Leave a comment

Beyond Spiritual Apologetics

Buddhas on table |Spiritual apologetics

I recently began to present my view that spirituality is often threatened by truth. This article examines one of the most common symptoms of that sense of threat: spiritual apologetics. In this article, I’ll define spiritual apologetics, and examine what I believe to be the inherent failings of an apologist’s approach to truth—as well as how these failings commonly play out in individual apologetic projects. I’ll also look at the origins of the apologetic impulse, and how to go beyond it by understanding the true nature and purpose of spirituality.

Understanding Spiritual Apologetics

“Apologetics” is the formal attempt to provide a rational basis for existing ideas, and especially for spiritual or religious beliefs. In the present day, “apologetics” usually entails working to reconcile spiritual beliefs with knowledge gained from other fields of study, especially the sciences. This article is specifically about these present-day apologetic attempts:

Spiritual apologetics is the effort to reconcile spiritual claims with non-spiritual bodies of knowledge.

A few examples of recent apologetic projects include:

  1. “Proof of Heaven,” as advanced by an American neurosurgeon.
  2. The Tao of Physics, suggesting widespread parallels between particle physics and various Eastern mystical traditions.
  3. A book advancing the position that reality is not “dead,” meaning strictly material, but basically “alive” in a way that science might usefully study.
  4. An attempt to argue that consciousness exists independent of physical causes.

Apologetics is almost always a wasted effort.

In my opinion, apologetics is almost always a wasted effort: it starts from a misguided and needlessly insecure premise, and as a result produces conclusions that are unlikely to be true.

Apologetics Begins with a Threatened View of Spirituality

Spiritual apologetics presumes insecurity, because it looks to other disciplines to confirm spiritual truths as true.

Fundamental to each apologetic project is this premise: “Spirituality needs another discipline’s blessing to confirm it as true.”

As an example, there has been much excitement about the premise that “Buddhism and quantum physics agree.” Why is this (I believe false) premise exciting? Because it means that Buddhism stands a chance of actually being true!

In other words, if Buddhism and quantum physics agree, then perhaps Buddhism can borrow some space on the platform of rigorous scientific and mathematical knowledge upon which quantum physics stands. Then we Buddhists wouldn’t have to worry that our beliefs and practices are silly, false, and liable to be disproved.

So apologetics presumes a sense of insecurity: of being basically threatened by higher and greater forms of truth.

As evidence that apologetics is a study in insecurity, notice that relatively secure disciplines, such as mathematics and physics, don’t have an apologetic tradition. No modern, reputable physicist would try to confirm the existence of, say, subatomic particles by interpreting ancient Buddhist texts. The case for subatomic particles is strong enough within physics itself; no apologetics is needed.

Apologetics Ignores Spirituality’s Unique Field of Study

Spiritual insecurity, both in apologetics and in general, results from failing to understand the nature and purpose of spirituality.

In my view, virtually all of the spiritual insecurity I’ve been discussing has a single cause: failing to understand the nature and purpose of spirituality. This failure causes the basic sense of threat underlying apologetic efforts.

In other words: we worry that “spirituality is basically false” when, and because, we fail to understand the nature, aims, and boundaries, of spiritual truth; and spiritual inquiry generates falsehoods when it is asked to comment upon types of knowledge it is unequipped to examine.

In sum, we cling to—and agonize over—spiritual falsehoods when we fail to understand the spiritual field of study.

As I’ve begun to present, I believe that this field of study can be crisply and succinctly defined: spirituality is the applied, subjective study of human flourishing. In other words, spirituality answers the question: “What is it, and what can it be, to live as a human being?”

The most powerful and essential spiritual truths (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”) all relate to the core spiritual endeavor. All point us toward what it means—in direct, subjective, experiential terms—to be most fully and powerfully human.

Conversely, the most fragile and extraneous spiritual falsehoods (“The Earth was created deliberately, and less than 10,000 years ago”) are distant from the core question of spirituality, and they encroach heavily on other areas of knowledge that are much better equipped to comment on them.

How Apologetic Projects Proceed, and Fail

I’ve attempted to present the two fatal flaws that undermine almost every apologetic project:

  1. A basically insecure approach to spirituality, relating to
  2. A failure to understand the spiritual field of study.

Given this basis, I’ll now try to outline the common course, and failure, of apologetic projects.

1. Defending the Indefensible

Spiritual apologists often defend their traditions’ least defensible tenets.

Spiritual apologists often defend their traditions’ least defensible tenets, such as young-earth creationism or the traditional Buddhist account of reincarnation (complete with a currency-like karmic system that persists across lifetimes).

Apologists defend these tenets for two reasons. First, they recognize the threat posed by other disciplines’ more plausible studies of the same topics. Second, because of their excessively comprehensive view of spirituality, they believe that their traditions as a whole cannot survive if these tenets are shown to be false.

2. Forays into Areas of Knowledge Alien to Spirituality

A hallmark of apologetics is the attempt to discuss spirituality in language totally alien to spirituality.

