though is that just because an argument fails to convince most people doesn’t mean the argument itself is a bad one or a “failure,” (of course they might well be bad arguments, but I’m not addressing that point here. The issue here is whether an argument is poor because it fails to convince most people). Arguments for any philosophically significant conclusion are failures if judged against the number of people who accept them upon hearing them expounded.
It seems clear enough to me that there is no good reason to think apologetic arguments are failures simply because they fail to convince the vast majority of rational adults.
Stephen J. Graham