Friday, June 19, 2009

Apologetics are Useless

There is no checks-and-balance system. There is no means to determine whether an argument, a method or a conclusion is correct, slightly correct or completely bafflingly wrong. Nothing in place to improve the strength or eventually abandon the claim.

It is nothing more than, “In my opinion, it is possible…” and then whatever follows—no matter how deluded, incomprehensible or salient—as long as there is the remotest possible connection, becomes what is considered a “solid apologetic.”

The field “apologetics” comes from 1 Peter 3:15: “…and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a the reason for the hope that is in you…” The word “defense” is translated from the Greek apologia meaning a verbal defense or a reasoned argument. Simply put—it is explaining why one believes what they believe.

This explanation is given to two possible groups—those who already believe exactly as the Apologist or those who do not. To those who already believe, any explanation is sufficient. (They already believe it anyway.) To those who do not, the Apologist has already prepared an apologia for why they are unconvinced by the Apologist! A truly win-win situation.

Let’s look at how an argument is prepared by a scientist, a lawyer and an apologist. Imagine we have a situation where the claim is, if you add sufficient copper to an experiment, it will turn the solution green. Work with me on this.

A scientist will carefully note the amount of the solution, the type of solution, the amount of the added copper, the conditions, temperature, time of day and so on regarding the experiment. Why? Because she knows eventually she will have to defend (apologia) the claim. To a hostile audience. To other scientists who may not be convinced adding copper is what turned the solution green. She is aware other scientists are going to repeat her experiment, both under the same conditions and different conditions. That scientists are expecting to rely upon results to make subsequent experiments, so they are going to make certain this is the correct conclusion.

The check and balance is the scientist knowing she will have to defend this claim to others who will test, probe, question, replicate and do everything they possibly can to prove her incorrect before being satisfied with her conclusions.

The scientist will therefore do her own re-experimenting under a variety of conditions to bolster her claim. She will approach her own experiment as if she was opposed to the conclusion.

A lawyer is slightly different. The lawyer is attempting to convince a neutral determinator—not a hostile one. A jury uncaring as to whether the copper turns the solution green, purple or does nothing at all. However, a lawyer anticipates having a hostile opponent who will do everything within their ability to show the opposite conclusion. Equally the lawyer has to anticipate how convincing the claim would be to the jury, in light of opposing evidence.

Eventually the check and balance to the lawyer is when the jury finds either for or against him. This conclusively demonstrates the strength of the apologia.

But where do we have that in theistic apologetics? Nowhere! Where is the concern of the opposing argument? Where is the check and balance. Using our same experiment, imagine we have an apologist who…oh…I don’t know…believes the sun turns solutions green. All our apologist has to do is:

1) Show one (1) experiment that occurred in the sun
2) Show the solution turned green.

Voila—they have given a reason, an apologia in support of the claim the sun turns solutions green! And all the sun-worshipping adherents bow in submission—glorifying the “proof” of their belief. So what if the same thing happens in the dark. So what if it never happens when other additives are introduced in the sun.

As long as the apologist shows one (1) instance of it occurring—this is deemed sufficient “reason” for their belief! And if you are not convinced—it is because you don’t like the sun. Or you don’t like heat. Or you never believed in the sun in the first place. Or you want to tell the solution what to do. Or you are a nihilist. The apologist has plenty of reasons why you can’t plainly see it was the sun turning the solution green.

Hyperbole? I think not.

The Book of Mormon indicates (at Ether 9:19) there were elephants in Mesoamerica, at least around 2500 BCE. The problem is, there are no indications of elephants. No bones. No drawings. No anything that would ever indicate the American species of elephant existed.

To the scientist, since elephants have a certain impact on ecosystems, leave remains, and would have been recounted in stories or pictures or sculptures—they realize any claim elephants lived in 2500 BCE Mesoamerica would be a daunting task. They would understand the skepticism of other scientist. Understand the evidence they presented to claim elephants did exist would have to be substantial to convince, or at least sufficiently plausible to give consideration.

To the lawyer, they realize their opponent will scoff and mock them regarding the lack of evidence. That the proofs would have to be presented in such sufficiency, a neutral jury would be convinced. Most importantly, the lawyer must always, ALWAYS maintain credibility with his jury.

An apologist? Heck, his or her audience already believes elephants lived in Mesoamerica in 2500 BCE, all they have to do is present one (1) possible item of evidence, and their apologia is considered sufficient.

So they cough out this drawing of what appears to be elephants on Stela B of the Great Plaza of Copan.

