The Story Of Apologetics


Everyone who has read my blog is probably aware of my scathing views toward christian apologetics. The fact is that christian apologetics is not the only kind. I will attempt to outline the framework followed by general apologetics methods in this post without appealing to christian apologetics in particular to show how the basic concept is flawed and misleading.

It is probably true that many of us grow into beliefs more than we actually go out and engage with evidence and argument to form them. What we find ourselves with as humans when we reach adulthood is a fully formed belief structure that largely lacks justification. Most people in most of the world most of history go through their lives without ever realising that the belief framework from which they evaluate the world is without proper support.

The village sceptic is the poor bastard who comes to the ugly realisation that the belief framework we live by can be questioned and doubted. Depending on the belief it was usually easy to keep them silent. The fear of the pyre was good enough to shut people up. Sceptics win their battles in generations, and eventually everyone agreed that it's okay and we should have freedom of expression. There was no longer a way to ignore challenges to common beliefs.

Having no more way to force sceptics to keep quiet under draconian laws, people now faced the unpleasant reality that others could challenge their beliefs freely. It's extremely easy to just pick up the cultural narrative that surrounds you and believe it and become comfortable in those beliefs. No research required! Sceptics however, having to basically face off with everyone else, and needing good reasons to be parade day storm clouds are armed with information. Being the average believer of whatever is the common belief means you must then arm yourself in return so that you can prove the sceptic wrong or take the sceptic seriously and try and deal with the negative emotions of cognitive dissonance. Both of those options require the believer to make some real effort. Fear not however, because apologetics will come to their rescue.

Apologists do all the work for you. You basically come around with your belief and complain that you don't want it to be challenged. They offer books, videos, debates and seminars that are designed to make you feel like even though you have no inkling of the actual issues, you can feel secure that the apologists have answered the sceptics and you don't have to worry about your beliefs being wrong. You can have all kinds of arguments without ever even really thinking about it!

The apologetics product is simple. It's one and only goal is to insulate a belief from criticism by defending it at all costs. The difference between defending something like vaccines and defending something like global warming denialism is that the former is factually adequate enough that defense is mainly about education. In the latter case all kinds of Brobdingnagian bubble gum and sticky tape defenses must be constructed in order to keep the whole thing from imploding. Apologetics starts with a belief, and it never intends to change it. An apologist for a position is not an honest intellectual willing to suffer the blow of being proven wrong, they are selling their philosophical wares to people who want to retain the belief they entered with.

It is literally a kind of butthurt cream. It is a method to relieve cognitive dissonance not by considering the contradictory positions and picking the one that seems most likely to be correct, but doggedly defending the belief you started with. People are eager to buy into apologetics when they feel that a belief has been rendered vulnerable. It is important to fight this urge.The pain is temporary. The pay off for letting go of bad beliefs is well worth it. When we feel vulnerable about our beliefs we have an excellent opportunity to shift to better beliefs.

At some level it may seem legitimate to remain unconvinced by sceptics and to defend your beliefs as strongly as possible. The trouble is that taking this approach results in our minds taking routes that consistently lead to the same conclusions, that we were right all along. This is the reason why people engaging in apologetics will cherry pick, create false dichotomies, ignore contrary evidence, engage in sophistry and showboating, prematurely declare victory, fail to understand their opponents positions, fail to generously present their opponents positions, engage in ad hoc justifications, fail to be consistent, fail to abandon bad lines of argument or evidence, badmouth opponents, make constant appeals to consequences etc...

Karl Popper understood the problem well. He realised that when you only search for confirming evidence for something that is all you will find. If you start trying to disconfirm your own beliefs you are much more likely to get rid of beliefs that don't make any sense to keep. If you find that your beliefs can't be disconfirmed because you merely fit new information into your belief structure, you must ask yourself why you are form fitting your worldview to a single belief only to keep it insulated from being shown to be false.

Bad Atheist Arguments? Pt 4. There Is No Evidence For God



A common retort made by atheists is that there is no evidence for the existence of god. This is false.

Some evidence for the existence of god:
  1. The fine tuning of the universe
  2. The Bible
  3. The inner witness of the holy spirit
  4. Faith healing
  5. Miracles
  6. Answered prayer
  7. Visions
  8. Feeling the presence of god
  9. The existence of morality
  10. Testimony

Wow look evidence for god!!!

Verdict:
INVALID
Just a second though...

