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.