I have to apologize for this chapter because it’s going to be very long and potentially boring. The reason it’s so long is that because I’m not just going to be explaining why Craig’s arguments are bad arguments. I’m going to showing how, in many cases, they’re based on lies, lies which I’m quite confident are deliberate.
Saying this is not how I would normally start a book on the work of a professional philosopher. I don’t think it’s true of a single other professional philosopher I know of; I don’t think it’s true of Plantinga or Swinburne of van Inwagen.
But in Craig’s case, I think what I’ve said about him is true and very important to say. This is not because it necessarily means Craig’s arguments are no good. The world’s greatest liar could say it’s raining, and that doesn’t make it sunny.
Rather, it’s because I think people who are interested in debates about the existence of God should know that they cannot trust Craig. They can’t trust him to accurately describe the views of the experts on various subjects (who Craig constantly insists are on his side), nor can they trust him to accurately describe the views of his opponents.
This matters because few arguments are really matters of pure logic which anyone could verify. Most arguments rely on factual information, and when we listen to an argument we have to be able to trust the arguer to have their facts mostly right. And even with arguments that claim to prove their point through pure logic, when the arguer deals with objections to the argument, we need to be able to trust that they’re describing those objections accurately. That’s something I can no longer do with Craig.
I also say all this right away because I don’t want the fact that I’m devoting an entire, long chapter to Craig to add to his (undeserved) reputation. Why, then, am I devoting a post series to him? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on someone who’s at least honest?
Normally, yes. The problem is that respectable defenders of arguments for the existence of God are in short supply. Craig does not have quite the academic status of Plantinga, Swinburne, of van Inwagen, but Plantinga and van Inwagen aren’t mainly known for arguments for the existence of God. Well, Plantinga is in part known for his version of the ontological argument, but he actually admits it isn’t terribly compelling.
Swinburne is known mainly for his arguments for the existence of God, which I’ve already addressed. But I just can’t bear to say much more about Swinburne than I already have. What do you say about such offensively awful “solutions” to the problem of evil?
Furthermore, there seem to be a lot of philosophy professors who think Swinburne is worth reading, but very people anywhere seem to think his arguments actually give a good reason for believing in God. William Lane Craig, on the other hand, writes a lot of popular material and is also known for doing live debates with prominent atheists, and has a large fan base who I run into semi-regularly as a blogger.
In fact, while he doesn’t quite have Swinburne’s status in the academic world, you could actually argue Craig is the leading defender of arguments for the existence of God today. Craig (along his lesser-known, sometimes-collaborator JP Moreland) was the editor of the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Blackwell being a major academic publishing house. Not that this shows what a great guy Craig is–rather, I think the lack of a more credible defender of Craig’s views shows how fringe those views are.
But I won’t say any more on that until I’ve talked a lot more about the arguments Craig uses. I’m going to go through his arguments one at a time, in the order they appear in the most recent edition of Craig’s apologetics textbook Reasonable Faith. Note that while Reasonable Faith is something of a popular book, Craig tends to use the same arguments, near-verbatim, in his “academic” writings. For example, his article on Kalam for the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology is basically just an expanded version of the section on Kalam in Reasonable Faith, with almost identical wording in many places.
As I discuss the arguments, I will give many examples of Craig’s dishonesty. Once I’ve gone through all of Craig’s arguments, I’ll have a brief comment on Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig, as well as why all of this matters.
Here is the first argument Craig gives in Reasonable Faith, which he calls the “Leibnizian cosmological argument” (pp. 106-111):
I’m not sure (1) is true, but Craig’s arguments for (2) is especially weak. First, Craig claims that atheists already agree with him about (2), a claim which, I’m sorry, is bullshit. Actually, I’m not sorry to say that, because it needs to be said. I’ve never heard an atheist say what Craig claims, nor does he give a single example of an atheist who has said that.
And this is a typical example of how Craig misrepresents the views of atheists. It’s not the worst example, though; alone I might let it slide. But as this chapter goes on, I’ll show how it’s part of a pattern.
As an aside, there is one way of defending Craig’s claim that occurred independently to me and at least one other person, based on something in formal logic called material conditionals. It’s a terrible defense, though, so much so that it almost feels unfair to suggest Craig might use it. I explain why in a post on my blog titled, “Lies, damned lies, and material conditionals,” but I won’t bore you with the details here.
The other argument Craig gives for (2) is that the universe is by definition all of physical reality, so its cause must be non-physical, and therefore would have to be mental. But it would make just as much sense to “disprove” God in the following way:
I do not think this argument against the existence of God is any good, but I think it is as good as Craig’s argument for the existence of God.
Craig would probably object that the explanation for God’s existence is “in the necessity of his own nature,” whereas the universe cannot be explained in that way, because we can (so Craig would argue) conceive of the universe being otherwise. But to me, it seems equally conceivable for God to not exist. (In fact, it seems to me that God does not exist.) Craig may disagree, but does he have an argument for treating God and the universe differently? Not that I can tell.
The main problem here is that Craig doesn’t have any decent reason for preferring “God created the universe, but God wasn’t caused by anything else” over “the universe wasn’t caused by anything else.” This is an example of a “sophisticated” argument for the existence of God that isn’t actually any better than Bill O’Reilly’s argument.
Craig’s second argument in Reasonable Faith, is probably the one he’s most famous for, the Kalam cosmological argument. He begins by arguing:
Obviously, Craig needs further arguments that if the universe has a cause, the cause must be God. He never does more than briefly sketch those arguments, which should be a red flag, since without those arguments the rest doesn’t amount to much. But hold off on that until later.
Craig claims premise (1) is obviously true. Not everyone thinks it is, but I don’t think that’s anywhere close to being the worst problem with Craig’s argument, nor do I see much point in arguing over what’s obvious, so I’d be happy to grant Craig (1) for the sake of argument.
I really want to focus on (2). Craig gives two types of arguments for (2), scientific arguments and philosophical arguments. I’ll deal with the scientific arguments first.
One argument Craig uses appeals to the second law of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics says that the entropy in a closed system will steadily increase until it’s at its maximum (or, put another way, that a closed system will tend towards equilibrium). Because the universe’s entropy isn’t at its maximum, isn’t in a state of equilibrium (which is good for us, or else life would be impossible), the universe can’t be infinitely old.
Here’s one problem with using this as an argument for God: what if there’s an undiscovered exception to the laws of thermodynamics? Craig can reply that there’s no evidence that such an exception exists, and that the laws of thermodynamics have always been found to hold throughout countless observations. But Craig’s own view involves postulating a massive exception to the laws of thermodynamics—namely God.
In other words, Craig’s strategy requires first dismissing the possibility of some physical exception to the laws of physics based on lack of evidence, and then arguing to God. But it would make just as much sense to first dismiss the possibility of God based on lack of evidence, and then argue to a physical exception to the laws of thermodynamics.
