On Irrationalism & Apologetics
Welcome back! Happy new year. Join me as we continue rummaging our way my past as a willing-and-enthusiastic attendee of an early-2000s Christian Evangelical summer camp.
A quick aside before we get back to my notebooks: this camp actually came up momentarily during my holiday break at my parent’s house: we were watching home videos, and my sibling fast-forwarded past the camp’s “graduation ceremony”. An in-law asked what the ceremony was from – one of my siblings said “a summer camp” (true), but my mom specified it was “an apologetics camp” (more accurate).
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Friends, the word “apologetics” is dotted-red-underlined in the Substack editor. This word isn’t nearly as commonplace as I assumed. In fact, I just pulled up its Wikipedia definition and have learned this very day that it’s a religious (primarily Christian) term. I honestly didn’t know this! I’m so accustomed to the term that I have always passively assumed its usage was far more broad; that it was a general term for a type of argumentative defense. It’s not! The term “apologia” is more broadly used, apparently, but “apologetics” isn’t. It’s about the defense of one’s religion, specifically.
However, that in and of itself is not inherently ominous; one has every right to defend one’s beliefs in a debate, argument, what have you – a Christian would quote 1 Peter here and call this giving “an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
However, Evangelicalism’s core insistence of a universal, objective capital-t Truth means that apologetics in the Evangelical sense is not simply a defense of one’s individual beliefs & perspective – it’s instead a defense of the ONLY valid perspective.
You might recall a few posts back (gosh, I should start using subheadings so I can link directly to sections) that Evangelicalism presents itself as inherently Reasonable, and that in my last post, I mentioned that one of the speakers said “the opposite of logic & reason is not faith, but irrationalism.”
So, naturally, the next talk at my camp dug right into the concept of “irrationalism” and sought to position Christianity not simply as logical, but the most logical. Here’s this session’s thesis statement:
Over my years of deconstruction, I’ve thought a lot about how much that concept itself exposes what is going on here. If faith is the unshakeable core of a belief system, why is it so at risk from Secular Colleges and the power of Reason? Why is the solution not simply more faith? Why not stop at “Christianity isn’t irrational” instead of trying to land “Christianity is the MOST rational”?
Here, the Evangelical might answer that the forces of Secularism are simply that powerful, but what I’ve come to believe over the last few years is that Evangelicalism is simply that fragile.
Logic & reason are themes Evangelical apologetics returns to again and again – faith, as you’ll see repeatedly, is treated more as an accessory, something romantic to sprinkle on top to seal the leaks, rather than a core driving force. Throwing to Greek and Latin, leveraging hermeneutics, varnishing Evangelical precepts with a coating of logic & reason – this is the wheelhouse of Classical Christian Education, a system largely based on the curriculum and texts of the wildly problematic megachurch pastor Douglas Wilson. (I simply am not the person to dive too deep here but suffice to say Classical Education has been doing their best to distance themselves from this past; this guy isn’t even liked by other ultraconservative types).
Faith simply isn’t enough to fuel Evangelicalism, because its goals are too broad, its concepts too dogmatic, its systems too universal. A pastor from a Evangelical pulpit is generally satisfied with using the language of faith – after all, Evangelicalism presents itself as a simple no-frills relationship with Jesus that can be confirmed by simply praying the “sinner’s prayer” and getting saved.
In contrast, an apologetics camp is focused on the discipleship of the already-saved: it’s here to provide teenagers with a toolkit to defend their faith in their imminent secular college spaces, where literally any given opposing perspective could threaten to chip away at their definition of Objective Truth. Many concepts that Evangelicalism holds have to stay absolutely unscathed, because they’re so unyielding: the Bible must be inerrant, morals must be objective and absolute, Creation was 6 literal days (we’ll get there soon, promise), and so forth. There’s a lot that doesn’t stand up to modern methods of historical criticism, and kids will surely encounter these ideas and be at risk of losing their faith.
Anyway, let’s load up the chamber for kids heading into college:
The case being built here is very straightforward: it’s crucial that Evangelicalism construct an equally-universal system of beliefs to push back against, and as such, it has to be presented as universal to the point of absurdity (“no one can know anything”) and also in conflict with itself – you say there is no absolute truth, and yet that statement is absolute!