Being driven to support their spiritual beliefs with the most credible forms of knowledge, apologists usually search for findings from the natural and social sciences. These findings are then “stitched to” spiritual claims using philosophical reasoning.

This results in one of the hallmarks of apologetics: the attempt to discuss spirituality in language totally alien to spirituality. From the apologetic projects listed above, examples include:

  1. A near-death subjective experience of Heaven, presented as a scientifically valid proof of the objective existence of Heaven.
  2. Personal, subjective accounts of mystical experiences, presented as “parallels” to complex mathematical models of the physical world.
  3. A felt sense of wonder and aliveness, presented as an objective property of the physical universe.
  4. The existence of the subjective experience of consciousness, presented as grounds for revision of the philosophical bases of scientific inquiry.

Virtually every apologetic project makes similar forays into non-spiritual forms of knowledge.

3. Constructing a Shaky Skeleton

The incongruity of apologetic projects nearly always dooms apologists to forced and fragile forms of argumentation.

Because apologetic projects attempt to support spiritual claims with non-spiritual bodies of knowledge, they are basically incongruous: aplogists suffer from constant efforts to “translate” ideas back and forth, and in the end, they nearly always resort to forced and fragile forms of argumentation.

I’ve given names to a few common styles of apologetic argumentation. They include:

  1. Borrowed Credibility: Using the generalized authority conferred by advanced academic degrees (especially in the sciences) to shelter otherwise doubtful or speculative arguments. Successful apologists are often physics professors, neurosurgeons, and so on; and apologists will generally seek endorsements from people with these credentials in the course of advancing their arguments.
  2. Vague Concordances: Exploiting a felt sense of “similarity” between disparate findings to suggest that they imply one another. For example, quantum entanglement may be claimed to resemble the Buddhist principle of “interdependence”—and this juxtaposition can be used to suggest that Buddhism is true in a physics sense.
  3. Optimistic Glosses: Picking the most hoped-for out of a number of interpretations of a known truth. For example, quantum physicists have found that observing a quantum phenomenon can actually change its outcome; and this could, in one fanciful interpretation, mean that consciousness itself somehow impacts the physical world. Most unbiased scientists find this conclusion unconvincing, but apologists are likely to dangle it as tantalizing “evidence” of a scientific basis for spiritual truth.
  4. Frontier Optimism: Related to “Optimistic Glosses,” this style of reasoning exploits rapid developments at the frontiers of scientific knowledge—as well as continued gaps in scientific knowledge—to argue for hoped-for spiritual results. For example, Christian apologists have used the incompletely understood suggestion, from theoretical physics, that the universe contains a large number of dimensions to speculate that God performs miracles by existing in a greater number of dimensions than humans do.
  5. Refuge in the Unknowable: Exploiting the inherent limitations of non-spiritual disciplines to advance hoped-for spiritual conclusions. For example, the truism that “Science cannot disprove the existence of the soul” may be taken as scientific evidence for the soul—rather than as a misappropriation of science to investigate nonscientific questions. Similarly, the truism that “Evolution is [just] a theory” misrepresents the nature of scientific knowledge (which is always formally contingent because it prioritizes evidence over authority) to suggest that competing accounts are credible.

Fundamentally, apologists must rely upon these and other fallacious forms of reasoning because they are “attempting the impossible”: to reconcile disparate bodies of knowledge that have incompatible fields of study and ways of knowing.

4. Death, by New Knowledge and Common Sense

Apologetic projects die as their poorly constructed claims eventually erode.

Apologetic projects die as their poorly constructed claims eventually erode. This can happen in two basic ways:

Death by new knowledge occurs when a core claim or prediction of an apologetic project is eventually disproven. For example, efforts to map Biblical prophecy to world events often collapse when the world fails to end on time. The Tao of Physics, originally published in 1975, has suffered a more drawn-out death by new knowledge, as the theoretical physics used in its Vague Concordances grow increasingly dated.

Death by common sense occurs when an apologetic project, while never disproven as such, decays into irrelevance with the general recognition that it is contorted and unlikely to be true. These apologetic projects may live on virtually forever, but gradually lose their broad cultural significance and all but their closest adherents. For example, the traditional Christian account of Hell for nonbelievers is likely suffering a very gradual death by common sense, as it slowly loses cultural relevance and broad plausibility.

A single apologetic project, particularly a large one, can die in both ways: suffering a series of specific insults as new knowledge emerges, coupled with growing commonsense rejection of the project in general. An example may be the effort to impose literal interpretations of the Bible upon areas like science education and policymaking: this effort suffers discrete shocks as scientific knowledge and philosophies of civil rights continue to expand, as well as a steadily worsening environment of general skepticism.

Sources of the Apologetic Impulse

If spiritual apologetics results from a failure to let spirituality be what it is, what provokes that failure? What causes people to support extraneous spiritual claims?

