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#162 Atheism vs Theism

May 24, 2010

Hi Dr Craig,

May I first say how inspiring your work has been to me, your clear, methodical approach to logic and evidence is admirable. It's amazing how many times I have witnessed your opponents in debates resort to muddling the conversation, switching from one point to another or just plain not answering the question posed by yourself or the audience! If only such debates were available on mainstream TV and radio. Living close to Oxford in the UK, I feel ashamed that Richard Dawkins will not debate with you! Clearly his resume is of more importance to him than the pursuit of truth, I don't know how such men can justify their mission to bring 'deluded' religious people to faith in Atheism. Presumably truth has value because it is good, but what does good mean within an Atheistic paradigm? I never heard Dawkins speak on this matter with any sense or coherence, he may do well to debate with you after all!

You may be surprised after that comment to learn that I myself am not a Christian. My position is that I am an Agnostic... well actually I'm human, but I'll setlle for the former title for the sake of clarity. I grew up in a Bible-believing Christian home, but I in no way claim to know God or to even know for sure that he exists. I hope that he does, but I do not consider something to be true because I want it to be... equally I don't assume it's false because I want it to be true either!

I'm afraid I have no training or background in theology, science or anything of the sort, so I hope I'm not wasting your time with my general ignorance and my general question!

It has been comforting to me to find that the conclusions I came to personally when I was at University have already been discussed in great detail by generations of authors, scientists and philosophers and, in particular, by yourself and, for instance, speakers/writers such as Dr Ravi Zacharias. This became evident to me particularly regarding the realisation that without a new dimension of spiritual relationship (should it exist at all), all temporary pleasures can offer no true peace or satisfaction and regarding the realisation of objective despair, which is logically necessary if one believes that there is nothing but 'nature' (and giving it a name, 'Mother', for instance, really doesn't solve the problem!)

Atheism vs Theism – How do we handle the vast amount of expert opinion?

This background is necessary to my question which will now seem relatively short. Everytime I (especially as a layman) read an argument from the Christian camp that convinces me, I read an argument from the Atheist camp that counters it. Now, often the arguments from the other side are (I have to admit) far less convincing and often even extremely flawed, but they are, all the same, enough to create doubt in my mind as to the potential truth (or falsity) of Christianity. At the very least, each article, in each specialist field, lists a multitude of authors I never heard of, ideas I'm unfamiliar with and technical areas of expertise which I cannot possibly know about exhaustively even if I lived to be 1000 years old. Surely even a Scholar (such as yourself) cannot research the worlds information and become the worlds greatest scientist, historian, theologian (and everything else) just to see if Christianity is true enough to believe in with their whole heart and soul! Now I know that Christians speak of the need to be 'born again' and if they didn't, I would not find the claims of Christianity as hopeful as I do for many reasons which are not necessary to list here. Indeed, Blaise Pascal appears to have expressed the fact that he found (after much struggling) that he could not reason his way to true belief (still less relationship with God) however reasonable the arguments for belief in such a God may be.

So my question relates to the pursuit of knowledge regarding the credibility of the claims of Christianity. Is such knowledge or evidence of any use to a person, such as myself, who is on the fringes of despair (existentially and objectively speaking) and seeking the personal relationship with God promised in the Bible when only God (according to the same texts) can bring about such a change, irrespective of which book I happen to be reading or not reading at the time. This is not an intellectual curiosity this is of the upmost practical importance to myself and, I am sure, many thousands of people. It seems like a grand Catch-22 and, having spoken to preachers and (other) Christians for many years, I can find no satisfactory answer to the question other than 'God is working in your life' and (worse) 'it's a mystery'.

If a relationship with God can be initialized via an intellectual journey leading to a logical certainty as to the truth of the Bible, I know I will never reach such a relationship and my only certainty, in this sense, is uncertainty! I cannot even be sure that the chair I am sitting on now is really here... not REALLY sure... This may then be where 'faith' comes in, but if faith comes in then faith has usurped proof and evidence... and thus the cycle of confusion begins again!

The closest hint to the solution to this mystery I have ever found is in the writings of Pascal (again) where, in his Pensees, he suggests that faith is ABOVE and not contrary to reason, but I don't understand it, at least not with any certainty (remember the chair) and not with any practical benefit regarding whether I actually ever get to know whether God exists and, if he does, whether I ever actually get to meet him.


