Tag Archives: Christianity

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 10 – The Importance of the Resurrection

This week the BBC reported the results of a religious belief poll, with the headline proclaiming that one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-39153121). My response to this was a simple “Psssst…they’re not Christians.” I was promptly taken to task by a few Twitter followers for the comment, which was described as “harsh” by one, while another chastised me for not taking into account other important features of religious faith besides belief (such as practice). Many of my fellow Christians seemed to agree with me, however.

Why should I adopt such a stance on a single doctrinal position? Isn’t Christianity much bigger than a single belief? Well, of course it is. However, there are several pretty major beliefs the rejection of which leaves people outside of historic orthodox Christianity. The resurrection is one such belief, and those who reject it surely know – if they are remotely reflective – that they are placing themselves outside of orthodoxy here. Resurrection was the founding belief of the entire Christian movement; without it there would have been no Christianity. It appears in virtually all Christian creeds which are accepted universally across denominational boundaries. Contrary to one accusation, therefore, this isn’t an arbitrary move on my part.

The fact of the matter is that all faiths have distinctives. Whilst religions are obviously more than just belief systems, they do at least include a cognitive element which is essential to their being the sort of thing they are. Could I one day wake up and just decide to be “Muslim” despite not believing the Qu’ran is the final Word of God, or that Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets? Of course not. When it comes to religious faith we can’t believe or live as we like and still reasonably apply some label to ourselves. Words such as “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” actually mean something, despite how difficult it might be to provide an exhaustive definition of what they are. And there are clear cases when such labels do not apply. “Muslim,” for instance, clearly does not apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But – so I was challenged – who decides?! Well, in this case we all must make our own minds up as to what we are willing to accept as being “Christian.” It seems to me to be eminently reasonable, however, to use belief in the resurrection as a marker of orthodoxy here. It always has been in a way that certain other doctrines – such as the eternal mode of God’s existence – never have been. Someone might not agree with the boundaries that I draw, but that person will still have some boundaries, however vague. Without such boundaries the word “Christian” would be literally meaningless.

It may be true that Christianity – like all religions – has evolved somewhat with time. However, churches today still largely accept historic creeds from centuries ago. These creeds embody some of the earliest Christian beliefs and they are still distinctives of Christianity today. In that regard the core of Christianity remains the same. It was founded on faith in a risen Christ and it continues to be so. There are some who would reject certain quintessential Christian beliefs as the resurrection and attempt to salvage something from the remains. They might reduce Christian faith to a collection of false but meaningful stories. But that’s hardly enough for religious significance. After all the Brothers Grimm also have a collection of false but meaningful stories but it would be a tad silly to construct a religious faith out of them. There might be other such attempts to construct a quasi-Christian alternative, but any such a system is no longer historic Christianity. It’s an aberration. A Big Mac without the meat.

And so, what do we make of the report than one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection? I suspect it’s a simple case of nominal Christianity. My dad still puts his religion down on forms as “Church of Ireland,” despite the fact that he doesn’t believe a word of Church of Ireland doctrine – he’s not religious at all. Which means that a quarter of “Christians” don’t believe in the resurrection, perhaps, but not a quarter of Christians. Rejection of the resurrection is a rejection of historic Christianity.

Stephen J. Graham

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Are There Any Genuine Christians: An Argument Ad Masturbatum

In my previous article I considered a very widespread belief amongst Christians that there is no such thing as an honest atheist – that all atheists deep down know there is a God and knowingly reject their creator because they desire a life of sin. In this article I want to examine the flip-side charge from some atheists: that there are no genuine Christians. Sometimes this takes the form of an exclamation: “surely you can’t believe that a dead guy rose again from the dead!” On other occasions it’s the old psychological claim that Christians are simply engaged in wishful thinking rather than genuine belief. But here I want to consider an actual argument, which I’ve chosen to call the “argument ad masturbatum,” the reason for which will become obvious.

Take some ordinary Christian – we’ll call him Bob. Bob is a single man in his 20s, active in church, evangelises his friends, and has just signed up for an apologetics course. However, Bob has a little secret that he hopes is never found out. He engages in regular masturbation. Obviously he doesn’t do this in the back pew on a Sunday morning or while he’s waiting for his groceries to be bagged. Nor would he do it in the presence of his mother or an officer of the law. It’s in the dark of night, when no-one is around, that he finds himself overrun by sexual images in his imagination and engages in masturbation.

