Thursday, July 11, 2013

William Lane Craig's Christian Philosophy: A Tale of Exploitation and Betrayal

For centuries European intellectuals were Christians as a matter of course, because the Catholic Church replaced the imperial Roman army as the unifying social force in that part of the world, and whereas ancient Rome was polytheistic, the Church was nominally monotheistic. Then the Protestant Reformation shook up the Church’s cultural monopoly, the Scientific Revolution eliminated the Church’s mystique, and Renaissance individualism and the colonization of North America paved the way for the transferring of political and economic power from the Christian theocrats to the merchants, the middle class, and the voters. In Western intellectual circles, Christians have been on the run since David Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Feuerbach, and other Enlightenment thinkers demolished the rational basis for Christian belief, while scientists like Darwin, Freud, and Einstein continued the non-Christian march of scientific progress.

But a funny thing happened in the last few decades in the United States: a Christian invasion of the atheistic stronghold of academic philosophy. In spite of the New Atheist’s counterattack against the religious fundamentalist’s backlash against modernity, atheists no longer have their way even in formal debates that test the merits of opposing sides in a dramatic format which should nevertheless offer no advantage to theists. As Nathan Schneider reports, William Lane Craig, the philosopher, professional Christian debater, and organizer of the Christian resurgence in American philosophy, holds his own against Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and numerous other top atheist thinkers. Indeed, Craig often appears to win those debates! Schneider lays out Craig’s modus operandi:
In the opening statement he pummels the opponent with five or so concise arguments—for instance, the origins of the universe, the basis of morality, the testimony of religious experience, and perhaps an addendum of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Over the course of the rebuttals he makes sure to respond to every point that the opponent has brought up, which usually sends the opponent off on a series of tangents. Then, at the end, he reminds the audience how many of his arguments stated at the outset the opponent couldn't manage to address, much less refute. He declares himself and his message the winner. Onlookers can't help agreeing.
But how is such a feat possible? In light of the modern historical developments I’ve summarized, why shouldn’t any hapless proponent of Christianity in the 21st century be forced to run for the hills? Granted, formal debates require some stagecraft and other extraneous skills. Nevertheless, how could a Christian stand any chance of coming off as a respecter of rational norms, let alone be capable of beating skeptics and atheists at their game? Is some miracle afoot? Have Christians been right all along and skeptics were just too proud to appreciate the evidence that lay right in front of them? Schneider ventures a justification, if not an explanation: Christian philosophers like Craig, J.P. Moreland, and Alvin Plantinga are doing what Socratic philosophers are supposed to be doing, which is to cater to the public. As Schneider puts it,
Philosophy was never supposed to be a narrow discipline, fortified from the argumentative swells of the agora by specialization and merely professional ambitions. That was for the Sophists whom Socrates regaled against. Philosophy was supposed to serve the polis, to educate and embolden its young, to raise up leaders. Whether one likes their preconceived conclusions or not, today it is evangelical Christians, with William Lane Craig in the lead, who are doing so better than just about anyone else.
This isn’t so convincing, though, because Western philosophical elitism goes back at least as far as Plato’s distinction between the philosopher king and the Nocturnal Council, on the one hand, and the noble lies for the masses on the other. As Leo Strauss explains, philosophical questionings tend to be socially subversive, which is why Socrates was executed, and so those who prefer knowledge to happiness wisely hide their doubts, withdrawing into the Ivory Tower and feeding the masses pablum to encourage them to keep working hard to support the elites, who have more refined tastes. Whether Christian philosophers now fulfill the esoteric or the exoteric functions of Socratic philosophy, or whether Christianity is true or just useful, is one of the questions at issue here. Moreover, Craig in particular is closer to a Sophist than a Socratic philosopher, because he’s a professional debater who needs to rely on rhetoric and salesmanship, which can come at the expense of intellectual honesty.

If we’re looking for a solution to this mystery, then, we should begin by appreciating that American Christianity is a special case. The US inherited lone superpower status after WWII and the Cold War, so the American elite have an unusually urgent need to sooth people’s fears about their country’s vast wealth and military power. As long as US policies are perceived to derive from Christian moral principles, the suspicion that the American government behaves as any military superpower does, in the so-called politically realistic fashion, with great rapacity, will be easily downplayed as an indulgence of crazies or jealous have-nots. However much earthly power they’re blessed with, how could Christian leaders fail to be selfless on the international stage? Surely they would fight for the ideals of everyone’s freedom and equality. Christian propaganda came to a head in the US when Reagan won a landslide victory in part by luring Evangelical Christians into the political arena, to build a new conservative coalition. George W. Bush rode a second wave against liberalism, making feasible a Christian resurgence not just in the academy, but in the government, the courts, the military, and the media (Fox News and talk radio). 

But this doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon of William Lane Craig and the rise of Christianity in American philosophy departments. The government, the courts, the military, and so forth are pragmatic institutions, so from their perspectives, as long as their employees function well their personal beliefs are irrelevant. Philosophy, though, is about rationally testing your personal beliefs in nonscientific areas of inquiry. So a powerful country’s standard use of disarming propaganda, to neutralize the well-placed fears of outsiders, doesn’t account for the academic philosopher’s dropping of her guard. A philosopher isn’t supposed to be so pragmatic as to allow theology to pass for philosophy, just as a scientist should be compelled to distinguish between theology and science. The uniqueness of American politics explains why there might be a religious revival in the US rather than in some other Western country, but not how such a revival could affect even American philosophy departments.

