Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature argues that the popular idea that human beings are born sans innate properties is fallacious. Related concepts such as the Noble Savage and Ghost in the Machine fall under the same misunderstood categories that must be corrected. Pinker offers at least three reasons why this correction must take place: (1) Arguing for a Blank Slate distorts the nature of human beings and much research is guided by these false assumptions; (2) It has discredited logic, civility and common sense in the academy and beyond; (3) and finally, it has done harm to the lives of real people.1
These are valid concerns and if left unchecked we risk perpetuating the harm to others. For example, we tacitly believe that to raise the best children, parents must be loving and intentionally training them towards maturity. But if children do not turn out well then it must be the parent’s fault. However, this conclusion depends on the belief that children are blank slates.2 Parents and anyone who works with kids know this is not the case.
In one sense the opposite of a Christian is an atheist. Pinker is an atheist. In Evangelicalism today, especially in the rarified group of Christian apologists, the sine qua non measure of successful ministry seems to be about converting an atheist. The strategy appears to be a two-step process. First, create an atheist straw man with all his attending false ideas. Second, eviscerate him with the truth. This would be a good strategy if words posses magical powers on their own to transform people. No, it is more complex than that. In this case, an atheist reminds Christians of the pitfalls of sloppy thinking. Many times, an apologist’s zeal might lead them to blur the distinctions between “some” versus “all,” “probable,” versus “always,” “is” versus “ought.”3 Establishing clear distinctions is a mark of sound and valid thinking. Ignoring this guarantees failure and irresponsibility.
Instead of employing an “us” versus “them” mentality in apologetics engagement may I suggesting another way. What if apologists engaged the skeptic on their own turf? What if they used disarming language in their presentations that skeptics can relate to? I call this Common Ground apologetics. Common Ground apologetics seeks to establish commonality in first-order ideas with an interlocutor. From that base, arguments can be built upon, furthering discussion. Examples of these fundamental ideas include aesthetics, ethics and agency.4 Pinker offers the faithful a few of these commonalities, specifically the blank slate. This is a point of connection. Scripture says that human beings are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Pinker says this “image” is partly composed in the human genome structure. Both are grounded differently but both share a vision of humanity that does not invoke a blank slate. This ought to be considered a significant win for both sides. If Christians and atheists can agree on certain items of knowledge regarding a first-order idea such as human nature, then the chances of continued conversation increases.
The Christian worldview has exclusive claims. But it does not have to sound arrogant, pretentious and condescending which regrettably have become all too common. Using analogies is another helpful tool to establish common ground. Instead of leading with an exclusive bent, consider the path to truth like a maze.5 What is helpful about the maze analogy is that it (1) places value on exploration and self-discovery; (2) it is careful not to understate or orverstate the claims of others since the different paths in a maze denote distinctions; and (3) at times some routes head in the same direction or run parallel to each other. First-order ideas such as human nature, soul, origins, purpose and things of the same nature, while may posses disparate grounding, do run parallel to each other at times. These are the opportunities of further discussion. Sometimes an apologist must learn to moderate their goals, especially in today’s polarized culture. Making the case for Christ sometimes may mean just enough effort in reasoning to be invited back to the table.
1 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (London: Penguin, 2019), ix – x.
2 Ibid. ix.
4 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Cambridge, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 596.
5 James Porter Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff, The God Conversation: Using Stories and Illustrations to Explain Your Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2017), p.51.