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?
I recently came across a paper by Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols, summarised in this post, which discusses bias in thinking about religion. Draper and Nicholls point to four dangers:
- 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.
Among christians, I highly respect philosopher Victor Reppert and Old Testament scholar Peter Enns as honest and fair-minded thinkers, and I would class Reppert as an apologist.
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?
Truth and being honest with ourselves.
It is not difficult to do.
One should be steadfast on one’s belief and open for Truth wherever it comes from and where-from it comes to one . In fact this is in-built in the Truthful Religion.
An important topic and good effort to cover it, BUT I FIND IT TO BE A WORTHLESS DISCUSSION WITHOUT DEFINING THE CONCEPT OF “TRUTH”. This article failed to do that, assuming “truth” is self-evident. If you ask 10 people to define “truth” you’ll find out that most of them adhere to a subjective perception. Quoting my rabbi: “It takes truth to know truth”. If anyone gives you the correct definition of “truth”, then discuss this article’s topic with him/her, because they most likely know the truth.
@Amnon :JUN 08, 2014 @ 04:28:32
Truth is an attribute/name of the One-True-God.
You aptly demonstrated your ‘true colours’ with the recent post you penned on the Gospels.
A post that flew in the face of all you are trying to convey with this, and many other ‘unbiased posts’.
Atheists are the least biased of all the ”apologists” and all we ask is for the religious claimants to provide verifiable and honest evidence of their claims.
So far, not a single religious apologist has ever been prepared/able to do this. In fact, as time and science progresses more and more religious claims have been seen and in many case proved for what they truly are. Nonsense.
A fiction superimposed over an ancient geopolitical landscape.
A truly honest Christian/religious person is one who will admit that what they believe in is based solely on faith or personal interpretation of religious texts.
But I have yet to come across a Christian or any religious person this honest.
Hi Amnon, thanks for your comment. What problem do you have with the concept of truth?
I think a reasonable definition is truth = conforming to reality. Do you see a problem with such a definition?
I think you do a good job at avoiding the pitfalls, though I suppose we would have on disagreements on particular issues.
Anyway, I am not convinced that the view that “religious believers have invested more in their beliefs and so are more likely to have confirmation bias” holds. It just depends what views you scrutinise and religious people being numerically dominant, their views are scrutinised more. However, if you consider that atheists who profess to be rational and sceptical still tend to views like Mythicism, the conflict thesis and denying science like the theory that religion can develop from cognitive development, it is not possible to take the demarcation seriously. I think atheists or sceptics are not a particularly self-critical demography either.
One cynical biologist once said something to the effect of “scratch an altruist, watch a hypocrite bleed.” That would in my view be more appropriate for a sceptic.
Hi Ig, I agree with your example about investment in beliefs, and I originally intended to include it. I think you can get some sort of indication of a person’s investment by the “shrillness” and emotion of their arguments, and it seems to me that some of the most vociferous atheists fall into that category (as of course do some christians, perhaps especially fundamentalists).
@IG & Unklee
Atheists have always been the silent voice of conscience since the invention of religion and the innumerable forms of god belief while the ”shrillness” of hysterical religious idiots have been going at it hammer and tongs polluting humankind with superstitious garbage and killing across the board in its name – and religious idiots are still killing in its name, while the supposed non violent end of the spectrum are systematically abusing children through indoctrination.
There is no honour among the religious, no integrity, and at its core no honesty as everything is built upon a foundation of lies inculcated through ignorance and fear.
Desist from all forms of childhood indoctrination, outlaw certain barbaric religious practices – circumcision, for example – and within a few generations, god belief will have dwindled to the extent it will have become insignificant.
I’m quoting the first thing that came to my mind after reading this article. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I’m sorry but I don’t remember what book I read it in but I copied it down! “I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” frequently draws me more to the non-religious than to the religious – and that too without any intention of envangelizing them but rather…in brotherhood.”
Interesting quote from an interesting man. I must say I sometimes feel the same. Presumably you relate to that too?
Thanks for visiting and commenting.
