The Tragedy of Atheist Polemic
and why Christian apologetics thrives in its face
Of all the atheist polemics that I have seen against Christianity, the opinion that theism is an irrational delusion is probably the worst because of how tragic it is. Polemic in general is utilized to score rhetorical points against an opposing idea in order to diminish the public image of it. But from what armchair is the atheist polemicist speaking from when they denounce Christianity as an irrational delusion? From the mouth of the atheist polemicist, there can be no redemption for Christian thought, no comprehension of its rationality, no praise of its intellectual merits. And thus, the tragedy of atheist polemic can be seen in the intellectual poverty of its critique. This article is a call on all such polemicists to abandon their axe-grinding rants and diatribes, and pursue an intellectual virtuous path instead.
Further From Truth
Intellectual virtue is a rare commodity these days. You might agree that our culture has major anti-intellectual and pseudo-intellectual currents within it, and that hot-takes and edgy opinions are all anyone wants to hear. But things were not always like they are now. Just watch the first debate between Kennedy and Nixon and compare it to the most recent one, or this Mike Wallace interview with Reinhold Niebuhr. The tone is refreshing, albeit shocking, simply because so little of it can be found in our programming today.
Sure, nowadays we do have a plethora of intellectual programs in the form of podcasts and YouTube channels that feature long-form conversation and philosophical inquiry, but they are drowned in the sea of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. Moreover, where you do find these intellectual programs, most tend to be partisan in some significant respect (politically and/or religiously) which makes it difficult to listen to. But of all the programs that devote themselves to intellectual pursuits, none of them measure up to Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s Closer To Truth.
Closer To Truth is reminiscent of the types of deep-thinking programs of yesteryear, that attempt to unfurl a rope ladder from atop the ivory tower of academic expertise so that the rest of us can reflect on big questions and their even bigger implications. Kuhn embodies intellectual virtues in a way that few other hosts do, and despite episodes being formatted for a 30-minute slot on television, the depth of the subject material more than makes up for it.
My point in bringing up Closer To Truth is to show by example how tragic contemporary religious criticism is, mainly for its intellectual poverty. From all I have seen, there are more YouTube channels and blogs that hold religious thought in contempt than those that take it seriously. What is ironic is that most of these creators often style themselves as intellectually honest critics of religion, but their content more often comes across as polemic rather than inquiry. Their goal is not to broaden their understanding of religious thought, but to undermine and rebut it.
Within intellectual discourse, criticism and debate are vitally important, but they are only means to an end, they are not ends unto themselves. The goal is to discover what the truth is, and to come to know what reality fundamentally is. One cannot reach that goal if they are devoted to debunking and destroying their intellectual opposition in some contrived ideological war.
I mean, could you imagine if Kuhn was hostile to his guests on Closer To Truth? While that would be entertaining to some extent, the show would lose all of its intellectual credibility. Why should we think any differently whenever we come across a program or piece of content that is also hostile, presumptuous, and ignorant of the academic literature in a given domain? I am totally here for religious criticism if it can get us closer to truth, but when it looks and smells like polemic, I fear it will only take us further from truth.
Intellectual Virtues And Cognitive Biases
I have been beating around the bush, so let me get straight to it: intellectual virtues are practices, ideals, and criteria that one ought to adopt if they are interested in the highest quality inquiry and discourse that leads them closer to truth. From The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology (2011), author Jason Baehr puts it this way:
An intellectually virtuous person is one who thinks, reasons, judges, interprets, evaluates, and so on, in an intellectually appropriate or rational way, while an intellectually vicious person is one who is deficient or defective in this regard. Thus where cognitive success requires inquiry, it also typically requires an exercise of one or more intellectual character virtues. (p.18–19)
Baehr goes on to identify six virtue groupings: motivation, focus, consistency, integrity, flexibility, and endurance. Attitudes or dispositions such as open-mindedness might demonstrate flexibility for instance, whereas a desire to get to the very bottom of an issue might demonstrate motivation, focus, and endurance. And somebody who is closed-minded or disinterested in nuanced interpretations of a subject may be exhibiting a deficiency. Although Baehr used vicious to signify vice (as the opposite of virtue), I think it is very similar to biased.
