August 31, 2008

Atheists Gone Wild?

Question 1:

Dear Professor Craig,

I'm an atheist who has admired your debates and arguments, but there has been a trend I've noticed on my side of the discussion that I wanted to ask you about.

It seems to me that the popular atheists of today, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, do not always present sound (or at least valid) arguments in the way that a philosopher such as yourself (or a philosopher-in-training such as myself) would like to see. I know such arguments exist from atheists in the past (like Mackey, Russell or Hume), but I do not know why the popular atheists (or other atheists in general) today do not employ such argumentation in recent debates.

One could attribute it that the popular atheists of today just don't have the philosophical training to know how to make valid or sound arguments, but this is false, since Dennett is a philosopher. In Dennett's case, he refuses to address the traditional arguments for and against the existence of God, and is rather interested in the evolutionary mechanisms behind religious belief.

I acknowledge that there do exist philosophically-sophisticated atheists today (Quentin Smith, of whom you know, is an example), but why is it that they are not in the spotlight?

What do you attribute as the cause of this, with your experience in debate and discussion over the years? I do not think that the atheist position is implausible (even though it may be false), so I do not expect you to claim that it's just that atheism is bankrupt. But if you do not answer in this way, then what might the cause of this be?



Question 2:

I have been doing Christian apologetics on the net for ten years. I have a Masters degree from Perkins School of Theology, and I was a doctoral candidate in history of ideas for ten years, but was forced to give my studies due to family tragedies.

I also host several message boards and have done so since 1999. I have grown increasingly frustrated and angry over the nature of the atheist mentality on message boards. It was nothing like it is now when I first discovered boards. It used to be fun. I used to get the better of them all the time. I used be liked and appreciated for my learning and my knowledge.

It's not about me, I'm not doing it to win arguments. But that is a measure of how things have changed. Because I am now regarded as a total fool over the net. This not becasue my arguments suddenly got bad, it's becasue atheists realized that they could stop debating the issues and start debating me. Now the whole process of posting on boards is shut down for me. I can't go on a single board but that atheists don't starting ridiculing, they refuse to listen to the arguments. They try to find any sort of knit picking fault with every single thing I say.

As a member of the apologetics community on the net I am very alarmed by this. Essentially the message boards is gone as a tool of apologetics or evangelism. Atheists demonstrate more and more hatred all the time. On your very board just today an atheist ridiculed everything thing I said, although he didn't understand one word of it, and then announced that Christians are not worthy of respect.

I believe that the community of internet apologists must band together if we are going to change the atmosphere. We have to start banning people for insulting Christianity. Like any bully, they always back down if you stand up to them. They become more abusive if you try to be nice to them.

I believe we must start vigorously enforcing rules that forbid them from slandering Christians and Christianity. Almost all boards have rules that forbid abuse but no one enforces them against the little snide attitude of the atheist. We must begin doing this. We are not losing anything if we drive some away because they are turning the Gospel into a laughing stock anyway.

I hope you will consider what I've said. I am also open to other suggestions about what to do.

Sincerely, in Christ


I was fascinated by the agreement of these two letters, one by an atheist and the other by a Christian, about the uncivil tone that predominates among popular level atheists today. I share these letters for their intrinsic interest rather than for any special insight that I might offer about the reasons for this change.

I agree with you, Arash, that atheism is not an implausible worldview and that therefore the poverty of atheist argumentation cannot be written off to the bankruptcy of atheism itself. In my experience it seems rather to be due to simple ignorance of the literature.

Academics are narrowly focused in their respective areas of specialization and remain largely ignorant on subjects—especially subjects in which they have little interest—outside their chosen fields. When it comes to topics outside their areas of expertise, the opinions of great scientists, philosophers, and other academics carry no more weight than the pronouncements of a layman—indeed, on these subjects they are laymen. In scores of debates with non-theistic professors over the years, I've been astonished at the incredible ignorance of admittedly brilliant scholars when it comes to matters of theology and philosophy of religion.

Let me give some examples. My friend Quentin Smith, whom you mention, several years ago unceremoniously crowned Stephen Hawking's argument against God in A Brief History of Time as "the worst atheistic argument in the history of Western thought."1 With the publication of Richard Dawkins' "central argument" of his The God Delusion, which I have criticized elsewhere, the time has come, I think, to relieve Hawking of this weighty crown and to recognize Dawkins' accession to the throne. A number of years ago I heard the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg lecture at the conference "The Nature of Nature" at Baylor University. I was shocked to hear little more than the angry rant of a village atheist. Even philosophers who do not specialize in philosophy of religion can trip up when speaking outside their area of specialization in philosophy. Since you mention Dennett, take a look at the exchange I had with him at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at their Greer-Heard conference in 2007 on atheism ("In Defense of Theistic Arguments," in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, forthcoming]. His objections to the traditional theistic arguments were like those you'd confront in an undergraduate paper. When I finished my critique, he rose to the podium, paused, and then exclaimed, "That was a tour de force!" (In truth it was elementary.) So what was his response? He said basically, "I guess that shows that if you can infer an implausible conclusion from a set of plausible premises, then you just have to go back and deny some of those premises!"