Every single one of those ten lines of evidence are bad. That's the point! Theist evidence is not non-existent, it is just extremely bad. If we, as atheists assert that believers have no evidence we are making a mistake. They do have evidence. The disagreement between atheists and believers mostly revolves around what they consider to be admissible evidence and what we do.

We should explore what they consider to be evidence and unpack the outcome of what their concept of evidence would mean. There only needs to be one agreed upon principle: it doesn't matter how you evaluate evidence, only that you are consistent about it. The trouble is that the forms of evidence they find to be valid can be used to substantiate a number of things they don't believe in, such as bigfoot, little green men and homeopathy.

Just as an example: do christians keep a systematic journal of prayers that are answered and not answered? Does this data inform us that there is something going on?

I try to make sure to say that there is no good evidence for the existence of god, because that immediately opens up avenues for discussion. Dismissing their concept of evidence without letting them present it is unfair, and frankly I think something that hampers their possible path to reason. 

Bad Atheist Arguments? Pt 3. Who Created god?

This is a fairly common argument and it comes from the theist quip "if god doesn't exist who created us?". When pointed at atheists the question is loaded, because it presupposes a who if that is not a fact that is agreed on, but is it valid to ask this question of Christians?

ChristianAnswers gives the following answer to the question:
Since God, by definition, is the creator of the whole universe, he is the creator of time. Therefore He is not limited by the time dimension He created, so has no beginning in time God is the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity (Isaiah 57:15). Therefore He doesn't have a cause.
The important thing to note here is the definition bit. God is defined as being uncaused, and the Bible asserts this much. The argument then takes a new turn, where the question becomes:

"Well, if you can say that god is uncaused, why can't I just say that the universe is uncaused?"

The bit about god being uncaused is pretty much a bare assertion, and there is no evidence or argument to support the assertion that god is uncaused. Therefore an assertion of an infinite universe seems to have at least an equal amount of support to it than an infinite god.

Of course, some theists claim that the universe is not infinite because the big bang was the beginning of the universe. Apart from other problems, that is a definition of the universe where anything beyond the big bang is not part of the universe, which is a dubious and self serving definition. If we don't know whether that which is beyond the big bang is natural or not, how can we say that the big bang is the border of the natural universe?

There are other problems too. How does god know that he does not have a god? The standard answer is that he is omniscient. Okay, but how does god know that it is omniscient? Isn't it logically impossible to know that you are omniscient, and since god can only do that which is logically possible, doesn't that entail a contradiction? Doesn't Descarte's malevolent spirit present the same problems to god that it does to us? If god cannot know that he has not been created then the Bible cannot claim that god is uncaused.

If theists respond with ignorance for instance by saying that we don't know how god solves these problems but he does, doesn't that cast a bright light of doubt on the assertions in the first place? How can you assert something if you don't know if it is logically possible to know it in the first place, or in fact if it is seemingly logically impossible? verdict?

SOMEWHAT VALID
Why?

Once again we are kicking the can down the road. Although the first question can appear to be a strawman it is worth pursuing, because deeper problems emerge with the justifications of the assertion of an infinite god. We don't simply get to define things and then people just accept the definition as a true reflection of reality. 

There is a video that opens the can of worms with an interesting story. Enjoy!

WHY ONLY SOMEWHAT VALID?

The question by itself does not count as an objection. If it is all you've got, then you are up shit creek without a paddle.

Bad Atheist Arguments? Pt 2. The Omnipotence Paradox


The omnipotence paradox is probably one of the more well known arguments against the logical possibility of god. Homer summed it up pretty well. If a being is all powerful, that being would be able to perform action x, which would prevent any action y, but if a being is omnipotent it cannot be prevented from performing any action.

William Lane Craig has an explanation of why he thinks this is a bad argument:

The response is basically this, in case you don't like watching videos with poor sound and no actual video stream. :)

1. Theologians understand omnipotence as having the ability to do anything that is logically possible.
2. Having the ability to do things that are logically impossible is a malformed concept. It is nonsense. 
3. IF god could do the logically impossible, he could in fact eat a burrito that he made too hot to eat. This entails a logical contradiction, but given this answer god is an entity over and above logic.

So let's explore this a little:

1. Maybe the term omnipotence is a problem. Maybe theologians should use a term like maxipotence, denoting maximum power. In Matthew 19:26 Jesus supposedly said:
'26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”' NIV
So which is it?  Does the apologist's definition of all also change based on this verse to all things that are logically possible? Regardless of what they say, most everyday christians and seemingly Jesus (too bad Jesus didn't study under Craig) are mistaken. Was Jesus just exaggerating?

