Before we delve into my latest thoughts on Christianity, let me just say that like this peacock, apologists can sometimes behave badly. However, that’s only part of this strutting peacock’s story. After watching a short clip of an apologist’s young daughter reciting the Kalam cosmological argument, it occurred to me that Christian apologetics has become much more about self-aggrandizing than defending Christianity. Why the devolution? I recently listened to a podcast that I feel answers that question. In NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast titled “Creating God,” social psychologist Dr. Azim Shariff elucidates the parallels between the development of religion and cultural evolution and yes, the relationship between the peacock and religious behavior. It is a fascinating journey that I highly recommend you listen to.
In the podcast, Dr. Shariff explains that as communities grew from the hundreds into the thousands some 12,000 years ago, religion served as a “cultural innovation,” similar to fire and tools. These different religions and their gods seemed to reflect the needs of that particular group in a particular time. It was with the larger societies that a “supernatural punisher” brought not only oversight to the groups (albeit imagined) but also allowed for better cooperation and trust within the groups. Furthermore, it brought about a behavior that is referred to as costly signaling.
Now, costly signaling is well established in the animal kingdom. Consider the strutting peacock. While its beautiful plumage is necessary in attracting a mate, the peacock’s risk of predatory attack is heightened; and only the most fit survive, as proposed in evolution through natural selection. Dr. Shariff points out that the rituals developed within religions have a similar outcome—costly signals that reflect its members’ devoutness and ultimately showcase them as the true believers. Moreover, the rituals within religion are costly enough to prevent free-riders, a potential consequence of increasing group sizes. In my own words, costly signaling is a way of saying Look at me. Look at what I’m willing to sacrifice.
While Christian apologetics is as old as Christianity itself, it is strictly my opinion that apologetics is becoming the new Christian ritual, adding to the often tedious list of rituals that one must endure to demonstrate one’s level of devotion. Oh, I know…We’re saved by grace, not works. It’s relationship, not rituals. But let’s keep it real. Gone are the good ol’ days of chanting the Lord’s Prayer or maybe the Apostles’ Creed. Wave goodbye to the friendly gathering with coffee and the reliable Beth Moore Bible study. (I always had one of these going.) Those rituals simply won’t cut it anymore. Say hello to the rote memorization of the minimal facts of the resurrection or the argument from morality or the ontological argument. And what purpose do these rituals serve? Besides posturing, of course, it demonstrates trust, solidarity, and commitment within the community. Who’s the most devout Christian? Why the one with the child who can memorize the Kalam cosmological argument, obviously. While members of the Christian tribe might find these apologetic rituals highly impressive, we outsiders see it for what it is, a display of unadulterated ego.
If adults need another notch on their Christian ritual belt, that’s fine. No doubt the tribal members will take notice and praise them for their faithfulness. But maybe the kids could be spared this ritual of indoctrination? Perhaps they could reach the age of reason, that point in which they can actually comprehend the words coming out of their own mouths, before being required to regurgitate apologetic arguments? No, I guess not; but I’m sure the latest polls have nothing to do with that. (More on the rise of the ‘nones’ in my next post.)
So, what do you do when you see an apologist coming your way and shaking her tail feathers? You do what the squirrel did and freakin’ hightail it out of there. Oh, and take your kids with you.