One of the best books on cognitive bias that I have read actually comes from the CIA. I came across the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis during my tour of duty in the intelligence community as a Navy reservist, and it lays out the theory that intelligence analysts (such as I was) employ when forming our assessments. The author, Richards J. Heuer, Jr., describes bias in a straightforward way:
A substantial body of research in cognitive psychology and decision making is based on the premise that… cognitive limitations cause people to employ various simplifying strategies and rules of thumb to ease the burden of mentally processing information to make judgements and decisions. These simple rules of thumb are often useful in helping us deal with complexity and ambiguity. Under many circumstances, however, they lead to predictably faulty judgments known as cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases are mental errors caused by our simplified information processing strategies. It is important to distinguish cognitive biases from other forms of bias, such as cultural bias, organizational bias, or bias that results from one’s own self-interest. In other words, a cognitive bias does not result from any emotional or intellectual predisposition toward a certain judgment, but rather from subconscious mental procedures for processing information. A cognitive bias is a mental error that is consistent and predictable. (p.111)
(I suspect when most people refer to somebody else as being biased, they are talking about their motivation primarily. But based on the quote above, Heuer seems to describe what Baehr took to be intellectual viciousness. Regardless, I will be treating cognitive biases as both a mental error and deficiency of intellectual virtue for the purposes of this article.)
Criticism of any kind, especially religious, is one of the best activities you can engage in if you want to put intellectual virtues into practice. However, as we all know criticism can take two prominent forms: constructive and destructive. We might say that constructive criticism is intellectually virtuous, whereas destructive criticism is intellectually vicious, because constructive criticism seems to be motivated by a desire to improve or assist that which is being criticized while destructive criticism is not. I think destructive criticism and polemic go hand in hand because the motivation of both is, as I said before, to undermine and rebut a particular viewpoint.
Constructive criticism sets the stage for collaborative truth-seeking, for sharing perspectives and insights, and for developing a mutually beneficial understanding of viewpoints that are in conflict with one another. Constructive criticism can also identify points of disagreement where further inquiry can be made. But at the end of the day, what makes constructive criticism possible is treating an interlocutor as an intellectual peer whether you agree with them or not. An intellectual peer is (to use Baehr’s language) someone who thinks, reasons, judges, interprets, evaluates on the same level as you do; somebody whose judgment you trust, whose assessments you value.
Say for example you are having a debate with somebody who legitimately believes the Earth is flat. Treating them as an intellectual peer means giving them the benefit of the doubt before they speak, a willingness to hear them out, and perhaps even some flexibility in your own views (if just temporarily) to accommodate ones that you think are absurd, unwarranted, or biased in some way. Simply put, it is incredibly difficult to do this if your mindset is to debunk, destroy, defeat, mock, ridicule, show contempt, etc., especially if the polemic is intended to persuade others that your views are more intellectually virtuous in comparison.
Our Intellectual Mosaic
Something I see both Christian fundamentalists and atheist polemicists struggle with is the fact that we live in an intellectually pluralistic society that does not universally agree on very much. Our disagreements run the spectrum from the trivial to the fundamental, and we also have a tendency to be very dogmatic in our thinking. Once we get settled into a particular mindset it becomes difficult to budge, especially if there is some cost associated with revising our beliefs (intellectual, behavioral, or otherwise).
I think the first step towards embracing intellectual pluralism is to recognize that every individual sees reality in a unique way, and that even when many individuals converge on the same views and ideas, there are still different interpretations of what those views and ideas mean. As I see it, the intellectual reality we live in is a mosaic of many perspectives coming together to form a collective vision of the truth. There is no singular, monolithic, and absolute perspective that we are in possession of. If there were, everybody would agree on everything. But alas.
