The Psychology of Apologetics: Definitions (or, Flapping Your Arms With a Pure Heart)

October 24, 2008 at 9:50 pm 30 comments

In this, our third essay on the psychological and rhetorical techniques that underlie evangelical Christian apologetics, we will examine some evangelical Christian claims that seem devilishly difficult to prove wrong. We have all heard such claims. They would include the following:

  • If you de-convert from Christianity, you never really were a Christian at all
  • All Christians, in right relationship with God, experience peace in the face of adversity
  • If you sincerely seek God you will find Him
  • “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.” (Matthew 17:20, NIV)

What I will argue is that such statements either are not actually claims about the world at all, and hence insulate themselves from disconfirming empirical evidence by defining it away, or else they are claims/predictions, but rely on vague, ill-defined subjective states and thus, are impossible to confirm. In each case, I will elucidate the issues involved and then tie it in with the relevant psychological issues.

Definitions

Tinkering with definitions is a time-honored rhetorical tactic. Essentially it involves making a statement that appears to be about the world, but really, in fact, is just a claim about the meaning of the terms involved. As an example, if I state “All sentences have a verb”, it may appear that I am claiming something about what one will find out in the world – and hence, could be proven wrong by giving me counterexamples, such as if you said the following: “Wow, Richard, what a great post!” But, really, my original claim is actually a definition: I am defining a sentence as having a verb. That way, no counterexamples will prove me wrong, of course, since I will simply reply that if it does not have a verb, it does not count as a sentence. In this case, the upshot is clear: my statement “All sentences have a verb” is not telling me anything about what I will find out in the world, it tells me what I mean by the word “sentence.”

The first apologetic example listed above seems to fall into this category. “If you de-convert from Christianity you never really were a Christian at all” certainly might sound, on the surface, like an empirical claim. But it can be re-written more simply: “No true Christians de-convert.” Then, then matter becomes clearer: the speaker is defining “true” Christians as the set of individuals who never leave the fold. Hence, this claim cannot, by the terms set up, be shown to be wrong. To take issue with this claim, one must take issue with the definition itself, not point out counterexamples.

Philosophically-minded readers will notice that the above example, “No true Christians de-covert”, follows a familiar form. In fact, it is a version of a well-know logical fallacy, known as the “No True Scotsman fallacy.” The name originated from philosopher Anthony Flew’s example: “No Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge”/ “But my uncle does, and he’s from Scotland”/ “Aye, but no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.” . And the effect is exactly as we have outlined: rather than letting the statement “no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge” be proven false by producing a Scotsman who does, in fact, do so, the original claim is preserved by instead jerryrigging the definition to exclude counterexamples.

Claims Based on Subjective States

This class of statements function similarly to definitions, but are more subtle and hence, more insidious. What occurs is that the speaker makes the truth of the claim dependent upon a internal subjective state, and hence not subject to public verification. Since I cannot “prove”, except by my own report, what has transpired in my own mind (or my own will/motives), it becomes easy to argue that I am mistaken about it. An example will, I think, make this clear.

If I assert: “If you flap your arms, you can fly to the moon”, the falsity of the claim is obvious. It would be easy for everyone to see (if anyone cared to test this hypothesis) that if one flaps ones arms, one will indeed not fly. But if I instead state, “If you flap your arms and have a pure heart, you can fly to the moon”, the situation is different: now I always have an excuse for anyone’s failure to fly. I can always assert that yes, clearly you did flap your arms (we can all see that), but you did not have a pure heart, and that is why you did not succeed. And so I can maintain the truth of my assertion. Now, in this case, the obvious absurdity of this claim is such that I am not likely to convince anyone that the reason she cannot fly is that she has an impure heart. But consider the following:

“If you sincerely seek God, you will find Him.” (I.e., you will convert to my faith)

This sort of statement is often encountered from those who are asserting that if you “really” wish to know the alleged truth of Christianity, God will reveal it to you, and you will thus convert. But notice the subjective condition: the seeking must be “sincere.” How do we know if someone is sincere? Obviously, other than his or her own self-report, there is no way to know. And that is the point: this statement, as stated, gives us no way to independently determine whether the seeking was, in fact, sincere, beyond just that “outcome measure” included in the statement itself. I.e., the only way to know whether the seeking was sincere is if you do, in fact, eventually convert.

Surely this is a problem. Stated this way we have no way to take issue with whether this claim is, in fact, true. “Blame” for failure of this prediction can always be distributed to the sincerity, not to the link between seeking and conversion. It could even be argued that, functionally, these sorts of claims serve as definitions, as described above: all true (i.e, sincere) God-seekers convert.

