My goodness, a mere two days after roasting apologetics as hucksterism intended for evangelicals alone, I learn about a huge apologetics conference that recently happened. As I read the descriptions, I broke out laughing over and over again. Oh my. This was something, all right. Let’s dive into this conference, see what it offered, and learn why it won’t make any difference to evangelicals’ ongoing decline.
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 1/11/2024. Its audio ‘cast lives there too!)
The 15th Annual Defend apologetics conference
In New Orleans, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) runs a seminary. This seminary, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS), holds an apologetics conference each year. They call it “Defend.” That’s a play on words. Apologetics itself is supposed to be a defense of Christianity. All those terrible arguments and false equivalences and manipulation attempts that apologists devise are supposed to provide heathens with solid reasons to believe in Christian claims.
That’s according to apologists, of course. They have a vested interest in the matter, since they peddle this utter horseshit to the flocks. Heathens don’t usually buy apologetics products, after all!
Well, these apologists descend on New Orleans each year for this Defend conference. At the most recent one, which ran from January 2-5, we’re told that “fifteen plenary speakers and more than 100 breakout sessions” (archive) attracted some “465 registrants from colleges and churches from 20 states.” That’s a record for this conference, by the way! And at this conference, those 465 people “heard biblical responses to pressing questions from culture.”
Of all the plenary speakers, I’ve only heard of one: Shane Pruitt, who leads the Next Gen department of the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB). And I only know of him because we had a good time laughing at him not long ago. The rest hail from places like the C.S. Lewis Institute and Biola University.
Let’s see how they do!
This conference began with possibly the best sign evangelicals will ever give of just how ineffective apologetics really is
The first speaker about apologetics issued those attendees a grave warning, of course. Apologetics, he warned them, is ineffective if its user fails to Jesus correctly and hard enough:
“The degree to which you are effective in evangelism, missions, apologetics, and in ministry in general will in large part be equal to the degree to which you are committed to Jesus Christ, the degree to which you have submitted to the Lordship of Christ,” [Robert] Stewart said. He added with urgency, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”
This warning occurred in the conference’s opening speech. Yes. In the very first speech, someone admitted that apologetics itself is absolutely useless without magic Jesus pixie dust. Worse, the person doing the admitting was the director of NOBTS’s philosophy and theology department.
In the past, evangelicals have given similar signs that they are well aware that apologetics doesn’t do what its hucksters promise repeatedly that it can. But I loved this one because it’s so very obvious that this guy hasn’t seen a lot of conversions due to pure apologetics.
If so, he’s not alone. People don’t convert on the basis of apologetics unless they are really incapable of critical thinking.
Stewart phrases magic Jesus pixie dust as submission and commitment. Of course, nobody can actually see or measure either of those things. What people can see and measure are behavioral and speech-related signs. So evangelicals all learn to convey the qualities of Jesusing through such signs. Unfortunately, actual Jesusing is not required in the least to successfully convey those signs. It thus becomes very easy for predators and abusers to trick and fool evangelicals.
Stewart knows that the charisma and behavior of the apologist is what actually drives home the sale. If the apologist can nail those two requirements, it doesn’t matter what arguments get used—or if arguments get used at all.
Evangelicals: We don’t need no steenkin’ PROOF!
Also evangelicals: OMG! Lookit all this PROOF YES PROOF!
Last time we met up, I marveled at how evangelicals consistently want all kinds of things both ways. They want a god who does real things in the real world constantly at their behest. But they also want a god who cannot be discerned in any way through any objective means.
Similarly, evangelicals want to have faith for no reasons at all. But they’re like everyone else. They want to know that they have faith in Jesus for good reasons. So they gobble up any apologists’ wares promising to give them objectively-real reasons to believe. And then, they sneer at meaniepie heathens who rightly reject that pseudo-evidence and say they live in denial of evangelicals’ totes-for-realsies capital-T Truth.
Back in the 2000s and into the mid-2010s, Creationists pushed very hard for recognition and validation in the Christ-o-sphere. Creationist apologetics remains a firm favorite of today’s apologetics consumer. It all runs along the same lines:
- An observation about the real world.
- Insisting without evidence that this observation couldn’t possibly exist without a Creator making it happen.
- Concluding that a Creator must exist. (Or as we joked all the time, “Therefore, Jesus.”)
Usually, Creationists play coy in public about who this “Creator” must be. Sometimes, they call this being an “intelligent designer” or something similar. This act fools nobody. We heathens always knew, even 20 years ago, that they meant Jesus. And when Creationist apologists hung out with like-minded evangelicals, they always dropped that act anyway.
Unfortunately for the fans of this style of apologetics, it involves a lot of bad-faith arguing, false equivalences, quote mining and cherry picking, and flat-out lies. That’s the only way for Creationist-style apologetics to get from Point A to Point Therefore Jesus. But the Defense conference loves it some Creationism. They happily include even long-debunked arguments in their current lineup of topics.