The Stela was made sometime around 700 CE. (Approximately 3200 years after elephants lived!) (H/T to Sam for this drawing.

Looks like an elephant, doesn’t it?

Here’s a helpful tip. If anyone ever gives you a “drawing”—look for the original. See, if you look at a picture of Stela B you will see that the upper parts have been completely broken off! This is NOT a drawing of Stela B!

It is not clear to me where the drawing on the right--the “close up” of the elephants is from--but it may even be another Mayan Structure.

Do you see how useless apologetics is? How a scientist would NEVER present such a drawing, realizing others will attempt to verify it and would question its veracity. How a lawyer knows his opponent will point out this isn’t a drawing.

How incredible the claim! Elephants existed in 2500 BCE—but no bones, no drawings, no stories, no results of their existence. Nothing about them 500 years later. Nothing about them 1000 years later. Nothing about them 2000 years later. More than 3000 years later, one (1) sculpture might have been an elephant, if we “draw in” the broken off bits!

Yet if you and I are not convinced there were elephants in Mesoameria—the apologist doesn’t care. They have done their duty; they have done their apologia. They have given a “reason” and that is all they need do.

Anyone can think up a reason. Catch a two-year-old with their hand in the cookie jar, and they will apologia how they were not stealing cookies. We didn’t accept it from two-year-olds; why would we accept it now?


  1. I hope you will not take this as an insult to lawyers, but I think the differences between a scientist and lawyer are helpful in understanding how the apologist works.

    Although a scientist (or any scholar for that matter) may argue for a theory, he is only supposed to argue for a theory that he believes is superior to all other theories based on objective research. Moreover, he is expected to demonstrate the objective superiority of his theory to his peers in the field who are expected to point out the flaws in his theory based on their own expertise. He is expected to show that he has considered and met the best arguments against his theory.

    The lawyer, on the other hand, is expected to advocate his client’s position. It is not the lawyer’s job to determine the objective superiority of that position to all others. Whether or not he addresses his opponent’s best arguments is purely a tactical decision. Unlike the scientist whose arguments are evaluated by experts in his field, the lawyer’s arguments are evaluated based only on the information submitted by the advocates without the independent investigation or expertise of the jury. In ways, this seems very similar to what the apologist does.

    You are quite correct though that the lawyer operates subject to checks and balances which the apologist avoids. There is an independent advocate for the opposing side who gets to challenge the lawyer’s evidence, submit contrary evidence, and make opposing arguments. The lawyer does not get to cross-examine his own witnesses a la Lee Strobel. There is an independent judge to rule on the legitimacy of the lawyer’s evidence and arguments, and as you pointed out there is also the jury.

    It seems to me that the apologist operates in a nether reason. He pretends to be a scholar without the burden of peer review and he pretends to be advocate with none of the checks and balances of a legal fact-finding process.

  2. Yes, I can see an elephant (in fact two) in the photo of Stela B – but only because I am actively **looking for an elephant** somewhere on that elaborate headdress. If I was not searching for an elephant, chances are I would not make the connection. The Mormon apologist has cheated in his drawing by isolating the relevant portion of the stele, and emphasizing or exaggerating that portion that he wants you to see. This is no better than what Erich von Daniken does when he uses Chichen Itza engravings to “ prove” that the Mayans were visited by space aliens. It is no better than what Richard Hoagland (and apologist Chuck Missler) do when they **still** use Viking images to “prove” their was an ancient race of beings who inhabited Mars. It is no better than what Ken Ham does when he claims photos of a temple bas relief at Angkor Wat is a stegosaurus, thus proving dinosaurs walked amongst men, thus proving they went extinct in the Flood, thus proving the Earth is 6000 years old, thus proving the Bible is indeed inerrant, thus proving that Jesus was God, thus proving that Jesus is your Lord, thus proving you must have a personal relationship with him to avoid the torments of eternal Hellfire.

    phew – sorry, where was I…???

  3. Vinny sez:
    It seems to me that the apologist operates in a nether reason. He pretends to be a scholar without the burden of peer review and he pretends to be advocate with none of the checks and balances of a legal fact-finding process.

    Apologists just cheat. They have no standard of determining the validity of their assertions. This is why, as DagoodS says, apologetics are useless – at least to the non-believer. They are only useful for keeping the faithful flock pacified in their wavering faith.