How the Apologist Exploits Philosophy

A forked approach is needed to understand what’s going on here. Other developments in late-modern and postmodern Western philosophy, and the nature of the Christian religion come together to create the unholy spectacle of Christian philosophy in the Age of Reason. I’ll begin with the philosophy side. Inspired by scientific progress, many Western philosophers overreached, early in the last century, in the direction of ultrarationality. Following Hume’s austere empiricism and Wittgenstein’s verificationism, they restricted the role of philosophical inquiry to one of supporting science. They held that philosophers can add to knowledge only by clarifying the relations between concepts or by applying empiricist principles to dispose of pseudosciences and other forms of nonsense. The assumptions here are that knowledge is of facts, not values, and we access the facts through our senses. Science already consists of methods for systematically explaining observations, and philosophers lacked the social standing to wage war against popular superstitions, so as Wittgenstein said, philosophy is more a creator of problems than a solver of them. And so Western philosophers got out of the business of rationally engaging with a host of nonscientific questions, which has likely contributed to what Susan Jacoby calls the Age of American Unreason.

At any rate, this conceit of ultrarationality was unsustainable, scientism was shown to be incoherent by the positivists themselves, and the drug-fuelled social revolutions of the ‘60s led from socialism to postmodern paranoia and self-doubt, which philosophers channeled into antifoundational, deconstructive projects (post-structuralism, constructivism, historicism, pluralism, postcolonialism). There was no objective truth, but only cultural biases and stratagems for players of social games, leading to incommensurable worldviews which can be bridged only by nonrational means, such as by the use of force or manipulative rhetoric. The pendulum swung, then, from a cramped version of philosophy to a lax one. In scientistic philosophy, almost nothing goes, whereas in the postmodern sort, almost anything does.

When positivism was all the rage, Christianity would have been dealt with in something like the following way: “Theistic statements, like all metaphysical or moral ones, are meaningless. They’re mere vacuous expressions of emotion and are outside the cognitive domain, which is to say that such statements are neither true nor false. There is no philosophical or scientific work to be done in judging the extent to which Christian theism or indeed atheism is rationally justified. Such religious or irreligious attitudes should be left to each individual’s whim or other irrational preference.” 

So take Craig’s touted version of the cosmological argument for God’s existence (everything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist and so the universe had a cause, which was God). The positivist would show that the argument is pseudoscientific, that its statements are metaphysical rather than testable, and thus that the argument doesn’t rise to the level of being either true or false. The written argument is more like a poem or even a painting than a case of scientific reasoning. (For example, “begin,” “cause,” and “exist” don’t have the same meaning when applied to limited things within the universe as they do in the cosmological context, when applied to the whole universe; in fact, in the latter case, they have no meaning at all. At this point, Craig typically appeals to commonsense meaning, in which case he begs the question, since theism is usually more intuitive than is scientific or philosophical truth. So much the worse for intuitions, says the positivist.)

By contrast, a postmodernist would handle Christianity like this: “All philosophical beliefs are equally valid, as far as rationality is concerned, because rational justification is just for show. Behind every rational defense, there’s a nonrational agenda, a scheme for getting ahead in society. Religious myths are ways of interpreting certain universal experiences, so as long as they unify a population, allowing people to cope with the world, the stories are socially justified. Many different religions and philosophies, then, can fulfill that purpose for different kinds of people. A postmodernist, however, won’t easily be charmed by any one perspective, but will study multiple belief systems, noting that none of them has any ahistorical foundation and that, ironically, we may learn more by deconstructing a conceptual framework than by taking one for granted.”

Notice that the postmodernist agrees with the positivist in holding that religious questions are noncognitive. The difference between them is that whereas the positivist shuns nonscientific questions as anti-intellectual, the postmodernist doesn’t have so lofty an opinion of philosophy, science, or reason in general. For the postmodernist, there is no sharp dividing line between the cognitive and the noncognitive, between fact and value. Reason provides mere rationalizations for what we feel is best. So philosophers need to get their hands dirty and to think hard about important questions even if pure logic and direct observation don’t suffice to answer them.

Of course, the Christian rejects both kinds of philosophy, holding out divine revelation as a nonscientific source of absolute truth and disdaining the postmodernist’s pluralistic take on morality. But the kind of philosophical culture that William Craig and the other Christian apologists are attempting to infiltrate isn’t purely scientistic or postmodern. Current academic philosophy in the US is somewhere between those extremes. Most American philosophy departments are analytic and naturalistic, but also influenced by the collapse of positivism and by the postmodern critiques of modern humanism. With this background in mind, however, we can see how Christian apologists exploit these two dead ends in Western philosophy.

Take, for example, Craig’s moral argument for God, which is a staple of his repertoire. The argument is that morality requires God’s existence: without God, there’s no objective morality, so since there is objective morality God must exist. This argument takes advantage of current naturalism’s persistent ties to positivism. While most naturalists no longer go as far as to say that all knowledge must pass scientific tests, they do still take scientific knowledge to be central and they think philosophy’s main job is to support science. So because positivists used to say not that there’s no such thing as morality, but that there’s no knowledge about morality, and because current naturalism is just as science-centered as was early analytic philosophy, naturalists still have a hard time accounting for morality. In short, the positivist said morality is just subjective, since objective statements are about facts, not values, and those statements are properly given by scientists. Thus, there’s no knowledge of morality, which is the same as saying there are no moral facts, no objective, testable prescriptions of moral behaviour. To be sure, naturalists are divided mostly into utilitarians, deontologists, and virtue theorists, and they have various subtle ways of getting around the naturalistic fallacy and noncognitivist arguments against morality. But here’s the crucial point: a cunning philosopher and apologist like Craig can use positivism against current naturalism, thus triangulating just as a liberal politician might try to outmaneuver a conservative by finding a way to embrace ultraconservative policies, at least as a means to an end. What Craig does is hold the naturalist to the science-centered assumptions she shares with the old-school positivist, thus reducing naturalism to absurdity and holding out theism as the only alternative.

