Tag Archives: New Atheism

Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

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

‘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”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  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. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Review of apologetics book by pastor shows where church needs to improve

Whenever I talk to Christians, I find that they hold one of two views about what faith is.

The first view of faith is the Biblical view of faith as active trust in propositions we know to be true, because we have reasons and evidence to believe those propositions. This view is not only rooted in the Bible, but it extends through Augustine and Aquinas to the present day. I have written about this view of faith before, and quoted many theologians in support of it. In the Bible, people use miracles as a sign in order to convince skeptics. For example, Peter appeals to the resurrection in Acts 2. The Bible teaches that faith is active trusting based on evidence.

The second view is blind faith. This view is nowhere in the Bible, and this view asserts that becoming a Christian is a leap-of-faith in the dark against all the evidence. This view not only minimizes evidence, but it actually opposes presenting evidence to unbelievers and skeptics in the way that the Bible teaches. This view is nowhere in the Bible, and it was not the method used by Jesus or his followers. It is an unBiblical way of viewing faith, but it is very popular in some circles of Christianity. It is also popular among atheists, because this is what many Christian leaders and pastors tell them that faith is.

Consider this review of a recent book that defends the Gospels and the historicity of the resurrection by a blind faith pastor.

He writes:

There are, however, two significant shortcomings to the book.

First, Cold-Case Christianity places far too much emphasis on the role of extrabiblical sources. No doubt there is a legitimate role for biblical archaeology and extrabiblical writing from antiquity. Christianity is, after all, a faith firmly rooted in human history. But there is a grave danger when truth is suspended because of an apparent lack of corroboration from extrabiblical sources. And Wallace, I’m afraid, wanders too close to this dark side of apologetics.

All of chapter 12, for instance, is devoted to proving the Gospels have external corroborative evidence—“evidence that are independent of the Gospel documents yet verify the claims of the text” (183). Wallace then addresses the historicity of the pool of Bethesda and makes another worrying statement: “For many years, there was no evidence for such a place outside of John’s Gospel. Because Christianity makes historical claims, archaeology ought to be a tool we can use to see if these claims are, in fact, true” (201-202, emphasis added).

In other words, Wallace seems to suggest we cannot affirm the truth of the Gospel accounts without the stamp of approval from archaeology and other extrabiblical sources. Such reasoning is dangerous, not least because it cannot affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. But also, it places the final court of appeal in the realm of extrabiblical sources rather than of God’s all-sufficient, all-powerful Word.

If you’re wondering why The Gospel Coalition is now derided everywhere as “woke”, this article gives you a hint about what happened. Many pastors today have embraced blind faith, and are unable to defend any of the Bible’s teachings to non-Christians. Instead, as I wrote about last week, they are just taking orders from the secular left, and demanding action on the priorities of the secular left from their parishioners. So, they’re focused on using their pulpits to promote critical race theory, LGBT activism, refugees and illegal immigration, socialism, etc. When you can’t defend your worldview with evidence, you start to slide to the left in order to remain “relevant”. And that’s what happened with The Gospel Coalition. They didn’t want to have to do the work to learn about evidence, so they just consulted with the secular left about what they thought was virtuous, and promoted that. It’s really that simple.

If we accept the blind faith view, we will limit our ability to raise children who can maintain their worldview through college. The phrase “The Bible says” is used by Christians all over the world to parent their children and to “engage” non-Christians. But does it work? Quoting the Bible isn’t going to work on people who don’t accept the Bible as an authority. But some people who don’t accept the Bible as an authority do accept evidence as an authority. We can get them to accept the Bible later by starting with evidence.

There’s another problem with adopting the “make a leap-of-faith” view. It doesn’t allow Christianity to be any more correct than other religions. If we are promoting Christianity on the basis of the “beauty” of the words in the Bible, then Muslims have been making that exact same “argument” for centuries about the Quran. What about praying to God to see if the Bible is true? Mormons have been doing that for decades. They call it “the burning of the bosom”. Like Christian pastors, Mormon pastors tell people to read their holy book and then pray to see if they get a burning of the bosom. But no one in the Bible ever took this approach to establishing the truth of their worldview. In the Bible, people use evidence.

In Bible, Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. all point to evidence to support their claims. What do you think Jesus was talking about when he said that he would give a “wicked generation” a sign – the sign of Jonah? The sign of Jonah is his bodily resurrection, which was intended to show people that he was who he claimed to be. He didn’t tell people to read the gospels and pray about it. There were no gospels at that time!

