Sunday, July 13, 2014

Christian apologist and theologian William Lane Craig explains why the philosophy of religion is a waste of time

This video of well-known Christian apologist, Christian philosopher, theologian, and formal-debate specialist William Lane Craig is very illustrative to a point that I've been making repeatedly (one that is echoed by Peter Boghossian, John Loftus, and Jerry Coyne, amongst others): the philosophy of religion is a waste of time. In fact, it's probably worse than a waste of time, even when done by god-bothering atheists, but before getting to that, let's check out Dr. Craig.

So that it's clear, what I'm saying is a waste of time, or worse, is engaging in theological, apologetic, and otherwise philosophical arguments centered upon expressly religious objects and doing so on their own terms. Their terms are idiotic, so it's idiotic to engage with them on those terms. It's just playing their game, and hopefully Dr. Craig here will help us understand clearly why that's the case.

Immediately, when addressing what he thinks is how people facing doubts in their religious beliefs should handle those doubts, Craig says, so clearly as to be praiseworthy,
First of all, I think that I would tell them that they need to understand the proper relationship between faith and reason. And my view here is, the way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.
Now, I have to play a little philosophical game here in order to make this point, so forgive me for indulging that nonsense. The reason is that philosophers of religion are mainly concerned with arguments, which they are likely to say isn't what Craig is talking about here in that he said "evidence." I have to point out that many philosophers of religion, and amateur enthusiasts of the field, seem to consider evidence in a peculiar way that directly involves arguments--we only can claim to know that something constitutes evidence for an idea via arguments to that fact. Indeed, some go so far as to indicate that the arguments themselves are what makes evidence into evidence.

I, of course, think this is all very wrongheaded (on what evidence means, on having evidence for an idea as opposed to having ideas that happen to be consistent, or not, with the evidence, and on the notion that arguments even remotely can constitute evidence). Philosophers of religion, though, should realize that what Craig is talking about here--"the proper relationship between faith and reason"-- is directly concerned with arguments for believing Christianity is true, including arguments for belief in God. That is, Craig is talking directly about the object of the philosophy of religion, and he says that the proper relationship is that such arguments don't matter because of a "self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence," one apparently located "in [his] heart."

Craig is saying, then, and this is completely consistent with what he has written elsewhere, like in his book Reasonable Faith for which his entire website is named, that the proper relationship between faith and reason is that reason exists to support faith. Reason, in the form of the philosophy of religion, then, for him, exists as a "handmaid" (yes, he uses that word in RF) for theology. To put it plainly, the purpose of the philosophy of religion is to support faith. It does do, in my view, by giving the objects of faith undeserved intellectual legitimacy--legitimacy that is secondary, in Craig's view, to something that amounts to just "knowing" it is true.

Though it is an aside, note that Craig isn't alone here. Alvin Plantinga talks about the idea, tracking back to John Calvin, of the sensus divinitatis that effects basically the same end. Furthermore, Paul, as in the one that wrote about a quarter of the New Testament, is utterly awash in the ludicrous idea, something almost all Pauline believers have taken upon themselves, if not most everyone else besides.

But Craig has a lot more to say on this topic, continuing from the above in one line of thought,
And therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances, the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don't think that that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit. In such a situation, I should regard that simply as a result of the contingent circumstances that I'm in, and that, if I were to pursue this with due diligence and with time, I would discover that, in fact, the evidence--if I could get the correct picture--would support exactly what the witness of the Holy Spirit tells me.
Putting it pretty plainly, Craig is saying, and I think it's absolutely clear that I am not making straw of his view, that his epistemic situation may be limited if we consider the evidence (including arguments considered persuasive) at any (contingent) historical time and place, so if they lead against what he believes the Holy Spirit is indicating to him, that's an unfortunate artifact of the circumstances of that time and place and thus not a legitimate reason to revise his beliefs about Christianity. That is, the witness of the Holy Spirit is what he has called "an intrinsic defeater-defeater," a way of knowing that automatically defeats anything (evidential or argumentative) that would defeat his belief.

To put it as I would, Craig (and those like him) are pretending to know something, that there is Holy Spirit and its witness in his heart is self-authenticating and not contingent, so strongly that anything that should lead to a revision of beliefs will not lead to a revision of beliefs. Why argue with him, then, on his terms?

If you proved to him that "God" is logically impossible or not morally perfect (which you cannot anyway because "God" is set up to be unknowable on points like these), it wouldn't change his mind or slow him down in the least. Your arguments might be apparently air-tight, but finding them persuasive would be a contingent circumstance that controverts the internal witness he takes as unassailable and which is the only real reason for his beliefs.