Specifically, Craig pushes the mechanistic picture, reminding the naturalist that under her view we’re just animals, or biological machines, programmed to be selfish. Naturalists should be materialists and determinists, and so every clump of matter should be just as intrinsically worthless as every other one, and we must be puppets just like the other animals. Note the connection to positivism: the positivist says all knowledge is scientific, and Craig is just reminding naturalists what scientists say about human nature, the result being that naturalists should be nihilists or at least that they have no objective reason to be moral. You can say Craig is caricaturing naturalism, that he’s leaving out the work on emergent properties, autonomous special sciences, evolutionary theories of altruism, the obsolescence of clockwork-style determinism, and so forth. But this is to say that the naturalist’s story about morality is complicated, whereas formal debates with strict time limits call for simple messages. Meanwhile, Craig can point to philosophers like Nietzsche or Alex Rosenberg and say that they expose the unvarnished implications of naturalism. Morality is indeed delusory if our world is the one that’s understood mainly by scientists rather than philosophers.

Now, it goes without saying that Craig’s moral argument ought to compel no one who respects reason. Even if you leave aside the complications with naturalism, theism offers no help with morality. Craig needs for us to be supernaturally free, since if somehow we were just naturally free and if morality were to require freewill, morality would be consistent with naturalism. But supernatural freewill would be miraculous and thus beyond our rational comprehension. So someone who respects reason should have no truck with this theistic argument for morality.

Moreover, this argument contradicts itself when it assumes that morality is objective and yet concludes that morality is grounded in God who is a subject, not an object. In fact, the notion of objective morality is confused. What Craig wants is for morality to be nonarbitrary, for moral commandments to be independent of any of our decisions, so that we can all be bound by those commandments. But the evolutionary explanation of morality guarantees this too; for the naturalist, morality is grounded in genetically-determined instincts, which is why basic moral principles are shared by all cultures. And were morality to come from God, morals would be arbitrary, after all, since God should be free to change his mind. In fact, just as God wouldn’t be bound by human morality, so too the people who rule our dominance hierarchies aren’t bound by what Nietzsche called slave morality. What people should do depends in part on what they can do, so when you have vast differences in people’s capacities, you have different prescriptions and social functions. And in practice, morality for the masses is both subjective and objective: it’s subjective, because it derives from the power elite that disproportionately shapes the culture, and it’s objective in that it’s independent of the majority’s will. As for master morality, that’s subjective because the most powerful people do what they like and no one can stop them. Thus, were there a God, he would be a monster and better off dead.

Or take Craig’s and Plantinga’s contention that theistic belief is properly basic and thus rational without needing to be justified by other beliefs, since theism is based on an experience of God, such as the “witness of the Holy Spirit.” You’d think that the Age of Reason would have chastened Christian thinkers, compelling them to admit that a belief system so foreign to naturalism must now be at least forever optional, that Christianity can no longer be taken for granted, because there are now a million reasons to doubt each and every Christian doctrine. Once, Christianity was the default position, but that was long ago, in a world far, far away. So how does this business about a properly basic belief in Christianity pass muster with audiences at Craig’s philosophical debates? Does Craig mesmerize his viewers, distracting them with fancy rhetoric so they don’t notice that his contention is a flagrant anachronism?  

Putting aside whatever technical philosophical defenses Craig may have up his sleeve, which have at least as many technical counterpoints, the effrontery with which Craig here defends Christianity is at home in the context of postmodern philosophy. In postmodernism, all positions are equally valid, if only because no one stands on any neutral ground to gainsay what someone else believes. We all have our biases and no one has the right to impose her bias on anyone else. Westerners live in a postcolonial, multicultural, and thus politically correct time, so we have to live and let live; that’s the relativistic spirit of postmodernism. Thus, Craig might as well say just that certain experiences bias Christians, compelling them to accept a certain religious worldview--except that he can’t say this, because as an Evangelical Christian he needs to believe that all opposing worldviews are inferior.

Nevertheless, the point is that, while current naturalists aren’t generally full-blown postmodern relativists, they’re stuck with the fact that postmodernism is a reaction to the manifest flaws of the modern ideology. So in the back of her mind, a naturalist who thinks that worldviews aren’t all equally valid--since she believes a scientific one is best--must still appreciate that ultimately a worldview is only pragmatically justified, not inferred in a logically airtight way. As the world becomes more of a global village and we learn about other cultures, we understand that differences between them have historical underpinnings, which is to say that some beliefs do reflect particular experiences. So the naturalist can’t afford to dismiss Craig’s contention, because of the postmodern developments in Western philosophy. Although Craig doesn’t appeal to postmodern relativism, the contention that Christian belief is self-justified shows as little discrimination between religious experiences as does postmodernism between foreign cultures. In the former case, fear of God is the reason for deference, whereas in the latter, the license to value everything equally is given by fear of offending anyone.

Again, as a reason to respect Christian beliefs, the point about self-justification due to an experiential foundation falls flat. This is because there’s no such thing as direct experience, and so all experiences need to be interpreted. Experience is filtered through the brain’s processing of sensations, so that’s the first level of interpretation, which proceeds unconsciously for us. If we want to consciously understand what we experience, with some sophistication and intellectual integrity, we’ve got to do some science, reflect philosophically, or creatively speculate as a last resort, telling ourselves comforting tales when reason alone can’t make sense of what happens to us. Even when we do the latter, someone with an overriding interest in the truth won’t suspend her disbelief so fully that she comes to fall for her self-made hype. We should treat our fictions accordingly, not pretend that they’re forced on us by some supernatural source. At any rate, if we hear an inner voice, that doesn’t mean we encounter God directly, just as when we see each other, we don’t see people, as such, because a person is in part a mind, a mind is at least in part a brain, and we don’t usually see each other’s brain. We see signs that we interpret as indicating whatever our best theories posit. So if we hear an inner voice, we’ve got to decide which theory best makes sense of that experience. Does the voice come from us, as a hallucination or an inner monologue, or from a person who created the universe?

