Tag Archives: William Lane Craig

Does the word atheism mean “a lack of belief in God”?

Making sense of the meaning of atheism
Making sense of the meaning of atheism

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Excerpt:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion non-cognitively. When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true.

How do atheists try to accommodate the Big Bang in their worldview?

J. Warner Wallace: God's Crime Scene
J. Warner Wallace: God’s Crime Scene

OK, so J. Warner Wallace has a new book out and it’s about science and God. I know, because I saw pictures of his reading list, that he has read tons and tons of atheists like Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss and so on.

He’s writing about some of the things he learned from all this reading on his blog, and I wanted to link to something about Lawrence Krauss trying to accommodate the Big Bang within his worldview of atheism.

Wallace writes:

One of the key pieces of evidence in the universe is simply it’s origin. If our universe began to exist, what could have caused it’s beginning? How did everything (all space, time and matter) come into existence from nothing? One way atheist physicists have navigated this dilemma has simply been to redefine the terms they have been using. What do we mean when we say “everything” or “nothing”? At first these two terms might seem rather self-explanatory, but it’s important for us to take the time to define the words. As I’ve already stated, by “everything” we mean all space, time and matter. That’s right, space is “something”; empty space is part of “everything” not part of “nothing”. For some of us, that’s an interesting concept that might be hard to grasp, but it’s an important distinction that must be understood. When we say “nothing”, we mean the complete absence of everything; the thorough non-existence of anything at all (including all space time and matter). These two terms, when defined in this way, are consistent with the principles of the Standard Cosmological Model, but demonstrate the dilemma. If everything came from nothing, what caused this to occur? What is the non-spatial, atemporal, immaterial, uncaused, first cause of the universe? A cause of this sort sounds a lot like a supernatural Being, and that’s why I think many naturalists have begun to redefine the terms.

Lawrence Krauss, Arizona State University Professor (School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Initiative) wrote a book entitled, “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing”. As part of the promotion for the book, Krauss appeared on the Colbert Report where he was interviewed by comedian Stephen Colbert. During the interview, Krauss tried to redefine “nothing” to avoid the need for a supernatural first cause:

“Physics has changed what we mean by nothing… Empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence… if you wait long enough, that kind of nothing will always produce particles.” (Colbert Nation, June 21st, 2012)

Now if you’re not careful, you might miss Krauss’ subtle redefinition. In describing the sudden appearance of matter (“particles”), Krauss assumes the prior existence of space (“empty space”) and time (“if you wait long enough”). If you’ve got some empty space and wait long enough, matter appears. For Krauss, the “nothing” from which the universe comes includes two common features of “everything” (space and time), and something more (virtual particles). This leaves us with the real question: “Where did the space, time and virtual particles come from (given all our evidence points to their origination at the beginning of our universe)?” Krauss avoids this inquiry by moving space and time from the category of “something” to the category of “nothing”.

If you’ve got a teenager in your house, you might recognize Krauss’ approach to language. I bet you’ve seen your teenager open the refrigerator door, gaze at all the nutritious fruits and vegetables on the shelves, then lament that there is “nothing to eat.”

I used to say that when I was a teenager, but I grew out of it. I didn’t go on the Comedy Channel and try to convince everyone that what I was saying about the refrigerator was scientific.

Anyway, here is a debate between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, if you want to see how Krauss defends his “refrigerator has nothing to eat” view of cosmology. I know everybody and even many Christians all think that we have something to hide when it comes to science, but if you would just watch these debates, you would see that there is nothing to fear from science at all. We own it.

Meanwhile, I want to show you that this is not at all rare among atheists.

Look, here is Peter Atkins explaining how he makes the Big Bang reconcile with his atheism – and notice that it’s a completely different view than Krauss:

So, just who is this Peter Atkins, and why is he a good spokesman for atheism?

From his Wikipedia bio.

Peter William Atkins (born August 10, 1940) is an English chemist and a fellow and professor of chemistry at Lincoln College of the University of Oxford. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical Chemistry, 8th ed. (with Julio de Paula of Haverford College), Inorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics, 4th ed. Atkins is also the author of a number of science books for the general public, including Atkins’ Molecules and Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science.

[…]Atkins is a well-known atheist and supporter of many of Richard Dawkins’ ideas. He has written and spoken on issues of humanism, atheism, and what he sees as the incompatibility between science and religion. According to Atkins, whereas religion scorns the power of human comprehension, science respects it.

[…]He was the first Senior Member for the Oxford Secular Society and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of The Reason Project, a US-based charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. The organisation is led by fellow atheist and author Sam Harris.

Now watch that 6-minute video above. Peter Atkins thinks that nothing exists. He thinks he doesn’t exist. He thinks that you don’t exist. This is how atheism adapts to a world where the Big Bang creation event is fact.

I think Peter Atkins should join Lawrence Krauss on the Comedy Channel and present that view. I would laugh. Wouldn’t you?

What are the historical arguments for the empty tomb story?

