I certainly don’t think of myself as an apologist. Nor do I want that label for myself. Most of my work in Christian philosophical theology has involved adopting a critical stance towards such traditional Christian teachings as the just war tradition, the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration, and the categorical condemnation of homosexual intimacy.
But this critical stance has also been an internal one. That is, I have criticized Christian teachings from within. And when I first started reading the New Atheists, I found myself in the odd position of strongly disagreeing with their overall perspective towards theistic religion while, in fact, agreeing with many if not most of their most explicit criticisms. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins struck me as a bit like a tone-deaf person in the 1940’s who has never experienced the joys of opera but who is well schooled in human health issues—and who proceeds to scathingly denounces opera because the singers are on average too fat.
In my recent interview for the [ad hoc] Christianity podcast, the topic of apologetics came up, and I had the chance to try to formulate my thoughts on the topic. I suggested that apologists such as William Lane Craig operate like defense attorneys in a courtroom. Their goal is not to find the truth, but to vigorously defend their client. While such vigorous defense of a position can have a place in intellectual life—and while people such as Craig have much to say that is worth listening to—I would much rather be an explorer than a defense attorney.
That is, I have always seen myself as on an intellectual journey of discovery. This doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to vigorously defend a position (“This seems like a much more promising path if we want to find the lake, since it tracks the stream’s course, and there’s reason to think the stream is emptying into the lake”; “That strikes me as far too dangerous a road to travel; just look at the recent signs of rockslides, not to mention the bear prints!”). But it does mean that I don’t see myself as primary in the business of “defending the faith.” Living the faith, yes—but living it in the sense of living in it—in a rich landscape full of treasures as well as traps, wonderful vistas as well as bear caves.
This analogy is imperfect, since living the faith is, in another sense, a matter of seeing the same landscape that others live in through a distinctive set of glasses—and since what I want to explore is not merely the landscape, or the landscape as seen through this set of lenses, but the issue of “fit.” How well does this "prescription" help me to navigate on my journey? How well does it help me to see and appreciate the scenic overviews? What do others profess to see that I don’t, and what do I see that they don’t? How might these lenses be refined in the light of these insights? I don’t see how I can pursue these questions if I don’t put on the glasses. Nor, however, do I see how I can pursue these questions if all I care about is defending the glasses against all challenges to their adequacy.
But insofar as I am that kind of explorer, I do feel compelled to defend the validity of the kind of exploration I am doing when it is challenged. Do I then become an apologist?
I have a feeling that the glasses analogy is about to reach the end of its usefulness, so let me leave analogies behind for now and address explicitly what sparked this reflection. In response to my [ad hoc] Christianity interview, a regular commenter on this blog, Burk, posted here the following challenge:
I appreciated your consideration of William Lane Craig, for putting his cart before his horse. But then you also state your aim at the outset of your own polemical exercises, which is to show that religion can be intellectually respectable. Statements to this effect pepper your book and blog.Let me try to restate this challenge by first explicating what I take to be two characteristic features of apologists: first, they take the truth of a traditional body of doctrines as a given and then direct their intellectual resources to the task of defending that body of doctrine against challenges; second, their aim is to show not merely that their belief system is reasonable, but that—at least when it comes to its most central pillars—their system offers the most reasonable position, or perhaps the only reasonable one. Those who deny these pillars are therefore defective in their rationality. Put another way, the apologist is engaged in a kind of zero-sum contest of the sort one sees in sporting competitions and courtrooms, and is attempting to come out the winner.
What if it isn't intellectually respectable? What if you are presuming what you seek to show, for reasons that are palpably emotional and inchoate? Sure, you may wish for intellectual respectibility, but have you gotten there? The whole idea of god is very much in question and remains to be shown in any "intellectual" sense. Thus the various projects of going beyond this towards "him" keeping "his" hand out to all sinners, saving them from "hell" and taking them to "heaven".. it is all risible- very much beneath intellectual respectibility.
