The Psychology of Apologetics: Part One

Doctor/Patient

It may be uncouth to begin a blog this way, and if it is, I apologize to any and every blog-lover out there, but I want to offer a genuine “thank you” to you, the reader. It is your choice to take the time to read this, so the mere fact that you have read even this far shows that you have sacrificed your precious, irreplaceable time by choice, and for that, I am sincerely grateful. These posts regarding Apologetics and the various issues surrounding it, though personally studied and backed by evidence, are still simply my views and opinions, with which you have the option to take or leave. Coincidentally, it is that same option that inspired this post. 

You see, originally, I had planned to launch into the history of Apologetics and where it is now for my second post on Mystery Revealed Theology. However, after considering my aforementioned gratefulness for you, I was reminded that Apologetics truly boils down to people, namely you and those God places you around (yes, the order of the last part of this sentence was intentional, as will be discussed). So, a request from the writer: as you read, I would urge you to remember that everyday, ley-level Apologetics is not about proving how smart you are, or that you’re a varsity-level Christian because you know some facts. Knowing who the leading apologists were in the 1700’s and 1800’s will not bring comfort or clarification to an unbelieving co-worker whose wife was just diagnosed with cancer. 

The heart of Apologetics is this: telling that co-worker that you are going to pray for them and their wife, to which the co-worker responds, “I can’t believe in a God that would let this happen to my wife,” and then seizing that opportunity to both comfort your co-worker and offer a reason for the hope found within Jesus. Understanding people’s thinking, the reasoning behind their beliefs, and the motivation behind their choices, though ultimately a psychological task, is also an Apologetic necessity and a tool for the intrapersonal examination of your own faith.

Unintentional Biases and Assumptions 

Psychology, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. I have long been drawn to the idea of studying why people think the way they do and behave the way they do, which thus led me to pursue my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. The idea of interposing myself in someone else’s mind to better understand them is, and has always been, intriguing to me. I’m unaware as to why, but can say with full certainty that God was preparing me, molding me if you will, for my future passion for Apologetics. You see, Apologetics is inextricably linked with Psychology because Apologetics requires interpersonal interaction. Both 2 Cor 10:4-5 (more of an offensive stance in Apologetics)[1]and 1 Peter 3:15 (more of a defensive stance in Apologetics)[2]assume, and thus require, that these apologetic actions are in response to a second party.

At this moment, you may be thinking that I have simply stated the obvious, and you would be correct. However, my motivation was simply to emphasize the importance of the actual interaction taking place. Apologetics aside, whenever we interact with another person, or group of people, our biases and assumptions are subconsciously painting the background from the very millisecond that we decide to interact. 

While reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, the implications of thin-slicing on Apologetics stood out to me like a red M&M in a bowl full of greens (psychological experiment: are you craving M&M’s now?). Gladwell refers to thin-slicing as making very quick, often subconscious inferences about the state, characteristics, or details of an individual or situation with minimal amounts of information.[3]If you’re anything like me, after reading that, I immediately begin attempting to dissect how I’m thin-sliced! What are the subconscious inferences that others make about me? But after reading slightly further, Gladwell begins to write about how our thin-slicing, due to the subconscious nature, is often predicated upon our own biases and assumptions. He discusses a time that he took the IAT (Implicit-Association) Psychological Test[4], expecting that, due to his self-proclaimed egalitarian nature, he would show minimal bias. However, to his surprise, it turned out that he showed a moderate bias, despite every current detail and circumstance of his life and mindset. See, the results of the Harvard experiment revealed the impact of our unintentional biases and assumptions on every interaction we find ourselves a part of, both on our end and the other party involved. Now, why would it be important for us to understand both our own biases and assumptions, as well as those of the other person (people) that we are interacting with?

The Doctor/Patient Efficacy

Coinciding with reading Gladwell’s Blink, my brilliant wife, a Doctor of Physical Therapy, affirmed that to truly treat a patient, the doctor must actually understand the patient. In one of our conversations, she discussed how understanding the medical history of the patient, their demeanor, their level of self-efficacy, and their current mental state, among other things, is absolutely necessary if any growth or healing is to occur. “I have to treat the whole person,” she told me. Now, I’m bringing this back around to meet the ley-Christian who may be reading this, but please avoid the notion that I am planning to refer to believers as “the doctor,” and unbelievers as “the patients.” Instead, I want to avoid an arrogant metaphor by finishing Part One on the whybehind a successful doctor/patient relationship and how that plays into our Apologetic experiences.

The healthcare professional that thin-slices their patient when first meeting is simply doing what every human-being does unintentionally when getting to know someone unfamiliar. That is all they cando, as for that instant, it is the only information their brain is disposed to. Meanwhile, the patient is doing the exact same thing. Their biases and assumptions color the initial interaction, sometimes helping, other times hurting, but ultimately providing essential information and a basis from which the interaction will either fail or succeed. If that were the extent of the information available, the doctor/patient interaction would have about a 50/50, maybe per the Harvard research, a 60/40 chance of success/failure. However, and unsurprising to most, the interaction does not end there. 

The healthcare professional begins collecting data on the patient, asking questions to better understand the patient as a whole. This information is then used, knowingly, to fill in the scaffolds underneath their thin-sliced biases and assumptions, proving them wrong or proving them right, determining which to get rid of and which to modify. Simply put, with their expertise, the healthcare professional is able to evaluate the whybehind their snap judgements.[5]As an exercise, let’s apply the concept of “thin-slice” to a brief example.

A patient slumps in their chair as they sit, therefore they must be tired. “How are you feeling today?” the professional asks. “I’ve been feeling bad for a few days now, so I finally decided to come in,” the patient responds, exasperated. The professional now safely allows their assumption that the patient is feeling tired, but has now also gained the knowledge that it has been a few days for this patient, which may direct the plan of care. Subsequently, the professional creates a new assumption that this person’s self-efficacy may be on the higher side, based on the fact that they waited three days before making an appointment. This example could be decomposed for pages to come, but it is time to bring Part One to a close.

Practical Application

The healthcare professional is able to apply their expertise because they simply investigated the patient, following the lead of their initial biases and assumptions. They listened, analyzed, responded, questioned further; rinse and repeat. How does this relate to the field of apologetics? As Christians, if we are to have any hope of a successful apologetic conversation with strangers, family, and friends, we must take the effort to apply these same concepts.

Stopping at simply thin-slicing a person out of an arrogance of having the “right answer” is dramatically ineffective, and often leaves irreparable damage. Responding to your struggling co-worker, whose wife was just diagnosed with cancer, with a typical, “God’s in charge,” or a friend that is having relationship struggles and is cohabitating with their partner with, “The Bible says that sexual immorality is wrong.” These types of responses are both unhelpful and uneducated. Please note: The statements themselves were not incorrect, but the way in which they were used was inappropriate. As proclaimed Christians striving to live a life that looks more Christ-like, getting to know a person and understanding the whybehind their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors should be paramount in our pursuit of meeting others where they are, with the purpose of spreading the gospel message. Consequently, if it is paramount in spreading the gospel, it must also be supreme in our apologetic undertaking. Understand the person, apply your expertise, respond wisely, ask further questions, repeat. Similar to how a healthcare professional compiles all the information and then responds with a plan of care, our apologetic should compile what we know about the whole person and respond with a plan of hope. The hope found in Jesus Christ.

Written by Justin Wendorf

Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash


[1]“For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

[2]“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,”

[3]Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005).

[4]For more information on the IAT, see https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html

[5]Gladwell, Blink, 2005.

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