Has Counter-Apologetics Peaked? By Robert Conner

Everyone old enough to remember that day knows where they were
and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, the day of madness that marked the true beginning of the 21st century. As the world watched in a mixture of horror and incomprehension, nineteen Islamist terrorists flew planes into American landmarks. United Airlines flight 93, reportedly intended to hit the U.S. Capitol building, crashed instead in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers wrested control of the plane from the hijackers.

No doubt the 9/11 atrocities facilitated the emergence of the New Atheists, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who collectively wrote “blunt, no-holds-barred attacks on religion…that succeeded in reaching mainstream readers and in becoming bestsellers.” An international audience, dumbstruck with horror at the sight of a passenger plane exploding into one of the Twin Towers and watching the Towers’ resulting collapse, was at last prepared to hear some unpleasant truths: “The success of the New Atheists may, however, reflect something significant among their audience. In the past generation in the United States, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists have been a timid minority—almost voiceless, often on the defensive, routinely derided, both warned against and ignored.”1 Could the same sort of religious extremists who planned and executed 9/11 acquire a nuclear weapon or explode a “dirty bomb” in a major city? A belated awareness began to spread: religion could pose an existential threat. Post 9/11, skepticism went on the offensive and its voice was finally heard.

In 2002, a series of detonations in another American city left the public in shock. This time the city was über-Catholic Boston and the thunder came from a series of explosive reports by the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe. What began as an investigation of a single priest rapidly widened into revelations of scores of cases in which serial child molestation by clergy had been covered up, often abetted by the collusion of police investigators, judges, and psychiatrists. The results were dramatic: “Within two years of the first of the Globe’s 800 articles on the scandal appearing in January 2002…Cardinal Law had resigned, 150 priests in Boston stood accused of sexual abuse, more than 500 victims had filed abuse claims, and church-goers’ donations to the archdiocese had slumped by 50%.” As time passed, hundreds more cases of clerical sexual abuse surfaced in other American cities as well as in Canada, Germany, Poland, Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands. Michael Paulson, a Globe religious affairs reporter, noted, “And I think there was a kind of evolution of culture, a moment in history when people were willing to talk critically about religion. Often in the past that just hasn’t been possible.”2 

With the publishing success of the New Atheists in 2006 through 2007, taking unbelief seriously became an option. When skeptics, pollsters, sociologists of religion, and the high muckety-mucks of the various denominations began taking a closer look, it emerged that millions of people who routinely checked the “Christian” box on surveys attended church services sporadically at best, knew next to nothing about the Bible or theology, and weren’t “living their faith” in any meaningful way. By the end of the decade it was clear to the general public—and even to most religious bigshots— that Christianity’s mask was slipping. For a substantial number of Christians, attending church was of little more significance than taking in a movie. A new category, the Nones, people for whom religion and its observances were of little to no importance, had emerged from the shadows and with them a growing realization: religion could be utterly irrelevant.

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession…” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV) Biblically illiterate though they may be, Christian True Believers™ are convinced they’re God’s chosen people, special in a really special way, royalty in fact. They are, in a word, divinely entitled, pumped on their own importance, convinced they have been selected to rule society, to tell everyone everywhere who to be, how to live, what to believe, and to impose sanctions on those who fail to fall in line. And like bumptious mediocrities generally, they lack self-awareness. Oblivious to their own obnoxiousness, they stepped boldly into the klieg lights and blurted out “the quiet parts.” Sadly for them, society at large had started to pay attention.

