Corollary for apologetics

People don’t choose to believe or not to believe; they choose between beliefs. Thus, the apologist’s task is in some ways easier, and in some ways more difficult, than it would be if people chose between belief and pure agnosticism. The Christian is not obliged always to be on the defensive; he can go on the attack. We imagine when defending one dogma after another that there is some natural, unproblematic fallback (“not believing”) to which anyone can default if our arguments fail. In fact, the rival–at this time, there is really only one–involves its own questionable metaphysical and ethical commitments. The rival is itself incarnate in flawed human beings and has its own history of crime and corruption. For someone confronting a choice between the two belief systems, an argument against the rival system is ipso facto an argument for the plausibility of Christianity, and an argument for Christianity is ipso facto an argument against the rival. Conversely, all the propaganda he imbibes from news, entertainment, and academia in favor of establishment Leftism inclines him against Christianity, which it identifies as the oppressor civilization.

The best works of apologetics (such as those of Pascal, C. S. Lewis, and Chesterton) usually have a very definite rival belief system in mind. Confronted with a different rival (e.g. Islam) their arguments would have little relevance or force. C. S. Lewis, for example, assumed that the rival is metaphysical materialism coupled with moral relativism/nihilism. His arguments today are neither better nor worse than they ever were, but they are less effective now that the rival, while still atheistic and inconsistently materialistic, has embraced moral puritanism and scapegoating. Indeed, today any nonmoral perspective on racial or Christian-Jewish relations (e.g. explaining conflicts in terms of divergences of interests or competition for scarce resources rather than to white, Christian malevolence) provokes outrage. An argument for the existence of objective morals no longer strikes at the heart of the enemy, not the way an argument against the idea that the world is divided into oppressor and victim classes would.

When I ask myself why I am a Christian, the first thing that comes to mind (not the most logically demonstrative but the closest to my heart) is not an argument or a piece of evidence, but a sense of revulsion, revulsion at the idea that loyalty to fathers and kings is for suckers, and that reverence toward ancestors and sacred objects is for fools. This is the vulgar and insensible attitude I see at the heart of the rival Leftist system. Rejecting it wouldn’t help one decide between Christianity and Confucianism, but at the moment Confucianism is (perhaps unfortunately) not one of the live choices facing Western man.

17 thoughts on “Corollary for apologetics

  1. When I ask myself why I am a Christian, the first thing that comes to mind (not the most logically demonstrative but the closest to my heart) is not an argument or a piece of evidence, but a sense of revulsion, revulsion at the idea that loyalty to fathers and kings is for suckers, and that reverence toward ancestors and sacred objects is for fools.

    Look, I don’t know you and you have no reason to be interested in my opinion – but isn’t this kind of a pathetic thing to admit? Your deepest religious impulses come not from awe, or love, or devotion, but from revulsion? That seems sad to me. Not that revulsion doesn’t have its place, but is that place really at the center of one’s faith?

    It’s also curious to me that your revulsion is not directed against something like cruelty, or sinfulness, but at an abstract idea (and really, kind of a caricature at that). Really, this is what drives you? I guess that’s not so hard to believe, ideas can inspire powerful feelings of all sorts, revulsion included.

    • The first thing that comes to mind related to apologetics and the deepest religious impulses of someone are to me two entirely different things. I am curious whether you are actually conscious of making such parallels and then drawing conclusions from them.

      Most importantly, as is usual with your comments, there is a certain misalignment (relative to theists) already at the level of definitions and concepts, which necessarily breaks the conversation sooner or later. One example here is what ideas are.

      • I can’t quite parse your comment but the OP said:

        When I ask myself why I am a Christian, the first thing that comes to mind (not the most logically demonstrative but the closest to my heart) is not an argument or a piece of evidence, but a sense of revulsion,

        This statement is obviously more about religious impulses than apologetics (defense of religion via argument), it explicitly says so!

        I’m sure there are many “misalignments” between how I think and you think. “What ideas are” is not one that springs to mind, but now I’m curious. What is the nature of this misalignment?

    • Admitting “pathetic” things about one’s self is the beginning of self-awareness. I’m not at all sure that revulsion against impiety is pathetic, but will grant that it sounds small-minded. I would personally admire a leftist who admitted that a vindictive hatred of normality was part of his motivation–that his noble impulse for justice was mixed with a base impulse for revenge. Revulsion against impiety is a species of revulsion against cruelty since the dead are not here to defend their reputations. We are angered by defamation of our dead for the same reason we are angered by mocking of our children–the strong are bullying the weak.

      • Well we all have our pathetic or small-minded aspects, to be sure. But religion is supposed to be about our more expansive aspects, so basing it on revulsion just seems kind of off to me.