Yes, that definitely seems a good dowsing rod. Also, the tendency of misconstruing opponents is a fine indicator. In addition there were plenty of online atheists endorsing Kanazawa (opposed by Myers) and Lynn (opposed by Andrew Brown) when they said what they wanted to hear.
My remark on scepticism was maybe a little too caustic, so sorry about that. It was caused by some very irrational actions by sceptic magazines (one endorsing Acharya S’s nonsense and another shrilly opposing Boyer’s and Atran’s theory on agent attribution).
Finally, on correspondence theory, I think Amnon had something like this discussion in mind: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-correspondence/
That Stanford page was pretty difficult! I haven’t really read much on this stuff, but while I think truth corresponds with reality, I think coherentism and verificationism both have merit, and I don’t see them as contrary to correspondence theory. I didn’t really “get” the truthmaker stuff, and I disagree that correspondence theory cannot apply to ethics.
But I clearly need to read some more and ponder some more. Thanks for the reference.
The point isn’t that atheists have been particularly evil in their doings, but that they do not seem very self-critical with respect to the beliefs they adopt. As examples I gave Mythicism and the conflict thesis between religion and science, but we can add uncritical discourses about “Reason” versus “superstition” and “dogmatism” to that. Do you have any reasons to question this?
But even in terms of violence and indoctrination atheists also have had their bad times, such as the French Reign of Terror, the League of the Militant Godless and several periods of government repression in the USSR, extreme state atheism in Albania and the Cultural Revolution in China. I don’t think atheists have been disproportionally destructive, as violence seems to be tied to atheism as a state ideology, but there are definitely some shades of gray needed. Knights in shining white armour only appear in fairytales.
Can you demonstrate that religious people have “no honour”, “no integrity, and at its core no honesty”, convincingly show it has “a foundation of lies” and provide evidence it spreads “through ignorance and fear”? It’s an awful lot of nasty supposition, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
Yes, we know you hold to this prediction. Any thoughts on the time-scale?
Atheism was not even a word until theism raised its ugly head.
Who is not very self critical?
When you use the term Mythicism could you be more specific?
The rest of this part of the comment is too vague. I would prefer if you were more specific with your questions.
I am generally only dogmatic where it refers to religion.
However, as I have said from the word go, demonstrate the veracity of your god claim and I will listen. So far, it is all so much nonsense.
Fallacious religious text and its forcible imposition on children is the first example that comes to mind.
Where is this in any way nasty supposition? Are you seriously questioning that this does not go on or are you simply unaware/ignorant of the facts?
Once this indoctrination has been achieved it is then (often)maintained through fear. Fear of reprisal, cultural exclusion and of course all the little nasty biblical threats, Hell, withdrawal of Yahweh’s love etc etc.
Then of course there is the ‘scientific’ side , Creationism, and archaeology to name two.
Unless you are a supporter of Young Earth Creationists, Ken Ham etc?
How big a list are you wanting?
My initial commentary was succinct enough surely?
Without indoctrination merely a few generations.
Anyway, it is happening already, albeit slowly; though this particular debate is almost becoming tiresome to explain.
It is an inevitability simply because religion is based on falsehood, with no more foundational credence than Santa Claus…probably even less.
If religion was a One Time only deal there wouldn’t be so much continual need to interpret and move the goalposts.
Oh, and I believe you still have not answered the question from a previous post. If you are not a deist what are you?
Sadly, we will once again have to wait for unklee to ‘un-moderate’ this comment as he seems unwilling to adjust his comment settings, even after all this time.
Some points seem to change the subject a bit, but I am only interested in the original claim I made: there is little reason to suppose that atheists are better in self-critical analysis of their beliefs than theists. I am agnostic about who actually are more self-critical.
Mythicism: the idea that Jesus did not exist as a historical person in anyway and was completely a myth.
These other things aren’t vague, they are concrete examples of instances where many atheists abandon reason and follow their own biases. The conflict thesis holds that religion (or Christianity in particular) deliberately or inadvertently suppressed the progenitor of science. The other thing referred to originally deist fairytales of reason dishing out punches in a perennial war with dogmatic and superstitious religion throughout history. All these beliefs are completely pseudohistorical.
