Infographic: The Breaking of Christian Apologetics

Collapse of ApologeticsIn thinking back over the course of my own investigations, I have noted that several criteria have proven useful again and again. As a person investigates issues of faith and compares different explanations, these principles of vetting can help clear away the clutter that is so happily foisted by various authors. I have dubbed the following five criteria:

  1. The Goose and the Gander
  2. The Burden of Proof
  3. Scaled Support
  4. The Weakest Link
  5. Alternate Cases

In my own investigations, I have found that the most robust cases raised by the mightiest Christian apologists cannot survive the winnowing.

The Goose and the Gander

Principle:

If a rationale can be used to support more than one religion, that line of argument cannot be considered definitive. What is good for goose and the gander cannot adjudicate between them.

Example:

Eyewitness testimony from believers living at the time of Jesus does count as type of evidence. However, it is not unique or definitive evidence. Other religions make similar claims on similar grounds by people who similarly believed. Mormons, to give one instance, claim eyewitness evidence that the golden tablets existed. Christians have textual testimony about Jesus’ ascension to heaven; so do the Muslims regarding Mohammed’s winged horse flight. Inside eyewitness testimony, as such, cannot be considered definitive.

The cosmological evidence for the Big Bang indicates that our universe had a beginning. Some believe this supports Genesis and demonstrates that the Bible is correct – God created the heavens and earth at a definite time in the past. But nearly all creation myths recount a beginning for the cosmos, just as Genesis does, and so all such myths derive equal support from this line of argument. Proving the cosmos had a beginning only starts the vetting between creation myths; it doesn’t end it.

One practical way to test the Goose and the Gander is with name swapping, so frequently done to good effect by Sam Harris. For example:

  • We know that Christianity is true because of eyewitness testimony and the faith of the martyrs.
  • We know that is true because of eyewitness testimony and the faith of the martyrs.

Name swapping like this makes it apparent very quickly what rationales serve any viewpoint, and therefore do not matter.

Still further, faith itself cannot be counted as definitive evidence of any truth claim. “Felt truth” is claimed universally by all religions. Faith as a means of discerning ultimate truth claims collapses entirely on the Goose and the Gander principle, since it leads to arbitrary and wildly discrepant conclusions.

Unique claims to truth require unique supporting rationales.

Burden of Proof

Principle:

The burden of proof rests upon the positive claimant. Unsupported assertions are not presumed correct until debunked.

Examples:

The claim that the earth was created in six literal days must be supported by the claimant. It does not stand without support simply because it is an old claim or simply because a number of people believe it.

Claims of UFO sightings? They require supporting evidence. Claims of fairies? Paranormal powers? The duty of proving falls to those who claim leprechauns are real, not to those who point out that such claims are without support. When Muslims claim that Mohammed rode a winged horse, this is a similar level of claim. When Christians claim that the dead emptied their tombs and walked the streets of Jerusalem, this is a similar level of claim. As is the transfiguration, or the global flood, or the Tree of Life, or the ascension of Jesus. The burden of proof rests with the claimant: the more so when the claim is extraordinary.

Other ill-supported claims include Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the existence of God, the factuality of the afterlife, etc.

To quote Hitchens, that which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Scaled Support

Principle:

The degree of support must be scaled to the scope of the claim. Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.

Examples:

The claims that Jesus lived and died by crucifixion are not exceptional claims. Normal historical evidence is sufficient to support nominal claims such as these. However, the claim that he rose from the dead is a very exceptional claim. Support that we have for the nominal claims about Jesus (life, crucifixion, etc.) does not constitute evidence of the exceptional claim (resurrection). To support a resurrection claim would require something far beyond that which is required for normal historical datum. And it is actually this part of the Jesus story where the evidence thins out, rather than thickening.

Global flood claims provide another firm example. The grandeur of the claim sets the bar for the level of evidence required in support. As an event that would have left unequivocal and indelible markers everywhere, the actual evidence for such an event is very slim to non-existent. We are more certain of a cataclysmic meteor impact 65 million years ago than a global deluge 5,000 years ago.

More examples include perpetual motion machines, cold fusion, a six-day creation, a 2 million person exodus from Egypt, alien abductions, etc.

Weakest Link

Principle:

Where a supporting case is based upon a chain of evidence, the overall case can be considered no stronger than the weakest link in the chain.

