Stephen Law: are unbelievers without excuse?

Stephen Law read a bunch of stuff by top apologist William Lane Craig and noted that Craig believes a bunch of odd things (apart from the odd things you’d already know about from Craig’s debates, I mean). There was some discussion in the comments over this one:

“Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.”

[William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), pp. 35-36.]

This is all very Biblical: Craig’s “loves darkness rather than light” is a reference to the verse following that famous verse in John 3:16: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

As a good inerrantist, Craig apparently believes this and other passages like Romans 1 (see my old blog post about this) where the Apostle Paul writes that unbelievers are “without excuse”. Atheists know there’s a God really but don’t worship him because to do so we’d have to acknowledge how bad we are, or something. This is a culpable error, not a mistake, too.

The pathologising of non-belief based on knowing what people think better than they do is itself pathological, as Thrasymachus says, at least if it’s used to dismiss atheist arguments without engaging with them (note that Craig does not do this in debates, though he seems to do it personally, and to advocate other Christians doing it, which is bad).

In the comments, wombat suggests that the evangelical claim is that atheists are in the situation “where one accepts something intellectually but not at a more basic emotional level e.g cigarette smokers who continue in spite of acknowledging its dangers. The Christian apologists here are claiming that the “knowledge” is at that deeper visceral level.” wombat also linked to Jamie Whyte’s observation that religious believers don’t really act like they believe what they say they believe.

On that subject, there’s also Georges Rey’s “Meta-atheism: religious avowal as self-deception“, where he argues that Christians generally don’t act as if they believe what they say they believe. I’ve discussed Rey’s paper before.

There’s a folk psychology where “thoughts” are propositional sentences that occur to us, and “beliefs” are the ones we hold on to as true over time and use to guide our actions. But the way the phenomenon we call “belief” really works doesn’t seem much like that. This doesn’t just apply to religion: see The Mystery of the Haunted Rationalist.

If the evangelical claim is just to know that atheists are secretly lying, it’s bizarre, as Thrasymachus says. On the other hand, if the evangelical claim is that atheists anticipate-as-if there’s a God while avowing-as-if there isn’t, I don’t think that works. What are the things that atheists are doing which give away the fact that they are anticipating that way? And why does this make them culpable and deserving of Hell?

I don’t think the atheist version (i.e. Rey’s or Whyte’s) has the same problem, because there are plenty of examples of Christians who don’t act like there’s a God.

12 Comments on "Stephen Law: are unbelievers without excuse?"

  1. I followed your link to Thrasymachus, and found something rather odd.

    He says (talking about college stuff):

    > Here’s a few snippets from the Leader’s guide:
    > “The reason why so many reject the Gospel is that the devil is at work
    > preventing people people from recognizing who Jesus is…”
    > One explanation is absent: that non-believers don’t believe because, after
    > some enquiry, they think it is false. This sort of considered rejection is
    > never mooted. The story, instead, is something like this:
    > “The evangelical tale – Epistemic Pathology: People do not disbelieve for
    > good reasons. Rather, the motivation for their disbelief can be located in
    > some defective belief-forming practice…”

    So that is all totally weird. The college Christians have come right out at the top with their explanation: its the Divil, guv. And T then totally ignores that. Why?


    1. T says “be that interference by spiritual enemies, a love of worldly matters, ignorance, or something else”. I’m not sure “the Devil made me do it” would mean atheists were culpable, though, so maybe the Rico Tice quote is a bad example of the sort of thing that T is talking about in the rest of the essay.


  2. Supposing that atheists were acting as if there’s a God… why does this booger think it’s *his* God that we’re anticipating exists? There are lots of gods I don’t believe in.


    1. I guess I’m applying the principle of charity: you must not only kill the idea, but the worst thing that can be made from the corpse. If the consciously lying claim seems weak, maybe that’s not the one Craig’s making, so wombat suggested another option, which I think maps onto the Less Wrong “belief as anticipation” idea.

      It’s not clear that Craig is claiming that: maybe there’s some other option. But the options I’ve got so far either don’t match up to what atheists do, or are just silly (since I know I’m not consciously lying and presumably you do too).


      1. I guess maybe I anticipate-as-if I’ll get punished for my sins? Although I don’t know how you can disentangle anticipating-as-if the police will arrest me from anticipating-as-if society will ostracise me from anticipating-as-if God will punish me… or indeed from simply having a conviction that some things are Wrong so I shouldn’t do them, regardless of anticipated punishment.

