Last week my final night of debate with John Loftus was moderated by Myron Penner, author of The End of Apologetics. My criticisms of Myron’s position in my summary of the event, “God or Godless in Edmonton,” were harsh (though no less harsh than Myron’s criticisms of my position). For the sake of recap, I wrote:
Myron is a critic of apologetics and attempted to present the whole debate as a dubious modern project borne out of some kind of post-Cartesian anxiety. I think this is false and I explained why. Myron also challenged the value of the debate because much of the discussion was focused on mere theism and nobody is a mere theist so the topic isn’t religiously relevant. I think this is completely spurious. First of all, many people are mere theists (for example the late Antony Flew). Moreover, for many people acceptance of the existence of God is a stepping stone to full Christian theism. After one accepts the existence of God one can then ask the question: has God revealed himself in history? As I noted, Myron’s objection seemed to be that if apologetic debates can’t do everything then they can’t do anything. Interestingly the absurd nature of this objection reminded me of Loftus who repeatedly labelled anybody who denied scientism as a “science denier”, as if the failure to accept that science can do everything commits one to saying science can do nothing. What rubbish.
I have one final critique for Myron which is already implied in my above comments. His kind of critique is a high level theoretical critique which completely fails to engage with the actual, contextualized function of apologetic arguments. And it leaves one scratching their head in wonder at how Myron himself would propose that Christians ought to respond to putative defeaters for their belief or to present a positive reason for the hope within. Anyway, while I may not have shared much agreement with Myron, I’m glad he was there as a representative of the anti-apologetic position, if only to show its many problems.
As you can probably guess, Myron didn’t quite share this same assessment of his own views. He replied as follows:
hey randall. thx for the post. just a brief, orienting response. we’re not going to agree, so the best i may hope for is some clarity on where i’m coming from and what i’m heading towards.. you & i operate w/in completely different paradigms, so we are bound to disagree. one of my central points is that the modern apologetic project is flawed precisely b/c of its appeals to some sort of shared underlying rational framework that is so obvious it is just taken for granted. that assumption, i contend, is haunted by the ghost of karl marx whose shorthand for ideology was: “they do not know it, but they are doing it’.
3 quick hits re. your response to my comments at the debate:
1. show me an historical, worshiping community of “mere theists” and i will grant you the intrinsic value of debating mere theism (vs. its relative value, which i hold)
2. my objection is not that if apologetic debates cannot do everything, they do nothing. my point was (verbatim) that “I am against apologetics – atheist or theist – not only because I find it (almost) worthless for its express purpose, if that purpose is to change minds or save or instigate faith. But I also find them philosophically problematic.” We never explored my critique of the philosophical problems with apologetics – probably because we never had time, but also b/c we were caught up in side issues.
3. my primary point was (and is in The End of Apologetics) that the form of reason-giving privileged by you and other apologists is derivative of the modern form of rationality (standards for reasonability), which i find to be radically contingent and much less than necessary. you demonstrated on the evening that you did not understand this point of mine, and here you demonstrate you still do not get it. your appeal to the pragmatic exigencies for apologetic demonstrations is spurious given my assumptions. these “putative defeaters” for a Christian’s faith can be responded to by a Christian saying something like, “I believe it because Jesus is my Lord” or “because my life has been changed” or “because when i think about it, it seems true” or “because it is true” or any number of reasons they have for believing it. the point of my insistence on the contingency of the modern reason-giving regime is that what counts as a good Christian reason to believe something is much more open and much more “tradition-centred” than the modern apologetic paradigm imagines it to be.
Now let me respond to Myron point by point.
“the modern apologetic project is flawed precisely b/c of its appeals to some sort of shared underlying rational framework that is so obvious it is just taken for granted“
Let me make two points here. First of all, there is a “shared underlying rational framework” even if Myron’s philosophical pre-commitments oblige him to deny it. It’s called “logic”. Is Myron denying that modus ponens is logically valid for all people and affirming the consequent is logically invalid for all people? If he isn’t denying this then he recognizes a “shared underlying rational framework” as described minimally (but not exhaustively) in the identification of valid logical form.
Second, when it comes to matters of rationality and justification, I recognize that different individuals may have radically different starting points (i.e. properly basic beliefs) and that each may be rational and justified in reasoning relative to their background set of beliefs. But that doesn’t prevent another person from presenting putative defeaters to those background beliefs, thereby undermining one’s prima facie justification. (And the irony is, I’ve often been accused of being post-modern precisely for holding this Plantingan understanding of rationality and justification.)