Once again, we’re in Bill O’Reilly-land here. Craig has no argument for preferring his view to the alternative. And, though this will take a bit more explaining, there’s a very similar problem with the part of Kalam which I suspect appeals to the most people, namely Craig’s attempt to use Big Bang cosmology to prove God.
The Big Bang theory describes how, over the last 13.5 billion years, the universe expanded from something that was originally very small into the unimaginably large universe we have today. It is often assumed this means the universe began 13.5 billion years ago, but to many scientists, the idea that the Big Bang theory is a theory of how the universe began (as opposed to how it developed) is a misconception.
Craig spends a lot of time trying to shoot down theories which, while consistent with what the Big Bang says about the expansion of the universe over billions of years, do not say that the universe began to exist. The problem with this is similar to the problem with trying to use the laws of thermodynamics to prove God.
While it may be hard to say exactly what makes something “science” or “good science,” it’s safe to say that when scientists frame their theories, they’re at least supposed to be constrained by the evidence. When Craig tries to shoot down particular scientific theories about the history of the universe in Reasonable Faith, he’s attacking theories framed under that constraint.
However, if you don’t care about the standards normally applied to scientific theories, it’s ridiculously easy to come up with a story about how the past could be infinite. After all, maybe God decided to make it look finite in spite of being infinite. So Craig needs those normal standards.
His God hypothesis, however, doesn’t meet them. As with the thermodynamics argument, there’s no evidence for it except that (allegedly) we’re forced to it once the alternatives have been ruled out. And in the Kalam argument, Craig keeps his God too vague to test against the evidence.
Recently, Craig has claimed that a 2003 by physicists Arvind Borde, Alexander Vilenkin, and Alan Guth conclusively . However, Victor Stenger, another physicist, writes:
[The theorem] is disputed by other authors. I asked Vilenkin personally if his theorem required a beginning. His e-mail reply: “No. But it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning. You can evade the theorem by postulating that the universe was contracting prior to some time.” This is exactly what a number of existing models for the uncreated origin of our universe do (Stenger 2012, pp. 179-180).
Craig can then argue that we have good evidence that there was no period when the universe was contracting, and the other models are wrong. But again, that only works if we restrict ourselves to theories supported by, and which can be tested against, the evidence.
Craig may protest that “God is a better hypothesis than the alternatives” is not a claim he makes at any step in his argument. True. However, the fact that Craig never explicitly makes this claim is no excuse for rejecting other people’s views using one set of standards, and then refusing to apply those same standards to his own beliefs.
Now I’ll deal with Craig’s philosophical arguments for the claim the universe had a beginning. The first argument goes like this (Reasonable Faith pp. 116-120):
Craig’s argument for (2) is that if the universe never began to exist, the number of past events is infinite. This is problematic, especially given that Craig believes Christians will be rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven. Craig seems to need it to be true that past events are real in a sense which future events are not, a controversial philosophical point.
This is because if past events are not real in the relevant sense, Craig’s argument fails. However, if future events are real in the relevant sense, and Craig is also right about premise (1), he will have inadvertently proved the future must be finite, and therefore there will be no eternal reward or punishment in heaven. (One of philosopher Wes Morriston’s papers has more on this.)
But it’s pretty clear there are no good reasons to think Craig is right about (1). Craig tries to support this claim by citing advanced mathematics, and when I first encountered Kalam, I actually found that part of the argument convincing. Only later, when I took a graduate-level course in logic, which covered Cantorian set theory, did I realize what nonsense this is.
In his debates, Craig likes to say things like, “mathematicians recognize that the existence of an actually infinite number of things leads to self-contradictions.” I’ve never heard him explain which mathematicians these are. In fact, the mathematics of infinity is a well-developed and perfectly consistent branch of mathematics.
In particular, contrary to what Craig often claims, Cantorian set theory does not say that when you take infinity minus infinity, you get contradictory results. Set theory does not say infinity is a single thing that can be subtracted from itself. Instead, set theory deals with a great variety of possible infinite sets. In set theory, you can take “A set minus B” where A and B are both infinite sets, but the result depends on which infinite sets A and B are.
That was very abstract. So here’s a thought-experiment often used to explain set theory: Hilbert’s Hotel. Imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of which have guests in them. Here are two things that might happen (if you ignore practical problems, including the laws of physics):
Strange, isn’t it? And Craig frequently calls Hilbert’s Hotel “absurd” and claims it is therefore impossible. But contra Craig, it involves no contradictions. In one situation, the guests do one thing, leading to one result. In the other, the guests do another thing, leading to another result. Hilbert’s Hotel is perfectly consistent, as is Cantorian set theory.
I’m not the first critic of Kalam to see no impossibility in Hilbert’s Hotel. Craig cites a number of philosophers who accept that Hilbert’s Hotel is possible. His response to them? Complain they haven’t given a reason to think the hotel is possible (p. 119).
This is just an example of Craig’s annoying tendency to make unsupported claims and then demand his critics disprove them, and it’s an absurd way to argue. If Craig is going that way, why not just announce God exist, demand atheists prove otherwise, and be done with it?
Craig’s other philosophical argument that the universe had a beginning goes like this (pp. 120-124):
The question here is what Craig means by this. If “a collection formed by adding one member after another” Craig means “a collection formed by starting with nothing and then adding one member after another,” then premise (1) begs the question, because if the past is infinite, it has always been infinite. It did not start from nothing.
On the other hand, if ”a collection formed by adding one member after another” means “a collection that has been added to by adding one member after another,” then premise (2) is false, because if you add to an infinite collection by adding one member after another, it will still be infinite.
Now that I’ve argued that Craig has no good arguments for premise (2) of Kalam (at least not reasons he can consistently use without also ruling out God as an explanation for the universe’s beginning), I could move on to the next argument. But I think Craig’s arguments for the claim that the cause of the universe is God are bad in revealing ways, so let me talk about that.
It’s telling that Craig never works very hard to argue this point. The discussion of Kalam in Reasonable Faith is 55 pages long, and devotes roughly two and a half pages to the topic. Similarly, Craig’s article on Kalam in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology is 100 pages long, and devotes roughly three pages to the topic.
It’s as if Craig expects his audience to not really need any arguments to conclude the cause of the universe is God. Given how popular sloppy arguments for the existence of God are among believers, he may be right about that.
But the arguments. Craig focuses on arguing that the cause of the universe must be personal. His first argument is that there are two types of explanations, scientific explanations and personal explanations, and because there was nothing before the beginning of the universe, it can’t have a scientific explanation, therefore it must have a personal one.