And other evangelical claims follow this same pattern. How much heartache has been created throughout the centuries by Jesus’ “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed” claim? The exact same considerations apply: there is no way at all to determine whether one’s faith is the size of a mustard seed (obviously a very loose metaphor) beyond just that outcome measure: does you effort to move mountains succeed, or not? Not many Christians are willing to up and say that Jesus was wrong. He is Jesus, so he must be right. Yet the mountain did not move. So it must be me.

Psychological Issues

The reason these sorts of apologetic efforts are so problematic is that those in the process of uprooting themselves from their faith are already in a state of emotional upheaval. As I have argued in previous articles, evangelical Christian theology saddles them with a number of handicaps: It aggressively tries to undermine critical thinking skills as well as autonomy, by teaching both are sin. It inculcates in them a in deep fear of Hell should they turn out to be mistaken. They often have no support form their community and possibly their own family. They have been taught to always assume the worst about themselves – human beings are, after all, wholly corrupt – and to always trust the “the Bible” (i.e., evangelical dogma) over everything else. Thus, those struggling with leaving their faith are already highly prone to doubt themselves and tremendously unsure about their basic identity.

And what I suggest is that these sorts of evangelical claims function as an easy out: they cut through all the doubt about one’s motives and sincerity by seeming to provide external and easily-visible measure of one’s own internal state. That is, these claims have the effect of “mind-reading”. One must therefore either be able to question the logic involved (as I am pointing out here in this article), or else call upon enormous internal fortitude to trust own self-examination over the dogma – something those in the midst of de-conversion are ill-equipped to do. It takes a high degree of self-assurance to say, “Yes, indeed I have been sincere and I did have faith – and nothing happened” when everything in your experience and indoctrination has taught you to blame yourself, rather than the theology.

Individuals in the midst of de-conversion, as almost all of them attest, go through painful periods of doubt and anxiety and uncertainty. But most have never been taught any way to handle that doubt and uncertainty beyond the usual Christian bromides: pray, “spend time in the Word”, have faith, “just believe”. Which are precisely those solutions the decoverting individual in beginning to suspect don’t work. The trouble is, they know of few, if any, other options.

For me, this issue is in fact rather personal, as it was just one of these sorts of claims that caused me no end of anguish and self-flagellation. For me, the claim I struggled with came from C. S. Lewis’ theology. It was complex and could be stated something like this:

“If you fully submit your will to God, you will be in right relationship with Him, and He will fill you with His spirit. If you are fully self-less in this way, you will be filled with transcendent peace and joy, for this is the state of bliss human beings were created for. However, you must not submit your will for that reason – in order to receive this peace – because that is essentially using God to try to get what you want. I.e., you would be really asserting your will, and only pretending to submit it. And self-assertion is sin. You must, rather, truly and fully submit your will, out of pure love of and desire for God. “

This could be simplified to, roughly: if you truly submit your will to God, for the right reason, you will be filled with transcendent peace. Based on this, I spent many years in ruthless introspection trying to root out whatever selfishness and self-will I could find and thereby purify my motives. This was exceedingly difficult because I was, at that time in my life, horribly depressed and unhappy in my life and it seemed inhuman to ask me to somehow not wish to feel better, and be motived exclusively by a desire for God. But I tried anyway. Prayer, Bible study, seeking the will of God, and all the usual prescriptions had had little effect. Needless to say, this prescription didn’t work, either, but it was only years later that I was able to see clearly why: the hypothesis is false. Submission of the will, meaning something like the volitional cessation of all desires other than the desire for God, does not lead to peace or joy, or even if it does, it is humanly impossible. It wasn’t me, it was the theology. Hallelujah.

And since I found peace, joy, contentment by other means, I was eventually able to set this whole apologetic morass aside. Hopefully, by making plain what is really going on, I can help others do the same: realize that if you flap your arms, whatever the state of your heart, you do not get closer to God. You just get tired and you feel like a failure.

- Richard

Entry filed under: Richard. Tags: , , , , , .

The Psychology of Apologetics: Sin The Solace of Nonbelief

30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. the chaplain  |  October 24, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    Excellent post. I love the way you explained so clearly how the “definition shifting” works. Thanks for your insights. This is another great series.

  • 2. tana  |  October 25, 2008 at 12:16 am

    I appreciate this series because it makes me feel less insane and less alone. Thank you for sharing these thoughts with us/me.

