Human beings have a wide variety of beliefs and opinions on almost any subject you can imagine. This is just as true for the ‘big’ topics of God, religion, ethics, politics and purpose in life. And most of us like to think we are ‘right’ – we have the truth, and others don’t. But we also like to think we are open-minded, that we care about truth.
But a christian is committed to following Jesus. So how can a christian, especially a christian apologist, be open-minded about the truth? How can anyone who is searching for truth trust that a christian is able to give them any true insights?
And are atheists and others in just the same position as christians?
What is an apologist?
According to one definition, an apologist is “a person who defends or supports something (such as a religion, cause, or organization) that is being criticized or attacked by other people” (Merriam-Webster). On that definition, all of us are apologists at some time or other.
So what’s wrong with being an apologist?
The suspicion is that an apologist cares more for their viewpoint than the truth, and may even distort the truth to maintain their views or press them on others. Pressing viewpoints on others when they are not welcome is another characteristic (some say) of apologists.
Truth and an open mind
The objective search for truth is a noble goal. But if we actually find truth, or at least we believe we have, can and should we still remain totally objective? Must we mistrust everyone with an opinion? GK Chesterton once said:
The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.
So an open mind is a means, not an end. And there are clearly times when we shouldn’t welcome an open mind. For example, should I have an open mind on the ethics of rape or genocide?
Can we balance an open mind and knowing truth?
- being partisan,
- being too polemical,
- being too narrow in focus, and
- using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical.
The authors recognise that both theists and atheists are prone to these “close-minded” attitudes, though they believe religious believers have invested more in their beliefs and so are more likely to have confirmation bias. Psychological studies tend to support this, they say, although some studies also indicate that believers and unbelievers alike tend to have both rational and intuitive reasons for their belief.
In this post, Draper gives guidelines on how to focus on truth in thinking about philosophy and religion:
- Avoid apologists, whether religious or atheist. They seek to “justify their religious beliefs … [but] to obtain justification, one must directly seek, not justification, but truth.”
- Construct formal arguments as a means of testing beliefs and conclusions.
- Avoid authorities and traditions.
- Take risks – “be prepared to abandon cherished beliefs”.
Draper recognises the difficulties for theists, because they will naturally have loyalty to their religion and God. But, he says, if they really believe their religion is the truth, they won’t be afraid of investigating it.
Christian apologist CS Lewis said much the same – along the lines of (I can’t remember the exact quote) that if we find God and truth diverging, follow truth – and we’ll find that was where God was all along.
Signs of a lack of concern for truth
Most people who write, read or comment on blogs like this have a definite viewpoint on whether God exists or not. How can we recognise when we, or others, have stopped having a reasonably open mind? I suggest the following (based partly on Draper and Nichols) characterise closed minded apologists.
1. Never see any value in opposing viewpoints
Most issues that are argued about, including belief in God, have thoughtful people on each side of the question. It would therefore be surprising if every evidence pointed in one direction only. People who argue this are probably ignoring or misrepresenting something (and so failing Draper and Nichols’ focus criterion).
2. Demonise or misrepresent opponents
Ad hominem (criticising the person rather than the belief) is recognised as a logical fallacy, for an evil or unintelligent person may nevertheless make a true argument. So if we see someone using scorn or insults to demean their opponent, or if we see supposed psychological motivations being used instead of an argument, we can suspect that such a combatant is not concerned for truth and has failed the polemic criterion.
3. Never address the opponent’s argument
Some arguers never really come to grips with what their opponent is saying. They may just offer ad hominems, or they may keep saying similar responses to every argument. They are not willing to have their views tested and are unwilling to interact with a person of different belief.
4. Absolute certainty
We are all human, and none of us is infallible. We generally believe we are right about the things we argue about, but a wise arguer doesn’t pretend to be certain. We can rightly be suspicious of someone who expresses absolute certainty.
5. Cherry pick your experts
Our arguments need to be based on evidence. But few of us are expert on the sciences (e.g. cosmology, neuroscience, medicine or psychology), or history, anthropology or sociology, so we need to base our evidence on the best available experts. Failing to do this, or choosing experts from only one viewpoint, shows bias and hubris.
Avoiding the pitfalls
Most of us know people from both sides of the God question who behave in these ways and so indicate they may be closed minded apologists. And we can observe high profile christians and atheists who exhibit the same pattern.
But there are others who, while they have definite views, exhibit open-minded behaviour that shows them to be more honest apologists.
JJ Lowder is an atheist and one of the founders of the Internet Infidels website. I have read many of his writings on the web and I find he is exemplary in avoiding the pitfalls I suggested above. He is certainly an apologist for atheism, but he appears to be a very fair-minded one. My (internet) friend and atheist, Nate Owen, exhibits many of the same characteristics, as does atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel.
A recent debate between christian philosopher William Lane Craig and atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll also apparently exhibited many of the good qualities. Both had definite viewpoints (so could be considered to be apologists) but both argued them in a fair-minded way. I admire both men, especially Craig, who cops numerous nasty comments and allegations of dishonesty from atheist critics, yet stays courteous at all times.
Unfortunately I find these good examples are not so common on the internet. So many people who act as apologists, whether christian or atheist, make arrogantly certain comments about matters which are not so clearcut (including demeaning comments about the motivations of those they disagree with), criticise via insult and scorn, show little regard for the best evidence, and generally exhibit cognitive bias. I wish it wasn’t like that, but that’s how I find it.
What about me?
If all this is so, it is very important that I aspire to the same high standards and avoid the pitfalls, yet it would really be pointless of me to judge myself on this. I am aware of failings in these areas on occasions, especially in my early days discussing christian belief on the internet. I can only say that I am aware of the pitfalls and try to avoid them. Specifically:
- I recognise there are some good arguments against christian and theistic belief, and I am willing to discuss these. I just happen to believe that the pro-theistic arguments are better and more numerous.
- I try to be courteous at all times, and prefer to walk away from a discussion that threatens to become acrimonious.
- I certainly don’t believe my belief (or anyone else’s) can be known with certainty – just a high degree of probability.
- I try to read experts on all sides of important questions, gain an understanding of the broad consensus, and base my views on that.
A personal response
Reading Draper and Nichols’ ideas has started to solidify some thoughts I’ve been having recently. I try to treat everyone with respect, but that often means answering questions from people who end up behaving like the worst apologists. Commenting on atheist blogs means, in the end, I have to be more critical that I would like to be. Such discussions can get tiring.
It would be nice to avoid the hard-boiled apologists and critics, and spend more time with people I’d enjoy meeting in real life – having discussions about things we both care about, but in a constructive way. I think being friends may sometimes be better than arguing truth.
I’ve been avoiding the more discourteous critics for some time, and I’m thinking I might press more in this direction. We’ll see how I go.
What about you?
What do you think about all this?