This argument makes no sense whatsoever. Craig never explains why, if there being nothing before the beginning of the universe is a problem for scientific explanations, it isn’t also a problem for personal ones. Furthermore, he assumes personal explanations are totally separate from scientific ones, when in fact people’s behavior is something we can study scientifically, and the only people we know of depend on something material (brains) for their existence.
Craig’s second argument is similar, and bad for similar reasons. He claims that because the beginning of the universe was the beginning of all time and matter, the cause of the universe’s beginning must be timeless and immaterial, and furthermore:
The only entities we know of which can possess such properties are either minds or abstract objects, like numbers. But abstract objects do not stand in causal relations… Therefore, the transcendent cause of the origin of the universe must be of the order of mind.
The problem with this, of course, is that we don’t actually know there are any timeless, immaterial minds. This argument very nearly assumes God to prove God.
I’m not sure Craig’s last argument is even intelligible, so I’ll quote two full paragraphs of it, to let readers see if they can make sense of it:
Third, this same conclusion is also implied by the fact that we have in this case the origin of a temporal effect from a timeless cause. We’ve concluded that the beginning of the universe was the effect of a first cause. By the nature of the case, that cause cannot have any beginning of its existence or any prior cause. Nor can there have been any changes in this cause, either in its nature or operations, prior to the beginning of the universe. It just exists changelessly without beginning, and a finite time ago it brought the universe into existence. Now this is exceedingly odd. The cause is in some sense eternal and yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago. How can this be? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for the production of the effect are eternal, then why isn’t the effect eternal? How can all the causal conditions sufficient for the production of the effect be changelessly existent and yet the effect not also be existent with the cause? How can the cause exist without the effect?…
There seems to be only one way out of this dilemma, and that is to say that the cause of the universe’s beginning is a personal agent who chooses to create a universe in time. Philosophers call this type of causation “agent causation,” and because the agent is free, he can initiate new effects by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present. For example, a man sitting changelessly from eternity could will to stand up; thus, a temporal effect arises from an eternally existing agent. Similarly, a finite time ago a Creator endowed with free will could have willed to bring the world into being at that moment. In this way, the Creator could exist changelessly and eternally but choose to create the world in time. By “choose” one need not mean that the Creator changes his mind about the decision to create, but that he freely and eternally intends to create a world with a beginning. By exercising his causal power, he therefore brings it about that a world with a beginning comes to exist. So the cause is eternal, but the effect is not. In this way, then, it is possible for the temporal universe to have come to exist from an eternal cause: through the free will of a personal creator (pp. 152-154).
I’ve read an exchange between philosopher Wes Morriston and Craig on this part of the argument, and came away even more puzzled. In his reply to Morriston, Craig argues the cause of the universe must be personal because “only a libertarian agent could interrupt the static reign of being of the First Cause sans the universe.”
Here, “libertarian” refers to the libertarian view of free will, which I’ve already criticized. But even if you accept libertarian free will (which I don’t), I still have no idea what it might mean to interrupt a timeless state.
A final issue: at one point in Reasonable Faith, Craig accuses Dennett of “misstating” and “caricaturing” the Kalam argument in his book Breaking the Spell, because Dennett discusses a version of the cosmological argument relying on the premise “Everything that exists must have a cause.”
This accusation is false, another example of Craig misrepresenting his opponents. Dennett never says he was talking about Kalam–I suspect the argument was, rather, a version Dennett frequently encounters from his undergraduates.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think Kalam is really much better than the sort of obviously bad cosmological arguments Dennett discusses in Breaking the Spell.
Craig’s attempt to use the Big Bang to prove God is only a step above saying, “The Big Bang, you can’t explain that!” And only because Craig hides the fallacy by first asking us to consider whether the universe began to exist and then arguing to God in a separate step, avoiding the awkward question of whether we have any reason to prefer God to any of the views Craig dismisses.
Similarly, the arguments Craig gives that the cause of the universe’s beginning must be God are revealingly bad, especially the first two, which very nearly assume an immaterial, timeless being operating outside of any scientific laws in order to prove such a being.
Though they aren’t in Reasonable Faith, there are two lines Craig uses frequently in his debates that are worth noting. Both are generally used as part of the Kalam argument, but have nothing to do with it logically. The first is his frequent use of the rhetorical question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (see, for example, his debate with Massimo Pigliucci).
Craig may as well be saying, “There’s something rather than nothing. You can’t explain that.” It’s a particularly stupid (implied) argument for the existence of God, because God is a rather significant something.
The other line (also found in the debate with Pigliucci) is “Isn’t it incredible that the Big Bang theory thus fits in with what the Christian theist has always believed: that in the beginning God created the universe?” Well no it isn’t.
Modern science contradicts a literal reading of Genesis, contradicts what Christians long believed before geology and Darwin, contradicts what many Christians still believe. There’s nothing “incredible” about finding one superficial similarity in spite of otherwise massive disconfirmation, because if you look hard enough you can find superficial similarities between anything.
I think Craig’s other arguments are in an important sense no better than O’Reilly’s, but these arguments are obviously no better than O’Reilly’s. It think this is telling, because the fact that he makes such obvious blunders makes it less surprising that even his most respected argument (Kalam) contains similar blunders, just better concealed.
Though it’s one of the main arguments Craig uses in his debates, and gets substantial coverage in Reasonable Faith, I’m also going to use this section to briefly dismiss Craig’s version fine-tuning argument. It has all the flaws common to design arguments, and many more besides, but I see no point in detailing them all.
Like Collins, though, Craig privileges the God hypothesis by refusing to hold it to the same standards he uses to dismiss the multiverse hypothesis (which Craig calls the Many World Hypothesis, which is confusing because that term means something else in physics).
Craig writes, “If the Many Worlds Hypothesis is to commend itself as a plausible hypothesis, then some plausible mechanism for generating the many worlds needs to be explained.” To which I reply, “If the God Hypothesis is to commend itself as a plausible hypothesis, then some plausible mechanism for generating the god must be explained.” (That’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but you should be able to fill in the rest by now.)
Now for Craig’s moral argument (or “axiological argument”), which I’ve sometimes thought is Craig’s worst argument (though picking a single worst argument from Craig is hard). Here’s the basic argument:
The first question to ask here is, “what does Craig mean by ‘objective’”? Here’s the definition from Reasonable Faith:
To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independent of what any human being believes. Similarly to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong independently of whether any human being believes them to be so (p. 173).
This is a silly definition. On this definition, someone who believes morality is whatever space aliens tells us it is counts as a believer in objective morality. A more sensible definition would be something like “morality independent of what anyone says or thinks.” And I do think morality has to be objective in something like that sense.
Craig’s reason for defining “objective morality” the way he does is that he wants to claim the only moral theory that works is one based on God. Craig is trying to rig the definition of “objective morality” to favor God. But not only would this be ruled out by a sensible definition of “objective morality,” Craig’s moral theory is in fact completely insane.
