The Challenge for the Christian apologist

Bruce Charlton:

In sum – modern Christianity lacks both pull and push – it lacks the pull which comes from people being grounded in Paganism and Judaism; and it lacks the push of being a complex and complete explanation of the human condition, relations, meanings and purposes.  If apologists both know and also attempt to supply all of this, to supply the depth and completeness of Christianity, they find they cannot do so all at once. If they try to be exact and comprehensive, the apologist comes-up against the modern inability to follow a long and complex line of argument; yet if he tries to present Christianity all at once then what can be communicated is inevitably a gross simplification: incomplete and shallow.

Anyone arguing a nonliberal belief system faces this dilemma (although, as Bruce points out, Christians face particularly steep opposition because the population is not neutrally ignorant, but has been actively inoculated against this faith).  I’ve had to deal with it in each of my essays.  Not many people want to read more than a page-worth of material, and assuming too much background knowledge also limits one’s audience.  On the other hand, if you’re not clear, if you leave out key steps in your argument, or if you fail to address the major possible objections, the result will be worse than useless for any reader who catches these omissions.  They’ll come away less open to my position than they were before.  I expect all the Orthosphere writers who have undertaken general “statement of principles” pieces have dealt with this issue.  Anyway, my blogging New Year’s resolution is to put up some defenses of Christianity in particular (as opposed to theism in general) this year.

Bruce suggests that for people to grasp Christianity, they must approach it like children.  This is ironic, because one of the things I worry most about is passing the faith on to my daughter.  In this case, I have all the time I could want, but only before she becomes intellectually mature.  Such is one of the clever ways modernity undermines the faith.  Parents only get to teach their children religion during childhood, and they must present it accordingly.  When they grow up, the children go to college and get their “adult knowledge” from atheist professors.  Looking back on the faith they were taught, they remember the child-oriented presentation and naturally conclude that Christianity is childish.  I’m still trying to figure out a way around this trap.

15 Responses

  1. I would like to see more courses taught together, or courses tied together, so that students could see the relationships between the subjects. This would require better teachers and better coordination and closer cooperation but I think the results would be astonishing to most. The environment is ripe for this, with the public schools and church teaching so obviously bad and homeschooling/coops and home churches having matured a bit. Unfortunately, the entire white/Christendom blogosphere operates only at the theoretical level, so no real, useful plans will even be considered, and in 20 years we will have advanced not a single step. (I’m amazed at how totally impractical and useless the smartest of us are, and how our elite is totally unaware of how to help, or even acknowledge the problems of, the great unwashed.)

  2. Your concern is commendable, Bonald, but probably excessive. You’re an astrophysicist. Your daughter’s not going to have a crisis of faith because the underpaid lesbian adjunct teaching her introductory composition class thinks reality is a social construct. Give her some books by Edward Feser to read when she’s 17 or so and she’ll be good for a lifetime of dealing with shameless atheist ignorance.

  3. On rereading that post, I regret the use of the word “underpaid” and retract it.

  4. It is important to point out that about 10% of people seem to be deeply and irrevocably religious no matter how safe, prosperous, and comfortable they may be and no matter what propaganda the elites throw at them. While adherence to a specific tradition has to be taught, one’s degree of religiosity in modern societies appears to be largely innate. One can do worthwhile work on the margins, but the reasons people reject or embrace religion are largely not intellectual.

  5. One solution is to send them to (genuinely) religious schools for high school and then to a (genuinely) religious college for their undergraduate degree.

  6. By them I mean your children.

  7. “my blogging New Year’s resolution is to put up some defenses of Christianity in particular (as opposed to theism in general) this year.”

    – I look forward to these.

    “When they grow up, the children go to college and get their “adult knowledge” from atheist professors. Looking back on the faith they were taught, they remember the child-oriented presentation and naturally conclude that Christianity is childish.”

    I’m not sure that this is true, or rather not specifically true to Christianity – teenagers often do develop sophomoric ideas as they ‘see though’ all sorts of things they learned as children, but maybe not more for Christianity than other things (although clearly this is more important).