What you made was a blanket statement:
The syntax of this sentence “there is no X among Y” is a categorical denial that X occurs in Y. Considering that I’m Y and don’t think I lack X, is it strange that I zoom in on this? Wouldn’t you think I’m a bigot if I said there’s no honesty amongst atheists?
But to make it clear: I do not deny that dishonesty etc. occur among religious people. I have no issues with using “dishonesty” for Ken Ham or fearmongering. My problem is with the blanket denial in your original statement.
I thought I was pretty clear on being a Christian theist, but you seem to have that option ruled out because I didn’t opt for a Chalcedonian formulation, right?
So? What is your point? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. There is no verifiable evidence either way. And it is not relevant. Only the nonsense of his church bestowed god hood.
Every negative claim you make against atheism was/is brought about because of theism and the supernatural nonsense it comes with. The entire erroneous ”goddidit” package that runs through – particularly – Abrahamic doctrine.
Ruled out? No. You simply didn’t answer the question when it was first posed.
If you are prepared to acknowledge the context of this discussion rather than behave in a churlish fashion then you will see the relevance of the comment is perfectly acceptable.
Children are abused through religious indoctrination.
Almost the entirety of religious text is historically false- never mind the supernatural claims. And demonstrably so. That you already know – consider Moses and the Exodus as an example.
That you still teach your religion as truth ( albeit sometimes couched in metaphor), that people are born sinners and only through faith is Jesus Christ ( sic) will salvation and entry into heaven be gained is immoral and dishonorable as you have no evidence whatsoever to back this claim. None.
If you were to leave the choice of following Jesus ( or any other religion) to the individual as an adult the entire religious landscape would reflect a massive drift toward agnosticism and eventually atheism in a relative short period of time.
I reiterate. atheism is only here as a reaction to theism.
Why should an atheist be self-critical of his or her lack of belief in deities?
The context of the comment is very different from what you sketch. It is about beliefs motivated by bias that atheists hold, caused by an offhand statement that religious believers are more likely prone to beliefs informed by confirmation bias.
This is what UnkleE wrote in the original post about the authors:
I stated then my view:
UnkleE more or less agreed:
Finally, I mellowed the last section in my above reply:
By then, you had already posted this:
I then clarified what was meant:
The other posts follow a similar pattern: you discuss something else.
So I do not behave churlishly at all, but I strongly adhered to the context.
The point is thus that this isn’t what UnkleE and I discussed (and UnkleE understood that, so I cannot have been unclear). We didn’t say that atheism is adopted uncritically, but that atheists aren’t particularly self-critical compared to others when adopting other beliefs (which I have outlined).
There is sufficient evidence for concluding Jesus existed. We have the letters of Paul, which contain some earlier traditions about Jesus (like the Hymn in Philippians 2), we have the gospels, of which the synoptics and gMark in particular are considered useful sources, and we have non-Christian attestations by Josephus (twice, although one is partially forged) and by Tacitus.
I should also note that agnosticism about the historical Jesus is also exclusively held by atheists without expertise and is thus a biased belief.
Atheists are not motivated by bias , but by evidence. If you interpret this as bias then this is the problem you have to deal with because you are not prepared to accept the evidence that refutes almost every nonsense theist claim or are able to produce a single shred of evidence for the nonsense claims theism makes.
If unklee has a problem with my comment I am sure he doesn’t need you to interpret my answer for him, do you?
You keep reciting examples. Do you have verifiable evidence for these example?
For what it’s worth there are plenty of atheists who do not adhere to the belief that Yeshua was a purely fictitious character.
No, there isn’t. This is only interpretation and while this interpretation is still prevalent the consideration that he was a wholly constructed individual is beginning to be re-looked, and not simply by individuals who are considered fringe.
Josephus and Tacitus are suspect, and there has been enough argument and disagreement over the years to warrant extreme prejudice toward these two sources, irrespective .