  • 3. BigHouse  |  October 25, 2008 at 10:16 am

    I third the kudos, Richard, well done. This has been my favorite essay so far, it was so clear and persussive. Not to disparage the others of course :-)

  • 4. Feste  |  October 25, 2008 at 11:48 am

    This is a fantastic series, and this essay is definitely my favorite so far. It can be hard to find the lack of substance beneath evangelical’s rhetorical meanderings and constant volume, but I feel a lot better equipped to zero in on the empty verbage now.

    Thanks!

  • 5. Zoe  |  October 25, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Thank you Richard. I so appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into this serious.

  • 6. Ardegas  |  October 25, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    I’m looking for some rhetorical and effective answer to claims like “you never were a real Christian at all”. Any ideas?

  • 7. Richard  |  October 25, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks to everyone for the kind remarks.

    Ardegas, I wrote a article on this very issue:

    http://de-conversion.com/2007/12/31/on-who-is-a-christian/

    Basically, the issue is not that the fundamentalist is not entitled to his own definition of “Christian”, but that his definition carries no more authority than anyone elses. After all, there is no God to settle the answer for us, and no consensus among human beings about who has authority to decide. So all you can do is: (a) stipulate an group whos definition you wish to adopt and (b) ignore the others. So, in short, there is no “final answer” to who is a Christian.

    So, my answer to that sort of claim would be to say “According to your definition, maybe thats true. But your definition is gerrymandered to exclude disconfirming evidence like deconversion. So why should I care about your definiton?”

    But maybe theres punchier way to say that…

  • 8. orDover  |  October 25, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    This is such a great article. It should be required reading for any Christians who wish to comment here.

  • 9. Jenkins  |  October 25, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Very well written article, Richard.

  • 10. Ardegas  |  October 25, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    But even if we agree on the definition of Christian, he can always deny I was a Christian, he can say that I wasn’t sincere. It’s hard to argue with that.

    This is what I answered to someone in my blog (in Spanish), see how I assert my worldview against his:

    They always say the same, that you were never really a Christian, that you just kept appearances, etc. It’s not true.

    Everyone knows their own mind, and denying a priori the experiences of others just shows an unhealthy fear.

    Yes, even the most devout fall in unbelief. Yes, very sincere and pious believers.

    Obviously, this doesn’t fit with the idea of a personal god that never fails, but that conception of god is childish.

  • 11. Richard  |  October 25, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Ardegas- I agree with you, in that I think the insistence many fundys have that de-cons never were Christians in the first place is the result of fear. It suggests to them, “maybe this could happen to me.” Not to mention, “if part of my worldview is wrong, what else might be wrong?”

    But my point is rather that you dont have to agree with them on a definition of Christian in the first place. And, in fact, if you have deconverted, you almost certainly wont.

    After all, when you were a fundy, you thought that being a Christian meant you had undergone some sort of supernatural experience. Your soul had been “saved”, transformed in some, again, supernatural way.

    Obviously, after deconversion, you dont believe any supernatural anything anymore. So that transformation did not actually happen, even though you thought it did.

    But that doesnt mean you now must think that nothing at all happened, or that the term “Christian” is meaningless and doesnt designate anything. It does, just not what you once thought it did. In other words, when you deconverted, part of what changed was not just your belief in God but also, as part of that package, what it means to call someone “Christian”. Now, that word probably means to you something like “one who considers himself a follower of Jesus.” If you consider yourself a Christian, then you are one, as far as Im concerned. We dont require “proof” anymore because there is no such thing.

    So whos definition is correct, theirs or ours? Well, thats just the point. Look at it this way: how could that question ever be settled? Who gets to say who’s definiton is correct? Its a matter of what authority is behind the definition. And since there is no God to decide for us, then its really just however we humans wish to use the term. There is no larger, correct answer to “who is a Christian” beyond just pointing to your reference group and saying “this is the definition I adopt.” No one can tell you youre wrong in your choice.

    So, if fundys wish to jerryrig their defintion to exclude deconverts, thats “okay”, as much as anyones definiton is okay. It has no more and no less authority than your view or mine or Joe the Plumber’s.

    Its helpful, at least for me, to remind myself that, when I called myself a Christian, everyone I knew who shared a definition with me, also considered me a Christian. There was nothing that could have “tipped them off” that I “really” wasnt a Christian — because I “really” was, in all the ways that mattered. I fit the “definition”.

    How could I not? Being a CHristian is just a social designation, nothing more. If you do the right things and use all the right “passwords” you will be accepted into that group. But that doesnt mean their explanation is correct: that you have been saved by God. After all, there is no god.