In the conference writeup at Baptist Press, we find this quote:
Michael Strauss, physics professor, University of Oklahoma, and experimental particle physics researcher at the CERN laboratory, Geneva, Switzerland, said that known science regarding the universe provides “abundant evidence” for a divine creator.
Strauss said three lines of evidence point to a creator: the universe had a beginning, the Big Bang; the universe is finely tuned for life; and the earth is “rare” among all other planets in being habitable by life.
He may be a perfectly adequate physics professor and CERN researcher, but he’s moving well outside his lane to speculate like this. He’s not an astronomer or an astrophysicist or a cosmologist. He studies the infinitely small, not the infinitely large! But he’s willing to besmirch his own scientific integrity for the tribe, so the flocks will gladly accept his self-immolation as long as he tickles their itching ears:
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
See? That happens in apologetics too, not just preaching!
It should be no surprise that all three of Strauss’ totes-for-realsies PROOF YES PROOF were debunked 20 years ago.
That’s what is so remarkable about apologetics. It doesn’t matter how completely debunkers thump these bad arguments. Evangelicals cannot quit them. Once a bad argument enters evangelical space, it stays there. Forever. No matter what.
One: Debunking apologetics arguments about Creationism
“The universe had a beginning, the Big Bang”
Not necessarily. Some theories propose that the universe has always existed (archive). In such a case, the Big Bang (if it indeed started our universe) isn’t the first one ever. Personally, I’d lay my money on this explanation.
But even if the universe had a single distinct beginning, nothing ties that beginning to any gods or “Creators” or “intelligent designers.” We’re human, so we think of beginnings as something that someone has to put in motion somehow. The universe is not required to play along with our failures of imagination.
What’s really funny is that there’s really no way to get from this notion to “therefore, Jesus.” Humans have worshiped many thousands of gods since we’ve been a species. Christians happen to like their version of divinity and think it’s the only valid one, but all those other people and societies thought much the same thing.
Two: Fine tuning dies an ignominious death
“The universe is finely tuned for life”
This claim is impossible to falsify, so it may be safely discarded. But let’s entertain it briefly: If the universe is finely tuned for life, then it’s weird that we’ve only found it in one place in the entire universe in all the time we’ve actively searched for it. The rest of the universe is completely hostile to life. According to cosmologist Sean Carroll, only about 4% of the universe consists of “ordinary matter!”
Indeed, even moving too far away from our own planet is lethal unless we are very well-protected! And on our planet, quite a bit of it is hostile to life. We cannot survive easily in oceans or deserts or at the poles. Quite a bit of our planet’s landmass is almost impossible to use for growing food or making cities.
Incidentally, Douglas Adams brilliantly debunked this false claim. He compared Creationists to water that becomes sentient and figures that the depression in the ground was created specifically for it to inhabit:
“If you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”
We have no evidence – not even a smidgen of it – to believe that the universe has been finely tuned by a cosmic entity for any purpose whatsoever. But we do have minds, and as with the so-called faces showing up in nature, the minds by which we perceive and understand nature also sometimes project false images onto it. We find “evidences” for a fine-tuning God because we humans create and fine-tune things ourselves. So it should come as no surprise when uninformed people come along and assume that someone like us (but higher than us) does the same things. It’s a classic case of projection and a very humbling sign of our own cosmic level of ignorance, arrogance, and juvenility.
It’s good to keep the focus where Holman does: Show us the evidence. No evangelical apologist ever has, nor ever will, nor ever can.
Three: Earth’s uniqueness becomes fodder for opportunistic apologists
“The earth is ‘rare’ among all other planets in being habitable by life”
Strauss’ last bit of PROOF YES PROOF involves a major understatement. Yes, Earth as a life-inhabited planet is “rare,” if by “rare” we mean “it’s the literal only one we’ve ever found, ever, despite many years of searching for others.”
In fact, our universe holds some 100-200 billion galaxies (archive). Of them all, one galaxy contains life. In that galaxy, we count some 100 billion stars (archive). Of those stars, a single life-bearing planet circles around one of them. I’m not good at math, but that sounds like a very small fraction to me.
As far as we can tell, the Earth is not rare but unique.
However, Strauss has no valid reason to point to any gods as an explanation for that uniqueness, any more than he does to point to any gods to explain the universe’s origin or his misfired pattern recognition of fine tuning. In all three claims, he jumps from an observation to an unsupported assertion to “therefore, Jesus.”
His audience already believes, so they’ll accept his bad arguments as PROOF YES PROOF.
