Questions on Atheism, Ethics, and Marital Conflict

Questions on Atheism, Ethics, and Marital Conflict

Dr. Craig answers questions he's received on Atheism, whether God has moral obligations, the doctrine of Original Sin, ethics, and marital conflicts.


Transcript Questions on Atheism, Ethics, and Marital Conflict

Kevin Harris: This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Welcome, I'm Kevin Harris. Well, this is always a fun thing to do; fun for me, not for you, Bill, because you're in the hot seat. But we get questions and we try to cover as many as we can on the podcast. Be sure that you go to the question of the week and go to the archives as well, because your question, more than likely, will be there. But here are some questions that we've gotten at ReasonableFaith.org.

Would you not agree that an honest terminology would acknowledge that even atheism is a belief, and therefore does not qualify as non-belief? Even though if the atheist is a non-believer with regard to the question of God's existence, is not the positive affirmation of the non-existence of God to regard as a belief?

Dr. Craig: I was puzzled by this question until I looked at what I had written in my book On Guard. And I think that what the questioner is complaining about is that in the book I refer to non-Christians as non-believers or unbelievers. I'll say if the unbeliever says to you this, then here is how one might reply. And of course I think that atheism is a belief, it is the belief that God does not exist. But referring to persons who are not Christians as unbelievers isn't meant to say that they don't have a belief, I meant that they don't have Christian belief – that was all I meant. And I notice that the Scripture even uses that word. The Scriptures will refer to people as apistis, “unbeliever.” So this is actually a Scriptural word, and it isn't meant to indicate some technical distinction that atheists don't have beliefs. Obviously they do. But what I meant is that they're simply not Christian believers.

Kevin Harris: And to be an atheist you still affirm certain truths about the universe; it's not merely negation.

Dr. Craig: Right, and that's his point. He wants to say that atheists are believers too, they believe that God does not exist. And certainly that's correct. But when I was referring to non-Christians as unbelievers I was merely talking about their connection with Christian belief – I wasn't trying to be philosophically technical.

Kevin Harris: His second question is:

In On Guard you make three points with regards to the problem of evil. My concern is with regard to the probabilistic version of the problem of evil, not the logical version.

1. We humans are limited in perspective

2. We humans do not have the full scope of the evidence;

3. Suffering makes more sense under Christian doctrine.

Now, I do not question any of these three theses you hold to, I affirm them all. But since God is not limited in space nor time, since God has the full scope, does that not make God the complete utilitarian? On page 160 you mention utilitarianism and it's lack as a theory due to the limited perspective. But given the fact that God has all knowledge, even middle knowledge, as you assert, does that not make God the perfect utilitarian? I know this might be a silly question to ask, but I think it has relevance because we strive for precision when it comes to defining who God is, which is the case in Christian dogmatics. If God is a utilitarian God with regard to the best available philosophical theory to explain why God acts the way he does, why does it not appear more often in Christian dogmatics? Is it because of the general skepticism toward the theory among many philosophers?

Dr. Craig: Well, I don't think that I am trying to affirm that God is a utilitarian. I'm simply saying that God has morally sufficient reasons for what he does.

Kevin Harris: Utilitarianism is the view that you do whatever is most useful, or to the widest number of people.

Dr. Craig: Right, how to bring about the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, or something of that sort. It's basically a kind of consequentialism – that you don't look to moral duties that you have because of their intrinsic rightness or wrongness, you just look to the consequences. And it is true, I think, that God doesn't have moral duties to fulfill. I think that's right. Moral duties are the result of divine commandments to us. They arise as a result of divine imperatives. And since God doesn’t issue commands to himself presumably God doesn’t have any moral duties to fulfill. I think that's true. I would say then that, to exploit a distinction made by Kant, we could say that God acts according to duty but not from duty. That is to say, he does what is good because that is his very nature,[1] but it's not as though he has moral obligations to fulfill. Now, in doing what is good certainly God will consider the consequences of what happens. But that doesn't mean that, for example, he would torture a little child if he knew that somehow that would produce good consequences. It's not as though God is a consequentialist. It's simply to say that when you consider the outcome of what you're going to allow free agents to do and in sovereignly ordering the world you will order it in such a way that ultimately your good purposes will be achieved, and you have morally sufficient reasons for allowing what happens in the world. But that's not to say that God's a utilitarian or a consequentialist.

