I have my share of frustrations with popular Christian apologetics. I also have my frustrations with popular non-Christian apologetics. Nonetheless, Christianity is my tribe, and thus I see a special responsibility to speak out against bad examples of Christian apologetics.
In this article, I’m going to focus on one practice that really frustrates me. I speak here of the practice of cherry-picking quotes that support your chosen thesis. And the particular example I have in mind is when Christian apologists try to argue that atheism entails nihilism, and they support that claim with a sampling of quotes from prominent atheists who seem to have affirmed that view. You know, like Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre. And don’t forget that great Bertrand Russell quote in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship” about bearing up under “unyielding despair.”
This method is presumably used over and over again because it wins points with audiences, especially Christian audiences. But it is fundamentally disingenuous. If this fact is not patently obvious, imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. Picture an atheist arguing that Christianity is fundamentally misogynistic. And to make the point, she begins by quoting Augustine:
“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother; it is still Eve the temptress that we must be aware of in any woman… I fail to see what use women can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”
Next, she quotes Martin Luther,
“Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women should stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon, keep house and bear and raise children.”
And so it goes.
The Christian apologist would rightly reply that Augustine and Luther’s misogynistic views should not be taken as an essential part of Christianity. Fair enough. But then by the same token, Nietzche’s and Camus’ nihilistic views should not be taken as an essential part of atheism.
If you want to present a fair case against your opponent, one should begin by steelmanning their position. That would mean that the atheist should begin by recognizing that Christianity includes many individuals who defend the liberation and equality of women. Only then would it be proper for her to attempt an argument that Christianity is misogynistic despite this witness.
Similarly, the Christian apologist should begin by steelmanning atheism. That would mean he should begin by recognizing that atheism includes many individuals who defend objective goodness, meaning, and purpose. Only then would it be proper for him to attempt an argument that atheism entails nihilism despite this witness.