(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 2: “What difference does it make if God exists?”)
We’ve been in Chapter 1, looking at the question of why apologetics is important, and we’re up to reason #3: winning unbelievers. Frankly, though, there’s not much there. He grants that people are not converted by arguments (without mentioning that social factors are the big reason people become religious), but insists that apologetics does work on a few, and therefore believers should use it anyway. Then he closes his chapter with some instructions on how to use his book as a study guide. Not much to argue with, so let’s just move on.
Chapter 2 is entitled “What difference does it make if God exists?”
Part of the challenge of getting American people to think about God is that they’ve become so used to God that they just take Him for granted. They never think to ask what the implications would be if God did not exist. As a result they think that God is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether God exists or not.
So before we share with people evidence for God’s existence, we may need to help them see why it matters in the first place. Otherwise they just won’t care. By showing them the implications of atheism, we can help them to see that the question of God’s existence is so much more than merely adding another item to our inventory of things—rather it’s an issue that lies at the very center of life’s meaning.
The key word here is “meaning.” Dr. Craig is going to try to argue that, for the atheist, life has no meaning and no purpose. Unfortunately (Sartre and Camus notwithstanding), he has it exactly backwards.
Let’s start with some definitions.
Now when I use the word God in this context, I mean an all-powerful, perfectly good Creator of the world who offers us eternal life. If such a God does not exist, then life is absurd. That is to say, life has no ultimate meaning, value or purpose.
These three notions—meaning, value and purpose—though closely related, are distinct. Meaning has to do with significance, why something matters. Value has to do with good and evil, right and wrong. Purpose has to do with a goal, a reason for something.
Right way, Dr. Craig is off on the wrong foot. His definition of God is ok—it’s a purely hypothetical construct anyway, so he can define it however he likes. But there’s an essential element missing from his definitions for meaning, value and purpose. Did you spot it?
Meaning, value, and purpose are all subjective qualities. Meaning does not exist in and of itself; meaning is the significance something has to a particular person. Likewise, value exists relative to some person or group for whom a particular thing is either good or bad. And we can’t talk knowledgeably about purpose without knowing whose purposes we’re talking about. They’re all subjective qualities. By isolating them from their subjective context, Dr. Craig is setting himself up for a false and debased understanding of what these things really are, and how they relate to the rest of real existence.
My claim is that if there is no God, then meaning, value, and purpose are ultimately human illusions. They’re just in our heads. If atheism is true, then life is really objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless, despite our subjective beliefs to the contrary.
See what I mean? He’s trying to insist that meaning, value, and purpose ought to be something they’re not, and then, when it turns out that they aren’t the objective qualities he thinks they should be, he says, “This shows that meaning, value, and purpose are all an illusion, a mere subjective belief.” But really, it’s only his alarm that is illusory. Meaning, value and purpose are supposed to be subjective, so it’s no great failure when they turn out to be so. This is a tempest in a teapot, an imaginary dilemma of his own creation, founded on a fundamental failure to correctly understand what meaning, value, and purpose are.
Part of what’s screwing him up is that he confuses subjective experience with mere “illusion.”
I’m not saying that atheists experience life as dull and meaningless, that they have no personal values or lead immoral lives, that they have no goals or purpose for living. On the contrary, life would be unbearable and unlivable without such beliefs. But my point is that, given atheism, these beliefs are all subjective illusions: the mere appearance of meaning, value, and purpose, even though, objectively speaking, there really isn’t any. If God does not exist, our lives are ultimately meaningless, valueless, and purposeless despite how desperately we cling to the illusion to the contrary.
Notice how subtly he twists the true, subjective nature of meaning, value, and purpose in order to portray them as mere illusory beliefs instead of genuine meaning, value, and purpose? But that’s silly. If I decide to get myself a drink, that is a purely subjective intention. It’s a purpose that exists because I subjectively intend to do it. I’m not just buying into some deceptive illusion that merely makes me believe I intend to get a drink when, objectively speaking, I have no such purpose. My purpose exists precisely because I subjectively intend it. That is the nature of a real, non-illusory purpose.
And Dr. Craig freely admits that atheists have all of them: meaning, value, and purpose. What’s more, Christians have the same three in exactly the same way. If a Christian intends to lie down for a quick nap, that’s a real goal because it is subjective—if it were someone else’s purpose instead, then it would not be the Christian’s true intention. Likewise, you may find that there are some Christians who don’t really think it’s a sin to be gay. They still preach it, because their church says they should, but it’s not their real moral value. It’s an illusory value, imposed on the person from the outside without changing their real subjective values inside.
Note, too, that the presence or absence of God, as defined by Dr. Craig, has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not one’s subjective meaning, values, and purpose are real or illusory. Even if we propose that God has His own set of meanings, values, and purposes, they’re His, not necessarily ours. Assuming we could know what the divine meaning, value, and purpose were, and could choose to adopt them, we’re still only exchanging one set of subjective meaning, value, and purpose, for a different set. What makes them genuine, what makes them real, is that we experience them subjectively, as even God Himself would have to do before they could become His meaning, His value and His purpose.
Subjective does not automatically mean illusory, as Dr. Craig seems to suggest. Some things are, by nature, subjective, and therefore being subjective means being the genuine thing. Meaning, value, and purpose are subjective by nature, and therefore it is an error to treat them as though they were some kind of objective, independent entities in and of themselves. Real meaning, real value, and real purpose, are precisely those things that people experience subjectively whether they are believers or not, and whether there is a God or not.
So right out of the gate, Dr. William Lane Craig, the man with two doctorates, screws up his own understanding of the topic he’s going to use as the foundation for his whole argument. Worldview can do that to you. Especially a worldview as steeped in medieval theology and philosophy as Dr. Craig’s.