Apologetics is an evangelistic exercise aimed at removing “intellectual obstacles” to faith by presenting arguments in support of theism. Importantly, apologetic arguments are merely scaffolding, a means to an end. The ultimate goal is to get the person to the point of conversion, to the point where the scaffolding is no longer necessary and the person believes on faith.
There is a reason for this. Faith ensures that the belief is less likely to be perturbed when the scaffolding is removed or if conflicting evidence comes to light. A seemingly strong case for theism could be overturned by further inquiry, but faith ensures that the person continues to believe even if it is overturned.
Christian apologist William Lane Craig provides an example of this principle at work. In his book, Reasonable Faith, Craig maintains that rational arguments should only serve a subsidiary role in establishing the truth of Christianity. The arguments themselves are not essential because, in Craig’s view, reason must always be subservient to faith — “philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology,” (p. 48) as he puts it — and can only be used legitimately in the support of Christian theism, never to oppose it. Any exercise of reason that contravenes dogma is thus deemed illegitimate, ensuring that it makes no doxastic impact.
This is how the apologetics game is played. As a rule, all participants in the discourse are expected to be open to be convinced (i.e., responsive to whatever open-minded inquiry may reveal), except the apologist, who has devised a strategy to avoid ever having to reconsider the doctrines he has committed himself to. As expedient as this apologetic manoeuvre may seem, it poses a deep problem: any theist can use the same trick to shield any theology from scrutiny. This brings us back to square one, where we are confronted with innumerable conflicting supernatural claims, each of which may be defended against the evidence using the same trick.
Apologetics is best understood in the context of faith, which is generally touted as a virtue in religion. Faith demands continued belief regardless of how well supported the belief is and even in the face of evidence to the contrary. By discouraging the believer from reconsidering cherished beliefs in light of inquiry, faith fosters dogmatism, which impedes the growth of knowledge by making it harder to detect and remedy errors in thinking. If the aim of discourse is to better our understanding of the world, then we must abandon faith and stop playing the apologetics game.
Note: This appeared as an earlier post, but has been reworked and updated.