What are Good Apologetics?

3C260239-8C9F-4D92-ABF2-AFA27EA0384D.jpgOver 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?

18 thoughts on “What are Good Apologetics?

  1. Excellent list, Clark. Required reading for anyone doing—or even reading—apologetics. I’d add one little thing, which you could file under #5: be honest about missing information or holes in your argument. We don’t know everything, so don’t act like you do.

  2. Good point. And probably explain that. There are always holes where we don’t know. We don’t know how to reconcile GR and QM for instance.

    I tried to do that in my discussion of the problem of evil. I think Mormon theology gets closer to a plausible resolution of the problem of evil than anyone. But I think it clear that we don’t yet have a successful answer. Why pretend we do?

  3. Look, the only reason to be playing with apologetics is to inoculate your own flock. There is no apologetic goal of converting the other dude (and it usually is a dude). He’s usually a “warrior for Jesus” or Christopher Hitchens fanboy. You’ll get absolutely nowhere with these people – no matter how crushing your logic.

    The only goal of apologetics is to help believing Mormons not feel stupid about a faith we generally chose for other reasons unrelated to the apologetic subject matter.

    That’s all apologetics is. It’s not about being persuasive to outsiders or winning friends. It’s purely defensive.

    If you are interested in winning friends, what you are doing is no longer apologetics, but dialogue.

    If you are interested in winning converts, you are better off ignoring the people who talk about “pedophile Joe” entirely. They’re a waste of time better spent on people who don’t have an ax to grind with you.

    Apologetics, Dialogue, or Proselyting.

    Be sure you are clear which one you are trying to do.

  4. Seth

    As Clark pointed out, the “audience is rarely the critic you are engaging but rather others looking on” – and these “others” also often include people who havent spent much time thinking about these things, and many may have not chosen a “camp” so to speak. Especially when these discussions take place in forums that arent tightly focused on religion and attract others.

    In other words, not all observers have “dug in” and need being “reinforced” or “converted” from a fully opposing flock.

    There are often plenty of people, in my limited experience with these things, who learn a great deal from observing (good) apologetic discussions – and there are even some that are drawn to find out more. So it isnt, as you seem to imply, all about reinforcing your own flock.

    There are many others who benefit, in my opinion, if the discussions generally stay to the guidelines that Clark listed.

    (I think they are great guidelines)

    Also, as a side note, Ive discovered to for myself, I learn much myself from engaging in these sorts of apologetic discussions. I may already have a testimony of some thing, but when I am forced to present the case to someone else who doesnt have the same beliefs, I find that I learn all sorts of additional great things.

    For instance – I’m LDS, and Ive been in many discussions with non-LDS who often insist that I only quote biblical references for our beliefs – and in (for their benefit) limiting myself to the OT and NT, I have come to have a much greater appreciation for the OT and NT’s support for many LDS concepts. Even though I had a testimony of these things before, I find I now have a greater source of information to draw on when discussing these things with “only quote the bible” people. (I guess, in other words, researching for apologetic discussions can force some people into scripture study that they might otherwise be slack about :)

    Maybe this just falls into your “nnoculating your own flock”, I dont know. But I think that overall, more people are helped than just “your own flock”

    (My 2 cents)

  5. I think that with good apologetics we’re also doing good scholarship. And with good scholarship you should be learning as should everyone else. So to take a non-religious example, consider a climatologist defending their view of say global warming. I think that a good defense will simultaneously help the scientist better understand the science, help those perhaps doubting due to skeptics see that their position is good, and sometimes even convince others.

    Put an other way while I agree with the three categories Seth brings up I think good apologetics will include elements of all categories.

  6. Great post, Clark.

    I especially like point #3–education not debate. When discussing the Gospel with those not of our faith, I find it much easier to convey truth through level-headed discussion, rather than through thumping scriptures.

  7. As a young missionary in England I was inclined to do bible-thumping with people who used this or that scriptural statement to beat us down. Needless to say that didn’t get me anywhere.

    But lately I’ve had an experience with a person who is looking for answers. This person has been taught by the missionaries, getting a year’s worth of institute classes, and consulting anti-mormon sources (also coming to YSA activities). So you get intelligent questions and have a genuine opportunity to explain church history and doctrine. It has helped me to see that some notions I’ve had are not necessarily doctrine. And it has helped rediscover some scriptures that I have not been thinking of much lately. It’s also educational to see how differently some scriptures can be seen by someone without a religious background – and also how some people cherry-pick the scriptures for passages that seem to disprove mormon theology.

  8. Most of the writers tend to be more politically conservative, which reflects in our “Worth Reading” links. If you have a good link from the other side of the spectrum, send it to me and I will see if it is worth posting.

  9. I was just curious. I tend to get my political news elsewhere ;)

    Anyway, this is a nice little summary. I would add, along with Seth, that it helps to recognize your purpose in the discussion. Is it apologetic, proselyting, or debating, etc? Can it be all, or some?

    Either way, there seems to be a lot of poisoning the well going on when the word apologetics comes up.

  10. What’s funniest is most of those attacking the very idea of apologetics (rather than just pointing out bad apologists) are often members!

  11. BHodges

    I was wondering the same thing (about the oddly misleading “worth reading” list.)

    I actually thought the articles were satire at first (I am new to this site)

    My favorite assumed-pseudo-satire was a recent article in the list (called “Look who they are thanking now” or something similar) crediting Bush and McCain’s strong leadership for keeping Russia in check.

    I did enjoy the “Mormon Conspiracy” radio-show segment. That was nice.

  12. I keep trying to think of something intelligent to say so I can add to the discussion, but I can’t. So, instead, I’ll just say: great list Clark.

    [I do have a little quibble with your global warming example, as sometimes the links you provide (and thus seemingly endorse) on your personal blog to sites that "debunk" those who argue against global warming are often little better than ad hominem arguments. Sometimes not, though. It's a frustrating mix you provide at times.

    But I don't want to derail the conversation. As far as the list above goes, it's great! I've already referred a few people I know who are interested in Apologetics to this post.]

  13. Ivan that was partially why I chose that example. While I enjoy the Science Blogs site I’d say most of what gets written there is bad apologetics. I wanted to let people know apologetics isn’t just about religion but any position, including those where the weight of evidence is significantly on the apologist’s side.

  14. I have found through many years experience as an apologist that, if done properly, apologetics can have a neutralizing effect on some LDS critics. I have family members (extended family) who are virulently anti-LDS. Through the years I have managed to get some of them to see that Mormons are not the ‘evil cultists’ they have supposed. While not at all acceptong of LDS claims, they have at least arrived at a more tolerant understanding of ‘Mormonism’. Some have admitted to me privately that they are now less comfortable with their prior (mis)understandings of LDS teachings.

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