        I can’t speak for all leftists, but as humans we are prone to all the usual emotions. For myself, I find that the impulse for justice is pretty basic; whatever rage or hatred I have towards the unjust is real enough, but secondary. You’ll have to take my word for it, or not.

        The idea that impiety is cruelty towards the dead is odd. The dead can’t suffer so it is impossible to be cruel to them.

        And I thought reactionaries were generally pro-bullying; defending the weak against the strong sounds suspiciously like justice and we know how they feel about that.

      • Only non-religious people think religion is about “our more expansive aspects,” whatever those may be. This is just the prejudice that openness is the telos of religion, whereas renunciation and taboo are central to all real religions. Religion is precisely a salutary fear of “our more expansive aspects.”

        Do you really have an “impulse towards justice,” or might this be, in some degree, a rationalization of your envy, resentment, vanity . . .? I understand this is not how you experience the impulse, but no one experiences their rationalizations as rationalizations. Old-fashioned examination of conscience helps, though.

        A cruel person enjoys making another person suffer, so the essence of cruelty is in the enjoyment of the cruel person and not in the suffering of the person to whom they are cruel. We are all capable (and guilty) of enjoying cruel thoughts, often about imaginary people. When we enjoy cruel thoughts about the dead, we are obviously guilty of injustice to the dead.

        Your last quip shows you have no extraordinary “impulse towards justice,” since we call ourselves reactionaries and are in no sense pro-bullying. Reactionaries actually tend to have quaint notions about chivalry, noblesse oblige, and paternalism. We are fatally attracted to the romance of lost causes. If we lusted after power, we would join the winning side.

      • Religion is precisely a salutary fear of “our more expansive aspects.”

        That is both sad and simply incorrect as an anthropological fact. Also seems to conflict with Christian doctrine, in which love casteth out fear, but that’s not really my department. At any rate it doesn’t sound very appealing.

        Do you really have an “impulse towards justice,” or might this be, in some degree, a rationalization of your envy, resentment, vanity . . .?

        It might be! As you say, nobody is a good judge of their own motivations. I suppose it is in keeping with your religion of fear that you would automatically assume that envy, resentment, and vanity are stronger forces than justice and so more salient. You might be right; certainly they seem to dominate in the quotidian world. But religion is directed to a world superior to that.

        I do owe you an apology about the remark about bullying. I have read (with a sort of horrified fascination) defenses of bullying on other right-wing sites, using the logic that it was somehow a way of building vital male character and asserting the kind of violent dominance of inferiors by superiors that is at the core of a well-ordered hierarchical society. But that probably wasn’t here, and I shouldn’t lump together the beliefs of every right-wing individual I find on the internet.

        It’s certainly annoying when the equivalent is done in talk about “the Left” as if it was a single agent that encompasses everyone from Stalin to Barack Obama to Noam Chomsky to Joan Baez.

      • Hi a.morphous,

        Thank you for creating a stimulating discussion thread on my post.

        I suspect that many people experience their beliefs and commitments most vividly through the medium of contrast (e.g. feel rage at injustice more passionately than serene joy at justice, to invoke one of your examples). Nevertheless, my experience with my fellow human beings suggests to me that I am unusually petty and driven by resentment and stubbornness. Let us be grateful that most men are not like me!

        The above conversation also gives me a chance to bring up a feature of premodern morality. Before the 19th century, the usual understanding of justice was that of Aristotle–giving to each his due. (It’s amusing to think that a great political theorist like John Rawls could write a book about justice with little mention of what most people think of when they hear the word–punishment.) It is just to accord each his due whether it benefits the recipient or not, so it can offend the sense of justice of a man of premodern mentality when God or deceased ancestors are not accorded the piety which is their due, even though God et al presumably do not suffer from the slight.

    • Your deepest religious impulses come not from awe, or love, or devotion, but from revulsion?

      The revulsion stems from love and devotion, though. One experiences a sense of revulsion towards those who dishonor our ancestors precisely because one feels a deep sense of love, reverence, and gratitude for his ancestors. It’s analogous to how one might feel towards a man who insulted his father: he experiences anger precisely because he loves and honors his father.

      Not sure what you mean by saying it’s an abstract idea. Aren’t ‘cruelty’ and ‘sinfulness’ much more abstract? No doubt I would find it easy to direct my revulsion against particular acts of cruelty, but ‘cruelty’ as such won’t elicit much emotion for most.

  2. This is very well put. It does not speak well of my faith, but disgust with the alternative is a significant part of it. It is visceral, kind of like a gag reflex.

  3. Bear with me because I’m not too sure of my writing abilities.

    I think part of the key is reawakening the intuitive part of reason. I don’t mean vague feelings but direct perception, the same way you can’t exactly explain when you sense someone’s lying to you, or that that car is about to move into your lane without signaling. It’s part of the common sense of GKC or the “horse sense” of CSL.