The question, then, is whether Christianity or naturalism as a whole best makes sense of a Christian’s religious experience. In practice, there aren’t any properly basic beliefs, since we evaluate whole belief systems, often because their parts don’t make sense unless their interrelations are understood. And when we evaluate a whole theory, we do so largely on pragmatic grounds. We ask ourselves which way of understanding certain experiences is the most useful. Christianity has outlived much of its usefulness for those who are scientifically informed, since Christianity is no longer the only game in town in the West. Granted, in the US Christianity is politically and culturally useful, because in many places you won’t be socially accepted unless you appear to be Christian. But on the downside, this religion is a hindrance when it comes to fulfilling our spiritual/existential duty as self-aware beings that have been thrown into the world, because Christianity is aesthetically repulsive. Elsewhere I’ve explained why that’s so, but I’ll say more about that in the next section, since that’s an independent reason why Craig is able to philosophically defend his religion without everyone just pointing and laughing nonstop at him for an exceedingly long period until they keel over from a hernia.

Chameleonic Christianity

In short, Western philosophy is susceptible to Christian incursions, that is, to abuse from antiphilosophical propagandists, because of the major recent developments in philosophy. The collapse of ultrarational naturalism and the rise of postmodern obfuscation and resignation each offer weaknesses and loopholes which can be exploited by the savvy propagandist. But Craig’s exploitations are aided also by the flexibility of the religion he brings to the table. You can imagine a dogmatic cultist, for example, who has no interest in showing that his bizarre beliefs accord with ancient Greek habits of thought or with modern science. The more radical and archaic a belief system, and the more fervently someone believes in it, the less interest she’ll have in reconciling it with philosophical methods, because those methods amount to forms of skepticism which are corrosive to dogma. On the contrary, a cultist would sooner shun mainstream philosophy and the tradition of critical thinking, to protect her wild, fragile notions.

Evangelical Christians aren’t nearly so shy, and part of the reason why is that their religion is chameleonic in the extent to which its leaders have sold out and transformed their message for anti-Jesus purposes. From Saint Paul onwards, Christian officials have utterly, exhaustively compromised the principles preached by the (likely fictional) character Jesus, leaving no stone unturned in their mission to preserve the shell of their religious institution by abandoning the authentic substance of their faith. Although I’ll explain in more detail how this has happened, no further proof is needed than the fact that most Americans regard themselves as Christians. Just contrast most American culture, politics, economics, and private behaviour with Jesus’s message in the New Testament, and you’re led inexorably to the inference that either (1) Americans know nothing at all about Christianity, (2) Christianity has morphed into an American-friendly religion, or (3) both. In fact, (1) is largely true, which is to say that Americans (and Canadians and all relatively wealthy, so-called Christian peoples) evidently don’t know enough about original Christianity to begin tearing down their institutions while wailing and gnashing their teeth, begging for forgiveness for their worship of Mammon, Ego, Pleasure, Celebrity, and War. Alas, those institutions stand tall and Americans are exceedingly proud of them. But Americans do know a lot about the degenerate form of Christianity that’s actually practiced in the US. So (3) is the correct choice.

How, then, has the betrayal happened? Well, here are some highlights. In the religion’s earliest period, there were two great clashes that shaped Christianity, that between Judaism and paganism, and that between Gnosticism and Catholic literalism. Jesus was a Jew and as far as we can tell from the NT, he saw himself as a reformer of Judaism. For centuries, people thought that since he criticized the Pharisees, that meant Jesus rejected Judaism, but that’s because people were largely ignorant of the variety of Jewish sects at the time. There were also Sadducees as well as Essenes, and we learned about the latter in their own words only recently due to the chance unearthing of one of their libraries. Jesus was clearly influenced by the Essenes, who were represented in the NT by the character of John the Baptist. And yet Paul of Tarsus shifted the focus from Jesus’s earthly life to the meaning of his death and resurrection, and so Paul appropriated Jesus, turning him into a demigod for Roman consumption. That was betrayal #1.

With regard to the second conflict, Paul was somewhere in the middle. In some ways, he was a Gnostic, but in others he wasn’t. He was a Gnostic in that he allowed for private visions of the risen Christ and didn’t emphasize Jesus’ corporeality, since he was interested more in the cosmic significance of the end of Jesus’ life. But he rejected Gnostic individualism, which is to say the proto-Protestant aspect of that early Christian interpretation of Jesus. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was a spiritual being who descended to the evil material plane to show us how to die to our lower nature and become immortal like him. But whereas Paul said Jesus did all the work for us, the Gnostic Christian believed that Jesus functioned as a model to show us the way, to snap us out of our stupor. The point was for us to act like him, to shun earthly pleasures, to seek hidden wisdom, and to care so much more about God’s transcendent realm than about the apparent world that we’d be willing to die for that faith.

As Elaine Pagels explains in The Gnostic Gospels, the literalists who sought to turn the Jesus movement into an earthly institution opposed the Gnostic interpretation mainly because Gnosticism decentralized power, basing authority only on how much elite wisdom a person demonstrated. By contrast, the literalists who would found the Orthodox Church (that is, the exoteric Church for the masses) needed a way to establish their authority regardless of their personal failings and liability to sin. Thus, they concretized Jesus even as they mythologized him, prizing Christian texts that featured a scene in which power was transferred directly from a physically risen Jesus to the first pope, Peter. For Gnostics, Jesus was a spiritual being who could appear as a ghost or a hallucination to anyone in a vision, as he supposedly did to Paul. But the more ambitious and treacherous “Christians” couldn’t afford to have Jesus popping up anywhere and at any time. Power had to be centralized to maintain the purity of the Church’s mission. And so the Gnostics were persecuted as heretics by the literalists who seized power under the auspices of the Roman Empire, which knew a thing or two about political propaganda. Thus, we have betrayal #2.