    I ought to know. When I began to seriously doubt my Christianity, I ran across a quip by .. oh gosh, what is her name… the girl who did the Letting Go of God monologue.. you know who I am talking about.. anyway, I read a quip by her that Christianity could not stand up to even a modicum of scrutiny. That made me a little upset, and I set out to re-read my apologetic books to show she was wrong. Little did I know at the time, but the gig was already up. It was not that I began to find counter-apologetic arguments more convincing – it was that my standards of determining the validity of these apologetics began to shift. Once that happened, it was only a matter of time.

    I will never forget the first time (of many) that I realized a particular scientific hypothesis of mine was bogus. It was devastating. My pet hypothesis explained our observed data, but when I built the computer models, crunched the numbers, and used my theory on other observed data, I finally had to concede that it was just not valid. Yes it was hard to accept – I worked for months on that theory, and I had a publication deadline that had to be met, but I knew that my scowling panel of astronomers would never let it fly.

    I was a Christian at the time, and an apologist at that. But my apologetic criterion for determining a valid theory was vastly different from my scientific one. A scientific hypothesis may form with an idea that answers the question “How could this explain the data?”, but it must ultimately be tested with the question “Why is this hypothesis or theory **not** correct?”. The apologist will never work at that standard – they seem stuck at the “How could this explain the data” step and never progress from there. That is why apologetics are now useless and unconvincing to me, and that is why the gig was up when I began doubting my Christian faith. It is not so much that I was doubting my apologetics, since I knew lots of apologetic arguments. In my subsequent investigations during my doubting phase, I did not really find anything new to be compelling. Rather then, it was that my standards of judging the validity of apologetics were shifting more to what I was trained to do as a scientist. Once that happens, I truly believe that it is over for the doubting Christian, as it was over for me. No apologetic argument will ever work, simply because apologetics, by their very nature, require a different standard of validity. They will never work on the doubting Christian in the process of de-converting, or on the non-Christian and potential convert. The doubter may remain a Christian, but I believe only for reasons of simple willful Faith, rather than rational evidence. Apologetics will never convince a non-Christian, just like a non-Mormon will never be convinced by apologetic arguments like this:

    “We don't know what "reformed egyptian" looked like, but if it was similar to Hebrew, note that vowels and small words are omitted, and there is virtually no space between words. One page of Hebrew, in this example, translates to almost 15 pages of English. Also, gold can be hammered thinner than paper

    yeah. right.

    It is not the arguments themselves, rather the assumption behind them that even the slightest plausibility makes them true. Apologetics **only** work on pacifying the already faithful.

  4. Even as a Christian, and a young one at that, I stumbled over the notion of apologetics. It seemed to me to contradict faith. The way I read it, a Christians ability to believe was a "gift of God" not the result of reason.

    At the end of the day, the scientist and look to establish fact, whereas the apologist can only argue for "hope" or belief.

  5. should read "scientist and lawyer"

  6. Vinny,

    As I was reflecting preparing this entry I considered comparing apologists to lawyers against scientists because I do see some similarity between apologetic arguments and attorney arguments. But as I continued to reflect, I saw differences as well. I agree—apologetics is neither fish nor fowl.

    They are the same, in that lawyers argue for their own case. They highlight their own evidence, and place the most favorable “spin” on that evidence. If our client says he arrived home some time “between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.” and our case is more favorable for the earlier time—we only refer to the earlier time. Of course, if our opponent says something similar and we prefer a later time, we would say, “he arrived as late as 8 p.m. and perhaps later!

    Always placing the facts supporting our conclusion in the most supporter, most favorable light. Always downplaying and minimizing contradictory facts. We have a saying, “It is not my job to make my opponent’s case.” You will never hear a lawyer say, “Gee, my client’s alibi is not very good, and you should consider these facts…..” Let the other side do that.

    In that light, I see similarity between lawyers and apologists. Think of Strobel—he does EXACTLY what a lawyer would do to prove “The Case for _____.” Ask witnesses who are favorable to you; ask favorable questions; emphasize favorable responses. I am sure he figures if you think you have such a great argument against him—write your own “The Case for ____” where you interview naturalists, and non-believers, and non-literalists, etc. And list your own favorable questions, answers and evidence.

    However, the reason I abandoned the comparison was the difference. We value—nay hold dearly—our credibility. Arguably, we can lose our license for misrepresenting facts to the court. While it is acceptable to emphasize a fact; never misrepresent one.

    If another lawyer showed that drawing was NOT an accurate portrayal of Stele B—your entire case would be crushed. Even if it was not that important. I once represented a dog bite victim where he received a 3 mm scar on the skin separating his nostrils. You literally could not see it until he pointed it out.

