XFiles: The Problem of Honesty

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 7: “What About Suffering?”)

One of the biggest problems for Christian apologetics is what to do with the problem of evil. God is supposedly all-good, all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. What’s more, He is also supposed to be the only truly self-existent Being. Everything else that exists was either created directly by God, or by a chain of cause-and-effect whose First Cause is ultimately God.

That’s a problem, because the world abounds in what Christians refer to as sin and evil, which should not be there. If the only self-existent Being is a perfectly good and loving Almighty God, then only good things should result from His deliberate and sovereign actions, even indirectly. No necessity can constrain God except those which are inherent in His nature, and thus if God’s nature does not require evil, then there can be no necessity that evil exist. As an almighty God He should be capable of creating a world without evil, and as a loving God He should want to do so. Thus, the existence of such a God necessarily implies the absence of evil, which contradicts what we see in real life.

William Lane Craig attempts to address this problem with an approach that is both subtle and profoundly deceptive: instead of directly confronting the contradictions raised by the existence of evil, he re-frames the debate into one where the only question is whether God’s existence is incompatible with human suffering. Since there are at least some circumstances where “no pain, no gain” is a valid observation, this re-definition stacks the deck in his favor, and leaves him with an easy out. The uncritical reader is then left with the feeling that Craig has dealt with the ancient Problem of Evil, when in fact all he’s done is a simple bait-and-switch.

This chapter does a pretty good job of showing us Craig’s skill as a debater. He uses every trick in the book to flatter his audience, misdirect them, bedazzle them, and generally hand-wave and bluster his way past a number of issues that he could not afford to confront directly. He begins by assuring his audience that atheists are more foolish and ignorant than believers.

Nonbelievers aren’t used to running into Christians who can actually give reasons for the hope that is in them. When the unbeliever says, “There’s no evidence that God exists,” you can stop him dead in his tracks by saying, “Gosh, I can think of at least four good arguments that show that God exists.” At that point, he’s got to say, “Like what?” and you’re off and running!

Yay, send out the cheerleaders for hugs and smooches. Believers rule, atheists drool.

You’ll find nonbelievers are often so ill-equipped to discuss these issues that all they can do in response to the arguments is just repeat themselves, “That’s no evidence that God exists!” One blogger characterized my debate with the British atheist Lewis Wolpert in Central Hall, Westminster, London, in this way:

Wolpert: “There’s no evidence for God’s existence!”
Craig: “There is evidence for God’s existence, and here it is…”
Wolpert: “There’s no evidence for God’s existence!”
Craig: “There is evidence for God’s existence, and here it is…”
Wolpert: “There’s no evidence for God’s existence!”

Having seen Craig’s first four arguments, I can see how Wolpert might legitimately come to that conclusion. Craig’s “evidence” boils down to highly biased and superstitious rationalizations, not actual, verifiable, objective fact. But that’s really not the point here. The point is that the believer, reading this passage, will be lulled into a sense of comfortable invincibility, knowing how helpless atheists are against the brilliance of Craig’s inspired wisdom.

As an aside, let me point out that Craig does make a point worth considering.

Sometimes it seems as if nonbelievers are deaf. They’ve been taught to repeat “There’s no evidence for God’s existence!” like a mantra, apparently believing that saying it again and again somehow makes it true. It’s really a cover for intellectual laziness and lack of engagement.

I think there’s a grain of truth here, and that there are better ways of describing the evidence relating to God. But I’ve written an entire post about that, so I won’t go too far down that tangent here today. Meanwhile, as I was saying, the point is to lull the believer into a sense of comfortable invincibility, and here we have a prime example of how Craig puts down unbelievers in order to get the believer feeling pumped up and superior.

Craig builds on this theme with a technique the believer can use to guide the conversation to a predetermined decision point (or “closing,” in marketing lingo). If the unbeliever says he rejects your premises, hold out something undeniably true (like “the universe exists”) and then get him to admit he does not reject that premise. Then, using the scripted arguments Craig teaches in On Guard, try to pin him down on which premises he does reject, and why. Make the existence of God the default position that the unbeliever has to conclusively disprove in order to justify his unbelief. Always try to spin his remarks so that he sounds like he’s either dodging the issue or denying the facts.

Eventually you may get to the point where you can say to him, “You know, I don’t think you really reject God because of the lack of evidence. I sense a deeper, emotional rejection of God going on here. What’s the real reason you reject God?” At that point you’ve moved beyond apologetics into personal counseling.

Isn’t that great? You’re going to maneuver the conversation, using scripted arguments designed by a guy with two PhD’s, until you can get your prospect into a position where you can claim that you “sense” a deeper, emotional rejection of God. (How did you sense it? You read it in the script, of course!) At that point, there’s a certain statistical probability that the person you’re talking to will currently be experiencing some kind of emotional stress. If you’ve followed the script correctly, with the scripted degree of humility, gentleness, and concern, the prospect may respond on an emotional level, and open up to you about the things that are really bothering them right now. With any luck at all it’s just a short step from there to successfully closing the sale—er, I mean saving their soul.

