Friday, 13 December 2013

Combating the incredibility of Christianity to modern skeptics - an apologetic strategy


Modern elites are among the least rational in history. They lack both the patience and the ability to follow even a short line of reasoning - and even if they do follow it through, they do not trust their own conclusions when these contradict prevailing notions.

But modern people are well schooled in the tools of reflex skepticism - modern elites can dis-believe anything they want to disbelieve, anything which short term expediency makes it convenient to disbelieve: thus they can effortlessly disbelieve their own experience including the evidence of their own eyes.

How can such people be brought seriously to consider Christianity?


Assuming that there are a lot of people who are pre-immunized against the strategies of the past - such as the 'completion of paganism' approach, the logical 'proofs' of God, the common sense rationality of CS Lewis, or Lewis's other 'completion of Romanticism'/ Surprised by Joy idea... and so on.

What remains?


One idea is to eschew any attempt to present Christianity as obviously true to anybody but an idiot, or even overwhelmingly probable on the basis of evidence; not to point to the greatness of Christian culture, or exemplary persons such as Saints; nor even to argue that society works better if people are Christians...

These ideas are unlikely to work; and may be counter-productive in a culture of political correctness - with its multiple moral inversions; which paint good as evil, ugly as art, lies as blunt honesty - and vice versa.  


How about simply presenting the central tenets of Christianity in a way which emphasizes that there is reason on both sides - against, yet also for, the truth and reality of Christianity?

And - whatever the precise balance of probability is judged to be - in this sense, belief and disbelief both have support: both belief and disbelief are reasonable conclusions.


Or, to put it another way, it can reasonably be argued that it is not impossible that Christianity is false; but also, it is not impossible that Christianity is true.


If this is accepted, as many will allow; if there is indeed some 'balance of evidence', something to be said pro and contra; then each person can make a choice; indeed each person must make a choice; indeed, each person must make a choice for themselves - and upon this choice a great deal hinges.


And leave it at that: no pressure.



asdf said...

I was reading Orthodoxy last night and Chesterton argued that he was brought to Christianity by incompatible skepticism about it. It could not be both too bloodthirsty and too meek. It could not be both pro and anti women. Etc. He concluded that if all of the competing skepticisms were correct Christianity would be the most complex and effective evil that even existed and Jesus some kind of anti-Christ. Since this was ridiculous, it must be that Christianity is the positive answer to the riddle of these different things.

Bruce Charlton said...

@asdf - I had forgotten that marvelous argument! But of course it requires far too much logical ability to be comprehensible to a modern person; moderns just assume that all the bad things are true, even when contradictory; because they don't pay attention for long enough to notice the contradiction.

skeptic said...

I must be too unsophisticated for this argument, since it seems to equally well apply to Communism. You have leftists who think Stalin betrayed Lenin's vision and others who think he merely enhanced it.

Must be true, I guess.

On the other hand, I like your idea of presenting proof for and against Christianity and letting them speak for themselves. Pascal would approve.

Bruce Charlton said...

@sk - Yes, it is very much a Pascalian line - but I just can't see any skeptic reading Pascal; or, if he did, reading him in the necessary spirit to get what he is saying.

@D and sk - Chesterton was of course talking about ChristianITY, not Christians. And, like any short argument, there are ways of misunderstanding it, or evading the point - but it is an excellent point.

Chesterton was responding to the early phases of the world view which is mainstream now. He remains an excellent apologist, for some people - he was a tremendous favourite of Lewis and Tolkien both.

However, I read Chesterton in large quantities for about three decades as an atheist, and greatly liked him - and he didn't convert me.

Matthew C. said...

I think we need to distinguish whether or not "Christianity" is true, from whether or not Jesus is the Truth, is and speaks the Word of God, and teaches the path of salvation to humankind.

It seems to me that "Christianity" includes all kinds of interpretations and additions to Christ's message. And of course many Christians believe an number of contradictory and incorrect things.

The first step, I think, is to read the Bible and see what He had to say to us through it, and try to forget as much as possible about what we've been taught about "Christianity".