    A case worth, on a bizarrely good day, $3-4,000. The trial progressed, as trials do, and it looked like the jury would give us something, but nothing out of the ordinary. Out of nowhere, the dog owner testified he saw the incident and nothing happened. Now, I had enough information to know he didn’t see the incident. And frankly, whether he saw it or not was important to the case at all. There were medical reports, and a police report—so we knew it had happened.

    And I proved (being clever) it was impossible for the owner to have seen the incident. I emphasized it to some extent, but then moved on because I didn’t find it important.

    The jury awarded $60,000! They HATED the fact the owner lied about it. Understand it had nothing to do with the case, really, but he lost credibility.

    Or, look at it this way. If Strobel comes out with another “The Case for ____”—would you believe the facts therein? Or would you find yourself checking every single fact…twice…because he has lost credibility.

    This is where lawyers diverge from apologists. I truly think apologists don’t care whether their opponents find them credible, or the arguments convincing. As a lawyer, I care, and care deeply. I cannot afford to give wrong information or mis-state facts, or I seriously impinge my ability to convince.

  7. HeIsSailing: It was not that I began to find counter-apologetic arguments more convincing – it was that my standards of determining the validity of these apologetics began to shift. Once that happened, it was only a matter of time.

    An outstandingly good point, and I wish that believers could understand this. I very often (and it has happened to me enough) see in deconversion conversations, the believer ask, “What caused you to deconvert?” And the deconvert gives the starting point. For some it is inerrancy, or evolution, or the cognitive dissonance between claims and actions. Whatever it is, the believer thinks somehow if they can “prove” the deconvert was wrong at the initial point—the sweater will not unravel and become whole again.

    But what they miss is what you point out. It wasn’t the “thing”—it wasn’t the point—it was the method. The paradigm shift of how one treated the apologetic. And I agree—once that shift occurs, it is impossible to go back.

  8. DagwoodS, I can certainly see your points. It helps to understand the systems that scientists and lawyers are operating within.

    Still, I think it's an untrue and unfair generalization that all apologetics work is not credible or hopelessly biased.

    You've probably worked cases in which you truly felt your client was in the right, but presentable evidence was scant. Certainly, presenting "evidence" as suspect as the elephant drawing would be tempting, although it may only hurt your credibility.

    Please try to keep in mind that I didn't present the elephant drawing. Right or wrong, I knew it was not convincing.

    Apologists are not as technically trained as lawyers, but those that take their work seriously actually do try to maintain credibility. Those involved in FAIR actively publish their work to critics so that their biases will be mitigated.

    My case is based on the most convincing evidence I can find. If it can be shown that the Book of Mormon contains remnants of Hebrew culture beyond what Joseph Smith was capable of learning, then the book's origins must be explained some other way.

    You have looked at Nahom and dismissed it as coincidence, but consider all of the other sites along Lehi's journey that have been uncovered.

    Also, take a look at the other evidences I pointed out.

  9. DagoodS, sorry about messing up your name. I thought you were really a sandwich.

  10. I find it amusing that a lawyer would consider apologetics useless. The origin of the term is a reference to the task of ancient Greek defense lawyers. Okay, just mildly amusing.

    I wonder, though. Is it the task of an apologist (or a defense lawyer) to prove a point or simply to cast doubt on the opponent, so to speak? Is it the task of an apologist to provide a case to convince others, or is it simply to show, "We are not irrational for thinking this way"? Genuine questions (since I don't believe in the ability to argue people into faith).

  11. Stan, I will let the apologist choose their own task. I think some are trying to convince others; some are trying to show they are not irrational. As neither has a method in place to accomplish this task, both fail.

  12. Lest I make the mistake of thoroughly misunderstanding you, are you saying that it cannot be demonstrated that a religious viewpoint may be rational? (I don't think that's what you're saying, so I hope you'll explain what you did mean.)

  13. Stan,

    It depends on how one deems “rationality.” To a person who believes in alien-abductions, the idea an alien can sneak in your bedroom, snatch you away, perform experiments upon you and then re-deliver you back without anyone noticing is perfectly “rationale.”

    When one points out the alien ship is not detected by NASA, the alien-abducted, within their own worldview, will point out the alien has superior technology to avoid detection. When the timing element is introduced, the alien-abducted will again point out superior technology.

    “I don’t know how they did it, but they were able to do it all in one night!”

