Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Problem with Contemporary Christian Apologists

So the trend lately is for me to find something online which then prompts me into writing.  I suppose this is good because I've neglected my blog for too long.

This post was inspired by an old favorite, Randal Rauser, in his post Apologetics and the Problem of the William Lane Craig Clones.

For those who don't know Randal Rauser is a Progressive Evangelical Apologist and Theologian, so his take on the "problem" of WLC clones is from a very different perspective than my own.

What is telling is that we actually can agree that there certainly is a problem with contemporary apologetics and imitation of William Lane Craig.  Admittedly I also think there's a lot of problems with Craig himself, contra Randal, so my critique is going to be a bit harsher than his.

Let me start off by quoting Randal's critique:

"...[O]ne of my biggest complaints concerns the lack of imagination I see among so many popular apologists. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard young Christian apologists step up to present their case for God’s existence, and then they proceed to spool off a kalam cosmological argument, an argument from cosmic-fine tuning, a moral argument (one that errantly assumes atheism entails moral relativism) and an argument from the historicity of the resurrection. I regularly hear these apologists use all the same quotes Craig uses (typically without proper attribution) and occasionally I’ll even hear them use his very same words."
Here I can echo Randal pretty heartily. I also feel I should commend him for having the honesty to point out that atheism doesn't entail moral relativism.

Purely from the point of view of someone who just tries to engage with a lot of apologetics in general, regardless of what side you're on, things are pretty stale.  What Randal is calling out here is what I have not so lovingly dubbed the "Standard Biola Bullshit" line of apologetic arguments.

This is referring to Biola University, where Craig is a research professor of philosophy.  It's home to quite a bit of apologists, and is prominent in organizing apologetic ministries and conferences.  The idea that the school epitomizes this "style" of apologetics is one that's endorsed by other Christians like Myron Penner who spoke out against it in an interview with Randal.

More than Arguments

There is a bit more to the Standard Biola Bullshit than just a specific set of arguments. It's more about a style of approaching the debate that can be summed up with one word: Arrogance.

It's first an air of arrogance that many of the apologists who use this style exude in their debates, but it goes deeper.  Most of the time these people, including Craig, go on to use some ridiculous rhetoric along these lines:

  • Despite what atheists claim, science really helps prove god exists
  • Atheism is irrational
  • Atheism entails either moral relativism or nihilism
When I was starting my deconversion process and started reading apologetics, this is what I took from all those books and debates. In fact it was the arrogance combined with the absurdity of the rhetoric mentioned, particularly the first, that convinced me to move beyond just being an atheist to being an atheist that wants to refute apologetics online.

Send in the Clones!

The Standard Biola Bullshit line of apologetics is quite popular with what I consider to be the B class of apologists.  These aren't actual theologians or philosophers, but rather popular level apologists who do it professionally:
  • Lee Strobel
  • Frank Turek
  • Dinesh D'Souza
The list could go on, but these are probably the most popular ones I can think of. I consider some of those in this class, like Dinesh D'Souza, to be little more than hucksters that sell religious and political conservatives what they want to hear.

In most cases, I don't mean to insult anyone who I'd put on this category (like Strobel or Turek).  Not everyone needs to be a philosopher or theologian.  Movements need PR people - speakers who can communicate a message effectively and enthusiastically.  In fact if you listen to someone like Strobel or Turek, they'll come off more like salesmen than philosophers; they're trying to sell you on Jesus - in more ways than one.  If you've worked in a church, or at least an American church, chances are that you've seen ads for materials produced by these men (and a myriad of others).

The Originals

You can't have a clone without material to start with.  Obviously we're talking about Craig clones, but what's ironic is that the person Randal points to as an example of an imaginative apologist is Alvin Plantinga.

I say this is ironic because when we do see "the clones" use arguments that aren't from the Standard Biola Bullshit, it's almost invariably going to come from Plantinga's two main contributions to apologetics: The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism and Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology.

