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What is the difference between a Christian philosopher and a Christian apologist?

Quite simply, marketing.

When I think of a Christian philosopher, I think of someone genuinely engaged in thinking through the issues, someone who makes his bread and butter by addressing alternative viewpoints in a direct and reasonable manner. His career depends on his ability to challenge others with cogent arguments to the topic at hand. He writes and he speaks with an audience in mind that includes non-believers, even dedicated opponents of his own position. Good Christian philosophers give me pause; they make me think twice, and I enjoy reading or listening to their thoughts.

When I think of a Christian apologist, I think of someone whose real audience is already sitting in the church, and they have no intention of going anywhere else on a Sunday. That audience is happy to take in some argument fresh out of a can, telling them why the other guys (people like me) are wrong. They don’t really need convincing, just reassurance, and they certainly won’t be asking any tough questions, at least not without accepting any token answers that may come along. When I think of apologists I think of endless circular arguments and enough straw men to earn a visit from the fire marshal. Apologists can do this, precisely because they are not really making an effort to engage non-believers, they are just making a show of it for the benefit of the faithful.

The philosopher has a potentially hostile audience, and he knows it; the apologist is preaching to the choir, and he knows it too.

When I think of Christian philosophers I think of Alvin Plantinga. When I think of apologists I think of Ray Comfort and his damned banana. (Then I think of Dunning and Kruger, but that’s a rant for a different day.) Don’t get me wrong, there is no hard and fast dividing line between these practices, but one cannott help noticing the differences at the far ends of the continuum. Some folks are making an honest effort to engage people with different views, and some folks are just going through the motions.

An entire industry falls on the less-than-worthy side of that distinction, producing stock arguments for the benefit of believers everywhere. Diehard consumers of this literature often become adept at identifying the issues, naming the conventional arguments, and applying the necessary responses, or at least the labels thereof. Being tone-deaf to the particulars of any given conversation, such folks are happy to point you to a book or even supply a link to some guy who answered your argument (or at least another argument that would fall under the same label). “Just go there and read it and you’ll see…”

Damned irritating is the nicest thing I can say about such people.

But all of this is just background material. What has me thinking about this is the possibility of an emergent apologetics tradition within atheism. Now some might take it for granted that everything I just said about arguments for Christianity would be true of non-believers as well; if one side of a debate is doing it, so a kind of popular wisdom goes, you can sure bet the other side is doing it too. But that just isn’t always the case. (Allow us please the possibility of a different set of vices.) In this instance the difference lies in the relative absence of a viable market for such messages.

…until recently.

For most of my life being an atheist has been a rather lonely experience. Oh sure, I could find lots of people happy to bitch about religion, and plenty more who could tell me (their faces beaming) about the time their minister got mad at them for asking too many questions. But with few exceptions, these same folks stop well short of  denying the existence of God altogether. Most have little better tom say about atheists than they do the preachers of those stories.

Perhaps, my experiences have been atypical, but I don’t think so. Near as I can tell, unbelievers haven’t generally run in crowds all that much, not in the western world at any rate, not the least of reasons being that we have a hard time finding each other.

Had, that is! …had.

The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, once suggested that the invention of the internet has served to empower atheism in important ways, perhaps even given us an edge over believers in public discourse. I have my reservations over Mehta’s full take on the subject, but there is something about his observations that ring true for me. I do think the net is a bit of a game changer even if the outlook of this new game may be less than clear at this point.

The whole issue reminds me of an evening spent surfing the Apologetics page at Christianforums.com only to find the only other people on there were atheists like me. I challenged one of my fellow heathen to debate me anyway, suggesting we flip a coin to decide who would play the part of a believer, but he just wrote ‘lol’. The internet had no love for an argumentative guy that night. Anyway, that was my first taste of the power of the net to draw the unbelievers out into the open, or at least the virtual equivalent thereof.

I live and work in a remote village in the Bible hat of the country. I’ve met three self-professed atheists (that I know of) since moving here, and that’s three more than I met the dozen or so years I worked on the Navajo Nation. In this respect my experience is clearly not typical, but here is my point, I still count dozens of atheists as my friends, and I can interact with them as often as I want to. I have only to go online. That, for me anyway, is the difference between unbelief with the net and unbelief without it.

And yes, that strikes me as a good thing.

What worries me is the possibility that with this form of empowerment, some of us have picked up a few vices, not the east of them being a penchant for crafting arguments with less probative value than inflammatory potential. You can often do both at the same time, and maybe there is good reason to rally the troops on occasion, but sometimes people do make a choice, even without realizing it. There is something deeply inauthentic about fielding an argument that just doesn’t confront the other side in a meaningful way.

It is concerns about this that have me looking sideways at some of the memes circulating through the unbelieving corners of the net. Don’t get me wrong, I laugh at (and hit the ‘like’ button) on lots of these, but some are just genuinely foolish or outright deceptive. I did find it a little disturbing one day when I realized the front page of the atheist reddit consisted of nothing but memes, and I shudder to think at the 140-bit mindset developing on twitter. One can hope that people are learning and developing more complex messages in other contexts, but the medium of expression does shape content. And I can’t help thinking the sound-bite quality of some internet media will have an impact on the sorts of messages circulating about in them.

But of course I am not simply talking about a non-believing net. Recent years have seen the rise of countless conferences for skepticism, secularism, and non belief. Numerous unbelieving organizations, including a range of student groups have come into being, each pursuing a range of closely related agendas. Once again, there is tremendous potential in this. But at least part of that potential is a capacity for group-think and a chance to build a reputation (perhaps even a career) out of interactions with mostly like-minded people. In itself, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t hep if one’s goals are at least partly to engage with others.

The recent Palin-Billboard debacle over at American Atheists would be a nice case-in-point. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone puts them on a billboard, or doubles down on the subject when questioned about it (or brags about high standards when finally correcting the mistake). No, not everyone does that, and David Barton is NOT good company folks. But of course the point here is hardly that someone made a mistake and was slow to correct it. The problem is that such behavior becomes much more likely when your bread&butter does not rest so much on your ability to issue a credible challenge to believers as it does on your ability to comfort those already in your own camp.

No, this post is not about being nice, and it’s not about compromise. It’s about taking the time and effort to do more than tell dirty stories about the stupidity of believers, and to field arguments that will do more than make other non-believers feel good. We are all hit or miss on the topic, even with the best of intentions, but some folks may not even be making that effort.

When your intended audience is in your camp, it is amazing how easy it is to field a compelling argument.

But that is a path that leads to Comfort and bananas.

The point here is that those of us who just say ‘no’ to gods can communicate our views more effectively now than ever. We can reach more people and we can insert our views into more conversations than previously possible. It would be a damned shame if these new possibilities were wasted on the production of in-jokes and arguments appealing only to confirmation bias.

I’m not against Schadenfreude either; I don’t much care what people laugh about three beers into a night out with the guys. But one ought to know the difference between a cheap shot and cogent argument. And one ought to be able to sober up when the time comes and field a case for one’s own position, a case that actually moves the conversation with others forward in some meaningful way.

I do think a few folks could work on that a bit.