Home Run: A quick note from Sean Carroll, who is in fact a cosmologist
William Strauss postures as an expert in cosmology. But as we’ve just seen, he only knows the shoddy apologetics arguments he regurgitates for others. Here’s what a real cosmologist, Sean Carroll, has to say about these regurgitated Creationist claims (archive):
Most modern cosmologists are convinced that conventional scientific progress will ultimately result in a self-contained understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe, without the need to invoke God or any other supernatural involvement. This conviction necessarily falls short of a proof, but it is backed up by good reasons. [. . .]
A provocative way of characterizing these beginning cosmologies is to say that “the universe was created from nothing.” Much debate has gone into deciding what this claim is supposed to mean. Unfortunately, it is a fairly misleading natural-language translation of a concept that is not completely well-defined even at the technical level. Terms that are imprecisely defined include “universe,” “created,” “from,” and “nothing.” (We can argue about “was.”)
The problem with “creation from nothing” is that it conjures an image of a pre-existing “nothingness” out of which the universe spontaneously appeared – not at all what is actually involved in this idea. Partly this is because, as human beings embedded in a universe with an arrow of time, we can’t help but try to explain events in terms of earlier events, even when the event we are trying to explain is explicitly stated to be the earliest one. It would be more accurate to characterize these models by saying “there was a time such that there was no earlier time.” [Location-stamped archive.]
Carroll then notes that Georges Lemaitre, the priest who developed the Big Bang Theory in the first place, refused to use his theory in any kind of apologetics. Lemaitre even advised the pope at the time to avoid doing that as well.
Sean Carroll vs the sad and sorry state of Creatonism
It’s a beautiful paper in every way. It not only eviscerates fine-tuning but multiverse-related Creationist claims, which comes in handy as this Defense apologetics conference featured talks about the multiverse too. Carroll concludes:
Over the past five hundred years, the progress of science has worked to strip away God’s roles in the world. He isn’t needed to keep things moving, or to develop the complexity of living creatures, or to account for the existence of the universe. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the scientific revolution has been in the realm of methodology. Control groups, double-blind experiments, an insistence on precise and testable predictions – a suite of techniques constructed to guard against the very human tendency to see things that aren’t there. There is no control group for the universe, but in our attempts to explain it we should aim for a similar level of rigor.
If and when cosmologists develop a successful scientific understanding of the origin of the universe, we will be left with a picture in which there is no place for God to act – if he does (e.g., through subtle influences on quantum-mechanical transitions or the progress of evolution), it is only in ways that are unnecessary and imperceptible. We can’t be sure that a fully naturalist understanding of cosmology is forthcoming, but at the same time there is no reason to doubt it.
In a way, Carroll subtly calls to mind to another apologetics trope: the god of the gaps. In it, as human understanding expands and we learn the secrets of each mystery in turn, we discover that nothing supernatural is involved. Accordingly, (most) Christians stop using their god as the explanation for each solved mystery.
But there are always other mysteries, and apologists drill down harder on invoking their god as the reason for those. Their god slinks further and further into the shadows as each mystery becomes understood.
In addition to science-based apologetics, evangelicals love history-based apologetics. On the Defense conference’s website (archive), apologists promise to reveal why the New Testament is a history book:
The first five books of the New Testament present us with an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the growth of the early church. Contemporary biblical scholars often downplay the idea that these accounts can be taken at face value. But there are numerous clues, both internal and external, that they are in fact reportage, written by people who are close up to the facts and habitually truthful.
Of these claims, I counter:
- No book in the New Testament was written before the 50s CE.
- Instead of having complete, coherent original texts, we have many thousands of fragments of pages that mostly date back to about the Middle Ages. Of these fragments, none repeats another. Some even contradict each other (archive).
- Nobody in Jerusalem or the Roman Empire wrote a word about Jesus or his followers in the 30s-50s. Of the firecracker public stunts Jesus pulled in the Gospels, these writers are entirely silent. Of his very public trial and the near-riot inspired by it, they wrote nothing. And of the wild events occurring around his death, nothing. Someone might have noticed all those Jewish zombies roaming around town, at least!
- Nobody in the 30s made note of where Jesus was briefly entombed. Nobody cared for centuries. Then, suddenly, Christians cared a lot. Sure enough, people miraculously found a half-dozen tomb sites! One’s in Japan.
- The people named in the New Testament as apostles and followers of Jesus do not exist in any contemporary sources. In particular, contemporary Jewish and Roman writers do not mention Paul, his followers, or anything he did. Centuries later during the Renaissance, someone forged letters between Paul and one of those Roman leaders, Seneca the Younger, because it was just so troubling that Seneca never mentions Paul at all even though they were both supposedly in Rome for two solid years in 60-62CE.
- We know now that the story of Jesus’ trial, the release of Barabbas, the way Pontius Pilate allowed Jewish leaders to take charge, etc., was absolutely not how Romans rolled. Nobody liked Herod Agrippa much, either, but it’s extremely unlikely that he really ordered the deaths of Jewish toddlers.