Let me say a few things about these two features. The first seems to me a necessary condition for being an apologist: You have to be playing the intellectual game of defending your belief system against challenges—as opposed, for example, to critically examining those challenges to decide whether they have merit, and if so what changes in one’s belief system are called for. This feature may also, I think, be a sufficient condition for being an apologist—that is, even if the second feature doesn’t obtain, you might still be classified as an apologist. That said, the second feature is certainly very typical of apologists even if not strictly necessary. My own inclination is to treat it as characteristic but not necessary, and thus to distinguish between two kinds of apologists: the more common “adversarial apologist,” and what we might call the “friendly apologist.”
But even if we regard the second feature as necessary, it is clearly not sufficient. Every one of us views some positions we hold as not only reasonable, but as more reasonable than the alternatives. For example, I think the earth is roughly spherical, and I think any Flat-Earthers out there are being unreasonable in denying this. Am I therefore an apologist for the ball-shaped character of our planet? Not necessarily. First off, I might not feel inclined to defend my view about the earth's shape against Flat Earth challenges.
But even if I did defend my position, I wouldn't necessarily be an apologist for it. After all, I might consider the weight of the Flat Earth objections, decide after a fair and balanced reflection on them that that they are uncompelling, and then explain why. While I end up defending Round-Earthism, I'm not operating as a defense attorney for it, since I first considered the arguments against it fairly before deciding that they didn't work--and might have decided the other way.
But what if I roll my eyes dismissively, never taking the Flat-Earther argument seriously as I demolish it. Am I an apologist then? Not necessarily. Suppose (as I think is true) my commitment to the roundness of the Earth—and my belief about the selective irrationality of Flat-Earthers—is based on exposure to an enormous body of intellectually compelling evidence. There was a time, perhaps, when the Flat-Earth position was credible in the light of the available evidence. But as our body of evidence grew there were debates and discussions about the significance of that evidence. The Round-Earth theory grew in strength and plausibility, and the objections to it from the Flat-Earth camp proved themselves to be based on unsound thinking or incomplete knowledge.
And today, if the objections coming from the Flat-Earth camp are the same old ones that have already been thoroughly discredited, I'm not being an apologist even if I start out the debate convinced that the objection to my view is empty. My attitude is not “This objection *must* be vapid, since it conflicts with my belief; the task at hand is to figure out how and why it is vapid.” My attitude is, instead, “This objection has been shown to be vapid eight hundred times already, and there’s no reason to think it will suddenly become a credible objection this time, given that the Flat-Earthers putting it forward are offering nothing new.”
The former attitude is what is most definitive of the apologist: conviction that an objection to the apologist’s view that hasn’t yet been rationally refuted has simply got to be misguided precisely because it calls into question the apologist’s view. The apologist starts from this conviction and proceeds to look for the refutation that must be there.
I’m speaking of attitudes here because I want to stress that what is important for defining someone as an apologist is the subjective approach of the individual. If Joe sincerely believes, based on his exposure to the evidence and the history of dispute about the evidence, that a certain objection to his Flat-Earth position has been decisively refuted and for this reason dismisses it, he may be a dummy or an ignoramus or a dupe, but he isn’t an apologist for the Flat-Earth position. That label is reserved for those who assume the objection must be misguided simply because it challenges Flat-Earth-ism—and then set out to make that case (rather than being convinced, however mistakenly, that the case has been effectively made).
There are, however, some fine lines here. Suppose I am presented with novel evidence against the Round-Earth view, evidence that is legitimately hard to fit with the thesis that the earth is ball-shaped (no idea what such evidence would look like, but let’s pretend). I might approach this objection with extreme skepticism, pretty sure there must be something seriously wrong with it—because the case for the Round-Earth view is so overwhelmingly strong that rejecting that view on the basis of this new bit of evidence would require me to throw out a view with massive explanatory power. Thus supported by the strength of the Round-Earth view, I look for the problem with the objection to it, sure it must be there.
