Remember a few posts back, when we saw Michael Ruse lecturing Richard Dawkins as follows:
More seriously, Dawkins is entirely ignorant of the fact that no believer-with the possible exception of some English clerics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-has ever thought that arguments are the best support for belief. Saint Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers of Western civilization, devoted but one paragraph in the City of God to the proofs. Saint Thomas was categorical that the proofs are second to faith.
In light of that it is with some amusement that I direct you to the current issue of Christianity Today. It’s cover story, which bears the headline, “God is Not Dead Yet,” discusses all the spiffy, sophisticated arguments philosophers have devised in support of God’s existence. It’s author is William Lane Craig. Looks like someone thinks rational arguments are central to an informed religious faith.
The article begins with the usual bravado of the genre:
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.
With that opening you might be expecting to read something novel. What is this revolution of which Craig speaks?
As he tells the story, the collapse of verificationism in the forties and fifties reawakened the discussion of arguments for God among philosophers. Led by Alvin Plantinga, this led to a new wave of Christian philosophers reviving the subject.
Well, that’s fascinating, But have these folks come up with any new or convincing arguments for God?
Apparenlty not. Here is the list of arguments Craig provides as representing the cutting edge of apologetics, together with my brief precis to remind you what the argument says:
- The Cosmological Argument. (Everything that exists has an explanation, either within itself or from an external cause, the universe can not be its own explanation, therefore it has an external cause which we call God.)
- The Kalam Cosmological Argument. (Everything that began to exist had a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore the universe had a cause.)
- The Teleological Argument. (Intelligent Design in biology, and the fine-tuning of the constants in physics.)
- The Moral Argument. (Objective moral values exists, which is not possible without God.)
- The Ontological Argument. (Spare me)
That’s it! Notice what those arguments have in common? Except for the fine-tuning argument (whose history is dated in mere decades) the rest of those arguments are virtually as old as Christian apologetics itself. Plantinga may have slapped a fresh coat of paint on the ontological argument, but the fact remains that these are all very old arguments.
I won’t stop here to refute them. What I find remarkable, though, is Craig’s description of them:
The renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology that seeks to prove God’s existence apart from divine revelation. The goal of natural theology is to justify a broadly theistic worldview, one that is common among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and deists. While few would call them compelling proofs, all of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, not to mention some creative new arguments, find articulate defenders today. (Emphasis Added)
What an odd choice of words. It’s one thing to concede that the arguments are not logically definitive, but here’s Craig saying they’re not even compelling. One wonders, then, what role they play for the philosophers defending them.
Craig is kind enough to express the items on our list in the form of deductive arguments. In each case there is some one or two premises that are, to put it kindly, not obviously true. In fact, they usually amount to assuming what you are trying to prove. You may as well assume that God exists directly and be done with it. One example: a crucial premise in the cosmological argument as presented by Craig is, “If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.”
Doesn’t that strike you as quite a leap? Craig tries valiantly to defend it, but the fact remains that the universe might not have an explanation, or, even if it has one, there is no reason why that explanation can not by natural. Assuming that the universe has a non-natural explanation for its existence is no improvement over assuming that God exists in the first place.
All of these arguments suffer from similar defects. That notwithstanding, Craig regards them as terribly important:
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.
So here’s the situation. The arguments of natural theology are not compelling, but they nonetheless constitute the best apologetic weapon Christians have. Sounds about right.