As the old politician once said, the key to victory is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you can do anything. And the sad truth is that Craig is exactly right. Christians can and do convert unbelievers using the scripted sales techniques like the one outlined above. I believe the Mormon missionary program goes so far as actually writing out the script! Not everybody follows it, of course, but in a certain percentage of the cases the conversation will stick to it remarkably well, with the prospect correctly reciting his scripted lines without ever having seen or heard of them. Human psychology is just that predictable—and just that easy to manipulate, in the hands of the unscrupulous.

But that’s another tangent. The point to highlight here is that, again, the goal of the story is to give the believer a secure and even pastoral sense of superiority over unbelievers. Believers have all the answers, and unbelievers are intellectually lazy and unengaged, with exploitable personal problems. It’s all about feeling superior, regardless of whether or not valid arguments/evidence can be found for your position. I think even Craig himself finds that position vaguely uncomfortable somehow.

Of course, even if there were no evidence for God’s existence, that’s no proof that God does not exist. An Australian forensic scientist I met while lecturing in Sidney told me that there’s a saying beloved of criminologists: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…To rule out God’s existence, the atheist needs more than just absence of evidence; he needs some positive evidence of absence.

Yeah, just to be on the safe side, we’d better cover that “absence of evidence” angle. We might need it if we ever meet a well-informed atheist.

Obviously, you can take the same sentence and replace “God” with any of Santa, the FSM, fairies, anally-obsessed space aliens, invisible rabbits, honest apologists, etc. But in a way, he’s right: absence of evidence, by itself, is not sufficient to justify the conclusion, “I have reason to believe that God does not exist.” To reach that conclusion, you need something more than just a lack of evidence. We’ll get to that later (though Craig will studiously avoid it). First, though, Craig wants to take the existence of agnosticism, and use it as evidence that atheists are in denial and are fleeing from the truth.

What many atheists do at this point is to revise the definition of atheism, so that it’s no longer the view that God does not exist but becomes merely the absence of belief in God. Anyone who lacks a belief in God counts as an atheist.

Did you catch that? It’s not that anyone ever looked at the evidence and concluded on general principles that it’s best summarized as “I have no reason to believe in God.” No, all atheists begin by emphatically denying the existence of God, and then retreat to the more general definition only after they’ve been beaten into submission by the brilliant (and scripted) arguments provided by Craig. Yay again, the cheerleaders come out for more hugs and smoochies.

Craig’s criticism of this definition falls a bit flat, though.

This is not only contrary to the traditional meaning of the word, but it is really hopeless as a definition. For on this new definition, atheism is no longer a viewpoint or a position. Rather it’s just a description of someone’s psychological state, namely, the state of lacking a belief in God. As such, atheism is neither true nor false, and even babies turn out to be atheists!

Well yeah. And? If we define “amorality” as an absence of morals, then amorality is merely a description of a particular state, and is neither true nor false. But so what? That state does exist, and it makes perfect sense to have a name for it. What word would you use to describe a lack of belief in gods, if not “atheism”?

The problem with Craig’s objection is that he’s got everything backwards. Atheism, as a lack of belief in gods, is hardly a new concept; indeed, early Christians were called “atheists” because of the many Roman gods they lacked belief in. Moreover, Craig’s so-called “traditional” definition of atheism is really the “hopeless” one, because the absence of belief in gods is the only trait that makes atheism atheistic. You can be an atheist and still believe in ghosts and reincarnation. You can be an atheist astrologer. You can even, I am told, be an atheist Jew. There is no one position or viewpoint that can accurately be called atheism except to the extent that you see absence of belief in God as a position or viewpoint. Even among atheists, there are those who hold the “strong” view (God does not exist) and the “weak” view (I have no reason to believe God exists). Absence of belief in gods is the only essential point these two have in common. It’s what atheism, in and of itself, actually is.

Craig is writing a chapter that ought to be about about the problem of sin and evil, as an undeniable fact that is inconsistent with the existence of a Christian God. So far, though, he has spent the first four pages (out of 26 and a half) trying to pump up the believer’s ego, and make them believe in the invincible superiority of his arguments over the ostensibly weak, ignorant, and retrograde objections of unbelievers. This is no accident. The rest of the chapter is going to be really rough, for the Christian point of view. The least bit of skepticism, the slightest hint of critical thinking, might blow the whole chapter. The problem of evil is a minefield for the Christian faith, and even though Craig is only going to tiptoe along a carefully-marked path through the cow pasture of the problem of suffering, he still wants his readers relaxed and uncritical for the arguments he’s about to offer.

Stay tuned.

14 Responses to “XFiles: The Problem of Honesty”

  1. Gary Hill Says:

    Whenever I listen to a debate with WLC I always feel that he starts off OK for the first 4-5 minutes or so then starts to lose it when he moves away from pure philosophy.

