05 / 06

The Resurrection of Theism

William Lane Craig

"The contemporary Western intellectual world," declares the noted philosopher Alvin Plantinga, "is a battleground or arena in which rages a battle for men's souls."[1] It is in the field of philosophy that the decisive battles are taking place, and the outcome of these contests will reverberate throughout the university and ultimately Western culture. In recent decades the battlelines have dramatically shifted, so that it is no exaggeration to speak of the resurrection of theism in Anglo-American philosophy over the last generation.[2]

In order to understand where we are today, we need first of all to understand something of where we have been. In a recent retrospective, the eminent Princeton University philosopher Paul Benacerraf describes what it was like doing philosophy at Princeton during the 1950s and ’60s. The overwhelmingly dominant mode of thinking was scientific naturalism. Physical science was taken to be the final, and really only, arbiter of truth. Metaphysics—that traditional branch of philosophy which deals with questions about reality which are beyond science (hence, the name “meta-physics”, i.e., “beyond physics”)—had been vanquished, expelled from philosophy like an unclean leper. “The philosophy of science,” says Benacerraf, “was the queen of all the branches” of philosophy, since ‘it had the tools. . . to address all the problems.’”[3] Any problem that could not be addressed by science was simply dismissed as a pseudo-problem. If a question did not have a scientific answer, then it was not a real question—just a pseudo-question masquerading as a real question. Indeed, part of the task of philosophy was to clean up the discipline from the mess that earlier generations had made of it by endlessly struggling with such pseudo-questions. There was thus a certain self-conscious, crusading zeal with which philosophers carried out their task. The reformers, says, Benacerraf:

trumpeted the militant affirmation of the new faith. . . , in which the fumbling confusions of our forerunners were to be replaced by the emerging science of philosophy. This new enlightenment would put the old metaphysical views and attitudes to rest and replace them with the new mode of doing philosophy.

The book Language, Truth, and Logic by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer served as a sort of manifesto for this movement. As Benacerraf says, it was “not a great book,” but it was “a wonderful exponent of the spirit of the time.” The principal weapon employed by Ayer in his campaign against metaphysics was the vaunted Verification Principle of Meaning. According to that Principle, which went through a number of revisions, a sentence in order to be meaningful must be capable in principle of being empirically verified. Since metaphysical statements were beyond the reach of empirical science, they could not be verified and were therefore dismissed as meaningless combinations of words.

Ayer was very explicit about the theological implications of this Verificationism.[4] Since God is a metaphysical object, Ayer says, the possibility of religious knowledge is “ruled out by our treatment of metaphysics.” Thus, there can be no knowledge of God.

Now someone might say that we can offer evidence of God’s existence. But Ayer will have none of it. If by the word “God” you mean a transcendent being, says Ayer, then the word “God” is a metaphysical term, and so “it cannot be even probable that a god exists.” He explains, “To say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.”

Suppose some Christian says, “But I know God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You can’t deny my personal experience!” Ayer is not impressed. He would not think to deny that you have an experience, he says, any more than he would deny that someone has an experience of, say, seeing a yellow object. But, he says, “whereas the sentence ‘There exists here a yellow-coloured material thing’ expresses a genuine proposition which could be empirically verified, the sentence ‘There exists a transcendent god’ has . . . no literal significance” because it’s not verifiable. Thus the appeal to religious experience, says Ayer, is “altogether fallacious.”

I hope you grasp the significance of this view. On this perspective statements about God do not even have the dignity of being false. They are devoid of any factual content and so can be neither true nor false. Ask yourself how sympathetic to theistic faculty and students a university community dominated by such a philosophical outlook would be.

