The Psychology of Apologetics – Introduction
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.