Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth Part 2

Okay, I'm finally watching this video, because... um... mostly because someone said they'd be interested in my response to it. The background post is here. This is probably more feedback than they wanted, but, well, here we go...

Very, very first impressions: he's a good speaker. He's active, dynamic, charismatic; he's talking about his background, his family, offering some personal info to make a connection. He also talks quickly -- that's part of the "dynamic, charismatic" element, but it also means he's throwing a lot of information at his audience without giving them much chance to stop and assess it.

1:50 "I was the kind of atheist that was really pretty obstinate." I have no particular reason to doubt this, but it's worth mentioning that it's sort of de rigeur in this sort of "I once was lost but now I'm found" story. Lee Strobel was an atheist until he turned his skills as an investigative reporter towards finding out if Christianity was really The Truth; Josh McDowell began his journey as an atheist examining the evidence and seeking the truth. Heck, Mike Warnke was a Satanic High Priest before he found Jesus and became an evangelist -- or at least so he claimed, for years, before Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott debunked pretty much everything he ever claimed. Having said that, I know (and occasionally work with) some police officers; and they tend to pretty black-and-white, clear-cut-categories sorts of people. So assuming that Mr. Wallace was an atheist, he probably was pretty obstinate about it. It's just that any time an apologist starts out talking about how much of an atheist they once were, I'm inclined to take it with a grain of salt.

2:22 - There's a really abrupt transition from "I was an atheist" to "I worked on a lot of high-profile cases" and then some talk about statutes of limitations and cold cases. He's basically setting out his credentials here -- he used to be an atheist, he's done a lot of investigation of things that happened a long time ago.

3:24 - "But now we're gonna take some of those techniques that we learn(ed) doing cold cases, and we're gonna apply them to the Christian worldview." That... seems like some heavy-duty conflation. "A long time ago" in historical terms is very different from "a long time ago" in terms of prosecuting a felony. The past is a foreign country, if you'll permit me to borrow a phrase. Mr. Wallace spends the next couple of minutes talking about how he, and his father, and his son all use basically the same equipment and the same techniques -- three generations! Consistency! -- and how those techniques can be applied even further back... but I'm dubious. So, I'm just going to pause here and point out -- again -- that Baby, It's Cold Outside sounds very different to modern audiences than it did to its original audience, and that's only going back to the 1940s. The idea that you can examine historical documents in the same way that you would look at modern eye-witness testimony or other evidence strikes me as hugely, fundamentally flawed.

That doesn't necessarily mean that he's wrong, of course; but to my mind it's a good reason to be wary.

5:00 - "The problem we're facing with young people ... Christians who attend college leave Christianity in large numbers. It's pretty ugly." This comment isn't exactly problematic, since he's addressing Christian youth at the Summit Worldview Conference, and -- being presumably all Christian -- we can safely assume that they agree that young people leaving Christianity is a Bad Thing. So I don't think he's wrong to mention it here, or to describe it the way he does... except for the part where he seems to be blaming colleges and/or the college environment for their departure. Again, this may be my own experience coloring my interpretation, but "going off to college" also happens to coincide with a point at which young people suddenly become much more free to make their own decisions. (I, myself, quit attending church when I went to college. I hadn't actually considered myself a Christian for two full years before that; it was just that attending church helped maintain the Domestic Tranquility Index while I was still living with my parents.) And there seems to be a social and/or historical trend of young people leaving Christianity right now, quite possibly just because there isn't as much pressure on them to stay as there was for earlier generations.

So while I understand and even sympathize with his desire to help young people remain Christians, I think the assumption that college is some sort of hostile environment may be somewhat (though not completely) misguided. Correlation is not causation.

6:00 "I think there's a simple math to the problem we're seeing... We're gonna add three things. The first thing [is that Christian students are poorly prepared]." Again, there's that belief that college is a hostile environment.

7:15 "Why are you a Christian?" He rattles off a list of answers. "Those are the same answers Mormon give -- they give the same answers as Christians give." So, apparently, Mormons aren't Christians. That's... troubling. First of all, I don't think it's his place to judge. Second, that sure as heck isn't how Mormons see it -- they see themselves, very consistently, as a return to the Christianity of the early church, albeit with some additional revelations given to them. Mr. Wallace has just said that his step-mother is a Mormon, so I find it extremely hard to believe that he doesn't know this. The alternative, of course, is that he knows but doesn't care, which indicates a degree of arrogant disdain that doesn't speak particularly well of him either.

Notice, also, that he's kind of jumping from topic to topic -- he's not laying out his thesis in a neat, orderly set of propositions. Part of that is simply a matter of being a good public speaker; if you just lay out your position one point at a time, it's pretty boring to listen to. But it also makes it easy to just sort of nod along in agreement, since you're only seeing one little piece of things at a time. Hopefully he'll do more to tie it all together as the talk progresses.

8:00 Mr. Wallace supplies another answer: "How about, 'We know it's evidentially true'? They can't say that." Um, yes they can. Maybe if you were talking about Shintoists or neo-Pagans or something, but Mormons? Mormons are working from the same starting point that you're trying to prove is "evidentially true". How do you have a Mormon step-mother and not know this?