“show me an historical, worshiping community of “mere theists” and i will grant you the intrinsic value of debating mere theism (vs. its relative value, which i hold)“
Just as Myron invents this category of “Enlightenment reason” and then labels me with it, so he invents a category he calls “mere theism”. But this is spurious. The cognitive content of Christianity involves a set of truth claims including the following: (1) God exists, (2) God is Yahweh, (3) God is three persons, (4) Jesus is God, (5) Jesus died for the sins of humanity, and so on. The apologist’s task is, among other things, to present a defense of these propositions to those who reject them and for those who hold them. On the evening I debated John Loftus, I was defending a handful of those propositions, most notably (1). For Myron to protest that this somehow obliges me to recognize the religious significance of a doxastic community of mere theists is, to put a fine point on it, completely bizarre.
Consider an analogy. Let’s say that the issue of debate was this: “Should we wear helmets when we ride motorcycles?” Imagine if somebody, we’ll call him “Byron”, objected that this question is invalid because there is no community of motorcyclists who wear only helmets. All communities of motorcyclists also wear boots and pants and shirts and jackets (and gloves and underwear and socks). We would think Byron’s objection is absurd, would we not? There doesn’t need to be a community of motorcyclists naked save their helmet for the question “Should we wear helmets when we ride motorcycles?” to be a legitimate topic of debate.
Likewise, there doesn’t need to be a “historical worshiping community of ‘mere theists'” for the question “Does God exist?” to be a legitimate point of debate.
“I am against apologetics – atheist or theist – not only because I find it (almost) worthless for its express purpose, if that purpose is to change minds or save or instigate faith...”
Myron’s objection is ambiguous. What does he mean by changing minds? As I see it, there are two possible interpretations:
Interpretation 1: Changing minds upon the hearing of the arguments or shortly after hearing the arguments.
Interpretation 2: Serving as part of a gradual process by which people come to change their minds.
Let’s start with interpretation 1. No doubt Myron is correct that people don’t change their minds on the spot or shortly thereafter. Indeed, in the debate I explicitly pointed this out with my illustration of the storage locker of belief. (For more on that see my article “Why Christians don’t give up God easily (and why atheists don’t accept him easily).” But then I know of no apologist who thinks arguments function in this way. Consequently, Myron’s objection here is a complete strawman.
To help us get a handle on how wrong Myron is here, let’s consider another illustration on the motorcycle helmet theme. Imagine if somebody said “I am against motorcycle helmets — open face or full face — not only because I find them (almost) worthless for their express purpose, if that purpose is to protect people from all injury in the event of an accident….”
Of course you’d reply by pointing out that the person’s objection is based on a spurious assumption about what motorcycle helmets can hope to do. Likewise, interpretation 1 is a spurious basis for objecting to apologetics.
What about interpretation 2? In this case Myron’s claim is straightforwardly false because there are countless cases of folks who become Christians and identify particular arguments as serving some role in their coming to faith. Moreover, there are many arguments that serve to strengthen the faith of those who are already Christians by removing putative defeaters. (I count myself in this camp.)
That brings me back to my parting criticism that Myron offers a “high level theoretical critique which completely fails to engage with the actual, contextualized function of apologetic arguments.” Rather than build his theoretical castles in the air, Myron should consider the cognitive/evidential dimensions by which people come to and sustain their faith commitments. As William Dembski puts it in the foreword to The Five Minute Apologist:
“Yes, our salvation is ultimately due to the grace of God. But every act of divine grace presupposes the means of grace by which God makes His grace real to us. Christian apologetics is one such means of grace.” (12, emphasis added)
Now let’s turn to the final passage.
“my primary point was (and is in The End of Apologetics) that the form of reason-giving privileged by you and other apologists is derivative of the modern form of rationality (standards for reasonability), which i find to be radically contingent and much less than necessary.”
Believe me, my understanding of how apologetics ought to be done is no less “radically contingent” or “much less than necessary” than the way Myron proposes to do it. Indeed, I still have no idea how Myron would propose to do apologetics. (I think here of the famous quip Thomas Ellwood made to John Milton: “Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost; but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found?”)
Let’s bring this down out of the clouds. If a young Christian came to Myron troubled by Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness, would Myron respond by pointing out that Schellenberg is captive to a “modern form of rationality”? And what if he did, and the young man replied, “I don’t know about all that, but it seems to me that Schellenberg has a powerful point here. If there is a god, why does he remain silent? Why is he hidden?” Would Myron keep talking about historical contingency and belief and modern reason, or would he ever get around to addressing the pointed question on evil and divine goodness raised by Schellenberg’s argument? (Incidentally I’ll be publishing a rebuttal to Schellenberg’s argument tomorrow.)
In summary, Myron’s objection to apologetics is based either on a strawman (interpretation 1) or a dogmatism that runs contrary to the evidence for the role of argument and evidence in belief (interpretation 2). To be frank, it is looking at this point like Myron could use a good apologist in his corner.