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Matthew C. said:
we need to distinguish whether or not "Christianity" is true, from whether or not Jesus is the Truth
Of course, but the problem is: Who is interested in truth? Who loves truth and is ready to live by the truth?

When I came back to the Faith, some Jehovah's Witnesses wasted some time to try to convert me and I wasted some in my turn to try to win them back (they were all lapsed Catholics). In the process, I studied a book by a Protestant Pastor who devoted much energy to the same cause and sometimes succeeded. The most important thing he said was: Unless you demonstrate to a Jehovah's Witness that the leaders of his religion regularly issue false prophecies and teachings (regardless of intentions), the task is impossible. It is useless to argue from the Bible, since they conveniently edited it to fit their views. One must resort to the Watchtower literature to show how their teachers modified and interpreted previous messages and added new lies over the old ones. Then only, one can argue about specifically religious issue, of which the first one is whether or not Jesus is God.

Truth will set you free. If one loves truth, he loves Christ, often without knowing it. If someone is indifferent to truth, he distrusts Christ, most of the time unknowingly as well.

Wm Jas said...

The idea that Christianity is obviously true (or obviously false) to anybody but an idiot is a non-starter. Clearly there are both highly intelligent Christians and highly intelligent non-Christians.

However, you seem to be arguing that the scales are almost perfectly balanced, and that it all comes down to which side you choose to put your thumb on. This sounds an awful lot like nihilism to me -- you know, "the truth is unknowable, so just believe whatever you feel like."

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - Yes, I suppose few people are interested in Truth. Perhaps the best approach is to go via the interest in happiness - but long-term/ permanent happiness, beyond mortal death.

@WmJas - "you seem to be arguing that the scales are almost perfectly balanced"

Well, I was careful NOT to write that, and I don't believe it. In fact I don't even know what it would mean to say the scales were balanced. Evidence isn't quantifiable, and the truth is unimodal.

All that needs to be said is that (so far as we can see, from our human perspective) there IS evidence on both sides - or, an honest man must assert that neither side is impossible a priori (without begging the question).

The point could even be made sociologically/ historically - honest, competent and informed men have been found on both sides: demonstrating that this is not a matter of pure reason or overwhelming weight of evidence - but is necessarily for each individual.

Not that this is anything arcane or hidden; it seems crystal clear from scripture that to follow Christ not only can but *must* be a choice of each person - because an act of will is a choice.

Nicholas Fulford said...

The point could even be made sociologically/ historically - honest, competent and informed men have been found on both sides: demonstrating that this is not a matter of pure reason or overwhelming weight of evidence - but is necessarily for each individual.

Not that this is anything arcane or hidden; it seems crystal clear from scripture that to follow Christ not only can but *must* be a choice of each person - because an act of will is a choice.

It all keeps coming back to whether people have free will in fact rather than merely a persistent illusion of being free willed. To have actual free will requires that there be an aspect of self that is separate in fact from the purely physical. This is not just a function of emergence, (epiphenomena), but has to be intrinsic. But, so far as we can see, a person is bound whole-cloth to the physical universe in which (s)he both improbably and necessarily occurs. It requires a special pleading to say that man is different in kind from every other thing in the universe, immune on some level to strict dependency upon the physical laws and history that has led to this moment.

To put it through a theological lens - If God is the omnipresent, then God alone is, and if man is in some sense separate and real - truly apart from God - God is not omnipresent but limited. An unbounded infinity is disputed when one tiny thing is outside of it.

Even so, we have a persistent sense of choosing, and so functionally we have a basis for morality, ethics and law. Within that, what is the most fertile ground for a religion? I would argue that it is in an appeal to man's search for meaning, community, and a sense of something transcendent. All want a sense that their existence has purpose and meaning that persists. Provide hope for that, (and without the burden of having to either prove or disprove the religion scientifically), and it will have appeal. Hint: If something is transcendent, it is *outside* the criticism of the physicalist. But to do that requires that mythic religious narrative be treated as one treats "The Lord of the Rings". LOTR is meaningful and expresses certain truths about being human without requiring that its story be a factual and provable history. It is in fact a religious text, but it does not require that Gandalf or Froto ever existed. And it is thereby immune from scientific criticism.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Unimodality is a term used in several contexts in mathematics. Originally, it relates to possessing a unique mode. In general the concept refers to there being only a single highest value, somehow defined, of some mathematical object.”