2. As far as we know this is true, but there is no basis for stating that logic is universal, even to the degree that god must be subjected to it. To make such a claim is to create a god that is not functional in the absense of logic, which then seems to be some sort of concept that restricts god. Logic in this view is some sort of unbreakable natural law that not even god himself can violate. This means that god could not have been the author of logic to begin with, because that would entail an illogical state of affairs that is impossible according to theologians like Craig.

3. There is a deep problem with this answer. It is a clever avoidance of the problem, but it has dire outcomes for theology. If god is an illogical entity then god is not knowable to human beings, and theology is a failed enterprise. It can solve so many problems in theology that god itself becomes a nonsensical concept that one must just believe in. Fans of apologetics would not find themselves comfortable here because defending the illogical is logically impossible, since no logical justifications could suffice. This kind of non-cognitivist theology is not philosophically defensible. It is a laughing stock. The fact that Craig mentions it to sound clever is telling. It seems that anything that could make an apologist seem good, even something absurd, is acceptable.

So what's the verdict of the burrito paradox?
VALID
Why?
The solutions to the omnipotence paradox as presented by apologists just effectively kicks the can down the road. It doesn't solve the problem, it just opens up a fresh new batch of problems because each explanation entails a sacrifice on the concept of god. The answers are clever and manage to make it look like there is some sort of good answer, but just beneath the surface a myriad of problems lurk. Maybe these problems are not intractable for apologists, but they warrant further discussion and certainly not quick dismissals like the one issued by Craig above.


Bad Atheist Arguments? Pt 1. Jesus vs. Horus


Sophisticated Apologists will often mention the bad arguments that atheists always use. I'm going to try and summarise some, why they think these arguments are bad, and try to figure out whether these arguments are in fact bad. If they are we should stop using them of course, and we should point out their badness to our fellow non-believing friends.

1. Jesus vs. Horus

There are some atheists who have come to believe that Jesus is a carbon Copy of Horus or other gods. Regarding Horus:
Massey’s attempt to demonstrate that Jesus is merely a rewrite of Horus is tortured. Take the contention that Horus and Jesus were both of virgin birth. The most common legend about the birth of Horus is that the god Seth dismembered the body of Osiris, his older brother and husband of Isis. Isis collected the pieces of her husband’s body and sewed them back together, then took the form of a bird and fanned Osiris with her wings, reviving him enough to have sex and get herself pregnant with Horus. So it’s sex with a coma patient or necrophilia — not your classic virgin-birth story either way.
As for the crucifixion and resurrection, the party involved wasn’t Horus but Osiris, as per the above. Except Osiris wasn’t crucified — Seth initially had him nailed into a coffin. And he wasn’t really resurrected, just revived long enough to be a sperm donor, after which he died again.
Then again, there really isn’t a canonical version of the Horus story. Browsing through the stelae, I find a variant in which the child Horus is stung to death by a scorpion, then restored to life by the god Thoth. So OK, are there points of similarity between Jesus and Horus? I’ll be big about it and say sure. Is one copied from the other? Get out.  
- The Straight Dope

As far as I know there are no biblical scholars including atheist scholars who take the carbon copy story seriously. The verdict then:
DEBUNKED
but...
One thing apologists fail to mention is that many of the themes present in ancient religions have been copied into Christianity, so while the story itself is not a carbon copy, it has other things in common with mythologies. Mythologies have a lot in common with fictional stories. The way things play out in fictional stories is formulaic and contra reality, which is often more complex and less attractive in many respects. If you want to understand what I mean try watching a movie that was accurately based on a true story and then a fictional story back to back. Of course, claims like this are far weaker than claims of outright plagiarism. If you want to make claims like that, you need to have some pretty strong evidence on your side.

There is also a valid claim that bits and pieces were copied during the formation of Christianity in the way of art. Statues and paintings of Mary resemble statues of Isis. Yahweh on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel resembles images of Zeus. Even though Judaism was a rejection polytheism, in some way Christianity recaptures it with contorted mental gymnastics. Whether these interesting nuggets are evidence against Christianity though remains to be seen. Since we have much better arguments to look to, these ones may not serve us well. If you are into Biblical history however maybe there is something there that you can pursue.

Manual For (dishonestly) Debating Atheists

+Mike Brown is writing a book by the title "Manual For Debating Atheists". He previews some of his work on his website and has asked me to provide commentary. First off, I just want to thank Mike for giving me this opportunity and secondly I want to offer him some praise for not merely writing into the blind unknown and publishing unchallenged or unreviewed work, which is not surprisingly what many apologist tracts are horribly guilty of. 

