These days I bristle increasingly against the Christian apologists. I worry, even, that apologetics as it stands now is a doomed discipline. Nobody is being convinced; if anything, apologists are being convinced out of their own positions. The discipline has an unpleasant tendency to embrace equivocation, to back down from strong but unpopular claims, to view concessions as a necessary feature of spinning a compelling story.
The problem isn’t really with apologetics, one might protest. Their audience is unfairly unreceptive. Frankly, it’s mostly hecklers. This is objectively true, but it seems like a silly redescription of the situation. If a stand-up comedian bombs, he has failed his audience; they have not failed him. His job is to alter his methodology to suit their tastes. If they didn’t laugh, then he didn’t tell the right jokes. Instead of taking their silence in stride and updating on the fly, he doubled down and subjected his listeners to an hour more of what all his evidence already suggested wouldn’t be interesting or compelling to them. “Tough crowd,” he might complain–but that doesn’t make him any funnier, and it doesn’t change the fact that he did not win them over. Most importantly, he’s had this information–“they’re a tough crowd”–since the first minute of his set, but he took it as an out from his responsibility unto them rather than as a reason to try doing it differently.
The root of the matter is the wrong idea that apologetics is a kind of debate like those of politics or philosophy. It’s not. Any kind of pursuit to get someone on your side admits success defined only in terms of the other person. But the other person’s leeway in setting this marker depends on what kind of convincing is going on. Debates and papers do not allow their readers and listeners, with fundamental and radical freedom, to set an arbitrary starting point. They assume presuppositions; disputing the premises is seen as a lower form of engagement than critiquing the argument itself. There are unstated rules governing what standards are reasonable for the reader to set. I am not clever or sophisticated for rebutting Schlick by saying, “Metaphysics are important.” Nor have I outgunned St. Anselm when I proclaim that necessity isn’t actually true of God. I just have a different opinion about the matter and therefore I’m contracted from the set of people his paper considers to be its audience in the first place. I have to buy in before I can criticize. Does this device drastically limit philosophical discussion? Of course! More importantly, though, it severely weakens the demands to which the author is yoked when he begins to write, weakens them at least to a point where he is willing to take upon himself the project of writing. Imagine a world in which for a paper to be publishable, it was required to respond to every objection levied to it in the Library of Babel! Objections, objections to the author’s replies, misreadings of those replies… The author would have to answer just about every question anyone’s ever asked. Even if people had begun to philosophize before the time of Socrates and proceeded to colonize space, by the time of the collapse of the universe still no paper would be published. Philosophers are equipped with a notion of natural or reasonable objections to an argument; these are the objections to which a high-quality paper is expected to respond. They are not merely finite in number, but few. Limiting the scope of objections this way is crucial. If not for this cordon around engagement, nobody at all might write.
This is how politics and philosophy work. Apologetics is not like politics or philosophy. It’s more like a stand-up show or a concert or an art exhibit. Art, unlike argument, is unbelievably permissive of its audience to set the terms of engagement. A debater is told, “Make this well-defended.” An artist or apologist is told, “Make this palatable to my sensibilities.” Such mores, wildly dependent on the whim of the interlocutor, subject the presenter to radical and constant pressures. If your goal is to preach, then absolutely give yourself a pat on the back for simply making your ideas clear. But if your goal is to proselytize, you must be malleable. You are an algorithm; you must update, in real time, to the inputs of your interlocutor. You must equivocate. You must make yourself acceptable to them. No prior standards of their, well, priors are in place. Art is the playground of the critic, not the artist. “Is this funny?” means “Do I find this funny?” The majoritarianism is undeniable. “Is this beautiful?” means “Does this adhere to my aesthetic sensibilities?” And yes, “Is religion true?” means in apologetics “Should I be religious?” Subjectivity reigns.
This is ridiculously unfair even in art, but at least there, sensibilities have some reasonable claim to precedence. In apologetics–ostensibly a fact-driven field–equivocation is just bananas. Yet equivocation is exactly what modern apologetics teaches us to do. We have a theory of apologetics now that says success is judged in terms of the palatability of our content to the sensibilities of our listener. We are mandated, broadly, to make ourselves sympathetic.
Apologetics is a proselytizing field. “Deal with us” obviously isn’t a useful approach, so I cannot totally dismiss all this subjectivity, unfair as it is. So here’s my solution. I want to instead see a theory of apologetics where we are told not “Make your position believable,” but rather “Make your opponent believe it.”
Yes. Let your opponent set the terms, and convince them anyway without relinquishing any of yours. It can be done. I can’t show you how, but I can tell you why. Existence, not construction–I’m doing my best.
Believability and belief are different–not just to the individual, but on a wide scale. If they weren’t, the epistemology of disagreement wouldn’t be a flourishing philosophical field, the subject of worries as horrifying to a Bayesian as the melan genie was to the skeptics. One of the consensuses of the field is that believability depends heavily upon prior experiences and sensibilities in a way that makes it sometimes untouchable by arguments, or at least by certain rational argument strategies.