    Your revulsion isn’t a just a feeling, unmoored from your reason. I knew Christ was real before I had any real knowledge of philosophy or apologetics, I was exposed to the Gospel and I believe God revealed Himself to me. I knew it was true. “Well it’s just a feeling and emotional evangelism…” No. I didn’t feel I knew.

    I think your revulsion is from the blueprint God put in all of us. Anything that goes against it is a con, I may not exactly see the con, but if a man offers me something for nothing, no matter how cunning his sales pitch, I know I’m being conned.

    This intuitive sense is not again the analytical part of reasoning they work together, you must have both, they inform each other. It’s not a perfect tool either, we’re human nothing’s going to be perfect until God makes it that way.

    But I think we’ve thrown it away because it’s not as respectable as analytics, like we’ve tossed the love of God and the value of the human heart. So we’re half blind and lukewarm. But that’s a bigger discussion.

    As an aside it’s why I hate the saying “facts don’t care about your feelings”. The leftist isn’t driven by his feelings, he has feelings because of his ideas and beliefs, if he didn’t believe whatever, he wouldn’t have his rage or his scorn.

  4. A.morphous, there are at least two aesthetic urges to faith. One is the conviction – or, indeed, a mere apprehension – of the beautiful integrity of things. Another is the horror of sin, evil, pain, death.

    These are each the obverse of the other. If there is nothing but sin, evil, pain, and death, then there can be no apprehension or conviction of the beautiful integrity of things. If there is a beautiful integrity of things, then any defect in it is going to look remarkably bad by comparison with the whole. The two responses arrive in human life as a package deal. Indeed, religion per se can be construed as a response to these dual apprehensions, each of which is implicit in the other: of beauty, and of ugliness; to which the appropriate responses are, respectively, worship, and horror.

    Obviously beauty is prior to ugliness, as holiness is prior to profanity. But whence, then, ugliness and profanity? How to reconcile them, all? Such is the problem and project of religion, or at least of religious philosophy.

    Bonald could not feel revulsion toward impiety were he not already pious. Were he not already pious, impiety would not appear to him impious, and he would not even notice it. For the pious, the revulsion of impiety – visceral horror at the sheer ugliness of it – is a strong motivation to holiness of life. But you can’t feel that revulsion if you are not already inclined to holiness in the first place. Impiety is ugly only by contrast with that beauty of holiness, to which you are already acutely alive.

    No sort of such a problem as impiety – or of disorder in any domain of life – could possibly arise in a purely profane soul. That you are concerned with justice, then – as, plainly, you certainly are – indicates that you are not yourself wholly profane, whatever you might think. If you are aware of justice, and so of injustice – and if, a fortiori, you care about them – why then, implicitly, you are a theist.

    This agrees with the far more general observation that, in practical terms, atheism supervenes theism. Obviously the question whether there is God supervenes the notion that there might be God. If there might be God, then God is possible; and “God,” properly speaking, is necessary if he is first possible; God is possible; ergo, etc. So, one cannot be atheist except insofar as one has accepted theism.

    But, more fundamentally, one cannot think that one has any access to absolute truth of any sort until one has first agreed, at least implicitly, that there is such a thing as an absolute truth, to which there is access. This is as much as to say that one cannot think that one has any access to absolute truth, so as to be able to assert any proposition whatsoever, unless there be God.

    Take, e.g., the assertions of such supposed absolute truths as that one cannot have access to absolute truth, or that there is no such thing, or that there is no God, or that there is not sufficient evidence for God (which relevates questions of what constitutes absolute sufficiency, what constitutes absolute evidence, and so forth (all notions whatever are called into radical question by nominalism (the very notion of the notion per se implies the absolute notion of the notion, and thus the principial refutation of nominalism; nominalism can be asserted only in and by means of terms it declares vacuous))). No such assertion can be true if there be no absolute truth.

    If p – any p whatever – then God. Simple. For, p iff God.

    This, anyway, on any proper notion of the denotation of “God.”

    • Kristor, I always appreciate your elegant and clear writing. Your dissection of faith into two opposed urges seems kind of off to me though. Maybe it’s overly biased towards Christianity – I don’t think all religions have such a strong focus on sin and evil, not to mention equating them with death.

      It strikes me as quite wrong, for instance, to oppose “death” and “the integrity of things”. Death is simply a condition of life as a human, and so very much part of the integrity of things.

      I don’t have much horror of death in the abstract, and I don’t really understand that feeling in others. I regard it as something of a moral failing, albeit a very common one. Accepting the actual conditions of your life is a necessary precursor to living a good life. Denial of death is not just a failing of Christians or the religious – I know many hardcore materialists who want to make plans to freeze their brains on the chance they could be someday revived and given new life. I’m equally judgmental about them; at some deep level they are failing to come to grips with reality.

