This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Professor Craig,
My name is Adam. I am an atheist, and have been one ever since I can remember. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic church, but could never really say that I held any theistic beliefs with any sincerity. For instance, one time, when I was around eight or nine years old, I asked a nun at my church where I "was" before I was born. She responded: "You were with God." I was still curious, so I asked her how long I was with God, before my being born, and she proclaimed: "For an eternity!" I then asked her why I could not remember "existing with God” for an eternity of time (is an eternity of time even a coherent concept?). She had enough with that question and proceeded to shew me away to play with the other children. Looking back, I am proud of my skeptical disposition.
Let's skip ahead a little bit. I found philosophy and I fell in love with it. I transferred schools in order to obtain my BA. Almost all of the papers I wrote as an undergrad were about atheism or God. I was on a mission to be as rational as I could with regards to my atheistic beliefs. Moreover, I was practically an "evangelical" atheist, proclaiming the good word of rationality! My beliefs were strident at best, and intolerant at worst. I thought I had the "God question" all figured out. It was a settled issue for me: God did not exist. The philosophy of religion was my initial and main draw to philosophy, but I soon found myself wanting to explore philosophy in all its glory. Philosophy, as a whole, was too interesting to just "stop", then move on to some "real job". I decided to apply to an MA program in philosophy at CSULA, and got accepted. Philosophy was something that I took very seriously. So much so, that I drove from NY to CA with no job and no place to live in order to continue my studies. I actually wrote a response to your paper The Absurdity of Life Without God and used it as my writing sample in order to get in to CSULA. I stayed up for months writing and polishing my responses to your claims of the inconsistency of atheism in its response to meaning, value, and purpose in life. I had too. You were telling me my life, as a direct result of my worldview, was worthless in every possible way. Well, as an ambitious philosophy student, I could not simply let you get away this. Your objections to atheism needed answers. And after wrestling with your paper for some time, I actually felt pretty good about the end product and presumed to have "answered" your objections to atheism in a satisfactory way. I could now move on, live my life with the excitement, consistency, and appreciation that I had before reading your essay.
I was wrong.
I should have known better too, since the first time I read that paper of yours, I couldn't sleep for two days. It completely shattered my worldview. Let me mention here that I was a huge fan of the New Atheists, but I always sensed something was askew with them. Something seemed off about them because whenever they were talking about meaning, value, or purpose, they answered in such ways that only a person ignorant of the objections in your paper could respond. In short (too late), your paper never left my mind, even years after I wrote a "response" to it. I knew, deep down, that not only did I not, but could not answer your objections to atheism. What you say the atheistic worldview entails is true. There is no escaping the nihilism as an atheist.
Everything has died for me.
You have ruined my life.
Before I go any further, let me say that you are and always have been my favorite living philosopher. I have seen every debate you have ever recorded and put up on the internet. I watch all your lectures and talks (Closer to Truth, youtube, etc.) I think you are the epitome of what a philosopher should be. You're uber logical, fantastically clear, and "computeresk" with the speed and precision of your responses to objections against your position, particularly the criticisms you respond to in your debates. For a long time now, I have wanted to be a philosopher as you are a philosopher. I want to have an argument posed against my position, and be able to dissect it in the same manner as you do. I can honestly say that I have learned more from reading what you have wrote and watching you on the internet than maybe all of my years in school, formally studying philosophy. I seem to owe you a lot, with regards to my philosophical development, at least.
Now, let's get down to business and why exactly it is that you have ruined my life. After reading your paper on the absurdity of life without God, I soon realized that I had to become a nihilist. To act otherwise would inevitably reduce into an inconsistency. Nihilism is the logical conclusion of an atheistic worldview. Yet, nihilism is unlivable. Christopher Hitchens used to say that you cannot derive any knowledge of what an atheist believes from the fact that she is an atheist. If someone claims to be an atheist, according to Hitchens, you can only conclude that she believes that "God does not exist" or that she "lacks a belief in God" (don't get me started with that distinction!!!) You cannot “go any further” and know if she is a Marxist or a Capitalist, etc. But your paper shows that Hitchens is patently false about this. Atheism necessarily entails nihilistic conclusions about certain questions, particularly those you bring up in your paper about meaning, value, and purpose.
There is a similar misunderstanding that shows how atheists fail to fully comprehend the severity of their own worldview. I feel like I need to say how disappointed I am in the New Atheists, and moreover, the professional philosophers, who do not understand the "moral argument" for God's existence. Why can't they comprehend the ontology of values? Why is this so difficult? It is all too obvious that you are not talking about whether people can act, or know of the, "good" on atheism, but rather that there is no foundation for morality outside of God. Sorry, I just had to rant a little, because it bothers me when philosophers, who should know better, don't comprehend the moral argument. I can only imagine how frustrated you must feel. Further, I hate all the nasty comments you get on YouTube. People don't even understand how well thought out your views are. You have the most coherent worldview I have ever heard anyone describe. Sorry, just wanted to say that you have at least one atheist on your side, sir.
