Monday, February 21, 2011

Christian Apologetics and "Presuppositional Biases"

In a recent exchange over at Clay Jones’ apologetics blog, I was again told that the reason I was not accepting the arguments presented for the resurrection of Jesus was my “presuppositional bias against miracles”. Since that particular article contains over 130 comments, I felt I had said all I could say against the arguments presented, and decided to comment no further. Since the only real response to my arguments was that regarding my “presuppositional bias”, and since most of these kinds of debates eventually come to this charge of “bias”, I thought I would briefly address that issue here.

We have all heard it. Those of us who occasionally engage in online debate have all heard, “you do not believe because of your prepositional bias against the miraculous” at some point. Back when I was a Christian, I heard it from various Calvary Chapel pulpits when the likes of Skip Heitzig or Chuck Missler trained us in Apologetics. They sometimes used the word “worldview” or addressed the issue of the “worldview” of the Christian versus that of the non-Christian. I personally cannot stand the word “worldview”, and only use it now because I know it is a familiar word in the Apologetic lingo. Calvary Chapel pastors and other Christian apologists taught me that unbelievers do not disbelieve the evidence in favor of Christian dogma because of the poor quality of the evidence, but because of their own stubborn will. Since unbelievers were unwilling to accept the existence of miracles, they were therefore unwilling, a priori, to accept the existence of God. Therefore, I was taught to think and argue, rejecting Jesus Christ was not a matter of the Intellect, but a matter of the Will.

After hearing this charge, both as a Christian and as a non-Christian, for literally decades, I have come to the conclusion that this charge is, simply put, a copout from the apologist. It is nothing more than a more sophisticated way of saying “You need Faith to believe, and without Faith you cannot please God”, and just like the Faith argument, it is a conversation stopper.

From now on, when I am confronted with this charge against me, I will not accept it. I will not agree with the Christian that “we all have biases”, and I will not accept it as a valid point. Arguing against my supposed philosophical predispositions, presuppositions or biases are lazy, presumptuous, arrogant, dishonest, and an admission that there are no sound rational arguments to present.

When a Christian uses this argument against me, they are, in essence, saying that their arguments are so solid, so airtight, that there is no possible way I could not be convinced. But since I am not convinced, the problem must lie elsewhere besides the actual argument of the Christian. The only option available is to claim that I have “biases”, that I come into the argument already believing what I want to believe, that not accepting the obviously unbeatable Christian argument is a matter of my Will not to accept it. Counter arguments from me simply do not matter and do not need to be addressed, since the Christian has already made a charge against my “biases”.

The Christian who assumes that their apologetic argument is so solid that rejecting the argument must be chalked up to my supposed “presupposition”, is saying exactly this: “My arguments are not good enough to convince you? Fine. Simple solution – you don’t want to be convinced by my arguments, because I know I am correct. End of discussion.”

This is both arrogant and lazy. It is lazy because it ends the discussion. It is lazy because it is an admission by the Christian that they are not willing to engage my counter-argument. It is arrogant because the Christian assumes that there is no valid counter-argument against their apologetic, so supposed “presuppositions” must be resorted to. It is also arrogant because the Christian assumes they can somehow divine, even as an anonymous poster on an Internet blog, my inner-most philosophical leanings, personal convictions, level of open-mindedness and mode of approaching arguments. They do not know, nor do they ask, what I currently believe, why I believe and don’t believe what I do, my history as a believing Christian, and how I currently view the world. None of that matters, because the Christian apologetic is so unbreakable that obviously no pathetic argument I make can possibly stand a chance, and from that arrogant assumption alone, all my philosophical leanings can somehow be perceived with the Christian’s uncanny empathy and intuition.

In order to make the charge against “bias” seem less arrogant, the Apologist will often say, “we all approach these debates with biases, both the Christian and the non-Christian alike. We all have biases that we bring to the table and that colors our decisions!” I am personally shocked at how many non-Christians accept this as a valid point! I do not accept it. I do not believe it to be valid, at least amongst mature, open-minded adults, which I presume most people interested in these theistic topics are.

I work in an environment in which I must daily make decisions that affect the lives of my colleagues and that can carry millions of dollars in ramifications. It is a heavy responsibility, but fortunately I work amongst professionals who help carry the load. We advise each other. We debate. We argue. We bring in new information and unforeseen data to the table. We passionately try to change each other’s minds, because of the large stakes involved. But because we are professionals, we (usually) concede when a colleague makes an argument that makes the most valid points and ends up winning the day. We never assume that a colleague who is unwilling to budge on an issue is doing so because of “presuppositional bias”. Instead, it is our duty to, not only listen to their points, but to put ourselves in their shoes, and as best as we can see things from the other’s perspective. In other words, we try our best to remove any “bias” that we may have, and to listen and empathize with the other viewpoints being offered.

And because of the heavy stakes involved, and because of the burden of responsibility that I must carry, frankly I want to be proven wrong! I want somebody who knows something that I do not, or who views issues in ways I never thought of, or has information, even if unsavory, that will show that I am wrong and lead me down the correct path.

