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How Atheists Get it Wrong Part Two

November 04, 2018


Dr Craig continues his discussion on Tim Crane's recent book on how atheists tend to 'get it wrong'.

KEVIN HARRIS: This is interesting down at the bottom.[1]

But is not the universe meaningless for atheists? Crane thinks so. He calls himself a “pessimistic atheist,” that is, he holds that the universe might have had meaning had it been created by God, but, since there is no God, the universe has no meaning.

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. This is the point that I have made over and over again. If atheism is true then there is no objective meaning to life or the universe, and Crane affirms this boldly.

KEVIN HARRIS: Keith continues,

How, then, can atheists claim, as I do, to find meaning, indeed religious meaning in the universe, especially when, on other occasions we will say that the universe is meaningless. Is this not simple confusion?

When I and, I think, many other atheists deny that the universe has meaning, what we intend to say is that, not viewing the universe as created, we do not see it as having been made with any sort of specific function, telos, plan, or purpose. The universe is not like a house or car, something made for a specific purpose to perform specific functions. Neither do we see the universe as in any sense pervaded by those qualities that give human life its particular meaning–qualities such as love, intelligence, morality, compassion, and consciousness. The universe does not give a damn about you. It cannot.

We think that physics is the best bet for describing the universe, and the terms that physics uses are descriptive, not normative. Quarks and leptons have no moral nature and no moral significance. If the ultimate constituents of the universe turn out not to be quarks and leptons, but, say, superstrings, this is merely a fact and has no moral significance.

DR. CRAIG: Here Parsons admits what I have been arguing all along – that if God does not exist then the universe has no meaning, no value, and no purpose, and that therefore life is absurd. I think that Keith grants that the universe on the atheistic description is purposeless, valueless, and meaningless. So how then can he say that there is religious meaning in the universe? How does he deal with this apparent contradiction?


However, to say that the universe has no meaning in the above sense is not to say that we cannot find the contemplation of the universe deeply meaningful and rewarding, nor that we cannot regard the universe with genuine—I would say genuinely religious—awe.

DR. CRAIG: In other words, the objective meaninglessness of the universe and life doesn't imply that I cannot subjectively find the contemplation of the universe meaningful, or that I cannot be awed at the grandeur and the majesty of the universe. Of course, no one has denied that psychologically the atheist can experience awe at the universe, or that he can find his life meaningful even though it is objectively meaningless. All that Parsons is affirming here is this subjective sense of the meaning of the universe which he even identifies as a kind of religious attitude.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah, he says here,

Carl Sagan’s pantheistic paean to the universe at the beginning of the original Cosmos series from 1980 is for me a kind of Apostle’s Creed:

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.


DR. CRAIG: There's a sort of plaintive quality to that affirmation by Sagan – as if a distant memory of falling from a height. It reminds me of the story of the Fall in the book of Genesis that there is this distant memory even among atheists that we're here for something more than this, that there's something greater here from which we've fallen and would long to get back to. I think it's this quest for transcendence that lies right at the heart of the religious impulse, and Parsons expresses it, too.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “The universe for me, as for Sagan, is an object worthy of religious awe, . . . encounter with the numinous.” What was that? The unknown? The mysterious?

DR. CRAIG: Yes. The fascinating and tremendous mystery that confronts us.


For me, the wonder and beauty, indeed sacredness, of the universe is not that it somehow intended me, or is concerned about me, or shares my values, but, on the contrary, that, like God speaking to Job from the whirlwind, it demands to be taken on its own terms, not on ours. To truly appreciate the universe in all its sublimity and majesty, we must set aside our petty human egocentricity and determine to see things as they are rather than how we wish them to be. Religions want the ultimate reality to be like us, to see something like our own faces peering back when we look into the depths. Atheists see that desire as a refusal to appreciate the universe on its own splendid but utterly non-human terms.

DR. CRAIG: Again, this sort of amateur psychologizing, I think, cuts both ways. The atheist can also project his image of what he wants the world to be like onto the universe rather than accepting reality for what it is. When you start psychoanalyzing your interlocutors then you really undercut yourself because the same sorts of things can be said of you.