8:20 He's finally gotten back to point #2 of the three things he referenced at the 6:00 mark: "Aggressive, antagonistic campuses." (Yep, I called it.)

I dunno, maybe I'm biased -- I mean, I started at an Episcopalian university and finished my undergraduate degree at a University founded and run by the Disciples of Christ. So maybe the public universities are hugely antagonistic to the Christian faith? Maybe it's the community colleges? Except I did my graduate work at a publicly-funded, entirely secular University, and I don't recall seeing anything in the way of Christian-bashing there, either.

"Let's face it: most college campuses are not in favor of Christianity anymore." A) In my experience, that's only true in that most colleges don't seem to care about it one way or the other. B) There's a world of difference between not favoring something -- not granting it special status or special standing -- and being aggressively antagonistic towards it.

9:10 "There's a third thing..."

9:40 Finally, we get there: "Innately fallen humans as students." Whew! Again, this is boilerplate Christian doctrine, so no real problem there.

10:00 "We have a pre-disposition as fallen humans to chase our desires anyway." Okay, I was wrong. I do have a problem with this. The idea that people leave Christianity because they're "in love with their sins" or "they want to be able to sin without being convicted" or just "they want to be able to sin" might hold water if being a Christian seemed to, you know, prevent people from sinning -- or even slow them down in any meaningful way -- but that just isn't how it works. At least, not in my experience, and not in any sort of study I've ever seen.

::sigh:: I think I was hoping that "innately fallen humans as students" meant "we're fallible and we get things wrong"... but, no.

11:25 "We have to move The Church in a new direction. That's why we have something like Summit to begin with. You are The Church. You're the most important demographic in the church." Sure, but just try getting the actual leadership to listen to anything you have to say. (Sorry, that was unnecessarily cynical, but A) I'm hearing that complaint a lot from the sorts of people who get called "post-Evangelicals", and B) I have strong memories of being a teenager, and being regularly assured that my generation had an important role to play, just... y'know... not yet, and in the meantime we should stay quiet and do as we were told.)

(I hated that. And it didn't just come from church-folk, either. Not even close. Dude, you're up there lecturing at the front of the class; you're not a "was", and your students aren't an "is". You're an "is", and if you're lucky your students are all "will-be"s. No, I have no idea how to punctuate that. Otherwise they wouldn't be sitting there listening to you tell them what to do.)

14:00 "This is a stupid missions trip. This is dumb, because this is really a matter of opinion." Nice lead-in. So, at the 14:10 mark, we get "This is the first thing we have to get this morning. You've gotta understand the nature of Truth. If there's no truth, there's no truth about God." We've just hit our first major proposition, our first vital starting point, a quarter of the way through his talk.

This is the difference between persuasive speaking, and laying out a cogent logical argument.

16:30 He's been laying out the difference between objective and subjective, and as an example he's compared a missions trip to preach the superiority of chocolate chip cookies as a desert (subjective) and a trip to explain to people stricken with Tuberculosis about the only effective cure for TB (objective). So he's tying the question of objective vs. subjective together with the question of what's really worth arguing over, at least by implication. He also seems to be making an argument that objective claims are valuable, whereas subjective claims are not -- and I don't entirely agree with that.

However, at this point I'm going to stop. We're roughly a third of the way through this; I have now spent something like four hours to get through sixteen and a half minutes of Mr. Wallace's presentation.

Benchmarks for this point in the talk:

1. I'm extremely impressed with him as a speaker. I think I'd still have disagreed with him, back when I was teen and at least nominally a Christian, but I wouldn't have been bored. A bit impatient for him to get to the meat of his argument, maybe.

2. I'm not terribly impressed with his argument so far, or where he seems to be going with it. It's hard to say for sure, of course, because he skips around a lot and seems to be laying his view out more by a process of accretion than by assembling it into a structure, but that's part of why I'm not terribly impressed so far. It's also, very probably, part of why he's a successful speaker; painstaking logical arguments tend to be boring, whereas persuasive speech needs to be engaging.

3. I keep wondering about the apparent teenagers that make up his audience: are they all gung-ho and inspired, or are there any of them who are more like I was: not responding, but weighing up Mr. Wallace's assertions privately, reserving judgement for later? Useless speculation, but in terms of laying out my biases it's worth remembering that I was a weird kid.

On to Part 3!


  1. I've been looking forward to this post!

    I agree with all of it, and I think I can explain the Mormonism thing. (All references to Christianity mean the forms of Protestantism I'm personally familiar with, but I think the specific things I'm saying about it are pretty widespread.)

    In Christianity, theology is important. Being factually correct (on specific points) matters. There's a set of affirmative things that you must believe or you're not Christian, a set of things you cannot believe or you're not Christian, and most stuff is optional. Denominational differences are in the third category along with your favorite sports team.

