Does Reason Lead to Atheism or Theism?

Does Reason Lead to Atheism or Theism?

Dr. Craig shows the importance of not taking persons out of context. Also, do atheists really believe in God but just lie about it?

Transcript Does Reason Lead to Atheism or Theism?

Kevin Harris: The headline on this article reads: “Craig: Reason Leads to Atheism or Agnosticism?” Then, Bill, it quotes you: “The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward it's end will be atheistic or at best agnostic; William Lane Craig.” Now this from Stephen Law whom you debated.

Dr. Craig: We had a debate during my October speaking tour of Great Britain at Central Hall in London on the existence of God. He's the editor of a journal Think and an anti-theist and philosopher of religion, and we had a very good exchange.[1]

Kevin Harris: I became aware of this when several on the blogosphere began spreading this quote out of context around, and other atheist bloggers picked it up. It eventually got to Stephen Law that you said the person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or at best agnostic. He says, “Yes, Craig really did say that, the source is here [and he quotes the Christianity Today article[2]] but does Craig really mean what he appears to mean? You should make up your own mind about that.” Well, Bill, I don't think I've ever seen anything taken out of context that hard. [laughter] Now, all of these bloggers have come back and said, “OK, we're sorry, we really did take him out of context.” And he's been corrected by their own peers and other atheists have come to your defense and saying, “How dare you take him out of context like that. You know, we accuse people of quote-mining and taking people out of context. This is a blatant example of that.” Reasonable Faith, some of the people who help us answer some of the questions and interact online, have also written and straightened it out.

Dr. Craig: That's good.

Kevin Harris: So, two things: first, explain the context of what you were saying here.

Dr. Craig: Well, ironically this is from an article on arguments for the existence of God and the renaissance of natural theology in our day, and it explains how so many philosophers have recently defended arguments for the existence of God, including the cosmological, teleological, moral and ontological arguments. So the whole article is about how the pursuit of reason and evidence will lead to theistic conclusions. It's quite astonishing that anyone could think that this sentence is a fair representation of the view when the whole article was to quite the opposite conclusion.

Kevin Harris: An anonymous writer even wrote to Law and said, “Craig is not endorsing the view that reason leads to atheism or agnosticism. He is mentioning this view in order to describe what he thinks is the current cultural milieu and the attitude of most Western intellectuals.”

Dr. Craig: Obviously.

Kevin Harris: “Context makes this clear.” End quote here from anonymous.

Dr. Craig: Yes, in fact I think we have, Kevin, a clip of my speech in which I say this that you could play that would, I think, give the immediate context and be instructive.

What awaits us in the United States if our slide into secularism continues is already evident in Europe. Evangelism is immeasurably more difficult in Europe than it is in the United States. Having lived for thirteen years in Europe where I spoke evangelistically on university campuses across the continent, I can testify to how hard the ground is. It's difficult for the gospel even to get a fair hearing. The United States is following at a distance down this same road with Canada somewhere in between. If the Gospel is to be heard as a viable option for thinking men and women then we as Christians must try to shape American culture in such a way that Christian belief is an intellectually defensible alternative. It can be done. We are living at a time in history in which Christian philosophy is experiencing an incredible resurgence, at a time at which science is more open to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe than at anytime in recent memory,[3] and at a time when biblical scholars have embarked upon a new quest of the historical Jesus and have confirmed the main outline of the portrait of Jesus painted in the Gospels. If only Christian laymen could be informed so as to give good answers to unbeliever's questions and objections and provide solid reasons for why they believe as they do, then the public perception of Christians in our culture will slowly change. Christians will come to be seen as thoughtful people who deserve to be taken seriously, rather than as emotional fanatics. Becoming a Christian will be a reasonable and attractive option for people. Now, I'm not saying that people will become Christians because of the arguments and the evidence. Rather I'm saying that the arguments and the evidence can create a culture in which embracing Christian belief is a reasonable thing to do. They create an environment in which people will be open to the Gospel. So being intellectually engaged as a Christian is a vital way of being salt and light in American society today.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think Stephen Law should have checked out the context and he should have corrected those who were sending this quote to him. He knows that that doesn't represent my view; we had a debate on this. So he needed to be more careful in checking the context and then correcting this reader. Now this is something, I think, is very important for all of us, Kevin. I have been embarrassed and caught in this same trap. Someone sent me, a couple of years ago, a question of the week in which the prominent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne was responding to my debate with Francisco Ayala on “is intelligent design viable?” And I was so thrilled to get some reaction, some critique, from so eminent a biologist as Jerry Coyne, that I just took it for granted that this was accurate and then I wrote a question of the week which I posted on the website responding to this critique and pointing out how it failed to engage with what I actually said in the debate. Well, I soon got an angry email from Jerry Coyne pointing out to me that he was not responding to my debate with Francisco Ayala, and that this quotation was from his review of a book by Ann Coulter, of all people! [laughter] And I thought, well, no wonder it failed to connect with what I said in the debate, it wasn't even about it. And yet I was suckered into this by some reader who had sent me this quotation and said this is Coyne's response to your debate, in the same way that Law here, I think, was suckered by someone sending him this quotation out of context. In both cases we failed to check it out. And so I've tried to be more cautious since then when people send me this stuff on the internet asking me to respond. I will now typically issue a disclaimer where I'll say, “I haven't read the original article, but as for the passage you have sent me, and what it says, here's how I would respond to it,” and try to block ascribing certain views to people who may not in fact hold to those views at all.

Kevin Harris: And it's getting easier and easier to check things out or, rather, you can do it quickly, these days. Bill, the damage is done often in these cases where we have this headline that says: “William Lane Craig: Reason Leads to Atheism and Agnosticism” and then somebody sees that; they don't even have to read the rest of the article.

