Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apologetics Unmasked

When I first gave up my faith in the Christian religion, I became very frustrated with the way debates between Christians and non-Christians usually went. I could not believe that people who held such a silly set of beliefs could actually hold their own against the educated people who were criticizing them. Why was it that no atheist ever took the time to learn a little bit about the methods used by apologists before debating them? It is not as if their methods are hard to discover. Apologists usually do not keep them secret, as they want other Christians to understand and adopt them. There really is no excuse for the ignorance of apologetical method that seems to be prevalent among even the most educated defenders of secularism. One cannot help but think, when they hear apologists twist and turn their way through a debate, that there is something fishy going on. Well, there is, and the sooner the unbelieving community recognizes it, the sooner we can call them out on their little charade.

You see, apologists are sneaky. They know that there are certain things that they should not debate with non-Christians, things that will be very difficult to handle if they are brought up, so they approach debates in very specific and formulaic ways. What I want to do here is give a rough outline of these methods, and hopefully shed some light on what is really going on in these debates. I am not going to engage in any serious defense of naturalism, atheism, or any other non-Christian worldview, nor will I devote a lot of space to refuting arguments for Christianity. That would simply give any apologist who reads this an excuse to focus on something besides my main points. As you read on, you will begin to see why I would worry about this.

There are two primary approaches that apologists take when defending their faith, and each is has its own way of dealing with the challenge of keeping the more embarrassing aspects of Christian theology out of the debate. One is a sort of "minimal facts" approach, and is championed by people like William Lane Craig, the great Classical Apologist of our day. This approach attempts to lock down the focus of the debate onto a specific group of arguments. These arguments usually seek to do nothing more than make the existence of a supernatural being seem more likely than his non-existence. They do not seek to prove the existence of the Christian god specifically, nor are they at all reliant on divine revelation or on the specifics of Christian theology.

This puts the apologist in a great position if his opponent does not see through the smokescreen. As long as he keeps the focus of the debate on these arguments, he has a chance of making his beliefs seem less ridiculous than they are. This is the kind of thing I used to do when I was a "junior apologist." When people would challenge the things in the bible that were obviously mythical, or clearly based on a primitive mindset, or just plain silly, I would respond by accusing them of hiding behind their childish criticisms and refusing to deal with the sophisticated arguments I was offering them. "Are you just going to make jokes about floods and talking snakes all day, or are you going to grow up and deal with the issue of the foundations of morality?" This is not a direct quote from me, but it sums up the attitude I had.

This approach, then, is one that hides the deeper aspects of theology behind a sophisticated exterior of serious argumentation. But it's all just a smokescreen. It's almost as if they are admitting that their religion is actually ridiculous when you look at the details. If they do not feel this way, why do they try so hard to divert our attention from them? The sophisticated arguments, though not always terrible in themselves, are seen to be nothing more than tools. They are used by the apologist as a means to an end. Just as the modern mega-church uses media, performing arts, and emotional manipulation as a way to win souls (which in turn justifies any hiding of the true agenda), the apologist uses these arguments as a way to get the unbeliever in the door. Once converted and safely inside, they'll have to accept the silly stuff without question, but at that point their conscience will have taken over (a.k.a. it will be between them and god) and their intellect won't get in the way quite so much.

The second approach that apologists take to prevent any discussion of the uncomfortable details of Christian theology is the presuppositional approach. This method, championed by Cornelius val Til and Greg Bahnsen, is the preferred method of the Calvinist apologist, and it leaves even less room to engage in genuine debate than the classical method. Presuppositional apologists only argue for the truth of the Christian faith insomuch as they argue against the possibility of it being false. Basically, any worldview other than Christianity fails to account for reality as we experience it, and therefore cannot be true. Sounds fishy, I know, and it is. But, it works very well when you want to shield your belief system from any criticism. The presuppositional apologist does not even attempt to make an actual case for his beliefs. Rather, he simply discusses what he feels to be the greatest shortcomings of his opponent's worldview and leaves it to the opponent to account for them. Traditionally, these accusations involve things like the existence of logical laws or objective moral facts. If the opponent challenges the presuppositionalist in return, the presuppositionalist simply says "Oh no you don't! You haven't answered my challenges against your worldview. Until you do that, you have no rational or moral ground on which to stand while making accusations against my worldview!"

