Over at Mormon Matters there’s a discussion of apologetics. While some of the notables from FAIR came in to explain what they see as good apologetics I figured it would be a great time to list what I see as good apologetics.
Not everyone does this all the time. (Not even myself – and certainly when I was younger I sometimes slid into bad apologetics) But I think that these general principles lead to good apologetics.
1. Plausibility The point of apologetics is to provide a plausible answer. Critics sometimes want to only talk about “what is most likely” but that’s just a bad standard. Typically there are many plausible answers one of which may have slightly stronger evidence given evidence but insufficient to say “we know.” Indeed with a lot of history that is the best anyone can do.
However apologists should also remember that merely presenting what is possible is insufficient. Something may be possible but implausible. Apologists who do this often are telling critics that the critics need to convince the apologist. That’s a nice little High School debate trick but accomplishes nothing but to make the apologist feel important. Good apologetics are other focused and not self focused. The attempt is to persuade, often believers with doubts, that one can rationally believe. And to believe rationally one needs plausibility rather than implausible possibility.
2. Hermeneutics not Proof-texts Bad apologists proof-text as if scriptures or other texts were legal precedence to trump a competitor’s play. This can be very persuasive to people who already share most of your premises and the way you read scripture. Typically though it is counterproductive with others.
By hermeneutics I mean that what counts isn’t the typical way a verse is read but rather to recognize each text has its own context and often uses terms in unique ways. You don’t just “play” a text by quoting it. Rather you explain why a particular reading is a strong reading of that text. That is you defend your reading. Then you build up a case out of these building blocks.
3. Education not Debate This can be a hard one and heaven knows I’ve been guilty here. But the idea should be to inform. Remember your audience is rarely the critic you are engaging but rather others looking on. The goal should be educating those others and not winning a debate or worse feeling powerful.
4. Spiritual Experience and the Burden of Proof Burden of proof typically occurs when you have some contested premise. The question then arises which position is the default view with the other person needing to show that the default view is incorrect. A common example is naturalism. Often arguments hinge upon what evidence is allowed. If the very assumption of God, angels, and revelation is disallowed then of course apologetics is impotent. This means that at a certain level all apologetics depends for its plausibility on spiritual experiences. You can go only so far. You’ll never convince a naturalist who disallows any real religious explanation. However what you can do is show how, given the real possibility of such events a particular scenario is highly plausible.
There are other burden of proof questions beyond naturalism. Sometimes you can engage these. Other times you can’t. The best solution is to explain your position and how it is plausible. If it’s a burden of proof question you just can’t really convince the unconvincable. It typically just leads to heat rather than light.
5. Don’t Neglect Evidence Nothing is worse than apologetics that makes something appear plausible only by neglecting or using sophistry to hide real evidence that makes it implausible. Good apologetics recognizes ones opponents strongest arguments and not their weakest ones. And good apologetics anticipates counter arguments and prepares answers for them. That means dealing with as much evidence as you can.
6. Build on Common Ground Yes, the old missionary adage. One has to be careful since you don’t want to merely use someone’s presuppositions to get them to believe your position if those presuppositions are problematic. That’s because then they’ll be believing for the wrong reasons and as soon as they see their error…
However often whether we are talking with Evangelical critics or naturalistic critics there is a lot of common ground we share. Start there and you’ll be able to provide justification for how your position is plausible. You may not be able to convince, but you can at least get them to understand that your belief is rational.
Yes you’ll undoubtedly make mistakes and miss some evidence. And yes, critics may even accuse you of being deceptive when it was just an honest mistake. But we really have to be as fair as possible.
Anything I forgot?