        I blaspheme a lot though… I hope he doesn’t think swearing in the name of Gods I don’t believe in counts as anticipating-as-if those Gods exist. It’s a culturally ingrained habit.


        1. Actually, come to think of it… if you were observing only a subset of my actions/utterances you might I suppose come to conclude that I am anticipating-as-if a large pantheon of pagan-style gods exist. Things like saying that the computer claimed a blood sacrifice, using an umbrella as an anti-rain talisman, wondering who angered the weather gods… I do that sort of stuff (but not with real belief behind it) a whole lot more than I do things inspired by Christian theology (although I have quite a bit of Christian cultural baggage, like celebrating Christmas, I don’t do things like express a desire that St Christopher will make sure the train runs on time).


    1. Depends what you mean by “nihilist”, I suppose: assuming you mean existential nihilism, how should we distinguish the actions of a nihilist from a non-nihilist? That is, how should atheists be acting, on your view?


      1. I meant that, and moral nihilism as well. Atheists typically think, talk and act as if there are transcendent values, and as if their lives aren’t meaningless and purposeless. Note that I’m actually glad that atheists are inconsistent in this way (just to be clear about what we mean by ‘should be acting’), but it does rather show that they don’t really take their atheism neat.

        You illustrate this point in the ‘abyss’ section of your ‘deconversion story’. The reason that atheists don’t have to fall into the abyss is that it’s within their power to transcendentalise whatever they like. What the author you quote calls ‘manufacturing’ the abyss, I call being consistent.


        1. Again, I’m not sure how, on your view, a person who accepts that there are transcendent values or who believes life has meaning and purpose acts/anticipates differently to one who does not. Remember that the question is how atheists’ actions/anticipations give the lie to their words.

          Assuming there are differences in anticipation, I think to accept that these differences show that atheists are inconsistent, I’d have to accept both that atheism entails that there are no transcendent values or that our lives are meaningless and purposeless and that theism (or some theism, at least) entails the opposite (if the latter isn’t true, then the question of values or meaning is orthogonal to the theism/atheism axis).

          I think for the “transcendent values” one, I’m not sure what the “transcendent” part means. I don’t think atheism entails that all values are subjective, for example (at least in some senses of the word, see Maitzen vs the Atheist Missionary, in the comments) since there are ways for their truth conditions to depend on facts about humans.

          The meaning and purpose one is trickier as I’m even less sure what that means. As John D says, people like Craig tend to abandon their carefully numbered formal arguments in favour of free-form rhetoric here, so I’m just not sure what the argument that atheism entails no meaning/purpose actually is (John D has a go at reconstructing one). I think I’d go with Maitzen (On God and Our Ultimate Purpose) in saying that theism doesn’t do better here: if you learn that the purpose (the transcendant purpose, even) for your life is to provide CO2 for God’s plants, is your life then meaningful? How about if you learn that your purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever? It seems like it’s always open to someone to say “why should I care about that?”


        2. Matt, I’d like to echo Paul’s request for a bit more specificity in your argument.

          It actually appears to be at least two different arguments (one about “transcendent values” and one about “meaning and purpose”), and perhaps it would be worth focusing on one of the two. (I don’t mind which.)

          What I’d ideally like to see is an argument made more explicit along the following lines: “By ‘transcendent values’ I mean X. Atheists typically do Y. [If it’s not uncontroversial that atheists typically do Y, insert justification of that claim here.] Doing Y really only makes sense if there are X, because Z. But atheism really entails the nonexistence of X, for reasons W [that atheists could reasonably be expected to agree with].” (Or, of course, the same with “meaning and purpose in their lives” or something, instead of “transcendent values”.)

          For the avoidance of doubt: of course I’m not under the impression that you’re in any way obliged to provide what I’d ideally like to see :-). It’s just that I *frequently* see claims like the one you’ve made above, and *never* see them fleshed out in a way that would make it feasible to tell how compelling they are without a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.


          1. No? Oh well, never mind. Perhaps one of these years one of the Christians making this argument will deign to explain it in a way that convinces me that there’s an actual argument there, as opposed to a mere collocation of fine-sounding words.


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