So, this brings me to the problem (finally, sorry)-
Philosophically, I agree with almost everything you say. Not in a “follower” sense, but in that I find what you say either convincingly true or I find I come to the same conclusions that you do with regards to particular ideas that I have reasoned through on my own. With that said, I am still an atheist. How is this possible? How could my favorite philosopher be a Christian, I agree with almost everything he says, yet I am an atheist? Well, it seems that you make an extremely strong case for the rationality of an “abstract” notion of God, but I cannot get myself to go the extra step further and believe any of the world religions (not that I believe this abstract God actually exists either, it just seems to be becoming more and more plausible to me). I definitely cannot get myself to be a Christian. Christianity just does not seem true to me. However, the deeper I dive into philosophy, the more the theistic worldview seems more plausible. The concepts or “language” of mathematics seems to “cry out” as you put it for an explanation, objective moral values seem to be real (but they can't be “real”, if atheism is true), the idea of "existence" nauseates me to no end (just the thought of anything, at all, existing, and especially existing without any reason, frightens me,), and I could go on and on. You know, all the things you speak about in your YouTube videos.
However, even when I don't think about the arguments, and I think about what you and others have said about the “Holy Spirit”, I cannot get myself to believe that this “Holy Spirit” exists and can authenticate my belief in God. As you know, Martin Luther thought the Holy Spirit would guide people in reading the Bible properly, when the Reformation was underway, since there was the concern that without the guidance of the church, people may interpret the bible incorrectly. The Holy Spirit's guiding capabilities seem to be have been proven empirically false though, due to such a wide variety of conflicting beliefs all being derived from the Bible. Now I know that the diversity of beliefs doesn't necessarily allow for the conclusion that all of the religious beliefs or experiences are false, that there aren't at least some beliefs or experiences that are true, and therefore the Holy Spirit does not exist. However, this disagreement does cause pause in me, and it makes the situation suspect enough to where I cannot seemingly distinguish between an authentic experience with the Holy Spirit or my being deluded. There does not seem to be anything here to help me out of the nihilistic rut. Lately though, I have been questioning why I even value “rationality”, or what it even means to “value” rationality on an atheistic worldview. That's another topic though, sorry.
Let me wrap this ramble up. I am now stuck in a nihilistic-atheistic world that I hate. Agnosticism is not even a coherent position to me, with regards to a Perfect Being, since I believe that the greatest conceivable being could give me knowledge of its existence, if it wanted to. Theism is a dream come true. The world would make sense, the existential mysteries that haunt me would be solved, life would be livable. It is atheism, however, which seems to be true, yet I do not want to live like this. I have become depressed to no end. I have been in a nihilistic rut for years now. I have become utterly recluse. Yet, even with all this, I cannot come to believe in God. What would YOU suggest I do? This letter is as sincere as it gets. You may be my last hope. Since I agree with you on so much, I was hoping you would have the answer to this. I know the “answer” is Christianity, but as I said, I cannot get myself to believe its truth. I am an atheist who hates atheism. I want there to be a God more than anything, yet I cannot get myself to believe in one. I cannot seem to give an adequate answer to Camus's question: “Is life worth living?”
A feel like a philosopher of your caliber is the only person I have left to turn to. A psychologist wouldn't get my concerns, at least I don't think think they would. I need the clarity and reasonableness of a philosopher. Please, help.
Your biggest atheist fan,
PS- Do me one favor? Even if you never have time to respond. Please, do not debate Lawrence Krauss anymore. As with most people not trained in philosophy, it is not even an argument in any sort of philosophical sense. He is a shouting bag of hot air with irrelevant criticisms and gross misunderstandings of the arguments. He does not deserve to be the face for atheism, we both know this. But maybe this is your plan.
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Adam, it is so encouraging to get a letter like yours! You have seen through the fog of often hateful rhetoric to discern the real issues. Your story reminds me so much of C. S. Lewis, who, as a scientific naturalist, found everything that he thought was real to be meaningless and unfulfilling, and everything he loved, such as myth, legend, and fantasy, to be imaginary and unreal. Like you, Lewis approached Christ gradually, shedding first his naturalism and then later his scepticism about Jesus of Nazareth. Lewis finally broke the bonds of the naturalism that had bound him, discovering in Christ the “true myth,” the fusion of rationality and imagination. Once you free yourself of your atheism, you’ll find the next step to Christian theism a relatively short one.
