Monthly Archives: February 2014

Misusing Jefferson’s Views on Religion

I was reading some news stories earlier today and, as I am wont to do at times, I decided to read the comments. (I don’t know why I do it—consider it a form of self-scourging for past offenses against good sense.)

As I was reading, one commenter, trying to demonstrate the folly of those with religious beliefs, introduced a quote by Thomas Jefferson. (The commenter may not have been trying to demonstrate folly, as some of his later comments bordered on demonizing those with religious beliefs.) Here is his Jefferson quote:

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1782:

“Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

That sounds like a fairly condemnatory dismissal of religious belief by one of the country’s founding fathers and third president—particularly if you are already predisposed to consider religious teachings (particularly the religious teaching of children) to be a form of coercion. You can even find the quote on a page over at WikiQuote (a sister site to Wikipedia). I’ve also seen the quote used many times over by those who fancy themselves secularist free thinkers.

Problem is, the quote is cherry-picked to imply something that Jefferson never meant. The quote comes from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, published in the early 1780s. Jefferson believed that religion had value and, more importantly, that the free exercise of religion had civic and societal value. Here is the quote, in context:

“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

jefferson2Jefferson is dismissing coercion, to be sure, but not only religious coercion. In fact, if you read the entire Query XVII (the context from whence the quote was extracted), you find that Jefferson is finding fault with “coercion of the laws,” specifically laws that dictate the proscribed practice of a specific religion.

Jefferson actually asserts that it is good for there to be differences of opinion in religion. He sees the differences as performing a healthy check on the totality of humanity. (A censor morum is a person who serves as a critic—or censor—of the morality of others.)

In other words, any secularist that would use the Jefferson quote, out of context, is imputing meaning to Jefferson that wasn’t found in his beliefs. If Jefferson could see a value in diverse religious censoring (or criticizing) the morals of others, well… I guess that’s good enough for me. (Thus my right to criticize the morals of secularists who would, through error intentional or inadvertent, misuse the words of Jefferson.)

I found the following sentiment by Jefferson, also from Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, to be much more illuminating than the out-of-context quote cited above:

Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the aera of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged.

Those who would try to restrain or banish religion from society or from the marketplace of ideas that forms our societies seek to “restrain” religious reason and religious free enquiry. If they expect their own ideas to have sway, they should not seek the banishment of those ideas they find disagreeable or offensive. For if they have their way, “present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged.”

 

Smart Seeking

In one of my previous posts about the world of online apologetics, I compared apologetics to choosing a restaurant (apologetics is not homogenous in approach, tone, or tenor) and the participation of others to the soccer rowdies.

If we are talking about choosing meals or rooting for a soccer team, the decisions ultimately reached are neither long lasting nor ultimately critical. The same cannot be said for spiritual decisions, however. I can get over a bad restaurant choice in a day or two, but a bad spiritual decision could have repercussions for years or generations. Quite honestly, there is much more on the line with religious apologetics than heartburn and whose team won.

Seekers, already at a loss for an answer, often find themselves navigating the rough philosophical waters created by the apologetic practitioners and observers. With decisions being critical and the stakes high, a misjudgment here or there can be tragic.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a few ideas for how seekers should approach the sometimes enlightening, often shocking, and periodically brutal world of online apologetics—as I mentioned that I would. These ideas are offered in no particular order, but should be considered in their entirety.

  • Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, especially from unknown or untrustworthy sources. We are prone to believe that anything we read on the Internet is true, but that is a dangerous belief to hold.
  • If you don’t find spiritually satisfying answers in the first place you look, look some more. I’ve never run across a question for which an answer (or multiple answers) didn’t exist.
  • UncertaintyLearn to appreciate ambiguity and nuance. For many questions there isn’t a single, one-size-fits-all answer. This can be troubling to those who would much prefer a black-and-white approach to their concerns. A good skill, therefore, is the ability to recognize the complexity of an issue and to understand and appreciate multiple potential answers simultaneously.
  • It is your responsibility to feed yourself. If you have questions about non-core gospel areas or about interpreting historical events, you probably won’t find the answers by attending Sunday School all your life. It is not the Gospel Doctrine teacher’s responsibility (or anyone else’s responsibility at Church) to find the answers for you.
  • Your bishop doesn’t have all the answers (and that’s OK). Before he was called to be bishop, the guy in the chair was in the pew next to you. He didn’t get infused with knowledge and experience by virtue of the call. (He receives inspiration, under the right conditions, but his inspiration won’t necessarily answer your questions.) If you have a smart bishop who has satisfactory answers, that’s great. If you don’t, charitably cut the guy some slack. It doesn’t mean there aren’t answers or that the answers are being hidden from you.
  • Don’t stereotype all apologists or apologetics by the actions of a few. In the world of restaurants, is it fair to judge Marcel’s by what you find at Taco Bell? No; seek to find apologists and apologetics that match your approach and temperament—and don’t be a jerk toward the rest.
  • If you want to maintain your faith in the face of doubts, seek answers from those who have stood where you stand and maintained their faith. They can provide guidance as to what helped them. (If you aren’t interested in maintaining your faith, then why look for answers at all?)
  • Online empathy is cheap. It is easy to find people online who are happy to empathize with any pain you may choose to share. The ease is because those people don’t have to put anything more of themselves on the line, in your behalf, than a cheerful word and an emoticon or two.
  • Don’t take online expressions of empathy as evidence that your chosen direction—whether it be toward or away from belief—is a correct choice on your part. It is much better to find a true disciple of Christ who is willing to help bear your burdens and lift up the hands that hang down.
  • Showing a truthBetter decisions can be made in quiet, one-on-one interactions with others than in the boisterous atmosphere of a message board, reddit feed, or twitter stream. For the most part, religious message boards are where apologists and observers meet and sometimes tussle. It is not a place to feel the promptings of the Spirit.
  • Forget “reviews” of apologists or apologetics. You aren’t picking a restaurant, but seeking for answers. Those who “review” either apologists or apologetics are generally observers, trying to justify their own decisions, score rhetorical advantage, or downright cause mischief. The longer they’ve been observing (and “playing the game”), the better they are at well poisoning.
  • Learn to recognize the Spirit. Those observers (or outright critics) who play at apologetics often seek to minimize or dismiss the power of the Spirit, but I can assure you it is real. This is why missionaries, early on in teaching investigators, talk about the Spirit and try to get the investigators to recognize it. If you forget how to recognize the Spirit in your seeking, how can you ever expect to find real spiritual answers? (Hint: You can’t.)
  • If you find yourself getting angry about what you read online, then it is time to disconnect. Anger greatly reduces the ability to recognize truth. There are other ways to find answers that don’t engender anger.
  • Remember that faith precedes the miracle. You must exercise faith (yes, the counsel of James in this regard is appropriate) and then the Lord can bless you. You should recognize that He may or may not completely remove your doubts—that is up to Him. What He can do, if you let Him, is to speak peace to your soul and comfort to your heart.

That’s it. Do you have other constructive suggestions for seekers entering the world of online apologetics? If so, feel free to share them in the comments, below.

 

Observing the Observers

In yesterday’s installment about apologetics, I introduced three designations for people involved in online apologetics: apologists, seekers, and observers. As I stated, my purpose in doing so was for “convenience in understanding the interactions that take place in the field of online apologetics.”

I’ve received a couple of comments (via e-mail) from friends who said that, perhaps, my choice of the term “observer” was not as correct as it should be. In their view, a better classification system would be apologists, seekers, and critics. In light of their comments, I thought I would post this update about my usage of the term and why I chose it.

I understand the desire of labeling the people I call observers as “critics,” but I don’t feel that it is as helpful as my proposed classification system. Why? Because it (quite frankly) uses an oppositional approach to classification where apologists and critics are simply two sides of the same coin. In this approach, apologists are generally “pro belief” and critics are “anti belief.”

The world isn’t that simple, however. Remember that an apologist is a person who creates an apologetic. It doesn’t matter whether the apologetic is “pro” anything or “anti” anything; it is an argument (typically writing or verbiage of some sort) that provides a reason for a position and supporting information for that reasoning.