    I went to a Church of England school age 5-11, but was an atheist throughout; partly by nature and partly of family background.

    Two things strikes me about my failed Christian education. One was that people seldom spoke to me on *my* level – the level I personally was at as a child. They almost invariably spoke down to me and condescended.

    Secondly, what I was taught seemed to have nothing to do with what I now understand as Christianity.

    Of course it may be that I simply don’t remember it, or found the real Christianity incomprehensible (some aspects still are incomprehensible – or almost: the nature of the atonement, the Holy Trinity).

    But Christianity seemed to be almost wholly a moral code, and seemed to be a way of bribing/ frightening children into behaving well – that was how it felt to me. Or perhaps people used it to manufacture explanations for things they didn’t understand (God of the gaps).

    It never struck me that people thought it was *true*.

    I think if Christianity could be got across as a ‘metaphysically’ true account of reality then it should be more robust (that’s what Pascal’s Pensees do for me Christianity as the only key which fits the weirdly shaped lock of the human condition).

    I really wonder whether these people actually knew Christianity? I suppose it is quite possible they did not, and that was the root of the problem.

    “Bruce suggests that for people to grasp Christianity, they must approach it like children. ”

    It’s not that I think this is optimal – but I wonder rather if it is *the only way*. It is mostly a counsel of desperation!

  8. I disagree with you today, Bonald.

    Parents only get to teach their children religion during childhood

    *Completely* false – I really ask you to reconsider this assertion!

    When they grow up, the children go to college and get their “adult knowledge” from atheist professors.

    I have about had my fill of this meme. Like many of your readers, I went to school for a very long time and never encountered this type of evangelistic atheism at all, beyond snide comments here and there (and even those were not as common as some like to portray it).

    Looking back on the faith they were taught, they remember the child-oriented presentation and naturally conclude that Christianity is childish. I’m still trying to figure out a way around this trap.

    How about… teaching them as teens all of the good, intellectual reasons to believe in the faith? Come on, man, I really think you dashed off this post too quickly.

  9. I would like to see more courses taught together, or courses tied together, so that students could see the relationships between the subjects.

    Like for instance, biology and philosophy! Me too, which is one reason I so look forward to homeschooling my children.

    and in 20 years we will have advanced not a single step.

    My, my, the negativity today…

    Give her some books by Edward Feser to read when she’s 17 or so and she’ll be good for a lifetime of dealing with shameless atheist ignorance.

    Yeah, no kidding. 🙂

    And, as usual, the comment from bcg is on target. I’ve seen it noted by a few bloggers that there seems to be a phenomenon where oftentimes, highly intelligent young people reach a certain age (say, 12 or 13) and all of a sudden atheism becomes “clearly” true and their former beliefs become “clearly” childish. A reversal of this very often occurs in their twenties or thirties as they realize that their 12 and 13-year-old selves weren’t actually all that good at reasoning.

  10. Having been raised Catholic, sent to a Catholic school, and confirmed shortly before I turned atheist for over two decades, I second everything Prof. Charlton says above, especially “what I was taught seemed to have nothing to do with what I now understand as Christianity.” Religion seemed to be nothing more than a means for shaping my behavior by offering hope of a far-off immortal reward, without any suggestion that we on earth can actually experience the divine while we’re still alive or that life has nonmaterialist components even before we die. I wish I had been taught about notions like the noetic sense, sainthood and theosis, the influence of the transcendental on the best art, how different religions have historically affected the success of different civilizations, etc. I also wish that truth and beauty had been mentioned alongside virtue. Like Prof. Charlton, I suspect that those who taught me about Christianity knew nothing of it.

  11. Like many of your readers, I went to school for a very long time and never encountered this type of evangelistic atheism at all, beyond snide comments here and there

    I agree. But the problem is not atheists that evangelize. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the things that are not said but assumed, that are not said but done.