I think why Christian fundamentalists and atheist polemicists struggle with embracing pluralism is because (whether or not they realize this or not) they are both dogmatic when it comes to their respective viewpoints. Moreover, they both tend to have a very high self-appraisal of their own intellectual powers. And so when they encounter somebody who disagrees with them, it cannot be the case that their own analysis is wrong, rather it must be the case that the person who disagrees with them is biased, irrational, delusional, incompetent, and so on. Clearly this reflects an intellectual deficiency of some kind, because when you treat your own opinions as though they are the golden standard, you leave no room for correction or improvement. Let me share an example of this from both sides:
- Consider the Christian fundamentalist who claims deep down, everyone earnestly knows that God exists and that they ought to worship Him; the fact that they do not means they are rebelling against God. They are choosing to live in the unrighteousness of their sin or idolatry of self-identification, rather than the righteousness of Jesus.
- Consider also the atheist polemicist who claims all of the arguments for the existence of God have been competently refuted many times over, and they give us no reason to suppose that God exists. When Christian apologists peddle these arguments and treat them as being valid and sound, they are being disingenuous because deep down they know those arguments are all invalid and unsound on some level or another.
If you are active online and are interested in philosophy of religion, then you have seen these examples countless times. They are basically clichés at this point. Be that as it may, we probably would not see so many iterations of these examples if they were not genuine, and so we ought to take them as seriously as we can. What stands out to me with both the Christian fundamentalist and polemicist is that they are doing armchair psychology. Instead of accepting intellectual pluralism and the possibility of reasonable disagreement, they are trying to show how the other side is guilty of some failure — intellectual, moral, or otherwise.
When you survey the landscape of opinions on various issues and treat it as the intellectual mosaic that it is, you will find that defending your own opinions becomes a lot harder. It is easy to write off those who disagree with you as hack jobs or intellectual failures, especially if you see yourself as an intellectual champion of sorts whose own intellectual processes are above reproach. Alternatively, if your own intellectual tribe sees its opinions as dogma that cannot be questioned, then admitting that the opposing tribe is reasonable is akin to rejecting that dogma. Even worse perhaps is (from the perspective of the tribal elite) expressing doubt of any kind, as this undermines the veneer of intellectual supremacy of your tribe. But let us be brutally honest for a moment, so we can perhaps find some intellectual honesty. Apart from first-person beliefs, are there any other beliefs that we can be totally certain of?
Knowledge of your own personal attitudes, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and most physiological functions will always exceed knowledge of the world, and so we must have some measure of doubt when it comes to beliefs about the world. This measure of doubt, no matter how tiny, should compel us to accept the possibility that we could be wrong about a great many things. If we are willing to admit that, then it follows that we have to also admit that we cannot be totally certain of our tribe’s views. And if we cannot be totally certain of our tribe’s views, then we have to accept the possibility of an opposing tribe being correct if we disagree with them about something. After all, they may be in possession of some insight that we ourselves lack, and thus have good reason to believe what they do.
In my opinion dismissing the possibility that you could be wrong and that an opposing side is reasonable at the outset of any inquiry is an act of intellectual cowardice. Assuming that your own beliefs are intellectually privileged in some way that absolves them from the need to be critically examined or scrutinized allows you to keep believing whatever you want to believe despite any evidence of or challenge to the contrary. That is not being intellectually virtuous, it is being dogmatic. Case in point, here is the abstract from “Confirmation bias in the utilization of others’ opinion strength” Nature Neuroscience 23, 130–137 (2020):
Humans tend to discount information that undermines past choices and judgments. This confirmation bias has significant impact on domains ranging from politics to science and education. Little is known about the mechanisms underlying this fundamental characteristic of belief formation. Here we report a mechanism underlying the confirmation bias. Specifically, we provide evidence for a failure to use the strength of others’ disconfirming opinions to alter confidence in judgments, but adequate use when opinions are confirmatory. This bias is related to reduced neural sensitivity to the strength of others’ opinions in the posterior medial prefrontal cortex when opinions are disconfirming. Our results demonstrate that existing judgments alter the neural representation of information strength, leaving the individual less likely to alter opinions in the face of disagreement.
If it is very natural for us to lapse into biased ways of thinking, especially when it comes to navigating disagreements, then embracing intellectual pluralism can help us overcome that bias. It can also help train our brains to see disagreements as valuable opportunities to get closer to truth, rather than moments to double-down on what we believe and dismiss those who disagree with us as fools.
So What About Christian Apologetics?