Not all that is believable is believed. If I have two alternate theories, each supported by substantial evidence but mutually contradictory, I can suspend judgment, but I can’t believe both. This isn’t just coherentist; it’s logically obvious. Believing both makes me irrational. Assuming some deviation in priors, I will ultimately throw my support behind one of the theories; subsequently changing my mind and believing the other requires relinquishing my belief in the first.
This, of course, is not the part of the disjunction that I have to defend. The natural reply would be that the believed is a strict subset of the believable. My substitution–credence for credibility–would then constitute a restriction, which can’t possibly help the apologists. It would only further limit the terrible strategies already available to them.
Luckily, though, I think this subset idea is wrong. The believed, I say, can venture outside the realm of the believable without violating rationality. The wildest, most intuitively bizarre and incredible truth claims of Catholicism have always been the ones I accepted most eagerly. The Virgin Mary was assumed, bodily, into heaven? Sure. I’m literally eating Jesus every Sunday? Absolutely. Christ was fully human and also fully divine, but only one full being? The math checks out. I was disposed to believe these bizarre ideas before I was fully disposed to believe in God at all. Well, that sounds logically wrong. I rather mean: the minute I accepted the existence of God was also the minute I accepted these strange entailed propositions, even though they required further, weirder assumptions. I was fully on board with the biconditional “God exists iff priests can literally transform unleavened bread into His body” long before I accepted the left-hand side as part of my belief set. The veracity of these bizarre propositions, from a standpoint outside the Catholic framework, was precisely as certain to me as the baby steps toward accepting the framework to begin with.
Why? Why on earth could I possibly find most compelling the truth claims that seem objectively most likely to be false? The ones that involve not only coincidences, not just mere miracles, but Knuth-arrowed power towers of miracles–absurdity, contradiction, confluences upon confluences of crazy? The answer, like many helpful answers, can be found in William James’ “The Will to Believe.” Simply put, hypotheses possess a set of binary properties. They are either live or dead: acceptable in some world to the listener or else nowhere acceptable. They are either forced or avoidable: a listener must choose between them, or else may avoid doing so altogether, suspending judgment or holding no doxastic attitude at all. Finally, they are either momentous or trivial. A trivial hypothesis is one in which the decision “opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later proves unwise.” Momentous hypotheses satisfy none of these: they are now, critical, and binding. James argues that the adoption of religious faith is to many listeners live, forced, and momentous, and proceeds in a masterful argument to demonstrate that hypotheses with these predicates often admit of cases in which belief without supporting evidence is rational.
The truth claims of religion constitute, for many people, hypotheses that are dead. To me, the veracity of Christianity–under the various descriptions usually afforded to it by my apologist interlocutors–was a dead hypothesis for many years. The notion of God described in layman’s terms was not compelling to me. The “first cause” argument was not troubling–I found an expert’s counterargument, familiarized myself with it, and then thought no more of the affair. Many nonbelievers make light work of deconstructing the theologians’ best. A prime mover is believable. Extratemporal grounding for absolute morality is believable. I discarded these relatable, believable claims and all the baggage contained within them. They were dead. Much later, I would find that the brazen absurdities of the Gospels, the unexplainable behavior of the devout, the unshrinking insanity of the apocrypha, the hair-tearing complexities of the theological picture, were not. Or, rather: They had been dead. They were revived.
People tend to rely on expert testimony in defusing claims that they have been led to believe, by majoritarian opinion, are wrong, but are not interested in falsifying for themselves. They believe the favorable opinion relatively strongly, quite strongly even, and can adequately regurgitate an argument for it that is parsable to them. On the other hand, most of the people who have thought a lot about a hypothesis have either much more moderate opinions or else extreme opinions, including toward the unfavorable side. Yes–some experts strongly hold the opinion the less-informed public believes is obviously wrong. The proponents of the Steady State Theory definitely know more physics than I do!
This is a very weird trifurcation of belief states. It results in a strange world where the hierarchy of research (let alone of intelligence) does not reflect the hierarchy of information states. Consider two individuals both of whom possess the same information set about the United States government. One of them spends many dedicated hours researching the Tuskegee experiment and develops sympathy for some government conspiracy hypothesis–say, that the moon landing was faked, or that the government is conducting human experimentation in Area 51. His justification for this position is a careful outline of factors relevant to past cases of systematic governmental population abuse, which he identifies rigorously and applies to the present situation. The other person seeks no further information than what he has and holds strongly to the status quo opinion. Person 1’s disposition and slate of experience certainly weighed into his conclusion, but they cannot fully explain it. Person 2 is more likely to be right, his belief set is closer to the truth, and his information state is more accurate–but he is not better informed.
