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“When I was a kid, I thought quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it turned out to be,” says a relatable joke perpetually circulating the internet. Similarly, I thought atheists would be a much bigger problem in my adult life. And I was ready.
Bible studies, tween magazines, and the Christian movies that came into vogue in the early 2000s led me to believe that the world was full of skeptical bullies, antagonistic science professors, and sinister politicians scheming to undermine my faith. I took to heart Peter’s exhortation to “always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
A Case Study Named “Maria”
But I’ve never met an atheist. I’ve met a lot of people like “Maria.”
Maria and I went to Christian schools and Christian colleges where we were insulated by a safe bubble of Christian friends.
We’re standing in a friend’s kitchen when the topic of church comes up. “My relationship with God is what it is,” Maria says, “But I don’t really have a relationship with church anymore.”
It’s not antagonistic atheists demanding an answer for my hope; it’s people raised the same way I was.
If there is a population we could argue we are tasked to persuade, its people like Maria—the church dropouts.While the number of adults who identify as atheists in the U.S. doubled from 2% to 4% between 2009 and 2020, Christians, who still make up the overwhelming majority (65%) of the American population, are losing young adults. The church drop-out rate has risen from 59% to 64% between 2011 and 2019. But people leaving the church are not becoming atheists. Instead, they seem to adopt a vague ex-church agnosticism.
For people like Maria, the question is not the existence of God, but his relevance.
This raises an important question: is apologetics a valuable discipline for the church?
What Does Apologetics Accomplish?
The question itself is bound to raise a few hackles. We hold tightly to an idea of ourselves as rational creatures. We base our worth on our correctness. From how we vote, to being a vegan or a carnivore, to our doctrinal positions, we insist that will be born out by the evidence. Even our economy leans heavily on reviews. Marketers teach whole seminars on how to cultivate “user generated content”—a genre of advertising based on customer endorsements.
But rationally considered evidence actually has very little power over our beliefs.
In her critically acclaimed book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains that, while both our amygdala and frontal cortex interface with deeply held beliefs, humans are neurologically predisposed to cling to established beliefs despite evidence.
Most of us are familiar with the frontal cortex. It’s the part of the brain that analyzes information, makes decisions, and isn’t fully developed in teenagers.
The amygdala is the emotion center of our brains, and Sharot explains that the amygdala is “programmed to react fast before the situation has been fully processed” (p. 41).
In short, our emotional amygdala, which processes things like perceived threats, empathy, and desire, beats our logical frontal cortex to the punch almost every time. We react emotionally long before we react logically.
This helps explain why even our more well-reasoned arguments are so often unsuccessful. By striking at deeply held beliefs, our opponent’s emotional processing center responds first, perceiving us as a threat rather than a winsome apologist.
The Siren’s Call of ‘Winning’
The church is like a ship sailing through jagged rocks. The rocks have names: racism, gender, sexuality, and politics. We must navigate through these issues. Yet the rocks threaten to tear us apart.
Meanwhile, trendy, arrogant sophists assemble like carrion birds on the fringes of a church stretched thin by polarization. They reach out to snag the rigging in their claws. More and more, political parties, flashy personalities, and all manner of campaigns and crusades hook their talons into the church, steering our helm away from the gospel and toward this issue or that. They promise the ship’s crew our society’s greatest treasure—winning the argument, the thrill of being right.
The sirens play upon our proud belief that reason governs our minds and our culture. They promise us heroics, the triumph of our pet policy and the recognition of our own significance. Victory is so appealing we confuse it with redemption.
And that’s the danger—our intention to be active participants in the redemption and renewal of the world can be easily twisted into a campaign for our own vainglory. Social issues, rather than providing an opportunity to demonstrate the hope of the gospel, become a stadium in which a gladiator called “gospel” is made to fight on behalf of a policy or perspective.
I’ve grown up as “worldview” became a buzzword, Christian schools hashed out the origin of the universe, and bombastic personalities turned rhetorical tools to mock, belittle, and trap their opponents while factions of Christianity cheered.
We cannot remove ourselves from the conversation. The true gospel must have a witness among the rocks. But how do we like Odysseus lash ourselves to the mast?
A Case Study Named ‘Matthew’
It’s a perfect summer evening to be sitting in a backyard. “Matthew” shares his testimony.
Matthew was a church kid, too. He had the privilege of a rigorous Christian education. As an adolescent, he wrestled through every earth-shaping philosophy and ideology—the Enlightenment, Fascism, Communism, Postmodernism. In comparison, Christianity seems stable, sure, obvious.
Then Matthew says something that surprises me: “I got to a point in my life where I wanted to become an atheist, but I couldn’t because I’d studied all the other options, and Christianity was the only one that made sense.”
The logic of the Christian apologetic was a tether for Matthew. And I begin to wonder if the discipline of apologetics is not for those outside the walls of the church, but those within.
The Case for A New Apologetic
Apologetics is defined generally as defense, an “argumentative discourse.”
Because of how our brains are wired, dogmatic crusades to win arguments are incredibly successful at creating echo chambers and little else. The enemy, or even the open-minded skeptic, will never be won over by haughty antagonism and bluster. The siren’s promises of heroic combat are empty and, indeed, entirely opposed to the gospel.
The only crown of victory ever offered to the Christian is that of martyrdom. We were never called to win, only to testify.
Paul, arguably the first apologist, practiced apologetics not as a battle of intellects but as an appealing demonstration of the gospel’s soundness.
When Paul stands before Agrippa, he roots his argument not in the folly of his accusers but in his hope (Acts 26:6). And in his address on Mars Hill, he expresses genuine respect and love for the Athenians. In both cases, Paul pleads for his listeners to receive the hope he has. It can only be love that motivates him.
Paul is not striving for victory over an opponent, he is pleading with someone who shares his humanity. He emphasizes what the Athenians already have right. Apologetics that “works” cannot be artillery launched from the church to those completely outside of it. Such a strategy may inflate our egos, but it will never break down neurological barriers and only serves to paint the gospel as an attack rather than a rescue.
Rather, the first focus of apologetics must be to tether those who might be distracted by the rocks and the sirens. Apologetics that aims toward the unbelievers must still start with common ground and an assumption of dignity rather than antagonism.
The principal problem with apologetic strategies that hinge upon logic, particularly of the flashy, dogmatic variety, is that they undermine the value, glory, and belovedness of your opponent while exalting your own intelligence. They serve only the self. We need apologetics like Paul’s—a fierce desire for someone else to experience the hope we have.