One cannot say, for example, that William Lane Craig is an apologist and the late Christopher Hitchens was a critic. Fact is, they are (or were) both apologists for opposite viewpoints. In the world of online Mormon-related apologetics, people such as Dan Peterson, Mike Ash, Dan Vogel, John Dehlin, Elden Watson, Grant Palmer, Stan Barker, Todd Compton, Kevin Barney, Matt Slick, and Rod Meldrum are all apologists—some supportive of Mormonism and others critical. (The list could go on and on.)

My approach to classifying participants is based upon what people do. Remember that apologists (pro or con) produce something. Observers, on the other hand, produce nothing substantive. They are either supportive or critical of something an apologist has done, but they don’t actually produce their own apologetics. (It is easy to criticize, praise, snipe, or troll—which is what observers do. This is the “cheap route,” requiring very little time or effort of the person.)

The choice of the word “observer” on my part was intentional, even though the choice runs the risk of causing a bit of confusion. When we think of an observer, we typically think of someone standing by and doing nothing but watching. They are neutral and benign to whatever it is they are observing.

That isn’t the way it is in the field of apologetics. Here observers usually doesn’t just watch, primarily because they aren’t neutral. As I mentioned in yesterday’s installment, they often are like rowdy soccer players, willing to jump into the fray and vociferously root for whoever their team is. (Typically “their team” is anyone with whom the observer ideologically agrees.)

Picture, if you will, a large room that is completely empty except for two people positioned in the center of the room. A spotlight illuminates them. One of these people is an apologist, explaining his or her position, and the other is a seeker, asking questions that elicits responses from the apologist. This is the historical, before-the-Internet paradigm of how apologetics worked.

The observers are visible, but in the online world not always identifiable.

The observers are visible, but in the online world not always identifiable.

Now picture the same large room. In the middle are the same two people, illuminated by the same spotlight. Surrounding the people on all sides, in a circle, are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, separated from the two in the center by about six feet. It is hard to tell exactly how many there are in the circle because the spotlight is the only illumination in the room, and as you get farther from the light source the people fade into the darkness. Some of the people in the circle are identifiable and others you don’t know. Still others are almost faceless because of the illumination issue. These are the observers, made possible because of the Internet.

Now imagine that the people in the circle are intently watching the two in the middle. One starts to say something but, after a sentence or two, is yelled at by another in the circle. Soon there are dozens and then scores of people in the circle talking and yelling. Most of their comments have to do with the points being raised by the people in the middle, but many times their comments are directed toward each other. Some of the comments are supportive of the apologist, but others are derogatory. In a few cases, in the dark recesses of the room, you are sure that you can hear people fighting.

In this scenario, it doesn’t really matter the ideological position of the apologist, nor does what the observers are shouting really matter. The fact is, the apologist is someone who has produced an apologetic that is being shared with the seeker and the observer is someone who has produced nothing except extraneous commentary about the apologetic, the apologist, or other comments and commenters. Further, the voices of the observers always outnumber those of the apologist and seeker and they are almost always louder and more strident.

The problem with such scenarios, of course, is that it is too easy for real communication and understanding to break down. The two people in the middle of the room may continue to successfully carry on a conversation, but they could just as easily be enticed to interact directly with the observers. If the seeker still has questions but the apologist has disengaged with the seeker and started interacting with the observers, then the seeker is left wondering what is going on. If the seeker disengages with the apologist and starts interacting with the observers then the apologist has essentially failed in establishing a level of understanding with the seeker.

In the world of online apologetics, because the observer produces nothing of apologetic value, he or she only serves to introduce noise into whatever conversation is occurring.

As I mentioned yesterday, if the seeker is not aware of what role the observer plays, it is easy to confuse the apologist as “just another participant” or come to believe that an observer is a substantive contributor to any conversation that may be sought. Neither is the case, however.

Finally, I chose the term “observer” because it doesn’t carry any ideological baggage (so to speak). Observers are not always critical, they aren’t always supportive, they aren’t always on-topic, and they aren’t always “nice.” They can be for a statement, against it, or neutral on it. They simply observe, comment, and produce nothing except noise.

Is that harsh? It wasn’t meant to be. Is it descriptive of the state of online apologetics? I believe it is. Is there a better word to describe this third party on the field? If you can think of one, I’d love to hear it. (Feel free to comment, below.)