Craig’s theory of morality is known as divine command theory, according to which our moral duties are whatever God says they are. That means that if God commanded genocide, on Craig’s view, genocide would be a moral duty.
In his debates, Craig is fond of saying things like, “Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior–they’re moral abominations.” He thinks this is just obvious, and I agree. But I think it’s equally obvious that those things would be wrong even if a god commanded them.
And this is not a purely hypothetical worry for Craig, given that he’s a believer in Biblical inerrancy, and in the Old Testament the Israelites are frequently commanded to wipe out entire tribes (when they’re not being told to keep the virgin girls alive “for themselves” and kill everyone else.) Craig has explicitly said that on his view, God ordering these things made them right.
Craig’s moral argument depends on claiming that his insane theory of morality is the only possible one. That’s enough reason to dismiss it. But I want to say a couple things about how Craig argues for premise (2) of his argument. Frequently in his debates, his entire argument for premise (2) is to cite atheists who (he claims) agree with him about (2).
This is a terrible argument because many atheists, as well as some theists like Richard Swinburne, disagree with Craig about (2). This has been frequently pointed out to Craig, but he has yet to drop his appeals to authority. Once, in fact, he defended his appeals to authority by citing yet another philosopher, Wesley Salmon, saying appeals to authority are sometimes legitimate. He ignores the fact that Salmon also said:
Authorities who are equally competent, as far as we can tell, may disagree. In such cases there is no reason to place greater confidence in one than the other, and people are apt to choose the authority that gives them the answer they want to hear. Ignoring the judgment of opposed authorities is a case of biasing the evidence. When authorities disagree it is time to reconsider the objective evidence upon which the authorities have supposedly based their judgments. (Salmon, Logic, p. 66)
“Ignoring the judgment of opposed authorities” is something Craig does routinely, in all his arguments, and it’s especially blatant in the moral argument.
Craig’s continued defense of his own use of appeals to authority is, in itself, pretty strong evidence that he’s either dishonest or incompetent: either he’s incapable of understanding the clear explanations Salman and others have given of why his arguments are fallacious, or he’s knowing trying to dupe his audience with bad arguments.
Now when challenged on his use of appeals to authority, Craig doesn’t always defend them. Sometimes, he insists he has other very important arguments for the second premise of his moral argument, but it’s not entirely clear what these other arguments are supposed to be. He frequently attacks naturalism, determinism, materialism, etc., but I have already explained repeatedly why such arguments are irrelevant when the topic is supposed to be God.
Craig is also fond of asking things like, “If there is no God, what makes humans special?” Shelly Kagan answered this question brilliantly in his debate with Craig:
If you put it as “complex nervous systems” it sounds pretty deflationary. What so special about a complex nervous system? But of course, that complex nervous system allows you to do calculus. It allows you to do astrophysics… to write poetry… to fall in love. Put under that description, when asked “What’s so special about humans…?”, I’m at a loss to know how to answer that question. If you don’t see why we’d be special… because we can do poetry [and] think philosophical thoughts [and] we can think about the morality of our behavior, I’m not sure what kind of answer could possibly satisfy you at that point.
…I could pose the same kinds of questions of you… So God says, “You are guys are really, really special.” How does his saying it make us special? “But you see, he gave us a soul.” How does our having a soul make us special? Whatever answer you give, you could always say… “What’s so special about that?” (Credit for transcription to Luke Muehlhauser.)
(Kagan’s performance in this debate was in general excellent. If you want to see more of Craig’s talking points on morality dismantled one at a time, I strongly recommend watching it.)
One final point: Craig frequently accuses his critics of misunderstanding his moral argument. I think the truth is that his “moral argument” (when it doesn’t just consist of appeals to authority) is less an argument than a hodgepodge of good-sounding lines. This means that no matter how good a critic’s response is to one of those lines, Craig can always toss out another line and say that’s the one the atheist must respond to. Honestly, I’m not sure what it would be to understand this terrible argument.
Now I’m going to deal with an argument frequently trotted out at an example of how sophisticated some arguments for the existence of God are. It originally comes not from Craig but from Alvin Plantinga. I’m dealing with it here because Craig uses it in Reasonable Faith, and because Craig’s claims about the argument are more straightforward than Plantinga’s, so it’s convenient for me to deal first with Craig, then with Plantinga.
Ontological arguments are, in general, arguments that try to prove the existence of God from the concept of God alone, usually emphasizing God’s perfection. The original version of the ontological argument came from a monk named Anselm of Canterbury, and one problem that was very quickly noticed by Anselm’s fellow monk Gaulino is that it seems like you can use a similar argument to prove, say, the existence of a perfect island.
To beef up Gaulino’s objection, you could instead adapt Anselm’s argument to prove the existence of a perfect Demon, exactly like what theologians imagine God to be, only perfectly evil instead of perfectly good. The idea of a perfect Demon is especially troublesome for Anselm, for a couple reasons, one being that if both arguments work, we’d have an outright contradiction: two beings with opposed motives can’t both be all-powerful.
I start off by mentioning this objection to ontological arguments because ontological arguments are famous for being hard to understand. And that’s arguments, plural, because there’s really more than one argument out there. Probably very few people (if any) can claim to understand every ontological argument that’s ever been given. Failure to do so is not an intellectual sin. My advice for anyone encountering an ontological argument is to first ask if the person giving it has any response to the “perfect island” or “perfect Demon” objections before you even bother trying to understand their argument.
In this regard, I actually think Plantinga’s ontological argument is worse off than many other ontological arguments, because it can be adapted to “prove” a lot more than just perfect island and perfect Demons. Here’s Craig’s sketch of the argument:
Now in his version of the argument, Plantinga conceives of God as a being which is “maximally excellent” in every possible world. Plantinga takes maximal excellence to entail such excellent-making properties as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. A being which has maximal excellence in every possible world would have what Plantinga calls “maximal greatness”…
We can formulate Plantinga’s version of the ontological argument as follows:
Plantinga uses some needlessly confusing jargon here. Instead of talking about “maximal excellence” and “maximal greatness,” he could just define God as “an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, necessarily existent being.” Similarly, there’s no need to invoke possible world talk, we can state the argument talking just about possibility and necessity (where “necessary” just means “couldn’t possibly be otherwise”). That shortens the argument to:
It’s important to realize that God’s supposed perfection isn’t actually doing anything important in this argument. The key move is to define God as a “necessarily existent being,” (which means a being who couldn’t possibly have not existed). So not only can the argument be adapted to “prove” a perfect island or perfect Demon, it can be adapted to argume for any island, demon, or anything else that you define to be necessarily existent.