I agree with Mike when he states the following in his introduction:
"While one can practice logic in isolation a debate requires effective communication which in turn relies on common ground. And, the disparity between the two frameworks has led to confusion and miscommunication."
I don't want to offer a critique of the entire three chapters Mike has supplied, but I want to focus on the initial two parts of the first chapter, because I think he screws up very early on and that will likely taint all his work.

His first part is already mistaken, although the content is not all that bad. It reads:
"1) Break the debate into two parts: (a) Does ‘a’ god exist and, (b) Can this god be the God of Christianity."
The question of whether god exists or not is not, in my opinion at least, an interesting or important question. Answering a question like this requires the kind of knowledge humans simply don't possess, since a god could be hidden in any nook or cranny of human knowledge. The correct question, and the one I am interested in, is whether it is at all rational to believe that a god exists. This question is divorced from overstretched ontological claims and we can focus on epistemology instead of ontology, the former being much more workable and definitive than the latter which is kind of up in the sky and vague all around.  Ontological debates are plagued by uncertainties and vague references to the unknown. Epistemology is more closely focused on what is reasonable to believe, so lets stick to that. Since many atheists are somewhat pragmatic it doesn't make sense to discuss the ultimate nature of reality with them, since they are not really concerned with such lofty philosophical assertions. 

I agree with the next section, I particularly like the following statement Mike makes, and I think we can all agree on that:
Christians tend to take many things for granted in these debates not realizing that it is because they already believe in god that those things seem true. When talking with atheists however, nothing can be pre-supposed; the discussion starts with a completely blank slate.
This is tough for any person in a debate. Entertaining the perspective of an opponent can be difficult. As such I don't think this applies only to christians, but to everyone. 
After this section, Mike starts some dishonest apologetics with the most painful aspect of apologetics: burden of proof!

This method is one I am familiar with and one I have addressed before in my dishonest apologetics series: The Set Up. Since this is one of the most common apologetic tricks I will repeat myself a little here. From my post:
"Most atheists I know are agnostic atheists. They make no claims about the absolute existence or non-existence of gods. Apologists have responded by calling atheists naturalists, defining the term naturalist to their satisfaction and then forcing the burden of proof onto atheists. If you were suckered into this, you now have to be omniscient. You must explain the exact nature of the cosmos, because you must have eliminated every single possibility of any realm beyond the natural. You must reject any agnosticism. "
But Mike claims the following:
"From there each participant can offer and support their explanation for existence whether it be god for the theist or naturalism (usually) for the atheist. Thus the burden of proof rests equally on each participant and conclusions are drawn by contrasting alternative explanations rather than by evaluating just one of the explanations against some exaggerated standard."
Because apologists are extremely inadequate in epistemic debates the goal is to shift the debate to an ontological one and to force a position of certainty about the nature of the universe onto atheists. Thankfully for Mike lots of atheists fall into this trap, unaware that they have accepted a much stronger position than their actual atheism has allowed them, and then being cornered later by the same epistemic problems that apologists cannot defeat in order to justify their beliefs. 

I don't think Mike is deliberately dishonest. I think he genuinely thinks that atheists claim positions on the ontological nature of reality when in fact agnostic atheism and fallibilism is part and parcel of modern atheism and specifically rejects absolute ontological claims. Ontological debates are starved for real evidence, because we don't know an awful lot about reality as it is. What matters more in the end though is whether the things we believe are rational and based on our best effort of figuring out how the world works.

Modern atheism is about withholding judgement on ontological matters, and not surprisingly modern naturalism falls into that camp too.  To foolishly stumble into a debate where you have to make absolute claims about reality is exactly what apologists like Mike want, and it is exactly wrong because it misses the element of uncertainty that atheists hold dear. Fortunately though this poor attempt does nothing to make theism more viable, it just makes any dogmatic versions of naturalism indefensible and rightly so. It does however distract from the actual useful discussions we should be having, but apologists know this because they intentionally want to avoid substantive challenges to their faith and create diversions that will make atheists look bad and by extension prop up their beliefs.

Mike then cries that science is biased against god in classical anti-science rhetoric, missing the point of the question "Is it rational to believe in god?" which is really what the important and interesting question is for most atheists and trying to make the issue about something it is not. He also misunderstands science completely, but since he has screwed up with the burden of proof question it is no surprise that he would continue to be wrong from that point forward.