Why Do Counter-Apologetics?

I am a Classics Ph.D. student at UC Irvine whose research focuses on the history, literature, and languages of the Roman Empire during the 1st-2nd centuries CE. In particular, I study the intersection of Judaic, Greek, and Roman culture during this period, and ancient literature that was written in Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.

I became involved in counter-apologetics in 2010-2012, when I was a Classics M.A. student at the University of Arizona. There I encountered Christian apologist Cliffe Knechtle, who would visit the campus every year with a camera crew, and would argue with UofA students about the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, particularly pertaining to the miracles and teachings of Jesus.

What was surprising to me during his visits was the way that Knechtle would try to use “historical evidence” to prove the miracles of the Bible and convert people to his religion. There are several Pagan miracles that are attested in Greco-Roman literature, and yet no serious Classics scholar that I am aware of argues that they can be proven using ancient texts, like the Bible. Nevertheless, Knechtle would make arguments pertaining to the same texts and time period that I was researching in my graduate studies (1st-2nd centuries CE), to attempt to “prove” the miracles of Christianity. As someone who was independently looking at the same evidence and issues as Knechtle, I found that I strongly disagreed with his conclusions, and likewise identified a number of factual errors in his arguments.

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Cliffe Knechtle arguing with undergraduate students at the University of Arizona

What was most disturbing about Knechtle, however, was the aggressiveness with which he would target people who did not ascribe to the truth of Christianity. For example, Knechtle once told a friend of mine (17:35“You are so intellectually hypocritical, it’s scary!” simply because he did not believe that Jesus’ miracles could be proven with ancient texts. Likewise, Knechtle would make a number of arguments about the authorship and reliability of the Bible that few people would be able to fact-check without training in Classical antiquity and Biblical Studies. In short, Knechtle would bombard undergraduate students with a bunch of “facts” that they were unable to verify (many of which included misinformation), all for the sake of rhetorically convincing people of his religion.

If Knechtle’s apologetics ministry had been an isolated incident, I would probably have ignored Christian apologetics. However, when I did more research, I learned that there are several professional apologists–such as William Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona–who employ similar rhetoric about “historical evidence” proving their religion. These same apologists work at faith-based universities, with doctrinal statements that dogmatically affirm the truth of Christianity. I had never seen such religious agendas in my own field of Classics, and I found it very troubling that these apologists were making arguments (many of which I disagreed with) about the same time period that I study.

As someone who studies the ancient Mediterranean world, I felt that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines while these kinds of claims were being made about my area of academic research. And so, I started Κέλσος as a resource to fact-check and evaluate the claims made by many religious apologists. Below is a 4-step explanation of why I started this blog and why I think that it is important for secular scholars to engage in counter-apologetics.

1. What is apologetics? 

The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek ἀπολογία, meaning “speech in defense,” and has also come to be associated, more specifically, with the intellectual, academic, or rhetorical process of defending particular religious doctrines and traditions. In the case of modern Christian apologetics, multiple Christian denominations and individuals have taken different approaches to defending Christianity [1]:

Definition of Apologetics

  • Classical apologetics employs the standard theological and philosophical arguments for God’s existence–such as ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments–and is grounded in the natural theology of early Christian apologists, such as Anselm and Aquinas.
  • Evidential apologetics relies on empirical evidence pertaining to history and archaeology–particularly when defending the Bible and the origins of the Christian faith–and can also incorporate other empirical evidence of the supernatural, such as prophecy, miracles, and cosmological/biological design.
  • Presuppositional apologetics asserts that belief in God and the truth of the Bible are fundamental assumptions in order for the world to be intelligible. From these assumptions, presuppositional apologetics argues against non-Christian worldviews, and maintains that they are unable to give a complete or coherent account of the reality that we live in.

Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of Christian apologetics, it is one thing to be persuaded that Christianity is true, and quite another to claim that non-believers are intellectually dishonest or misinformed for doubting Christianity.

2. What is aggressive apologetics?

As I noted above, one thing that surprised me during Cliffe Knechtle’s visits to the University of Arizona was the aggressiveness with which he would argue against non-Christian students. Knechtle would frequently include suggestions, or even outright statements, that non-Christians doubted the religion because of “intellectual dishonesty.” When I did more research, I learned that Knechtle was not alone in this behavior.

