Last time we met up, I was talking about the serious mismatch between stated goals and real goals in dysfunctional groups. And in the case of Christian apologetics, we see one of the clearest examples of that mismatch, since their creators often explicitly state what their goals are–which allows us to test their claims very nicely. I’ll show you why Christians don’t generally like to state clear goals, why apologists do it all the time anyway, and how to test those statements against the group’s actual system.
Here, by the way, is a writeup of the terms I’ll be using like “group,” “tribe,” “system,” “stated goal,” and all that stuff, in case you want a refresher! (Site permissions should allow unregistered visitors to see the wiki now.)
On the Essential Value of Falsifiability.
In Reality-Land, a sincere and valid claim is stated in a way that allows it to be evaluated, or tested. Here are claims that can be tested:
- You can find a dragon/car/flying teapot/bunch of boxes in my garage.
- On May 26, I’m showering/growing wings/winning the lottery/going grocery shopping.
- Watermelon Jolly Ranchers contain habanero peppers/sugar/Red 40 dye/my Amazon wishlist.
Notice that every one of these claims has a condition under which they can be proven false. Someone can look in my garage. We can see what happens on May 26. Anyone with a computer can look up the ingredient list for most candy. That quality is called falsifiability. In Reality-Land, devising falsifiable claims and then testing those claims to see if we can prove ’em false is a big part of the scientific method, which is why the very worst sorts of Christians can’t stand the scientific method.
But even the ones who think that they lurrrrve the scientific method and are positive that their religious beliefs are totes compatible with it often have a great deal of trouble with the notion of falsifiability. Indeed, their religion is built and engineered around the avoidance of this important and essential part of the scientific method. There’s a reason for it, too: their religion could not possibly withstand that kind of pressure.
Wise Christians of all stripes shy away from making solid claims about their religion or their god–in much the same way, and for much the same reason, that their prayers don’t tend to request specific outcomes–which is a realization I made myself, to my surprise. Sometimes this avoidance happens without the Christian even being aware of it, as in my own case, and other times it seems very clear that the Christian in question is avoiding it on purpose.
Christians avoid stating any kind of falsifiable claims because the moment they do that, they instantly create a condition under which their religion could be proven false. And it isn’t hard to imagine why they’re so unhappy about that idea.
So when you talk about Rapture as a Christian, you’ll never want to name a specific date, no matter how certain you are that it’ll happen Some Time Real Soon Now. The second someone names a date, then all anybody has to do is wait till the date comes along.1
Sure, most fundagelicals believe in the Rapture in a general sense. It’s all but a required belief. And as of 2013, almost half of them are totally or mostly convinced that the Rapture is going to happen in their lifetime–meaning before the day they die. But as obviously wackadoodle as whole concept of the Rapture is, the Christians who believe in Rapture but avoid making specific predictions about it will always consider themselves soooo much more evolved than those obviously prideful fundagelicals who just have to name a specific date.2
This desire to avoid critical evaluation is also behind the common inability of Christians to name a concrete set of attributes for their god (much less agree on any of those attributes) or provide any firm list of conditions that a praying supplicant must meet in order to have a prayer answered. Often I’ve run into Christians who try to claim that their god’s actions and attributes simply can’t be understood or measured meaningfully by human beings, or that he deliberately acts in ways that make him impossible for heathens like us to see or detect. These are purely desperate tactics no more believable than the proverbial “Canadian girlfriend,” but the Christians who keep trying them prove a very important point about how important it is for Christians to keep their beliefs safe from too-close examination.
It’s quite a weird desperation, too, considering that most Christians–in fact probably the overwhelming majority–believe that their god is a real, literal being who does real, literal things in the real, literal world for his followers. And in the same way, though most if not all Christians believe that their god does answer prayer, they don’t have any idea why some prayers seem to get answered but others don’t.3
Making a Stated Goal.
Stating a firm, testable goal runs in similar lines to making a falsifiable claim. When a group declares its goal in a clear way, people can compare the group’s goal to what they’re doing to evaluate how well they’re reaching that goal.
For example, when a group becomes a charity and decides that their goal is to feed hungry children, we can evaluate them using metrics and criteria that have been established to measure the efficiency of that type of charity. If they’re not feeding many hungry children at all compared to other charities, we can declare that they have failed–to some greater or lesser degree–to fulfill their goal.
And just as many Christians avoid making testable claims about their religion, so do Christian groups avoid making any concrete goals that their group is working toward.