Without question, Christian apologetics can be cognitively biased. Remember the definition provided earlier that cognitive biases are “mental errors caused by our simplified information processing strategies” (Heuer). In an effort to defend and articulate Christian doctrine, apologists might reach for low-hanging fruit (simple arguments and information processing strategies) in order to demonstrate the justification of their beliefs. In these cases, apologists can do a disservice to those they are trying to reach with the Gospel, especially if those people have adopted a critical and skeptical mindset. And so, we ought to reach for those high-hanging fruits (complex arguments and information processing strategies).
Consider perusing this 4-hour YouTube video from Capturing Christianity that surveys over 100 arguments for the existence of God that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, in addition to an information processing strategy to help your analysis. What is that strategy? Well, it’s the same one Heuer offers in his CIA text: Bayesian reasoning. In the simplest terms, Bayesian reasoning is deliberative juxtaposition, of weighing one thing against another thing and analyzing the results. In real life, whenever there is tension between two decisions, we often employ Bayesian reasoning without even thinking about it. For example: considering both the pros and cons of two different decisions (sushi or burgers for dinner?) is a form of Bayesian reasoning.
Speaking again as a former Naval intelligence analyst, whenever there was a serious debate about an adversarial operation, we employed Bayesian reasoning to give decision-makers a calculated assessment (rather than a gut feeling). In the movie Zero Dark Thirty, there is a fantastic scene that very accurately captures the kind of brainstorming that intelligence analysts do that revolves around a careful consideration of key indicators, bias towards a narrative, the time-latency of information, the probability of both yes/no being true, and the associated risk. It is a great display of Bayesian reasoning.
In my opinion, Bayesian reasoning ought to be the preferred information processing strategy when it comes to assessing both the case for and against the existence of God. Bayesian reasoning forces you to evaluate the opposing side, which is an intellectual virtue, before coming to any hard decision. Christian apologists might often come across as being totally convinced that God exists beyond all shadow of a doubt, but if you were to press them on their level of certainty, I suspect the arguments from evil, suffering, and hiddenness do give them some pause. They do for me, at least.
The issue that believers and non-believers equally face is that the existence of God is a matter of fact (God either exists or does not), but the substance of that fact cannot be known with any level of certainty. For one person it could be totally obvious that God exists, for another it is just the opposite. And so we have to settle for an opinion about the existence of God due to limitations in the amount of information we can process. We have to weigh the inferences and indicators for and against the existence of God against each other and reach a more probabilistic conclusion rather than a binary one. This epistemic situation makes Bayesian reasoning the perfect tool to use, because it thrives in cases where certainty is unfeasible.
But then what? Everyone has a personal threshold for the sufficiency of arguments and evidence required before committing themselves to action. And based on interactions I have had, most of the common arguments (cosmological, teleological, axiological, etc.) that Christian apologists present barely scratch the sufficiency itch for skeptics. Unfortunately, this can give the impression that Christian apologetics as a whole is shallow, simple-minded, unsophisticated, etc. which falls directly into the kind of pattern that atheist polemicists prefer to deal with, because it is easier to challenge and ‘debunk’ simple arguments. This is not to say that simple arguments are altogether insufficient, because plenty of people who consider these arguments do get persuaded by them, it is just for a skeptic, the problems with these arguments are too many to count.
Take for example the cosmological family of arguments, which typically infer or posit that some immaterial cause of the material universe must exist. One major problem with this argument is that even if we accept the inference or postulate, we are unable to quantify the number of causes or causal entities involved in bringing about the material universe. This is an issue for proponents of monotheism, because if it is the case that a plurality of immaterial causes brought the material universe into existence, then it could not be the case that a singular cause (one supreme being) did. So, yeah, kind of a big problem.
However, even if an argument is problematic, this does not in itself mean the inference or postulate is false, because problems are not necessarily defeaters. Problems indicate where further analysis or investigation is required, they do not indicate why a proposition is necessarily false. In the case of cosmological arguments, the possibility of a plurality of immaterial causes does not diminish the relevant point that those causes are immaterial… which is a decisive blow against materialist cosmology. If a problem with an argument cannot be immediately resolved, then the intellectually virtuous thing to do is to keep digging, not give up and dismiss it for being wrong. Giving up would be a tragedy.
