(Article: “God Is Not Dead Yet,” by William Lane Craig, published in July 2008 in the online edition of Christianity Today.)
I was planning to start a new series today, but as I mentioned in my other blog, I came across a fascinating quote by William Lane Craig, as reported by The Uncredible Hallq, and today I want to look at the whole article, because there’s some really juicy stuff in there. [Caveat: The discussion that follows is based on a casual/superficial understanding of what Craig meant by “verificationism.” Thanks to some informed commenters at my other blog, I now know that verificationism is a highly specific and somewhat esoteric technical term within philosophy, and that Craig’s discussion of its implications are somewhat misleading. My remarks below should be understood as addressing the more general principle of verification and its implications for Christianity.]
Craig begins, as usual, with the declaration that atheism is losing and Christianity winning in the intellectual battles of the late 20th century and beyond.
You might think from the recent spate of atheist best-sellers that belief in God has become intellectually indefensible for thinking people today. But a look at these books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, quickly reveals that the so-called New Atheism lacks intellectual muscle. It is blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It reflects the scientism of a bygone generation rather than the contemporary intellectual scene…
The face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result. Atheism, though perhaps still the dominant viewpoint at the American university, is a philosophy in retreat.
Sounds optimistic, but can he back up those claims? What is this “revolution” that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy—and why has it only influenced philosophy that happens to be Anglo-American?
Craig tells it like this:
Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified! The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century. Its downfall meant that philosophers were free once again to tackle traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical questions came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.
Verificationism is the philosophical position that says that in order for a statement to be meaningful and/or useful, there must be some way to tell whether it is true or false. Or to put it slightly differently, verificationism says that in order for a question to be legitimate, there has to be some way to tell what the answer to that question is. That’s a pretty important principle, because if we reject that principle, we end up saying that there are some statements that are meaningful even though we cannot tell whether they are true or false, and some questions that are legitimate even though there is no way to know the answer.
That sounds like two different principles: meaningful statements that cannot be verified, and legitimate questions that cannot be answered. But in fact, they’re two sides of the same coin, because those who reject verificationism put the two together: they ask questions for which there is no means of determining the answer, and then put forth unverifiable claims as the answer to the question. Since neither the question nor the answer need have any verifiable connection to the truth, you can draw whatever conclusions you like. This “revolution” in Anglo-American philosophy, then, consists of freeing yourself from the constraints of truth. You no longer need to limit yourself to the investigation of things that are really true, and your conclusions are just as valid whether or not they have any particular connection with reality.
This, Craig exultantly proclaims, has enabled Christian philosophy to flourish in ways it never could have done when philosophers were careful to make sure they were talking about actual, knowable truth.
Ok. And, um, that’s a good thing?
Craig builds on this foundation of freedom from the constraints of truth by summarizing the currently popular arguments for “natural theology.” These arguments are the cosmological argument, the “kalam” cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and the ontological argument (which ironically proves pantheism rather than Christian theism). We’ve gone over the flaws in these arguments pretty extensively in the On Guard series, so I won’t rehash them here except to point out that the first four boil down to superstition dressed up in philosopher’s robes, and that the last, as I’ve mentioned, actually disproves Christian theology. But oh well.
You might wonder why, if atheism is “a philosophy in retreat,” anybody outside the university hallways should even care about the technical details. The answer, as Baghdad Bob could have told you, is that even though the home team is pulverizing the bad guys, they’re still a very real threat. But that just means the home team is still winning.
Of course, there are replies and counterreplies to all of these arguments, and no one imagines that a consensus will be reached. Indeed, after a period of passivity, there are now signs that the sleeping giant of atheism has been roused from his dogmatic slumbers and is fighting back. J. Howard Sobel and Graham Oppy have written large, scholarly books critical of the arguments of natural theology, and Cambridge University Press released its Companion to Atheism last year. Nonetheless, the very presence of the debate in academia is itself a sign of how healthy and vibrant a theistic worldview is today.
So is atheism really in retreat, or was it just taking a nap? And check it out: “dogmatic” slumbers? Isn’t it awesome the way Christian apologists try to insult atheists by accusing them of resorting to proprietary Christian techniques, even when such accusation is laughably baseless? The horrible, evil, repressive philosophical empire that was keeping Christianity down was called verificationism—the practice of insisting that dogma wasn’t good enough and that you have to check out whether the things you say are true. So naturally, in Craig’s eyes, the people who tell you that you should find out the real truth are the ones who are guilty of “dogmatic slumbers.” Boo, yeah.
