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My Experience with Christian Apologetics

I took a few courses in biblical studies and Christian apologetics as an undergraduate. The courses definitely influenced my thinking, but not in the way that I expected.

0.  Context

For years, I intended to study engineering. In my senior year of high school, I was admitted to a public school with a decent engineering program. But late in the summer, I changed my mind. I had recently become a Christian and I was dating someone who was going to a Christian college. And apparently that was enough to convince 18-year-old-me that I should also go to a Christian college and study the Bible. (Aside: Can you believe that 18-year-old-me was allowed to vote and serve on a jury?)

1.  Apologetics

I signed up for Christian apologetics courses — as well as biblical studies courses — hoping to find compelling arguments to rationalize my relatively new faith. At first, the arguments seemed compelling. I remember being excited to take the arguments to unbelieving friends back home and see what they had to say.

But the more I thought about the arguments, the less compelling they seemed. I started noticing unsupported assumptions in the arguments. And when I looked for arguments to support the assumptions, I found more unsupported assumptions.

I would ask about these assumptions in class. Professors were gracious enough to humor my questions. But, if I am honest, I was not reassured by their responses. And eventually I got the sense that my questions were no longer welcome.

I also asked my peers about these assumptions. They seemed to be scared. Their eyebrows would rise and their eyes would open. Then they would tell me that I was losing my faith, that I should stop asking questions, and that we should pray for my salvation.

After a few semesters of this, I became a bit disillusioned about the Bible and Christian apologetics.

2.  Philosophy

Eventually I took a couple courses in the philosophy department: Logic and Introduction to Philosophy. It was glorious! I was surrounded by people with similar questions. The professors encouraged us to identify and question our assumptions. In logic, we learned to identify our reasoning errors and fix them, or else build new arguments — even if that meant countenancing different conclusions. After just one semester in these courses, I changed my major to philosophy and enrolled in as many philosophy courses as I could. And I’ve been studying philosophy and philosophy-ish things ever since.

Did Philosophy Solve Everything?

No. Of course not. For instance, philosophy hasn’t provided me a water-tight argument for any particular view. Quite the opposite: it’s eroded my confidence in providing such arguments. There are simply too many degrees of freedom in our foundational philosophical principles (or intuitions) for us to be able to provide a robustly satisfying argument for any particular view. Arguments are only sufficiently satisfying when we find their underlying principles intuitively plausible. And it seems that people have different intuitions about these underlying principles. Sure, we can produce arguments for or against one of these principles, but those arguments will also appeal to some set of intuitions. We might try to block this kind of regress by positing some kind of foundationalism, but even that move would be done on the basis of some set of intuitions or another.

Importantly, this indicates that my dissatisfaction wasn’t with Christian apologetics, per se. Rather, I was disappointed with something else — perhaps the human condition. After all, philosophy didn’t do any better than apologetics did in terms of providing water-tight arguments.

So Why Do I Like Philosophy?

Philosophy has taught me many things. Here are some examples that come to mind:

  1. There are methods for seeing through bullshit, rhetoric, and the like.
  2. There are methods for testing the quality of arguments.
  3. When we apply these methods, we find that many (most?) of the arguments in the public discourse are bullshit and/or bad arguments.
  4. Sometimes philosophy’s methods lead to a sort of stalemate or puzzle.
  5. Fixing bad arguments and solving puzzles requires countenancing counterintuitive or even repugnant conclusions — including agnosticism.
  6. Philosophy is unavoidable. (E.g., to refute that claim, you’d have to use the tools and rules of philosophy, which would undermine your refutation.)

Cognitive Science

There’s one more thing that I appreciate about philosophy: Philosophy introduced me to cognitive science. And cognitive science seems overwhelmingly interesting and important to me. Indeed, I think cognitive science is more fundamental than philosophy. After all, philosophy is a cognitive activity. So if we want to understand philosophy, then we need to do some cognitive science.

3.  Back To Apologetics

If I give credit to philosophy for introducing me to cognitive science, then perhaps I should give credit to Christian apologetics for (sort of) introducing me to philosophy. The idea here is that if I did not end up feeling dissatisfied with Christian apologetics, then I might not have noticed or appreciated the fruits of philosophy. I’m happy to give apologetics the credit. I’m not sure that I would have found philosophy’s tools, methods, and questions if I had not studied a bit of Christian apologetics.

4.  Who cares?

I once started a presentation with this anecdote about Christian apologetics and philosophy. At the time, I used the story only to make a joke and provide some grist for the data that I was presenting. The joke and the segue seemed to work. I didn’t think the story had any substantial value beyond that. But apparently I was wrong.

At least a half dozen people approached me separately throughout the workshop. In hushed and serious tones (and emails), they thanked me for publicly sharing my experience and told me that the research helped them understand their own, similar experiences.

Anyway, I know that some of my readers are interested in Christianity, Christian apologetics, philosophy, and/or cognitive science. So perhaps you have had similar experiences that you want to share. Whatever the case, you’re welcome to comment below.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

2 thoughts on “My Experience with Christian Apologetics”

  1. The interesting question to me re testimonials like these (either for or against the value of Christian apologetics) is: What role do motives–either conscious or subconscious–play in abandoning one world view in favor of the other? What forces might be at work that provide predispositions to adopt one over against the other? Is reason itself powerful enough to sway us? If so, why do both theists and atheists claim their views are rationally warranted?

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