Take a look at this list of 50 church mission statements, which we could definitely consider to be stated goals. I defy you to even describe what these people are even talking about in lived reality. The real kicker is that the people who made that list think their list fits their advice that mission statements should be “clear, memorable, and concise.” Here’s a sampling of their idea of clear, memorable, and concise mission statements:
- Loving people to life.
- Love God, Love People, & Make Disciples.
- To revive believers, reach friends, and renew culture.
- Helping people take their next step toward Christ…together.
Almost all of them are like that, too. Good luck deciding if a church is meeting its stated goal of “renewing culture” or “helping people take their next step toward Christ…together.” When you see these kinds of mission statements, be leery. If there’s not a way to evaluate it, then chances are it’s just fluff–and that the group will not take kindly to anyone even trying to evaluate it.
The Stated Goals of Apologists, in Realtime.
It has been my observation for quite some time now that the majority of modern churches (regardless of denomination) who portray themselves as “evangelical” or “seeker friendly”, are unintentionally driving people away while claiming to do the opposite!
Paul J. Bern, “Churches are driving people away instead of reaching out to them. What’s up with that?”
But there’s one branch of Christianity that totally bucks that trend.
The stated goals of apologists are usually crystal-clear. They’ll claim that their goal is to persuade non-Christians; to allay and resolve doubts and fears; to help parents indoctrinate their children so they’ll stay Christian forever; and other such stuff. It varies, but usually the stated goals will be listed either in the book’s title or very early on in the introduction. Indeed, Natasha Crain’s book is called Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith. And Christian Piatt’s book PostChristian says, in its first paragraph, that the author’s purpose is to “piss you off” so you’re open to hearing him tell you all about how Christianity is “not what it should be, not what it claims to be.”
And these goals do not ever even remotely match up to what actually happens when someone tangles with these materials in the wild.
When a Christian absorbs a new talking point or a new listicle about yet another foolproof way to convert atheists (or Muslims, or liberal arts majors, or whatever demographic that Christian has a burden for), and they trot right out to try it out on their chosen marks, the results are usually absolutely hilarious–and getting more hilarious by the day, now that more and more people are aware of the various dishonest ways that Christians present their religion to marks.
By the time a few Christians figure out that a technique or talking point doesn’t work, it’s probably already absorbed into the Borg Collective and the whole tribe is now convinced that it totally works for sure because the salesperson who sold it to them said it totally did. And talking points are a lot like dorm rooms: however the furniture falls into place after the students have been there for a few hours, that is usually how the room is going to look for the semester. Very seldom will it be possible to rearrange things after that critical period.
Why These Claims Get Made.
Apologists may well set these clear, specific stated goals because as the religion fails and loses more and more people, Christians themselves want a simple, easy-to-understand answer to fix it. And the big problem, for them, is that there are very simple answers, just not ones they’ll like: that their religion doesn’t have any evidence supporting itself; that there’s no reason to think that anything supernatural exists; that blind faith really is the only way that anybody can hold to their religion; that without getting back their powers of coercion, there’s no way in the world for Christians to reverse their losses; that there really isn’t anything in the religion that attracts most people naturally; and most of all, that there’s not a single apologetics argument or book on the market that is actually persuasive to anybody who can critically evaluate Christians’ claims.
Those are really hard truths.
And an apologist who tells Christian hard truths ain’t gonna sell a whole lotta books.
No, instead an apologist offers the sheep a quick, simple idea or technique that fluffs them up, un-ruffles their feathers, and tells them a nice easy way to fix Christianity and start making sales again. Apologists tell Christians, as Don Draper explained often on Mad Men, that they’re okay, that life’s okay, that they’re on the right path, and that everything will work out for the good for them that believe. (Ironically, often they do it by chiding or rebuking the flocks first, but ultimately that’s what they offer: a fix for a problem they think exists, a fix that will put everything to rights and get the religion–and its adherents’ lives–chugging along again.)
Moreover, apologists are most successful when they can offer their tribe some super-snappy technique or talking point that can be easily memorized and deployed. Bumper-sticker theology has quickly become Christians’ very favorite kind (not always to the pleasure of their leaders and more-evolved sheep). It plays well to what appears to me to be a seriously decreasing attention span in the pews, but also to Christians’ unwillingness to put themselves out learning or doing anything very difficult, challenging, or time-consuming. As we hinted at last time we met up, the current crop of popular apologetics feels to a great many Christians like it maximizes returns for very minimal effort and time investment–and so they’re going to love it.