Granted I'm on the outside looking in, but if I had to list the two most influential apologists I can think of it'd have to be Plantinga and Craig.  In fact, Plantinga should get the nod before Craig does, having resuscitated Christian analytic philosophy as a field before Craig even came onto the scene. 

This doesn't mean all apologists are clones, I think there are other "originals" who don't get a lot of play at the popular level, but are known to those of us who follow this stuff.  These are actual philosophers and theologians, like Randal, or say Robin Collins, or Richard Swinburne, or Peter Van Inwagen, etc.

The Problem for Biola Bullshit Apologetics

One problem for the Standard Biola Bullshit style of apologetics is that in being so common, refutations are becoming pretty common.  This doesn't mean that all atheists who square off with Craig or other apologists in a debate are going to be able to do well there.  Not all refutations are equal or are at least as convincing as others.

What I mean is that if you dig deep enough online, you will eventually find the refutations for the Biola Bullshit that are generally accepted by philosophers and scientists alike.   This is particularly problematic for arguments like the Kalam or Fine Tuning that try to co-opt science for theistic purposes.  Once the sweeping metaphysical assumptions that underlie those arguments are exposed, and the science is well understood - they fall flat very quickly.  Apologists like Craig who appear so confident in their debates then look much the worse for it.

As an atheist, I find the reliance on the Biola Bullshit to be a boon.  It makes apologists predictable and in the end, it allows us to more easily discredit them publicly going forward.

The Problem for Imaginative Apologists

Randal links to Alvin Plantinga's Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments as an example of what he thinks apologists should be doing: "thinking in novel ways about gods existence".  The problem for him is that in reading through those arguments, none of them have nearly the kind of popular level "punch" that the Biola Bullshit does.

For all the problems with the standard arguments, there's a reason they're popular.  They're intuitive, easy to grasp, and easy to sell to a public that is raised to at least somewhat trust what science tells us.

The reason Kalam is used instead of a Leibniz cosmological argument is because to a lay audience the Leibniz argument just comes off as bizarre.   I remember reading an atheist recapping one of William Lane Craig's debates with Lawrence Krauss in Australia where he used the Leibniz argument, and the commenter mentioned the audience kind of gasped and chuckled when Craig said premise two of the argument:

"If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God".

Now if you know about the principle of sufficient reason and the metaphysics underlying the Leibniz argument, the premise makes sense.  But to a lay audience? It sounds nuts!  Especially to people who aren't already theists.
Similarly, the arguments Plantinga puts out generally are very abstract or are based in philosophical concepts that a lay audience isn't going to be familiar with.  I know because when I was deconverting I read that article and was utterly lost. I was very unfamiliar with philosophy at the time and so most of the concepts went right over my head.

Of course once I was familiar with some of the relevant philosophy it makes those arguments all the easier to avoid or counter.  All the atheist must do is provide a different take on the various mechanisms used to try and build a bridge to god like intentionality or beauty (to use two examples).

Even when I was a Christian I remember reading an argument from beauty and wondering why in the world people would think such an argument was convincing; largely because even then I was convinced by Hume in that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

Finally, there really is only so much ground an apologist can use to try and get to god.  Things are going to get worse as science progresses and naturalists have solid pieces of empirical evidence to use to explain things god is usually supposed to take credit for - like the creation of the universe, the existence of life, and the existence of consciousness.

As these "big questions" start getting better and better scientific answers, even if there are esoteric philosophical arguments for god, there won't be much work left for him to do.


  1. I was thinking of doing a similar style post as Christian apologetics really are a category unto their own. The one thing that always strikes me with the apologetics though (as you pointed out), is that you usually have to assume something very unscientific before you can proceed. All the opposing side needs to do is find this flaw and its game over.

  2. The mere fact that apologist exist, that Christianity needs a defense, is testament to the sorry intellectual state it is in. Unlike like a branch of science, Christianity can't soley rely on its "facts".