Betrayal #3 consists of the deference shown by early Catholics to the Roman Empire. The NT scapegoats the Jews and whitewashes Rome’s involvement in Jesus’s execution, and the Catholics sold out Jesus for worldly power after Constantine’s conversion. Whereas the character Jesus stood up to Rome and sacrificed himself for his commitment to the otherworldly kingdom of God, the early Catholics preferred not to be persecuted by the Romans and accepted their new role as guardians of the official Roman religion. Naturally, those early “Christians” were corrupted by their power, and whereas they should have learned the evil of religious persecution, they swiftly adopted the very policies that the Romans had used against them, exterminating Gnostics, Jews, and pagans who wouldn’t bow to the Catholic idols. This empowerment of literalistic (exoteric) Christianity was possibly the most ironic turn of events in all human history. So if you have to wonder how Jesus’s message could be made consistent with the American way of life, you need to ask yourself how that message could have already been adapted to the ancient Roman one. The answer, of course, is that the message had to change beyond recognition, and had to do so multiple times to co-opt rival schools of thought and to overcome obstacles to the Church’s longevity. To take a classic example, the Church didn’t denounce pagan sun worship, but absorbed that cult, adopting the cult’s sacred date as Jesus’s birth day, when the sun was reborn after the longest night of the year. And the priesthood happily obliged goddess worshippers when they latched onto Mary the mother of God, by turning her into a quasi-divinity.

So much for ancient history. How, then, can Christianity accommodate modern philosophy? Well, Gnostic Christians would be more at home in philosophy departments, since they sought higher wisdom, whereas mainstream Christians, following Paul’s condemnation of the wisdom of this world, traditionally side with faith against reason. In fact, the Gnostics would agree with Paul that worldly wisdom is evil, since they think it’s an opiate for the masses, concocted by the powers and principalities to pacify us. And philosophers wouldn’t approve of Gnostic occultism. Still, Gnostics and philosophers are both obsessed with knowledge, whereas mainstream Christians see themselves as blessed with dogma. Christians have no more work to do other than accepting what Jesus did for them on the cross and allowing the Holy Spirit to remake their inner nature so they can become more Christ-like. In both cases, the goal is to be liberated from the lower domain, whether this is thought of as nature in general or as hell, but the Gnostics didn’t think God would hold our hands and lead us to salvation, since God was a transcendent being whereas the present world is ruled by dark forces that imprison us. For the Gnostics, Jesus was a divine emanation who showed us the way, but we’re still left to decode the symbols and to save ourselves. Reason and imagination are tools that could be used in that enterprise, to figure out how to escape our prison. In principle, that esoteric form of Christianity wouldn’t have been so foreign to Western philosophy.

But in the US we’re dealing with Evangelical Christianity which has no such heartfelt commitment to reason. Closer to home, then, Catholic scholars thought that God wouldn’t allow us to reason if that faculty pointed away from him; after all, God uses even the devil for holy purposes. Thus, those scholars devised logical proofs of God’s existence, but this defense of rationality was quite ad hoc. The same reasoning, that God uses things that are seemingly antithetical to Christianity, would permit people to embrace opposing religions. Instead of engaging in rational arguments, why not take up Islam or Hinduism, if God doesn’t allow any false path to enter the world? And yet Catholics aren’t universalists; they maintain that their religion is the only one that saves us from hell. Thus, Catholics couldn’t be earnest philosophers, following reason wherever it took them, which is why they opposed the Scientific Revolution. Without reason, they trusted that rational conclusions would always be consistent with the Christian faith, and so in practice they defended dogma, not objective reason. In the modern period, Catholics discovered that science and philosophy take us far from the parochial Christian platitudes, and the Church paid for its self-righteousness with the loss of most of its power.  

What, then, is the Evangelical Christian’s gambit? This sort of “Christian” is a literalist in the crudest sense, meaning that she’s interested only in concrete things, because she lacks the humility for a spiritual and thus alienating perspective. From that perspective, there’s enough horror and tragedy in the world that every one of us ought to stop what we’re doing immediately, fall to our knees, and wail in a unified condemnation of the lord of our misfortune, who is the undead god. As has been plain for millennia, a spiritual person is more or less ascetic, which is to say detached from natural affairs in all their awful concreteness. But the Evangelical Christian hasn’t a spiritual bone in her body. Of course she thinks there was literally a Jesus who lived on Earth, who uniquely embodied the divine power that created the universe, performed many actual miracles, physically rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven where he waits to judge us at the imminent end of the world. She believes this because she takes her scriptures literally; she’s a narrow-minded inerrantist, believing that every word of the Bible is literally true (unless it’s obviously metaphorical). She needs a rule book with explicit instructions, because she’s a robot that must be programmed. When the Bible appears to contradict itself, she thinks God saves the day by helping her arrive at the correct way to harmonize the texts. Let gray areas and a multiplicity of perspectives be anathema!

So if the Evangelical gets it into her head that God’s plan requires her to infiltrate American philosophy departments, all she has to do is cherry-pick passages from the Bible to bless that mission, thus adding one more transformation/betrayal of her religion to the very long list. In fact, she doesn’t even need the Bible, since she can appeal to her intuitions and call them God’s whisperings. Maybe the Christian debater tries to be like Jesus, by entering the world of darkness to show the captives the light. Maybe rational Christian belief is superior to the irrational kind, because God was rational when he created the world. Who knows? It’s all just a fairytale you can make up as you go along. Whatever she wants to do, the literalistic, Philistine Christian can do in God’s name as long as she’s skilled at disguising her motives and lying to herself, using the evangelical playbook. If she’s an American, she’s already benefited from a wealth of codified reinterpretations of her religion. For example, she’s found a way to approve of the death penalty, of wars and guns in general, of the anti-environmental effects of Big Business, of sex and family life, of getting rich and enjoying material rewards for success in dominance hierarchies, and so on and so forth. She’s hardly Christ-like in any shape or form. She’s no spiritual ascetic, let me tell you. Rather, and speaking rather candidly, she’s an abomination; aesthetically speaking, that is, she’s one of the most appalling things in the world. What I mean is that she’s spiritually ugly. If you have good taste in character, you’ll find her hypocrisies excruciating. Anyway, with all of these treacheries under her belt, one more won’t make her explode.