But even if you are wrestling with an argument that is problematic on multiple levels, or too simple, or that the argument appears to be nothing more than a variation on a common argumentative theme, these arguments have value in at least two key areas of utmost philosophical interest: (1) whether or not theism can be a justified belief, and (2) whether or not naturalism-qua-materialism is true. When you dismiss apologetics arguments as nothing more than a buttress for an irrational delusion, you miss out on the opportunity to engage in some critical Bayesian reasoning. By attacking straw-men arguments and taking the least charitable and least sophisticated interpretation of an opposing view, you are doing yourself and your target interlocutor a disservice.
Echoes of the New Atheist Polemic
In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attack, it was reasonable and fashionable to criticize religion, and so I understand why the New Atheist movement was so popular. I am very sympathetic to their core thesis — that religious faith can lead to extreme acts of violence and depravity — but the manner in which they delivered that thesis was intellectually vicious. Not only that, but it was seemingly blind to obvious counterpoints, 1. that religious faith can lead to extreme acts of love and generosity, and 2. that an absence of religious faith in exchange for secular ideals (political or otherwise) could equally lead to extremism. Neither of those counterpoints mattered. All that mattered was the silencing of apologists and evangelists, and the subversion of religion as a social institution. These ends justified all means.
Harsh and condescending polemics tend to come and go in generational waves precisely because key players are not practicing any intellectual virtues themselves. Take the famed New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, for example. Hitchens and Dawkins in particular seemed to care little for positive dialogue in their public debates, and used their platform to berate religious belief and present it as something beneath what civilized society ought to practice. In many ways harsh polemics are expected in cases where there is intellectual poverty. When you cannot persuade with logic, you have to employ rhetoric, and when you cannot employ rhetoric, you have to employ sophistry and act as though your view is so superior that to engage in a debate would be immoral.
Whatever happened to the New Atheist movement? Well, sadly Christopher Hitchens passed away. Daniel Dennett made a big splash with Breaking the Spell, but afterwards never rose to any prominence as a public intellectual sought out for debates or opinions. Richard Dawkins has been much maligned by philosophers of religion on both sides of the debate. Lastly, Sam Harris, seemingly let the New Atheist torch die out in favor of joining the so-called Intellectual Dark Web movement, although earlier in 2021 he dramatically left it. It seems atheist polemic, at least at the popular level, has been subsumed by political and ideological polemic. And yet there are still echoes of that New Atheist-style polemic that persist today, mostly on YouTube and in the blogosphere.
The echo comes in the form of the claim that was at the top of this article, that theism is an irrational delusion that cannot be found worthy of any intellectual esteem because to be a theist is to engage in paradoxical reasoning devoid of any logic. And because of that, theism must be disavowed and harassed into the dustbin of history, treated as nothing more than a fictional myth that perpetuates antiquated ideas, as wishful thinking that is out of touch with common sense and reality, and so on. My guess as to where and how this pejorative attitude towards theism comes from, at least the intellectual aspect of it, is a consequence of equating verificationism with rationality. In other words, if you cannot prove it, you should not believe it. To put this attitude in the form of a philosophical syllogism, it might look something like this:
- If there are no demonstrations that can be arranged to support the proposition that God exists, then it is irrational to believe that God exists.
- There are no demonstrations that can be arranged to support the proposition that God exists.
- Therefore, it is irrational to believe that God exists.
- However, theists believe that God exists. But given (2), it cannot be the case that theists have arranged a demonstration to support the proposition that God exists. If they could arrange such a demonstration, they would have done so by now.
- Therefore, given (3), theists have an irrational belief that God exists.
If you accept the conclusion, then it quite naturally follows that you might think of faith and irrational belief as being synonymous terms. And if you already have an attitude that irrational beliefs need to be mocked and ridiculed into submission, then it also follows that you would hold religious faith with contempt. But the problem with the argument above is not just with the conclusion, it is with the first premise. By generalizing the first premise, it cannot stand on its own and it also shows that the logic underlying the argument is faulty somehow. What I mean by ‘generalizing’ is that when you replace “God” with “X” (and we treat “X” as literally anything else), the argument would not work in those cases.