I’ll explain why exactly this is in the next section. I don’t claim to understand every ontological argument, but I do understand Plantinga’s, and I think it’s a demonstrably bad argument for reasons that go beyond the perfect demon objection. However, this will require going deeper into academic esotera than probably anything else in this book, so feel free to skip that section unless you have a strong interest in the ontological argument. Seriously, this chapter is long enough as it is.
Working backwards: (3) is obvious once you know what “necessary” means. If God couldn’t possibly have not existed, then of course God exists. Premise (2) is supposed to come from a combination of two things: the definition of God as a being who exists necessarily, and the S5 axioms of modal logic.
Some people are going to object about simply defining God as a necessary being. However, among atheist philosophers, the attitude generally seems to be, “Oh, theists can define ‘God’ however they want. For example, if they want to define ‘God’ as ‘the greatest possible being,’ they can do that.”
Now, after granting theists their definition of God as a starting point, some atheist philosophers, Michael Martin for example, might argue that the concept of a greatest possible being is incoherent, or incompatible with other things commonly believed of God, but the point of that sort of attack isn’t to show that it’s wrong to define God that way, it’s to show that if we define God that way, then God can’t possibly exist.
In fact, in the philosophy world it seems to be generally regarded as OK to just announce that you’re going to use some word to mean such-and-such. As long as it isn’t needlessly confusing, and you don’t equivocate between two different meanings of a word, you can define words however you want. So I think most philosophers are going to give Plantinga the OK on the first piece of support for premise two.
Now the other piece: in a system of formal logic, axioms are things you’re allowed to just assume when working within the system. So for example, when I was in graduate school, the homework problems for my formal logic class generally involved proving some theorem or other. If we were working within a particular system of logic, we were allowed to have a step in our proofs be writing down an axiom with a note indicating “this is an axiom.”
The S5 axioms for modal logic–the logic of possibility and necessity–have the important consequence that if something is possibly necessarily true is necessarily true. This, when combined with the definition of God as necessarily existing, is where the otherwise bizarre-looking premise (2) of my restatement of Plantinga’s argument comes from. Philosophers have disagreed on which axioms are the right axioms to use when doing modal logic. And I don’t know of any decisive argument to show that the S5 axioms are the right axioms.
However, my understanding is that most philosophers nowadays accept the S5 axioms, and Plantinga’s key claim seems plausible enough to me. To say that what’s possibly necessarily true is necessarily true is to say that it makes no sense to think the following: “well, this could be false, but it could also be such that it couldn’t possibly be false.” And I don’t see how that makes any sense, if we’re talking about genuine possibility (what Plantinga calls “broadly logical possibility”) rather than possibility-for-all-I-know (often called “epistemic possibility,” from the Greek word for knowledge).
At this point, Plantinga’s argument may look pretty good. He’s got the first two key claims, and of course it’s at least possible that God exists, right? Not so fast. Once you accept the S5 axioms, it becomes completely crazy to think you can just assume things are possible. Or at least, it becomes completely crazy to assume things are possibly necessary. This is because S5 allows for Plantinga-style arguments for any purported necessary truth. The fact that the argument involves God isn’t actually an important feature of the argument.
So for example, philosophers generally claim that mathematical truths are, if true, necessarily true. Two plus two not only equals four, it could not possibly equal anything other than four. Because of this, if you accept S5 and also are willing to just assume a given mathematical claim is possibly true, you can “prove” that mathematical claim through a Plantinga-style argument.
For example: the Goldbach conjecture is a well-known example of a mathematical claim that nobody has been able to prove or disprove. If you accept the S5 axioms, and also assume that the Goldbach conjecture is possibly true, you can reason like this: “Possibly the Goldbach conjecture is true. But it is if true, necessarily true. So possibly the Goldbach conjecture is necessarily true. Therefore, by S5, the Goldbach conjecture is true!” Obviously, it is absurd to think you can prove the Goldbach conjecture that way.
It’s important to be clear on where the absurdity comes from. It does not come from the S5 axioms alone, nor does it come solely from assuming that the Goldbach conjecture is possibly true. Rather, it comes from the combination of those two things. S5 and taking possible necessities for granted are two things that do not go well together. My inclination is to accept S5, but reject assuming such possibilities. (Note that you could claim that while it’s not okay to assume mathematical claims are possible, but is okay to assume God is possible. But why would you think that?)
It’s also important to emphasize the distinction between genuine (“broadly logical”) possibility and (“epistemic”) possibility-for-all-we-know. I suspect that’s where part of the appeal of just assuming possibilities comes from. The Goldbach conjecture might be true for all we know, but it might be false for all we know. In that sense, both are possibilities. But, according to the conventional wisdom about mathematics, if the Goldbach conjecture turns out to be true, there was never a genuine possibility of it being false. There was only “possibility for all we knew.”
Craig does not deal with the Goldbach Conjecture objection, but he does deal with the objection that you might use a Plantinga-style argument to prove the existence of “a necessarily existent lion.” In response, Craig argues that “does not seem even remotely incoherent,” which means we should think it is possible that God exists. In contrast:
The idea of something like a necessarily existent lion also seems incoherent. For as a necessary being, such a beast would have to exist in every possible world we can conceive. But any animal which could exist in a possible world in which the universe is composed wholly of a singularity of infinite spacetime curvature, density, and temperature just is not a lion.
But it makes just as much sense to argue that we can conceive of a world containing only physical objects is not a world with a god in it, therefore it is possible that God does not exist. This, incidentally, entails that if God is defined as existing necessarily, we have just proved that God does not exist. Incidentally, this makes me think that theists ought not define God as existing necessarily, because it makes the existence of God too easy to attack.
To see that this is a problem with the ontological argument, though, you do not have to agree with the argument that God is possibly nonexistent, and therefore nonexistent. You need only think we have no more business assuming a possibly necessarily existent God than we do assuming a possibly necessarily existent lion.
Now unlike Craig, Plantinga is not so crazy as to claim that his argument actually proves the existence of God, or to insist people must grant his assumption that God is possible. Instead, he says, of ontological arguments:
They cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion (Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, p. 221).
But again, by analogy with mathematics, we can see that this is a silly way to argue.
Imagine two mathematicians, Alice and Bob, arguing over whether it’s reasonable to believe the Goldbach conjecture. Alice argues that the Goldbach conjecture is unproven, and we should not believe unproven mathematical claims. Bob concedes that it is unproven, but says the Goldbach conjecture seems true to him, and it’s reasonable for him to believe it on that basis.
Now, you may agree with Alice here, or you may agree with Bob, but imagine Bob tried to strengthen his position by saying, “Well, surely you agree that it’s at least reasonable for me to believe that the Goldbach conjecture is possibly true. But if I believe the Goldbach conjecture is possibly true, S5 allows me to infer that it is true. So it’s reasonable for me to believe the Goldbach conjecture.” This is a silly argument. Even if you think Bob is reasonable to believe the Goldbach conjecture, this can’t be the reason why.
