Reading Reasonable Faith: Chapter 1

As of last week, I’ve been reading William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, as part of the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge. William Lane Craig is an American philosopher, theologian and Christian apologist, who has published a number of popular books and academic works related to Christian apologetics. He is also known for his many formal debates with atheists and Muslims.

Reasonable Faith is a book aimed at a Christian audience. It is geared towards teaching its readers how to argue that Christianity is true and does not give the impression that the author is going to do his best to objectively determine the facts. Rather, the book’s operative assumptions are that Christianity is true, and that non-Christians are wrong. This might seem trivially obvious when said about this kind of book, and one might say there’s nothing significant about it, given that one might think Christianity is true because of the arguments supporting it. Unfortunately, the first two chapters of the book enforce the impressions obtained by reading the introduction. As I’m writing this, I’m halfway through the third chapter, so I’ll preface my criticisms in this post by saying that Reasonable Faith gets much better after the first two chapters. The beginning, especially the first chapter, left me quite disappointed.

The first chapter is entitled “How Do I Know Christianity Is True?” The answer to the question posed by the title is quite simple, and Craig opens with it after giving some historical background about faith. As he writes, “the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.” He clarifies, adding, “the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it.” A person who has this experience “does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God”. Further, “such an experience provides one not only with subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and… arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 43)

Craig spends most of the chapter fleshing out the implications of this (before moving on to explain how we can show Christianity to be true, even though we know it is.) In a section titled “The Unbeliever”, Craig claims that unbelievers also have this experience, which confirms God’s existence to them, their guilt before God, and so on. (p. 46) (It’s not clear how Craig knows this; the only evidence in this chapter consists of quotes from the Bible.)  A page later, he adds that:

“when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves the darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.” (p. 47)

He also argues that because of our experience of God, “the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role”. (p. 47) Craig refers to Martin Luther’s distinction between the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. Craig writes, “The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the Gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the Gospel.” Given the witness of the Holy Spirit, “only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate.” (p. 47) Furthermore, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.” (p. 48) This is one of the main problems I have with this chapter; I’ll discuss it below.

Craig adds a few comments about the similarly self-authenticating experiences claimed by adherents of other religions. Regarding this, he makes three points:

  • “The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of false claims to such a witness. How, then, does the existence of false claims to the Spirit’s witness to the truth of a non-Christian religion do anything to logically undermine the fact that the Christian believer does possess the genuine witness of the Spirit?” (p. 48)
  • When asked “how do you know that your experience isn’t also spurious?”, Craig replies with “the experience of the Spirit’s witness is self-authenticating for him who really has it.” (p. 48)
  • He also addresses one possible objection, the idea that similar, false claims ought to undermine his “confidence in the reliability of the cognitive faculties which form religious beliefs, since those faculties apparently so often mislead people”. To do this, he says that one needn’t believe that these claims are false (meaning adherents of other religions also enjoy such an experience of God) and that this objection “unjustifiably assumes that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a product of human cognitive faculties or is indistinguishable from their outputs.” (p. 49) He writes that he sees “no reason to think that non-veridical religious experiences are indistinguishable from the witness of the Holy Spirit.” He adds that “one way to get empirical evidence for this would be simply to ask ex-Mormons or Muslims who have become Christians if their experience of God in Christianity is identical to what they had before their conversion.”

There are a number of problems with this chapter. I’ll deal with these four:

  • There is no reason to believe that anyone knows Christianity is true because of a self-authenticating experience, or to believe someone who claims to know Christianity is true because of such an experience.
  • There is no reason given in this chapter to think that people who claim not to have such an experience are mistaken or lying.
  • Craig’s objections in regards to the diversity of religious experience ignore or overlook the lack of such an experience claimed by unbelievers.
  • Craig is attempting to insulate himself from anything that contradicts the truth of Christianity.