As you can see, there is some brilliance in this approach. Law students should all take a course in presuppositional apologetics. Perhaps used-car salesmen should as well. But unfortunately, the effectiveness of this method depends solely on the way the opponent reacts to it. If the non-believer takes the bait, the debate is pretty much over. The presuppositionalist can simply sit back and shake his head at anything his opponent says in defense of the non-Christian worldview, and no challenges to the Christian worldview will ever be able to get off the ground. But if the unbeliever does not take the bait, the presuppositionalist has no leg to stand on. All the unbeliever has to do is say something like this: "Whether or not I am able to answer to your satisfaction the challenges presented against my worldview, what reasons do I have to accept the truth of yours?" That's it. The debate is immediately in the hands of the unbeliever once he utters those words.

This is due to the fact that the presuppositionalist simply refuses to default to the aforementioned "minimal facts" approach if his initial offensive assault fails. This is admirable, in a sense, but it is really just a product of the Calvinist mindset. Calvinists do not believe that the unbeliever is genuinely an unbeliever. They are convinced (by the bible, not by evidence. See how it works now?) that anyone who denies the truth of Christianity is intentionally self-deceived. Everyone, they believe, actually has an inner knowledge of god and is constantly suppressing that knowledge in order to carry on in rebellion against him. Furthermore, they are incapable of actually turning to god and becoming true Christians on their own. Only god can change their hearts, because they are too evil to do it themselves.

As can be expected, this brand of theology has a profound impact on the way one does apologetics. The presuppositionalist will never take the minimal facts approach because he believes it to be pointless. No amount of evidence can convince the unbeliever to become a believer, because the unbeliever secretly knows the truth already and is suppressing it. Therefore, any argument made on behalf of the Christian position is a waste of time.

Why does this put the debate into the hands of the unbeliever? Because as long as he rejects the presuppositionalist's demands (that he give a full and satisfactory account of the foundations of his worldview before attempting to challenge the Christian worldview), he can take the presuppositionalist's theological position apart piece by piece with no challenge whatsoever. You see, the presuppositionalist knows that the Calvinist worldview cannot be defended against criticism by unbelievers. It is a worldview that nobody would accept on any grounds other than the presupposition that whatever the bible says is true. That is why it is the presuppositionalist, and not the classical apologist, who argues that the Christian has no business using "worldly philosophy" as a source of truth alongside scripture. No, all philosophy must be rejected as a foundation of knowledge. It is scripture alone that can be turned to for truth. Therefore, the presuppositionalist will simply assert that, according to his presuppositions, his worldview makes perfect sense and is immune to criticism (the presupposition being that the bible is completely true and right about everything, despite any evidence to the contrary). He will not go any further than that, because the unbeliever still has not defended his worldview against the initial accusations brought against it. But as I said, the unbeliever simply has to reject such absurd standards and move on.

How does this look in practice? Here's an example. An unbeliever could point out that the Christian god cannot be a foundation for moral truths because he created the majority of human beings purely for the purpose of having them rebel against him and then burn in hell for eternity. This he did for his own glory. It does not matter how the presuppositionalist tries to justify this (Trust me, I've heard them all), he will never be able to make it appear as something that is not wholly evil. But he never gets that far. If the unbeliever makes this accusation, the presuppositionalist simply asserts that the unbeliever has no objective moral standard to appeal to in order to make such judgments and therefore cannot accuse the Christian god of being a moral anything, much less a moral monster.

What should the unbeliever say in response to this? "Even if I was a totally amoral person in a totally amoral universe, how would that keep me from being able to criticize your moral system on its own terms?" This one sentence would blow the smokescreen away, and the believer would be forced to face the music. It really is that simple.

This is not to say, of course, that the unbeliever should not answer the challenges of the presuppositionalist. Nor should we ignore the arguments of the sneaky classical apologist. And of course we should be able to explain the foundations of things like morality and logic from our perspective. But, this does not mean that a) we have to do so in a way that will satisfy our opponent (who will always refuse to be satisfied) or b) that we cannot challenge the Christian worldview on it's own terms. Remember, they are arguing for a whole worldview, and it just so happens to be falling apart at almost every hinge.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Response to James White

Dr. James White was kind enough to respond to my Open Letter (see previous blog post) on the July 31st episode of his Internet radio show/Podcast "The Dividing Line." I'll place a link to the program at the end of this post. I want to first of all express my gratitude to Dr. White for doing this. He is certainly a busy man, and if you listen to this program you will get a taste of just how busy he really is. It is certainly a point in his favor that he was willing to do this. The response I am writing now is not directed at Dr. White in the same way. I am not asking for another response from him (though I will not object to one). I simply feel that it is appropriate to share my thoughts on what he said.