What has this to do with God? Well, Bob wouldn’t engage in masturbation in the presence of other people. He’d die of embarrassment if his mother walked into his room and saw him. However, Bob professes to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and personal God. So, if he wouldn’t masturbate in the presence of his mother, why does he do it in the presence of God, who he claims disapproves of his actions? Is it not the case that whilst he claims to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, personal being, he actually holds no such belief? If Bob really believed what he claims to believe, then he wouldn’t even masturbate in private; since, obviously, if such a being exists there isn’t a private place at all.

Despite the rather juvenile nature of this argument, it does make a more general point. There are many cases when Christians engage in behaviour that they surely wouldn’t engage in if they really believed God was present and fully cognizant of what they do. So, would we so easily lose our temper with the seemingly incompetent shop assistant if Jesus was right there physically beside us? Would we engage in harmful gossip if God’s presence was manifest suddenly in our midst? And yet, don’t Christians claim to believe God is indeed present all the time? Don’t our actions in hundreds of situations betray our actual unbelief despite what we claim?

It’s a neat little argument. A little too neat, I think. The argument ignores some crucial features of how humans hold knowledge and beliefs, in particular the relative strength of the belief in question and the fact that many of our beliefs rarely enter our conscious awareness. Our minds are complex things, caverns holding a depository of fact, memories, beliefs and values. Millions of pieces of information are crammed between our ears in complex arrangements. However, the vast majority of it simply sits in there without ever flitting into our conscious awareness. Take my belief that “Paris is the capital city of France.” Until 10 seconds ago that belief wasn’t in my sphere of conscious awareness. It was somewhere within my cavernous brain, hidden away until I recalled it for the purposes of making an illustration in this article. However, it’s true to say that “Paris is the capital city of France” is a belief I hold even when I’m not consciously aware of it (which is most of my waking life). We find the same thing when we sit to watch a quiz show. We hear a question, and if the answer is hidden away in our mind somewhere it will hopefully spring back into our sphere of conscious awareness so we can answer. Sometimes we can’t get the answer but we know it’s in there somewhere. When we then hear the answer we might claim in frustration, “I knew that!” Again, I might be asked to make an exhaustive list of all the insects I know of. When I submit my list it might well be the case that an entomologist can name a few species I didn’t include in my “exhaustive” list but which I did in fact know about (eg, pond-skaters). These examples illustrate that our minds can contain lots of beliefs and pieces of knowledge that don’t constantly sit in our sphere of conscious awareness. They flit in and out, and sometimes we struggle to recall them at all.

It is this feature of our minds that helps to explain the seeming disconnect between Bob’s proclaimed beliefs and his actions. So, in the dark of night, Bob isn’t thinking about God. This belief – like his belief that Paris is the capital of France – is sitting somewhere else in his mind, dormant and forgotten. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. He does. When asked for his thoughts about God, his belief will come whizzing back into his consciousness as he confirms his acceptance of it as true. Moreover, look also at the nature of God compared to the nature of Bob’s mother. Bob’s mother is a physical being and should she enter the room her presence forces itself upon Bob’s conscious awareness. However, God is incorporeal and invisible. His presence is not manifest to Bob’s consciousness a lot of the time. So, the belief that God is present is not as obvious to Bob as the belief that his mother is present.

This failure to live in the conscious awareness of God’s presence is perhaps what ultimately lies at the root of what Christians call sin. The process of sanctification is thus a process by which we live more and more in the conscious awareness of God’s presence (and hence sin less). Bob, like most Christians, has only made very limited progress in that direction. He often forgets God in his day to day living, in the same way that all of us “forget” most of the things we know or believe as we go about our day to day routines. Moreover, Bob’s belief in God isn’t certain. Like all of us we believe the things we do to a greater or lesser degree, and most of the things we believe are held to some degree of probability rather than certainty. Where our belief is stronger, we are perhaps more aware of God throughout our lives.

It seems to me, therefore, that Bob’s actions do not at all negate his confessed beliefs. Instead they testify to the level of his conscious awareness of God and the degree of his belief.

And so I end this article the way I ended the companion article about honest atheists: with an appeal to the principle of charity. In any discussion we should always do our interlocutor the courtesy such that when they tell us they believe this or that we simply believe them and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed an honest account of their epistemic situation. Only by doing so can we hope to have a productive discussion about the relative merits or demerits of the belief in question. Failing to embrace this principle will leave us toying with unhelpful psychoanalysis which is patronising, self-righteous, and waste of time.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Belief, Faith, Theism