And an apologist will make even more money when they’re making their tribe think that they are smart and very wise indeed for having chosen to believe what they believe, while those who reject their talking points and arguments are idiots, fools, and worse for not accepting it all when it’s so totally and obviously true. Ray Comfort’s made a career out of insulting non-fundagelicals, but he’s sure not the only one. Listen to any apologist or wannabe soulwinner, and you’ll hear the sneer in their words; the more extremist the Christian, the worse they are that way.
By the time a Christian really and truly comes face-to-face with the cold hard reality of their situation, the apologist is long gone–with that Christian’s money in hand!
Another Evolution in Christianity.
I feel lucky for having deconverted before apologetics became so important for today’s Christians. I don’t remember reading a lot of such books or attending such lectures.
It wasn’t like that because Christians then were just soooo much better at dealing with painful or complex ideas. No, it’s probably more because the tribe just hadn’t yet faced a lot of challenges to its faith or its own cultural power. Almost everyone I knew then had no idea how to really sell the religion well; a few people were naturals, but all the rest were abysmal at it–and we thought that “Jesus” would fill in the gaps for us so there wasn’t any point in stretching to learn canned techniques and talking points.
Things sure look a lot different now though. I only know of one leader in the religion (Myron Penner) trying to tell Christians that apologetics, as a field, isn’t actually effective–and his tribe doesn’t think much of that idea. Drowning him out are thousands of Christian apologists insisting that apologetics works. Apologetics is a growth industry!
And why shouldn’t it be? Apologists are busy selling Christians the moon, and Christians are lining up to beat them with money for doing it.
So the marks will keep buying these apologetics materials, and apologists will keep coming up with ever-more-ridiculous arguments and over-simplified sales techniques to feed the demand they’ve generated–and it’ll be harder and harder for anyone to tell them that this stuff just doesn’t work at all. Apologists’ lavish promises of success are so deeply embedded into Christian culture that you won’t often see a Christian even wonder why none of it ever seems to work to draw in new converts–or why it often serves to solidify a believer’s doubts rather than dispel them.
One thing apologists can totally count on is for that cultural embedding to work to their benefit almost every time in keeping Christians from even evaluating whether or not their work actually does anything that they say it does.
Nobody is going to come to Natasha Crain asking for studies that support her promise that her ideas actually positively impact the religion’s retention rates of young people. She’d probably faint if anyone even went there. Nobody is going to ask Christian Piatt to provide any solid evidence that his ideas work better than any other ideas in growing and maintaining a healthy church. I knew that before I ever even cracked open his book.
Christians really don’t understand that apologists are hucksters who don’t ultimately have much of a stake in their work actually doing what they claim it should and will do. They have their reward already, to borrow a phrase. As long as Christians line up to give money to hucksters, then the state of Christian apologetics will continue to decline in both quality and effectiveness.
Up Next: I noticed in comments last time that a bunch of folks picked up the vibes I was putting out about where this whole set of posts is going. One of the worst examples of stated goals not matching a group’s system is in the anti-abortion culture war that Christians are now pouring their energy into. Roy Moore’s candidacy largely sputtered along for as far as it did on the basis of that culture war; he and his representatives needled fundagelicals with his firm dedication to wiping out abortion rights, and that needling worked grandly on them. In the doing, he accidentally exposed one of the anti-abortion crusade’s dirtiest secrets–which we’ll be taking up with next time.
(And of course there’ll be a LSP on Monday!)
See you then!
1 The Rapture is when Jesus decides to magic all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ into the sky to be with him in Heaven. It’ll happen somewhere around the end of the world–either before, during, or after the last great sustained persecution of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (which is called the Tribulation). If you want to see a very fun argument, ask a large mixed-denomination group of Rapture believers about exactly where in relation to the Tribulation the Rapture will occur.
2 Prideful is Christianese for basically proud and arrogant, but about spiritual-sounding stuff. Any time a Christian is happy about doing, being, or accomplishing anything, another Christian will be along shortly to caution them about being prideful.
3 Of course, I’m using the commonly-understood sense of the word answered here, meaning that the prayer got the result the praying person wanted. Christians will often skitter away from that meaning when the prayer isn’t answered by trying to say that it WAS answered, just not the way the praying person wanted, but that’s so obviously a cheap and dishonest trick that it barely bears mention except as evidence of the religion’s lack of veracity on several counts.
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