    I think theists, and Christian apologists are quite, quite rationale when it comes to solving math problems. Or driving a car. Or baking a cake. However, when it comes to theism, I do not find the belief in a God rationale. I understand within their world view how they “rationally” answer many of my objections (much the same way an alien-believer can “rationally” explain away problems I see there as well.)

    To hold on to inerrancy, as one example, I do not find rationale.

    To claim “God does…” or “God does not…” without any method for making such a determination in the first place and certainly without any method of verification, I find based solely on hope. While hope, at times, may be profitable, when taken to the extreme of refusal to face reality, I find irrational.

    *shrug* What do Christians care if I find them irrational? In point of fact, if I found them rational—they should start to be concerned about their own beliefs! 1 Cor. 1:18-27; 2:14

  14. Thaddeus: I think it's an untrue and unfair generalization that all apologetics work is not credible or hopelessly biased.

    Dagood does not say that apologetics is hopelessly biased. That may be a legitimate inference, but it's not what he actually says. Factual accuracy is important.

    Dagood says that apologetic methodology has a severe, indeed fatal, flaw: the lack of an adversarial component to the process, the deep methodological inability to prune away error and bullshit. Indeed apologetics in general is not merely susceptible to Cargo Cult Science, it seems intentionally designed to make the Cargo Cult Science mentality inevitable.

    Indeed your comment reinforces his position: you point to evidence in favor of your position, but it lacks any sort of adversarial criticism. Merely publishing one's opinion most definitely does not enable an adversarial process; we must examine how adversarial criticism is incorporated into criticism.

    You not offer any sort of evidence for the presence of an adversarial process that Dagood notes is missing. You do not defend the lack of such a process.

    Furthermore, not only must there be an adversarial process, assertions subject to the process must be susceptible to adversarial investigation: i.e. they must be falsifiable. Examining the linked site, it appears that the theory (that Smith successfully made predictions about Saudi Arabia) is not falsifiable, or not presented in a falsifiable manner. There is no logically possible (or tractably observable) evidence that would convince us the theory was false. This lack of falsifiability allows us to simply accumulate coincidences in support, while dismissing non-supporting observations as irrelevant.

    For example consider England's first point of his summary: "The route south to Aqaba is an anciently primary way out of Jerusalem." If the route south to Aqaba were not an "anciently primary" way out of Jerusalem, we would not have found false the theory that Smith had created a successful prophecy; apologists would have simply created another explanation (perhaps they were innovative).

    Consider as well the second item, "The ancient route, the Frankincense Trail, leaves the beach coast at Aqaba, so it is 'near' the Red Sea; then it returns to it, so it is 'nearer.'" Near and nearer are obviously vague words. It is difficult in principle to falsify vague words.

    If the linked site were a truly intellectually honest evidentiary examination of the assertion of prophecy, it would at minimum quote all the alleged prophecy in full, so the reader could examine the original source. It would accurately cite the text so the reader could ensure that the alleged prophecy was not taken out of context (and if any had been, the reader would be entitled to dismiss the entire work out of hand as not just intellectually dishonest but factually mendacious). It would tell us what would falsify — not confirm — each item of prophecy. It would show us that an attempt to falsify the prophecy theory failed in a nontrivial way.

    You mean well, I'm sure, but you're simply not using evidence in the same way that scientists or lawyers do, and it is misleading and dishonest to claim you are using an evidentiary argument without explicitly and clearly stating you are using "evidence" in a completely different way than scientists or lawyers.

  15. Stan: Is it the task of an apologist (or a defense lawyer) to prove a point or simply to cast doubt on the opponent, so to speak?

    An apologist is working in a very different context than a (criminal) defense lawyer; the similarity is superficial. Unlike defendants, positive assertions are not true until proven false.

    To paraphrase your second point: Is it possible for a religious viewpoint to be proven rational? (And Dagood, sorry to be a spelling Nazi, but it's rational, not rationale; the latter is a specific reason or list of reasons.)

    It depends not just on what you mean by "rational" (as Dagood argues), but also what you mean by "religious viewpoint". If a religious viewpoint is inherently unfalsifiable, then yes, asserting a religious viewpoint as true is necessarily irrational. (Note that actually falsifiable "religious viewpoints" are either strictly identical to scientific materialism or actually false.)

  16. Hey Larry Hamelin! I wish that you hadn't closed your blog. If you ever start one up again, I wanna hear about it!

    (Sorry to divert from the discussion, Dagoods)