Do Theists Really Believe in God?

Do Theists Really Believe in God?

A philosopher speculates that religious people don't really believe in God. Dr. Craig responds with some insight that includes how we grieve whether we believe in God or not.


Transcript Do Theists Really Believe in God?

Kevin Harris: Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris in the studio of Dr. Craig. This is kind of a “back-at-you” article that we have here, Dr. Craig, from Andrew Pessin.[1] He's the Chair of Philosophy at Connecticut College, author of The God Question. The reason I say it's “back-at-you” is that believers often accuse atheists and nonbelievers as not really disbelieving in God, just denying that they do, and so on. And he seems to be going in the opposite direction here by saying, well, I don't think you religious people really believe in God, maybe only giving it lip service. He says,

I'm speaking primarily of people who claim to believe in God. My assertion isn't that no one really believes in God. It's merely that far fewer people than you might think really do believe in God.

This assertion does not itself reflect any view on whether God actually exists. It is instead about whether people believe that God exists. The philosopher Georges Rey aptly refers to the claim that they don't as “meta-atheism.”

Alright, what do you think about that?

Dr. Craig: Well, I think that the label “meta-atheism” is just silly. His idea here is, as he puts it, actions speak louder than words, and they reflect what we really believe. So his claim is that when you look at people's actions you see that they don't really believe in God. Their lives are filled with hypocrisy, sin, behavior inconsistent with their so-called religious beliefs, and so in that sense they don't really believe in God. Well, I think that if you define it that way then it's not an implausible assertion, that people don't really believe in God in that sense. People may believe that God exists, but they don't really believe in him in the sense of trusting him, committing their lives wholeheartedly to him, being faithful, say, disciples of Christ. And in that sense – that people's actions are contrary to their words – would make me, then, a meta-atheist, which his just silly, to say that I am a meta-atheist because I think that most people live inconsistently with their religious claims. That is a completely misleading and silly label, to call that meta-atheism. It's simply to say that one might believe that people are generally hypocritical in the way they act as opposed to what they say they believe.

Kevin Harris: You know, Bill, I don't know if anything can be taken away from poll after poll after poll, historically, particularly in the West, that up in the ninety percentile believe in a supreme being or transcendent personal being or God, but that's not what he's saying.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right; and I think this author is very naïve in thinking that when people live inconsistently that they don't really have the propositional belief that God exists. The fact is that people are flawed and fallen and these people who commit these sins and don't live consistently and are hypocritical may very well believe that God exists, but they're sinful, they're fallen, they're not living in a way that they should. But that's doesn't mean that they don't believe that God exists.

Kevin Harris: This author says that as he studied the problem of evil he realized two things:

First, this so-called “problem of evil,” which atheists regularly raise against religious belief, is not as instantly destructive of theism as many atheists think: many sophisticated, insightful, and profound things can justifiably be said in response to this problem. But second, more importantly, the more sophisticated, insightful, and profound the responses to the problem become, the more, it strikes me, it is impossible for anyone to genuinely believe them.

So even if there are answers to the problem of evil he says, I still don't buy it?[2]

Dr. Craig: Right, that's what he says. Now, what's striking about that is that that wouldn't prove that people don't believe in God. It would just say they don't believe in these solutions to the problem of evil. But why think that believing in Leibniz's solution to the problem of evil is a necessary condition of believing in God. It's surprising that a professor of philosophy could commit that sort of a non sequitur; it just doesn’t follow. He gives the example of Leibniz who believed that this is the best of all possible worlds. And to his credit the professor admits that this is not as easy to refute as one might think. In fact, on Leibniz's view this is defensible, that it's the best of all possible worlds. But he just says, it seems incredible, look at all the bad things in the world, this is easy to parody and satirize as Voltaire did in Candide. But, in fact, that is not to refute Leibniz's argument; that's not to take it seriously. It's just mockery, and sure you can mock a position but that in no way refutes it or shows that it's unbelievable. So I'm just not persuaded by his point of view. Show that a position is philosophically coherent and consistent with the evidence then it's not clear to me why we should say that this thing is unbelievable.

Kevin Harris: Did Leibniz believe that this was the best of all possible worlds?

Dr. Craig: Yes, he believed that this was the best of all possible worlds, that's right. I mean, he did hold to that. But as most Christian philosophers have responded to Leibniz, it is neither incumbent upon Christians to think that there is such a thing as a best of all possible worlds. As Alvin Plantinga said, there could always be more palm trees and, you know, native dancing girls, and things like that.

