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#739 Serious Atheist Philosophy: Then and Now

July 04, 2021

Dear Dr. Craig

I'm a Non-Christian that respects your work and scholarship. I'm writing today to ask you to perhaps give a brief overview and your own perspective of the Atheist side of the Philosophy of Religion.

Some of my favorite articles and writings from you have been where you provide an overview of the history and the current intellectual battles/climate within the philosophy of religion. For example in your cover story for Christianity Today "God Is Not Dead Yet" you describe the renaissance of arguments for God's existence among contemporary philosophers and talk about the importance of engaging in intellectual debate on these issues. In your article "The Revolution in Anglo-American Philosophy" you explore the Christian Renaissance within contemporary philosophy and draw out some implications for the broader culture. In your article: "Introduction: The Resurrection of Theism" you engage specifically with the work of important theistic philosophers such as Plantinga, Swinburne, and Leslie. And finally, in your contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, you look at Theistic critiques of Atheism and survey some of the intellectual work in this area.

In a few of these articles, you've also cited Quentin Smith's article "The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism" where you highlight the growing resurgence of Theism in analytic philosophy, going from being considered cognitively meaningless to being on epistemic par with Atheism. These articles are important because they give a high-level view of the intellectual debates between serious Atheists and Theists and can provide some important context to the developments and arguments provided in the literature.

As you're aware, one of the leading defenders of Atheism, Quentin Smith, passed away late last year. Smith was highly respected by many Atheists and Theists alike. In the wake of Smith's death, I'd be interested if you could give an overview of Atheistic Philosophy of Religion, just as you've done for Theistic Philosophy of Religion. You're one of the few Theists who has interacted with some of the leading defenders of Atheism over the past few decades. Individuals such as J.L. Mackie, Adolf Grunbaum, Paul Draper, Quentin Smith, J.H. Sobel, Evan Fales, Erik Wielenberg, and Graham Oppy. Given your rigorous scholarship and engagement with sophisticated Atheism in the philosophy of religion, I'd love your thoughts on the skeptical research program as a whole?

For example, just as many believe that Richard Swinburne laid the ground-work for contemporary Natural Theology with his work "The Existence of God", similarly a case could be made that contemporary Atheistic philosophy of religion found its genesis in J.L. Mackie's "The Miracle of Theism" which is widely regarded as one of the best defenses of Atheism ever published. What are your thoughts on Professor Mackie's work and his time as being the leading defender of Atheism during the resurgence of Swinburne and Plantinga?

With Mackie setting the agenda, I'd be interested in your thoughts on some of his contemporaries and their respective works against Theism, such as Michael Martin, Richard Gale, Nicholas Everitt, Robin Le Poidevin, Keith Parsons, Theodore Drange, etc. Gale's and Martin's "On the Nature and Existence of God" and "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification" seem to follow Mackie in providing comprehensive critiques of Theism. Of course, I'd also like some thoughts on Quentin Smith, who seemed to follow Mackie as being the leading defender of Atheism during his time and took a unique scientifically-informed approach to making the case for Atheism. I'd also be interested to hear your thoughts on some of the groundbreaking work done by William Rowe and Paul Draper on Arguments from Evil? As well as the research program offered by J.L. Schellenberg, who has not only developed new arguments from Divine Hiddenness but has put forward a trilogy (Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion) that offers a perspective on skeptical religion that is compatible with Atheism.

It seems the sophistication and rigor of contemporary arguments for Atheism, parallels the development of many arguments for Theism (Cosmological Arguments by Alex Pruss, Josh Rasmussen, and Rob Koons, Teleological Arguments by Robin Collins, etc), an example being Michael Tooley's recent work on inductive and Carnapian arguments from evil. I'd be interested in some of your thoughts on the developments above? While you've pointed out the resurgence of Christian Philosophy and Theism, you've also discussed some of the heavyweight and formidable challenges that sophisticated Atheists have offered in response to the renaissance of Theism. Specifically in your review of J.H. Sobel's "Logic and Theism" and Graham Oppy's "Arguing About Gods," you note that Sobel and Oppy gave Natural Theology a "hard left and a smashing right" respectively. I'd love a more extended discussion on these individuals and their works? I know you've provided scholarly reviews of the technical aspects of their books, but I'd be interested to know more about the impact these works provided on the overall context within the analytic philosophy of religion? For example, you've repeatedly spoken very highly of Sobel and "Logic and Theism". Sobel's work seems to have followed Mackie in setting a new agenda and standard for the analytic philosophy of religion and really shaping the discipline as well. "Logic and Theism" is considered by many Atheists like Graham Oppy and theists such as Rob Koons and Ed Feser, as perhaps the most formidable defense of Atheism ever presented, and I'd wonder if you'd agree with these assessments. Could you also share a bit more about J.H. Sobel and his time as the leading defender of Atheism, and how his project was similar or different to leading defenders of Atheism such as Rowe, Smith, and Mackie?