Now if fine academics like these are out of their depth when it comes to philosophy of religion, how much more adrift are popularizers like Harris, Hitchens, and the like! The same goes, Joe, for the atheists you encounter on the message boards. You've got to keep in mind that many of these folks are just angry teenagers who have no academic training in the subject areas on which they confidently pronounce. Lacking the intellectual wherewithal to debate the issues, their only recourse is ridicule and sarcasm.

What these popularizers don't understand is that if you read the work of non-theistic scholars who are working in philosophy of religion, they don't treat theism with disrespect, neither do they greet Christians with derision. If you read a book like Graham Oppy's brilliant Arguing about Gods, for example, in which he hurls every conceivable objection against the theistic arguments, what you might miss is that at the end of the day Oppy is arguing that there are no rationally coercive arguments for God's existence (a thesis with which most Christian philosophers would probably agree!), but by the same token that neither are there any rationally coercive arguments against God's existence, so that theists can be perfectly rational in believing as they do. Very few people in the know would think that the disdain and condescension of these popularizers toward theists in general and Christians in particular is justified.

Now, as a Christian philosopher, I am in one sense tickled at this turn of events. Back in the thirties and forties during the dark days of the fundamentalist retreat from academia, the free-thought crowd was perhaps justified in looking down their noses at the Christian subculture. They could posture themselves as the champions of rationality and treat Christians as intellectually second-rate. Now, by contrast, the free-thought subculture finds itself on the losing end of the intellectual contest. It is out of date with regard to philosophical work on arguments for God's existence, out of touch with the flourishing dialogue between science and religion going on today, stuck in the old warfare metaphor of Andrew Dickson White, and mired in nineteenth century biblical criticism and mythological interpretive frameworks for understanding the historical Jesus. I am positively exultant about how the landscape has changed!

Of course, as you complain, Joe, it can be galling to have to put up with the arrogance and condescension of people who are sometimes so invincibly ignorant. But then what do you expect? Take some time to meditate on the opening chapters of I Corinthians. Look how many times Paul uses the words "foolish" or "fool." Paul says that the message of the Gospel is folly to the unbelieving world, that the natural man without the Spirit of God regards spiritual things as foolish, that "If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise" (I Cor. 3.18). To his detractors who belittled him Paul wrote, "We are fools for Christ's sake" (I Cor. 4.10). I am convinced that until a person is ready to swallow his pride and be thought a fool for Christ's sake, he is not ready to be fully used by God.

Of course, it should go without saying that we should not in fact be foolish or second-rate in our scholarship. We should pursue excellence and take up Charles Malik's call to challenge secular scholars on their own terms of scholarship. We should be intellectually humble and ready to learn from our critics and open to their criticism. We may find that we have made mistakes and need to revise or abandon our argument. But in the end we need to be prepared to be ridiculed as fools for Christ's sake.

Sure, it hurts when people don't appreciate you or your work. But here we can draw encouragement from Jesus' words, "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matt. 5.11-12). Do you really believe that, Joe? Then rejoice! Let's not indulge in feeling sorry for ourselves but be glad that we have the honor of bearing the same opprobrium that fell upon our Lord.

Rather than be angry with those who ridicule us, we need to consider the source and feel compassion for such lost souls. I'm reminded of a saying I once heard: "I could no more be angry with him than if a blind man had stepped on my foot."

Your point about the evangelistic ineffectiveness of message boards is a practical concern that those who spend time on such boards need to weigh seriously. Our Open Forum at Reasonable Faith is not intended primarily to serve an evangelistic purpose but to promote discussion of important issues among anyone who cares to participate. It is my hope that Christians will be deepened in their grasp of Christian truth through such discussion.

Keep in mind, too, that hundreds of people are reading your exchange with some recalcitrant atheist and watching how you respond. As in my public debates, the object of such an exchange may not be to convince the person with whom you are engaged but to convince the open-minded seekers in your audience. The nastiness and closed-mindedness of your interlocutor in contrast to your charitable spirit can actually be a benefit to your case.

I do completely concur with you on the need for civility. That's why I insisted on describing our Forum as "substantive, irenic discussion of issues." But I'm not going to ban people who lack the maturity to be civil. I would simply agree with Chris Weaver when he advised, just don't respond to such people. Let their posts sink into oblivion until they learn how to treat those with whom they disagree with charity and respect.


1 Quentin Smith, "The Wave Function of a Godless Universe," in Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 322.