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Dr. craig’s response


Atheism vs Theism

Thanks for your interesting letter, Mike! I suspect that the agnosticism of many students today is the result of the information overload that you describe, which has been made possible by the wealth of information made so easily accessible by the worldwide web. For every argument in the debate of atheism vs theism, there seems to be a counter-argument and then a counter-argument to the counter-argument, and so on, so that many students, I think, just throw up their hands in despair and conclude that no one, or they at least, can ever know the truth about any of these matters. Might as well forget about these unanswerable questions and just live life to its fullest! Of course, the nagging doubt persists that one may missing out on something really important—and who knows what happens after you die?

It seems to me that you are right in thinking that Pascal has the answer to this very real problem. Pascal spoke of "reasons of the heart," which we can know apart from evidence and argument. The proposition that God exists is one such truth. Pascal has been popularly misunderstood to be appealing to sentimentality or emotional feelings to justify belief in God. But a closer reading of Pascal reveals that that is not the case. Pascal was a mathematician, the founder of probability theory, in fact, and he held that among the reasons of the heart are mathematical truths. Obviously, we do not know 2+2=4 through sentimental feelings!

Atheism vs Theism – The basicality of belief in God

Rather what Pascal is talking about is what contemporary philosophers call "properly basic beliefs." For Pascal truths of logic and mathematics are not inferred from other truths but are grasped by us in a properly basic way, as part of a person's foundational beliefs. And his contention was that belief in God's existence is also a properly basic belief.

On the contemporary scene, this religious epistemology has been defended by Alvin Plantinga and is known as Reformed epistemology. I discuss this approach in my chapter on religious epistemology in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. I see belief in God and the great truths of the Gospel as properly basic beliefs grounded in the witness of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs are, as Plantinga emphasizes, part of the deliverances of reason even though they are not inferential in nature.

If this is right, then we are not dependent upon the vicissitudes of evidence and argument for a knowledge of the great truths of the Gospel. Therefore, we are not paralyzed by the information overload that seems to confront us. God has provided an independent means of knowing Him.

Atheism vs Theism – The additional warrant of evidence for belief in God

Where I (and Plantinga) part ways with Pascal is on the soundness and usefulness of the arguments of natural theology. While the proper basicality of belief in God shows that arguments for God are not necessary for knowing that God exists, it does nothing to suggest that such arguments are not sufficient for knowing that God exists. The person who possesses not only the witness of the Holy Spirit but also good arguments for God's existence is doubly warranted in that he has two sources of warrant for his theistic belief. So while, as you say, God can bring you rationally to faith irrespective of what book you happen to be reading, nonetheless He may elect to bring you to faith by means of the book you're reading. Arguments and evidence can be for some persons the means by which they come to a knowledge of God. They're just not the necessary means.

So in answer to your question, such evidence may be a great help to you in your search for God. I'd encourage you to take one argument for God's existence and familiarize yourself with the replies and counter-replies (you'll find they're really not too many and just get endlessly repeated), and then make up your own mind as to whether the premises of the original argument are more plausible than not. But don't fall into the faulty epistemology of evidentialism, thinking that all really informative truths are known inferentially.

Endorsing the value of natural theology is not to set you on "an intellectual journey leading to a logical certainty as to the truth of the Bible." Where did you get that idea? If we can show that God's existence is merely more probable than not, that is sufficient to ground belief in God rationally. As you yourself note, demanding certainty will turn you into a sceptic about even the chair on which you sit!

Atheism vs Theism – The inadequacy of evidentialism

You seem to think that demanding less than certainty is to fall back on faith alone. Now why do you think that? Beliefs which are properly basic are also part of the deliverances of reason; they're just not inferentially known. You seem to have bought in uncritically to evidentialism. But then you ought also to be sceptical of that, since evidentialism can't be proved through evidence and argument! Evidentialism is thus self-defeating.

The bottom line is that a loving God wouldn't abandon us to work out by our own cleverness and ingenuity whether or not He exists; rather He would provide a way of knowing Him that is accessible to all persons who seek Him. He has done that through the witness of His Holy Spirit. That doesn't imply that there are not, in addition, good arguments for God's existence and evidence of His self-revelation in Jesus. But because we are not dependent upon such arguments and evidence alone when weighing atheism vs theism, we needn't be cowed into agnosticism by the barrage of arguments and counter-arguments out there concerning His existence. Ultimately our knowledge of God is grounded in the self-testimony of God Himself.

- William Lane Craig