Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where Are All the Smart Apologists?

Recently I read The Screw Tape Letters, a series of letters written by C.S. Lewis. The letters purport to be from an old demon giving advice to a young demon. Lewis is a smart, funny and talented writer. What the demon Screwtape says is as revealing and clever as what he does not say. This is not the only great work of apologetics by Lewis. Why are there no great Christian apologists like Lewis today?

Lewis is far from perfect. Lewis gave birth to one of the most annoying apologetic arguments, the Trilemma. However, even there his intelligence and originality shine through. I have not seen any contemporary apologist produce any argument that isn’t a tired repackaging of pre-existing arguments.

Who are the major apologists today? There really aren’t any in the influential way that Lewis was. But if one had to identify those who today continue the tradition of Christian apologetics, one would probably list Ray Comfort, William Demsbki, and Alister McGrath.

Do any of these people measure up to C. S. Lewis? No. Consider these writers individually:
Does Ray Comfort stack up to Lewis? No way. Ray Comfort is an idiot and an ignoramus. He’s the man who most famously tried to claim that the modern shape of the banana was evidence for a divine creator. Yes, the banana, a fruit that has been heavily modified by extensive breeding by humans, a fruit whose wild form is a nasty hard thing full of seeds.

Does William Dembski stack up to Lewis? Wililam Dembski isn’t an idiot like Comfort. He has a real PhD in mathematics. But this also is a man who, after intelligent design failed in the courts, was reduced to teaching apologetics at a second rate seminary while giving course credit to students for trolling pro-evolution websites. I can’t see C.S. Lewis doing that. Moreover, Dembski’s writing ability resembles that of a 7th grader trying to sound like he’s really bright and well read. I should know. I used to write like Dembski when I was in 7th grade. Demsbki also seems to spend most of his time fighting with other Christians. (He really, really doesn’t like theistic evolution.)

Does Alister McGrath stack up to C. S. Lewis? Now we are getting closer. McGrath is a respected theologian who also has a degree in biophysics. He’s bright. He’s willing to accept both science and religion. He has on occasion made cogent arguments. But there are two problems: First, he’s a dreadfully boring writer. I have trouble staying awake when I read anything he writes. Someone needs to get Ben Stein to do a book on tape of one of McGrath’s books. It would be the ultimate sleep aid. Or maybe it would be a weapon of mass destruction as just playing it nearby would cause individuals within a hundred mile radius to fall into irreversible comas. This brings us to the other issue with McGrath: The subjects and titles of his books are equally dreadful. His two most well known books are "The Dawkins Delusion?" and "Dawkins' God." Ok, Alister. We get the point. You don’t like Richard Dawkins.

So why are there no great apologists for Christianity today? Here are four possible explanations:
First, perhaps great apologists are simply rare and C.S. Lewis is a great outlier. This isn’t a satisfactory explanation. I could compare the modern stock of apologists with G. K. Chesterton and they would still not match up.

A second argument is that Christianity is not the common belief among intellectuals that it was fifty or sixty years ago. Since a smaller fraction of intellectuals today are deeply Christian and since apologetics is valued less today as it has been in the past, intellectuals are much less likely to go into apologetics.

Third, the state of the evidence has changed over time to make belief in Christianity less probable. This argument is almost certainly wrong. The major modern controversies implicating Christianity and Judeo-Christian religions in general have existed for a very long time. The Documentary Hypothesis and similar theories about other Biblical texts have been around for more than a century. So has evolution. Thus, the need to address these issues (either by reconciling Christianity with them, or by refuting them) has existed for a long time.

Fourth, the modern focus of apologetics has been the watchmaker analogy and variations thereof. The watchmaker analogy is an argument for the existence of God based on an analogy to a watch found in the desert which one would immediately realize had a designer. It is no coincidence that the three apologists listed above, all have arguments that revolve around the watchmaker. Ray Comfort uses a particularly stupid form of the watchmaker argument. William Dembski uses a particularly obfuscated form of the watchmaker argument. And Alister McGrath doesn’t really use the argument itself but rather spends most of his time arguing that Richard Dawkins hasn’t sufficiently refuted the watchmaker argument and that if Dawkins is fallible God must then exist.