Amid reports of sexual predation, fraud, hate preaching that has become known as “stochastic terrorism,” and the embrace of ever more insane conspiracy theories, evangelicals in particular continued to crank up the volume. “Lately it seems like every day on the Christian calendar is April 1. A person reviewing news coverage of Christian preaching over the past decades might well conclude that Christians are determined to put Christianity itself out of business—surveys of attitudes about religious belief in many countries suggest the drop in church membership is less a repudiation of Christian doctrine, which even most Christians barely understand, than a rejection of Christians themselves. Christians are toxic.”3

But things can change. To the horror of some, much of American Christianity has become nearly indistinguishable from Trumpism. In addition to Trump-appointed judges advancing the Christian fundamentalists’ legal agenda, the curricula of grade schools to universities are being modified to conform to evangelical woo-woo, books about racial and sexual minorities have been banned, restrictive laws on abortion passed in various states, and the U.S. Congress brought to a near standstill. Faced with a tidal wave of public backlash and pricked by pangs of conscience, some anxious Christians have openly declared, “There are none so blind as those who will not see, and Trump-supporting evangelicals are among the most blind Christians to ever engage in politics…many MAGA evangelicals are delusional.”4 But as a others within the political commentariat have noted, evangelicals didn’t embrace Donald Trump because of who he is, they embraced Trump because of who they are. More than any figure in American history, Donald Trump gave evangelicals and Catholic conservatives license to reveal their true selves. Welcome to the Evangelical States of America, the new-ish iteration of the Confederate States of America, a land of grievance and nostalgia for the collective pathologies of racism, misogyny and homophobia. Word has it that Vladimir Putin has given it five stars and two thumbs-up!

Which brings us to a closely related topic: the unconvincables. For years I wondered what it is that keeps Christians going to church, forking over their money, and voting against their own interests. How could we explain it? It turns out to be quite simple: belief in belief—if I believe something, that makes it true. If I believe I understand something, regardless of the complexity of the subject, regardless of my ignorance about it, then I understand it because I believe I do. When challenged to present evidence for my delusions, I dig in and “stand my ground,” a reaction sometimes known as “the backfire effect” For a cogent explanation of this counterintuitive state of affairs, I refer the reader to John Loftus’ analysis.5

Some have noted that Christian apologetics has a weirdly move-countermove, game-like quality: “coming up with counter-arguments in the face of facts…in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger.” But apologetics is usually more than merely motivated reasoning to protect gossamer egos.  After citing examples from the tobacco, asbestos, sugar and fossil fuel industries “…covertly funding  astroturf groups that promote the denialist message,” a popular site warns, “The exploitation is not limited to industries, but also includes fundamentalist Christians (creationism) and alternative medicine promoters (anti-vaccination movement)…Try to evaluate whether the person that you are speaking with is being intellectually dishonest, and therefore unlikely to change. Intellectual dishonesty can be due to a person having a vested interest in lying, whether that be financial…or a fixed world view (e.g., lying for Jesus).”6  Christian apologists usually have dual motivation to lie: financial and psychological and both are often inextricably linked and impossible to overturn.

Those attempting to deprogram the True Believers™ must surmount a formidable barrier: belief perseverance, more commonly know as “faith.” “[Belief perseverance] refers to people’s tendencies to hold on to their initial beliefs even after they receive new information that contradicts or disaffirms the basis for those beliefs.” A recent piece summarizes some mental traits that perpetuate demonstrably false beliefs: confirmation bias, the illusion of explanatory depth which becomes apparent when subjects are asked to justify their belief and are unable to formulate any coherent explanation, the avoidance of complexity, falsely attributing causality to coincidence, and emotions such as the endowment effect—“people’s perspectives can be thought of as ‘possessions’ which are hard for them to give up even when there is a ‘better offer,’ or evidence that contradicts their point of view.” 7

Above all, research has established the True Believers™ must be approached with facts as calmly and gently as one would saddle a skittish horse. We might expect that Christians who have “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10) and expect to “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings” (2 Corinthians 1:5), rejoicing as they do so (1 Peter 4:13), would exhibit a sturdy soldierly attitude about taking some hits. To the contrary, experience shows that if challenged on any facet of their belief, Christians typically respond with an endless litany of wailing about their victimhood accompanied by a chorus of pissing and moaning about their eternal “persecution.” Heaven forfend that their critics offend by citing facts or quoting Christians verbatim! For their leaders in particular, the “comfort that abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5) generally takes the form of fleets of luxury cars, private jets, sprawling mansions and torrents of cash. The real Good News is that the public in general has wised up to the grift even if the pew warmers remain clueless.