First, and most obviously, Craig does not offer a convincing reason for us to take his fundamental claim seriously. From our point of view, we can’t know if Craig truly experiences God, or if he only thinks he’s truly experiencing God, or if he is falsely claiming to have such an experience. Looking at this chapter, the only thing that Craig has to say about this is the second point listed above, which amounts to, “I really know.” But Craig also believes that it is possible that a (non-Christian) believer “only thinks he has a self-authenticating experience of God”. (p. 51) The question to ask here is quite obvious, and the only answer there is (I really know) is in no way satisfactory. I suspect Craig doesn’t care, but we, as his readers, should care, because if a Mormon or a Muslim made a similar argument, and also claimed that they really, truly knew, and that it was Craig who was wrong or only partially correct, we wouldn’t be able to tell who was correct. And if we took one of them seriously, we’d have to take the others seriously as well, given that they make equally strong (or equally weak) cases.

Second is the assertion that unbelievers who do not claim to have such an experience (including myself, and probably most unbelievers) do in fact have this experience and they willingly ignore and reject it. I’m not sure how Craig would respond to my claim that I don’t have this experience. Perhaps he might claim that I’m mistaken or lying. Given that, according to Craig, unbelievers willingly ignore and reject this, it seems more likely that Craig is implying that it’s the latter, but I’ll be charitable and allow for both possibilities. There’s nothing in this chapter that explains why or how I could be mistaken. Since it is possible that Craig only thinks he has such an experience, while I really don’t have such an experience, I feel that there should be something more convincing than “I really know”. As for dishonesty, this is simply an uncharitable assumption. What reason is there to think that my claim, or an identical claim by any other agnostic or atheist or even a religious person is a dishonest one? (There’s no reason to think that every religious person agrees with Craig.  I wouldn’t have when I was still a Christian; the label ‘self-authenticating does not seem to apply to the warm, bubbly feelings I experienced in Church that were indistinguishable from other warm, bubbly feelings completely unrelated to matters of religion.) What reason is there to believe that every unbeliever – even  those who have searched in vain, or struggled desperately with their loss of faith, or would like Christianity to be true – are lying when they claim they don’t have such an experience?

The third problem has to do with the apparent double standards employed in this chapter. At one point, (quoted in the third point in the list of objects above), Craig acknowledges that descriptions of experiences of ex-Muslims and ex-Mormons who are now Christian count as empirical evidence about their experiences. It’s not at all obvious to me why unbelievers’ descriptions of their experiences (or lack of experiences) don’t qualify as empirical evidence. John W. Loftus, in Why I Became an Atheist, counts the lack of such an experience on the part of unbelievers as evidence against the existence of such an experience. (p. 193) One may also count the different claims by believers of different religions as evidence against the reliability of these faculties. As explained in the third point, Craig has a number of objections to this (which do no more than establish that it’s possible that the witness of the Holy Spirit can be distinguished from whatever it is other believers experience, or that it’s possible that witness of the Holy Spirit is not a product of human cognitive faculties), but his objections appear to completely overlook atheists, agnostics or those religious believers who don’t agree with him, (and which, like Loftus, we may consider to be evidence) and, as a result, Craig doesn’t deal with the entire picture. What does it matter if it’s only possible that the witness of the Holy Spirit is distinguishable from the experience of non-Christian believers, when a subset of the human population has no equivalent experience? What does it matter if it can be said that it is possible that witness of the Holy Spirit is not a product of human faculties when a vast number of people do not claim to have such an experience anyway? Additional (and convincing) explanations are required here, and it simply won’t do to treat the claims of unbelievers differently than those of believers (or the claims of non-Christian believers differently from Christian believers) with no better justification than a purported self-authenticating experience.

The fourth, and last problem I’ll talk about, is the purpose that the witness of the Holy Spirit serves in Craig’s view. Craig makes a distinction between knowing Christianity is true (due to the witness of the Holy Spirit) and showing it is true (with arguments and evidence). The implications of this are evident in this paragraph, written by Craig as an example of how to approach an unbeliever:

“My friend, I know Christianity is true because God’s spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true. And  you can know it is true, too, because God is knocking at the door of your heart, telling you the same thing. If you’re sincerely seeking God, then God will give you assurance that the Gospel is true. Now to try and show you it’s true, I’ll share with you some arguments and evidence I really find convincing. But should my arguments seem weak and unconvincing to you, that’s my fault, not God’s. It only shows that I’m a poor apologist, not the gospel is untrue. Whatever you think of my arguments, God still loves you and holds you accountable. I’ll do my best to present good arguments to you. But ultimately you have to deal, not with arguments, but with God himself.” (p. 58)