Crane will have none of this. He says “…atheists who say they can preserve some idea of the sacred are either mistaken or using the word in a very different way (p. 116).” The reason is that on his definition, the sacred always intentionally “points” to a putative transcendent object. Atheists believe in no transcendent entities, and so for them it must be the case that literally nothing is sacred. Therefore, “There can be nothing like this in an atheist’s world picture (p. 117).”

DR. CRAIG: Let’s understand what Crane is saying. He's saying you cannot have this sort of religious attitude toward the universe because the sacred, as he defines it, is something that is oriented toward the transcendent. On the first page of Parsons’ review he says,

What unites these two elements [the religious impulse and identification] is the sacred. Sacred things point beyond themselves to something transcendent . . . and shared experience of the sacred promotes a strong sense of identity.

So Crane’s claim is that the consistent atheist cannot have the sacred (which is essential to religious belief) because he has no transcendent reality to which to point.

KEVIN HARRIS: Here is Keith's response.

The inadequacy of Crane’s definition is obvious from the fact that on that definition God is not sacred. God does not point beyond himself to any other transcendent; he supposedly IS the ultimate transcendent. Crane’s definition applies to objects that are sacred in a secondary or derived sense.

DR. CRAIG: OK, so here's the argument. Parsons tries to show that Crane’s view is absurd because on Crane’s view God isn't sacred because God doesn't point to a transcendent reality beyond himself. That's not an inconsistency in Crane’s view. That simply is an implication of the view that the sacred is that which unites the religious impulse and identification. It points to a transcendent reality and thereby unites these two elements of religious belief, and in that sense God is not sacred. God is not something that unites religious impulse and identification by pointing to something transcendent beyond himself. So this isn't an inadequacy of Crane’s definition. It just says that the way in which Crane is using the word doesn't apply to God. But that doesn't mean that God isn't morally perfect, holy, and the other sorts of things that we would normally associate with this word.

KEVIN HARRIS: He then says,

Their sacredness [Dr. Craig: that is, the sacredness of ordinary objects in the world] inheres in their role of pointing beyond themselves to things that are sacred in a primary sense.

DR. CRAIG: That's using the word “sacred” in a very different way. He's trying to differentiate between primary and secondary senses of sacred, and that's not the way that Crane is using the word. The things that are sacred unite the religious impulse and identification by pointing to a transcendent reality, and that other reality isn't (in that sense of the word) sacred.


In the primary sense an object is sacred when its intrinsic nature is worthy of our deepest feelings of awe and wonder.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, now see here is his redefinition: to be sacred in the primary sense is to be worthy of awe and wonder. And he will say that the universe is worthy of awe and wonder. Well, that is problematic in at least two ways. First, it has nothing to do with religion. Being wonderful and awesome, I don't think, is an adequate characterization of what it is to be sacred. But more fundamentally, where does he get this value judgment of being worthy of awe and wonder. God is sacred in a primary sense (to use Parsons’ words now) in the sense that he is worthy of worship. As the supreme good, the paradigm of goodness, God is worthy of worship. But on atheism the universe doesn't have any intrinsic value. It's not worthy of wonder and awe even though it may evoke in us feelings of awe and wonder, and quite appropriately so. But Parsons here is smuggling in values that are not to be found in physics. Remember he wants to have a physical description that is value-free, and you will not find in quantum theory or relativity theory or any other segment of science statements of worthiness.

KEVIN HARRIS: Tell me again how you would respond to him saying that according to Crane’s definition then God is not sacred because God cannot point beyond himself.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, the way in which Crane defines the word “sacred”, the sacred is whatever unites the religious impulse and identification in a religious community. And so the sacred is something that is always pointing to that transcendent reality, and God obviously doesn't unite the religious impulse and identification in a religious community. He doesn’t function in that way and point beyond himself to some other transcendent reality. Rather he just is the transcendent reality toward which sacred things point. But that doesn't mean that God is not intrinsically worthy in virtue of being the greatest conceivable being. He is worthy of worship and so in Parsons’ sense he is supremely worthy – worthy of worship. But Parsons’ wants to smuggle in worthiness into physics which is an impossible task.[2]


[2]           [2]Total Running Time: 14:41 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)