And you can cite these example ’til the cows come home and this is all you have got.
There are enough examples that would suggest every Christian claim regarding Yeshua is nonsense, as well you know.
The gospels are a useless source considering the fraudulent and ridiculous nature of much of what s written. Enough, in fact, to cast aspersions on al of them:
Virgin birth, Zombie Apocalypse, Slaughter of the innocents, the Egyptian sojourn of Mary and Jo, the nativity narratives, the 600 verses plagiarized by Matthew from Mark the erroneous description of Nazareth in Luke. The list just goes on and on.
And now the Acts seminar has concluded the whole of Acts can be regarded as fiction.
And if you are going to cite consensus then we must adopt the same standard for the OT and the Exodus,which consensus almost unanimously agrees is fiction. ( Kitchen is an Evangelical christian whose view can be summarily dismissed, as was Albright’s).
Rohr is regarded with similar disdain by genuine experts.
As your man – god makes numerous references to Abraham and Moses then one can only conclude if he existed he was ignorant of the facts, a liar, or a madman.
This is what you will eventually have to confront.
How much fact do you require before you begin to regard the bible with honesty instead of continually moving the goalposts to satisfy
a faith based belief that has resulted in a religion built upon falsehood?
Atheists have the same virtues and vices as theists. It goes against the evidence to generally state that atheists are not motivated by bias. Any clearheaded look at atheists fora like FRDB, Rationalia or Rational Skepticism shows that plenty of atheists are led by bias.
And again, you direct the topic to something else.
What is this about? The problem is that you continually claim that the context of the discussion is different from what it in fact is.
I agree there are many atheists, but the point isn’t that all or most atheists believe this, but that atheists believe this and thus aren’t particularly self-critical either. After all, there are also many Christians who reject unfounded beliefs.
As for evidence, are you serious? The internet is awash with biased atheists claiming such things, but anyway have two examples:
There is no uninterpreted evidence in scholarship (and I would also say in science). But the most reasonable interpretation may still count as evidence. And the most reasonable interpretation is overwhelming in the case of Jesus. The people who contest is, however, are fringe amateurs, such as Richard Carrier, or experts in other areas working outside their field, such as Thomas L. Thompson. The sole exception is Robert Price.
Josephus is only partially suspect because one of his two accounts mentioning Jesus has been partially interpolated in the Greek text. I have already said this, but nonetheless you ignore that and give it a spin. Anyway, there is evidence that the Testimonium Flavianum also has an authentic core, that can be reconstructed using Josephus’ distinct style and the Syriac and Arabic versions.
And Tacitus has not been considered forged by experts. The only people who think it has been forged are non-experts. The passage about the Christians is written with a style that is peculiar to Tacitus.
Too general. Even if your points were enough to discredit a whole gospel, it doesn’t affect gMark or gJohn. And in any case the portions of gMatthew and gLuke that are part of Q can also still be used. But actual scholars treat traditions individually while keeping track of the author’s biases.
As for the Acts Seminar, they are an outcrop of the uncritical Jesus Seminar. Few in NT scholarship will take their parallelomania seriously.
I can recommend you to read an actual scholar like Maurice Casey.
You are talking about things you don’t know. There isn’t a consensus about the Old Testament or Exodus that unanimously that it is completely fiction (I know the literature). But I anyway agree that the particular narratives are fictional, but we don’t know about the underlying traditions. But go ahead and demonstrate that (and keep in mind that minimalism is a minority position, so citing minimalists won’t help).
(Or if your point wasn’t that Exodus with the kit and caboodle and a historical invasion were completely fictional, then this is an irrelevant and unfocused point. Because I agree the Exodus narrative as it is before us is fictional.)
And that you state evangelicals’ opinions can be summarily dismissed is itself a testament to your bias. You should take an example of UnkleE and me, who are willing to look beyond the experts that appeal to us most.
I have been doing that for years now. Here’s a question: when are you going to stop with the condescending questions?
Correction: “I agree there are many atheists” should read “I agree there are many atheists who do not believe such opinions”
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