I’m honestly exhausted just thinking back to this. So much of what we were given were Perfect Things To Say for hypothetical scenarios where we were the only Christian kid in a future college classroom. We were given snippy comebacks to deploy as we stood proud against a teacher who had called us out by name and attacked for our faith. We were prepared to be put on the spot in defense of our concrete belief in objective truth, for our willingness to stand up and say yes, someone CAN know something – to proudly declare to a room of lost people that yes, there is a Truth to Know.
Knowing The Enemy
The Evangelical idea of what the problem is, who the enemy is, what the thing being discussed even is – these are very hard things to unpack! The term “deconstruction” is so apt for the process one must undergo: you can’t just reevaluate your beliefs, because you’d be rejecting logic itself! You can’t just let go of your beliefs, because they’re sources of safety – of apologetics, of defense against irrationalism!
One simply can’t discard their entire system of belief (at least, I sure couldn’t), because the existential consequences are too dire, the danger too great, the choice too binary. The Evangelical has to deconstruct not just their beliefs, but their understanding of what their beliefs are a response to.
At camp, we were loaded up with hyper-reductive, judgement-heavy, scary definitions of various opposing views – a key way to keep the fear alive, to make it dangerous to reevaluate one’s beliefs. Consider:
My handwriting is awful to attempt to read, so here’s a rundown of this flood of definitions that came our way:
Evidentialism: it’s immoral to believe anything without sufficient proof
Positivism: it’s irrational to believe anything that is not verified by the scientific method
Radical feminism: logic must be rejected because it’s a tool that male chauvinists use to keep women in oppression
Solipsism: I’m all that exists
Epistemological relativism: all beliefs are true
Deconstructionism: [points to another section of the document where it reads “it' is impossible to know the meaning of any written text”
You may recognize one or more of these as incredibly bad-faith one-line descriptions – but without, say, meeting or talking to people who actually engage with these or other systems of thought, kids at this camp (like me! I definitely felt this) were left to picture people who were malevolent; who were out to get them with explicitly negative and destructive systems of thought, who were just as dogmatic, or more so, than Evangelicals, worshiping the god of Reason as a dark-side variant to the god of the Bible.
But again, the point of descriptions like these is not education, but apologetics. The point isn’t to weigh a particular concept as potentially valid or with merit, but to present it in a conveniently absurd-sounding package so the focus can return to equipping students with silver-bullet defenses against it.
And honestly, the point isn't to provide kids with the tools for a good-faith discussion or even an evangelical "conversion" of another person, so much as providing Good Christian Children with rhetorical armor against people who think differently.
And if a good Christian high-schooler attends this camp, proceeds on to a Christian college, marry a Christian partner, and live the rest of their lives as an upstanding Evangelical, they may never encounter terms like this with any more weight or context – or, god forbid, truly engage with, say, a radical feminist in good faith.
Because even if they did find themselves in that situation, they’d view that other person not as a peer, or as an equal, but as someone who holds inherently irrational views – someone who is out to get them – someone to practice Apologetics against.
If you’re a non-Evangelical reading this, please understand: until an Evangelical starts deconstructing – namely, that they have at least begun to engage with the very, very scary concept that they might not have access to universal capital-T truth – they won’t see you as someone with any Truth to give, and they don’t have the tools, language, or mental model to accept your perspective as true or valid. Because there’s only space for one Truth.
Alright, friends, that’s all I have for you today. But stay tuned, because the very next talk I attended, with the same speaker, takes a hard right turn, in all senses of the word. Join me next time for a critique of “Christian socialism.” You can’t wait!
“Secularism is powerful” doesn’t really tell the whole story here, but the more-accurate answer as to why Evangelicalism finds secular schools of thought so threatening is winding enough that I’m deploying a footnote for it.
Here’s the deal, as I understand it: it's not just that Secularism is that powerful, but that there are 2-3 things at work:
1. Because humans have a “God-shaped hole”, they are particularly given to questioning, rationalization, and explanation. These are God-given gifts built into our humanity that both reflect the character of God and also point us back to God. However, without God, our attempts to work this out are inherently flawed. One can only see the Truth with God, no matter how hard you try. (How much Truth you have access to depends on how Calvinist your beliefs lean, something I dug into a few posts back).
2. Because Satan is real and an actual enemy of God, he is going to capitalize and pervert our nature for his own purpose, therefore:
3. If you encounter anything that is intellectually at odds with “God's way”, it's Satan's way.