Am I an apologist?
My inclination here is to say that since “apologist” is a term of art it doesn’t much matter what answer one gives, so long as one makes the right sorts of distinctions. We could say that, in this case, I am being an apologist—but a very different sort of apologist than the ones who are convinced the objection to their view must be wrong out of pride or group loyalty or wishful thinking or something else along these lines. We might distinguish, then, between apologists who base their apologetic stance on the (perceived) weight of the evidence (call them “evidentially motivated apologists”), and those who base their stance on emotions or desires or other more affective motives (call them “affectively motivated apologists”). Or we might decide that the former isn’t an apologist at all, and reserve that term exclusively for the latter.
Either way, not all people of faith who have come to the intellectual defense of religion should be characterized as apologists. For example, I am a Christian theist who has defended the intellectual respectability of theistic religion—but with respect to the first and most significant feature of apologists, I don’t see myself as a good fit, since I am more than prepared to question very traditional Christian doctrines when my experience or exposure to critical challenges strikes me as warranting it.
This is not to say that I find every objection to Christian teachings to be credible. And some strike me as the same old unsound objections that have been decisively discredited before. But even then I try to take the time to explain why I think the objection doesn’t work…in part because my conversation partner may not have heard the reasons before even if they’re old hat to me, and in part because I want to make sure the reasons for setting aside the objection really are as convincing as I think.
With respect to the second characteristic feature of apologists, while I want to argue that theistic religion can be “reasonable” or intellectually respectable (although it needn’t be), I do not strive to show that intellectual respectability is limited to the theistic position. I know thoughtful, decent people from a range of religious standpoints: atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. That theism can be intellectually respectable does not, on my view, entail that atheism cannot be. This is not a zero-sum contest where the reasonableness of my position depends on the unreasonableness of its alternatives. If I’m an apologist at all, then, I’d be a “friendly” apologist. (Not that I think of myself as an apologist at all, since I’d rather be an explorer than a defense attorney).
But here is where Burk’s challenge comes in. Burk argues, in effect, that I am presuming that religion can be intellectually respectable and then directing all my intellectual energies to the task of defending this position. But all the while I am unwittingly demonstrating the intellectual risibility of religion by making pronouncements for which there is no evidence (about such things as the universal benevolence of God)—a paradigmatically irrational thing to do that is utterly characteristic of religion in all its forms, even the one that I am trying to defend. In this sense, then, I am revealing myself as an apologist—so fixated on defending a position rather than investigating its merits that I fail to see what is plain to anyone looking at the position objectively.
If this is right, I embody the first and most central feature of an apologist—not with respect to traditional Christian doctrine, but with respect to the idea that theistic religion in a broad sense can be intellectually respectable. And when this idea is at issue, I might not even qualify as a friendly apologist. Burk doesn’t address this, but there’s certainly a case for saying that I embody the second characteristic feature of apologists when it comes to the question of whether religion can be intellectually respectable. After all, I think that those who challenge the intellectual respectability of religion in all its forms are not only mistaken but are making indefensibly sweeping generalizations. I have accused them of attacking religion from the outside, and hence from a stance defined by their own starting points which are not themselves being criticized but which are employed as the basis for condemning religion. I have said that this is the wrong way to make intellectual progress. In short, I am accusing those who regard all religion as irrational of being irrational.
In short, it might be argued that I am an adversarial apologist after all—not for the truth of traditional Christian doctrine, but for the view that religion in general, and theistic religion in particular (including Christianity) can be intellectually respectable (even if it isn’t always so).
In fact, I don’t think the argument for this conclusion works--primarily because I don't think Burk's case for attributing to me the central feature of an apologist works. But since this post has gotten plenty long already, I won’t tell you why (at least not here). Instead, I’ll ask you what you think (about these classifications, about where various people fall within them, and—if you like—about what you suspect I’d say in response to the argument pinning me as an adversarial apologist).