There are many things in life that we believe without ever experiencing it firsthand or personally witnessing some demonstration of the fact. If in general we treat those beliefs as rational, then we cannot consider claims or propositions to be irrational simply because they cannot be demonstrated. For example, most of our beliefs are formed secondhand via experts or others who have only their personal testimony to offer to support a proposition. There are also many historical propositions (e.g. “X existed or happened in the past”) that are impossible to presently experience, and yet believing those propositions are treated as rational. Lastly, normal abductive and retroductive inferences are taken to be rational, especially in cases where causal mechanisms or prior conditions are inscrutable. If tomorrow we all decided to wholly doubt these inferences or subject them to a standard of demonstration, then scientific progress and legal adjudication would be dealt a massive blow to their legitimacy.
After analysis, the notion that verification and rationality are one in the same is simply wrong, which is why the argument is illogical. Of course, theism could still be an irrational delusion for some people, but a failure to arrange a demonstration of the existence of God should not be used as a criterion of irrationality. Some might respond to my point here by saying the issue is not about verifiability per se, rather it is about falsifiability, and that it is the supposed unfalsifiability of theism that makes it irrational. In one of the first articles I ever wrote, I responded to the challenge of theism’s falsifiability as raised by Antony Flew. Suffice to say, we have many different kinds of beliefs that we consider to be rational even though we cannot falsify them. And so on a similar analysis, we cannot use falsifiability as a criterion of irrationality.
As for the charge that theism is a delusion, this particular claim seems to be motivated by negative tribal attitudes I mentioned previously: a rejection of others as intellectual peers and a refusal to concede that their beliefs can be rational or justified. But to be honest, I am guilty of this in at least one prominent case. I think Flat Earthers are delusional. There are many inferences that we can draw upon that give us strong indications that the Earth is spherical, long before we consider pictures from space or astronaut testimony.
Now is it obviously the case that the Earth is spherical? Not at all. Because of that, I would not call somebody delusional if it turned out they were just ignorant (as in, they did not know the Earth was spherical because nobody had told them it was or they had not yet examined the evidence) or their cognitive faculties were not working properly. Beliefs only become delusions when you repeatedly deny inferences and indications to the contrary, which I suppose most Flat Earthers do. At any rate, I said all that to say that I completely understand the motivation to call somebody delusional, because when a person denies the reality of a proposition that has been repeatedly tested and remains undefeated, there is no other word but ‘delusion’ to describe such a person who rejects that proposition.
By comparison, I can see why polemicists would call theists delusional, especially if they think it is obvious that God does not exist, or that the reasons for believing that God exists are obviously terrible and insufficient. But once again, this notion can be defeated by counterexamples. Think about some proposition that you believe is true, but is not obviously true. This could be a historical proposition like George Washington was the first President of the United States or a scientific proposition like humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor. These are not propositions that are obviously true, and so people who disagree with these propositions would not be delusional just because they disagree. More work needs to be done to prove that someone is indeed harboring a delusion about reality. More precisely, the one accusing a theist of being delusional needs to show how that theist has repeatedly denied inferences and indications to the contrary.
Alongside accusations of being delusional, I have often seen plenty of armchair psychologizing, such as: people believe in God because they need some fatherly authority over their lives, or that people are afraid of death and Hell and so they turn towards promises of everlasting life, or that all the positive reasons to believe in God are vestiges of a bygone era riddled with ignorance, superstition, and folk science, which means we should cast those reasons aside. I have written a pair of complementary articles responding to these sorts of claims (which you can read here and here). They are worth taking seriously up to a point, but eventually an honest truth seeker will have to come to terms with the fact that motivation for a belief has nothing to do with its justification. Our wanting something to be true or false does not make it so.