Needless to say, the spirit of Western philosophy is utterly anti-Christian. In its degenerate form, Christianity is about bowing before the revelation that there’s a supernatural world beyond our comprehension, so we should stop trying to figure things out and just trust that Jesus already did all the valuable work we could ever hope to do. We shouldn’t arrogantly trust in our rational powers, like the ancient Greeks or the modern humanists, but should submit to religious authorities like the Europeans did in the Dark Age. All of that would have been unthinkable to the ancient Greek philosophers and to the modern, free-thinking humanists. Socrates was executed because he was a radical like Jesus, except that whereas Jesus relied on his perceived authority and alleged magic tricks, the Platonic character Socrates rationally proved that the elites of his day were arrogant fools. He gave them enough rope so they’d hang themselves with their contradictions. If you employ the Socratic method of questioning an American Evangelical Christian until you’re blue in the face, asking for deeper and deeper explanations, but in an open-minded, childlike way, you’re guaranteed to humiliate the Christian. You’ll tear the mask off her hideous visage and have to shield the eyes of any nearby child so you don’t inadvertently abuse the little one with a glimpse of such monstrosity. You’ll tie that “Christian” into so many knots that you’ll no longer have a human on your hands, but something more pitiable than a circus freak.

The point is that when you follow logic and empirical evidence, making sure you don’t overstep what you’re entitled to think, by taking any wild or distasteful leap of faith, you will assuredly not arrive at Evangelical Christianity. For example, whereas for centuries the Christian masses took at face value the priesthood’s interpretation of their scriptures, as soon as modern historians started to read the NT with scientific skepticism, they found all sorts of problems with the traditional narrative. They found that the gospels aren’t independent of each other and thus aren’t likely eyewitness reports, and that when read side by side, you can see how the authors of Matthew and Luke modified Mark, line by line, to suit the assumptions of their particular communities. The historians saw how the virgin birth myth arose from a mistranslation of the Septuagint. And they found errors and contradictions in the details of the gospel accounts, not to mention a standard process of mythologization from Mark to Revelations, Paul having borrowed his early cosmic Christ narrative from pre-Christian Gnostic or Mystery religions like Mithraism.

Why, then, did William Lane Craig decide to use philosophy to support his abysmal form of pseudo-Christianity? To troll philosophers, to distract them with red herrings, to hamper their efforts to work out a naturalistic worldview that makes sense of our intuitive self-image in light of science. Craig is like one of those YouTube or internet chat forum commenters who gets off on hijacking the discussion with inflammatory and irrelevant posts. Of course, philosophers who are interested in the truth shouldn’t ban any topic from discussion, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing that Craig’s so-called philosophy is propagandistic sophistry. Craig’s not actually a philosopher, because his interventions are meant to end American philosophy proper, to replace it with thinly-veiled theology, just as the movement to insert Intelligent Design into biology classes is meant to derail that science.

As for his debate performances, what’s curious is the ego Craig displays. Craig doesn’t come off as a humble man, but as in all things with the Evangelical Christian, he has it both ways. If a Christian happens to be humble, she’s a shining reflection of Jesus, a meek and mild childlike follower of the Lord (unless we’re talking about the Jesus from the Gospel of John). If she’s boastful, petty, and dishonest in her chosen profession, such as that of being a debater or propagandist, she’s a zealous warrior for Christ, full of energy from the Holy Spirit. Or else she’s just a self-confessed sinner whose sins don’t matter as long as she waves her magic wand, chants a few phrases with her eyes closed in mock subservience, to force God to keep his word and forgive her. Craig will defend his debates by saying that Jesus withstood interrogations from his opponents. But Jesus didn’t actually philosophize; instead, when he wasn’t ranting, he was speaking to his opponents in elliptical one-liners, like a fortune cookie.

Craig’s debates tend to be petty exercises in vanity. The viewer doesn’t learn much or get closer to the truth, because neither debater argues in good faith. They’re partisans who are pressured by their many followers to win at all costs. They’re not engaged in constructive dialogue and they resort to cheap debater’s tactics to appear to earn the upper hand. And yet Craig’s duplicity is necessarily the worst, because beneath his politeness and smiles, you’ll find his literal demonization of his opponent. That’s why Craig isn’t humble in his debates, why he shouts and pounces and relishes cheap tricks like quote mining: he feels he’s in a war of good against evil and those who steadfastly oppose Christianity must be in league with the devil. Craig must have contempt for atheists since he thinks they literally serve demons rather than God. Granted, I have contempt for American Evangelical Christians, but I don’t demonize them. They’re hideous creatures, to be sure, but I’d say the same about most people, including me, since we’re likewise disfigured by our weaknesses.

Christian philosophy is possible in the US, then, because of the defects of postmodern naturalism and because of the hollowness of American Christianity. I look at the matter like this: philosophy lies prostrate on the ground, decrepit and ignored, while a ghoul creeps up to the body, changes its clothes, and jams a sound system down its throat to make it look and sound like a ghoul. Hardly anyone notices or cares, but the ghoul has cleverly concocted his new best friend. Still, the philosophical defense of Christianity is a travesty.


  1. wow. There is some ANGER here in this post, Benjamin. Bravo!

    1. Thanks, Brian! Christianity does make me very angry and has always done so. In fact, I got into philosophy through philosophy of religion, and specifically through the Christianity vs atheism debate. I could write a whole blog of rants against that religion, but that would be cliched. So I prefer to rant against atheism too.

    2. Why does Christianity make you so angry? A whole blog might be too much, but wouldn't a litte rant here in the comments be fun? ;.)

    3. Heh. I've got several other rants on Christianity on this blog, including Christian Crudities, Christian Chutzpah, the one on hell, the one on fundamentalism, and now this one of Craig. There will be many more, since my contempt for exoteric Christianity is boundless.

      I see myself as taking more or less Jesus's side in the debate against the traitors who call themselves his followers. The character Jesus (whether he existed historically is immaterial, not to mention doubtful) was an omega man, an ascetic whose mystical perspective made him loathe the natural world. That's more or less my view too. The difference, though, is that I don't take myths and metaphysics so seriously. They're mainly artworks, for me: whether they're rational isn't as important as whether they're aesthetically powerful.

  2. Quite informative.

  3. Couldn't get through it all...

    Yes, I've stooped to being one of those posters...

