Posted by Clark Bates
January 5, 2018
Several years ago, I was standing in front of an audience discussing the nature of morality. I had just finished pontificating about the moral argument for God and the objective nature of morality as evidence for God and decided to throw a jab in at then current, new atheist author Sam Harris. I stated, “and this is why the new atheist known as Sam Harris is so off-base with his current book. In The Moral Landscape he simply states that the highest morality is clearly whatever promotes the best for humanity, but he doesn’t give any reason why that should be the highest moral value.” Now, for the sake of transparency, I said this because I wanted my audience to trust in my abilities and my knowledge. I wanted them to think, “Wow, this guy even reads atheists. He must know what he’s talking about.”
But then the unexpected happened. A person in the audience asked a question. “Mr. Bates,” they said, “How did Sam Harris defend his position in the book? What was his reasoning?” This was a problem for me, because I hadn’t actually read the book! My only knowledge of Mr. Harris’ work at that point had been to read another apologist’s review of the book. I froze. I had no idea what reasoning was used. There was no way to answer this question honestly! I’m not proud of myself for this, but in order to save face, I fumbled my way through some generically condescending remark about Harris’ inability to really explain it. I walked away from that experience with an important insight that I had never honestly thought about. An insight that might seem common sense to some, but that I feel needs to be shared. Simply put, the insight is this:
Always read the primary source material for whatever you’re discussing!
What’s a Primary Source?
What do I mean by that? A primary source document comes from the person who initially wrote it. So, in the case of Sam Harris, if I want to talk about his position in the book The Moral Landscape I need to actually read The Moral Landscape! Instead, what I was doing was quoting the opinion of someone else who had, I assume, done the work for me. Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Well, duh.” And if this is your common practice I commend you for it, but my experience in ten years of apologetics work has demonstrated that, for many new and upcoming apologists, this is not the case.
I am constantly bombarded with questions on how to respond when someone says the Council of Nicaea decided what books were in the New Testament, or how to respond when someone says the flood of Noah comes from The Epic of Gilgamesh. I’m asked where an answer can be found to the claim’s made by this writer or that philosopher, or which is the best response book to Bart Ehrman. And if those are questions you’ve asked me, I’m not trying to single you out, but recently I’ve changed how I respond to these questions. My initial desire is always to be helpful, so I would send someone to a video clip or book review, or blog article that dealt with the issue in question, but I feel that I’ve done you a disservice by doing so. In fact, you are doing yourself a disservice by seeking answers in this way.
If all you learn to be an apologist is the answers to common objections, that’s all you’ll ever know, stock answers. Sure, for awhile you’ll impress some people and feel pretty good about yourself, but eventually you’ll be in the position I was in, and the limit to your knowledge, and absolute lack thereof, will be exposed. If you really want to grow as an apologist and really want to help those with doubts and questions, stop looking for how other apologists answer the question. Instead, go to the source of the objection and read it for yourself. If you want to understand Bart Ehrman, don’t read a response to Bart Ehrman, go read Bart Ehrman! If you want to learn about Richard Carrier, go read Carrier. If you want to know what the first and second century church thought about theological and biblical issues, go read them!
A Recent Example:
A young man was recently shocked to hear that the Noahic flood was supposedly a copy of the Ancient Near Eastern Myth known as The Epic of Gilgamesh. He wanted to know how to respond. In the past, I would have simply told him that there are similar flood narratives in many cultures and rather than suggesting that the Bible copied from one of these, it actually points to the likelihood that a flood actually occurred. But what would this young man have learned about The Epic of Gilgamesh? Absolutely nothing, and if pressed, he wouldn’t be able to discuss it. Instead he would only appear ignorant to whoever he was trying to reach.
Here’s a better approach. The internet is an amazing thing, and in many cases, you can find the original documents you are looking for online (And no, I don’t mean from Wikipedia or Google). It just so happens that this is true for The Epic of Gilgamesh. Therefore, rather than give my young friend the packaged answer that he might be expecting or even wanting, I suggested he go to this website where he could read Tablet XI of the Epic and see for himself how the stories matched up. Why would I do this? Because now, this young man can see the primary source with his own eyes. He can read the story for himself, and when he goes back to the objection, he can respond from a place of information, rather than ignorance.
The Best Advice I Ever Received
I say all of that to say this, in recent months I’ve noticed a surge in this unsettling trend. Young apologists are going online to social media groups to air the objections they face, and rather than seek out the source of the objection, they only want to know what a particular apologist has said about it. It’s certainly helpful to hear the thoughts of those who have gone before us, but this will ultimately set them up for failure. This isn’t because the apologists they respect are wrong, but because it restricts their depth of knowledge. May I be so bold to encourage you who seek to instruct others to follow suit, and point questioners, not to your website per se, but to the primary sources?
When I was a pastor, the best ministry advice I was ever given was to not visit every individual that became ill. By not going every time, it required the church body to care for each other, but most of all it reminded them of a very important truth, I am not Jesus. What’s more it reminded ME that I am not Jesus. Yes, if you consistently point seekers to primary sources it means they might get to the point where they don’t need you anymore, but ask yourself why you do this in the first place? Are you an apologist that wants to be the Source for those who ask for your help? Or are you an apologist that wants to point those who ask for help to the actual Source? The best thing the apologists of my generation can do for the next, is teach them how to learn for themselves, so that when it is their turn, they no longer need us.
Ad Fontes! To the Sources!
(Oh, and after my embarrassing Sam Harris debacle, I immediately checked The Moral Landscape out from the local library and read it cover to cover.)
Below are some websites that will help you find primary texts for some questions you may face:
Ancient Near Eastern Myths – http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/
The Writings of the Church Fathers – http://www.ccel.org/index/author/A
Early Christians Writings (including noncanonical gospels) – http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/
Classical Greco-Roman Works – http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/
Works of Josephus – http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/
Philo of Alexandria – http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/philo.html
Canons of the Council of Nicaea (and other historical works) – http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3801.htm