A much better approach to discussing Christianity with other people is to start with the scientific evidence for a Creator, and then move on to the historical evidence for the life of Jesus. A Christian cannot sustain a conservative view of the Bible and systematic theology if he goes through a secular world with nothing testable to say to non-Christians. Eventually, blind faith Christians break from the strain of being “spiritually weird”, and start craving the acceptance of the secular left.

Physicist Victor Stenger debates William Lane Craig: Does God Exist?

This debate took place on March 1, 2010 at Oregon State University.

In this debate, Victor Stenger does affirm his belief that the universe could be eternal in his second rebuttal (1:02:30), thus denying the standard Big Bang cosmology. He also denies the law of conservation of energy and asserts that something can come from nothing in his concluding speech (1:33:50). He also caused the audience to start laughing when he said that Jesus was not moral and supported slavery. There is almost no snark in this summary. Instead, I quoted Dr. Stenger verbatim in many places. I still think that it is very entertaining even without the snarky paraphrasing.

The debate includes 30 minutes of Q&A with the students.

Here’s the video of the debate:

Dr. Craig’s opening speech:

  • The ontological argument
  • The contingency argument
  • The cosmological argument
  • The moral argument
  • The resurrection of Jesus (3-fact version)
  • Religious experience

Dr. Stenger’s opening speech:

  • There is no scientific evidence for God’s existence in the textbooks
  • There is no scientific evidence for God acting in the universe
  • God doesn’t talk to people and tell them things they couldn’t possibly know
  • The Bible says that the Earth is flat, etc.
  • There is no scientific evidence that God answers prayers
  • God doesn’t exist because people who believe in him are ignorant
  • Human life is not optimally designed and appears to be the result of a blind, ad hoc evolutionary process
  • The beginning of the universe is not ordered (low entropy) but random and chaotic
  • It’s theoretically possible that quantum tunneling explains the origin of the universe
  • The laws of physics are not objectively real, they are “our inventions”
  • Regarding the beginning of the universe, the explanation is that something came from nothing*
  • Nothing* isn’t really nothing, it is “the total chaos that we project existed just before the big bang”
  • If something has no structure, then “it is as much nothing as nothing can be”
  • Consciousness is explainable solely on the basis of material processes
  • There are well-informed, rational non-believers in the world and God would not allow that

Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal:

Stenger’s argument that there is no objective evidence for God’s existence:

  • First, it is not required that God rely only on objective evidence in order to draw people to himself (Alvin Plantinga)
  • Second, God is not required to provide evidence to everyone, only to the people who he knows would respond to him
  • Third, Craig gave lots of objective evidence, from science, history and philosophy
  • Stenger asks for certain evidence (answered prayers, prophecy, etc.), but Craig presented the evidence we have

Stenger’s argument that the balance of energy is zero so “nothing” exists:

  • if you have the same amount of assets and liabilities, it doesn’t mean that nothing exists – your assets and liabilities exist
  • Christopher Isham says that there needs to be a cause to create the positive and negative energy even if they balance
  • the quantum gravity model contradicts observations
  • the vacuum is not the same as nothing, it contains energy and matter
  • the BVG theorem proves that any universe that is expanding must have a beginning

Stenger’s argument that mental operations can be reduced to physical operations:

  • mental properties are not reducible to physical properties
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with self-identity over time
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with thoughts about other things
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with free will
  • substance dualism (mind/body dualism) is a better explanation for our mental experience
  • God is a soul without a body
Dr. Stenger’s first rebuttal:

Craig’s cosmological argument:

  • Craig’s premise is “everything has a cause”, but quantum mechanics has causeless events
  • There are speculative theories about how something could have come into being uncaused out of nothing
  • “I don’t know of a single working cosmologist today who believes there was a singularity prior to the Big Bang”
  • “If there wasn’t a singularity then there’s no basis for arguing that time began at that point”
  • “There’s no reason from cosmology that we know of that the universe can’t be eternal”
  • “When I talk about an eternal universe, I mean a universe that has no beginning or end”
  • The Hartle-Hawking model doesn’t have a beginning
  • “There was no violation of energy conservation by having a universe coming from nothing”
  • “The universe could have come from a previous universe for example or even just from a region of chaos”
  • The paper by Vilenkin is counteracted by other papers (he doesn’t specify which ones)

Craig’s moral argument:

  • Dr. Craig is arguing from ignorance
  • But morality can be decided by humanity just like governments pass laws, and that’s objective
  • Dr. Craig has too little respect for the human intellect
  • I don’t need to tell me that slavery is wrong
  • The Bible supports slavery
  • Atheists can behave as good as theists
  • Morality just evolved naturally as an aid to survival