    So my question for you would be: you know fundys who say this to you are just being defensive. You know that there is nothing supernatural that corresponds to “being a Christian.” You know, therefore, that there is no “correct” answer. So why do you care to try to satisfy them that you meet their criteria? I know its kind of invalidating to have others deny your self-identity. Believe me, it used to make me mad too. But you also know youre not going to change their minds. Their worldview cant accomodate people like us.

    So what I think happens, then, is that we de-cons have selected a new “reference group”, who’s definiton of “Christian” we have adopted: each other. We all know that we “really” were Christians, in all the senses of that term that matter. I have made my peace with the fact that many fundys out there will try to define me out of their group. That’s okay. I dont need to convince them anymore; I would rather spend my time helping people like those on this site.

    Anyway, I know thats very long winded — sorry about that. Hope it helps.

  • 12. Big Dan  |  October 27, 2008 at 4:12 am

    Richard,

    Great post and series of posts. Re your comment about true selflessness:

    “However, you must not submit your will for that reason – in order to receive this peace – because that is essentially using God to try to get what you want. I.e., you would be really asserting your will, and only pretending to submit it.”

    … I agree with where you’re coming from, but it seems Jesus wasn’t averse to people coming to him for partly selfsh reasons:

    Mark 10.17: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

  • 13. Josh  |  October 27, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    What a godsend (pun unintended) your post is! I just got done reading a facebook comment from an old friend who accused me of your very first point: that I left the faith because I was not a true Christian. I will be sending him this post in response.

    There is nothing more frustrating than a person who redefines reality in such a way that every piece of counter evidence only backs up their claim.

    I think we normally call these conspiracy theories…

  • 14. Ardegas  |  October 27, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Richard. Suppose you define a Christian as someone who has “accepted Christ”. I said sincerly certain prayers, and asked Jesus into my heart, and believed in the correct things from a fundy point of view, and went to church and all of that. This is a workable definition of a Christian, even if I no longer agree with those presuppositions: I can agree with the definition.

    Why do I care if they consider I was a Christian or not?

    Their obstinacy used to bother me, as you have also experienced. But what the hell ! I don’t care what they think anymore, I just want to be playful and throw something at them, just for fun :-)

  • 15. Richard  |  October 27, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Ardegas – Yes, I agree it is a workable defintion, from a fundy point of view. I guess the point Im trying to make is that that point of view has no more authority to establish such a definiton than anyone else. There is no right answer as to who is a Christian.

    If you agree with the definition (and I assume with the caveat that when you “accept Jesus into your heart”, all that has happened is a transformed psychological state within yourself. Jesus is, after all, dead, and doesnt know youre talking to him) then my suggestion as to what to say to such people is to point out how they rig their definiton to exlude anyone who would complicate their theology, like you and me.

    Ask them to tell you how to determine whether someone is “really” a Christian **before** they deconvert.

    You can also point out that not all Christians accept the “eternal security” view (that you can never lose your salvation if you “really” had it). There is the conditional security view, which is that you can indeed lose it. Funny thing is, *both* groups claim to get their teaching from the Bible!

  • 16. Richard  |  October 27, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Josh-

    Yes, I agree! I think these are some of the same tactics used by conspiracy theorists. Its a handy way to protect your belief system from falsification, or even from seeming a poor theory just because you cant convince anyone to buy it.

    They will often say that if you disagree with their conspiracy theory, it proves you have been brainwashed by whatever sinister bad guys are at work behind the scenes.

    So, this would go something like:

    all truly open-minded (i.e., non-brainwashed) people who hear the evidence for my conspiracy will believe it

    Need I say more?

  • 17. Lauren  |  October 28, 2008 at 12:59 am

    I absolutely love this series. I think I’ll send people I talk to who are struggling with deconverting here.

  • 18. The Nerd  |  October 28, 2008 at 10:53 am

    This is a really good post! I’m currently addressing the claim that “no true Christian is capable of deconversion”, or more specifically, the accusation that I wasn’t “really” a Christian to begin with. This one will be a big help for me.

  • 19. razzledazzle  |  October 28, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    This series was very interesting to read. Ive been visiting this website for months now and this series was the most challenging for me. I’m a fundamental Christian who is not here to bash anyone over the head with Bible verses, or speculate whether anyone ever “truly gave their heart to Christ”. I think doing that shows a lack of respect for other’s decisions, which in many cases I have read about on this site, has been a painful and difficult process. But believe it or not, this site has been an increadible faith builder for me by helping me putting my doubts in to words before searching for the answers. The generalizations sadden me about “fundy Christians.” but is expected when interacting with those who think they can argue someone back to faith in Jesus Christ. Anyway, I just wanted to say that this series was very well written, and that there are probably many Christians like me who hang around here, not to judge and fingerpoint and argue, but to see another point of view and try to understand those holding that view.