Does this definition correspond to what you mean by unimodal? I did not know the word but liked it immediately. If it does mean that there is a “single highest value” for truth, it is a well chosen word. In the metaphysical realm, it probably refers to the notions of perfection and absolute.

“Perhaps the best approach is to go via the interest in happiness.”
Yes, this is the approach through morality. It is indeed easier to demonstrate the universality of the core moral principles in all traditional societies, as C.S. Lewis did in Abolition of Man, and bring people to distinguish good and evil, then eventually love the good for its sake rather than primarily for a reward. Then we can proceed to why moral values are so much alike in all civilizations, that is, to absolute truth and goodness that measure everything else. With already more or less religious people, we may have to take the reverse approach: they already want to be good, what they have to learn is what makes particular goods really good, or just seemingly so.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - Everything you said is meaningless output - by your own account - since apparently you don't have free will, and are therefore just churning-out processed inputs.

But I do have free will; and I know this for a fact beyond reach of any conceivable refutation. And I regard it as silly shallow nonsense to discuss the fact.

I'm happy to discuss what free will is, or how it works - but disputing that *it is*, is so obviously self-refuting nonsense that it makes me angry that people are trying to waste my time or demoralize me into wasting my life.


@SDR - Actually, I meant to write unipolar! So unimodal was a kind of misprint - but I'm glad it stimulated some valuable reflection.!

"why moral values are so much alike in all civilizations, that is, to absolute truth and goodness that measure everything else" -

This, however, is exactly what is denied by modern people; many of whom regard all previous generations of humans as racist, sexist slavers - and therefore so evil as to have nothing to say to modern people.

The inversions of political correctness which have taken grip since the mid 1960s have left it impossible to discover common ground or agreement between Christians and mainstream secular public discourse - beyond a few absolute outrages such as torturing innocents.

Arakawa said...

Generally speaking, two of the most important interactions that fulfil the first commandment are repentance and gratitude (of the latter, what CS Lewis calls sehnsucht may actually be a variety). Without feeling the need for these, God for the modern human being is a theoretical question, or a consumer entity, like a better model of automobile. Is there a Platonically ideal automobile somewhere in Heaven? In any case, I'm hardly obliged to look for it!

On the other hand, anything that jolts a person out of their learned sense of complacency, and arouses either a need for repentance or a need to be grateful, raises an implicit question of who to be grateful or repentant towards.

Bookslinger said...

In my opinion, it's not so much the metaphysical claims or aspects of the gospel which provide the biggest stumbling block for non-believers, it's the problems (both perceived and real) of the "-ity", that is the institutional churches, their history, their culture, and all their window-dressing and trappings that those institutions have woven around the core gospel of Christ.

In my younger days, among an evangelical-type crowd, we called it "church-ianity".

In other words, Christians have done to Christianity, what the Pharisees did to the religion of Moses, turned it into a bunch of outward acts, ritual performances, added cultural trappings, all the while denying or at least ignoring what was at the core.

Non-believers have a darn good excuse for rejecting modern "mainstream" Christianity, whether it be Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, or any of the myriad of Protestant denominations.

And that reason is that since the time that the last Apostle died (and wasn't replaced) (or if you want to get super-technical, since the last person who was *directly* ordained and authorized by an Apostle died) up until 1830, all Christian organizations upon the face of the earth were unauthorized apostate shells, merely "well-intentioned" at best.

Granted, there were almost always along the way, at least some earnest and sincere men and women who did the best they could with what they inherited. It's a miracle that we even have any inspired scriptures left at all, even though there are no originals, only n-th generation copies.