You've also talked repeatedly about Graham Oppy as being the most formidable defender of Atheism today, now being the torch-bearer of the Atheists' cause after J.H. Sobel's death. Many theists point to Oppy's book "Arguing About Gods" as the definitive work opposing Natural Theology today. Just as with Sobel's "Logic and Theism", I'd be interested in your thoughts on Oppy's work and how it has set the tone for Atheism within the philosophy of religion. You've stated that "No one can pretend to a successful theistic argument unless he has dealt with Oppy's criticisms first." I wonder if you could speak more about this and perhaps contrast Oppy's work with Sobel's. Which one do you consider to be a more formidable challenge to Theism?

I'd be interested in your perspective of some other formidable Atheist Philosophers of Religion and their projects. Such as Gregory Dawes on "Theism and Explanation, Evan Fales on "Divine Intervention", Bede Rundle's, "Why is there Something rather than Nothing? and Erik Wielenberg's project on developing a secular account of objective morality. What challenges and prospects have some of these works offered towards Theism and for Atheism? Feel free to offer perspectives on works and figures not mentioned as well. I'd also like to hear your perspectives on influence and methodology. For example, it seems that the work of David Hume, deeply permeates the work of analytic atheist philosophy, with both Sobel and Mackie being Neo-Humeans, and Draper and Tooley citing Hume as an inspiration for their arguments from Evil. Do you think this is a trend that will continue? Also which methodology do you think is a more challenging threat to Theism? Graham Oppy's Model Comparison view, where we take the best model of Theism and Naturalism and compare them based on theoretical virtues, or the more Bayesian approach adopted by Sobel and Draper?

Finally, when J.H. Sobel passed away, Catholic Philosopher Ed Feser noted: "They don’t make atheist philosophers like they used to. With Mackie, Flew, and Sobel now all gone, serious philosophical atheists seem very thin on the ground indeed." It seems with the recent passing of Smith and now Kai Nielsen as of late, Serious Philosophical Atheism has a lost a lot of its best historic defenders. Do you think we will see a renaissance of Atheistic Philosophy in the future, just as we've seen with Theism? What are some long-term prospects you see for the Atheistic Philosophy of Religion? There are many different threads and avenues this topic can be explored with. As I noted earlier, given your status as a leading philosopher of religion, who has engaged the best of Atheism over many decades, I believe you can provide a unique insight and perspective on some of the inquiries I have put forward and I'd be very interested in your thoughts. Thank you for your time.



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Dr. craig’s response


Josh, I’m not even going to try to answer your question! Even if I could—which I doubt—, it would require writing a small book to do so, and I am embroiled in another writing project that takes virtually all my study time.

Rather I include your question here for the instruction and encouragement of our Reasonable Faith readers. You have masterfully surveyed for us the current philosophical landscape with respect to atheism. You give our readers a good idea of who the principal players are today.

Moreover, I hope that theists, especially Christian theists, who read your account will come away encouraged by the way Christian philosophers are being taken seriously by their secular colleagues today. The average man in the street may get the impression from social media that Christians are intellectual losers who are not taken seriously by secular thinkers. Your letter explodes that stereotype. It shows that Christians are ready and able to compete with their secular colleagues on the academic playing field.

I would only add that you’ve surveyed just one aspect of Christian philosophers’ engagement with broader philosophical community, namely, the arguments of natural theology. Amazing as it may seem, most Christian philosophers aren’t even engaged in that project but are doing significant, creative work in other areas, like epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, and now theology. I’m currently working on a systematic philosophical theology, and I’ve been so impressed by the cross-fertilization that is going on between Christian philosophy and theology, as I engage with issues like the nature and justification of faith, the divine attributes, and so on. Truly, it’s a great time to be a Christian in philosophy!

- William Lane Craig