The Psychology of Apologetics – Introduction

October 17, 2008 at 10:32 pm 13 comments

Few of those who walk away from evangelical Christianity can avoid struggling, at least to some degree, with the problem of apologetics. Christians devote endless amounts of resources to producing arguments for their faith; indeed, many of us spent much time and energy mastering these very arguments ourselves.

Apologists often present themselves as just defending their faith – rational argumentation – but I suggest their activity is better understood as a form of the ancient Greek art of rhetoric. I.e., they do make arguments, but ones specifically designed to get people to change and make decisions. Apologists are indeed quite (pun intended) unapologetic about this. Their goal is, if not to convince you to convert (only God can do that, they say), then at least remove any intellectual barriers that may be holding you back from conversion. In other words, they don’t just want to persuade you they are correct in their assertions; they want to win your soul.

Accordingly, their arguments are designed to have psychological force, not just (or even mainly) logical force, and this is what I would like to address in this article and the ones that follow. It has been very helpful in my own de-conversion to bracket aside the issue of trying to refute them and instead look at why these arguments can get under your skin so effectively – to vivisect them and look at their psychological and rhetorical innards, as it were. That way, it seems to me, can effectively de-fang them in a way that just answering them can’t.

This approach also avoids what I think is the main weakness of more “traditional” counter-apologetics (e.g., pointing out Biblical contradictions, or using comparative mythology to show the derivative nature of Judeo-Christian myths), which is what we might call a cognitive bias. In some atheistic writings there is an implicit assumption that religious belief formation is simply a matter of correct vs. incorrect assessments about what is rational. Point out the errors, and you correct the mistaken belief.

If only it were so simple! This approach wholly fails to take into account the emotional and rhetorical nature of apologetics. It cannot, for example, account for why religious beliefs are hung on to with such tenacity. But if you understand what’s going on as rhetoric, not just logical fallacy, you can understand better why apologists can be so successful. Apologists get you to feel it. And that is what must be countered, I suggest. In other words, it is one thing to point out Biblical contradictions. It is quite another to understand, on a deep level, exactly why someone would want the Bible to be inerrant in the first place.

So in the next few articles, I will look at some of these tactics. From the beginning, I will assume a naturalistic stance. That is to say, I will assume, not argue, that the various Christian doctrines under discussion are untrue, and focus instead on the way in which they might be made to seem compelling, to an the unwary target of evangelical efforts.

Furthermore, it will be understood, I hope, that when I refer to “Christian” and “Christianity” I am always (unless indicated) referring to evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. In liberal Christianity – and indeed in virtually any non-fundamentalist religion – I do not believe these same dynamics usually apply.

Third, it should be also understood that I am not in any way suggesting that the sorts of dynamics I lay out apply to all fundamentalist Christians equally and in the precisely same way. Everyone’s story of involvement with religion is different, and everyone’s particular set of needs and drives that got him there are also different. Thus, I am painting, in broad strokes, a picture that I think can often apply, but I would never suggest that everyone fits into this schema equally (or at all). Theories are always general, whereas people are unique. My hope is to give prospective and established de-converts tools to understand at least some of their experience. So, cherry-pick away! – take what seems to apply to you and leave the rest.

Finally, though I always try to write my articles with an eye toward brevity, these in particular have been hard to construct in such a way as to do justice to the topic with those usual constraints. Accordingly, they are longer than usual. Most of them amount to about three printed pages. I hope the interested reader will indulge this bit of license, as I think this is a fruitful and unexplored area.

I plan to publish an article every few days, giving whatever discussion that emerges from it time to run its course, and also giving other contributors a chance to publish their articles as well (I don’t want to hog the blog space!) My thoughts in this series are based on my own experience with fundamentalist Christian theology, which was heavily influence by C. S. Lewis. If anyone has had particular apologetic experiences of their own – arguments that they found especially emotionally and rhetorically powerful, hard to let go of – I would love to hear about it! So, beginning in the next post, the first topic is that of rebellion.

- Richard

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De-converts: Are Christians Really as Bad as You Think? If Marty Luther (re)wrote the Bible

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. orDover  |  October 17, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    I look forward to your future articles on this topic! They sound very interesting.

  • 2. marc  |  October 18, 2008 at 9:46 am

    This is going to be gooooooood…!

  • 3. gracesong815  |  October 18, 2008 at 10:27 am

    As a potential de-converting Christian, I look forward to reading your articles.
    Just in this very post, you’ve ointed out something for me that I just realized; it’s all based on fact mixed in with appeals to emotion and strawmen arguments.

  • 4. Luke  |  October 18, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    as a current seminarian and future Christian pastor, i agree with this article 100%. apologetics starts with an answer (Tradition) and then reverse engineers the bible to make it fit. it should have no business being incorporated into the future of the Church.

    ex: our answer is 4! let’s see how we got there… Tradition states that it’s 2+2 so that’s it and nothing else. 3+1? you heretic! 6-2?! blasphemy! 17/68?!?!?! you unbeliever, i’m stoning you right now!

    rawk out!

