I’ve written here before about apologetics. I’ve said more or less the same thing in surveys and classes for quite a while. In summary, while I was really interested in the subject for a while, after having the arguments and defending the positions, I realized that it just didn’t matter – at least, not to most people who actually walk away from churches. People’s dissatisfaction with religion generally stems – at least primarily – not from a belief that the universe can be explained without God (a.k.a. the evil college professor), but from their experience of interacting with people who call themselves Christians, who in their minds generally come across as self-centered, self-righteous, and in many cases, just plain mean.
With that being said, one of the many books on my plate over the past few months is Richard Beck’s recent book “The Authenticity of Faith“. In the prelude to the book, Beck makes what I consider to be a particularly insightful argument regarding why, to an increasing number of people, Apologists are answering the wrong question.
Beck begins by framing the status quo:
[W]hat we might call Classical Christian apologetics has tended to focus upon an epistemological formulation of the question “Why do people believe in God?” The classical, epistemological formulation asked the following of religious believers: “What are your reasons for believing in God?” This is an issue about evidence and rational justification. The question “Why do you believe in God?” boiled down, in classical apologetics, to “Do you have good reasons for believing in God? And if so, what are those reasons?”
So far, nothing terribly surprising. The task of apologetics is to give believers “good” reasons to believe – whatever that might mean. As Beck points out, these are epistemological reasons to believe – meaning apologists tend to be working on trying to justify religious beliefs as rational – why it’s rational to believe in God, why Scripture can be trusted, why the world was created in 4,004 B.C., etc. Give our kids good, justifiable reasons to believe that these things are true, and they won’t walk away. Mission accomplished.
Or is it?
The french philosopher and theologian Paul Ricœur famously categorized Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as “masters of suspicion” in his book Freud and Philosophy. A key theme for each of these thinkers can loosely be termed “false consciousness” – the idea that while our consciousness is telling us one thing about the world or ourselves or reality, in reality something else is happening on the level of society, or the unconscious – often something we are not even aware of.
So for Marx, our consciousness is shaped by social, political and economic history in contexts of domination. Religion, then, expresses false consciousness because it masks and mystifies the true origins of our suffering and domination with categories like “sin” or “salvation”. It focuses us toward the otherworldly, rather than allowing us to take seriously the problems we encounter in this world.
So what exactly does this have to do with apologetics? Beck, again:
Consider Marx’s famous formulation that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” How is Marx’s attack on faith any different from the epistemological questions found in classical apologetics? To start, note that Marx is not asking for religious believers to give an account. Marx is, rather, giving an account of religious believers. Marx is shifting away from the reasons for belief and focusing a spotlight upon the functions of religious belief: in this case, the sociological functions of religion (i.e., faith functions to keep the working class from seeking revolutionary change). This shift, from reasons to functions, is a radical and destabilizing change in the history of Christian apologetics. It has, effectively, changed the subject.
In classical apologetics, Christians might have been asked to justify their beliefs that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead. What justifies that belief? By contrast, in the wake of thinkers such as Freud, the question morphs and becomes something different, something like this: Why would someone be attracted to the idea of life after death? That is a different kind of question, a question that moves past the propositional contents of faith and begins to investigate the underlying, often subterranean, motivations behind belief formation itself. These questions are highly destabilizing because few of us are able to plumb the depths of our unconscious motivations. Is it possible that I believe in the Resurrection because I am motivated by a deep and unconscious fear of death? Honest people admit that this may be a very real possibility. If so, hasn’t my faith been rendered to be an illusion, a psychological system that helps me cope with an unsettling reality? Suddenly we are no longer talking about evidence, argument, and reasonableness. We are talking about psychological motivations. And if these motivations are called into question (plausibly so, for who does not want to live forever?), how are we to respond?
And here, really is the issue. Even if we are to give our kids the best apologetic training possible, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are trying to answer questions that fewer people are asking. As Beck notes later in the prelude, in this realm of discussion, the specific content of faith is generally not what must be defended, and can largely be ignored as being shaped by larger psychological and sociohistorical factors. Consider the following statement: “You say you believe in heaven because it is recorded in scripture, but the real reason you believe in heaven is because you are afraid of dying.” This approach does not much care whether the belief is true per se (i.e. does heaven exist?) as much as the way in which the belief is functioning – in this case, preventing anxiety.
If there is to be any value in teaching our children apologetics, surely it is to be found in preparing them to answer actual questions they may face. Increasingly, frontal attacks on traditional apologetic issues are either “easily refuted” through apologetic templates (though the matter clearly remains much more grey, for those who are actually thoughtful), or simply ignored (“if the Bible says the world was created in seven days, I believe it”). Questions of suspicion, on the other hand, are much more difficult to deal with.