    1. Yeah, I got carried away with the length of this one.

    2. For what it's worth as to the perception of one audience member, it seemed like there was the notion that the christians had delivered a really good argument - and although maybe you were going to disect that, it felt that that idea was being kept alive for a rather long time. It even felt like a method of making folk actually take on that the christians argued well, since the piece asks one (in my estimate) to humour that notion for a long, long length of text.

    3. And humouring it was too much for you? The article is about the mystery of how there could now be even a remotely good Christian debater. Why aren't all Christian philosophers just laughed off the stage? I give two answers: there are problems with postmodern analytic philosophy and Christianity is so flexible or compromised that it can be made consistent with anything, including, say, the materialistic American lifestyle.

      You might have been more interested in the article's second half than its first one, since there are some zingers against Christianity in the last section.

    4. Depends - I was read this comic the other day and to me it seem to do little to resist the notion it portrays - it even seemed to support it, indirectly. But then the authors comments below seemed quite adamantly against the subject. So maybe it's me - but to me, maybe it's sometimes you can end up supporting a notion (relative to the subjective evaluation of some) that you intend to argue against.

      Even taking it as a shot against weak assed christian attempts at philosophy, I'm left with the sense that in regard to the people in the room somehow thought the argument was won - well, maybe it's addressed way latter on, but it doesn't seem to get into what the people were actually thinking. Maybe my own thoughts are rather blunt and hardly lofty - confirmation bias, ingroup identification, mob mentality - that's what I'd talk about - or atleast start examining each person that responded possitively. I'm not sure you can disprove someones philosophical attempts without actually looking at the people who were influenced.

    5. The article agrees with what's apparent: Craig does well in his debates. Some of the debates he wins, others he ties, some he loses, but the mystery is that because Christian theism should be indefensible in light of modern developments, no such theist should be able to do so well in a debate about theism, even given that such debates reward extraneous skills like being able to use rhetoric in a dramatic way.

      But you're assuming that if someone does well in a debate, that person's ideas must be true. This is not so, because a sophist or a demagogue can use specious arguments to obfuscate the issues and nonetheless win over the audience. What my article does is try to explain how Craig can do so well in his debates, given that Christian theism is false and given that some of his opponents should be equally skilled with rhetoric.

      By the way, regarding that comic, feminism and pubic hair are on my list of blog topics. I think this falls under the heading of the feminization of Western men due to a number of factors, including feminism, the shift from an industrial to a more ethereal, knowledge-based economy, and the growing influence of gay men on culture. One result is that women and especially models are supposed to look like teenaged boys with no curves. Mostly, that pleases gay men who are secretly taking revenge against the heterosexual men who are identified with the generations that beat down gay people.

    6. Well there's the thing I was detecting - you agree 'he does well'. To me this is rather like agreeing someone who 'pulls a coin from behind someones ear' does well at actual magic. Further that his opponents should be equally skilled at rhetoric - ie, magic (whether it's the 'actual' kind or illusory kind)

      Whether Christian theism is false doesn't actually matter to this. If I use rhetoric to convince one audience X is the case (when all evidence is that it actually is the case) yet I use rhetoric to convince another audience X is not the case, it shows I am using something which doesn't care whether something is the case or not, it's instead something which is just about bending other souls to my agenda. Ie, just 'hacking' other peoples minds.

      To me one can't agree they did well (no more than one can agree the magician did actual magic) unless one actually buys into it all as a valid argument medium (unless one buys into actual magic). If I were to watch someone fall for a ponzi scheme, I wouldn't say the person delivering the ponzi scheme 'did well'.

      I like your gay designer conspiracy! My own would be that they'd simply like to work with male models exclusively and so inflict their desire onto the surrogate - even, perhaps somewhat in line with your own conspiracy, as a surrogate to punish for being forced to work that way by the industry. I'm not sure about a history of homophobia, I'd buy more into simply being forced by the industry/capitalism to work with female models rather than the male models they'd like to work with is the aggitant for the warped female body image (atleast warped when compared to an average of how women look when you pass them on the street).

    7. I see your point, Callan, but what I'm saying is that the point about rhetoric gets cancelled out, since atheists can use rhetoric too. So why isn't Craig simply laughed off the stage time and time again? When I say he "does well," I'm saying that his statements aren't utterly destroyed, and the mystery is that that's precisely what should happen to them (given that the point about rhetoric gets cancelled out). Thus, this article aims to solve that mystery.

    8. Sorry for the delay in responce!

      Okay, I'll take you at what I understand you to be saying now - But the rhetoric doesn't get cancelled out, Ben!

      Because the scientificly inclined athiest isn't allowed to just use rhetoric (unless you feel all of science, despite the nukes and dialasis machines, is just rhetoric)

      When someone uses some feel good mumbo jumbo that's utterly make believe, if you're going the scientific route, you can't just start making crap up! You're at a disadvantage, because you can't just summon mystical, benevolent creatures into existance with a few well intoned words.

      And we listen for the well intoned words before we listen to 5K repeatitions of a laboratory test. Because the former is our world - or was for so very long. The latter is largely alien to our senses - like a colour we don't really see.

    9. You're right that there's a difference between rhetoric, in the sense of being able to present some material in an exciting way, and fallacies or sophistry. A critical thinker won't engage in the latter, which could put her at a disadvantage in a debate. Scientists can engage in the former, though, as in the field of popular science books.

      As for the fallacies, if William Craig engages in those as opposed to just stimulating rhetoric, a critical thinker should be able to call him on it and to do so in an exciting way. So I still think there's a mystery here even if we accept your point, that Craig can take advantage of our biases towards intuitions and certain fallacies.

    10. Having spent a fair bit of time in other areas, dealing with fallacies - I find that generally someones fallacious statement is often built upon several fallacies at once. Also if we are going to work at the scientific level rather than ad homenim level, we need to break down multiple fallacies down to emperically testable levels - but not only that, emperically testable levels that the audience could test at home in their kitchens (no hadron colliders allowed!).