Example:

Christianity claims that Jesus rose from the dead on the basis of the eyewitness testimony recorded by the gospel writers. The texts are clear in their claims. The authorship of the gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are attested by the early church. And they represent four different attestations of the resurrection claim. But the basis for church claims of authorship turn out to be rather thin. The earliest source we have that gives the gospels and cites their authorship is from Irenaeus in 180 AD, and he does so without good support. One man testifies on behalf of four. Textual evidence further seems to contradict his claims, as the gospels were written in the wrong language and do not claim authorship at all.

Thus, the argument that the gospels = eyewitness testimony is no stronger than the word of one man, living a long while after the writers had passed away. The weakest link controls the strength of the case.

Other examples include the hearsay claims of 500 witnesses by Paul, the record of the disciples’ martyrdom, the claims of Papal authority, the writing of Genesis by Moses, etc.

Alternate Cases

Principle:

Determining the best explanation demands consideration of alternate cases. The prosecution and defense must both be heard and weighed.

Example:

Apologetic sources are often the only materials that people of faith consult, and they thereby insulate themselves from hearing opposing cases. When they do hear such cases, they often hear them from their own apologists. But this is simply to hear the prosecution present both his own case and that of the defense – hardly an approach calculated to arrive at truth in any field of human endeavor.

And further, consideration of more than one explanation is vital for underscoring which evidence matters and which does not. Some things will seem to support a specific conclusion, but wind up supporting several possible conclusions. Jesus’ tomb was found empty, but this is a coin in the pocket of several contentions: a stolen body, a swoon, a resurrection, an error identifying the grave, etc. Something more specific is required, and the hunt must resume to find it.  Similar issues plague the claims of post-mortem Jesus sightings, arguments for Intelligent Design, spiritual experiences, and so on.

Examples of failure to understand the full conversation abound. Human evolution is often learned about only from sources that are opposed to it. So too with authorship claims for the biblical texts. And the global flood. And archaeological evidence. And what probably happened to the body of Jesus. And whether or not the bible contains contradictions or legendary development. And so on. In nearly all cases, the faithful know only one side of the case and only one set of evidence.

Knowledge will ever remain provincial and narrow while remaining inside the bubble. And injustice toward those of opposing views cannot but reign, as long as they are denied a hearing.

Closing

If thoroughly applied to considerations of biblical questions, apologetics fairly collapses under these simple criteria. And with consideration, I believe one will find that he or she already employs these types of thought lines in other areas of life – investments, purchasing decisions, parenting, problem solving, etc.

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Comments

  1. Hi Jericho,

    I agree with much of what you’ve expressed here.

    There’s a trend I’m noticing among Christians lately (maybe it’s been around much longer than what I’ve realized) and that’s seeing a rise of Christians who don’t seriously consider the Bible as the word of God. Are these guys “progressive Christians”? I know I’m usually the last one to catch on to the latest fashions and thought processes, I just don’t understand this. For me, the basis of my faith while I was a Christian was the Bible and as I researched it repeatedly I found myself no longer supporting it. As a result, I left all of my religious connections behind.

    Does this make sense to you? Thoughts?

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    • CHope,

      I can’t say that I’ve experienced the progressive attitude among my friends. They all believe the Bible as you and I did. But I have seen it online. I’ve encountered it quite a bit on forums like ExploreGod, and in the WordPress realm. And I’ve seen it in Christian publications from authors like Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, etc.

      I’m with you and do not really see how people live with the more liberal viewpoint. So yes, I think it makes sense. I have taken to describing it as one in which the believer sees the problems, but dons a pair of fogged glasses to let the issues just sort of blur. With less than a scrutinizing eye, they can believe the happy/fuzzy notions of salvation and afterlife without actually believing in things like hell or the original sin crisis that necessitated salvation. Its odd.

      One of the most consistent places it shows up is with regard to Origins. There simply isn’t a way to reconcile the Book of Genesis with the Book of Nature, and that can only mean one of two things. But the Two Book problem isn’t going away. Either (1) They were not both written by God and one is a fraud, or (2) they do have the same divine author but we’re reading one of the books wrong. Creationists think we’re reading the Book of Nature wrong. The liberal believers think we’re reading the Book of Genesis wrong. It is amazing what the liberal group is willing to import into Genesis to prop it up.

      But its certainly possible to just go the “contains God’s Word” model as well. However, that raises all sorts of problems regarding the character of God… if the scriptures contain his word, but not exclusively so, how good of a communicator is God? This position seems irrational to me… it proposes that God was capable of creating the entire cosmos in all its precision, but incapable of getting a “clean copy” of his will down on paper with his chosen people. It doesn’t add up, but if one has willingly put on fogged glasses, it doesn’t matter much.

      Have you seen the Two Books issue as well?