This focus is understandable: The watchmaker argument and other teleological arguments for the existence of God are some of the hardest to refute. However, the focus of all contemporary apologetics on a single argument has left the industry stagnant and uncreative. In such circumstances, it isn’t surprising that apologetics fails to attract many intellectuals. Moreover, the focus on the watchmaker argument has caused much of modern apologetics (and thus many of modern apologists) to go head to head with much well-established science. C. S. Lewis in contrast was open to the possibility that evolution was correct. If the entire apologetic system revolves around attacking basic science, one shouldn't be surprised that not many bright, educated people are willing to lead it.

I’m not completely satisfied with any of these explanations. However, the decline of contemporary Christian apologetics needs explanation.


Ian said...

Honestly, I think that someone like Lee Strobel is a good example of a modern (mass market) apologist. He's not as smart as Lewis, and more importantly, although he presents himself as "a journalist looking at both sides", he really presents one side + a straw man. But I think he's effective with his target audience.

Greg Boyd's Letters from a Skeptic is probably more along the line of what you're looking for. Boyd is intelligent and engaging. And the correspondence is very personable. It's not a fair representation of the scholarship, but this isn't scholarship, it's apologetics.

Not that I really have any sense of the sweep of apologetics. But I think that Boyd and Strobel are much better examples than Comfort and Dembski.

Joshua said...

I had considered including Strobel as an example but didn't do so for length reasons (the essay was already getting quite long).

I'm not that familiar with Boyd, but from I do know about him he does seem to be brighter. But then one has the question why is Boyd, who is an intellectual, so much less successful today than Strobel or even Dembski or Comfort? There may well be smart apologists out there, but they aren't being treated with nearly as much popularity as the dumb ones.

Chesterson and Lewis with both bright and popular.

I don't know. Another hypothesis? The name type is what matters. Two initials and then a last name seems to help. Maybe J.K. Rowling should try to go into apologetics?

Timmy D said...

I'm leaning towards R. L. Stein...

Shalmo said...

What about James White? Though he is more of the debating other religions than debating atheists. And I'm assuming by apologists you are specifically referring to those christians who try to stand up to criticism from the skeptics.

To answer your question. There are a number of reasons this is so:

1. In past apologetics made convincing arguments. However today hermeunetical studies conducted by christians themselves seriously put to doubt any hope of having a reliable "inspired" bible. The changing texts, internal contradictions, scientific inaccuracies and the ever growing gap between archaeology and the secular historical record of the middle-east with the bible all contribute to lower rates of reliability on the bible.

For instance, while the Bible claims that the army of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, which was besieging Jerusalem, was miraculously annihilated by the angel of the Lord in a single night and that King Hezekiah triumphed over the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35–37), history and archaeology instead support the Assyrian version of events, that Sennacherib sacked and devastated every city of Judah but Jerusalem, and that Hezekiah paid a huge tribute to the Assyrians just to hang on to Jerusalem and its environs. We did not know things like that back in Lewis' time. As our biblical sciences grow, so too does the "inerrancy" of the bible become all more preposterous.

2. Aggressive secularism is accomplishing its original goals. A complete seperation of religion from state, results in a population that has to make consistent effort to gain religious education by Sunday school and so forth, where as before it was normal for regular folks to get religion handed to them on a silver platter.

Hollywood and its strong stance against conservative values may also be a factor. Its not become normal to watch shows like South Park who bash religion non-stop where as just a century ago this stuff would be banned.

Shalmo said...

3. Without an external enemy to make people stick with a religion due to tribe or group mentality, people now have an opportunity to questions their faiths.

A christian can now ponder whether its logical to believe in intelligent design on the one hand, but then believe there is any "design" in a plan where a deity comes down as a cosmic jewish zombie who is his own father, who committed suicide on a cross to pay himself the sacrifice needed to absolve us of the original sin he cursed us with because a naked women ate fruit from a tree 6000 years ago.

Similarly a Jew can question how sane it is for him to part of a cult that has little to do with worshipping any deity, and more to do with worshipping all things Jewish. Where rape, murder, and genocide compose half of their holy books. She may also ponder whether its ok to spite the nazis on one hand, but then believe in Genesis; considering to any modern reader Genesis is a just a primitive version of Mein Kampft, being mainly a theory on the origin of races making notorous racial disciplines of the 20th century look good.

