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How Atheists Get It Wrong - Part One

Many think the recent book by atheist philosopher Tim Crane is an important work. Including atheist Keith Parsons. Dr. Craig weighs in.


KEVIN HARRIS: Hey, thanks for joining us on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig! I’m Kevin Harris. There’s a recent book from atheist philosopher Tim Crane. It’s called The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View from Harvard University Press. Keith Parsons, who is also an atheist philosopher (and you've debated him a couple of times, Bill), says that this is, “an important new book.” This is what Keith writes.[1] He says that this new book,

argues that the impasse between religious believers and atheists is due to atheists’ misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief. Crane, himself an atheist, primarily addresses the “new” atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. According to Crane, atheists regard religion, which in our cultural context means theistic religion, as a kind of defective cosmology, a spurious proto-scientific hypothesis about the origin of the universe via the supernatural acts of a divine agent. These atheist writers then see the persistence of religious people in advocating such a non- or anti-scientific thesis as evidence that believers are superstitious, primitive, and irrational.

If indeed religion were a sort of crackpot cosmology, then belief in God would be like belief in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or ancient astronauts, and the condescending smirks of atheists would be justified. Crane argues that religious belief is not any kind of hypothesis or proto-scientific claim. He says that religious belief consists of two elements, what he calls the “religious impulse” and “identification.” The religious impulse is the drive to recognize the existence of a transcendent order that is both factual and normative: God is posited as real (factual), and his will specifies how things should be (normative). Believers find life’s meaning by living in harmony with that transcendent order, by obeying God’s will. “Identification” is the desire to belong to a community that historically defines itself through shared beliefs and practices and which understands the world in terms of those beliefs and practices.

DR. CRAIG: Right. So these are the two elements that he would identify as part of religious belief. The first is the religious impulse to recognize a transcendent reality, and then the second is identification with a community of like-minded people. Now, that's a very minimal definition of what belongs to religious belief. I think we would all agree that that's part of it but hardly is a very full-blooded description of what religious belief is. What Crane seems to reject is that the God hypothesis has any sort of explanatory value with respect to the world around us. So he would see arguments for the existence of God based upon things like the fine-tuning of the universe, the beginning of the universe, and so forth as proto-scientific hypotheses by appealing to this supernatural agent. He wants to rule that out. He doesn't think that that really is what characterizes religious belief.

KEVIN HARRIS: Parsons continues,

The consequence is that the critiques of atheists miss the point and are dismissed as irrelevant by believers. Atheist arguments may be decisive against theism construed as a semi-scientific hypothesis, but these critiques fail if belief is something entirely different.

DR. CRAIG: Now, I think that the attempt to characterize theistic arguments as semi-scientific or proto-scientific is tendentious and inaccurate. Take the kalam cosmological argument, for example: whatever begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore the universe has a cause. This argument will appeal to scientific evidence in favor of the second premise that the universe began to exist. That is a religiously neutral statement which can be found in any textbook on astronomy and astrophysics. It is not an attempt to posit an alternative cosmology. It is not a crackpot pseudo-scientific alternative to Big Bang cosmology. On the contrary, the claim is that the best evidence of contemporary science supports the truth of this premise which in conjunction with the first premise leads to a conclusion having theological significance. So what they're really talking about here is not theism as a proto-scientific or semi-scientific hypothesis. They're asking: Is theism explanatory? Can theism serve as an explanatory hypothesis – a non-scientific explanatory hypotheses? It seems to me that it can and does and that that also can be part of religious belief.

KEVIN HARRIS: Keith says, Yeah, I think Crane is right, but atheists are hardly to be blamed when you have yourself (Dr. Craig) and Richard Swinburne and others (the intelligent design theorists) presenting theism as precisely a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis as you just said.

DR. CRAIG: Right. He says, “Many of the leading defenders of theism, such as Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and the ‘intelligent design’ theorists, present theism as precisely a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis.” Now, I would prefer to use the word “explanatory hypothesis.” It is not scientific or quasi-scientific. Swinburne explicitly differentiates between scientific explanations and personal explanations. A scientific explanation will be an explanation in terms of natural laws and initial conditions. A personal explanation is an explanation in terms of a personal agent and his volitions. Swinburne argues that there is a personal explanation of the universe that is legitimate even though it's not scientific. As I just explained a moment ago, I would say that scientific evidence can support a premise in an argument having a conclusion that is of theistic significance. So it would only be the intelligent design theorists at most who would think of theism as a scientific hypothesis. There I think it is fair. What's characteristic of the contemporary ID movement is that they do think that an appeal to theism is a scientific hypothesis. That would be part of their claim. But they would also say that this is not a religious hypothesis. They would say that intelligent design is religiously neutral, and that therefore it is not part of religious belief. So, if that's correct, Parsons has erred in including them in the troop of religious believers who take God to be some sort of scientific hypothesis. So I don't think that Keith has got it right here. I don't think Crane has got it right either in thinking that a good many religious believers don't take God to be an explanatory hypothesis. The fact is that many of us do.