Consider some of the following statements made in Christian apologetics about non-Christians and those who do not convert to the religion:

Bill Bright (the president and founder of Campus Crusade for Christ International), quoted in Josh McDowell’s ETDAV (pg. iii):

“I personally have never heard a single individual–who has honestly considered the evidence–deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of men. The evidence confirming the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ is overwhelmingly conclusive to any honest, objective seeker after truth. However, not all–not even the majority–of those to whom I have spoken have accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. This is not because they were unable to believe–they were simply unwilling to believe!”

William Lane Craig in “Faith and Doubt” discussing ex-Christians who have deconverted from the religion:

“I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures.”

Mike Licona in The Case for the Real Jesus (pg. 136) discussing the motivations of people who doubt Jesus’ resurrection:

“Sometimes it’s moral issues. They don’t want to be constrained by the traditional Jesus, who calls them to a life of holiness. One friend of mine finally acknowledged that Jesus rose from the dead, but he still won’t become a Christian because he said he wanted to be the master of his own life–that’s the exact way he put it. So in many cases–not all–it’s a heart issue, not a head issue.”

John Warwick Montgomery in Faith Founded on Fact (pg. 42) discussing the purpose of apologetics in convicting non-believers:

“We must make clear to them [unbelievers] beyond a shadow of a doubt that if they reject the Lord of Glory, it will be by willful refusal to accept his Grace, not because His Word is incapable of withstanding the most searching intellectual examination.”

3. Apologetics as a method of proving the dishonesty and sinfulness of unbelievers

Why all of the aggressiveness in the quotes above? Why do many apologists feel the need, not only to defend their religion, but to further prove that those who don’t believe are ignorant or dishonest?

Here, I think it is important to remember some of the historical teachings of the Christian religion. Most Christians have historically believed in the concept of Hell (or at least some kind of final judgement), and that non-believers will be punished as “sinners” for their unbelief. Consider some of the following verses from the Bible, for example:

“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction…”

(2 Thessalonians 1:7-9)

“The fool says in his heart,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
    there is no one who does good.”

(Psalm 14:1

“Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

(John 3:18

Because apologetics seeks to defend orthodox Christian teachings, that can also include defending the view that unbelievers are “sinners.” As Christian apologist Owen Anderson in The Clarity of God’s Existence (pg. 2) explains:

“The Christian religion claims that all persons should believe in God, and that failure to so is one of the sins … for which Christ died … Historic Christianity has maintained that unbelief is a sin.”

Nevertheless, in modern times, I think that it is becoming less and less fashionable for apologists to outright call non-Christians “sinners.” There is just something too dogmatic and Medieval about targeting unbelievers in that way.

Instead, accusing non-Christians of being “intellectually dishonest” or having “heart issues” or “creating intellectual smokescreens to cover up for spiritual failures” has become a nuanced way of accusing unbelievers of being sinners. Such descriptions are meant to imply that non-Christians don’t believe, not because of intellectual doubt, but because they are trying to create an excuse for covering up their sins.

4. Why I started Κέλσος

The purpose of this blog is to counter the arguments of aggressive apologetics when they are used to target non-believers. As Jeff Lowder–president emeritus of the Secular Webexplains:

“An apologetic may also be defined in terms of its aggressiveness. A ‘soft’ apologetic is merely an attempt to defend the rationality of accepting a worldview; a ‘hard’ apologetic is a much more ambitious attempt to demonstrate the irrationality of rejecting that worldview.”

I started Κέλσος to particularly combat these ‘hard’ kinds of apologetics. It is my view that a reasonable person can look at all of the evidence for the Christian faith–including its history, sacred scriptures, and theological arguments–and still walk away intellectually unconvinced of the religion’s core claims. Many scholarly experts of the religion have done so, such as Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos.

However, what I found during Cliffe Knechtle’s visits to UofA is that many people were unaware of these secular scholars, who would strongly disagree with Knechtle’s arguments. I likewise did Google searches and found that, while there are many apologetics resources online, there are far fewer secular resources. And so, I started this blog as a way to connect people with the views of secular scholars.

I should also note that this blog is not anti-Christian, or any other religion, per se, but is specifically designed to counter arguments that target non-believers. There are also many Christians who do not engage in such aggressive apologetics, such as NT scholar James McGrath, whose views I also share and discuss on this blog.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] I should also note that, while I focus on countering Christian apologetics on this blog, I likewise oppose aggressive apologetics for other world religions–such as Islam. The main reason why I focus on Christian apologetics on this blog is because: 1) my research area in Classics is in the 1st-2nd centuries CE, which covers Christianity’s origins, but not that of many other world religions, and 2) because Christian apologetics is far more prevalent in my home country, the United States. That said, the theological arguments discussed on this blog pertain to more than just Christian theism, and can be used to doubt the theological claims of other religions as well. I also hope at some point in the future to engage more in countering the apologetics of other religions as I continue to write on this blog.