4. Western civilization has reached its zenith and has succumbed to hyper liberalism. In the 18th and 19th centuries the average christian who likely had memorized the westminister confession by age 5 would easily have debunked the moronic arguments put forth by the likes of Dawkins and Harris. Because today people here just don't care about religious matters, they are easily swayed by the secular arguments. People today go to church for the community or gospel music, but actual conviction has very little to do with it

Shalmo said...

5. Arguments against the judeo-christian perspective are now more readily available. There's so many ex-christian apologists like Dan Barker and John Loftus coming out of the closet and joining fence for the opposite side. Around 60% of the professors in the US are atheists and skeptics. Even christian universities now have bible commentaries that say things like "Jesus was likely a 1st century phasaic liberal rabbi". Just a 100 years ago this would have been impossible. Entire christian seminaries are producing students who go in with 100% conviction for their faith and are coming out completely atheist or agnostic because now they have been exposed to modern findings on biblical criticism.

And more importantly the answers provided by modern apologists are no longer convincing. Bart Ehrman is perhaps the most famous out of the closet ex-christian and so far the apologists are failing to stand up to his criticisms. In his recent debate with James White, I know christians who are saying White is failing and ducking the issues

PS: Joshua if you want a good apologist I suggest you go for William Lane Craig. In his recent debate with Hitchens he kicked ass. Even atheists are sayings he replied to every conceivable argument. It got so bad there was almost a terror alert among online atheist since the debate was such a bad loss.

Hunter said...

Based on a hazy memory of my mother's bedside reading, what about R. C. Sproul? At least the name-form is right...

Also, in re: Shalmo's point 2, I'm not sure I agree at all. It is a commonplace that religious sentiment in America is both more widespread in the population and more vital than that in most European nations where a single, state-mandated religion killed any interest among the young. The old C. of E. is just where weddings and funerals happen (and Sweden's Lutheran Church almost isn't even that any more). I've been, I've seen, and it's true. I've also spent plenty of time here in America, and seen the mad religiosity of an actual majority(!) of the population.

Actually, it's not regular folks who don't get religion, it's the best among us. As Joshua so rightly notes, it's the lack of good apologists that's puzzling, as well as the prevalence of (nonmilitant) atheism in the Academy.

I'll leave the Hollywood bit alone, except to say that I'm pretty sure I disagree there too, and not just because of the above. But that's a whole other complicated mess, so...

Jay said...

I think part of this is because apologetics has become so interwoven with evolution denial.

Looking at Comfort, pretty much everything he does wraps anti-evolution in with anti-everybody-that-isn't-my-kind-of-Christian, and once he's done that he almost always turns things back to his anemic "Are You A Good Person?" pitch. The result is that none of his apologetic efforts have any substance - they've all taken on the character of the negative, rapid-fire sound-bites that are so typical of anti-evolution claims. In other words, his approach isn't so much to make fundamentalist Christianity look good as it is to make everything else look bad.

(Yes, I realize that picking on Comfort is really going after the low hanging fruit, but he's just so smarmy I can't resist taking shots at him.)

Joshua said...

Shalmo, as I commented in the post, the major issues with the Bible were known well before now. We might have more problems now but the primary issues certainly existed. Pointing to a lack of historicity in Kings and Chronicles is just massive overkill. If the lack of historicity of Genesis and many other sections doesn't bother someone, then problems with the details in the later parts of Tanach aren't going to bother them much more.

Regarding William Lane Craig:
Having seen that particular debate I was highly unimpressed. I don't think Craig did a very good job. Hitchens simply did worse. As I've commented before, I don't find Hitchens very impressive and generally think he gets himself into situations he can't handle well. (For crying out loud, he was almost evenly matched against Dinesh D'Souza. I mean really. What does that say).

Hunter, interesting point about R. C. Sproul. I have less knowledge of him but he doesn't seem stupid.

But regarding both William Lane Craig, R. C. Sproul there's something noteworthy going on here: Even if one thinks they are bright and talented, their popularity is orders of magnitude below that of other major apologists. Something is going on here so that even if an apologist has brains he isn't that well known. And in Sproul's case, that seems to be even with the advantage of the initials.

Joshua said...

Also, one related point: The ability to do well or not in a 1-1 debate doesn't say much really about actual intelligence or much else. There's a rough correlation. If you are an idiot you won't do well and if you are brighter you will do better but that's pretty much it. That's speaking as someone who won a debate tournament in highschool and who comes from a family who has done a lot of formal debate. It just isn't that meaningful in any large way.