      Like

      • No, Jericho, I haven’t.

        The whole thing just puzzles me, maybe even more so because I don’t see that kind of Christianity here in the South.

        I remember an on line conversation I had with fellow Blogger MichaelB. He mentioned his last couple of years of Christianity as a time of seriously trying to tap into the love of God. I did the same thing myself throughout my decades of faith, even more near the end. Like Michael, I found no connection with God. As a result, I couldn’t relay a love of God that I didn’t believe in. Michael and I both realized that we knew too much to follow an ooey gooey gospel.

        So, I’m right there with you.

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      • Have a great Thanksgiving BTW and in case I don’t connect with you again any time soon, enjoy the holidays. I’ll be putting up my pagan Christmas trees tomorrow. No angels, nativities or scriptures, just lots of colors, lights and love.

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        • Thanks for the holiday wishes: happy Thanksgiving and merry Christmas to you as well. And yes, learning to do holidays differently will be new territory for us. 🙂

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  2. Not sure if i’ve said it before, but I’m thoroughly impressed with your methodological dismantling of the whole circus.

    Like

    • Hi John,

      You’re always very generous in your support, and I really appreciate that.

      As you’re no doubt aware, the reactions of different people tend to drive posts like this one. I wanted to be able to clarify the thinking as visually as possible, because it is easy for folks to get lost in the ocean of mumbo jumbo that one is required to swim to find land. I also wanted a graphic I could refer to in later posts using a shorthand… “That’s a Goose and Gander problem,” etc.

      Course, one issue is that I’ve already thought of another bubble to add to the figure. 🙂

      If you have any suggestions, I look at these things as works in progress. Would love to tailor/improve.

      Also, I’m kinda revved about a post that’s coming up on dinosaur blood! Perhaps tomorrow. My wife wouldn’t want me doing too much on Thanksgiving, LOL.

      Like

  3. Nice job, as always. For CHope, if you google ‘modernist fundamentalist’ you will find introduction to the controversies a century ago that served to catalyze the split between the “mainline” liberal churches and the fundamentalist/evangelical churches of the 20th century. Though it involved the Presbyterians mainly (and the fate of Princeton seminary…and the creation of Westminster seminary), it had wider ecclesiastical and cultural ramifications. Basically, modernists saw the scientific writing on the wall (especially regarding origins, evolution, and biblical criticism), and knew they had to adapt their beliefs to insulate them from extinction. Fundamentalists doubled down.

    When I was a new non-believer, I remember talking to an acquaintance of mine (a student in a biblical studies program at a mainstream university) about issues of faith, and she was incredulous that there were any educated people who still “really believed.” I informed her that, until recently, I had really believed. Looking back, I’m not sure that my confession didn’t confirm her opinion. 😉

    I think maybe this thinking (or, as I would have called it when I was a Christian, ‘not thinking’) has seeped into evangelicalism over the years, especially in what we used to call the ‘seeker’ churches (I don’t keep up with the trends anymore). I think biblical authority is taking a beating among evangelicals on the issue of attitudes toward gays, for example.

    Like

    • Great thoughts Blane. I also have noted the double down of the conservative church.

      Tell me what you think: it seems that many people don’t find out that they were actually fundamentalists until they get out. It seems to be a self-blindness for many. It was for me at least.

      Like

      • Well, good question. I think labels and definitions differ based on whether you are in the group or outside of it, and how interested you are in the nuances. I never described myself as a fundamentalist, even though I was a conservative, evangelical Christian (and started out as a Pentecostal), because the term had a very negative connotation. It had an old-fashioned ring to it, conjuring images of head coverings, tent revivals, and radio preachers. I think evangelicalism in the 70s and 80s (if not before) tried to rid itself of the cranky and intolerant image associated with fundamentalism.

        But if you look up the 5 Fundamentals that constituted the original definition, yes, I was a believer in those 5 things up until the day that I wasn’t. The first one, “the inerrancy of the Bible,” was seriously stretched and adapted in my own mind to accommodate a lot of change in my beliefs up to that point (I no longer believed in a literal 6 day creation, no longer believed in hell, and we were attending a mainline Episcopalian church), but in some sense I believed that the bible was the word of God.

        Looking back, depending on who I’m talking to, I might use a broad brush and paint myself as a fundamentalist, if it simply means a “real believer”. But I think the term has cultural as well as theological shading, and so even now I would hesitate to say that I was a fundamentalist, because I was curious about learning new things and expanding my perspective–open to change. So maybe I was a bad fundamentalist. 😉

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