Theistic Critiques of AtheismJanuary 3, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Impartiality is when you judge all things by a single standard of truth. If you have a double standard, that’s called hypocrisy. And if you have three or more standards, it’s called theology. Or at least, that’s the impression I got while reading “Theistic Critiques of Atheism,” by William Lane Craig (available online, registration required).
Craig starts by attributing a recent renaissance of theistic philosophy to a decline in the the belief that “truth” ought to have some sort of verifiable connection to what we actually find in the real world.
The collapse of the Verificationism was undoubtedly the most important philosophical event of the twentieth century. Its demise meant a resurgence of metaphysics, along with other traditional problems of philosophy which Verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence has come something new and altogether unanticipated: a renaissance in Christian philosophy.
Personally, I don’t think it’s all that surprising that Christianity, languishing under the burden of having to supply empirical verification for its claims, would enjoy a rebound if and when that particular burden were lifted. But when an apologist begins by rejoicing that his philosophy prospers best when its obligation to the facts is the least, then we’re off to something of an inauspicious start.
Craig bases his critique of atheism on two claims: “(1) There are no cogent arguments on behalf of atheism, and (2) There are cogent arguments on behalf of theism.” Let’s start with claim number 1 and see how far we get. Predictably, he begins by trying to address the problem of the lack of empirical, verifiable evidence for God’s existence. (I say “predictably” because when Christianity and Verificationism are inversely proportional to one another, it stands to reason that Christianity is going to have problems with evidence.)
One of the most commonly proffered justifications of atheism has been the so-called presumption of atheism. At face value, this is the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist…
The problem with such a position is captured neatly by the aphorism, beloved of forensic scientists, that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in cases in which, were the postulated entity to exist, we should expect to have more evidence of its existence than we do. With respect to God’s existence, it is incumbent on the atheist to prove that if God existed, He would provide more evidence of His existence than what we have.
A classic attempt to shift the burden of proof. One could, of course, argue that theology is indeed a case in which the God ought to produce evidence of His existence, on the grounds that those who claim to know something about God claim to have encountered something in the real world which imparted to them the knowledge of His existence. If there is no evidence of God’s existence, sufficient to alert believers to his existence, then the evidence is indeed absent, at the expense of the believers having any real-world basis for their claims about God.
However, I think Dr. Craig deserves a more sophisticated approach, and one that is more tailored to his own. Craig’s argument is that, before we can say that lack of evidence for X is a reason to conclude that X does not exist, we must first meet the burden of proving that X, if it existed, would leave evidence that we ought to be able to find. In Craig’s logic, X stands for God, but if that’s a sound logical argument, it ought to work for any X, so let’s let X stand for “an incontrovertible disproof of God’s existence.” By Craig’s reasoning, he cannot assume that there is no cogent argument for atheism just because he personally has not seen any evidence of such. He must first prove that the existence of such an argument would necessarily produce verifiable evidence of a sort that we should already be privy to (and barring human omniscience, there’s no guarantee that every possible argument against God has already been thought of). The first of Craig’s two claims, therefore, is shot down by his own logic.
Craig continues his burden-shifting approach with another two-pronged list intended to refute the presumption of atheism.
(1) On at least Christian theism the primary way in which we come to know God is not through evidence but through the inner work of His Holy Spirit, which is effectual in bringing persons into relation with God wholly apart from evidence. (2) On Christian theism God has provided the stupendous miracles of the creation of the universe from nothing and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, for which events there is good scientific and historical evidence—not to mention all the other arguments of natural theology. In this light, the presumption of atheism seems presumptuous, indeed!
In other words, atheists are wrong because (a) God doesn’t leave evidence, and (b) God does leave evidence.
I assume that Dr. Craig has read his Bible, and knows that it consists primarily of stories about people coming to know God, not by purely subjective “inner works” of the Spirit, but by God showing up in the real world and interacting with people in ways that would constitute verifiable, empirical evidence (if they were true). The reason he says that God does not do this sort of thing is because the stories aren’t consistent with what you and I can actually observe and confirm in real life. Nor is this argument consistent with itself: millions of believers, all with the same, divine point of contact, would be verifiable evidence of God’s existence.
Picture a computer lab full of teenagers, all wearing headphones with microphones. There is no apparent teacher in the room, and the computer screens are showing different things, but as you watch, you notice a pattern in the teens’ behavior. Most of the time they’re quiet (and even a little bored), but from time to time there’s a reaction, and when there is a reaction, it’s usually groups of students and sometimes the entire class. You notice that occasionally, several students will press a key on their keyboard at about the same time, and shortly after that, one (and only one) student will begin to speak, followed by a brief pause, then another burst of keypresses, and again one (and only one) student speaking. Once in a while, you see a student press a key, and then look at a different student just before that student starts to speak.
Now, I didn’t tell you that these were students who were all logged in to the same remote networked biology class, or that they were all connected to the same classroom discussion channel, or that the professor was asking questions and calling on individual students to answer. But the evidence was there. I wasn’t even setting up some kind of skeptical challenge supposed to “test” the existence of the remote professor, as though I believed he was not real. You’re simply observing the natural consequences—the evidence—of a group of people sharing communication with a common point of contact. This is the sort of evidence that would result if it were true that Christians had a common communication hub, in the form of a common, divine Spirit communicating directly with their hearts or souls or minds.
Significantly, when Craig decides to argue that evidence does exist for God, he does not cite the sort of evidence that would result from God actually interacting with believers in this kind of objectively real sense. Instead, he turns to superstition and legend, citing the alleged creation of the universe and resurrection of Jesus as evidence that ostensibly refutes the presumption of atheism. Bit of a logical fallacy there, actually: if you’re going to offer evidence to support God’s existence, you’re not really refuting the claim that it takes real evidence in order to support your claims. Either deny that you need evidence (and admit you don’t have any), or admit that evidence is indeed required, and then provide some.
Craig, however, knows what sort of “evidence” he has to offer, and that’s why he sets the stage for it by trying to discredit the idea that it needs to be any good. His argument from creation, for instance, is sheer superstition—given some particular phenomenon for which you don’t understand the cause, you simply attribute the phenomenon to some magical and unverifiable cause for which you can show no connection to the phenomenon in question, nor can you even offer a specific and reasonable description of what such a connection would consist of if it did exist. I can give elves the credit for making running shoes, but if I do, the existence of the shoes is not evidence for the existence of the elves.
The argument from the resurrection fares no better, since it’s a claim that suffers from an evidence deficit itself, besides contradicting Craig’s first argument that the primary way we come to know God is through some kind of subjective and unverifiable “inner working” of some divine Spirit. You can claim that “that was then and this is now” if you like, but you should at least admit that these are two very different styles of (alleged) interaction, and that at best you are arguing that we should simply take man’s word for it even though their stories aren’t consistent with the way we actually see God behaving in real life.
Dr. Craig is a pretty intelligent fellow, but, as his apologetic shows, intelligence alone is no guarantee that you will apply your powers of reason correctly. Simple minds fall into simple traps; brilliant minds just build more elaborate traps for themselves. The cure is to remember two simple things: that the truth is consistent with itself, and that reality is the sole and infallible standard for what is true.