Kevin Harris: More anchovies on your pizza.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, so that the range of possible worlds could just get better and better and better and there's no maximum to them. There is no best possible world, and therefore God is obligated in virtue of his being good simply to create a good possible world. But it's logically impossible to create the best possible world because there is no such thing. The other thing theists have pointed out, particularly Plantinga, is that in virtue of human's free will it may not be feasible for God to create all logically possible worlds. There could be worlds in and of themselves that are logically possible and consistent, but they're not within God's ability to actualize because if he were to put those people in those circumstances, they would freely go wrong. And this lies at the very heart of the theory of middle knowledge and a Molinist view of divine providence as opposed to Leibniz's view. What Molinists will point out is that there is a significant difference between worlds that are possible to actualize and worlds that are feasible for God to actualize. And Plantinga, in response to the problem of evil, says it's possible that there is no feasible world available to God that involves as much moral good as this world – including past, present, and future (remember, we don't know what the future holds) – without this much evil in it, as well. And the atheist would have to prove that that's impossible. And since that's impossible to prove, the logical version of the problem of evil is now widely regarded as bankrupt. So I think Pessin, here, is just tilting against windmills in attacking Leibniz’s theodicy.

Kevin Harris: Help me think through possible worlds for just a moment, Bill, and that is: according to Christian theology, we are heading toward a set of circumstances of knowing God more intimately, of heaven, of evil being dispelled, of evil being quarantined, and to be in heaven with Christ, with one another, with God, and that would be what Leibniz would consider this world. It's not going on right now, but it will occur in the world that exists. So, in other words, it's not a distinction of the world that's going on in 2013 and the world that's going on in 2017, it's a more overarching definition of the world.

Dr. Craig: Well, the world has to include every state of affairs in the history of the world. So not just the final state; it has to include the whole history of the world. And Leibniz's view was that this world, the whole thing, is the best possible world that could have existed.[3] And, as the professor admits, that is not as easy to refute as you might think because it could be, as St. Augustine said, that just as in a picture, a painting, the dark and seemingly ugly portions of the picture, when viewed in the whole, serve to highlight the bright colors and the beauty of the whole picture so that the whole painting is beautiful even though it involves these elements of ugliness and darkness. In the same way it could be that when you take the world as a whole – all the past, present, and into eternity future – that this is the best possible world. Now, I don't believe that myself, but that's not because that's unbelievable—not at all. What Leibniz said, I think, is perfectly plausible. But what I would agree with is what Plantinga said: there's simply no reason to think that there is a best possible world. It can be like a thermometer that just goes up and up and up and there is no highest temperature beyond which you cannot go. And besides that this distinction between possible worlds and feasible worlds is absolutely critical. There may well be worlds that are better than this one but they're not feasible even for an omnipotent God. And so my disagreement with Leibniz's theodicy is not at all because it's unbelievable, as this professor says. It's coherent. I don't think you can just refute it by pointing to the bad things in the world like Voltaire did, who couldn't hold a candle to Leibniz's genius. All he did was just write mockery and satire; you can't refute it in that way. But I would agree with Plantinga that I think Leibniz made a couple of missteps in assuming there is such a thing as a best possible world and in failing to see the distinction between possible worlds and feasible worlds. That's why I don't think we need to go with Leibniz's theodicy. But the overriding point for this article, Kevin, is that the failure to believe in Leibniz’s theodicy doesn't mean you don't believe in God. How in the world can this professor think that because people don't believe in Leibniz's theodicy that therefore they don't believe in God? That's just silly.

Kevin Harris: Let me back up just a little bit, Bill, because you're bringing out an important distinction between what's logically possible for God and what is feasible for God. We tend, as laypeople, not to use the word “feasible” because we just say, “well, it's not logically possible for God, even given all his attributes, to create a world in which people will freely choose him against their will.” You know, things like that.

Dr. Craig: Sure.

Kevin Harris: But you're making a distinction of what is logically impossible given free will – it's logically impossible to create a square circle – with what is feasible, and feasible seems to have a slightly different meaning that I've been trying to get a hold of.

Dr. Craig: Well, I don't want to mislead here, Kevin. I agree with what you said, it is logically impossible for God to make people freely do something.

Kevin Harris: Yes.

Dr. Craig: But that's why some of these worlds are not feasible for God.

Kevin Harris: Got it. That's what I've been trying to get my head around.

Dr. Craig: Okay.

Kevin Harris: I'll be thinking about that for a little bit of time. Okay.