The ready separability of reciting (even understanding) expert testimony from reacting to a proposition is why I care about the crazy theories. Banal theories, I think, are the ones that tend to produce the “outsource to an expert” epistemological problem. Ask me my opinion on a dead, but not shocking, hypothesis–again let’s say the Steady State Theory–and I’ll recite the conventional arguments against it without seriously parsing them myself as they leave my mouth. I am convinced of its falsity, convinced enough to have reviewed the arguments for the particular purpose of arguing the point with you, but not so wildly convinced that I consider your claim not deserving of a counterargument. This was my reaction, roughly, to the first cause argument, and it is a dangerous state in which for a hypothesis to lie. Someone who possesses a strong argument against a claim, but doesn’t care about the claim all that much in the first place, can consider the claim safely killed. The claim, now settled, leaves his mind. Because he does not view it as a threat, a source of interest, an oddity, or an active debate, nothing about it sticks with him. It does not enter his mind again unless placed there by another interlocutor, and even then is not revived because he has an argument to deploy.
This is not the case with ridiculous hypotheses, and in particular, ridiculous hypotheses that upset our sensibilities without upsetting our emotions. These are the kinds of hypotheses that can be enlivened again in a listener to whom they are dead. They never merited the surface-level recite-and-forget maneuver that choked off all posterity for his interaction with them. Dead hypotheses can be revived; dead, momentous hypotheses especially; but dead, banal hypotheses–the ones the existence of which he ceases to recall the instant he is not defending his live hypotheses against them–are beyond saving.
Dead, shocking hypotheses, rather than setting in motion a deterministic fixed-action pattern of reciting a counterargument, render a listener completely verklempt. These hypotheses are very specific in nature. They are completely lifeless to us prior to our engagement with them; they radically disagree with our sensibilities; and their being presented does not offend or upset our first order emotions–it just baffles us. I will remember for the rest of my life the first time someone mentioned Christians believe Jesus was born of a virgin. I was in sixth grade at a summer camp. I remember the room I was in and the look on my interlocutor’s face. It is my only clear memory of that summer or that year. I had no prepared counterargument, because it was a thought that had not previously occurred to me as being within the realm of possibilities. I did not come to believe it that day or for a long time thereafter. But I believe it now. I will never believe the Steady State Theory.
I came to believe the virgin birth hypothesis without its plausibility ever entering the picture–because it isn’t plausible. Miracles are not credible hypotheses. They just aren’t. They lack the features that make theories believable under modern epistemology. They are not simple. They do not resemble the world we know. Often, they’re difficult to process. Yet they are very, very hard to permanently kill–and this gives an interlocutor more chances to convince you of them.
Some dead hypotheses that are shocking cannot be revived because they’re horrifying not just to our sensibilities but to our emotions. Anti-vaxxing is a position that comes to mind, as are eugenics and racism. I don’t think this is incidental. Our first-order emotions are a natural, moral defense against what is evil. I worry somewhat here about the “emotionalizability” of more neutral hypotheses, which I expect is a point that can be brought against me. Sensationalism is mainstream now, someone might reply; how do we tell the difference between genuinely deontological horror and manufactured horror? I’m not too worried, because manufactured horror passes, and most constructed things can be deconstructed anyway. Even so, a related heuristic can be created here. There is an important distinction between the emotional horror of radical consequentialism and that of the abstract idea of radiation poisoning. A philosophy student horrified by the idea of chopping up a healthy person to provide five necessary transplants is not reacting this way because of the experiences and sensibilities that are peculiarly his, whereas those who react strongly against getting an X-ray are disproportionately those whose universes of obligation have been affected by radiation events. Should we assign weight to the attributability of emotional responses to personal experience? It’s worth thinking about, although I suspect that emotional responses to things like this are heavily populated near the mean.
We ought, then, to revive our apologetics. We must begin with the crazy and conclude with the sane. G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I think, was the last great work in an apologetic tradition that shared this idea. “Christianity even when watered down,” wrote Chesterton, “is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.” How bold! How exciting! How vastly disparate from the claim of modern apologists: “What we’re saying isn’t crazy–it’s reasonable! It’s believable!” But it is crazy! It is breathtaking, astonishing, shocking, glorious–not banal, typical, or often even easily reconcilable with what we know of the world. And how bizarre indeed that this is what I find so compelling about it.
The long and short of it is, I think, that minority beliefs will always be considered stupid by the majority, and often they’re right to think so. But this is precisely what should allow apologists to exhale in relief from their self-imposed palatability constraints. Perhaps you worry that opening an apologetic piece by defending your most radical claim will stop people in their tracks to gape at your stupidity. Well, worry no more. They were already gaping at your stupidity. Adding audacity doesn’t make you seem any stupider. I’d rather be considered audacious, crazy, and stupid than reasonable and still stupid. The first set of predicates is certainly more interesting and probably more consistent.
Watered-down theology is not our theology, and gentleness is not our game. Warming someone up, “opening” someone, is what pickup artists and cultists do. I shall tie my anchor to radical sincerity.