It speaks to the power and truthfulness of the Gospel of Christ, that even in its apostate form, many core truths survived enough to keep some sort of sparks of goodness alive.

Yet it's not the "goodness" of Christianity that non-believers have a problem with. And I don't think it's the metaphysical aspects of there being a God/Spiri-Father/creator, a Son/Savior, a Holy Spirit, or an Atonement/Ressurection.

I think it's the "churchy-ness" of the whole deal. Whether it be historical corruption on a political or economic level, evil motives among priests and pastors, or hypocrisy of the participants, or the added-on rules and regulations over centuries of rituals.

The Mormon message of a *restoration* of *truth* (ie, correct doctine) and *authority* (ie, *real* prophets and apostles) resonates (as well it should) with people who are observant and intelligent enough to realize that "something's not quite right" with what is presented as mainstream Christianity today.

Mormons can say to the non-believers who enounter the stumbling blocks of modern mainstream Christian-"ITY", "Yeah, we don't like those things about them either. We're different from them."

I think that line of reasoning is also one of the reasons for the growth of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches. Their adherents seek the basic gospel without all the cultural clap-trap and either watered-down or embellished doctine of mainstream "churchianity".

Bruce, in the eyes of non-believers, if you're trying to sell them Christianity, you're also trying to sell them all the actually negative trappings (doctrinal, cultural, social, and psychological) that in their mind go along with the core gospel message.

Pick a brand/denomination that you can live with, and go with it. But whatever it is, when you go to sell/argue/proselytize, I think you're going to have to first differentiate your "product" from all the other products that your target audience is *rightfully* rejecting.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BSl - That's not the way I see it.

I think there are terrible problems with most Christian churches; but people need to get across the line first: to become a Christian.

Almost immediately (within weeks or months) they will want and need more - and may, like me, need to escape a liberal pseudo-Christian church ASAP - but they must first get across the line, so to be able to say 'I am a Christian'.

Bookslinger said...

I don't mean to say that marketing or sales techniques should be used to gain a convert or convince someone of the truthfulness of the gospel. Otherwise, a better salesman will eventually come along and convince the convert of something else.

But I think it proper to use righteous sales techniques and righteous persuasion to convince someone to *investigate* the gospel or commence their own spiritual inquiry, i.e. "read, ponder, and pray for an answer" as the Mormon missionaries teach.

If dispassionate intellectuals are your target audience, I suppose many would begin their inquiry being ready and able to separate the core gospel message from the degenerate/apostate or even the merely "culturally unappealing" packaging in which most churches deliver it.

And by "culurally unappealing" I mean to include such things as the undignified snake-handlers of rural America, the pompadoured showmen of American TV evangelicals, the Ned Flanders* (from the Simpsons TV cartoon) namby-pambyism (Harvey Milquetoast-ism), stultifying wimpy effeminate/ineffectual preachers and priests of almost all denominations, to the moonbat-ery of the CoE.

*(In my youth, the namby-pambyism of mainstream Christianity was illustrated to me by the claymation/stop-motion children's show "Davey and Goliath" about a boy and his talking dog.)

It was Gandhi who seemed to illustrate this point when he said "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Bookslinger said...

More to your point in the comment made at 20:02. Many people's path to the true church often does take them through other churches first. It's sometimes a case of "baby steps". I believe many people are able to grasp some of the basic principles of Christ's gospel long before they are able to handle the "big reveal" that there is one and only one true "official" church which has *real* prophets and apostles. Many people's cup is full by that subset of the gospel found in mainstream churches. And until they increase their capacity, they can't conceive of there being "more gospel", since they don't have room to receive it.

But an even greater number of sincere God-seeking people are in other churches merely because they don't know where else to look, and would have embraced the fullness of the restored gospel had they not been first distracted and confused by ear-pleasing doctines of men. The falsehoods then become part of their baseline, integrated into their foundation, and the restored truths can't fit in without some deconstruction.

If the truth-seeker knows of the problems in the liberal pseudo-churches, I can't see the reasons why a truth-seeker would of necessity need to go there first. I don't see it as an "easier sell", unless the seeker has already bought into apostate doctrines, and can't be weaned from them.