      This is HARD to do in real time conversation, I swear to Zues! To identify the fallacies and their found fallacies they are built upon - to dismantle them into regular joe science and so disprove them...

      Maybe I'm not even describing it very well - heck, that it doesn't just come to me fluidly as to how to describe it - that's part of the problem!

  4. I've seen most of Craig's debates on youtube. One problem is that these debates are a terrible format for doing serious philosophy. Alex Rosenberg's stuff, for instance, can't be expressed properly in such a superficial format. Problem 2 is that Craig often doesn't debate philosphers, but rather scientists. And it is suprising how terrible most scientists are at basic philosophy. In fact, as I've learned, a great many scientists openly disdain philosophy, holding it in the same contempt they hold theism.

    1. I agree that science-centered atheists can lump philosophy in with theology, and so their refutation of theism looks like it undermines itself since that refutation is bound to be couched in philosophical rather than just in scientific terms.

      However, I'm not so sure about your first point. I agree that formal debates aren't ideal for doing philosophy. (Maybe talking over beer is the best method.) But I think any theory can be simplified. Look at the popular presentations of quantum mechanics. Whatever nonphilosophical skills you need to debate well, an atheist could have them just as well as a theist. I think complaining about the format of a debate is a weak excuse. As I say, Craig repeats the same arguments over and over again. An atheist debater could prepare simplified responses to those arguments, in advance.

      For example, Rosenberg should have talked about the unreliability of our intuitions, since all of Craig's arguments are meant to be intuitive, whereas Rosenberg's science-centered naturalism is an all-out assault on intuition. Rosenberg might have pointed out that at one time we trusted our intuition that the world is flat and rests at the center of the universe, and that diseases are punishments carried out by demons.

  5. Interesting essay. But while I share Ben's view of Christianity, I suspect in 30 years or so he'll look back in wonder that he would have taken the time to try and refute it with logic.

    Nearly half a decade ago I majored in Philosophy, and got into many long debates with a couple different former Jesuit professors. It was my first encounter of truly intelligent people who bought into the mythology, and I was dumbstruck by it.

    For me Heidegger was the light, and I later thought Desmond Morris made the most convincing conjecture on why, besides denial of our mortality, humans were so drawn to creating various gods. For we Primates are quite wired to function within a rigid male hierarchy. One dominant male whose authority within the group is absolute. But when we became hunters on the Savannah splitting off into smaller tribes was necessary and the Alpha males eventually began to lose their control.

    Considering our history pre-homo erectus was orders of magnitude longer than post, it shouldn't really be surprising there would remain this longing for absolute truth manifested by one supreme authority. So man created his various gods. This may be just one of many elements of our evolution that brought about such superstitions, but likely at least a contributor.

    I'm grateful those such as Cain, Dawkins and Hitchens are willing to take on the role of debunking the myths, and that I was not smart enough to feel any compulsion to join them in the trenches. It's a tedious, thankless task, and any impact will be way beyond my lifetime. Reason is probably up against a marker in our DNA that goes back millions of years.

    1. Actually, Cosmic Voyeur, I'm not your typical new atheist. Check out, for example, my article called "Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter?" where I go through the typical refutations of theistic arguments and then argue that the rational case for atheism is irrelevant, since our deepest concerns are usually irrational--and that goes for atheists too.

      For example, as I point out, atheists normally have a sex life which involves all sorts of irrationality, and atheists engage in the mating rituals to make themselves happy. So why shouldn't people fool themselves with theism for the sake of their happiness? As I argue in numerous places on this blog, new atheists like to pretend they're ultrarational, like Data from Star trek.

  6. I don't believe this but, if you could be convinced that the resurrection literally occurred, what would be your reaction?

    1. Hmm, that question reminds me of the debate between Jerry Coyne and PJ Myers about whether theism is falsifiable. Coyne says no because miracles could always be interpreted as effects of superintelligent aliens' technology, as opposed to being supernatural. Arthur C. Clarke says they're precisely the same thing. In other words, if God were to raise someone from the head, he'd be using some advanced technology that would seem like magic to us, and God would be nothing more than an extraterrestrial alien--except that the theist wants to have it both ways, by saying that God is the ultimate subject and object. Aliens are all natural, whereas the eternal God is supposed to transcend nature.

      The other relevant point here is Hume's take on the evidence needed to prove a miracle. He says there could be no such evidence, since natural explanations would always be more likely. This is really the key point, which makes your thought experiment something of a fantasy. We'd have to ask what the evidence would be to compel belief that a miracle happened. Suppose a time traveler dropped off a video of the event and we saw Jesus die and then rise again a few days later. Maybe there was a bright light in the tomb from God's resurrection technology. But if the light showed up on video, God's technology would have had to be halfway natural, and that would lead us to think mere aliens rather than God was involved.

      So I think what would actually be involved in coming to believe in miraculous resurrection isn't a rational assessment of the evidence, but a leap of faith originating likely as a defensive reaction to a cognitive breakdown, as the person "hits rock bottom" or whatever. If that happened to me, my problem would be that I'd still remember everything I know about atheism, naturalism, and so on. That knowledge would prevent me from evangelizing like the garden variety, apparently-insane theist. I might not fit in with fellow Christians or with naturalists.

      Actually, this touches on what I'm writing about for this Monday's article, tentatively called "The Comedy of Theism." I think the proper reaction to belief in miracles is flat-out insanity and overload of cognitive dissonance. So those theists who fit easily into the modern, secular world are all loathsome, existentially inauthentic fakers. They're actually masters of performance art since their whole life is an act, which means atheists should assess their every move in aesthetic terms, as opposed to engaging with their statements on a rational level.

      The issue isn't whether theistic statements are empirically true (since theistic myths, like most metaphysical or otherwise philosophical statements are speculations/fictions/artworks), but whether the performance of a theistic lifestyle after the Age of Reason is sufficiently entertaining for jaded atheists. Is that too condescending? ;)