See also: The four facts of the resurrection, aren’t.
The Defend conference also wrings its little handsies about AI, or artificial intelligence.
And look, a lot of people have expressed concern about AI in recent months and years. I’m not surprised. AI underwent a huge leap recently in sophistication and learning, thanks to the many developers getting involved with it. Probably around the beginning of 2023, Google completely lost control of that race (archive). The leap I refer to here is at least as consequential and momentous as humans’ discovery of writing.
So naturally, AI freaks evangelicals out. Check out this very nervous-sounding writeup:
The capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) continue to accelerate, seemingly at an alarming rate, in both efficiency and ability to mimic qualities and behaviors that were previously considered to be uniquely human. How do we navigate such developments?
By “we,” these apologists mean “evangelicals.” They don’t even like to think about animals using tools. Answers in Genesis, a Creationist group, got really testy about the mere suggestion (archive)! But they found some hand-waving that they think dismisses the possibility. They just moved the goalposts! Now it’s not just tool usage that marks sapience, but the making of “tools that can make more tools.” Yes, that’s an absolutely meaningless distinction. Also, let’s not tell them about corvid birds making compound tools and planning for future tool construction. That’d just wreck everything.
No way are evangelicals pleased that computer systems can duplicate humanity’s intelligence and reasoning ability so well. If humans are not unique and positioned at the very apex of life on Earth, then they might as well just not even bother playing anymore. It’s not just their narcissism at play here, of course. If humans can make machines that sound and reason exactly like humans, then their insistence on needing a god to do that kinda evaporates.
The apologetics conference ends by sneering at Richard Dawkins and strawmanning him
The last plenary speaker is Tawa Anderson. He’s apparently a faculty member at NOBTS (archive) who seems to have that super-trendy totally-an-ex-atheist testimony. His speech is about how Richard Dawkins totally does too believe in “the virgin birth” just like he does, except Dawkins is just too ickie and mean and and rebellious and dishonest to accept and acknowledge that fact:
I will argue, to the contrary, that critics like Dawkins who embrace both an evolutionary explanation for the descent and diversity of biological life and an overarching naturalistic (godless) worldview must believe in a number of inexplicable miracles as well. In particular, I will show why and how naturalistic evolution cannot escape the historicity of the virgin birth.
You’ll all be shocked to know that Anderson does not have a single bit of education or experience in biology. He got a BA in Political Science, then plunged into the seminary world to get degrees in apologetics and ministry stuff. I have absolutely no confidence that he even knows what “naturalistic evolution” really is, much less is able to demonstrate it being completely intertwined with “the historicity of the virgin birth.”
If that were the case, of course, he would not be giving self-described “cheesy” speeches at apologetics conferences. No, he would be submitting a paper to Nature and getting ready for his Nobel Prize in Something-or-Other. After all, he’d be the very first Christian to find real evidence that anything in the Gospels really happened the way the Gospels say. If anyone really could tie “the virgin birth” to the Theory of Evolution in any way, it’d be a game changer. But I really doubt it’ll ever happen.
Man alive, I hope Dawkins finds out about this thing.
What this apologetics conference cannot ever do and will not ever do
The 425 attendees to this conference paid between USD$75-149 to attend. As these things go, that’s not too bad a ticket price. Unfortunately, all it will give its attendees is bad arguments to go with its copious amounts of pseudohistory and pseudoscience.
But it will give them something else that’s not on the menu, won’t it?
This conference really belongs to Ye Olden Daies of evangelical power. It uses apologetics that everybody debunked and laughed at on YouTube a solid decade ago. It provides nothing that evangelicals don’t already have on their YouTube watchlists or their home bookshelves. Aside from the fretting about AI, none of it’s new at all. And even the fretting about AI functions as an extension of evangelicals’ earlier fretting about evolution and extraterrestrial life.
It must be very comforting for the people who arranged and presented these talks and their attendees to sink into these long-familiar arguments and pseudoscience offerings. I get it. I have some vintage cookbooks that I pull out and read when I want to unwind. It comforts me to see those familiar recipes, the chatty wisdom above each one, the pictures of aspirational epicureanism.
Apologetics must fulfill a similar role for evangelicals. All that blahblah tells them:
Don’t worry. You’re smart, but everyone else is a bunch of dumdums. We’re the only ones who get it. The rest of the world is crazypants and in denial of the truth we have. Soon and very soon, we’re going to Heaven! There, we’ll laugh forever and ever at all our enemies in Hell. Stay the course!
The Defense apologetics conference will not do a single thing to improve evangelicals’ membership numbers. It will not revive evangelicals’ long-lost cultural power. But it will snow a bunch of evangelicals into thinking that they have tons of good reasons to believe what they do, and that’s absolutely invaluable in this age of evangelical churn.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter email@example.com (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!