More of what you win them with is what you win them to: The emergence of uncertainty and assessing the Street Epistemology method of Enquiry

I have been watching a set of video’s that reveal an unsettling trend among our young people both in the church and in secular society. In these video’s a man interviews people about their worldviews.  It is based on the Socratic method of inquiry where one asks a series of questions to stimulate critical thinking to draw out underlying presuppositions. The modern name for this method is called Street Epistemology or S.E.  Basically one is drawn into defending their position or belief by a series of questions that may reveal contradictions within one’s worldview.

I am not criticising the method as I think the approach isn’t bad in and of itself although as I have seen it used the person conducting the interview has the privilege of being insulated from having their own worldview challenged. The interlocutor, on the other hand, is at a disadvantage and vulnerable depending on how much knowledge they have in defending their own position apologetically.  The Socratic Method as I have seen used actually avoids the debate of the kind I would use and reduces it to a one-sided affair.

Having gotten through that rather technical explanation I am appalled and alarmed at the lack of knowledge young people in the church have regarding their own faith. Those I have seen using the Socratic Method in a matter of 5-20 minutes leave their interlocutor doubting their faith simply because they passively respond rather than actively engage the questions.  To be honest it is embarrassing to watch.

What makes me angry is the interviewer’s method or practice of hanging out on University and college campuses and picking off the low hanging fruit. By low hanging fruit, I mean young people who by reason of lack of experience and knowledge are easy targets for atheists.

I personally don’t find this Socratic Method particularly threatening nor do I find the arguments atheists use very compelling. What I do find disconcerting is how easy it is for those using S. E. to make one doubt their own beliefs simply because they have never had to defend their beliefs and don’t know how.

So clearly my concern is not the approach. My concern is the level of confidence one has in their beliefs while lacking the ability to articulate their position or define crucial elements of their given belief system. I realise I have repeated this point a number of times the reason being I am trying to emphasise how lopsided the whole approach is and how it exposes the ignorance of the interlocutor.

Here is the problem. We no longer live in a world where modernity is the basis for belief  nor do we live in time where antithesis or absolutes play a large part in our thinking  thanks  to  the advent of Postmodernism  The point here being  that many are sceptical of the idea  of truth or certainty; without a solid framework from which one can determine or  be certain of truth young people are easy pickings  for a rationalistic approach.

On the subject of truth where God is concerned if you ask many what they believe they will claim they are between 90-100% certain that what they believe is true. After they have been interviewed they often are much less sure. Once more that isn’t always a bad thing if it causes one to search out the answers… sadly many don’t and simply crumble into a crisis of faith.

Trading truth for certainty

This leads to the question, what on earth is the church at large teaching or not teaching their young people? I have raised this point before that when you trade truth for certainty you don’t have truth at all. The common answer many Christians give when asked for evidence is Rom 1:20  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

This is the fallback defence and on this basis, many claim 100% certainty of God’s existence but they state it without qualification. They provide no argument of evidence to substantiate their claim. Sadly the S.E. method doesn’t allow for qualification or argument or debate it simply ploughs on with further questions and avoids getting into details; this is where many are trapped. This is the strength of S.E. that insulates and protects the interrogator.

Many think that when someone asks a series of questions that the interlocutor must comply. We immediately think that we must supply the answers that the interrogator wants. We often don’t stop and critically think through the questions being asked to assess the interrogators own knowledge of the subject matter to determine their own understanding or ignorance of the interlocutor’s belief system. The interlocutor is so busy going into defence mode to answer the questions that they never stop to ask if the questions are valid or based on false assumptions. Big win for the practitioner of S.E.! The interlocutor is always on their back foot always asking themselves what is the answer the interrogator is looking for?

My own approach is to go on the offensive if I am asked a question I want to know why they are asking that question. I want to know what they know about what I know. The S.E. system tries to avoid getting bogged down in detail but I insist that if they are going to ask the question it is fair I know why they are asking. In other words, I interrogate the interrogator.