Since the Four Horsemen of New Atheism published, books that debunk Christian belief have proliferated. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that specific claims like the resurrection, the virgin birth, theodicy, and the infallibility of scripture have been litigated down to the molecular level and found to be baseless. However, as counter-apologetic publishing flourished, another trend emerged: diminished reading competence

Both anecdotal evidence and the results of repeated surveys suggest that America has entered a post-literate age. A study published in 2005 suggested that, paradoxically, the higher the level of education, the lower the comparative rate of literacy: “Just 25 percent of college graduates—and only 31 percent of those with at least some graduate studies—scored high enough on the tests to be deemed ‘proficient’ from a literary standpoint…scores fell from 1992 to 2003 for virtually every educational level, and the declines were steepest, by and large, the further up the ladder one moved.”8

More recent polling has found that nearly half of Americans read no books in 2023: “If you read or listened to only one book in 2023, then you read more than 43% of Americans.”9  “After analyzing transcripts, surveys, and scores from the standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), the researchers found that 45 percent of students demonstrated ‘no significant gains in learning’ after two years of college.” Colleges and universities are understandably somewhat less than enthusiastic about revealing these data. In fact, many appear to be running a sports franchise that grants degrees as a sideline: “Unfortunately, colleges are reluctant to track and release information regarding how much students learn in college. Former Stanford Graduate School of Education dean Richard Shavelson said that, for many schools, student learning is ‘less important than having a winning football team if you want to stay alive, in the scheme of things.’” 10

Understanding, much less predicting, the future of religious belief might be compared to a biologist studying a complex ecosystem: the interplay of multiple factors of varying importance is difficult to evaluate, particularly so if the importance of some factors remains unknown or unclear, and the focus of inquiry will reflect the specialty of said biologist. A similar set of problems occurs when religious beliefs are studied. We know, for example, that “Christian” identity can mean different things depending on who is asked, in what setting, and how the question is framed. Nevertheless, certain trends are clear and consistent: church attendance and participation overall is down, the cohort of believers is aging out, and advanced societies in general are becoming more secular. Biologists know that given time, tropical forests can become savannas or even barren tundra. Similarly, church-centered religions can morph into political cults—the religious are called believers for reasons: they are followers who accept the authority and follow the commandments of divinely-appointed leaders.

In my experience, the skeptics and counter-apologists are the real “people of the book,” a facts-and-logic crowd, often d’un certain âge, who appeal to documents and employ carefully constructed arguments. The ardent unbelievers of my acquaintance have basically thought their way out of religion. But if the ultimate goal of counter-apologetics is not merely to intellectually defeat authoritarian Christian belief—the very definition of redundancy at this point—but to get religious influence out of education, out of the courts, out of healthcare, and out of public policy generally, how do we address those who don’t (or can’t) read and are less interested in tightly reasoned arguments because they’ve already concluded that church-based religion is largely irrelevant? In my mind this is the biggest challenge to counter-apologetics going forward.

1 Ronald Aronson, The New Atheists, The Nation, June 7, 2007.


2 Jon Henley, How the Boston Globe exposed the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church, The Guardian, April 21, 2010.


3 Robert Conner, The Death of Christian Belief, 7.


4 Chris Thurman, “My challenge as a Christian psychologist: Help evangelicals see Trump for who he really is,” salon.com, March 29, 2024.


5 John W. Loftus, Foreword in The Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last Days, iv — xviii.


6 Unattributed, Backfire effect, rationalwiki.org,


7 Imed Bouchrika, Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds and Beliefs Are so Hard to Change in 2024?, research.com., February 8, 2024.


8 Doug Lederman, Graduated but Not Literate, insidehighered.com, December 16, 2005.


9 David Montgomery, 54% of Americans read a book this year, today.yougov.com, December 21, 2023.


10 Shannon Watkins, Did You Know? The Ignorance of College Graduates, jamesgmartin.center, October 22, 2020.