 

The Woolly World of Online Apologetics

In the previous installment about apologetics I addressed some of the core issues related to understanding apologetics. In this installment I want to spend a bit of time discussing issues related to apologetics on the Internet.

The rise of the Internet has affected how apologetics is practiced. In days gone by, apologetics was typically low-key and very specialized. As mentioned in the previous installment, an apologist is someone who creates an apologetic—for whatever topic or purpose. The way that apologetics were produced was to write them and have them published in a book or a specialized academic or theological journal.

This made it hard for those seeking apologetic answers, as the books could be scarce and the specialized journals weren’t typically widely distributed. Now that is no longer the case. The Internet has opened the floodgates of information, often deluging those seeking answers with more information than can easily be assimilated.

In the online world, apologists of any stripe have a way to publish their ideas and thoughts. This has led to much more apologetic information available than at any time in history.

questionsApologists aren’t the only ones participating within the world of online apologetics, however. In general, there are three “actors” within the field of apologetics:

  • Apologists. These are the people mentioned in the previous installment; they produce information that supports whatever position they are addressing.
  • Seekers. These are the people who are looking for answers; they are the potential consumers of the information produced by apologists.
  • Observers. These are the people who “watch” the interaction between apologists and seekers.

These designations—apologist, seeker, and observer—are made strictly for convenience in understanding the interactions that take place in the field of online apologetics. They are not formal groupings, but I use them because in over three decades of participating in apologetics (both online and off) I have seen them over and over. I have even acted as a member of the three groups at one time or another.

This brings up another important point—it should be noted that not all the actors in apologetics are clearly defined. (It would be great if those participating could be counted upon to wear a sign that indicated which role they were fulfilling.) At any given point—even within a given day or week—a person could act within all three roles.

For example, a person may come to the field of apologetics as a seeker, but quickly pick up some tidbits of information about a particular topic. The person forms an opinion and then becomes an apologist for that opinion, trying to convince others that it is correct. When it comes to other topics, the same person functions largely as an observer. This can make apologetics extremely fluid and sometimes very frustrating.

The Homogeneity of Apologetics

It should go without saying that apologetics should be practiced (by apologists) in a way that does not alienate the intended audience (the seekers). A mistake often made by those engaging in apologetics, those seeking apologetic responses, and those observing the interchanges between the two is to assume that both apologists and seekers are homogenous groups. They are not.

Perhaps an analogy will work here: Consider the restaurant trade. Restaurants, by and large, are in the business of providing food to those who are hungry. But there are a huge number of restaurants catering to a wide variety of audiences. In many areas you have anything from fine dining establishments where dinner is an experience lasting several hours to drive-through taco stands. The spectrum of establishments fills a need; they all cater to an audience that perceives their individual needs and desires differently.

Understand that the comparison between fine-dining establishments and taco stands doesn’t do justice to the diversity of the offerings under the umbrella of “restaurants.” There are, indeed, scores of types of restaurants, each trying to fill a niche to satisfy what customers may desire (or need) at any given moment.

So it is with apologetics. Anyone familiar with the field should understand that there is are huge differences between what one finds in academic publications when compared to the often-times rough-and-tumble world of message boards. And, obviously, that is speaking only of the online world—there is a whole area of practicing apologists in the offline world as well. Most Christian bookstores have at least a partial shelf dedicated to the genre, and anyone who has attended an LDS temple open house or pageant can find apologetics—good and bad—being practiced on at least one street corner.

Back, then, to the restaurant analogy for a moment. Going through the drive-through of a local hamburger stand will not satisfy a desire for filet mignon. (I can tell you from personal experience that there are times when my craving for a White Castle won’t be satisfied by visiting Applebee’s.) It is important that the consumer be aware of their likes and dislikes and seek an establishment that meets those needs.

The diversity of supply and the fickleness of demand apply in apologetics, as well. Practitioners, seekers, and observers all need to understand that (a) there is a wide variety of approaches and (b) not everyone wants (or needs) every approach.

When it comes to restaurants, you can generally figure out (given enough time) what your desires are and which establishment is most likely to fulfill those desires. In online apologetics a seeker can generally figure out (again, given enough time) what he or she is looking for and which apologetic is most satisfying in fulfilling needs. Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment—the observer.