    So you see the teachers you admire despising social convention (not only Christianity but anything that is non-liberal), living leftist lives. Most of them don’t try to convert you, it’s only that they believe and live that way. The occasional snark about religion can be very effective.

    Your classmates are also in the age when they think they know everything about the world and they despise Christianity and everything that stands in the way of their hedonism. They think they know better than these ridicule Christian people who sing every Sunday. They know better than their parents.

    At the end of the day, you lose your Christianity in order to fit in, in order not to feel as a ridicule, outdated person who believes nonsense like the Flying Spaghetti Monster in order to have friends and be a “normal” person. It’s not intellectual, but social.

    Scientific studies about conservatives’ children becoming liberal when going to college, show that people adapt their beliefs to fit in. They also show that beliefs acquired in college often are kept forever.

    I don’t know the answer. It seem to me that religious colleges could help. But I don’t think Bonald overreacts. The danger is real and likely and I have seen it many times.

  12. It depends on the school, honestly. Some are worse than others. My professors were largely atheists or agnostics and none of the rest were devout, to my knowledge, but none of them were evangelical about it. There are many, many professors for whom this is not the case.

    imnobody is on to something, though, when he says that the atmosphere itself is poisonous. My history and systems of psychology class practically worshipped Hume and Locke. My department chair and undergrad thesis adviser was a positivist and asserted belief in this quite routinely in our stats, research methods, and directed readings courses. My English professors (with the exception of the teacher of my Shakespeare course, the sort of grizzled old-school southern professor with leather patches on his elbows who smoked a pipe in his office) were universally atheist feminazis and communists. The poli sci department was uniformly the worst in mindless parroting leftist dogma. Even where atheism was not FORMALLY expressed it is clear that it was implicit.

    I second the recommendation of sending one’s kids to a good Catholic university. Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH) and Ave Maria University (FL) both seem sound in this respect.

  13. Such is one of the clever ways modernity undermines the faith. Parents only get to teach their children religion during childhood, and they must present it accordingly. When they grow up, the children go to college and get their “adult knowledge” from atheist professors.

    I’m a 19 year old Christian woman and I’m thinking how about not going to college at all? The economic, social and spiritual costs of college are not always worth it. Or at least if going to college only for a short-time period (e.g 1-2 year degrees and forget Master’s or PhD’s). Plus parents don’t just have the childhood to educate and train up their children. They have childhood and adolescence usually (sometimes even early adulthood).

  14. Summary of things you need to know if you want your children to remain traditionally religious:

    1. Probably the most important thing influencing whether your children will be traditionally religious is their genetics. Which specific tradition though is mostly environmental.

    2. The next most important thing influencing your kids’ values and beliefs is their peer group from adolescence through early adulthood. That means keeping them out of mainstream high schools and undergraduate programs. Some people are so truly constitutionally devout that they will remain so no matter where they go, but why take that risk.

    3. Teachers do have some impact on students’ values, probably more than parents do. The teachers set the tone for a school.

    4. Schools affiliated with mainline denominations tend not to be overly devout. This includes C of E schools. A lot of Catholic schools aren’t any better. The level of genuine devoutness tends to be much higher among Evangelical Protestants. You should avoid the former, be very picky about Catholic schools, and if nothing else send them to an Evangelical school. Homeschooling is also an option.

  15. There is apology to our own children, and then there is apology to the wider culture. The same skills and knowledge are needed for both, but with our own kids we have the benefit of the doubt, so our chances are better. The main thing with one’s own kids is to have an argument ready to go, no matter what the nature of the attack upon the faith. And, to be oneself a happy, devout Christian, whose life and deportment demonstrate that Christianity is neither irrational nor dour.

    My experience is that if you do that, then when your kids learn of apparently devastating arguments against the faith, they come back and ask Dad about it. That gives Dad an opportunity to show – patiently, charitably – just how wrongheaded the attackers are, and how completely they misconstrue the doctrines of the faith.

    As for the wider culture, I think the same thing applies, it’s just that we have less time with any one interlocutor.

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