S.E. has a very lopsided approach where the interrogator becomes a kind of expert in the method of investigation. That assumption simply isn’t true. It is almost the identical approach that atheist’s use in trying to disprove the existence of God. They proceed with the assumption that the weight of evidence rests on the person making the claim. That is fine in a court of law or when doing a scientific investigation but S.E. can’t claim expertise nor can it demand that the interlocutor follow their rules; S.E. practitioners aren’t experts in the field of inquiry. The same is true with many arguments that atheist’s make against theists; they aren’t experts in the field and more often than not their arguments are based on ignorance or a very flawed understanding of Christian theology and doctrine.

The biggest crime of all that both S.E. practitioners and atheists are guilty of is not paying attention to context, especially regarding Scripture. Anyone can cherry pick the bible to make it appear to be full of contradictions or logical fallacies or even moral failures, but then they never pay close to their attention to their own presuppositions or arguments regarding their objections to faith.

It appears to me that they never pay attention to their own inability to understand their opposition’s worldview.  I wonder if because they are so busy trying to find the flaws in our belief system that they fail to see the flaws in their own arguments against belief. Most often they blur the line between seeking evidence and stating moral objections that are often nothing to do with the proof of God’s existence. More often than not their objections have to do with the injustice of pain and suffering; if they are so concerned with social injustice or the plight of the sick and dying why are they bellyaching about the existence of God and not doing something about it themselves?

A final question is do S.E. practitioners give equal time or weight to evaluating their own worldview via the Socratic method of inquiry. If it is so good do they use it to evaluate every facet of their own lives? I mean if it’s okay to deconstruct others by this method of inquiry why not put their own lives beliefs and actions under the same scrutiny? Do they use it consistently in their everyday lives? The answer would be a simple no because none of us does that.

Defend your position and define it

What they are asking or demanding of others in terms of seeking out the truth is consistency or clarity of thought; do they honestly practice this every day and every moment of their own lives? No! I am not saying they or we shouldn’t seek to obtain this goal, but don’t demand of others what you can’t actualise is your own life. S.E. asks questions but it doesn’t answer the question regarding what is the truth. If you are going to ask that question you better be prepared to provide your own definition and defend it

So where does this leave the Interlocutor?  In our case where does that leave many of our young people today? Many in the church are the product of the method of theology they are taught. We are guilty of raising whole generations of people who accept Christianity as true but never explain why it is true or teach their constituents to defend it apologetically.

S.E. tries to avoid becoming entangled in adversarial dialogue and apologetics because once it does it is no longer an effective method that protects the interrogator from having to defend the position they hold to. In other words, you’re safe so long as you are asking the questions and putting your interlocutor on the defensive.

It is easy for someone to sit in their ivory tower and cast stones or get on YouTube and podcast why they are right and everyone else is wrong. It is much more difficult to maintain that stance if you actually have to interact with your opposition.  You can stack the deck with your preferred scholars but that only result’s in confirmation bias. They accuse us of confirmation but fail to acknowledge they are doing exactly the same thing. S.E.’s fatal flaw is that it is an ivory tower method of inquiry and sadly people are falling for it. S.E. practitioners are not experts don’t treat them like they are.

To be fair most S.E. practitioners don’t claim to be experts and many adapt their own personal style that is by and large not meant to harm anyone.  However, People such as Peter Boghossian who writes a manual on how to create atheists doesn’t get off nearly as lightly. Mr Boghossian wants to use the S.E. method as an evangelistic tool for atheism… so be it, bring it on, but don’t expect me to play by those rules.  The bible clearly states that as Christians we should be ready  at  any  time  to  give an answer or defence  for what  we believe  2Ti 4:1  I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2Ti 4:2  preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 2Ti 4:3  For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 2Ti 4:4  and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. This is the gospel we are charged with; S.E. is simply a tactic that wants to avoid confrontation.

Interestingly, in the Gospel of John 18:38 Pilate “dismisses Jesus with the retort, “What is truth? .  Pilate must have been aware of the Socratic Method as it reveals Pilate’s proclivity to avoid the answer and mock Jesus. The question wasn’t rhetorical it was a veiled attack.

Please think about what you were won with and what that has won you to.


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