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Austin Cline

Dishonesty and Defectiveness of Apologetics

By January 15, 2013

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Just about every atheist has encountered and dealt with an apologist at some point (and usually multiple times, too). How often, though, have you had to deal with a truly honest apologist? By "honest," I mean someone who rejects bad arguments, sticks with good arguments, and regards the failure of an argument as an indictment of their position.

Christian Apologetics
Christian Apologetics
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Frankly, I don't think I've ever dealt with a truly honest apologist. In my experience, apologists latch on to arguments that they think look good and will continue using them over and over no matter what sorts of responses they hear from others. Counter-arguments mean nothing and even if they concede an argument's failure, they will turn around and use it again later with others.

I have gotten similar reports from other atheists about their encounters with apologists. For apologists, the only goal is spreading their ideology, not a quest for better understanding of the truth. Reasoning and arguments are tools of persuasion regardless of the truth and regardless of the qualities of those tools.

To a skeptic, if an argument is good enough to use to support a proposition, then its failure contradicts the proposition, or at least calls the truth of that proposition into serious question. If I believe something because of an argument, then if the argument fails the belief should fail too. If I believe something not because of some particular argument, then it seems dishonest to use that argument to support the belief.

For example, I believe that communism is better than capitalism because I believe the social ownership of the means of production would lead to more happiness and satisfaction in the world. I justify my communism on purely pragmatic grounds. If someone shows me that communism, or some aspect thereof, would lead to a worse outcome, then I will change my conception.

For example, we know from experience that while it might be effective at quickly industrializing a poorly-industrialized country, unconstrained political rule by a self-selecting party elite has serious negative consequences when industrialization reaches a certain stage. I therefore abandon the idea of such a party elite. If the theory does not fit the facts, the theory must change.

An apologist, on the other hand, in some sense "just believes." The arguments and reasons proffered really have nothing to do with the foundation of the apologist's beliefs; the arguments are tools only of persuasion, not justification. Either the belief is mystical, revelatory, or the actual foundations of belief are at best subconscious and at worst intentionally covert.

Hence, to a certain extent, arguing with apologists is an exercise in futility. A rebuttal has no effect; they do no believe because of the argument, so even a decisive rebuttal does not undermine the belief. Furthermore, even showing that the argumentation is disingenuous in this sense is such a subtle point that only someone with considerable education, training, and experience in critical thinking and rational belief formation can spot the disingenuity, and those people are already strongly predisposed against mystical or covert belief.

Source: The Barefoot Bum

So why even bother arguing with apologists? The author here says that it can provide insight into what sort of questions need to be asked. I'm not sure that even that is enough, though, give how much time can be wasted with an apologist.

This is especially true when you consider the fact that few apologists ever offer anything new. In the context of Christianity, for example, there's a standard set of stock arguments which every apologist tries to use. Sometimes not even the formulation and words change very much.

You can't really learn much from people who themselves are uninterested in learning anything new themselves.

Comments
January 15, 2013 at 8:30 pm
(1) Dimmitri says:

I didn’t realize that I was dishonest?

January 15, 2013 at 9:36 pm
(2) Z. E. Kendall says:

My few years of experience in debate forums (more recently in social media) has been that it is extremely difficult to convince people to surrender their own axiomatic assumptions. It just so happens that the notion of God or an absence thereof is or is tied directly to an axiomatic assumption.

In the course of debate, after many arguments from both sides have been put forth, some people from both sides (Christian apologists and atheists) have believed that those of the other side are being dishonest. This effect can be likened somewhat to the fact that a person’s own sense of “common sense” is typically slightly different from the next person’s sense of it. It is similar in the AvT debate: the atheists consider atheism as a part of a common sense of sorts, while the theists consider theism as part of a common sense of sorts.

The reality of it is that there is actually plenty of diversity in the particular, non-axiomatic beliefs of both the athiestic community and Christian communities. You will find, if you look long enough, political conservatives on both sides, trolls on both sides, and people who partly wish that the opposite side was correct *on both sides*.

January 16, 2013 at 5:14 am
(3) Austin Cline says:

It just so happens that the notion of God or an absence thereof is or is tied directly to an axiomatic assumption.

That’s just an axiomatic assumption you’re making that you have yet to surrender.

January 15, 2013 at 9:38 pm
(4) Sam says:

“By “honest,” I mean someone who rejects bad arguments, sticks with good arguments, and regards the failure of an argument as an indictment of their position.”

By that definition of ‘honest,’ I admit that I’m not an honest apologist because although I think I do reject bad arguments (even when they support my point of view), and I only use arguments I think are good, I definitely do not regard the failure of an argument as an indictment of my position.

And I hope that you are not an honest ‘atheist’ by that definition either. After all, here is a bad argument against the existence of God:

1. If God exists, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.
2. I am not a monkey’s uncle.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Now, surely you recognize that as being a bad argument. But would you conclude that because it’s a bad argument that God therefore must exist? Surely not!

The notion that a failed argument is any indication that the conclusion is false is just bad reasoning. It has nothing to do with honesty or dishonesty.

January 16, 2013 at 5:13 am
(5) Austin Cline says:

The notion that a failed argument is any indication that the conclusion is false is just bad reasoning. It has nothing to do with honesty or dishonesty.

I was talking about the failure of arguments one was using to advance their position. I thought that obvious in context, especially since this is something I’ve repeated often here, but apparently I was wrong.

If the failure of an argument you have been using does not cause you to reconsider your position, then you are not honest.

February 23, 2014 at 9:57 am
(6) Bridge says:

” In my experience, apologists latch on to arguments that they think look good and will continue using them over and over no matter what sorts of responses they hear from others. Counter-arguments mean nothing and even if they concede an argument’s failure, they will turn around and use it again later with others”. Austin you do this all the time…… And your pointing it out in how you perceive an Apologist. Seriously? I keep reading your post as I am trying to research what an Atheist thinks Philosophically but all I keep getting is your opinion with out any real argument or proof other then using the opposite side to make your point. This isn’t Atheism this is Austinesism….

March 12, 2014 at 5:41 pm
(7) Austin Cline says:

I keep reading your post as I am trying to research what an Atheist thinks Philosophically but all I keep getting is your opinion with out any real argument

You are always free to ask if, indeed, you actually care.

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