Kevin Harris: And it occurs to me, in looking at this, that utilitarianism, and for a person to be utilitarian, they would have to be a finite, limited person in order to strive for and try to figure out what is the best course of action. And since that's not a problem with God, he doesn’t have to . . .

Dr. Craig: No, but wouldn't . . . I think he's right about this: if someone who fully knew the consequences of every action that he might take . . .

Kevin Harris: . . . would he not be the ultimate utilitarian?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, he could be a great utilitarian because part of the problem with utilitarianism is our finitude – we can't figure out the outcome of our action. But someone like God would know that. But, as I say, to return to my example, on a consequentialist sort of ethics you would have to say that if torturing an innocent little girl were to somehow ultimately bring about greater human flourishing and happiness then you are morally obligated to torture her. That's one of the horrible things about the ethics of a person like Sam Harris, for example, where he says the good is promoting the flourishing of sentient life. On his view if torturing this little girl somehow through the accidents of history would bring about greater human flourishing, you're morally obligated to go torture her, which is horrendous and obviously I'm not suggesting that.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, the ends don't justify the means.

Dr. Craig: Well, that's what the utilitarian denies; he thinks the ends do justify the means.

Kevin Harris: God couldn't be accused of promoting evil, but permitting it.

Dr. Craig: Right, and I do think there's a huge difference. He might permit some agent to perpetrate evil, but that's very different from saying God does these evil acts himself because they'll have good consequences.

Kevin Harris:

Dear Dr. Craig, in Ethiopia and Kenya the tribal tradition of female genital mutilation is still practiced by Muslims and Christians. The Bible appears to be silent on the issue of female genital mutilation. My question is, is female genital mutilation objectively immoral, and if so, why?

Dr. Craig: Well, because it is. Yes, it is because it damages females, damages these little girls. There's nothing in Scripture that commands female circumcision. And this is a procedure that developed within the Islamic culture and it's hurtful and harmful to those on whom it's perpetrated. And so there's no grounds for thinking that this is something that one should do.

Kevin Harris: Christians – where did that come from?

Dr. Craig: I don't know. I've never heard that this is practiced by Christians unless in Kenya, as he said, perhaps Christians living in a predominately Muslim culture might have absorbed this practice. But it's not one that's indigenous to Christianity or Judaism.

Kevin Harris: What a horrible, horrible thing. Just because the Bible is silent on something doesn't mean . . .

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's like saying, because the Bible is silent on mutilating people's feet, like they did in China where the feet of women were – foot-binding as you may have heard. In ancient China they would bind women's feet so that they would be in the form of Lotus blossoms. They considered that crippling women for life was somehow aesthetically pleasing. Well, the Bible obviously never speaks to that but it's clearly wrong in light of the harm that it brings to an innocent person.

Kevin Harris: We look to principles then.

Dr. Craig: Yes, sure.

Kevin Harris: If it's not mentioned specifically we look at various principles.

Dr. Craig: Right, we look at the broader principle.

Kevin Harris:

Dear Dr. Craig, in your debate with Sam Harris on the foundations of morality a criticism you leveled against his naturalistic position on moral accountability was that his determinism nullified any moral obligations because ought implies can. You said that a person is not morally responsible for an action which he is unable to avoid.[2] Since on Harris' view humans do not have freewill [and he's got a new book on that by the way on freewill that's coming out] they cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. And yet on the Christian view of sin it seems that man's fallen nature makes it impossible for him to fulfill his moral duties in every circumstance as well. Don't we run into the same ought implies can problem here as well? If men ought to fulfill their moral duties yet their human nature since the Fall makes it impossible, how does “ought implies can” work here?

Dr. Craig: Well, it would apply, if you hold to the doctrine of original sin, to the original man, to Adam, who was innocent, who had freewill to obey or disobey God, and who chose freely to disobey God. So the ought implies can would apply to the original man. And then acting as the sort of federal head of the human race or the representative for the human race all other persons, then, were incorporated in his sin. And so they are held responsible because he acts on our behalf much as a proxy would act on behalf of stockholders in voting at a stockholders' meeting which the person couldn’t attend. Now, that would mean that our situation would be somewhat similar to the situation of the heroin addict who can no longer resist the addiction of mainlining heroin, and therefore doesn't have, say, the freewill to resist, but is still responsible because he got himself into that mess in the first pace. And similarly we would still be responsible because of Adam's original sin which was freely chosen, and his acting as the federal head of the human race. Moreover I do think that while we may not be able to resist sin in our own ability, we can by the grace of God. And in that sense we're responsible for not calling upon and drawing upon the grace of God to help us resist sin. It's not as though we're without resource in this life.