The Advent of the Observer

In historical apologetics (the field as practiced before the widespread advent of the Internet), there were two primary roles: seeker and apologist. An apologist would write an article or a book, the article or book would be published, and the seeker would read the information and either be helped or not.

In the online world, apologetics has become a spectator sport, with a large number of observers who freely comment on the “game.” Each has their own favorite “team” and roots for them with all the fervor of rowdy soccer fans. There are multiple websites set up in which observers weigh in on the comings and goings of both apologetic practitioners and seekers, often mocking those they observe.

Apologists—at least those who have been participating in the field for any length of time—are well aware of the observers, but many seekers—who tend to be newcomers—are unaware of their presence. Just as apologetics can be practiced helpfully and unhelpfully for any given need, so can observing. Just as in soccer, the apologetics observers do not sit idly by, watching the fun. Often they are out on the field, tussling with both teams and trying to affect the outcome. The observers often become, in their own right, apologists for whatever position they feel is beneficial.

In the online world, then, a seeker must not only try to sort out which apologist (and which apologetic) best meets their needs, but also must traverse the often-rowdy world of observers. It is the observers that are pushing and pulling one way and the other, tussling to win rhetorical points (real and imagined) over their ideological rivals.

argumentIt isn’t only the seekers affected by the observers, but the apologists as well. Where, in years gone by, apologists could publish their information and have very little interaction with others about that information, now they are in the position of defending their information from observers whose criticisms are often more often than not ideologically based.

The result of the advent of the observer is that apologetics can (and sometimes does) devolve into a free for all where each participant is arguing about this nit or that gnat as they jockey for whatever imagined points they desire. Even if the apologist successfully exercises restraint and refuses to get into the devolution toward argument, the observer is often not restrained and still interacts with the seeker on the field.

This brings us back to the quote I mentioned in my last installment; the one by Austin Farrer. (I’ll post it again, here, for reference.)

Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. (Austin Farrer, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C.S. Lewis, ed., Jocelyn Gibb [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965], 26.)

If the apologist exercises restraint and steps out of the fray, the historical interaction between apologist and seeker is lost, leaving only the interaction between observers (many of whom are ideologically opposed to the apologist) and the seeker. In such a scenario, it is too easy for the seeker to wrongly assume that the now-absent apologist doesn’t have the ability to defend his or her position and conclude that the observers must be right.

Thus, the advent of the observer makes the job of the apologist more difficult and the position of the seeker more tenuous than was historically the case. Where there used to be very little “background noise” in the field of apologetics, in the online world there is a huge amount of noise. This puts a heavier burden on today’s seekers as they must navigate among the cacophony of voices to discern what is of value and what is mere noise.

(More about why I chose the term “observers” can be found in a subsequent post.)

The Observer Effect

In closing this installment, I wanted to share a few thoughts on a common refrain from observers. Some have been quick to say that religious belief—particularly among Mormons, but also among all Christians—has declined since the introduction of the Internet. This decline has been noticed and commented upon time and again.

The conclusion most often reached by the observers is that the Internet has made more information available than ever before (some even go so far as to say that the information was previously and purposely hidden) and that this newly available information is responsible for the decline. In the words of one observer, “the widespread availability of information on the internet seems to be one of the key contributors to the acceleration” of those losing faith.

Is the answer to the phenomenon really that simple, though? The existence of two observed facts within the same time period—in this case the rise of the Internet and the decline of religious belief—doesn’t necessarily mean that one caused the other. I suspect that it isn’t only the increased availability of information that has contributed to the decline of religious belief in the Internet age, but also the advent of the observer, as detailed earlier in this post. Such a suggestion, no doubt, does not sit well with observers who like to view themselves as neutral bystanders.

There is an axiom used in the physical sciences stating that the act of observing a phenomenon will affect the phenomenon in some way. In fact, this axiom has a formal name—the observer effect. This effect doesn’t just apply to physics, however.

The Internet has, indeed, made more information available; this is undeniable. But it has also introduced a third party into the historical interaction between apologist and seeker. The advent of observers within the field of apologetics has affected that field, as well; it has produced its own observer effect.