Dr. Craig: So, we turn to the next issue which is the hypocrisy issue—religious believers don't live consistently. And he responds to the possible reply that this is due to our weakness of will or sinful nature – which, I think, is a very plausible reply – and his answer is, well, if you really believed in an all-powerful God who condemned that behavior and condemned individuals who engaged in that behavior, would you really even for a second engage in that behavior? Well, I'm afraid the answer is for many people, yes. Many people do believe in God and yet due to their sinful proclivities, their lack of discipleship, their lack of the filling of the Holy Spirit and inculcating the character of Christ, they do fall into sin despite knowing better. You know, Dallas Willard made the very perceptive comment that it's not enough to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in some situation if we have not taken the time previously to develop in ourselves the character of Jesus so that we would have the strength to do what Jesus would do in that situation.

Kevin Harris: Wow.

Dr. Craig: I think that's so profound. We need to be engaged in spiritual formation, in doing the things that build into us the Christian character that is necessary to have the strength to resist temptation and do what Jesus would do when we find ourselves in those circumstances.[4] If we don't do that then asking ourselves “what would Jesus do?” is far too little too late for us to live a consistent Christian life. So I think the author here is just naïve about people's personal psychology. The fact is that people can believe in God even though, due to a lack of discipleship and maturity and drawing on the power of the Holy Spirit, they fall and fail in sin.

Kevin Harris: The apostle Paul said you guys are free but don't use your freedom as an excuse to sin, and it's easy to kind of trample on the grace of God even if you hold these things very dearly. You know what I mean?

Dr. Craig: Yes. And I think that, as I think about this, Kevin, what the professor, I think, is pointing out is not that people don't believe certain things, but I think they fail sometimes to draw out or see the implications of what they believe, and that's a big difference. If you really believe that God has entrusted to you your material treasure and wealth and that you are to lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven rather than here on earth, then you ought to realize that you need to be giving away more money, say, to missions or to Christian causes rather than buying that big fancy automobile, or those expensive clothes, or expensive furniture. I think, in that sense, it's true that sometimes people don't fully think about or draw out the implications or the consequences of what they do believe. I think they do believe it, but they're shallow or superficial and they don't draw out the implications of what they believe. And so I wouldn't agree with the professor that they don't really believe it. I think they do, but often they're inconsequential in their Christianity.

Kevin Harris: Well, he ends it up here by saying that,

Even believers may not believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, but surely they believe that everything that occurs does so because it is God's will that it occur. But then why, exactly, should anyone get upset when anything happens, since everything that happens does so because the all-knowing and all-good God wills that it occurs? Or more painfully, people grieve when they lose their loved ones, especially children. But if you really believe in God, what is there to grieve about?

Dr. Craig: Now this is, I think, based on a fundamental theological misunderstanding. What the Christian theologian says is that there's a difference between what God positively wills and what he permits. God's permissive will includes lots of evils that he doesn’t positively will. So God allows the gunman to walk into the school and to shoot the children but he doesn't will that that happens. God's will for any person is that in whatever moral situation that person is that that person does the right thing. So when these evils occur that doesn't represent God's positive will; it's simply God's permissive will. He allows it to occur because of some greater reason, for example, permitting freedom. So of course one might be upset about the things that happen in life. I think God is upset about them; he permits these to occur but he doesn't want them to occur. And so when these evils occur of course it's appropriate to be upset. And when children are killed, such as your own children, what is there to grieve about? Well, you grieve about your loss, for goodness sake! You're not grieving because the child is now in the presence of God in eternal happiness and joy waiting for you someday to join him. What you're grieving about is your loss, that you no longer have that person to watch grow up and succeed in life. So, of course you grieve. And God, I think, is grieved by the evils in the world, but he permits these evils to occur with a view toward accomplishing his ultimate purposes in human history which is to bring freely as many men and women into the Kingdom of God and eternal life as he can.

Kevin Harris: Scripture speaks of death as an enemy, a defeated enemy, but we're going to grieve at death. It's the ultimate enemy. It's what Christ had to come and defeat.[5] Yes, he defeated death, but, boy, I'll tell you, when I lost my dad, I described it as a painful celebration.

Dr. Craig: Yes, yes, that's well put. But what this man is saying is that if you really believe in God then you shouldn't grieve when your loved ones die, which is just silly. You are comforted by the knowledge that they are in the presence of God and there await you – that is a tremendous comfort – but, as you say, it's a comfort that is in the midst of deep grief because you have lost that loved one.

Kevin Harris: His fellow atheist, Krauss, says that we shouldn't grieve of God, he wrote on CNN.[6] He was talking about the Connecticut shooting of the children. He did talk about, yes, we need to grieve and everything, but why do we have to assume that we grieve with God? There are two different reflections on grief from atheists, here, Bill.