So... at some time prior to the point where a non-believer says "I am a Christain", I would hope to be able to sell them on the idea of saying "I am a seeker." And once they have decided to seek, I would say "If you would, please look here..."

As you pointed out, the decision to believe versus not-believe is one of free will. Hopefully, that decision of free will is based not merely on actual facts, but also a *spiritual* inquiry which leads to *spiritual* answers or "confirmation" to use an LDS term. (Paul wrote that spiritual truth is spiritually discerned.)

Therefore, the selling/convincing/influencing that a proselyter can righteously do is essentially limited to influencing a person to seek, and then where to seek.

I like your bit about presenting evidence that "it's not impossible that Christianity is true." But to the non-believer, what is Christianity?

To you, I think the term "Christianity" means the core message of Christ's mission: incarnation, Atonement, resurrection etc, that leads to the salvation and eternal life of mankind.

But to the non-believer, "Christianity" means Popes, Crusades, indulgences, the Inquisition, Archbishop of Canterbury, Martin Luther, Tammy Fay Bakker, Jim Jones, tele-evangelists, Ned Flanders, mega-churches, holy-rollers, snake-handlers, pedophile priests, etc.

Most never get to the point where they consider the core mission/gospel of Christ because they trip over all that other junk, because in their eyes that junk is what the gospel of Christ led to.

Joseph Smith had to etiher have been a real prophet of God, or else an evil genius, when he put forth that real, true and authorized Christianity died with the last Apostle. So *of course* all that "junk" is there in so-called Christianity, because it's a false, degenerated, corrupted and apostate Christianity.

Therefore, I put forth that it's the message of the *Apostasy* that would benefit the intellectuals in helping them separate the "junk" from the "core" and thereby allowing them to examine the core to see if it's something they want to believe in.

Nicholas Fulford said...

My question with respect to free will then is, "What is the physical basis of free will, and if it requires an extra-physical basis to get around physical constraints, what is it?"

The problem is, even from a purely subjective stance, the response that arises to stimulus arises out of a fog of unknowing. Think of a movie title. Why did that particular film title jump into your head? Was it a conscious choice, or did it rise to the surface as the result of hidden and unknown factors? Did you choose the title that popped into your thoughts? When I do this thought experiment I cannot determine why a particular title popped into my conscious awareness. It was not a choice for me, it simply percolated to the surface by some means. I think that is an epiphenomena of lower level processes, memory and physical stimuli. I certainly did not choose the title that my inner voice spoke.

Did you choose the words that are surfacing in response to reading this, or do they also arise out of a space to which you do not have conscious access?

Just curious, because I think these types of thought experiments present a subjective experience that invalidates free will. (If I cannot even choose what words will surface internally, how can I truly have a free will?)

Bruce Charlton said...

@BSl - Hey, I didn't say it would be easy to combat 150 years of overwhelming propaganda!

But more seriously, while would love to see the LDS continue to grow - there are large areas of the world it leaves untouched and clearly it is not a complete solution to the scale of the problem.

Quantitatively, the main task to to get people out from inside the fly bottle of suicidal, self-loathing nihilism - from where they actively -reject salvation; because in their world of psychotic moral inversion, they think that good is bad.

@NF - Unask the question. Mechanisms are second order and hypothetical. Rather, accept that free will is intrinsic to being human, to being a person, it is part of the definition of being a person. And part of being a person is that persons are different from non-persons - so arguments about non-persons are inadequate.

Bookslinger said...

@Nicholas Fulford: Epictetus helped me understand how humans are not entirely meat computers. Specifically his Enchiridion. There are two free (public domain) translations available at various places online. Reading both in parallel helped me with some of the tricky parts.

Mormons have a scripture which touches on overcoming the limitations of our inherent meat-computer nature. Ether 12:27 "And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

@BC, your point about nihilsm and moral inversion is spot on.

