Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Why isn't Apologetics more Effective?

Have you ever had a religious or political discussion with someone where you stated your disagreement in a carefully worded, factual, and well-reasoned response? How did it go? I'm guessing the other person didn't say, "Oh, you're right! Thank you so much." In fact, I bet it's more likely that they responded with something so irrational or incoherent that you couldn't even understand what they were trying to say.

Why it happens
There are several reasons why this happens, but they can more or less be summed up by what psychologists call the backfire effect. This effect explains why people will sometimes strengthen their beliefs about something after they are presented with evidence against it. We like to believe that we're all rational beings who make decisions based on evidence, but that's just not the case most of the time.

The dual process theory is the dominant theory among psychologists to explain how our minds think. According to this theory, system 1 is fast, unconscious, automatic, and emotional while system 2 is slow, deliberate, analytical, and rational. The issue is that we like to think that our rational system 2 is in complete control, but system 1 has much more control than we think it does.

If we believe something is true and are confronted with conflicting data, it is emotionally difficult, especially if it is a deeply held belief. When this happens, system 1 jumps into overdrive and hijacks system 2 in order to defend our original view so that we think we are being rational, but any unbiased observer can see otherwise.

The task of evangelism is to persuade people that their deeply held beliefs are false and that Christ is the only way to eternal life. Apologetics specifically tries to do this with evidence and reason. Unfortunately, this creates the perfect setting for the backfire effect so that in many cases, apologetics may actually cause people to strengthen their current beliefs rather than convert to Christianity! Does this mean that apologists are doomed right from the beginning and there is no point in trying? Not at all. There are ways to avoid the backfire effect for those who want to be effective.

Overcoming the Backfire Effect
Most the apologists I know are relatively smart, educated, and have an interest in intellectual topics. For them, apologetics just makes sense. They are much for interested in esoteric facts than most people and are more capable analyzing the data when they see it. Unfortunately, most people aren't that way, and even the ones who are that way will sometimes fall victim to the backfire effect when their own view is challenged.

The reason I began the reboot of this blog by talking about personality was to lay the foundation for understanding persuasive apologetics by showing that not everyone is the same and will not be convinced the same way. If you are the type of person who just wants to hear facts, you are likely to think others are the same way, and therefore, you will try to convince them with just facts. Anyone who's done apologetics for more than 10 minutes knows it's just not that easy. We have the truth and facts on our side, but people will never hear or understand it until we learn to present our case persuasively.

Over the next several articles, I am going to discuss the psychological principles of persuasion and apply them to evangelism and apologetics so that we can be more effective in what we do. Rather than just leave you hanging, the one bit of practical advice is to avoid arguing. As soon as a discussion becomes an argument, it's likely only going downhill from there. Gracefully bow-out or find a way to apologize and correct it.

Works Cited/Recommendations
If you're interested to learn more about the dual process theory, the book Thinking, Fast and Slow is an excellent and fascinating book that is well worth the read.


  1. Very good article Jay! I am looking forward to the next one.

  2. The title threw me -- should it be "why apologetic is sometimes ineffective?"

  3. Thank you both for the comments. I just noticed my settings require me to approve comments and I had no notification that there were any pending, so I apologize for such a delay.

    Chris. I agree with you, although "usually" might be better than "sometimes." I really think this is the main reason apologetics is ineffective, or at least one of the many reasons that are a factor for any given situation.


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