Once again, we need to be very clear on what the problem is. The problem is not necessarily that it is unreasonable to think that the Goldbach conjecture is possibly true. Maybe Bob is right about that. The problem, instead, is that Bob cannot expect Alice to agree. Given that Alice thinks it is unreasonable to accept the Goldbach conjecture, she probably will not think it is reasonable to believe the Goldbach conjecture is possibly true, especially if she accepts the S5 modal axioms. Bob’s argument is, if not quite circular, an example of an argument that would be bad even if it were deductively sound.
So, not only does Plantinga’s argument fail to prove the existence of God, it fails even in Plantinga’s stated goal of showing that belief in God is reasonable. Nor, I think is it especially insightful in any other way. Plantinga did not invent the S5 axioms, he was not the first person to suggest they are the right modal axioms, and I do not think he provided any decisive argument for them (I don’t think such a decisive argument exists.)
The argument could work as a clever illustration of the S5 axioms–the sort of thing a professor might mention to his student while explaining modal logic, or that might end up on a whiteboard of a grad student lounge as a joke. But it does nothing whatsoever to establish the intellectual respectability of theism.
I’ve only got one argument from Craig left, his argument that the resurrection of Jesus can be shown to have happened with historical evidence. It’s an incredibly dishonest argument, so before I deal with it, I want to say a bit more about Craig’s dishonesty in general, particularly his habit of misrepresenting his opponents.
My examples will involve Craig’s opponents from some of his highest-profile debates, specifically three of the four most recently transcribed debates on Craig’s website. This isn’t an issue of a few mistakes made over many years, this is behavior that’s so common for Craig that I’ve come to expect it from him whenever I watch his debates or read his replies to his opponents.
First example: in Craig’s 2006 debate with Bart Ehrman (who, as I’ve already mentioned, is the author of the excellent book Jesus, Interrupted), Craig claimed as he always does that the major points of the Biblical stories of Jesus’ resurrection are “facts,” and that the majority of Biblical scholars accept them as true, and even claimed Ehrman as an example of a scholar who supported him on this.
Here’s what Ehrman said in his rebuttal:
I’m surprised by some of his so-called authorities that Bill cites, for the reality is that the majority of critical scholars studying the historical Jesus today disagree with his conclusion that a historian can show that the body of Jesus emerged physically from the tomb. Bill might find that surprising, but that would be because of the context he works in – a conservative, evangelical seminary. In that environment, what he’s propounding is what everyone believes. And it’s striking that even some of his own key authorities don’t agree. He quotes a number of scholars, whom I consider to be friends and acquaintances, and I can tell you, they don’t agree with his views. Does that make him wrong? No, it simply means that his impressive recounting of scholarly opinion is slanted, lopsided, and fails to tell the real story, which is that he represents a minority opinion.
The payoff is this: We don’t know if Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. What we have are Gospel stories written decades later by people who had heard stories in circulation, and it’s not hard at all to imagine somebody coming up with the story. We don’t know if his tomb was empty three days later. We don’t know if he was physically seen by his followers afterwards. Bill’s going to come up here and tell me now that I’ve contradicted myself. But I want to point out that earlier he praised me for changing my mind!
But a few years later, Craig wrote an article for website again claiming Ehrman as an example of a scholar who accepts his “facts,” using the same outdated source Craig used in their debate, even though Ehrman told him otherwise during that debate!
There’s simply no excuse for this. It’s unlikely that Craig forgot; the comments I’ve quoted above were central to Ehrman’s rebuttal to Craig. Also, if a prominent Biblical has accused you of misusing the work of other Biblical scholars, shouldn’t you be extra-careful not to misuse the work of that very same scholar?
[Note: The article by Craig in question appears to have been written in late 2009 or early 2010. It was #143 in a weekly Q&A that was at #276 as of 31 July 2012. It also appears to have been written after the start of Craig’s Defenders Series II, which appears to have debuted in December 2009. In any case, the Q&A article was clearly written after the debate with Ehrman, because Craig refers back to the debate.]
An example of Craig misrepresenting an opponent during their debate comes from Craig’s debate with Sam Harris (which I saw in person). During the Q&A at the end of the debate, there was this exchange:
Harris: This is the kind of morality that you get out of divine command theory that, again, offers no retort to the Jihadist other than, “Sorry buster, you happen to have the wrong god.”
Craig: But that’s exactly your retort, Sam, that God has not issued such a command, and therefore, you’re not morally obligated to do it.
Harris: No, if God did, he would be evil. So I can get behind that God, if God is issuing that command, he’s an evil bastard.
Craig: The problem is that you see, on atheism, you don’t have any basis for making that kind of moral judgment.
Harris: I’ve tried to give you a basis, sorry.
This won Harris massive applause from the audience. It’s worth noting everything that happened here. Craig didn’t deny Harris’ description of his view, but instead responded by telling a falsehood about Harris’ view, namely claiming that Harris’ response to Jihadists is the same as Craig’s. Once corrected, Craig just changed the subject in a way that ignored everything Harris had said up to that point in the debate.
Now, in this case, I don’t know that Craig was lying in the sense of saying something he knew was false. But I can’t see that Harris had said anything to suggest that his response to Jihadists would be the same as Craig’s. Harris' actual response ("if God is issuing that command, he's an evil bastard") is fairly predictable given Harris' other views. So it looks like Craig is guilty of making stuff up about Harris, saying something when he had no idea if it was true or not, just because it would make rebutting Harris easier.
Another example from the debate with Harris is when Sam Harris said:
We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the, from the well-being of human beings. It, this so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. Ok, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can s—can say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.
Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.
You can quibble about whether it’s technically psychopathic to say that genocide is right if God says so, but otherwise what Harris says was also an indisputably accurate description of Craig’s moral view, for reasons I’ve already explained. And quibbling aside, Harris is clearly right that Craig’s view is odious.
Note what Harris was not saying: he was not saying that belief in God alone is a psychopathic view, nor was he even saying that accepting Craig’s view makes you a psychopath. The point is about the power of religion to make otherwise decent people believe such vile nonsense.
But here is how Craig responded to Harris:
He also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things. Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting. It is absurd to think that Peter van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr. Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic. Uh, this is simply, uh, below the belt.
This is a disgusting smear against Harris, and I am sickened and angered every time I think about it. Not only did he not say people who accept Craig’s moral view are psychopathic, it’s not clear that van Inwagen or Flint agree with Craig here. Surely you can believe in God without thinking God has the power to make genocide moral.
By the way, I never mentioned this issue in my original review of the debate. Why not? The issue was tangential to Craig and Harris’ main arguments, and doesn’t register with me as in any way unusual for Craig. It’s tedious documenting every little misrepresentation like this, but I think it’s worth mentioning at least a few of the pettier ones to show that there’s a pattern of behavior here.