(Oh and the fact that Hitchens can't seem to go for an hour without getting drunk doesn't really help matters).

Lautreamont said...


I dig much of what you wrote in the above jeremiad. However I must say I am confused in that many of the "moronic arguments" of Dawkins and Harris you bemoan in point #4 are really almost parallel if not indeed exactly the same as what you quite correctly state in point #3. Furthermore, the assertion that a five year old wielding his knowledge of the Westminster confession could easily debunk the quite thorough and often exhaustively researched points of Harris and Dawkins is not even remotely tenable. If you had said Hitchens rather than Dawkins or Harris, however, I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you. Even I must admit that man is a frightfully bombastic, if not academically sloppy, drunkard.

Shalmo said...

I am surprised anyone can consider the seeming scholarship of Dawkins and Harris as "exhaustive". There knowledge of the religions they criticize, and their history, particularly christian history leaves much to be desired.

In many cases they just outright lie about so many things that its impossible for me to take anything they write seriously without fact checking their claims. Dawkins' shameless caricature of Martin Luther's views on religion in particular come to mind.

Their works do not convince anyone but either the uneducated theists, or the atheists who are predisposed to their works.

I would suggest you give Meera Nanda's absolutely majestic refutation of Harris a good read:

Lautreamont said...


That link didn't work. I only say this because I respect your points and think that article sounds very interesting. I tried finding it through google and the sacw site but couldn't locate it. If you can please post a working link. Thanks my friend.

Lautreamont said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lautreamont said...

Nevermind, I found it. It is an elegantly written and quite compelling piece. Thanks for drawing it to my attention. Here is the working link for anyone who wants to read it:

Joshua said...

Shalmo, that is a very interesting essay thanks for pointing it out.

It is no secret that I consider to be Dennett and Dawkins to be by far the two most impressive of the four horsemen and that I don't have high opinions of the other two. (My opinion of Dawkins is also very mixed but that's a separate issue)

Also, note that in the comments thread to the blog entry prior to this one, The Golis presents the interesting counterexample for a smart apologist today as Francis Collins. This is a valid point although I'd be inclined to argue that apologetics is only a small fraction of what he does (in contrast to Lewis for example).

It is extremely interesting that even in a discussion about modern Christian apologists we quickly get to discussing the proponents for atheism today. That seems to underline the lack of impressive modern apologists. I really have not yet seen either here or in this thread a reason that we does seem to explain what is going on although Jay's point is a good one (and is sort of what I was trying to get with my fourth suggestion but he said it better than I did)

sniffnoy said...

How did the whole "Four Horsemen" thing start, anyway? I think grouping those four together is just ridiculous in the first place.

Nathaniel said...


Without a doubt, you're looking for W. L. Craig. Regardless of your opinion of his debate with Hitchens (and Andrew, over at Evaluating Christianity, has a very high opinion of Craig's debating skills), he is a serious scholar with two earned doctorates and a long list of peer-reviewed publications. He has spoken at so many events that probably he has lost count of them himself.

Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd deserve honorable mention for The Jesus Legend. It's not a pop book but rather a mid-level scholarly treatment of the reliability of the Synoptic tradition.

Incidentally, from your comments it looks like you have probably misunderstood the trilemma -- a very common error.

Shalmo, you are in error: the Taylor prism was known in the 1800s. The degree of tension between the Assyrian and Biblical accounts is a matter of scholarly debate, but in any event, Lewis was not interested in defending inerrancy.

Joshua said...


Thanks for the pointers. I'll need to take a closer look at William Lain Craig clearly and also will take a look at the others you mention.

I read the piece you link to about the Trilemma. I don't think anything there substantially changes my view of it. If I have time I may make a blog post explaining why it is so annoying.

Nathaniel said...


Fair enough!

E-Man said...

Shalmo said

"For instance, while the Bible claims that the army of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, which was besieging Jerusalem, was miraculously annihilated by the angel of the Lord in a single night and that King Hezekiah triumphed over the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35–37), history and archaeology instead support the Assyrian version of events, that Sennacherib sacked and devastated every city of Judah but Jerusalem, and that Hezekiah paid a huge tribute to the Assyrians just to hang on to Jerusalem and its environs. We did not know things like that back in Lewis' time. As our biblical sciences grow, so too does the "inerrancy" of the bible become all more preposterous."