  • 5. VorJack  |  October 18, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Robert M. Price has written a bit about the topic. You might be interested in his essay The Psychology of Biblicism.

  • 6. Richard  |  October 18, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    VorJack-
    Yes, Ive read that essay many times and it has been extremely useful to me. What I have in mind here is quite similar to Price’s approach, although I hope to greatly expand on his core idea, especially as mentioned in his last paragraph. I.e., that in understanding what psychological needs are being met by this belief system, we can better understand how to deal with it.

    I agree with Price that fear is a motivator for fundamentalist beleif systems. Im less keen on positing laziness as explanatory, as he does, mainly because that comes very close to making belief a matter of morality (or at least character), which I think is almost always a mistake. Fundamentalists are not some strange alien species. They are human beings, like us, and work according to the same psychological rules we do. They have the same sorts of anxieties and vulnerabilities as anyone, and have stumbled upon a belief system which serves to domesticate those fears — albeit at a cost, which I hope to elaborate on.

    Anyway, I hope my series will prove useful, as Price’s has to me. Thanks for your comments.

  • 7. Josh  |  October 20, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    This will be an absolutely brilliant series. This last semester when I was at Moody Bible Institute they had Josh McDowell give a speech. I was dealing strongly with doubts about the faith and listening to him was somewhat of a last ditch effort – I thought for sure he would rebound my faith.

    Not at all.

    His talk was basically on how nobody comes to the Christian faith because of arguments. He told us all that there is “more than enough” evidence for the faith so it was beyond him why anyone would reject it – unless they were blinded or did not trust Christians.

    His ultimate appeal was that Christians needed to stop convincing people and instead be their friends so that they can build trust and then slowly ease them into the faith.

    What a load of crap. I can just remember all the times where I was “friends” with non-believers only because I wanted to witness to them. This form of psychological manipulation is only designed to keep people from thinking too seriously about anything. And it – sadly – works.

    I only wish an atheist had come along much sooner and pointed out the fallacies in this sort of argument.

  • 8. Richard  |  October 20, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Josh- Thats a fascinating encounter you had. I hope my series can go some ways to undercutting this sort of approach. I agree with you that, in the end, he’s probably right, in that what he recommends probably *is* the most effective way to win converts. The motives for conversion are, after all, emotional, and all the arguments that McDowell spends so much of his time on are very much post hoc rationalizations.

    And let me draw your attention to the implications of his view, if you havent already noticed yourself.

    Too much ink gets spilled on those ratonal arguments and not enough attention has been given to the psychological pressures that these arguments have. If there is indeed “more than enough” evidence and the Truth of Christianity is indeed just as clear as the summer sun (and many apologists do believe this) then why, indeed, isnt everyone a Christian?

    When you start asserting no one could rationally disagree with you then what are you left with but the conclusion that everyone else is irrational? In other words: if you dont agree with me, theres something wrong with you. If my arugment dont convince you, its not because theyre not good arguments. The problem is you.

    Which is, of course, just what fundamentalism teaches: we are blinded by sin. But this division of the world into dense, prideful, wicked people and honest, clear-headed ones is typical of the black and white thinking that I will argue is central to fundamentalist psychology.

    But more on that later. Thanks for reading.

  • [...] further reading on tis topic, an interesting series on The Psychology Apologetics can be found at [...]

  • 10. The Nerd  |  October 21, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    I am so happy you are writing this! I turned to apologetics when I was struggling as a teenager, in an effort to strengthen my faith. That it did, but it was only temporary as I began to understand what you explained – that it is in fact highly emotional and very unapologetic. I have never been able to sort out just why it is so flawed as a logical tool, and I look forward to what you have to say.

  • 11. The Psychology of Apologetics: Sin « de-conversion  |  October 22, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    [...] 22, 2008 In this article I will continue our examination of Christian apologetics from a psychological perspective. Here, I wish to look at the concept of sin, so central to [...]

  • 12. bipolar2  |  October 24, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    ** a culture of true believers **

    The earliest xians certainly received benefits in the-here-and-now for their faith: group solidarity and ideological support, especially nurturing class hatred. (1Cor1:1-30)

    Doubtless, xianity still has something to offer as it has for 2,000 years — but psychological comfort, decent burial of the dead, communal warmth, common action, pathways for employment, and opportunities for “martyrdom” are irrelevant to the truth of any hysterical claim made first by Paul or later writers of Jesus legends, whether accepted or not into xian orthodoxy.

    Any member of any sect within islam, xianity, judaism, or zoroastrianism (the big-4 monotheisms) can cite his myths, cultic practices, and endlessly *circular* commentary to equal effect. Citing scripture in *defense* of itself is totally illogical.

    What uplifts me, what comforts me, what I’m willing to die for . . . is no evidence whatsoever that any otherworldly belief is true or false. Such reasoning exemplifies ignoratio elenchi — lack of any logical connection between statements about anyone’s psychological state and any religious claim.

    The monotheists’ magical texts are neither self-guaranteeing nor divinely inspired. They are propaganda.

    biipolar2 ©2008

  • [...] the introduction, Richard talks about the goal of apologetics stating: Apologists often present themselves as just [...]

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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