      If you are aware of justice, and so of injustice – and if, a fortiori, you care about them – why then, implicitly, you are a theist.

      Uh, sorry. There are many non-theistic bases for morality and justice. I think you are conflating theism with any sort of transcendent idea whatsoever, due to your particular brand of dualism that divides the cosmos into the profane and the theistic. I reject all such dualisms but that one is particularly harmful.

      • Thanks, a.morphous. I appreciate your writing, too. It is quite clear, even though I find that we are often at odds categoreally, so that we begin to talk past each other. I should say too that while I often reprove you for your characteristic descents into snark, I also find them quite funny, in a mordant way.

        Your dissection of faith into two opposed urges seems kind of off to me though. Maybe it’s overly biased towards Christianity – I don’t think all religions have such a strong focus on sin and evil, not to mention equating them with death.

        The two urges to religion that I noticed are not intended as an exhaustive account. I suppose there are many other urges to faith.

        In noticing evil as a palmary urge to the investigation that can end in faith of some sort, I had in mind the focus of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism upon suffering, and how to cope with it. As for whether death is evil, it would seem that almost everyone thinks so, because they almost all try to avoid it with all their might.

        Death is indeed natural in our world. But it disintegrates organisms; it destroys them. It is a painful aspect of the world. That’s why we notice it, and want to understand it.

        Christians don’t deny death. On the contrary. Christian spiritual life is an anticipation and rehearsal of death. The mature Christian does not fear death. He looks forward to it.

        There are indeed non-theistic accounts of morality and justice, but they all fail. The only way that something can be absolutely right or wrong is if there is some absolute standard of morality. And such an absolute standard can be furnished only by some Actual Absolute: the standard must be real if it is to be absolute, because any sort of thing must be real in order to be anything at all. The same goes for any transcendent idea.

      • In noticing evil as a palmary urge to the investigation that can end in faith of some sort, I had in mind the focus of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism upon suffering, and how to cope with it

        Buddhism certainly has a focus on suffering; Taoism does not as far as I know (and I know very little of Hinduism). But Buddhism does not equate suffering and evil. But yes I take your larger point; Buddhism certainly includes recoil from death and suffering as part of its origin story.

        As for whether death is evil, it would seem that almost everyone thinks so, because they almost all try to avoid it with all their might…Death is indeed natural in our world. But it disintegrates organisms; it destroys them. It is a painful aspect of the world. That’s why we notice it, and want to understand it.

        “Evil” does not mean “unpleasant”. One avoids unpleasant things, from rotten smells to death, but neither of those are evil, which implies intention.

        And yes, everyone pretty much tries to avoid death, including me of course. The question is not one’s attitude to death itself, but to the knowledge of death, to the concept of death. Wrong attitudes to death and unpleasantness (and to positive feelings also) are basically what Buddhism means by suffering (dukkha). Attachment and aversion are twin “sins” that are the source of dukkha, although that is not quite the right word for them.

        Christians don’t deny death. On the contrary. Christian spiritual life is an anticipation and rehearsal of death. The mature Christian does not fear death. He looks forward to it.

        I would certainly grant that the Christian attitude to death is more complex than indicated by the word “denial”. On the contrary, death is at the very center of Christian iconography! What is being denied is not death but the reality of it, the reality of finitude and impermanence.

        And again maybe “deny” is not quite the right word. It’s not like Christians aren’t aware of finitude. Christianity, being a highly successful religion, has ways of acknowledging and accommodating the realities of the material world. Devalue? All this obsession with eternity necessarily results in deprecating the material, the bodily, the profane, the merely real.

        There are indeed non-theistic accounts of morality and justice, but they all fail. The only way that something can be absolutely right or wrong is if there is some absolute standard of morality.

        So? There is no absolute right or wrong or standard of morality. Sorry to break it to you.

        And such an absolute standard can be furnished only by some Actual Absolute: the standard must be real if it is to be absolute, because any sort of thing must be real in order to be anything at all.

        Well, we inhabit separate realities then. In mine, real things are the finite concrete things available to the senses; absolutes are abstract mental constructs, and while they may be hugely important they certainly aren’t realer, whatever that could even mean, than the material world and our experience of it.

        Buddhism has quite a lot to say about the relationship of these two realities under the name “Two Truths Doctrine”, see eg https://emptinessteachings.com/2014/09/11/the-two-truths-of-buddhism-and-the-emptiness-of-emptiness/

        To realize emptiness is not to find a transcendent place or truth to land in but to see the conventional as merely conventional. Here lies the key to liberation… When one is no longer fooled by false appearances, phenomena are neither reified nor denied. They are understood interdependently, as ultimately empty and thus, as only conventionally real. This is the Middle Way.

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