Cave diving is one of the most dangerous recreational sports in the world. These divers explore vast underwater cave networks that can easily become tombs to those who make just one mistake. However, the vast majority of fatalities involve individuals who were not certified in cave diving.
I think something similar happens when amateur apologists think that after reading one book they are ready to take on any challenge critics can throw at the Catholic Faith. Let me explain a bit more about cave diving fatalities so you understand what I mean.
As this chilling instructional video illustrates, most people who perish while cave diving do so because they lack special intensive training that can take months or years to master. Even after being certified, cave divers know that what they do is dangerous, and they treat every dive like it’s their first. Those who scoff in the face of danger tend not to last long.
In contrast, regular scuba diving in the open water is easy to learn, and in some places you can be certified with a weekend course. Cave diving fatalities occur when divers who only have this minimal level of “open water” training see a breathtaking underwater cave. They might have a dive light and decide to venture “just a little bit inside” to see what they can find even as warning signs advise them to turn back if they lack cave training.
Sometimes nothing bad happens. Other times the divers might stir up silt, which reduces visibility to zero and masks the correct path back to the surface. Their light could fail, leaving them in total darkness. A leaking regulator could leave them without enough air to make it back to the mouth of the cave. The list goes on, but most of the deaths are caused by inexperienced divers thinking they can take on a challenge without being aware of the dangers involved.
This brings me to apologetics. It’s been said that as saints become holier they become more aware of how unholy they really are. Likewise, when you study apologetics you begin to realize how much you really don’t know. It’s dangerous when people read a little bit of apologetic material and suddenly think they're experts. They talk boastfully in absolutes, leaving no room for nuance in their position. This makes it easy for a critic to refute them.
They are like the rookie scuba diver who thinks he knows everything about underwater diving. If they’re not careful, they may end up in a situation that is “over their heads.” I’ve seen these kinds of apologists engage in formal public debates where they rely only on their superficial knowledge and “the Holy Spirit” to win. They don’t even study their opposition, and as a result they pay for it. Like the scuba diver who wanders into a cave and realizes he can’t get out quickly when there’s trouble, these pretentious apologists are stuck in a formal setting where a more experienced opponent gives them a thrashing and makes the Faith they defend look bad.
While being humiliated is never fun, some of these apologists suffer even worse fates. They make simple but wrong assumptions, and when the truth is presented to them, they feel like their entire faith is shaken. They might say that it is a fact that the entire universe began at the Big Bang without being aware of other plausible scenarios proposed by cosmologists.
Or they may say that Jesus was a liar, lunatic, or Lord, and since he wasn’t the first two he must be the third. This ignores the popular rejoinder that Jesus was a legend and never claimed divinity. The apologist who trusts in his own wisdom instead of God’s grace may feel that since he can’t defend the Faith against more complex objections, the Faith must not be true, and so he abandons it.
How should budding apologists guard against the perils of overconfidence? First, be humble when it comes to presenting evidence in defense of the Faith. Instead of saying, “This evidence is completely irrefutable!” it might be wise to say, “I find this evidence helpful when it comes to issue X, what do you think of it?” Or “Here’s an argument that I think is pretty compelling, would you agree or disagree?” It’s also wise to avoid absolute terms such as “never” “always” or “everyone” unless you have evidence to back up your claim.
Second, understand your limits. For example, I don’t know Arabic, so I wouldn’t debate a Muslim on the internal consistency of the Qu’ran (though I may point out where Islamic teachings contradict the Catholic Faith, which is something I know fairly well). That’s a task for an expert in Islam such as Robert Spencer, whose new book is available.
Finally, lay people should not wait to learn “everything” before they engage in apologetics. If that was the right approach, then even the staff of Catholic Answers would never engage in apologetics! Instead, when we engage in apologetics we should simply clarify and defend what we know and be humble about what we don’t know. (There’s actually not much you need to know to get started doing apologetics)
Just because you or I may not know the answer to a question about the Faith does not mean there is no answer. Instead of trying to fake our way to the right answer in a conversation, or falling into despair because an objection seems “unanswerable” at first glance, we should just admit a lack of knowledge and promise to find the answer for the person we are talking to. A humble admission of ignorance is a better defense of the Faith than a faulty overconfident answer.