Dr. White did exactly what I requested of him. I asked him a specific question, and he gave me a fairly specific answer. My original concern was with the issue of gay marriage as a legal right, and why he saw fit to oppose it by force rather than just hold to his opinions and let others do the same. I wanted to know why he would personally vote against it. I was not, in my original question, concerned with his thoughts on how sinful homosexuality itself is, as that is fairly obvious given his religious convictions. I wanted to know why he thought it was the government's responsibility to enforce his convictions in this case, as I did not think he was being consistent. Why should gay marriage be singled out as something that should be illegal, given that there are so many other disagreements between Christians and non-Christians that never see one side demanding government intervention?

This was apparently based on a misunderstanding on my part, if not a twofold misunderstanding. I say twofold because, though I am not completely sure of this, I believe Dr. White would actually support a much more strenuous overhaul to the concept of marriage in our legal system. This would mean that I was operating under a misunderstanding when I said that gay marriage was somehow singled out by him. Dr. White made his position very clear when he said that homosexual couples should not receive the same benefits as heterosexual married couples because they do not contribute to a stable family structure that produces and raises children. According to Dr. White, the primary (if not only) reason the government should give any benefits to married couples at all is to promote the production of citizens and their care. Basically the idea is to protect and promote the family unit.

Presumably, then, Dr. White would support a denial of the rights of marriage to any couple of any gender who resolutely decided not to have any children. Judging by his statements in the show, he would consider this "personal hedonism," a lifestyle of selfishness.

Well, fair enough. I should have considered this before I jumped to conclusions. I actually am willing to let this go, as it is at least consistent with his presuppositions. There is one problem I have though. For the sake of argument, let's leave aside Dr. White's other objections to gay marriage for the time being. I wonder what his argument would be against heterosexual couples who wanted to adopt children rather than have any of their own, either because they couldn't or because they simply chose not to. Like it or not, orphans will always be around, for one reason or another. If Dr. White thinks that these heterosexual couples should be allowed to marry and adopt, why would he argue against a homosexual couple who had exactly the same intention? Again, I understand that he probably has a million other objections to this, but I want to know what the argument would be based on his beliefs, stated on the show, about why the government gives these benefits in the first place. 

I also wonder what Dr. White would say about benefits to homosexual couples that aren't based on the infamous "tax-payer dollars." Does Dr. White oppose the rights of homosexuals to be present in hospital rooms with their partners while they are dying? What about things like next-of-kin rights, or the right to claim an inheritance, or custodial rights of various kinds? What about the ability to make decisions in case of a medical emergency? Are these to be denied them as well, or only the ones he resents paying for?

The reason I am harping on this issue so much is that it is one of the few things he said that is relevant outside of the Christian worldview. Much of what he said was simply a reaffirmation of the Christian position on homosexuality, or on the world in general (I found the line "to be the land of the free and home of the brave requires morality and ethics that came from the Judeo-Christian worldview" to be especially entertaining). This was not unexpected, especially given the audience he was speaking to. I should not expect a presentation on the Dividing Line to be like one given during a debate. One is for an audience who already shares his worldview, and the other is not. Quite frankly, I think it's a little refreshing to see someone who is so strong and unapologetic in his convictions.

My other major misunderstanding was assuming that Dr. White considers gay marriage to be bad for the world only because God does not condone it. This is apparently not the case. He believes, rather, that there are observable, traceable negative consequences of the redefinition of marriage. He believes that once we allow homosexuals to marry, we will be well on our way to a collapse of society. I don't think that he believes, as some Christians do, that gay marriage will destroy the entire nation all by itself, but rather he considers it a link in a larger chain of sin and corruption that will, together, bring this nation crashing to the ground.

He seems to think that it all starts with the destruction of traditional marriage. All I can really say in response to this is that I find very little actual objectivity here. Isn't it true that everything Dr. White said about what happens when gay marriage is made legal in a nation are things that are already happening in this country, and have been for quite some time? We are already seeing people take marriage less seriously. It has already lost its place, in the minds of most, as a lifelong contract. Does Dr. White really expect us to believe that gay marriage can and will be the straw that breaks the camel's back? I understand that he thinks that this redefinition of marriage does not help to move things in the right direction (meaning a direction that is consistent with the Christian view of marriage), but I do not see how it is big and bad enough to warrant the kind of legal resistance he is proposing. Should we legally redefine marriage as a bond between one man and one woman for life, therefore making divorce a breach of contract and therefore an offense punishable by law? The point is, you need to be pretty damn sure that gay marriage is going to cause the enormous problems you think it is going to cause if you want to justify making it illegal.