And it wasn’t just metaphysical statements that were regarded as meaningless. Ethical statements—statements about right and wrong, good and evil—were also declared to be meaningless. Why? Because they can’t be empirically verified! Such statements are simply emotional expressions of the user’s feelings. Ayer says, “if I say ‘Stealing money is wrong’ I produce a statement which has no factual meaning. . . . It is as if I had written, ‘Stealing money!!’ . . . It is clear that there is nothing said here which can be true or false.” So he concludes that value judgments “have no objective validity whatsoever.” The same goes for aesthetic statements concerning beauty and ugliness. According to Ayer, “Such aesthetic words as ‘beautiful’ and ‘hideous’ are employed. . . , not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings. . . .”

It’s sobering to realize that this was the sort of thinking that dominated the departments of philosophy at British and American universities during the last century into the 1960s. It was not without its impact on religious life. Under the pressure of Verificationism, some theologians began to advocate emotivist theories of theological language. On their view theological statements are not statements of fact at all but merely express the user’s emotions and attitudes. For example, the sentence “God created the world” does not purport to make any factual statement at all but merely is a way of expressing, say, one’s awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe. The low point undoubtedly came with the so-called Death of God theology of the mid-1960s. On April 8, 1966, the cover of Time magazine was completely black except for three words emblazoned in bright, red letters against the dark background: “Is God Dead?” And the article described the movement then current among American theologians to proclaim the death of God.

Today that movement has all but disappeared. What happened?

What happened is a remarkable story.

Philosophers exposed an incoherence which lay at the very heart of the prevailing philosophy of scientific naturalism. They began to realize that the Verification Principle would not only force us to dismiss theological statements as meaningless, but also a great many scientific statements, so that the Principle undermined the sacred cow of science at whose altar they knelt. Contemporary physics is filled with metaphysical statements that cannot be empirically verified. As the eminent philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen nicely puts it: “Do the concepts of the Trinity [and] the soul…baffle you? They pale beside the unimaginable otherness of closed space-times, event-horizons, EPR correlations, and bootstrap models.”[5] If the ship of scientific naturalism was not to be scuttled, Verificationism had to be cut loose.

But even more fundamentally, it was also realized that the Verification Principle is self-refuting. Simply ask yourself, is the sentence “A meaningful sentence must be capable in principle of being empirically verified” itselfcapable of being empirically verified? Obviously not; no amount of empirical evidence would serve to verify its truth. The Verification Principle is therefore by its own lights a meaningless combination of words, which need hardly detain us, or at best an arbitrary definition, which we are at liberty to reject. Therefore, the Verification Principle and the theory of meaning it supported has been almost universally abandoned by philosophers.

Undoubtedly, the most important philosophical event of the twentieth century was the collapse of the Verificationism that lay at the heart of scientific naturalism. One result of this collapse has been the rise of Postmodernism. Scientific naturalism, originating in the Enlightenment, is characteristic of so-called “Modernity,” or the modern age, which is dominated by science and technology. The collapse of Verificationism brought with it a sort of disillusionment with the whole Enlightenment project of scientific naturalism.

This might seem at first blush a welcome development for Christian believers, weary of attacks by Enlightenment naturalists. But in this case the cure is worse than the disease. For Postmodernists have tended to despair of ever finding objective truth and knowledge. After all, if science, man’s greatest intellectual achievement, cannot do so, then what hope is there? Hence, Postmodernists have tended to deny that there are universal standards of logic, rationality, and truth. This claim is obviously incompatible with the Christian idea of God, who, as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, is an objectively existing reality, and who, as an omniscient being, has a privileged perspective on the world, grasping the world as it is in the unity of his intellect. There is thus a unity and objectivity to truth which is incompatible with Postmodernism. Postmodernism is therefore no more friendly to Christian truth claims than is Enlightenment naturalism. Christianity is reduced to but one voice in a cacophony of competing claims, none of which is objectively true.