There are probably many answers (“political necessity,” for example, would certainly apply in a few cases), but I think two main reasons are worth considering:

  1. Genuine religious faith.
  2. A sense of spiritual poverty.

Religious Faith

Genuine religious faith is worthy of respect, because it indicates honest engagement with a spiritual tradition.

Genuine religious faith is worthy of respect, because it indicates honest engagement with a spiritual tradition. This remains true even when it leads to support for extraneous beliefs, such as theological sexual prohibitions or the idea of a “chosen people.”

Religions’ extraneous beliefs generally originate from deep in their history, when spirituality had to cover much more ground than it should cover today. Modern people’s continued adherence to those beliefs is not insanity, but commitment to the principles of their religions—religions which give their lives hope and meaning, which connect them to rich traditions and vibrant communities, and which, in general, help them flourish.

As such, faith is not really a problem to be solved. Campaigns to uproot people’s faith with reason are not only ineffective, but also ugly: the campaigners are training one of humanity’s worst qualities, aggressive missionary zeal, on one of its best, patient belief in something greater than oneself.

When faith leads to belief in extraneous claims, that belief must simply be slowly shaped by evidence—when, for example, apologetic projects eventually fail to withstand scrutiny. This is an endless process that is ongoing in every free society, and which will continue to lead, I believe, toward a continually clearer understanding of the true purpose and role of spirituality.

Spiritual Poverty

Apologetic efforts not based in religious faith often contain a common seed: a mentality of poverty.

However, many apologists do not have a rich faith background; many, for example, are scientists who came to Buddhism relatively late in life.

I believe these people stand to gain by reexamining their own motivations, because they often contain a common seed: a mentality of poverty.

Consider these questions:

  1. Am I really just a brain?
  2. Will I really vanish when I die?
  3. How do we know the Buddhist teachings are really true?

Most apologetic efforts share the sense that if we accept the scientific version of events, what remains of spirituality is “not enough.”

These and other, similarly plaintive questions underlie most apologetic efforts. They share a sense of poverty: a sense that if we accept the scientific version of events, then what spirituality is left with is “not enough.” If my consciousness boils down to chemistry; if my death is eternal; if I can’t find any empirical, “official” confirmation of spiritual truth, then what’s the point? These threatening suggestions must be resisted.

Going Beyond Spiritual Apologetics

Spirituality Without Poverty

To be a human being on the spiritual path is worthwhile, without any of the guarantees that apologists seek.

Confronting issues such as the finality of death is certainly powerful, but I believe that the sense of poverty is misplaced. Working to reassure ourselves that we will never truly die, or to deny the truth that our consciousness relies on a functioning body, seems distant from the true power of the spiritual project, which is to help us be most fully and powerfully what we are.

In other words, to be a human being on the spiritual path is completely worthwhile, without any of the guarantees that apologists seek.

A close analogy is to art. Imagine listening to a beautifully conducted symphony orchestra, complete with a full choir, play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its entirety.

Would we make extraneous demands of this experience? Would we agonize about “where the music goes” when the orchestra stops playing, or cling to the desperate hope that it will play forever? Would we question the value of the orchestra based on the disturbing knowledge that it cannot play without musicians, or without instruments, or in outer space, or underwater? Would we wonder how physicists can possibly believe that the beautiful music we hear is “just” controlled fluctuations in air pressure—or dive into speculative frontier science in an attempt to prove conclusively that the symphony is beautiful? All these attempts would be just as doomed, and in precisely the same ways, as spiritual apologetics.

On the contrary, listening to the symphony is an immensely worthwhile human experience, and one which we accept on its own terms. The experience justifies itself: when you hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you know for yourself the power, beauty, and truth of the musical flourishing it represents. No further justification is required.

Like art, spirituality justifies itself.

Like art, spirituality justifies itself: to experience the power and beauty of spiritual attainment is to know the inherently human truth of spirituality. When meditation practice allows you to understand the pain behind another person’s anger, no biochemist is needed to affirm the value of the experience; and when you meet someone who is totally at peace and immensely kind, the power and beauty of that person’s example shines brilliantly with or without the further guarantee that everything emanates from, and will continue forever on, one or another mystical plane.

Understanding and Accepting the Nature of Spirituality

In sum, then, the alternative to spiritual apologetics is to understand the proper nature and role of spirituality, or the spiritual field of study.

Spirituality, at root, is the direct, subjective study of human flourishing. Spiritual claims that relate to the nature and potentiality of living as a human being—from basic moral guidelines to advanced insights into the nature of experience—generally do not need defending.

Conversely, extraneous spiritual claims—claims that stray from the spiritual field of study—generally cannot be successfully defended. The attempt to defend these claims is what gives rise to the contradictions of apologetics.

Fundamentally, spirituality is a set of human truths. It justifies itself when, and because, we directly experience the power of the human flourishing it brings about. I believe this understanding is the ultimate antidote to the doomed, plaintive hope-against-hope of spiritual apologetics, and the way forward to a truly mature and sustainable vision of spirituality.