I wanted to go over this article by William Lane Craig which includes a discussion of the empty tomb, along with the other minimal facts that support the resurrection.

The word resurrection means bodily resurrection

The concept of resurrection in use among the first converts to Christianity was a Jewish concept of resurrection. And that concept of resurrection is unequivocally in favor of a bodily resurrection. The body (soma) that went into the grave is the body (soma) that came out.

Craig explains what this means with respect to the fast start of Christian belief:

For a first century Jew the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms. In the words of E. E. Ellis, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.”

And:

Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated any following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly.

It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.

There are multiple early, eyewitness sources for the empty tomb

Paul’s early creed from 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion, implies the empty tomb.

Craig writes:

In the formula cited by Paul the expression “he was raised” following the phrase “he was buried” implies the empty tomb. A first century Jew could not think otherwise. As E. L. Bode observes, the notion of the occurrence of a spiritual resurrection while the body remained in the tomb is a peculiarity of modern theology. For the Jews it was the remains of the man in the tomb which were raised; hence, they carefully preserved the bones of the dead in ossuaries until the eschatological resurrection. There can be no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites pre-suppose the existence of the empty tomb.

The dating of the resurrection as having occurred “on the third day” implies the empty tomb. The date specified for the resurrection would have been the date that the tomb was discovered to be empty.

The phrase “on the third day” probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it “on the third day?” The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus’ women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus’ empty tomb.

A few quotes from atheist historians not from Dr. Craig’s article: (thanks to Eric of Ratio Christi OSU)

Michael Goulder (Atheist NT Prof. at Birmingham) “…it goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” [“The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford, 1996), 48.]

Gerd Lüdemann (Atheist Prof of NT at Göttingen): “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” [The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), 171-72.]

Robert Funk (Non-Christian scholar, founder of the Jesus Seminar): “…The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” [Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, 466.]

The early pre-Markan burial narrative mentions the empty tomb. This source pre-dates Mark, the earliest gospel. The source has been dated by some scholars to the 40s. For example, the atheist scholar James Crossley dates Mark some time in the 40s. (See the debate below)

The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark’s passion source. As Mark is the earliest of our gospels, this source is therefore itself quite old. In fact the commentator R. Pesch contends that it is an incredibly early source. He produces two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

(a) Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11:23-5 presupposes the Markan account. Since Paul’s own traditions are themselves very old, the Markan source must be yet older.

(b) The pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It is as when I say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House” and everyone knows whom I am speaking of because it is the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion story refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37, this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must come from within seven years after Jesus’ death. This source thus goes back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and is therefore an ancient and reliable source of historical information.

So we are dealing with very early sources for the empty tomb.

Lack of legendary embellishments

The empty tomb narrative in the gospels lacks legendary embellishments, unlike later 2nd century forgeries that originated outside of Jerusalem.

The eyewitness testimony of the women

This is the evidence that has been the most convincing to skeptics, and to me as well.

The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. To understand this point one has to recall two facts about the role of women in Jewish society.

(a) Woman occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” and “Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.”

(b) The testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even permitted to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. In light of these facts, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legend would certainly have made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men, are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the gospels accurately record this.

The earliest response from the Jewish high priests assumes the empty tomb

This report from Matthew 28 fulfills the criteria of enemy attestation, although Matthew is not the earliest source we have. Oh, well.

In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.

Note how careful Craig is not to imply that the guard tradition is historical, because we can’t prove the guard as a “minimal fact”, since it doesn’t pass the standard historical criteria.

See it used in a debate

You can see the arguments made and defended from criticism in this debate with the atheist scholar James Crossley.

This my favorite resurrection debate.

William Lane Craig and atheist Daniel Dennett discuss cosmology and fine-tuning

Two Rams butting heads: may the best ram win!
Two rams butting heads: may the best ram win!

Here is audio of a very interesting exchange between William Lane Craig and leading atheist Daniel Dennett.

This audio records a part of the Greer-Heard debate in 2007, between prominent atheist Daniel Dennett and lame theistic evolutionist Alister McGrath. Craig was one of the respondents, and this was the best part of the event. It is a little bit advanced, but I have found that if you listen to things like this over and over with your friends and family, and then try to explain it to non-Christians, you’ll get it.

By the way, this is mostly original material from Craig, dated 2007, and he delivers the speech perfectly, so it’s entertaining to listen to.

Craig presents three arguments for a Creator and Designer of the universe:

  • the contingency argument
  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the teleological argument

He also discusses Dennett’s published responses to these arguments, and that’s what I want to focus on, since most of you are already familiar with Craig’s philosophical arguments for the existence of God.