  • 20. Ubi Dubium  |  October 28, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    razzledazzle-
    I’m glad you are here. So often, as you have seen from the posts here, somebody who has de-converted is the target of what I would almost term “assaults” of faith – endless arguing, pleading, bible-bashing, apologetics, threats of hellfire, anything to try to drag us back into believing that which we have now found impossible to believe. If more believers were like you, and took the time to really listen to us, instead of pre-judging, it would be a very good thing. I wish more people would do that.

  • 21. CheezChoc  |  October 28, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Agreeing with Ubi.

  • 22. Richard  |  October 28, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    razzledazzle-
    I agree as well. If more fundamentalists were as respectful and considerate as you are then many of us would have far fewer objections to fundamentalism as an institution.

  • 23. Steelman  |  October 28, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    Accusing a decon of never being a Christian seems as absurd as accusing a divorced person of never being married.

    If you were committed to someone, went through the social and legal procedures of matrimony, loved them, lived with them, tried to work things out with them, and yet they turned out not to be the person you thought you were marrying, it doesn’t mean you never really loved them, and it certainly doesn’t mean you were never really married.

    It just means its over now.

  • 24. Josh  |  October 28, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Steelman -

    Incredible analogy. To use Richard’s explanation in this post, this would be similar to defining married people as those who never get divorced. Only true married people stick together for life. Therefore all divorced people were never *truly* married.

    Gosh, can’t imagine trying to figure out how to update the law books on that one…

  • 25. Josh  |  October 29, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Okay, I was just reading this from Answers in Genesis website and I just HAD to post this (*grins*):

    “When properly understood, the “evidence” confirms the biblical account.” (http://www.answersingenesis.org/about)

    They are saying:

    All properly understood evidence confirms the Bible

    Therefore,

    Any evidence that does not confirm the Bible is not properly understood.

    This could be used to posit any evidence (even poor evidence) as evidence for the Bible. If someone says that it is not evidence for the Bible, all AIG has to say is that the person does not “understand it properly”. This redefining what evidence means can also be used to explain away all good evidence against the Bible, by arguing that it cannot be good evidence against the Bible because it is not properly understood.

    It is hard to trust anyone who redefines truth so that they cannot ever be wrong.

    Thanks so much Richard, your note has been so helpful.

  • 26. Kat  |  October 29, 2008 at 3:53 am

    Props for a well-written series. I always had this niggling feeling that something was not quite right with evangelical rhetoric, but I couldn’t put my finger on it / find the words to explain the not-quite-rightness.

    I happened to read several chapters of ‘Mere Christianity’ yesterday and this morning and found that it didn’t quite explain everything as neatly as it promised.

    I still believe in God, but I’ve been doubting what’s been said in church and even in the Bible for quite some time. I’ve been asking questions like these: http://de-conversion.com/2008/10/15/how-much-doubt-is-too-much/ . Still in the middle of the reflection process.

    I’ve actually been an on and off lurker at de-Conversion for a while. Good blog, everyone.

  • 27. Zach  |  November 11, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    You put a lot of thought into this, too bad it can be explained away by one simple statement.

    Christians have a personal relationship with God.

    Think about that statement.

    True Christians as some like to put it are people with a personal relationship with God.

    It is not just some feeling.

  • 28. Richard  |  November 11, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Zach –

    “all true christians have a personal r/ship with god”

    “If you do not have a personal r/ship with god, you are not a true christian.”

    Truth by definiton. And unverifiable to boot. How do you know, in practical, observational terms, when you have the necessary relationship?

    ‘It is not just some feeling.” Okay, so what is it?

  • 29. Ubi Dubium  |  November 11, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Zach-

    True Christians as some like to put it are people with a personal relationship with God.

    It is not just some feeling.

    Sorry – but when a true christian is pressed for evidence of a “personal relationship with god” the only thing they ever seem to produce is “I can feel it.” They don’t get e-mails from god, god doesn’t walk their dog when they are out of town, babysit the kids, or join them at the pub and buy a round of drinks. All I ever hear are “feelings”. Well if you feel it, and you are happy, fine. But until your god actually shows up and does something real, I prefer a personal relationship with chocolate.

    And you seem to be re-emphasizing the point of the original post rather well. What would you say about someone who said they were once convinced they had a “personal realtionship with god” and that “they could feel it” but then later decided it was all in their head after all?

  • [...] the way in which Christianity uses fear to convert and retain its followers. In part Four, “Definitions“, Richard examines claims that apologetics make that are designed to be impossible to [...]

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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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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