Observing the Observers

By | February 6, 2014

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.)


3 thoughts on “Observing the Observers

  1. Otto Tellick

    I’m curious about the fact that I don’t see any comments on any of your posts in this series about apologetics. Is that because no one has tried to leave a reply, or is it because you are moderating replies, and have not chosen (or taken the time, yet) to approve the ones you’ve received?

    If you do get replies (which await, or fail, your moderation), then given the distinction you’ve drawn between “seekers” and “observers”, how do you, as an apologist writing posts onto a public blog with inputs for replies, apply this distinction to replies that you get? That is, how do you discern which of the respondents are trying to sit with you in the spotlight as seekers, and which are the observers in the surrounding, dimly-lit circle?

    If someone poses a sincere question about one of your points, is that sufficient to rank the person as a “seeker”? Would that ranking hold up if the same person also expresses (dis)agreement on some other point?

    If someone posts substantive evidence and arguments that happen to cite one of your points as being mistaken or fallacious, could this ever qualify as “producing something” that isn’t just “noise”?

    I would suggest that there’s another simile for internet discussions, which, if not relatively common, is as least far more frequent and accessible now than it was before the internet: peer review. People who know how to present substantive evidence and arguments will do so; those who are qualified to support or dispute them will do so as well; those who are not qualified (but speak out anyway) will either admit or demonstrate what they lack; through it all, an honest, intelligent, open-minded seeker can follow the evidence and weigh the merits of the arguments.

    Call me an optimist, (or call me an observer who is just making noise), but I suspect it may be this latter type scenario that accounts for the increasing number of people rejecting the supernatural claims and doctrinal authority of major religions.

    1. Allen Post author


      I don’t know why there haven’t been more comments on these posts, but there haven’t been. Fact is, you’re the first. (And I appreciate your thoughts on the matter.)

    2. Allen Post author

      By the way, before I could accept the concept that internet discussions constitute “peer review,” one would need to know what constitutes a “peer.” In the traditional sense of the term, “peer review” is performed in academic and professional settings by people who have qualifications that make them authoritative in whatever field they are reviewing.

      On the internet, most people “discuss” as anonymous individuals without any real way to verify their qualifications. You allude to the same when you say “People who know how to present substantive evidence and arguments will do so; those who are qualified to support or dispute them will do so as well; those who are not qualified (but speak out anyway) will either admit or demonstrate what they lack.” That is optimistic, indeed, as the number of those “not qualified” far outnumber those who are. It is those who present noise that the seeker could mistake for signal, regardless of their honesty, intelligence, and open-mindedness.

      [Aside: If spiritual matters were apples, how could an honest, intelligent, and open-minded individual who had never seen or conceived of an apple distinguish the validity of claims of a commenter who had successfully grown apples from a person who said that apples were the figment of an over-active imagination?]

      Such a method of peer review wouldn’t seem to be peer review at all. Where all (or most) commenters are anonymous and most commenters are “not qualified,” the comments are of little value as a benchmark for what is being “reviewed.”

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