Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’
I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
~ Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio
What does it mean to ask, “Does God exist?”
Or, more importantly, what does it mean to answer that question?
Dr. William Lane Craig is well known for his debates with many prominent atheists, and as a fierce Evangelical Christian apologist. One of his more common line of arguments is on the subject of objective morality. In November 1996, Dr. Craig presented The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality to the Christian Theological Research Fellowship meeting at the American Academy of Religion. In the essay, he states:
Consider, then, the hypothesis that God exists. First, if God exists, objective moral values exist. To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so. It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them….
Contrast this with the atheistic hypothesis. First, if atheism is true, objective moral values do not exist. If God does not exist, then what is the foundation for moral values? More particularly, what is the basis for the value of human beings? If God does not exist, then it is difficult to see any reason to think that human beings are special or that their morality is objectively true. Moreover, why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes any moral duties upon us?…
Distilled to a logical form, the argument looks like this:
- If atheism is true, then objective morals do not exist.
- Objective morals exist.
- Therefore, atheism is false.
Theism and atheism (as conventionally understood) are two sides of the same coin: namely, an emphasis on beliefs. Conventional theism — the faith of the typical American Christian, for example — entails mandatory affirmation of a set of dogmas (derived from scripture) regarding the origins of the universe, of life, the nature of good and evil, miracles and divine intervention, the afterlife, and usually something about the final fate of the universe and the inhabitants therein. Conventional atheism, on the other hand, is the lack of such beliefs.
Atheism does not prescribe any particular set of beliefs. Instead, it proscribes a belief in a God or gods and the doctrines and scriptures derived from such belief. Outside of that, atheists are free to believe whatever they wish. It’s important to note that atheism says nothing about supernatural forces or beings, otherwise. While atheism is often coupled with an insistence on skeptical, rational inquiry, they are not one and the same. There are atheists who embrace New Age spirituality and a form of “sympathetic magic” (e.g. — tarot, astrology, and other sorts of magical thinking). And there are rational skeptics who embrace a sort of pantheism/panentheism or deism and consider themselves religious (though they are quick to distance themselves from dogmatic faith or belief).
In fact, outside the circles of the naively religious, fundamentalists, and religious conservatives, God beliefs are more important to atheism than they are to theism. One simply cannot believe in God and call one’s self an atheist — they are mutually exclusive. But the same is not true of theism. There is a long tradition of religious thought and practice that doesn’t concern itself with God beliefs. And theologians have argued that this form of theism may actually be more fundamental than those that insist on particular doctrines.
I recently came across the following exchange between the late Christopher Hitchens, renowned atheist and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell:
Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian. [Emphasis added]
I have enormous respect for Hitchens and his extraordinary eloquence, intellectual integrity, and encyclopedic knowledge of history, literature, and art. His position is one of the New Atheist talking points, shared by his colleagues among the “Four Horsemen” — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris — which argues that religion loses all meaning when it’s released from its supernatural and superstitious moorings.
This is one point — perhaps the only point — on which fundamentalists and the New Atheists wholeheartedly agree.
Doh! That’ll teach me to fiddle with the dates after I’ve posted something on WordPress. I broke my own link. Ugh….
You’ll find what you’re looking for here.
“This is how we lift ourselves by our bootstraps out of the morass of our ignorance; how we throw a rope into the air and then swarm up it—if it gets any purchase, however precarious, on any little twig.”
~ Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach
Welcome to my blog.
Over the years, my friends have encouraged me to start one of these, and I’ve tossed the idea around on more than a few occasions. The reasons for my resistance to the concept are varied and not altogether interesting, so I will not bore you, dear reader, with the details. Suffice it to say that the hurdles have been crossed, and you are now witnessing the outcome.