If that’s not enough irony and cognitive dissonance for you, check this out. One of the consequences of abandoning verificationism is that you can no longer refer to a common, objective standard of truth. If all statements are to be accepted as equally valid regardless of their verifiability, then there is no absolute truth. Truth is just a social construct, an artifact of people getting together and agreeing to accept unverifiable beliefs as their conventional “truth.” In short, the same philosophical context that opened the door for natural theology also opened the gates for postmodernism as well. And what does Craig think about postmodernism?
However all this may be, some might think that the resurgence of natural theology in our time is merely so much labor lost. For don’t we live in a postmodern culture in which appeals to such apologetic arguments are no longer effective? Rational arguments for the truth of theism are no longer supposed to work. Some Christians therefore advise that we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it.
This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that’s not postmodernism; that’s modernism! That’s just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can’t prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.
This leaves Craig in a rather uncomfortable position: to make a distinction between verifiable knowledge (like science and technology) and relativistic/pluralistic “knowledge” (like ethics and religion) is to make yourself a modernist, i.e. a verificationist. To try and conflate the two, however—to treat religious “knowledge” as though it held the same meaning and validity as verifiable scientific knowledge—is to try and create an impossible post-modern culture that would be utterly unlivable. And yet, that is what natural theology seeks and needs to do. Craig’s approach is 100% the wrong approach to take, but he’s going to take it anyway, for the sake of defending dogma. In the process of doing so, however, he’s going to argue as though modernism/verificationism is indeed the correct approach to take.
Seen in this light, tailoring our gospel to a postmodern culture is self-defeating. By laying aside our best apologetic weapons of logic and evidence, we ensure modernism’s triumph over us. If the church adopts this course of action, the consequences in the next generation will be catastrophic. Christianity will be reduced to but another voice in a cacophony of competing voices, each sharing its own narrative and none commending itself as the objective truth about reality. Meanwhile, scientific naturalism will continue to shape our culture’s view of how the world really is.
A robust natural theology may well be necessary for the gospel to be effectively heard in Western society today. In general, Western culture is deeply post-Christian. It is the product of the Enlightenment, which introduced into European culture the leaven of secularism that has by now permeated Western society. While most of the original Enlightenment thinkers were themselves theists, the majority of Western intellectuals today no longer considers theological knowledge to be possible. The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic.
Notice: the Enlightenment theists launched a pursuit of reason that led to the majority of Western intellectuals being atheists today, despite starting in a theistic culture. So here is the paradox: Craig’s dogmas need to undo what the pursuit of reason has done. They need a post-modern freedom from verification in order to make the arguments he could not make when people were being careful about the meaning of their questions and the truth of their answers. This same freedom, however, is self-destructive: it does Christianity more harm than good. And yet, to acknowledge the importance of verifiable truth is to doom oneself to eventual atheism, or at least agnosticism, even when starting from a theistic culture. What’s a faithful Christian to do?
The answer, apparently, is to blame atheism on the culture rather than on the nature of the verifiable truth. Such scapegoats are very comforting to the Christian intellectual who has realized where honest evidence-based reason leads. And naturally, this kind of rationalization suggests a way this problem might be resolved: just create a sham philosophy that has the outward appearance of verificationism, all the while denying verificationism in its foundations and premises, in order to create the “right” kind of culture. Re-create the conditions that existed before the Enlightenment, so that this time we can avoid the unflinching pursuit of reason.
Christians who depreciate natural theology because “no one comes to faith through intellectual arguments” are therefore tragically shortsighted. For the value of natural theology extends far beyond one’s immediate evangelistic contacts. It is the broader task of Christian apologetics, including natural theology, to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women. It thereby gives people the intellectual permission to believe when their hearts are moved.
Con the rubes so that they’ll grow up thinking that “natural theology” is as valid as science, even though it’s really antithetical to it. Fool people. Lie to them. Lie, in fact, to yourself. Denounce the postmodernist idea that truth is just a social construct, all the while you’re really working to build a social construct that you can point to and use as though it were the truth. Replace real verification with fake verification, because you know that genuine verification of your arguments will only serve to falsify them and make atheists of people. Set them up to believe whatever they feel like believing (when their hearts are moved), and then make sure they feel like believing your dogmas.
William Lane Craig is really a smart guy, and it’s tragic to see him waste his life on such desperate rationalizations. And yet, nobody is forcing him to do it. This is a ministry he has taken on under his own initiative, and he’s accountable for it.
So take a bow, Dr. Craig. I’m sure your show is a crowd-pleaser, at least for your target audience. But it’s time to wipe off the make-up, put on your street clothes, and join the rest of us in the real world.