Category Archives: Apologetics

Question: Why does Christian Apologetics Fail to Convert?

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

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Short Article 12 – Is “best explanation” a good enough apologetic for the resurrection?

In the run up to Easter I nearly posted an article on how to weigh the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. I abandoned it because I had a few others that seemed to me more interesting. In the article I suggested that in order to weigh the evidence we need to first find out what the evidence actually is, and we can do that by asking ourselves a series of questions, some of the most important being:

1. Did Jesus die on the cross?
2. Was Jesus buried in a known tomb?
3. Was Jesus’ tomb found empty a short time after his death and burial?
4. Did his followers claim to have experienced the risen Christ?
5. Did these experiences radically alter the lives of those who claimed them?

The answers we give to such questions go into an “evidential pot” – the set of things that any proposed hypothesis must explain. I don’t think such an evidential experiment is either necessary or sufficient for believing in the resurrection of Christ, but I actually do think it’s possible to do it and for the results to be favourable to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ.

However, over Easter I have been frustrated by the efforts of numerous Christian apologists in their arguments in favour of the resurrection. It seems that the most common strategy is to argue that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of some body of facts. But often the issue is left hanging there as if that settles it. Sadly, it doesn’t and I want to explain why.

There are several different hypotheses which are commonly discussed in resurrection debates, besides the resurrection hypothesis itself: swoon hypotheses, hallucination hypotheses, wrong tomb hypotheses, and so on. Moreover, there are numerous criteria which are used to assess these rivals. Let’s assume that the traditional apologetic line is correct: the resurrection hypothesis is indeed the best. What follows from this? Not much. I’ll explain by way of an analogy. Suppose I regularly here noises coming from my attic. Between myself and my friends we come up with a bunch of different hypotheses. As it’s happened before I suspect it’s nesting birds. Another friend – sceptical of my cleanliness – suspects it might be mice or rats. A third reckons it’s a faulty water pipe. A fourth thinks it’s a noisy neighbour. A fifth thinks it’s a ghost. So, we have 5 rival hypotheses here. Now let’s say after making sufficient checks I can rule out the presence of birds or rodents. Suppose also my plumber assures me that the water pipes are in tiptop shape. I also discover that my neighbours haven’t been around for a few weeks. It seems therefore that I’m left with the ghost hypothesis as the best available. But does this fact make me rationally obliged to accept it? Surely not. The reason is simple: the existence of ghosts strikes me as utterly implausible, and even if ghosts did exist would they not have something better to do than bang around in my attic? Since the existence of ghosts is not a live intellectual option for me I cannot accept that hypothesis.

Something similar could very easily be the case with respect to the resurrection hypothesis. An atheist could grant that it is the best hypothesis available, and yet remain well within her intellectual rights is rejecting it. As with all such matters there is always a secret option: suspend judgment until more evidence comes to light. Christian apologists should not therefore think their case for the resurrection can be based purely on it being the best explanation of some body of evidence, at least not if they seek to convince non-Christians rather than simply show that their own worldview is consistent with the evidence. In many (most?) cases there needs to be an examination of a wider scope of evidence – such as the existence of God. If someone is not convinced of the existence of God then no matter how much greater the resurrection hypothesis is in comparison to its rivals, it simply won’t be a live option for such a person. In fact, what we end up having to do is a much bigger and far more messy task: of comparing entire metaphysical systems across a broad range of evaluative criteria. Just how difficult this task is will have to wait for a different article.

Stephen J. Graham

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Message to Young Apologists, or Letter to my Younger Self

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

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