    The Latter-Day Saints nominally believe everything Christians believe, but also some things on the second list. Or so I've heard from Christians. The few times I've asked Mormons, they tend not to put as much weight on which theological statements are factually true as they do on things like living better or spiritual growth.
    So when Christians say Mormons believe humans can become the same kind of being that God is (a big no-no in Christianity) and Mormons say "eh, I guess you could say that," Christians wind up classifying Mormons as Not Christian. This does mean they'd say the same thing for different reasons about Unitarians, at least if they're being consistent.

    If you're a Mormon, you think you're being excluded over things that really aren't worth excluding people over. After all, you agree there are differences but you don't classify other Christians as Not Christian. If you're not religious, it looks like WAIT, WHY THE INTERJECTION WOULD YOU NOT BELIEVE THEM WHEN THEY SAY THEY'RE CHRISTIAN. Because whether there's a set of objective criteria and what it requires is way less important if you're nonreligious and nowhere near the margins.

    Mr. Wallace presumably does know that Mormons call themselves Christians. And it's not that he doesn't care, it's that he disagrees. He didn't write the criteria. (He did pick which set to sign on to, but considers it part of his religion and so passes the buck to God.) As for being based in the evidence, there are things in archaeology and history that give the Bible some support. Not *nearly* enough to say the Bible's truth is based in that, though. For Mormonism, he just has to play up the "not enough" side about the differences.

    The counterargument is that, yes! There's some evidence! Now, how much evidence would it take to convince you that there's an omnipotent being you didn't previously believe in, there's an afterlife that depends on your relationship to him (did I mention it's a him?) in *this* way, the god came to earth and was *that* guy, and so on. It'd take way more evidence than anyone has.

    A tangentially relevant interesting link:

  2. So it's not disdainful arrogance on Mr. Wallace's part, it's disdainful arrogance on God's part? Yeah, I can see that, though it still seems like a failure of respect, and possibly empathy as well. (Though, of course, if it's God doing it, then presumably it's less a matter of arrogant disdain, and more a matter of being the final authority on such questions -- which is probably why it doesn't bother Mr. Wallace to say such things.)

    The tangentially relevant interesting link was indeed relevant and interesting, especially since it applies directly to the argument that Mr. Wallace appears to be aiming at. It's actually something I've thought about before, but it's nice to see it laid out neatly with some specifics and references.

    I'd had the impression that LDS was sort of "Christianity 2.0" -- that it started as Christianity but grew into something else, much as Christianity did with Judaism centuries earlier. That lasted until I actually spoke to some Mormons, who were politely appalled that I would see it that way. No, they saw themselves as the original church restored (a claim that isn't unique to them; I've heard it from a small number of other protestant denominations as well).

  3. All of your points of contention just seem like the first things that come into your mind. How about the fact that many kids DO throw away their parents Christianity because they want their own egotistical freedoms with absolutely no constraints? I know PLENTY of kids that I went to college with who did exactly that. Next, there is almost zero substance to your objections. You dislike his speaking style? What in the world does that have to do with him moving toward the evidence? Would you not agree that one of the reasons he does this is to penetrate and disarm the bias of some of his audience? Evidently, though, yours are too entrenched to be broached. Finally, you spent 4 hours reviewing the first 16 and a half minutes and these comments are the best you can do?

  4. Short answer? Yes. This is a reaction (says so in the title) not a formal refutation; I was asked to share how this would look to an unbeliever, not to explain why his argument doesn't work.

    There is almost zero substance to my objections because (especially at this point in the video) there is almost zero substance to Wallace's argument.

    Wallace's speaking style is relevant because I was asked for my reaction to the video, and that's part of that I'm reacting to. It's also relevant because his speaking style directly affects not only the argument he is (or at least seems to be) making, but also how he goes about making it. What does that have to do with him moving towards the evidence? It's looking at how he goes about moving towards the evidence.

    I would, in fact, agree that he's trying to build a connection with his audience. I'm not so sure he's trying to "disarm the bias" of his audience, since his audience is a bunch of Christian teenagers at a Christian conference, and are most likely already heavily biased in his favor. I'm pretty sure that I am not, in any way, part of his target audience.

    Are my biases too entrenched to be broached? I don't think so, but rhetorical sleight-of-hand is not the way to go about it. Contrary to what you seem to think, I actually do have reasons for what I do and don't believe; so accusing me of having already made up mind isn't exactly hitting a nerve here. I mean, duh. Of course I have. Why would that be a surprise?

    Not all disagreement is based on bias, denial, dishonesty, or stubborn wrong-headedness. Sometimes, people just don't see things the same way.

    "How about the fact that many kids DO throw away their parents Christianity because they want their own egotistical freedoms with absolutely no constraints? I know PLENTY of kids that I went to college with who did exactly that."

    Do you? Permit me to question your judgement, of both their motivations and their behavior. "People leave Christianity because they want to be free to sin" is a fairly typical view in some Christian circles. It's also largely bullshit -- the kind of thing that people say to make themselves feel better about other people leaving something that's important to them. What's that quote? "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." In my experience, this is one of those answers.


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