No longer is the informational transaction between apologist and seeker a simple one; the observers quite often have a vested interest in the outcome of the transaction and are not hesitant to participate. They know that the information so readily available is often hard for seekers to assimilate and are all too happy to provide their own assimilative frameworks, very often devoid of any religious belief.

So is the decline in religious belief due to the availability of more information or to the availability of observers willing to use that information to create their own apologetic answers that discount the religious beliefs? I suspect the latter is at play more than the former.

In the next installment I’ll examine some ideas on how a seeker can more successfully make it through the noisy environment of online apologetics.

 

The Value of Apologetics

There has been much discussion over the last several years about the approach that should be used in apologetics. Some have extended this discussion, using it as a springboard to discuss the value of apologetics in general. I touched briefly on the topic of approaches to apologetics in a post back in November.

I understand all too well that the topic can be rather complex. (Understand that I’m talking here about the topic of apologetics itself, not about the topics that may be addressed in the field of apologetics.) Those who have not given much thought to apologetics can quickly find it bewildering and sometimes even (offensively) passionate if thrust into the various venues of online apologetics.

As someone who has been involved extensively in apologetics, I think it beneficial to provide an overview of both the value of and approaches to apologetics. Because of the complexity inherent in the topic, I’ve chosen to actually make this a series of blog posts. In this installment (which will probably be the longest of the installments) I’ll focus on the definition of apologetics, what constitutes an apologetic, and the value of apologetic endeavors.

What is Apologetics?

Apologetics is defined as the defense of belief or faith.

Apologetics is defined as the defense of belief or faith.

Apologetics is formally defined as a branch of theology “concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity” or “concerned with the defense and rational justification of Christianity.”

Some make the mistake of thinking that apologists (those who engage in apologetics) are making apologies for their belief, as in saying “I’m sorry that I believe.” That is not the case, though apologetics and apology both come from the same root Greek work: apologia. This word is defined as “defense or justification of a belief, idea, etc.”

Apologetic works have a long history, having their roots in works by the early Christian fathers who defended their faith against critics through the writing of formal treatises and books. The numbers of apologists over the centuries have been legion, but some may recognize the names of a few who have engaged in apologetics in recent years, including C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, and Ravi Zacharias. Among the LDS branch of Christianity, notable apologists have been John Taylor, James Talmage, Hugh Nibley, and Daniel Peterson.

Christian apologists often cite scriptural mandate for engaging in defenses of their belief. The apostle Peter, writing to members of the early church, indicated that they should “be ready always to give an answer” (or, in the Greek, “a defense”) to others. (See 1 Peter 3:15.)

In general, the writings of most of the biblical authors can be seen as giving reason for (or defense of) their beliefs in what God commanded.

What Constitutes an Apologetic?

At its simplest, an apologetic is an argument or series of arguments made in favor of a position, proposal, or hypothesis. The applicable dictionary definition refers to an apologetic as “defending by speech or writing.”

In providing this definition, I want to be careful that you don’t confuse argument with argumentative. Apologists don’t argue. Well, some apologists—being human—do argue. That is a human trait. But it is not an inherent or required trait of apologists.

Apologetics can be as simple as discussion with a friend.

Apologetics can be as simple as discussion with a friend.

It should also be noted that an apologist engages in defense, not in offense. In other words, if a writer engages solely in tearing down the position of another, then that is not apologetics. While criticism of an opposing viewpoint is implicit within apologetics, it is not the focus of it. Pointing out the flaws in another’s position in order to contrast them with your own beliefs is often a part of apologetics as a form of defense. In general, a deconstructive argument of another’s position is a polemic, whereas a comparative argument of another’s position in relation to your own is an apologetic—an apologetic without defense of belief is a polemic.

Since the common definition of apologetics (as presented earlier) deals with religion, most apologetics are arguments presented in defense of religious beliefs. (If a friend has ever asked you “why do you believe this?” and you provide an explanation, you are engaging in apologetics.) The terms apologetic and apologist need not be limited to religion, however. Someone can be an apologist for any position. A few examples may help:

  • A person who argues for the passage of a certain law is, strictly speaking, an apologist for that proposed law.
  • A salesperson is an apologist for whatever widget or service he or she is proposing that you purchase.
  • The term paper you wrote for your high school or college class, proposing a hypothesis and defending that proposal, was an apologetic and you were, by creating it, declaring yourself an apologist for the proposal.
  • The next time you tell your neighbor how great your car, detergent, diet, or child is, you are acting as an apologist for those items.