Although, to be fair, I suspect what the armchair psychologizing is trying to express is that fear and hope can tarnish any sense of objectivity or clarity when it comes to analyzing a belief, and that we may unwittingly overlook (or even consciously deny) evidence that disconfirms what we would otherwise want to be true. While that certainly may be the case, I struggle with the notion that human beings are capable of thinking purely objectively in the first place. We all have passions and prejudices that influence our analysis, even if that analysis employs rigid logical schemes. That being said, I think the closest we can get to objectivity is to habitually examine and develop cases against our deepest convictions and beliefs. This can provide us assurances that we are not duping ourselves and give us a sense of clarity that we would otherwise lack had we simply stayed the course and never intellectually ventured outside our inherited worldview.
For my intellectual money, the biggest indicator that God does not exist is that he has not provided humanity with recurring reassurances of his presence. In philosophy of religion this is referred to as the problem of divine hiddenness, and is in my opinion the mother of all atheological arguments. Even the problem of evil and suffering can on some analyses be reduced to divine hiddenness, for instance: why is God inactive in the face of evil? Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Etc. The absence of God, perceived or real, is a powerful reason to reject the existence of God. My point in bringing up the problem of divine hiddenness is that there is exemplary writing on and arguments based around divine hiddenness that do not veer into the realm of polemic. Calm, articulate, and reasoned arguing is an option for the atheist. Check out: Graham Oppy, J.L. Schellenberg, Paul Draper, Michael Martin, and Jordan Soble, to name a few. Critics of religion need not reach for the low-hanging fruit.
Faith Is An Intellectual Virtue
Christian apologetics thrives in the face of atheist polemic because Christians are a people of faith, and faith is an intellectual virtue. For the past two thousand years, Christians have put this virtue into practice by allowing the Church and the Academy to exist in a marriage of sorts. By the Church, I mean theology, and by the Academy, I mean philosophy and the sciences. Although this marriage has been tenuous at times, the Church has allowed the Academy to challenge its authority at certain times, particularly during the Enlightenment. These challenges were welcomed, because the Church saw them as opportunities to make theological progress. Throughout the relationship, faith has played an integral role in the Academy’s pursuit of truth and the Church’s defense of it. Why?
When it came to doing theology, St. Anselm’s motto was fides quaerens intellectum — “faith seeking understanding.” Scholars have offered many interpretations of this motto over the years, but the way I understand it is that the journey towards truth must begin with a leap of faith. Before you trust any of your perspectival inferences (introspective, retrospective, prospective, etc.) you have to take some conditionals for knowledge-building for granted. The kinds of conditionals I’m referring to are your senses, memory, cognitive faculties, and the understanding of primitive concepts like cause and effect, making distinctions, rudimentary arithmetic, and ostensive observations (i.e. pointing something out as “that thing over there”).
For example, consider something you think you know, such as the capital of the country you are living in right now. Your knowledge here is predicated on the reliability of your memory and cognitive faculties. In other words, your ability to say “I know the capital of my country” could only be true if your ability to recall this fact can be done so reliably (of course, we’re also assuming the capital hasn’t changed anytime recently). Now here is the kicker: how can you prove that your memory and cognitive faculties are working properly? I suspect most people would say “well, I could test them out.” But that’s the rub, because any test you do requires other conditionals to be in place, like utilizing your senses to make an ostensive observation for starters. But how can you test your senses and observation-making powers? You cannot, because you have to use your senses to test your senses. So there is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg problem’ here.
By way of illustration, all of the conditionals I mentioned are a lot like the gasoline in your car. If there is no gas in the gas tank, then your car will not go. To extend this idea, I have to ask: which gas station do you go to in order to fill up your tank?
Atheist polemicists often portray faith as something that either comes at the end of knowledge and reason, or is wholly opposed to it. This portrayal is understandable given how many Christians often cite Hebrews 11:1 when defining faith, which reads: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV). I have even heard a pastor preach and refer to faith as something that operates outside of evidence and reason, as though it is in its own category of belief. My take is this: faith transcends knowledge and reason.
Faith is the starting point of all knowledge and reason itself. Faith also directs the pursuit of knowledge and reason (this is what “seeking understanding” means), for knowledge and reason are simply the means to an end, they are not ends unto themselves. In the eleventh season of Closer To Truth, Kuhn interviewed an Anglican theologian named Sarah Coakley on the topic of “Why believe in God?” Kuhn began the interview saying that he would like to believe in God, but he is having a hard time building that bridge of knowledge and reason that leads to God. Coakley pressed Kuhn on this by asking him the same question that is asked of aspirants who wish to become monks — quid petis? What do you seek?
