April 3, 2009

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Apologetics: The Good and the Bad

I have been meaning for some time to write a post about apologetics: not to engage in it - though I do that sometimes - but to examine it as a practice. Brandon's recent post, "On Controversial Blogging and Temperament," touches some of the same issues I have been thinking about, so I thought that I would build on it.

To start from the beginning: 'apologetics' derives from the Greek apologia, meaning 'defense' (as, for instance, a court-room defense), and it means just that: the giving of reasoned defenses. Christians often talk about the importance of engaging in apologetics by citing 1 Peter 3:15: "always be ready to give a defense [apologia] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you." However, many Christians seem not to realize that in the wider world the word 'apologetics' is often used pejoratively. What I want to do here is distinguish between a 'good' and a 'bad' sense of the word. First, the bad.

An apologist in the bad sense is someone who is willing to say just anything, without regard to its truth, to make his position look good or seem plausible to his audience. As a result, this sort of apologist is a bullshitter in Frankfurt's technical sense: that is, he speaks with total disregard for truth.

This, I take it, is roughly what people mean, especially in academic circles, when they use the term 'apologetics' pejoratively: the 'bad' apologist is antecedently committed to certain claims from which no amount of argument can dissuade him, and his activities qua apologist have no purpose other than making those claims look good. Most people will agree that this practice is obviously intellectual dishonest and therefore bad. However, just in case some of my fellow Christians want to come to the defense of the 'bad' apologist since he does it all to rescue souls from hell (or some such), let me remind them that, as I have said before and will say again, Christian faith is no good unless it's true!

Can we, however, distinguish a 'good' form of apologetics? It is not obvious that we can. The reason it is not obvious is that, since apologetics is by definition defensive (some apologists are offensive - in both senses of the word - but that's another story) it implies an antecedent commitment to certain claims that are to be defended. As such, it is difficult to see how an apologist (qua apologist) could be engaged in something other than 'bad' apologetics. Surely the apologist (qua apologist) cannot be engaged in any sort of intellectually honest inquiry, since the claim to be defended is already a foregone conclusion, and the only thing to be done is to defend its truth.

In order to solve this problem, let's distinguish between the theory and practice of apologetics. The practice of apologetics cannot be any sort of inquiry. It consists in providing the rational grounds for belief in the claim.

Brandon describes some 'best practices:'

If you want to be an apologist of any sort, the only way you are really cut out for it is if you are in final analysis willing to lose every debate if that's what the truth requires. You have to be the sort of person, or at least be willing to become the sort of person (and have the temperament for becoming the sort of person) who will never argue merely to win an argument, and will be satisfied, where persuasion is not possible, if people merely come away with a slightly better appreciation of the subject.

If the practice of apologetics is to be intellectually honest, it must be an exercise in education: the apologist must be in possession of certain facts (which she sincerely believes to be true) which support her claim and her practice of apologetics must be the practice of informing others as to these facts and why they support her position. (Even in non-religious contexts, such as open source software, such a person is often called an 'evangelist.')

However, there is still room for intellectually honest inquiry to have a place here, and this is what I mean to call 'theoretical apologetics.' A person engaged in the theory of apologetics is engaged in discovering the reasons which the practical apologist gives. Now this may sound a little odd: what's going on here is that we already know or believe some claim C and are trying to discover a rational basis for C. It might seem that this is necessarily a process of rationalization rather than genuine inquiry. However, while the danger of rationalization is certainly present, I would dispute the claim that the theoretical apologist is necessarily engaged in rationalization: in fact, I think this is just the sort of thing philosophers engage in all the time.

One of the major activities of philosophers is to formalize or clarify arguments. Often, there are certain beliefs that are very widespread and which almost certainly must be rational, and it is the job of a philosopher to (1) explain why we have this belief, (2) if we believe it on the basis of an implicit argument, explain how the argument goes, and (3) if we believe it without an argument, explain why no argument is needed.

A good example of this, which has proved particularly difficult, is the belief that other human beings besides myself experience consciousness. Clearly we all believe this, and someone who didn't would be certifiably insane. However, philosophers have found it very difficult to explain why we are rationally required to believe this. According to my account, philosophers engaged in this inquiry are 'theoretical apologists' for the claim that other minds exist: it is taken for granted that the claim is not only true but believed rationally, and the philosophers are trying to discover why it is believed rationally.

In short, a good theoretical apologist believes that many people hold to her claim C and that at least some of them believe C rationally, and seeks to construct an explicit account of the rationality of C. The practical apologist is engaged in educating people about the account provided by the theoretical apologist. (There is, of course, no in principle reason why the same person couldn't be engaged in both theoretical and practical apologetics, but the two require different skills.)

To put this back into the explicitly Christian context in which apologetics is normally discussed, 'good' (intellectually honest) apologetics ought to work like this: a theoretical apologist notes that many people (possibly including herself) believe in Christianity and believes (or at least suspects) that at least some of them believe in Christianity reasonably. She therefore engages in an honest inquiry to give an account of the reasonableness of Christian belief. The practical apologist learns of the theoretical apologist's account and proceeds, without deception, to educate curious non-Christians as to the reasons why some people reasonably believe in Christianity. These are intellectually honest activities which are plausibly construed as "giving a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you."

Posted by Kenny at April 3, 2009 8:35 PM
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Excerpt: My post Apologetics: The Good and the Bad has been included in the latest Christian Carnival at Fathom Deep. I haven't been participating in the Christian Carnival recently, but when I wrote this post it occurred to me that it might be of interest to t...
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Tracked: April 8, 2009 2:53 PM
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Excerpt: Philosophy of religion, as practiced by religious believers, is often confused with apologetics. (Perhaps it is even so confused, on occasion, by some of its practitioners.) Indeed, if we use the term 'apologetics' more broadly, to include not just the...
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Tracked: April 12, 2012 11:13 AM


It could also be that the apologist previously engaged in philosophical inquiry to see which arguments would lead to which conclusions, ending up with some arguments that would lead to the defense of the faith, once the apologist concluded with honest intellectual inquiry that they are good arguments. As long as the continued discussion of them doesn't rule out the possibility of any particular argument turning out in the end not to be good after all, I don't see anything intellectually dishonest about presenting arguments you find convincing as long as you've been willing to submit those arguments to critical examination at any point.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at April 8, 2009 7:54 PM

Jeremy - How does this differ from (in my terms) doing 'theoretical' apologetics first and 'practical' apologetics afterward? Do you mean to be describing a different type of inquiry?

This for instance would be another way one could proceed: suppose that one begins as an agnostic, investigates various arguments about religion, and becomes a Christian because of various arguments one believes to be good. One could then go around sharing these arguments with others. That would count as a form of intellectually honest apologetics as well. Is this what you are getting at?

Posted by: Kenny at April 8, 2009 9:06 PM

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