In short, anyone who holds to a position and endeavors to defend that position or give reasons why their position is superior to another is an apologist. Any speech or writing they create to defend their position is an apologetic.

Is Apologetics Bad?

Among some people, apologists have garnered a bad reputation. In their view apologists are somehow tainted and the term is used in a pejorative (negative) manner.

It is interesting to note that a person who attempts to pejoratively label another an apologist is, by definition, engaging in polemics. Simply by casting out the label in this manner, he or she is utilizing a common rhetorical device of polemicists known broadly as argumentum ad hominem (an ad hominem argument) and more narrowly as poisoning the well.

If the person doing the labeling further attempts to convince another of the validity of their polemic, then he or she becomes (again, by definition) an apologist. The labeler thus becomes, ironically, the very thing he or she ostensibly finds offensive in the other. For this very reason, it becomes virtually nonsensical to try to derogatorily attach the label apologist to your opponent or apologetic to your opponent’s endeavors since by doing the labeling you are engaging in the very thing with which you find fault.

In reality, what most people find objectionable is the behavior of others they observe or with whom they attempt to engage. Few people like to engage with an obnoxious, irascible, belligerent, condescending, inconsistent, or unprincipled opponent—at least not for any prolonged period. However, all of these characteristics (and many others not listed) are not endemic to apologists. They are, instead, part and parcel of the human condition; they (and many other negative behaviors) can be exhibited by anyone, apologist or not.

Therefore, it is not apologetics, per se, that is disagreeable—after all, we all engage in it from time to time. What is disagreeable is the way that some people practice apologetics. It is not difficult to find a large number of examples of disagreeable behavior on the part of apologists.

Why limit it to apologists, however? Bad behavior can be found in all walks of life. Some of the most obnoxious and condescending people I’ve known just happen to be scholars or celebrities. And don’t get me started on the god complexes exhibited by some medical doctors! Should all scholars, celebrities, celebrated scholars, or medical doctors thereby be summarily dismissed or their collected works called into suspicion? Of course not.

To paint all apologists with the same brush because of the behavior of a percentage of those apologists is to unfairly stereotype others. It is their individual works that need to be evaluated for merit, on a case-by-case basis.

The Value of Apologetics

Perhaps the most famous and succinct apologetic for the practice of apologetics is a quote by Austin Farrer, noted Anglican theologian and philosopher.

Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. (Austin Farrer, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C.S. Lewis, ed., Jocelyn Gibb [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965], 26.)

cslewisOne could argue that Farrer’s statement is somewhat simplistic, but it is—for most people—very true. Within the realm of human experience, one must have an environment in which belief is possible. Apologetics, at its best, provides “rational argument” that makes belief possible. If someone reads an apologetic and comes away saying “that makes sense; my experience leads me accept that explanation,” then the work of the apologist is fulfilled. And, further, in the marketplace of ideas, such apologetic endeavors are to be expected.

I should note here that the “realm of human experience” may include, for individuals or for entire communities, events that preclude the need for the catalytic value of apologetics. For instance, consider the following statement by Joseph Smith, after recounting the story of Paul before King Agrippa:

So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation. (Joseph Smith—History 1:25.)

This example is not provided to suggest that Joseph’s experience was beyond reproach, but it certainly was beyond reproach for him. (The same could be said about others having experiences with the divine, including Mohammed, Joan of Arc, Paul, and those present at the Day of Pentecost.) For  individuals experiencing what they view as incontrovertible interactions with the divine, the apologetic effort of others is superfluous. Such individuals are self-aware of whatever truth they ascribe to their event, independent of human persuasion. Such a person’s belief will flourish regardless of whether apologetics for that belief exist or not.

For the rest of us, though, apologetic efforts are part and parcel of life and they form an important part of our reasoning and, often, the sense we make of the world around us. The value of apologetics is seen in its ability to craft a framework (or reinforce a framework) in which we come to terms with our world and our place in it.

This is, indeed, a valuable service.

In the next installment I’ll examine apologetics as it is practiced in the online world.