Philosophy for apologists

The Philosophical Apologist (PA) recently completed a BA (Philosophy). The motivation for the degree was primarily the PA’s interest in Christian apologetics over many years. The PA kept encountering terms and concepts in Internet discussions with atheists that the PA didn’t fully grasp. Eventually, the PA realised some philosophical study was required.

After exploring different options, the PA enrolled in Birkbeck‘s one year diploma in philosophy programme that soon was upgraded to a BA. The degree took five years of part-time study – quite a long haul with work and family to consider. The mode of study chosen was external – no lectures to attend meant a few hours per week saved for study. The only caveat was that a lot of motivation was required – there were no video lectures and the study guides were rudimentary.

Why study philosophy?

William Lane Craig, a well-known Christian philosopher and prominent apologist is clear in his Advice to Christian Apologists that “if you want to do apologetics effectively, you need to be trained in analytic philosophy” … “the relevance of philosophy to apologetics is so great that even if you do not specialize in philosophical apologetics but choose to go into some other type of apologetics, you would do well to take a strong dose of analytic philosophy”. If you are serious about apologetics, you need to consider some study of philosophy.

Philosophy is a broad field. Metaphysics is an enquiry into the nature of reality and what is real. Epistemology investigates the nature, sources and limits of knowledge. Moral philosophy studies the meaning of right and wrong, and what is good for individuals and society. All these areas are of importance to apologetics.

Philosophy also involves studying the ideas of thinkers through history. Greek philosophy helps appreciate the context of much of the New Testament. More generally, studying the great thinkers of the past is fascinating and illuminating. Of very specific value to apologetics is philosophy of religion, which involves a detailed examination of the classical arguments for the existence of God.

Of course, in-depth study of philosophy is not for everyone. We don’t all have the time or the inclination. But every apologist needs an understanding of the basics, and that does require investing in some reading.

Obtaining most of the recommended texts below need not be expensive. Many are available free to read on the Internet or are free on Kindle. The Amazon marketplace can also be used to purchase second-hand texts cheaply.

How to get started in philosophy

If you are interesting in learning more about philosophy, where should you start? A beginner can easily feel overwhelmed.

An interesting and readable overview of the history of philosophy is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. You could follow it up with Bertrand Russell’s The Problems Of Philosophy and Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? 

If these introductions pique your interest, it’s probably time to dive in deeper by reading Descartes’ Meditations and Plato’s Apology, followed by Plato’s Republic or Meno. You could then read Hume’s Of Miracles.  

There are some great on-line resources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that can be used as references. Some articles can be very technical, so if the going is too difficult, Wikipedia can be very useful for a less intense overview. It is important to look up terms that you don’t understand, and read explanations from different sources until you feel that you do.

It is also worth reading some specifically Christian introductions to philosophy. For example, try Gregory E. Ganssle’s Thinking About God: First Steps in Philosophy. Craig & Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview is a comprehensive introduction to philosophy from a Christian viewpoint, and is highly recommended.

If you like listening, there are many philosophy podcasts available. Philosophy Bites is a good place to start, and many more are listed here.

Reddit has a number of philosophy groups (called subreddits), and they are a valuable source of discussion. To begin with, just read – don’t post or comment until you are acquainted with the groups. Try /r/philosophy,  /r/askphilosophy and  /r/PhilosophyofReligion.

Self-learning can be difficult, and so it might be worth trying one of the many free on-line courses such as the University of Edinburgh’s Introduction to Philosophy on Coursera.

Another excellent option that is slightly more formal is the University of London’s Introduction to Philosophy (which is what launched the PA into philosophy). It is not free, but if you wish to pursue further studies it can form the start of a certificate, diploma or BA in philosophy. This is an external programme and can be studied from anywhere. The Open University is another option.

A Christian perspective

Christians delving into philosophy will meet various challenges to their faith. You will encounter atheist philosophers who are far more informed about arguments for and against your faith than you are. This can be intimidating, but don’t forget that there are equally well-informed Christian philosophers out there as well.

Alvin Plantinga, one of the best-known Christian philosophers, has some valuable advice for you. Another more detailed resource is Garrett J. DeWeese’s Doing Philosophy as a Christian. 

If you do decide to pursue philosophy, you will find it challenging and very rewarding. In fact the field’s attraction is such that you need to regularly remind yourself that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is not the Christian’s mission!

By studying philosophy, you will find yourself far better equipped to engage in Christian apologetics. You will learn how people throughout history have grappled with the great questions of human existence, and you will gain a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of various apologetic arguments.