Dr. Craig: Yes, what Krauss, who is a scientist, oddly enough, is protesting here is the way in which there is a kind of national turning to religion as a comfort when tragedies occur. He thinks we shouldn’t do that. He thinks we should just recur to secular grief counselors rather than religion. And it seems to me that while secular grief counselors are perfectly appropriate, it's also perfectly appropriate to turn to God as a source of comfort. I thought it was very interesting in this article from Krauss that he says at the beginning: “It is intuitively clear that there cannot be any good reason for the Newton massacre.” Now that's interesting in the first place because he appeals to intuition. He has no evidence that there could not be an overriding reason why this occurred but he appeals simply to intuition. That's so interesting because these same fellows will deride appeals to intuition in other contexts demanding that you have scientific evidence rather than, for example, moral intuitions about what is right and wrong. But here he thinks it's intuitively clear there can't be a good reason for this massacre, which is far from intuitively clear. There's no intuition whatsoever, I would say, that this couldn't have been permitted with a view toward a greater good or preventing a lesser [greater?] evil.

And then the inconsistency of it is that, at the end of the article, he suggests perhaps the most important thing about this tragedy is that this tragedy may one day not be completely in vain - “That a shocked nation might rationally decide that assault weapons are meant to kill many people in a short time, not to hunt for deer or defend one's home.” Now here he suggests that there could be an overriding reason for which this tragedy could be permitted, why it would not be in vain. Namely, the shocked nation as a result of this would adopt gun laws that would ban assault weapons and other things that shouldn't be permitted. So suppose that happened, that God permitted this terrible tragedy in order that a shocked nation might adopt gun laws that would keep these assault weapons out of the mentally ill's hands and so save many lives. That would be a perfect example of an overriding reason for which this senseless massacre occurred. So while saying at the beginning of the article that it's intuitively clear that there cannot be a reason, at the end of the article he himself suggests a way in which this tragedy may not have occurred in vain, which would give a provident God reason for permitting it. So I find this to be simply inconsistent and ill-thought through.

Kevin Harris: Well, it’s another call just to remove any vestiges of religion, Christianity, out of the national spotlight; “we don't need your view, we need my view.” As if it's somehow not . . . there's no compunction on the other side. It's the myth of neutrality.

Dr. Craig: Right, and you notice, Kevin, his complaint is not just with governmental leaders turning to religion like President Obama. He says, why does television turn to clergy for advice on how to meet our needs, spiritual or otherwise? This is censoring private speech, not simply the speech of government officials who might comfort the nation by speaking of God. He doesn't even think that clergy should be interviewed on television. That is simply gross censorship and speech control. Yes, go ahead and interview the secular grief counselor on TV, but I see no reason to think that clergy should not also be interviewed on public television and allowed to express their concerns and condolences for those who have experienced terrible losses.[7] So these people like Krauss are out, not just to strip the public square of religious speech, but even the private sphere of religious speech.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I want you to tell me what you think about a pet peeve of mine. One of the most popular forms of television productions are hospital, medical shows. And I've noticed my whole life there's not one instance that I can think of, there's never any chaplains in any of these TV shows. Some of the most popular shows in the history of television, like E.R., Grey's Anatomy, and House. The poor people in those productions who are going through the most horrible grief and pain and loss have nobody but a womanizing George Clooney [laughter] to come in and nod his head and wink. First of all, it's not in keeping with reality, and I think it would make even for great TV. Why not have a chaplain be part of the writing?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, and not some phony plastic figure, but a real flesh and blood person because you and I know that pastors do hospital visitation and go to great lengths to comfort the sick and the dying, and they mean a lot to those persons who are going through those hard times.

Kevin Harris: They are a very present help and very visible in every hospital across the nation and the world but they are just left out.

Dr. Craig: Invisible.

Kevin Harris: In the grieving process, you are just on your own.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, and these televisions shows, they won't show that, will they?

Kevin Harris: No. That's Krauss' world, I think – to remove that from the grieving process. We could talk more but we're out of time. Thank you, Dr. Craig. We'll see you next time on Reasonable Faith.[8]



[1] Andrew Pessin, “Do Religious People Really Believe in God?,” August 17, 2010. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-pessin/metaatheism-the-secret-co_b_684551.html (accessed January 8, 2014).

[2] 5:08

[3] 10:00

[4] 15:07

[5] 20:00

[6] Lawrence Krauss, “Why must the nation grieve with God?,” CNN.com, December 26, 2012. See http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/26/opinion/krauss-grief-faith/ (accessed January 8, 2014).

[7] 25:12

[8] Total Running Time: 27:39 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)