5 Responses to Why Do Counter-Apologetics?

  1. david says:

    thankyou for using your studies to help alert people to the bombastic distortions of the apologists. I only wish I had had this sort of information 20 years ago, so I wouldn’t have wasted several years hoodwinked by their bullshit. luckily I discovered the sorts of things you say by my own painstaking and costly research and study. but I am so glad you are helping others to come by it easier.

  2. Don Camp says:

    I wonder if the antipathy to “aggressive apologetics” extends to those who are aggressive in the name of Atheism. Please note Dr. Peter Boghossian at Portland State University.

    I am now a Christian apologist who encounter an Atheist apologist at Portland State University many years before Dr. Boghossian. He was Dr. John Whitehead who taught The Philosophy of Religion. His efforts to identify every Christian in his class and confound them with his superior logic was the impetus to engage doubt and logically deal with it. That is the modus of my apologetics.

    I, however, do not think that Christian apologetics is effective in convincing anyone of Christianity. But it is effective in preparing Christians who encounter aggressive Atheist apologists in college. And that is my goal.

    My reason for posting is to suggest that we, Christian and Atheist apologists, respect one another. (You only need go to any youtube video on aologetics subjects to know that respect is lacking on both sides.) So peace and truth.

    Don Camp

    • Hi Don,

      First, I should note that the primary purpose of this blog is simply to introduce people to secular views on topics of philosophy, science, and history (in addition to discussing my own academic research), when they may not have heard of them before. Countering aggressive apologetics is, at best, a secondary goal.

      I’m not a fan of Peter Boghossian, and I doubt that his methods are as effective for creating atheists as he claims. But, that said, there are no atheist universities with doctrinal statements requiring adherence to atheist dogma, whereas there are dozens of faith-based universities scattered around the world that reinforce Christian dogma. That’s one reason why I think it is important to do secular counter-apologetics.

      While there may be individual atheist professors here or there on college campuses, the Christian apologetics camp is far more institutionalized in higher education, meaning that there are whole academic programs, tenured faculty positions, and publishers, who do nothing but try to justify the Christian faith, whereas there are far, far fewer institutions and resources for atheists doing the opposite.

      Part of what faith-based universities do is systematically attack non-believers. Consider what Biola University, for example, says about non-converts:

      “All those who persistently reject Jesus Christ in the present life shall be raised from the dead and throughout eternity exist in the state of conscious, unutterable, endless torment of anguish.”

      That level of vitriol I have not seen in the atheist camp. It’s one thing to make fun of someone for their views, or something, and quite another to try to intimidate someone into converting to a religion by threats of torture. At the University of Arizona, I saw far more paid apologists who would come to the campus with signs and camera crews to attack non-Christians than I ever saw paid atheists doing the opposite.

      So, while there are some aggressive atheists out there, on average I would say the ratio is tilted toward a larger number of aggressive Christian apologists, at least in the United States. But, I do agree that we should encourage respectful and constructive dialogue on both sides.

  3. Don Camp says:

    Matthew, I don’t think BIOLA et al. are examples of aggressive apologetics. They identify as Christian. They attract mostly Christians. Whereas universities like Portland State University identify as simply secular schools.

    I expect professors in secular schools to promote their own worldviews. I don’t have a problem with that. Sometimes the title of their courses may disguise the worldview of the professors as in some of Dr. Bart Erhman’s classes in which students at Chapel Hill from the Bible belt may actually think that Erhman’s classes are Christian. But in his defense, he is pretty clear in other venues what his point of view is, and a student, in any event, could get good historical perspective from Erhman.

    Boghossian also may be up front enough for students in his classes to be forewarned. But in my case in Dr. Whitehead’s class there was no such warning. And many students are finding that professors in science and literature and philosophy are as much apologetics for their worldview as any in Christian universities.

    I don’t think university students need be coddled. The whole idea of university, especially in liberal arts, is to encounter ideas. Some ideas may be unsettling. (Maybe they all should be.) But aggressive not. That is my only point.

    BTW thanks for the moderate point of view.

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