Dennett’s response to Craig’s paper

Here is my snarky paraphrase of Dennett’s reponse: (this is very snarky, because Dennett was just awful)

  • Craig’s three arguments are bulletproof, the premises are plausible, and grounded by the best cutting edge science we know today.
  • I cannot find anything wrong with his arguments right now, but maybe later when I go home it will come to me what’s wrong with them.
  • But atheism is true even if all the evidence is against it today. I know it’s true by my blind faith.
  • The world is so mysterious, and all the science of today will be overturned tomorrow so that atheism will be rational again. I have blind faith that this new evidence will be discovered any minute.
  • Just because the cause of the beginning of time is eternal and the cause of the beginning of space is non-physical, the cause doesn’t have to be God.
  • “Maybe the cause of the universe is the idea of an apple, or the square root of 7″. (HE LITERALLY SAID THAT!)
  • The principle of triangulation might have brought the entire physical universe into being out of nothing.
  • I don’t understand anything about non-physical causation, even though I cannot even speak meaningful sentences unless I have a non-physical mind that is causing my body to emit the meaningful sentences in a non-determined manner.
  • Alexander Vilenkin is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • Alan Guth is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • This science stuff is so complicated to me – so Craig can’t be right about it even though he’s published about it and debated it all with the best atheists on the planet.
  • If God is outside of time, then this is just deism, not theism. (This part is correct, but Craig believes that God enters into time at the moment of creation – so that it is not a deistic God)
  • If deism is true, then I can still be an atheist, because a Creator and Designer of the universe is compatible with atheism.
  • I’m pretty sure that Craig doesn’t have any good arguments that can argue for Christianity – certainly not an historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on minimal facts, that he’s defended against the most prominent historians on the planet in public debates and in prestigous books and research journals.

This is a very careful treatment of the arguments that Dr. Craig goes over briefly during his debates. Recommended.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

William Lane Craig discusses faith and reason with university students

This is an interview of Dr. William Lane Craig before college students at the University of Central Florida. (95 minutes)

You can get an MP3 of the lecture here. (33 MB)

Questions from the interviewer: (40 minutes)

  • What started you on his journey of studying faith and reason?
  • How would you define the word “faith”?
  • Are faith and reason compatible? How are they related?
  • How can reasonable faith help us to avoid the two extremes of superstition and nihilism?
  • Who makes the best arguments against the Christian faith?
  • Why are angry atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens more well known than better-informed academic atheists?
  • Does the Bible require Christians to give the unbeliever reasons for their faith?
  • How does faith spur Christians to think carefully about the big questions in life?
  • Should the American church prod churchgoers to develop their minds so they can engage the secular culture?
  • When talking about Christianity intellectually, is there a risk of neglecting the experience of being a Christian?
  • Which Christian apologist has shaped your thinking the most?
  • Which Christian philosopher has shaped your thinking the most?
  • Does the confidence that comes from apologetics undermine humility and reverence?
  • If you had to sketch out a 5 minute case for Christianity, what would you present?
  • Can non-Christians use their reason to arrive at truth?
  • Are there cases where atheists must affirm irrational things in order to remain atheists?
  • Can the universe have existed eternal, so that there is no need to explain who created it?
  • Even if you persuade someone that Christianity is true, does that mean they will live it out?

There is also a long period of questions, many of them hostile, from the audience of students (55 minutes).

  • Haven’t you said nasty things about some atheists? Aren’t you a meany?
  • What do you make of the presuppositional approach to apologetics?
  • Can a person stop being a Christian because of the chances that happen to them as they age?
  • Why did God wait so long after humans appeared to reveal himself to people through Jesus?
  • Can a person be saved by faith without have any intellectual assent to truth?
  • How do you find time for regular things like marriage when you have to study and speak so much?
  • How would you respond to Zeitgeist and parallels to Christianity in Greek/Roman mythology?
  • Do Christians have to assume that the Bible is inerrant and inspired in order to evangelize?
  • If the universe has a beginning, then why doesn’t God have a beginning?
  • Can you name some philosophical resources on abstract objects, Platonism and nominalism?
  • How can you know that Christianity more right than other religions?
  • Should we respond to the problem of evil by saying that our moral notions are different from God’s?
  • Define the A and B theories of time. Explain how they relate to the kalam cosmological argument.
  • How can Christians claim that their view is true in the face of so many world religions?
  • What is the role of emotions in Christian belief and thought?
  • Can evolution be reconciled with Christian beliefs and the Bible?
  • When witnessing person-to-person, should you balance apologetics with personal testimony?
  • Is there a good analogy for the trinity that can help people to understand it? [Note: HE HAS ONE!]
  • How can Christians reconcile God’s omniscience, God’s sovereignty and human free will?

This is a nice introductory lecture that is sure to get Christians to become interested in apologetics. As you watch or listen to it, imagine what the world would be like if every Christian could answer the questions of skeptical college students and professors like Dr. Craig. What would non-Christians think about Christianity if every Christian had studied these issues like Dr. Craig? Why aren’t we making an effort to study these things so that we can answer these questions?

It is really fun to see him fielding the questions from the skeptical university students. My favorite question was from the physics student who sounds really foreign, (at 1:19:00), then you realize that he is a Christian. I do think that Dr. Craig went a little far in accommodating evolution, but I put that down to the venue, and not wanting to get into a peripheral issue.