The mature person who is weighing argumentation is usually able and capable of empathizing with an opponent. We can see things in others’ eyes. And the mature person is willing to use this empathy to perhaps learn something new, and alter their view of the world.

We all do it! Be it an employer, a landlord, a politician, a lawyer, a judge, a supervisor of any kind – we must empathize with others, we must try to view things as they do in order to make smart decisions that affect them, along with ourselves and others. We do it with loved ones who see things in their unique way. A parent must adopt the viewpoint of their children to try and understand them. I must adopt the philosophical viewpoints of my wife, as hard as it may sometimes be, in order to understand her – and believe me, it has definitely affected my way of thinking! When I began to seriously doubt and question my Christian Faith, I adopted all viewpoints I encountered as my own, and tried my best to take the apologetic arguments on their own terms.

We all do this. Anybody can do this. With enough insight, education and honesty, I believe we can, to a reasonable degree, adopt and empathize with any philosophical “bias” or “presupposition” and engage with it, and accept or reject it on its own terms, and I think that we can do a reasonable job of it. For this reason I think the charge of “presuppositional bias” that “we all have and cannot overcome” is not just false, it is a simple-minded copout. It is an excuse that is used, and all too frequently accepted in debate that I personally think is bogus. If an argument is to be presented, we are all capable of putting aside biases, at least long enough to empathize and engage in the argument.

So Christian Apologist, I am predisposed not to believe your apologetic argument because I deny the existence of the miraculous?

No Christian. I am not buying it. If you have an apologetic argument to make, then make it and stop with the excuses. I promise to do my best to engage your side of the debate, and to listen to any points you may make. I do acknowledge when an Apologist makes a good point. I hope the Apologist will show me wrong on occasion, because only by showing that I am wrong in some regard am I able to learn anything new. But I also promise not to make any resort to your “preconceived biases”. In return, I ask that you address any counter-argument I may have. Do not resort to my “presumptions”. As far as I am concerned, any Christian who declares that I do not accept an apologetic argument because of my “presuppositions” has just conceded the argument. I will now view such an argument no differently than I do to a Christian who tells me, after all options have been argued, that I just need Faith to believe. Whether the Christian uses the word “presupposition” or “Faith”, the meaning is the same, the argument is just as vacuous, and the conversation is just as finished.


DagoodS said...

I agree with this. I, too, find it a lazy cop-out once the Christian apologist finds their arguments are too weak, to cough up this lame excuse.

Like you, I argue with people every day who are “predisposed” against me. Lawyers representing adversaries, adversaries themselves, judges, jurors, etc. The tools available to me are facts, arguments and demonstrations. If every time someone disagreed with me, I yelped this whine—I would be laughed out of my profession.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

My mom often falls back on the line that my intellect has led me astray. Then, it seems to me, she gloats. For some reason, she doesn't think that she is smart and this finally gives her an edge over me, as if it were a competition.

I guess you can't argue with a person who blames your "bias" for not accepting your argument than a person who blames your intellect for misleading you. But at least you can point out what they are doing.

Anonymous said...

The interesting thing about bias is that I would be quite willing to believe a person could be raised from the dead if it could be proven that it ever happened. I've had people give me the Case for Christ and say "now here you go read this, it's proof." As if none of the sources could have possibly been forged, altered, enhanced, or even made up. Apologetics is nothing more than reassuring the faithful that they haven't wasted their lives.

Anonymous said...

Although you don't go into extreme detail regarding your profession, I believe you mentioned that it involved millions of dollars. The give and take of a finance job, courtroom litigation, or other "high stakes" professional endeavors just isn't the same as the kind of discussions that people have about political, philosophical, ethical, or religious issues.

When two people are on diametrically opposite sides of an argument, and the mental bedrock undergirding their positions is completely dissimilar, then they could theoretically have an "argument" that went on forever and yet progressed absolutely nowhere. The only exceptions would be if: A) one of them changed his/her mental bedrock (I remember you mentioned you detest the concept of "worldview"); B) one of them, under pressure or duress, caved in.

Two competent professionals, who got along well and made multi-million dollars decisions regarding which projects to fund, could disagree about abortion, for example, and never come to a meeting of the minds via further conversation, argumentation, or debate. "Sweet reason" alone will never be able to bridge this chasm. The "pro-choice" side views the rights of the pregnant woman as having the top priority, and the "pro-life" side views the rights of the in-utero human as having the top priority.

None of the above is anything you haven't heard and/or thought of innumerable times before.

HeIsSailing said...

Hello Anonymous. Thank you for your interest in my blog, and your thoughtful comment. I do appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

You are using preconceptions and you are acting out because it reveals your weakness. Anyone who argues from a preconception is avoiding the entire process of logic, setting aside all science, and not following the evidence. This is called faith. Faith in your view. That's not a basis to argue from. One cannot argue a Christian is somehow diminished because they argue from a base of faith, when in fact you are also doing the same. It is clear that this bothers you. Sorry. the truth is not always easy to hear.