You mention your scepticism about Luther’s belief that the Holy Spirit “would guide people in reading the Bible properly,” for “The Holy Spirit's guiding capabilities seem to be have been proven empirically false. . . , due to such a wide variety of conflicting beliefs all being derived from the Bible.” Now I don’t subscribe to the belief you attribute to Luther; nevertheless, the argument you offer against it does not strike me as a good one. In order to prevent a plethora of divergent interpretations, what would be required is, not just that Holy Spirit would guide people into the truth, but that Holy Spirit would intervene to prevent aberrant interpretations of the Bible as well, and Luther never claimed that He does that. If Luther is right, one would expect to find people adhering to a correct interpretation and others departing from the true way and propounding deviant interpretations, which is exactly what we do find. Luther’s view would be falsified only if everyone departed from the truth.
I think that what the Holy Spirit does is to furnish believers with a fundamental assurance of their being properly related to God and unbelievers a conviction of their not being properly related to God but of being in need of His forgiveness and moral cleansing. While this entails the truth of certain core Christian claims, it does not guarantee proper interpretation of biblical passages. That is instead achieved through the use of proper hermeneutical techniques of literary interpretation.
I think you already discern the weakness of your objection, for you say, “I know that the diversity of beliefs doesn't necessarily allow for the conclusion that all of the religious beliefs or experiences are false, that there aren't at least some beliefs or experiences that are true, and therefore the Holy Spirit does not exist.” Right; you need to be open to the convicting witness of the Spirit in your life that you need God’s forgiveness and cleansing for your moral failures. Anyone who thinks hard about the moral argument should realize that if objective moral values and duties do exist, he falls desperately short of the moral good and so fails to discharge his moral duties and is thus in need of forgiveness and redemption. Indeed, I think probably no one comes to faith in Christ apart from a conviction of his guilt and need of moral renovation.
You have good things to say about the theistic arguments I’ve defended; but you do not mention my equally rigorous work, flowing out of my doctoral studies under Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich, on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. I was astonished to discover as a result of my study that the main facts undergirding the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection are actually agreed upon by the majority of historical Jesus scholars today, not just conservative scholars but the broad mainstream of New Testament scholars, including a good number of Jewish scholars, who teach at secular universities and non-evangelical divinity schools. So I think faith in Jesus is historically quite well-founded.
So now we come to the million dollar question: “What would YOU suggest I do?” I take this question very seriously. So here’s what I suggest you do:
- Read C. S. Lewis’ book Surprised by Joy. I think you will resonate with Lewis’ struggle, both to free himself of atheism and then of his scepticism about Christian faith.
- Seek experiences that put you in touch with the transcendent. You need to escape the cloying bonds of naturalism by catching glimpses of a transcendent reality beyond the material world. This will help to prepare your heart for belief in God. So open yourself to experiences of sublime beauty. Listen to Schumann’s Träumerei, to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and so on. And when I say “listen,” I don’t mean to have it playing in the background while you go about your tasks. I mean to set all else aside for an allotted time, close your eyes, and just focus on listening to the music. Watch a video of ballroom champions Jonathan Crossley and Lyn Marriner performing a waltz or slow foxtrot. Drink in the stunning beauty of their performance. Watch a sunrise or sunset over a beautiful landscape or take in the beauty of pristine nature. Such beauty can sometimes produce an almost painful ache in us because of our inability to take it all in.
- Read the Gospels about the life of Jesus. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll find the story of his life gripping. Jesus is a tremendously attractive person in the wisdom of his teaching, in his character, and in the authenticity of his life.
- Look into the historical credibility of the personal claims and resurrection of Jesus. Read, e.g., the relevant chapters in Reasonable Faith (Crossway, 2008). Read my debates with sceptical New Testament critics like John Dominic Crossan (Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, ed. Paul Copan [Baker, 1998] or Gerd Lüdemann (The Resurrection: Fact or Figment? ed. Paul Copan [Inter-Varsity, 2000] and ask which way the evidence points.
- Embark on a spiritual experiment. Begin to pray daily. Attend a church where the Gospel is faithfully preached and you can be with Christians to get to know them. You’ll find these people to be unlike ordinary people you meet, more reflective, more compassionate, more focused on spiritual things.
- Finally, get a copy of Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.” The person it describes is you, Adam! “With unhurrying chase, and unperturbèd pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy,” He is after you and will continue His pursuit until you recognize in Him all that you are longing for.
This post and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website: www.reasonablefaith.org