This is why I doubt that we have any real objectivity going on here. What I am about to say may be off track a little, and it may seem like total speculation, but remember that I used to be a believer, and one who made a lot of the same claims that Dr. White makes. At the very least, I know how I used to think. You see, it does not really matter what the cause and effect relationship is between gay marriage and the collapse of society. There will always be Christians who claim that such a relationship exists. In fact, it does not matter how or why a nation falls. There will always be some Christians who will say it is because that nation turned away from God. It is really no different than the man who claims that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for the licentiousness behavior on display at Mardi Gras. There is no falsifiability possible here.

Dr. White has openly said on multiple occasions that all of human history reveals the plan of God, and even that entire nations have been risen up to be made examples of, either as receivers of God's grace or as receivers of his justice. Don't you see what's going on here? If you are a Christian, I beg you to hear me out on this and at least give it some thought. There is absolutely no way to verify or falsify this. Dr. White can look at absolutely anything that has happened in human history and see God's hand in it. Could you give me one single example of a case where he could not? Give me one example, factual or hypothetical, of an historic event that could not be made, in some form or another, to illustrate the hand of God. If you give this enough thought, you will begin to see the problem.

Think about it:

"All nations who reject Judeo-Christian ethics will collapse."
"Well, what about those that haven't?"
"Well, they will, they just have inertia."
"Okay, so Japan must have a whole heck of a lot of inertia, then."
"Well, yeah, but they've had all these other problems, which are caused by the fact that they don't follow God."
"Well what about the fact that secular societies have lower crime rates?"
"Well, maybe they do, but they have more hedonistic sin, so the evil is balanced out, plus ours is bad only because God is chastising us because we are supposed to be his nation and therefore he is pulling the plug on common grace, plus the inertia of those other nations will burn out eventually...."

....and on and on and on. I'm not suggesting that Dr. White himself would use all of these arguments, but I can assure you he will think of something in every single case.

He gives himself away when he brings up the health issues surrounding homosexuality. This is an argument I would never, ever have used when I was a believer. It's just too dangerous to go around claiming that the prevalence of disease is an indicator of moral wrongness. That's a slippery slope I don't want to go down. But, it does make my point about objectivity. Dr. White does not feel obligated to be consistent on this point. What if I were to challenge him by pointing out that breast cancer is more common among black women than it is among Asian women? Do you honestly think he would bat an eye at that consideration? Of course not. All he would have to say is that, in the case of those women, we are simply seeing the impact of original sin on our bodies in one way or another. But when it comes to homosexuality, it's clearly the direct result of a sinful lifestyle. Again, it's unfalsifiable.

So, I do understand where Dr. White is coming from when he expresses his fear that gay marriage is one more pound of dirt on the grave of civilization as we know it. According to the Christian worldview, anything that is condemned in the Bible but condoned by a nation will be just that. And honestly, there is not really much I can say about it, since there is no data that he would accept as evidence to the contrary. If gay marriage becomes legal and problems arise, he will say "I told you so," no matter what the nature of those problems might be. If no problems arise and things are just business as usual, he will simply sit back and say "just you wait. It's coming."

There is no way to reason with someone like this, and I for one am concerned about it. This kind of thinking is dangerous because it prevents one from honestly looking at the issues. It's an almost childish lack of seriousness that is being portrayed here. Yes, we do have to take a look at what we are going to allow to be placed under the banner of "marriage." Yes we do have to find some way to deal with unplanned pregnancies and the financial burdens placed on single mothers. These are tough issue that require tough consideration. The Judeo-Christian worldview has simple answers for everything. Everything is either in harmony with God's character or it isn't. From a secular perspective, these things take deliberation and discussion and reasoning and attempts to find consensus. Christians may criticize us because our answers aren't as readily available as theirs are, but in all honesty, is that really a mark in their favor? I don't think so.

This is all I really have to say in response. Like I said, much of what Dr. White had to say was simply a reaffirmation of the Christian position on the issue, so I don't have a lot to say about it. But I do appreciate him taking the time to answer my questions. Rest assured that "The Dividing Line" has at least one (though presumably many more) devoted fan who is not a believer.

I do have some things to say about Dr. White's comments regarding apologetics and the dangers of getting into it without a proper spiritual foundation. Quite a lot, actually. But, I want to save that for another post I'm working on that deals more specifically with presuppositionalism. Be on the lookout for that in the coming days.

The Program -