For all those who seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you have to have faith that truth will convey some sense of value over your life. You cannot prove the value of truth, rather you have to assume it. If you could prove the value of truth, we would probably see a lot more people pursuing it instead of their own happiness. But for my fellow truth-seekers, we have faith that truth is supremely worthy of our time and energy, and that knowledge and reason are the means to discovering truth and subordinating our lives to it. And so very clearly, faith is that which justifies the conditionals of knowledge-building and reason, and that which justifies what we seek with our knowledge and reason. This is why faith transcends it.
When Bruce Wayne suits up and becomes Batman, he is taking a leap of faith. It is a mixed faith of being confident in his capabilities and trusting his techniques and technology, but more importantly it is faith in the Batman itself as a symbol and persona that provides meaning, purpose, and value for both Bruce Wayne and Gotham City. The kind of faith that Bruce Wayne has in the Batman persona is pragmatic, existential, and intellectual. It functions as the organizing principle for anything he does as Batman. Because Bruce Wayne is thinking and acting virtuously, he is able to become the virtuous hero that Batman is.
Likewise, when the Christian takes the leap of faith when believing that God exists, and that God lovingly sent Jesus Christ to the world to save it, and that Jesus Christ died for our sins and then rose from the dead, this leap of faith is much like Bruce Wayne’s. The Christian believes that God exists in part due to arguments and evidence that justify that belief, but also because the Christian cannot believe in anything else without making God central to their worldview. In the book Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, the late Leslie Newbigin puts it like this:
Both faith and doubt have their proper roles in the whole enterprise of knowing, but faith is primary and doubt is secondary because rational doubt depends upon beliefs that sustain our doubt. The ideal that modernity, following Descartes, has set before itself, namely, the ideal of a kind of certainty that admits no possibility of doubt, is leading us into skepticism and nihilism. The universe is not provided with a spectator’s gallery in which we can survey the total scene without being personally involved. True knowledge of reality is available only to the one who is personally committed to the truth already grasped. Knowing cannot be severed from living and acting, for we cannot know the truth unless we seek it with love and unless our love commits us to action. Faith is the only certainty because faith involves personal commitment. The point has often been made that there is a distinction between the cognitive and the affirmative elements in belief, between ‘I believe that…’ and ‘I believe in…’ But faith holds both together; to separate them is to deny oneself access to truth.
The confidence proper to a Christian is not the confidence of one who claims possession of demonstrable and indubitable knowledge. It is the confidence of one who had heard and answered the call that comes from God through whom and for whom all things were made: ‘Follow me.’ (p.105)
Batman has always been able to overcome his enemies because of his virtues, not merely his skills. Likewise, the reason why Christian apologetics has never been vanquished is because at its core it is a virtuous activity. The atheist polemicist might say that Christian apologetics is nothing more than propaganda or sophistry, but that very statement itself is nothing more than propaganda and sophistry. Christian apologetics thrives in the face of polemics because it has the high ground of intellectual virtue, not viciousness. Christian apologists are the allies of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, because we have faith in what we believe the truth is, and we feel convicted to share it with the rest of the world.
In Conclusion: Stop Seeing The Other Side As Jokers
Only together can we raise the level of discourse. This can only be done when we stop seeing the other side as jokers (as sophists, charlatans, bad-actors, disingenuous salespersons, etc.) and start seeing them as peers. How can we do this? First, by recognizing that both sides have intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for their worldview, both sides believe more people would be better off if they shared their worldview, and both sides want to defend the truth of their worldview. Second, by listening to the other side rather than destroying them with facts and logic. Third, by recognizing that there is a plurality and diversity of views both inside and outside the respective camps. Not all Christians think alike and universally adhere to the same theological and philosophical suppositions, and neither do atheists or naturalists. I think if we can make those three things a habit, then we improve the way theology and philosophy of religion is done at the personal and popular level.