Dr. Craig: No, it's really astonishing, isn't it?

Kevin Harris: So, don't just depend on a soundbite, read in depth. I think we've all learned to do that. Stephen Law writes a second article on May 20, “Do Atheists Know That God Exists?” He says,

I recently noted that William Lane Craig takes the view, apparently, that atheists know in their hearts that God exists. It would seem to follow that atheists are liars when they claim not to know that God exists, assuming that they know that they know God exists, and that to lie is to assert what one knows to be false.

Okay, right off the bat, Bill, are atheists liars?

Dr. Craig: No, I have never said that. And again I think it's unfortunate that this impression is given. I do think that it's true, based on what the New Testament says, that all people do have a fundamental knowledge of God, including atheists. The book of Romans, chapter one, indicates that all persons know that God exists and are therefore accountable for whether or not they respond to him.[4] But that doesn’t mean that those who deny that they believe in God are just blatant liars, that they're saying falsehoods about what they believe. Rather I think human psychology, Kevin, is just far, far more complex than this kind of simplistic analysis that Stephen Law gives would suggest.

In his column here he quotes Andy Everest, who is apparently a theist, and gives a lot of really interesting examples about how you can know something without being consciously aware of it. And Law attempts to show that these are irrelevant to the case of atheists knowing that God exists. I think that's an unsympathetic treatment of Everest. I think Everest is simply giving some examples, but he's not saying that atheism is exactly like this. It's just an illustration of when a person is not necessarily a liar if he says that he doesn’t know something, and I think his illustrations are quite good. It doesn't mean that you're lying when you say you don't know something, even if deep down you do.

But Law wants to insist that if an atheist knows that God exists and he asserts that he does not know that God exists, then the atheist is, as he puts it, surely a liar. And it seems to me that that's just psychologically naïve. The human psyche is so capable of rationalization and suppressing things that we find uncomfortable, that I think it's very plausible to think that an atheist could somehow suppress the knowledge of God or rationalize it away so that he doesn't have to face it overtly. You can think of cases, especially involving moral misbehavior, where this human ability to rationalize comes out. For example, men who get caught in sexual affairs will, at least in the beginning stages of the affair, typically rationalize away the behavior, even though they know that what they are doing is wrong, but they will rationalize it so that they can say, “I'm not really doing anything wrong with this women; what we're doing is perfectly fine, it's innocent, it's acceptable,” when really deep down if he were thinking correctly he would know that what he's doing is morally wrong. But we have a tremendous ability, Kevin, to rationalize things away so that we can do things that then are acceptable to us, or that we don't have to face conclusions that we would find too difficult to face. And it's not at all implausible that in the case of atheism that there's a sinful suppression of the knowledge of God.

Alvin Plantinga in his epistemological model of warranted Christian belief actually argues that due to what he calls the noetic effects of sin that people's cognitive faculties aren’t functioning properly when they fail to believe in God. His view is that atheists are actually cognitively dysfunctional in failing to believe in God because their rational faculties are not functioning as they ought to. So it's perfectly plausible, I think, that due to sin and the suppression of the knowledge of God or rationalization of one's own behavior or what not, that one could suppress and deny that one knows that God exists and be sincere about it even though deep down that person really does know that God exists.

Kevin Harris: And since we're all subject to this, I guess one of the main remedies is look real hard in the mirror, try to get down, dig down, as to what motivations might be there.

Dr. Craig: I think that's right, Kevin. Honestly human beings are so complex that the deep springs of our behaviors and beliefs can be very deeply rooted, and it can be difficult to look at oneself with objectivity because we have blind spots and we fail to see ourselves objectivity. That's just part of the first-person experience, that we don't have an objective viewpoint on ourselves and on our own behavior.

Kevin Harris: I know, I'm surprised every time I look in the mirror that I'm not eighteen anymore. [laughter] I'm not eighteen years old. Oh boy. Well, there's nothing wrong with motivations, there's nothing wrong with having motives. I guess we would all need to examine our motives and say,[5] “Well, are these motivations of mine warranted, and why?” I have motivations for being an ambassador for Jesus Christ, and I think that those are good, solid, warranted motivations, based on so many things – my relationship with God as well as the evidence.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's the real key isn't it, Kevin? I mean, this issue about whether atheists deep down really know that God exists is in one sense just irrelevant. The real question is, is atheism warranted, or is theism warranted? That's the real issue. Why are we raising this question about the personal psychology and sincerity of atheists? I think the reason atheists raise this is because they want to be able to get their backs up and take righteous offense and indignation at being called liars by these Christians and theists. But I just don't see that one's personal psychology is relevant to the issue. What you said is really the important thing, and that is, are these beliefs warranted?

Kevin Harris: Bottom line, Bill, is we have these two instances here of contextual problems, taking you out of context.

Dr. Craig: That's right, and so it is important. There's a certain principle of charity here, Kevin, that you should interpret someone you're reading in a charitable way rather than set up straw men that are easy to knock down. And so you read your person sympathetically, trying to understand his view, what does he really think? What does he mean when he says these things? Rather then just trying to jump on a perceived inconsistency or a statement that you regard as implausible or outrageous. We need to have charity when we read people and understand what they really think and what they meant in the original context.[6]

[1] To listen to the audio of this debate, and for a link to the transcript, see (accessed March 13, 2014).

[2] William Lane Craig, “God Is Not Dead Yet,” Christianity Today, July 3, 2008. See (accessed March 14, subscription required).

[3] 5:00

[4] 10:05

[5] 15:00

[6] Total Running Time: 17:10 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)