    I would have more respect for him if he were to advance his theist argument without recourse to either what the bible says or without attempting to psychoanalyse his god’s personality an an attempt to make him fit in with the physical nature of the universe. Does he not realise that if there is a god the existence of such should be explainable/observable to any reasonably intelligent and literate person independent of any culture of religion developed by humans. After all, as an omniscient being god would still have been around before he decided to write a book or cause snakes to talk or burn bushes. In other words, biblical evidence should be the icing on the cake for theists like WLC not the ingredients the cake is made from. If such a god exists, well, he just exists and should fit seemlessly into natural phenomena without needing to be regularly shoehorned in with WLC’s sophistry, theological just-so stories and personal faith.

  2. mikespeir Says:

    Since there are at least some circumstances where “no pain, no gain” is a valid observation….

    But it would only be valid in a system engineered by God himself, which itself would reflect on his essential character.

  3. Matt Says:


    “Most philosophers accept Plantinga’s free will defense and thus see the logical problem of evil as having been sufficiently rebutted.”

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      Notice, though, that Plantinga’s defense assumes the existence of a necessity or constraint that prevents God from creating a world with free beings who never choose evil. Whence comes this necessity? If God is the only self-existent being, then God Himself must have chosen to create create this necessity, or else it must be inherent in His nature. If it is inherent in God’s nature that free beings cannot avoid choosing evil, then God Himself must likewise be incapable of refraining from evil, and thus is not Himself sinless. But if it is not inherent in His nature, then being perfectly good, He would not create a constraint that would prevent Him from producing the most perfect creation imaginable.

      • Matt Says:

        To me it seems that, in order for a creature to have meaningful free will, there would be a natural *requirement* that free beings be able to choose evil. If God were to create a world with free beings who never choose evil, would the beings really be free? They would be choosing to do good rather than…what, exactly?

        With freedom comes the capacity for rebellion.

        That said, I do agree with you that the problem of evil is one of the stronger challenges for the Christian faith. I just don’t see it as being incompatible (or even overly problematic, given the right perspective) with said faith. According to the Christian tradition, the pain and suffering that comes along with the existence of evil is something that’s *shared by God* – a powerful point that’s easy to overlook.

        Plantinga addresses this as well:

        “…as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours.”

    • Patrick Says:

      If free will necessarily requires the capacity to do evil, then God possesses the capacity to do evil, or else God does not possess free will.

      If God does possess free will and does not possess the capacity to do evil, then the free will defense fails.

      If God does possess free will and does possess the capacity to do evil, but never does, then the free will defense fails.

      If God does not possess free will, then the free will defense holds, but common Christian assertions about the nature of God with relation to moral goods are placed in doubt.

      Similar issues arise with respect to belief in an afterlife. If dead souls possess free will, then if the free will defense holds, there must be evil in heaven. Interestingly, it seems as though hell must also contain moral good. And if dead souls in heaven lack free will, the free will defense fails.

      I wouldn’t say that its impossible for Plantinga’s argument to hold. But its going to require biting some bullets.

    • josh Says:

      Matt, check the talk page on the article if you’re so inclined. The source for the ‘most’ philosophers claim seems to be one or two fellow apologists without any primary survey. Actual surveys that suggest a majority hold compatibilist views seem to conflict with this, though perhaps they agree that Given incompatibilism, Plantinga would have an argument.

      Personally I’m not impressed with most philosophers anyhow, Plantinga being a fine example why.

  4. Reginald Le Sueur Says:

    Who cares how Christians see things? They see whatever they want to see and make it all up as they go along.
    You say theologians believe one thing, but you believe they are wrong, so you believe something else again.
    It is just a monstrous edifice of baloney, and an insult to human intelligence.

  5. Miguel Says:

    The “free will” argument always seemed to me like Mafia argument: “You have free will to choose not to pay us for protection, but…”.
    It’s not ‘free’. On one choice you were paid (they say) with an eternity of boring staring at God. On the other, you pay with an eternity of suffering. The good cop/bad cop trick was designed to lure someone to some pre-selected choice, not to allow him/her free will.

    • Janney Says:

      It’s less free than that. I’m given to understand that God knows the future, which makes Christians the hardest of hard determinists: no matter how convincingly we go through the motions of decision-making, from where God’s sitting it’s all just clockwork unwinding.

      • Brian M Says:

        Hard core predestinarian Calvinism seems to be the only rational Christianity. Historically, of course, those with wealth and power are obvisouly the predestined. Mighty convenient for social control!

      • Reginald Le Sueur Says:

        “Rational Christianity”?

  6. pboyfloyd Says:

    I’ve always said to our Catholic philospher/apologist that he uses word-play, word-games, which of course he vehemently denies.

    Then he goes on, “Think of infinity, you cannot count to it can you? Think of the universe, it is everything, yet it isn’t everything, is it? Think of how you feel, how we all feel when someone commits an atrocity? That’s ‘objective’ isn’t it?”

    Now this from one of his heros. I’m positive that if asked, he’d say that Lane isn’t saying what Lane is saying, no. Lane is saying something different than that which Lane is saying here.

  7. pboyfloyd Says:

    Sorry, Bill or Billy or Craig or anything but Lane.

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