Kevin Harris: Just to follow up, somebody would say, “you know, it's still not fair that he was our federal head and he was our representative.” But it occurs to me, Bill, that it would be unfair if he wasn't an accurate or perfect representative. In other words, he was the perfect representative, the accurate template representative of the human race to the extent that he was our federal head and representative.

Dr. Craig: Right, in other words: he voted for you in the way that you would have voted yourself if you had been there. He was a faithful proxy before God for you, and so you can't complain about his decision because you would have done the same thing if you had been there.

Kevin Harris:

Dear Dr. Craig, I should like to ask you a question as regards to the nature of God. After a good deal of rumination on some of the attributes of the divine, a thought struck me on how to deduce some of God's attributes from others. It seems to me that God's omniscience would imply a sort of omnipresence. The line of reasoning went something like this:

1. God is omniscient.

2. Omniscience entails among other things the knowledge of the location of every particle of matter at every point in time.

3. God must, as an extension of his omniscience, be aware of the location of every particle of matter at every point in time.

4. This kind of knowledge seems to imply God's consciousness or mind being present, not only at every point in space but at every point in time.

5. Omnipresence is defined as being present simultaneously at every possible location.

6. God's mind or consciousness must, according to the specifications of his omniscience, be present simultaneously at every possible location.

7. Therefore, God, or at least God's mind, is omnipresent.

Now, I don't have philosophical training other than having read a good deal of books on the matter. So I'm not sure whether this is an entirely valid chain of reasoning.

Dr. Craig: He's trying to deduce omnipresence from omniscience, and I think he's right. The doctrine of omnipresence, as he's expressed it, was expressed by Thomas Aquinas as God's knowing what is happening at every point, and his being causally active at every point. So omnipresence doesn't mean that God exists in space. It means that he is cognizant of and causally active at every point in space.[3] And so I do think that's a good argument. That's a real important issue for the coherence of theism debates, because it's been held by some that if you grant one of these attributes then all of the others are implicated, and I don't think that's true. For example I don't think that from omnipotence you can deduce whether God is timeless or everlasting throughout time. It seems to me that some of these attributes are independent of one another.

Kevin Harris: Here's a question from Denmark:

Dear Dr. Craig, thank you for your ministry. I really enjoy your podcasts (and that Kevin Harris guy is outstanding – no, he doesn't say that) and I'm looking forward to your visit in Europe next time. I have heard that you're coming to Scandinavia and maybe Denmark. Currently I am in a relationship with this girl whom I love very much, and we have been in this relationship for six months. Because I am Pentecostal and she is Lutheran we have some theological differences concerning baptism. As you know Lutherans hold to what I think is wrong, a wrong doctrine of infant baptism, and baptismal regeneration; where I hold to a more Baptist view on baptism. I've tried for a long time to convince her but she appeals much to the emotional fact of her father is a Lutheran minister and he's probably expecting us to baptize his grandchildren. Do you think it is wise or permissible to consider marrying interdenominationally? And number two, is baptism a doctrine we should divide on? If I were to baptize my infant children someday would I then commit a sin because I knowingly would fail to obey the call to baptize properly?

Dr. Craig: This is a really interesting question. On the one hand one wouldn't think that such doctrinal niceties ought not to be an issue in a person's marriage; and yet on the other hand one could well imagine that when it involves children like this that this could lead to real issues in the marriage and cause a separation between the husband and the wife over the children. I share his view of baptism, that infant baptism and baptismal regeneration is an incorrect doctrine. But it's difficult to know whether or not that's serious enough not to marry this girl. He ought initially at least to seek some sort of compromise; to suggest to her, “How about if we let the children wait until they're, say, five or six years old to decide to be baptized; and in the meantime we will raise them in the nurture and instruction of the Lord, and then at that time baptize them.” In other words, they don't need to be baptized immediately. Maybe she would be willing for a compromise of that sort.