Don't argue with him on his terms, then. His terms are idiotic. They don't deserve to be engaged with, only disparaged and scoffed at. [NB: None of the following is what I just said: Craig is idiotic, we should disparage and scoff at Craig, we shouldn't engage with Craig, and we shouldn't say anything about Craig's arguments. I said his terms are idiotic; his terms should be disparaged and scoffed at; his terms shouldn't be engaged with; and we should say things about his terms, in that we should disparage them and scoff at them.] We don't even need to engage with the notion that the Holy Spirit is real and could really be doing these things. That's idiotic too. Don't bother; just scoff (at the idea, not the person!!).

Craig isn't done, though. Continuing,
So I think that's very important, to get the relationship between faith and reason right. Otherwise, what that means is that our faith dependent upon the shifting sands of evidence and argument, which change from person to person, place to place, and generation to generation. Whereas the Holy Spirit, and His testimony, gives every generation and every person immediate access to a knowledge of God and the truth of Christianity that's independent of the shifting sands of time and place and person and historical contingency. (emphasis his, gauging by tone of voice)
Let's highlight part of that for the god-botherers out there, shall we? [If we base our faith upon reason], what that means is that our faith dependent upon the shifting sands of evidence and argument, which change from person to person, place to place, and generation to generation. If that's not abundant clarity for you that the arguments of the philosophy of religion are not convincing to true believers, I don't know what to tell you. Notice that Craig isn't just a garden-variety true believer either. He's a noted theologian and Christian philosopher who is very insistent upon his philosophical credentials (whatever the academy thinks of them). Craig should be open to good philosophy above belief, as a philosopher, but he is not.

What this tells us is that evidence and argument do not preceded belief, they follow from it, rationalizing it because it doesn't square with our real experience of reality.  And note that "rationalizing" doesn't mean what a lot of people tend to think it means, making something truly rational. It means explaining away the inconsistencies and making excuses to keep on believing, like claiming unfalsifiable magic access to indefeasible knowledge of something unknowable.

The rest of the video is worth watching (I've quoted about the first half)--Craig talks about the existence of Satan, that Satan hates you (as the enemy of your souls), and that the best thing to do when dealing with doubt is turn to God, say by singing hymns, praying, and talking to other members of the church community to reinforce your beliefs. He grounds this on saying that "doubt isn't just an intellectual problem" because "there's always a spiritual component to doubt." I only really bring that up to point out to the philosophers of religion out there that intellectual doubt is, to the faithful, easily overcome by engaging in "spiritual" activities (in this case, those being ones clearly set to reinforcing the beliefs and isolating them from intellectual threats, like a form of group rationalization).

But that's only half of my thesis

If we take Craig at his word, there's little point to the philosophy of religion. It's pretty well useless, arguing over something that's simply the wrong thing (theism). Theism isn't even wrong, and it's time we stopped pretending that it is.

And on Craig's word, I think we should take him at it. I suspect, despite protestations of lots of atheists who can't believe that he keeps trotting out arguments that most of the rest of the world considers spurious, that Craig is a deeply sincere man. I don't think he's putting us on when he says he believes he has a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that tells him that Christianity is true beyond all reason and evidence. Of course, we cannot confuse sincerity for being right. Believing in something, even something that he thinks is self-authenticating and real, doesn't make it real.

That's not my whole thesis, though. My thesis is that the philosophy of religion is worse than useless. The reason I think it's useless, to be clear, is because theism isn't even wrong, so it's not a topic worth discussing seriously. The reason I think it's worse than useless is because lots of people don't know that yet--and this does offer some consolation for counterapologists who see the importance of what they're doing. (Yes, I see the value in counterapologetics, to a point, though this is a highly specific subdomain of a loose conception of what constitutes the philosophy of religion.)

On the one hand, there are true believers, which is a far broader category than fundamentalists being that it is just people who do truly believe in God, who (obviously) are not aware that theism isn't even wrong. These people are beset by a problem with how they determine what's true, largely driven by cognitive biases like confirmation bias that serve the purpose of confirming cherished beliefs, effectively no matter what. Engaging in the philosophy of religion gives a sense of academic respectability to the discussion about God's existence, respectability that is a jewel to theologians and apologists and that doesn't really exist otherwise. When you have masses of people that you want to help learn to think more clearly and honestly, giving them really good reasons to believe that there's a real debate on the matter keeps the door to their beliefs wide open for them.

On the other hand, there are other people who haven't figured out yet that theism isn't even wrong. Those people are encouraged likewise, and they get sucked into joining the debate on the wrong plane. It's like getting people to join your soccer team by decking them out in hockey equipment. The more people out there that are saying, "wow, theism... yeah, there really is something to that," the more people out there who are going to be able to see that there's lots of people saying that. God-bothering unnecessarily perpetuates and encourages the wrong aspects of the cultural discussion about religion. Why might otherwise well-meaning people do that? You can check that out here.

Seriously, then, listen to Craig. He's telling you why you shouldn't bother god-bothering, so don't god-bother.

Note: Here again is what former philosopher of religion Keith Parsons had to say about the philosophy of religion and these conservative theologians, like William Lane Craig.
One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion. LINK

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