Finally, after their debate in 2011, Craig posted an article on his website containing many misrepresentations of what Law had said during that debate. Read Law’s response at his blog if you want the full scoop, but one thing stands out. During Craig’s first rebuttal during the debate, he said:
I think Dr. Law’s mistake is that he thinks that the theist arrives at the doctrine of God’s goodness by an inductive survey of the world’s events. And that’s simply incorrect.
To which Law replied:
First of all, Professor Craig seemed to be suggesting that I think Christians think God is good because, you know, they draw that conclusion on the basis of what they see of the world around them… That’s certainly not why I think Christians believe that God is good, not at all! So that, that was just an attack on a straw man. It’s not my position, very obviously.
Then in the article he posted after the debate, Craig said:
Law mistakenly seems to think that the theist arrives at the conclusion that the Creator/Designer is good by an inductive survey of the world’s events.
To which Law replied in his post:
No. I don’t do that. I explained why in my first rebuttal. Craig is simply choosing to ignore what I said and continuing to attack a straw man.
Now I could have refuted all of Craig’s arguments, and pointed out their biggest flaws, without going into any of this. But I think doing what I’m doing now is important, because people need to be warned not to trust Craig. Even if they were accidental, they happen so frequently that they keep Craig from being a reliable source of information.
How frequently? Let me put it this way: I’ve read and listened to a lot of Craig’s stuff, but I’ve reached the point where I actually avoid reading and listening to any more of it, in large part because of the high probability that I’ll just encounter yet another misrepresentation of his opponents.
When I saw Craig’s debate with Sam Harris more than a year ago, I wasn’t terribly surprised by Craig’s misrepresentations of Harris. Since then, I’ve encountered even more misrepresentations, and come to find them even less surprising.
All of this, including the fact that Craig can’t be trusted, would be correct even if the misrepresentations were all accidental. But I don’t think they’re accidental. “Forgetting” that someone explicitly told you you had their views wrong is one thing. Doing it repeatedly, even predictably, is pretty good evidence you’re just a liar.
When I talked about Craig’s lie about Bart Ehrman, I alluded to his misuse of Biblical scholarship. Now I want to say more about it.
In fact, it’s going to be the focus of this section. I’ve written an entire book about supposed historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, but since finishing the book I’ve come to the conclusion that a point-by-point rebuttal of Craig’s arguments in particular misses the point. That’s not what makes Craig rhetorically effective.
Some background: as I explained in the last chapter, many Biblical scholars, including many liberal Christians, do not think the accounts of Jesus’ life are historically reliable. A number of those scholars have had things to say about the issue of the resurrection specifically, including Bart Ehrman (who I mentioned in my previous post), John Dominic Crossan, Gerd Lüdemann, and Michael Goulder.
The scholars I’ve just mentioned all have broadly similar views of the resurrection. They see little reason to think the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are very accurate at all. They tend to reject the story of Joseph of Arimathea (supposedly member of a Jewish council) getting Jesus’ body from Pilate and placing it in a tomb, and the story of some women finding the tomb empty the next Saturday. And they see the experiences of Paul and other early Christians who claim to have seen the risen Jesus as hallucinations.
(Or something like hallucinations. Crossan, a liberal Christian, seems to avoid the word.)
I lean towards thinking these scholars are right, though their view hardly the only possibility. Craig claims there is “no plausible natural explanation” (Reasonable Faith, 337) for how Jesus’ body could’ve gotten out of the tomb. But it obviously doesn’t take a miracle to get a corpse out of a cave, and given how unreliable our sources are, there’s no basis for claiming that the situation with Jesus’ corpse was special in this regard.
Also, Paul could have simply been lying about the appearances. The standard Christian response here is that the fact Paul and the other apostles were (reportedly) martyred proves they weren’t lying, but this is a bad argument for two reasons. The evidence for their martyrdom is even sketchier than the evidence regarding Jesus’ life, and liars sometimes do end up as martyrs. For example, Joseph Smith, who I discussed in chapter 4, was lynched while in jail awaiting trial for treason.
Finally, while there’s much to applaud in modern Biblical scholarship, I think Biblical scholars have been too quick to dismiss the possibility that outright lies played a role in the origins of Christianity. (For example, in his recent book Forged, Bart Ehrman does a good job of showing how scholars have been too reluctant to admit the presence of forgery in the Bible.) The problem probably exists because while many scholars are heretical by conservative standards, most still identify as Christians and don’t want to say anything too embarrassing about Christianity.
Now here is Craig’s standard argument for the resurrection of Jesus. I’ll quote from his debate with Stephen Law on the existence of God, though Craig has said basically the same thing in debate after debate:
There are actually three facts recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus:
Fact #1: On the Sunday after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
Fact #2: On separate occasions different individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death.
And #3: The original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus despite having every predisposition to the contrary.
N.T. Wright, an eminent New Testament scholar concludes, “That is why as a historian I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again leaving an empty tomb behind him.”
Attempts to explain away these three great facts—like “The disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t really dead”—have been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. The simple fact is that there just is no plausible, naturalistic explanation of these three facts.
In Craig’s debate with Bart Ehrman, he said all that and more, claiming the “facts” were “relatively uncontroversial” and that it was the explanation of the “facts” that was controversial. Craig also cited Lüdemann to support his claim about the appearances of Jesus, and claimed Ehrman does not “support any of these naturalistic explanations of the facts.”
Now, forget everything I’ve told you about Biblical scholarship. Imagine you’re a devout evangelical hearing these claims, or that you’re listening to one of Craig’s debates at the request of an evangelical friend. You never think to wonder if Craig can be trusted. What will you think?
Well, you’ll probably think that when Craig says “facts,” he means “not merely a matter of opinion,” and that there must therefore be some strong proof that has convinced all but a few Biblical scholars that his “facts” are facts. After all, Craig says the thing that’s controversial is whether Jesus rising from the dead is the right explanation for the “facts.”
But Craig also says all other explanations have been “universally rejected by contemporary scholarship.” That suggests that Biblical scholars all either accept the resurrection or else are baffled skeptics, that they can’t explain the evidence but reject the miracle out of philosophical prejudice.
Craig does much to encourage the impression of baffled skeptics. In his debate with Ehrman, for example, he painted Ehrman’s position as based entirely on outdated philosophical arguments. “Scepticism about Jesus’ resurrection,” Craig claims, “rests mainly, not on historical, but on philosophical considerations which fall outside the area of expertise of New Testament scholars.”
The impression Craig gives is a false one. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, many scholars are skeptical of the resurrection, think the evidence is perfectly explicable without a miracle, and don’t think Craig’s “facts” are facts. Craig rarely acknowledges that many scholars reject his “facts,” even when (as he often does with Lüdemann) he’s quoting them to support his views. In this context, Craig’s misrepresentation of Ehrman’s views is all the more damning.