Shalmo, tsk tsk, where did you get King Hezekia paid off Sancheriv? Most scholars believe it was either a plague or the Nubian king was advancing and that is why he ran away from Jerusalem.

Just chekc here

or here

So the bible says angel of G-D and history, archaeological or written by historians of the time say plague or Nubian king was arriving just in the nick of time. Either way it was pretty miraculous. Also, the bible admits that the Assyrians destroyed much of Judah before Sancheriv retreated.

E-Man said...

I will admit, it is possible to say that Hezekiah gave him money after the fact so he would not return, but money is not the reason for the lifted siege.

E-Man said...

Shalmo said

"Similarly a Jew can question how sane it is for him to part of a cult that has little to do with worshipping any deity, and more to do with worshipping all things Jewish. Where rape, murder, and genocide compose half of their holy books. She may also ponder whether its ok to spite the nazis on one hand, but then believe in Genesis; considering to any modern reader Genesis is a just a primitive version of Mein Kampft, being mainly a theory on the origin of races making notorous racial disciplines of the 20th century look good."

How original, comparing the Jews to Nazi's. The bible does not preach raping or killing anyone. It talks about events that happened, but no where does it tell the Jews to kill people other than in self defence. I think we can agree that fighting a war of self defence is allowed. Also, where does the bible allow for racial discrimination if every living being came from the same place?

Joshua said...

And another thread on a post about another religions turns to talk about Judaism...


I don't have enough background in detail to discuss the issue of Sennacherib(do we incidentally need to adopt some sort of agreed rule about what transliteration we are using to cut down on confusion? I suspect that using the standard English names will likely help make this conversation readable to most readers).

However, to say that the Bible doesn't preach about raping or killing people is simply wrong. The people of the seven nations residing in Canaan are commanded by God to be destroyed for example. Moreover, in wartime women can be taken captive and married without their consent. That sounds pretty close to rape.

E-Man said...

Sorry for turning this into a discussion about Judaism and for changing the spelling of Sanncheriv.

Well, the issue about the beautiful captive is this, was the Jewish man allowed to have relations with her immediately? The answer is no, there was a whole process that had to be done before he would be allowed to take her as his wife. Generally it is assumed that this long process was to deter the man from having relations with the woman.

He would have to make her look very unappealing and wait a month before he was even allowed to think consumating the marriage. Then if he truly wanted, he was allowed. The bible says take her as a wife and it is impossible to marry someone without consent. That is why I do not believe the bible is talking about rape here. It is a special condition that allows Jews to marry non-Jews, but is not talking about rape.

Also, the way I understand Deuteronomy chapter 7 is like this. G-D wants the Israelites to live in Israel, but there are these seven nations that worship idols and act pervertedly. How are the Jews going to live among such dispicable people and how are they going to wrestle the land from them? So G-D tells them that these nations must be destroyed and there can be no cohabitation with these nations. However, G-D does not command the Jews to kill the individuals, just the nation as an entity. This can be contrasted with the command to kill the amalekites, where G-D commands that every single bit of their nation must be destroyed. So the destroying of the caananite nation is not a command to kill the people, but to conquer the land. Otherwise, why would G-D say not to intermarry with them? Didn't he already command you to kill them all? Must be like I said, that the command to utterly destroy is a command to conquer them as a nation, but not to kill individuals that can live among you.

The better question to ask is about the command to kill the amalekites. This has to do with the inherent hate that the amalekites have for the Jews. This can be equated to the Nazi's having to be destroyed. How could the Jewish people survive if there existed a semblence of a nation that existed solely to kill Jews? If the cannanites rose up again then they would cause spiritual harm to the Jews, but they would not try to wipe the Jews out. However, the amalekites tried to wipe out the Jews in their infancy as a nation. Therefore, if any amalekites were left they would always be trying to wipe out the Jews. I think the self defence argument is quite strong here. But you can disagree with me if you want.

Joshua Zelinsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua said...

E-Man, no need to apologize the thread had already gone in that direction.

I think you may be correct about Amalek being a better example. However, I don't think that your apology for it as defense works. The command is to wipe out every single person from the nation. If there's a baby who hasn't learned yet to speak they get wiped out also. To use the example, yes Nazis are bad, if a Nazi had a kid we don't decide to go kill the kid. The analogy would be by responding by trying to kill every single German. That would be essentially repaying genocide with genocide.