Craig’s resurrection argument:

  • No Roman historians wrote about the execution of Jesus
  • The empty tomb is doubtful because it is only mentioned in the gospels, not by Paul
  • John Dominic Crossan says there was no empty tomb
  • Christianity only survived because the Roman empire thought that they were useful

Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal:

Craig’s cosmological argument:

  • There is no reason to prefer an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics
  • Dr. Stenger himself wrote that deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics are possible
  • The vacuum in quantum mechanics is not nothing
  • The quantum vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal
  • The cosmological argument does not require a singularity
  • The Hartle-Hawking model is from 1983
  • Hawking says that there is a beginning of space and time after that model
  • The Hartle-Hawking model does still have a beginning of time – the model is not eternal
  • The BVG theorem that requires a beginning for expanding universes is widely accepted among cosmologists

Craig’s moral argument:

  • Stenger redefined objective to mean that most people agree with it – but that’s not what objective means
  • Objective means right and wrong whether anyone accepts it or not
  • Richard Dawkins himself says that on atheism there is “no evil and no good” – why is he wrong?
  • Even Dr. Stenger says that morality is the same as passing laws – it’s arbitrary and varies by time and place
  • But on his view, right and wrong are the same as deciding which side of the road to drive on
  • But somethings really are right and some things are really wrong

Craig’s resurrection argument:

  • Josephus is a Roman historian and he wrote about Jesus, for example
  • There were four biographies of Jesus are the best sources for his life
  • The scholars that Stenger mentioned are on the radical fringe

Dr. Stenger’s second rebuttal:

Knowledge and the burden of proof:

  • Dr. Craig has to bear the burden of proof, not me – because his claim is more “extravagant”
  • “I don’t have to prove that a God was not necessary to create the universe”
  • “I don’t have to prove that a God did not design the universe and life”
  • “I don’t have to prove that the universe did not have a beginning”
  • “I don’t have to prove that God did not provide us with our moral sense”
  • There are a lot of books written about how morality evolved naturally
  • “I don’t have to prove that the events surrounding the supposed resurrection of Jesus did not take place”
  • Bart Ehrman says that the gospels are generally unreliable (Note: Ehrman accepts all 3 of Craig’s minimal facts)
  • Just because people are willing to die for a cause, does not make their leader God, e.g. – the Emperor of Japan

Aesthetic concerns about the universe:

  • I don’t like dark matter and I wouldn’t have made the universe with dark matter
  • I don’t like the doctrine of penal substitution
  • I don’t like the doctrine of original sin
  • I don’t like the heat death of the universe

Dr. Craig’s conclusion:

The case for atheism:

  • Dr. Stenger had two arguments and he has to support his premises
  • Dr. Craig addressed his two arguments and each premise and Dr. Stenger never came back on it

The contingency argument:

  • Dr. Stenger has dropped the refutation of this argument

The cosmological argument:

  • The theoretical vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal

The moral argument:

  • He asserts that things are wrong, but there is no grounding for that to be objective on atheism

The resurrection of Jesus:

  • There are surveys of scholars on the empty tomb and 75% of them agree with it
  • Bart Ehrman agrees with all 3 of the minimal facts that Dr. Craig presented
  • Ehrman’s objection to the resurrection is not historical: he’s an atheist – he thinks miracles are impossible

Religious experience:

  • No response from Dr. Stenger

Dr. Stenger’s conclusion

The cosmological argument:

  • “I argued that we have very good physical reasons to understand how something can come from nothing”
  • “There is a natural tendency in the universe… to go from.. simpler thing to the more complicated thing”
  • The transition from a vapor to a liquid to ice shows how something could come from nothing
  • “It cannot be proven that the universe had a beginning”

The moral argument:

  • Objective morality, which is independent of what people think, could be developed based on what people think
  • “Jesus himself was not a tremendously moral person… he had no particular regard for the poor… he certainly supported slavery… he was for the subjugation of women” (audience laughter)

The resurrection argument:

  • Bart Ehrman says that the majority of the gospels are unreliable

Religious experience:

  • I don’t see any evidence that there is anything more to religious experience than just stuff in their heads

God’s purpose of the world should be to make people feel happy:

  • God could have made people feel happier
  • God could have made people not die
  • God could could have made the universe smaller: it’s too big
  • God could have made it possible for humans to live anywhere “even in space”