Kevin Harris: She might, but it doesn’t look like her father would. He's worried about their grandfather. He's worried about his future father-in-law if they were to marry.

Dr. Craig: I wouldn’t have a problem with his spurning the advice of his future father-in-law. My concern is with his wife. If she is so enamored with infant baptism that she would just insist that the children be baptized as tiny infants, that could be very difficult. The question is: suppose he allows her to go ahead without consenting to it himself, say, “I oppose this, I don't think it's right, but I won't stop you from having the children baptized.” Could he do that and still raise the children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, train them to be good Christians, with the hope that when they get older they, receiving proper Biblical instruction, will then say, “I don't think that this baptism I received was really valid. I need now to seek believer's baptism.” That would be a possibility. I don't think what he should do is marry her, and then set his foot down and say, “You cannot baptize these children.” That would cause a rift in the marriage that would be very serious. So I think he needs to decide whether or not he in good conscience can allow her to have the children baptized without his consent with the hope that he will then help to lead these children to Christ as they grow older.

Kevin Harris: And – I think you were addressing this – he's concerned that he would commit a sin if he had compromised to the extent that he allowed them to be baptized when they were infants. He's concerned about the sin issue.

Dr. Craig: Right, and it's not clear to me that he would be sinning if he makes clear to his wife that he thinks that this should not be done, that this has no more validity than a dedication ceremony, but that he wouldn't stop her.[4] He would allow her to follow her conscience and have this done. But first he ought to try to find creative alternatives, maybe even having a dedication ceremony for the infants with a promise that then we'll let them be baptized, say, when they're five or six, or something of that sort. Maybe she would be amenable to that.

Kevin Harris: Do you agree they need to get this worked out before they consider marriage?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think so, Kevin. As I say it seems like such a triviality, but when children are involved feelings can run very strong and it could be a real emotional crevasse that could be created between him and his wife.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, I think people can marry who are from different denominations within Christianity.

Dr. Craig: Certainly.

Kevin Harris: But if she uses a Mac and you use a PC, forget it. [laughter]

Dear Dr. Craig, first and foremost, thank you so much for your defense of faith and reason. I admire your courage and unwavering strength. My question comes with a heavy heart. Months after my wedding to a man I've been with for a long time, a man who was once a devout Christian like myself, I found him digging into the online atheist community that fed him lie after lie, and delusion after delusion, and before I knew it he said something that made me say, enough! This was the refusal to let me raise my children under my faith. To make matters worse he even said that should he compromise on this, he would allow religious education but then challenge it. Not doing so, he says, would be immoral to him and contributing to the ignorance of this country. Providing conflicting worldviews to a growing child in my mind is abusive and simply asking for dysfunction. He also turned to me and said that I'm brainwashed and incapable of discerning for myself, that I have been indoctrinated into this belief system, and that I in turn would do that to any children that we have. I am at a loss and have found only some evidence refuting this common claim of religious indoctrination. I've said to him that faith coerced it not faith, but it does nothing. What then would you consider the knockdown argument against this common claim for atheists, that is, that child indoctrination is wrong.

Dr. Craig: This is, again, just a heart-rending situation that this women finds herself in; wanting to bring her children up as Christians and yet her husband denying her the freedom to do so. And here's what I would say to him: I would open the Bible to Ephesians chapter 6:4, and read this to him: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” and say to him, you have the God-given responsibility to bring our children up in the instruction and nurture of the Lord, and if you fail to do that, you are sinning before God, and I have no choice but to do this myself. And you would not want me to violate my conscience, would you? Wouldn't you say, that just as you must follow your conscience, and it would be immoral for you to act against your conscience, you would not expect me to do something that I would regard as immoral. Every atheist, I think, would agree that a person ought to act in accord with what his conscience tells him. And so her conscience tells her that she needs to bring these children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and he needs to allow her to act according to her conscience.

Kevin Harris: Bill, that is excellent advice. You've been quite the marriage counselor today.

Dr. Craig: This has been unusual, Kevin. [laughter]

Kevin Harris: Thank you for joining us on the podcast today, and we'll address some more questions next time on Reasonable Faith.[5]



[1] 5:00

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:00

[5] Total Running Time: 23:59 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)