The areas of the world where those are occuring the most, and are in the swiftest decline, are the areas which have actively rejected Christianity after Christianity had nearly universal penetration and exposure: Western Europe and North America.

Congruently, those are also areas where Mormonism has had much exposure, though little overall acceptance.

The areas where Mormonism has had the least (to none) exposure, India and China, are actually on the ascendency.

Therefore I posit that Mormonism (or "core Christianity" if we want to keep it brand generic) is needed the most in the exact places where "mainstream Christianity" is failing.

And, those areas have modern communication and high literacy rates, so they would also have cost-effective advertising means. Cost-effective in terms of cost per eyeball reached, not necessarily cost per convert.

The decline of Western Civilisation in conjunction with a rejection of Christianity also illustrates a biblical (and Book of Mormon) principle that those societies who turn away from God suffer more damnation than those who never knew him.

So, what are you doing (other than your blogs) to promulgate core or basic Christianity in Western Europe?

(If you want to write a check, your nearest LDS ward or branch will gladly accept a donation to the church's missionary fund. ;-)

jgress said...

I think a great way not to reach people is to denounce them. Unless for whatever reason a skeptic is already dissatisfied with his skepticism and is open to this kind of polemics, he will just be alienated by an approach that calls him 'irrational' and 'inverting morality'.

However distasteful you find it, you have to understand his point of view sympathetically, try to understand why he believes what he does, and then maybe you can find a way to introduce a different worldview.

The problem I found with the CS Lewis approach, from what I recall from Surprised by Joy, is that it presupposes this overwhelming guilt, to which Christianity is the only solution. As I think you noted elsewhere on your blog, modern skeptics don't even accept the guilt, so you're not going to get far by positing a solution to a non-existent problem.

You had one interesting proposal, namely addressing the alienation that many moderns feel. Again, that might work with some, but if you're a socially well-adjusted atheist then you probably don't feel much of a need here, either.

Of course, this isn't news to the Church Fathers, who warned that self-satisfaction and comfort were the surest enemies of salvation. The more you feel at home in the world, the less you'll be inclined to reject it. Of course, since the world is fleeting, and since we know this, the only rational approach is to figure out a way of doing without it, but the modern skeptic approach is a kind of irrational and crazed clinging to the world despite the sure knowledge that it will pass.

Basically, the challenge is to persuade people that there is a purpose to our existence that transcends what is temporary and fleeting. That might work better than moralizing about modern decadence: there are just too many unshared assumptions about morality to make headway there (no belief in a purposeful natural order, narrow focus on "harm avoidance", meaning essentially pain avoidance, etc).

jgress said...

But I like the idea of keeping the apologetic simple: Christianity is not impossible. You might say that no one has proven Christianity beyond a reasonable doubt, but then no one has DISPROVEN it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - Good thoughts, thanks. What I was trying to do was take the rather banal point that no-one has disproven it, and present it in the form that it means there are two possibilities which must be chosen between. Not even that Christianity is the most likely or probable, but just that it is a possibility (perhaps like winning a lottery - people might feel that it was extremely unlikely - but they would acknowledge that it was possible).

Once people acknowledge, explicitly, the possibility, then they could - perhaps - examine the consequences of Christianity as compared with the consequences of rejecting it.

This 'consequences of Christianity' is a huge topic, of course, but at the point of opening up this matter, the person has become 'a seeker' - and sincere seekers are saved (He who seeks WILL find).

As another point, the long established Mormon method of asking people to read the Book of Mormon and pray to know if it is true - which LDS Missionaries have been doing since the very beginning of the church in 1830 - should be considered by other Christian denominations.

(But clearly not with the BoM, but instead with respect to other signs, such as reading in the Bible, or maybe attendance (not participation) at a Holy Communion service - then praying for validation.)

...because - even though there is a low probability that this method will 'work', IF a person does become a Christian on the basis of a sense of certainty from prayer - a divine revelation and communication with God; then this kind of inner conviction (this kind of 'evidence') is extremely difficult for modern hedonic secularism to overcome, and potentially provides a very solid basis for individual faith in a hostile modern world.