In fact, I’ve never seen Craig give any evidence for his claim that a majority of scholars think the disciples had “every predisposition” not to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. His claim that a majority of scholars side with him on the empty tomb has also been disputed by some scholars. He has some evidence for that second claim, though: a study by Craig’s fellow apologist Gary Habermas.
Habermas reports that in his survey of the literature, 75% of scholars who write about the empty tomb accept its historicity while 25% reject it. However, there’s a problem with using this to claim that 75% of Biblical scholars accept the empty tomb: if scholars who reject the empty tomb are less inclined to write about it, they’ll be under-counted in a literature review like Habermas’.
Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that Habermas reported a similar ratio of scholars who accept a literal resurrection to scholars who reject that claim. This suggests that scholars who are skeptical of the resurrection are mostly like Ehrman and Lüdemann: they don’t think all of Craig’s facts are facts.
To recap: naive audience members, listening to Craig’s arguments, are going to conclude that virtually all Biblical scholars accept Craig’s “facts.” They’ll conclude that most scholars who are skeptical of the resurrection have no other explanation for the evidence. I’m not just speculating about what impressions naive audience members will get from Craig. I’ve met Christians who came away from listening to Craig with exactly the impressions I’ve described.
And those impressions are false ones. Now, Craig doesn’t quite say all those things, giving him some room to claim that everything he says is technically true. But the things he says are still highly misleading. And I think that must be deliberate.
Craig clearly knows his Biblical scholarship. Apologists who don’t know their Biblical scholarship go around saying things like, “it’s just obvious the gospels are historically reliable,” which are easily refuted. Craig’s statements, in contrast, are about as misleading as could be without being easily disprovable. That’s unlikely to be an accident.
The gospels’ historical reliability, in fact, is a topic Craig generally avoids. He doesn’t make it part of his main arguments for the resurrection, and has refused to do debates on the issue. His rationale is that it’s actually impossible to debate the general reliability of the gospels without debating specific issues like the resurrection first, because there’s no way to “demonstrate a document’s general reliability except by demonstrating its reliability on a good number of specific events.”
This is an absurd argument. Another way to argue for a document’s reliability is to show that the author was in a position to know what he was talking about, was likely honest, and so on. That’s precisely the test which I, most atheists and many Christian Biblical scholars don’t think the gospels pass. Also, if a document has been shown to contain blatant myths (like Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth), that’s reason to be a little more suspicious of other things it says.
Now when historian Richard Carrier brought up the issue of the gospels’ (un)reliability in their debate on the resurrection, Craig said he was “really sorry that [Carrier has] chosen to pursue that tack, despite our agreement that that wouldn’t be our topic tonight,” implying that because Carrier agreed to debate the resurrection, it was inappropriate to bring up the issue of the gospels’ reliability.
This is, again, completely absurd. An agreement to debate topic A is not an agreement not to debate topic B, if topic B is relevant to topic A. And the reliability of the gospels is clearly relevant to the debate about the resurrection. In fact, the problems with the historical reliability of the New Testament make a mockery of the notion that the resurrection can be shown to have happened with historical evidence.
It’s possible that Craig really believes these absurd arguments, but it’s unlikely. Given his many other highly misleading statements about Biblical scholarship, I think the most likely explanation is that these arguments are a tactic to avoid a debate–over the historical reliability of the gospels–which Craig knows he can’t win.
I’ll be frank: Craig’s case for the resurrection isn’t just misleading. It’s based on lies. There’s no way he seriously believes most of his “facts” are facts. Not in the sense his audience will assume he means, the sense of something that is not mere opinion and can be proven. He knows his main source of evidence for the “facts” is the gospels, and he knows he’d lose a debate on their historical reliability. And he also knows many Biblical scholars reject his “facts,” though he won’t tell his audience that if he can avoid it.
Note that even if Habermas were right that 75% of scholars accepted the empty tomb, it would still be wrong to call it a fact. If I found out a full quarter of historians doubted something I had thought was a fact, I’d be surprised and want to know what the controversy was about. After all, 75% is only a couple points higher than the percentage of philosophers who are atheists. Craig would never let an opponent get away with claiming atheism as a “fact” on that basis.
Craig has other arguments he uses to support his claims about the resurrection, but take away the misleading rhetoric and I don’t think they’re remotely convincing. For example, without the appeal to authority, his arguments for the empty tomb mostly boil down to claiming that if the story were a legend, it would have been told differently. No Christian would take such arguments seriously if presented for another religion’s miracle.
And I don’t think those arguments are what make Craig rhetorically effective. Most of the rhetorical impact of his case for the resurrection comes from misleading his audience about the basics of Biblical scholarship. Given that, I see little reason to say anything more about Craig’s case for the resurrection.
Craig is famous for his debates with atheists, but one atheist who has repeatedly refused to debate Craig is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins initially refused because he had no idea who Craig was, and later, when he learned more about Craig, because of Craig’s defense of genocide (which I discussed while discussing Craig’s moral argument).
This has led to Dawkins being repeatedly called a coward, and some truly ridiculous antics on Craig’s part, some of which Dawkins describes in an article “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig”:
In an epitome of bullying presumption, Craig now proposes to place an empty chair on a stage in Oxford next week to symbolise my absence. The idea of cashing in on another’s name by conniving to share a stage with him is hardly new. But what are we to make of this attempt to turn my non-appearance into a self-promotion stunt? In the interests of transparency, I should point out that it isn’t only Oxford that won’t see me on the night Craig proposes to debate me in absentia: you can also see me not appear in Cambridge, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and, if time allows, Bristol.
That’s just a taste. I recommend reading the whole thing if you think it’s at all significant who Dawkins agrees or doesn’t agree to debate with. But let me add one point.
Dawkins has also been accused of being ignorant for not initially knowing who Craig was. Anyone who says this shows they have a ridiculously inflated view of Craig’s importance. Not only are most philosophers atheists, mainstream philosophers tend not to take philosophy of religion very seriously.
Even within philosophy of religion, Craig isn’t a complete nobody, but he doesn’t have the status of Plantinga or Swinburne of van Inwagen. This makes Craig’s behavior towards Dawkins as ridiculous as if Michael Tooley behaved the same way towards National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins. (Don’t know who Michael Tooley is? My point exactly.)
That doesn’t change what I said previously, that Craig is one of the world’s leading defenders of natural theology. But that isn’t a compliment to Craig. Rather, it’s a sign of how far natural theology has sunk since the days of Aquinas, Leibniz, and Clarke. Once, it was a project of the greatest minds of Europe, but now it’s largely the domain of hack apologists for fundamentalism like Craig.
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