This means that we should believe even if the arguments are flawed or the evidence is weak or nonexistent. Craig provides more examples of this. In an aside about rejecting the magisterial role of reason, he writes:

“… let me suggest two theological reasons why I think those Christians who support the role of magisterial reason are mistaken. First, such a role would consign most Christians to irrationality. The vast majority of the human race have neither the time, training, nor resources to develop a full-blown Christian apologetic as the basis of their faith. Even the proponents of the magisterial use of reason at one time in the course of their education presumably lacked such an apologetic. According to the magisterial role of reason, these persons should not have believed in Christ until they finished their apologetic. Otherwise, they would be believing for insufficient reasons. I once asked a fellow seminary student, “How do you know Christianity is true?” He replied, “I really don’t know.” Does that mean he should give up Christianity until he finds rational arguments to ground his faith? Of course not! He knew Christianity is true because he knew Jesus, regardless of rational arguments. The fact is that we can know the truth whether we have rational arguments or not.” (p. 50)

And, he adds:

“Second, if the magisterial role of reason were legitimate, then a person who had been given poor arguments for Christianity would have a just excuse before God for not believing in him. Suppose someone had been told to believe in God on the basis of an invalid argument. Could he stand before God on the judgment day and say, “God, those Christians only gave me a lousy argument for believing in you. That’s why I didn’t believe”? Of course not! The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit.” (p. 50)

So, even in light of “persuasive reasons to disbelieve”, such as lack of evidence or contrary evidence, flawed arguments, and so on, we should believe, because we already know Christianity is true even if there are arguments or evidence supporting it. According to Craig, we should, in fact, reject good arguments and evidence that contradict the truth of Christianity. As Craig himself puts it, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.” (p. 48) In light of this, if someone claims to have no such witness and finds the lack of good arguments or evidence problematic, or thinks he has good arguments and evidence against the truth of Christianity, what are we to think? That this person is being insincere or is willingly rejecting or ignoring the truth of Christianity for other reasons? I find it difficult to interpret this chapter as saying anything different, especially when Craig proceeds to write this:

“…unbelief is at root a spiritual, not an intellectual, problem. Sometimes an unbeliever will throw up an intellectual smoke screen so that he can avoid personal, existential involvement with the gospel. In such a case, further argumentation may be futile and counterproductive, and we need to be sensitive to moments when apologetics is and is not appropriate. If we sense the unbeliever’s arguments and questions are not sincere, we may do better to simply break off the discussion and ask him, “If I answered that objection, would you then really be ready to become a Christian?” Tell him lovingly and forthrightly that you think he’s throwing up an intellectual smoke screen to keep from confronting the real issue: his sin before God. Apologetics is thus most appropriate and effective when the unbeliever is spiritually open and sincerely seeking to know the truth.” (p. 59)

I’m not sure how Craig would qualify this, but if what he calls “an intellectual smoke screen” is constituted of whatever reasons, arguments and evidence an unbeliever may have for thinking Christianity is not true, then it seems that we are to  imagine that an unbeliever who throws up such an ‘intellectual smoke screen’ is spiritually closed and insincere. But we are to imagine this on the basis of a self-authenticating experience which some of us don’t have, and which might not in fact be a self-authenticating experience. These are shaky foundations for assumptions about the subjective experience and motivations of entire categories of people (which Craig doesn’t have access to anyway). They are also weak grounds for assuming that anyone who disagrees with Craig about the basic truth of Christianity is wrong. Craig appears to be doing little else in this Chapter besides trying to forge a conceptual immunity to any non-Christian argument. There is a bit of irony in the question Craig advises us to pose to insincere unbelievers (quoted directly above). If we inverted it, or as Chris Hallquist suggests, replied with “If I rebutted your answer, would you be ready to become an atheist?”, our answer, given Craig’s first chapter, should be a “No.” The charge of hypocrisy would only be avoidable if we could really prove to ourselves and others that we really have a self-authenticating experience, and eliminate the possibility that we only think we have one.

My next post will probably be shorter, and will focus on the second chapter of Reasonable Faith, which is called “The Absurdity of Life Without God”.

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