Enlightenment naturalism is, however, so deeply imbedded in Western intellectual life that anti-rationalistic currents like Romanticism and Postmodernism are doomed, I think, to be mere passing fashions. After all, nobody adopts a Postmodernist view of literary texts when reading the labels on a medicine bottle or a box of rat poison! Clearly, we ignore the objective meaning of such texts only at peril to our lives. In the end, people turn out to be subjectivists only about ethics and religion, not about matters provable by science. But that’s not Postmodernism; that’s just classic Enlightenment naturalism—it’s the old Modernism in a fashionable new guise. Underneath the costume it’s the same, old subjectivism and relativism that were characteristic of Modernity’s view of religion and ethics.

Fortunately, Postmodernism is not the only result of the collapse of Verificationism. Since Verificationism had been the principal means of barring the door to metaphysics, the jettisoning of Verificationism meant that there was no longer anyone at the door to prevent this dreaded and unwelcome visitor from making a reappearance. So the demise of Verificationism has been accompanied by a resurgence of metaphysics in Anglo-American philosophy, along with all the other traditional questions of philosophy which had been suppressed by the verificationists. Along with this resurgence has come something new and altogether unanticipated: the birth of a new discipline, Philosophy of Religion, and a renaissance in Christian philosophy.

Since the late 1960s Christian philosophers have been coming out of the closet and defending the truth of the Christian worldview with philosophically sophisticated arguments in the finest scholarly journals and professional societies. At the same time that theologians were writing God’s obituary, a new generation of philosophers was re-discovering His vitality. And the face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result. Just a few years after its death of God issue, Time ran a similar cover story, only this time the question read, “Is God Coming Back to Life?” That's how it must have seemed to those theological morticians of the 1960s! During the 1970s interest in philosophy of religion continued to grow, and in 1980 Time found itself running another major story entitled “Modernizing the Case for God” in which it described the movement among contemporary philosophers to refurbish the traditional arguments for God’s existence. Time marveled:

In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anybody could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers, but in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.[6]

According to the article, the noted American philosopher Roderick Chisholm believed the reason that atheism was so influential a generation ago is that the brightest philosophers were atheists; but now, he says, many of the brightest philosophers are theists, and they are using a tough-minded intellectualism in defense of that belief that was formerly lacking on their side of the debate.

Today philosophy of religion flourishes in young journals such as the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Religious Studies, Sophia, Faith and Philosophy, Philosophia Christi, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, and other journals devoted to the discipline, not to mention the standard non-specialist journals. Professional societies such as the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the American Catholic Philosophical Society, not to mention other smaller groups, number thousands of members. Publishing in philosophy of religion is booming, as is evident from the abundance of available textbooks (also testimony to the seemingly insatiable interest among students for courses on the subject). If you peruse the current book catalogue of Oxford University Press, you will find no less than 50 new books in philosophy of religion. That compares with 28 in metaphysics, 39 in epistemology, 31 in applied ethics, and so on.

To give you some feel for the impact of this revolution in Anglo-American philosophy, I want to quote at some length from an article by Quentin Smith which appeared in the fall of 2001 in the secularist journal Philo lamenting what Smith called "the desecularization of academia that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960s." Smith, himself a prominent atheist philosopher, writes:

By the second half of the twentieth century, universities . . . had been become in the main secularized. The standard. . . position in each field. . . assumed or involved arguments for a naturalist world-view; departments of theology or religion aimed to understand the meaning and origins of religious writings, not to develop arguments against naturalism. Analytic philosophers . . . treated theism as an anti-realist or non-cognitivist world-view, requiring the reality, not of a deity, but merely of emotive expressions or certain “forms of life”. . . .

This is not to say that none of the scholars in the various academic fields were [sic] realist theists in their “private lives”; but realist theists, for the most part, excluded their theism from their publications and teaching, in large part because theism . . . was mainly considered to have such a low epistemic status that it did not meet the standards of an “academically respectable” position to hold. The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of Plantinga’s influential book, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists in terms of the most valued standards of analytic philosophy: conceptual precision, rigor of argumentation, technical erudition, and an in-depth defense of an original world-view. This book, followed seven years later by Plantinga’s even more impressive book, The Nature of Necessity, made it manifest that a realist theist was writing at the highest qualitative level of analytic philosophy, on the same playing field as Carnap, Russell, Moore, Grünbaum, and other naturalists. . . .

Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism, most influenced by Plantinga’s writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. Although many theists do not work in the area of the philosophy of religion, so many of them do work in this area that there are now over five philosophy journals devoted to theism or the philosophy of religion. . . .

. . . theists in other fields tend to compartmentalize their theistic beliefs from their scholarly work; they rarely assume and never argue for theism in their scholarly work. If they did, they would be committing academic suicide or, more exactly, their articles would quickly be rejected. . . . But in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, “academically respectable” to argue for theism, making philosophy a favored field of entry for the most intelligent and talented theists entering academia today .

Smith concludes,

God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.[7]

This is the testimony of a prominent atheist philosopher to the transformation that has taken place before his eyes in Anglo-American philosophy. Now I think he’s exaggerating when he estimates that one-quarter to one-third of American philosophers are theists; but what his estimations do reveal is the perceived impact of Christian philosophers upon this field. As all revolutionaries know, a committed minority of activists can have an impact far out of proportion to their numbers. The principal error that Smith makes is calling philosophy departments God’s “last stronghold” at the university. According to the Leiter report on philosophy the number of Christians among graduate students in philosophy is 50% higher than among current faculty, which suggests that the revolution will continue. [you may want to cite the website here]

But, you may ask, what about the so-called “New Atheism” exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens? Does not it herald a reversal of this trend? Not really. As is evident from the authors New Atheists interact with (or rather do not interact with!), the New Atheism is, in fact, a pop cultural phenomenon lacking in intellectual muscle and blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It tends to reflect the Positivism of a bygone generation rather than the contemporary intellectual scene. Atheism, though perhaps still the dominant viewpoint at the American university, is a philosophy in retreat.

As a result of the work of Christian philosophers genuine advance has been made on important issues like the epistemic status of belief in God, the coherence of theism, and the problem of evil, so that questions which dominated earlier discussions have been resolved or have yielded to new questions. For example, the so-called presumption of atheism, which so dominated mid-twentieth century philosophy of religion, according to which atheism is a sort of default position, is now a relic of the past. Similarly, scarcely any philosopher today defends the so-called logical version of the problem of evil, which claims that God and the suffering in the world are logically incompatible. The discussion of the coherence of theism, which analyzes the principal attributes traditionally ascribed to God, such as aseity, necessity, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, has been an especially fertile field of exploration.

The renaissance of Christian philosophy has not been merely defensive, however. Rather it has also been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology which seeks to prove God's existence apart from the resources of authoritative divine revelation. All of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments, not to mention creative, new arguments, find intelligent and articulate defenders on the contemporary philosophical scene.

Of course, there are replies and counter-replies to all of these arguments, and no one imagines that a consensus will be reached. But theists welcome this debate. For the very presence of the debate is itself a sign of how healthy and vibrant a theistic worldview is today.



Icon of an arrow pointing up. Notes

[1] Alvin Plantinga, “The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship,” Grand Rapids, Mich.: Calvin College and Seminary, 1990.

[2] The Resurrection of Theism was the title of Stuart Hackett’s 1957 book, which was truly ahead of its time. Had this book been published by Cornell University Press instead of Moody Press, the revolution in Christian philosophy would have begun ten years earlier than it did.

[3] Paul Benacerraf, “What Mathematical Truth Could Not Be--I, “ in Benaceraf and His Critics, ed. Adam Morton and Stephen P. Stich (Oxford: Blackwell: 1996), p. 18.

[4] A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), Chapter VI: “Critique of Ethics and Theology.”

[5] Bas van Frassen in Images of Science, ed. by P. Churchland and C. Hooker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 258.

[6] "Modernizing the Case for God," Time (7 April 1980), pp. 65-66.

[7] Quentin Smith, "The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism," Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.