KEVIN HARRIS: Just to be more specific, when he mentions you here, again, he says, “Craig’s Kalaam argument is specifically and explicitly a cosmological claim presented within the context of physical cosmology.”

DR. CRAIG: Right. And it doesn't appeal to a theistic cosmology or an alternative to contemporary cosmology. It appeals to the normal cosmological model that is affirmed by secular scientists. So it is not in any way positing God as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis.

KEVIN HARRIS: So what do you think about this next paragraph. Keith says, “If Crane is right, such would-be apologists miss the point just as badly as atheists.”

DR. CRAIG: I think that's sort of ironic, which would suggest that Crane is probably not right. If Crane is right then these religious believers like Richard Swinburne, me, Steve Meyer, William Dembski, and others don't really understand religion! And I find that implausible, that we who are religious believers and part of the community that Crane talks about really don't understand it but that Crane understands it better. I think that's pretty implausible.

KEVIN HARRIS: He kind of throws the gauntlet down, too. He says,

Atheists subject these claims to relentless and corrosive criticism, and when these hypotheses fail, which they inevitably do, this reinforces the atheists’ perception that theism is just a kind of pseudoscience.

DR. CRAIG: And that's wrong on two counts. First, the anti-theistic critiques do not succeed, and I would just invite people to take a look at the debate that I had with Keith Parsons on the existence of God and see if you think that he succeeded in demolishing these claims. But, secondly, it wouldn't show, even if these claims fail, that theism is a kind of pseudoscience because it's not offered as a scientific or semi-scientific hypothesis. We shouldn't confuse a hypothesis having explanatory value as being identical to a scientific hypothesis.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues,

If religious belief is not a hypothesis, what kind of belief is it? What is its epistemological basis? Crane could be clearer on this point. He seems not to have read a work that I consider essential to all such discussions, John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion.

Bill, why don’t you take it from here because you studied under Hick.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, he was my doctoral mentor and advisor on my thesis on the cosmological argument. Parsons characterizes Hick’s view as holding that,

religious belief is not hypothetical but interpretive in nature. Reality, says Hick, is ‘ambiguous’ in the sense that the facts compel neither a naturalistic nor a religious view. Hick, a believer, concedes that a naturalistic view is entirely reasonable and maintains that religious apologists can offer no evidence or argument to show otherwise. However, a religious interpretation is equally reasonable, says Hick.

So Hick takes a kind of neutral view of our interpretation of the world. It's reasonable to give it an atheistic interpretation, but it is equally reasonable to give a religious interpretation. I don't understand why Parsons thinks that that is somehow inimical with Christian apologetics. He speaks here of the “fervent efforts of hard-core apologists to bludgeon atheists into submission.” Well, that doesn't sound like the project I'm engaged in. I'm engaged in a project called Reasonable Faith, which is to try to show agnostics and atheists that Christian belief is an equally reasonable thing to do. Indeed, I would say it's more reasonable than the alternative, but that's not to say that atheists are therefore irrational. I have been careful to prescind from making any sort of judgment upon the rationality of the persons with whom I interact. I simply think that their arguments and criticisms are not cogent. I think that there are cogent arguments for the existence of God, but I'm not interested in going about judging those who disagree with me as being irrational or trying to bludgeon them into submission. Here I think it's Parsons who is revealing a kind of bias that causes him to take a very dim view of Christians like Swinburne and myself.

KEVIN HARRIS: Keith seems to show something here as well in this paragraph at the top of page three of what irks him or what has struck a nerve with him. He says he really needs Christians to quit telling him that atheists are primarily motivated by the desire to sin guilt-free.

DR. CRAIG: Again, I just don't have any interest in psychoanalyzing in my atheist interlocutors. Whatever their motivations for their beliefs may be, the key thing is the truth of those beliefs, not a person's motivations for holding them. And on Hick’s view, as Parsons notes, either a theistic or a non-theistic interpretation of reality is equally reasonable, equally rational. I was really quite amazed to read this review. I didn't realize that Parsons was now so sympathetic to theistic belief. He would agree that what I have is a reasonable faith. This is a reasonable interpretation of reality. So this is, I think, some significant movement on Parsons’ part, or at least a new understanding of Parsons for me that he now thinks that Christian faith is reasonable, or at least theistic faith is reasonable.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK, let’s pick it up right there next time on the next podcast and continue this discussion looking at this article. In the meantime, go to and look around. We are always so thankful when you bless us with any kind of donation to help us continue the work of Reasonable Faith. Go to, and we’ll see you on the next podcast.[2]


[2]                            Total Running Time: 15:59 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)