Defining atheism, and why I can't believe anyone takes William Lane Craig seriously

If you follow him on YouTube (you should) or visit the various atheist/non-believer blogs, you've probably seen QualiaSoup's excellent new video "Lack of belief in gods". He describes what exactly it means to be an atheist and addresses some common objections to the position that atheism is indeed a lack of belief in a god or gods and not, as many believers seem to insist, a positive assertion that a god or gods does not or cannot exist.

One of the objections he addresses is the idea that even animals lack a belief in gods, so it's not a valid statement of (non)belief. I saw that and just thought it was ridiculous. I mean really, I thought, who would be stupid enough to use that as an argument?

I'll tell you who: William Lane Craig, the popular Christian apologist. I'm not sure if he's behind the "drcraigvideos" channel on YouTube, but like most Christian channels it has ratings and comments disabled. You wouldn't want people, you know, talking about this stuff. Anyway, in the video (link here) he really actually does make this comparison of a "lack of belief in gods" to the conscious state of animals.

Craig disappoints me time after time with his circular reasoning, his smug condescension of non-believers, and his hubris in which he presumes to be a trustworthy expert on subjects on which he has not a modicum of formal education such as evolution and cosmology. Still, some Christians eat this stuff up.

Atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods. It is not a "lack of belief in God", because to capitalize that "G" makes the presumption that we're talking about this specific god or that specific god. It should go without saying that when we define atheism as such, we are talking about a position held by adult human beings. We don't talk about animals or infants having a "lack of belief in gods" because we recognize that they lack the cognitive capacity to form a rational judgment. When we talk about adult human beings holding to a lack of belief in gods, we are recognizing that their position is derived from a process of observation and critical analysis, and that for an adult human being to hold a lack of belief in gods is quite a different thing than for an infant or an animal to hold a lack of belief in gods.

There is also a distinction between the statement "I do not believe in a god or gods" versus "A god or gods does not or cannot exist". Craig can often be found in these circumstances to accuse atheists of not really being atheists at all, but agnostics.  But as QualiaSoup so perfectly articulated, agnosticism is not a theologically independent position, like some sort of middle ground between atheism and theism. It is not "I don't know" or "I'm not sure". Agnosticism is a belief about the nature of knowledge: it states that nothing can truly be known. You can be an atheist or a Christian and still be agnostic. In fact, I think the vast majority of Christians would identify with agnosticism since for most, belief is not a position of knowledge derived from evidence but rather taken as a matter of faith – few would claim that God's existence can be known.

I think part of the reason why William Lane Craig is more or less the butt of never ending jokes in the atheist community is because he fails to understand these basic concepts. Instead of engaging atheists on the terms they are talking about atheism, he asserts his own definition of atheism and then spends all his time rebutting his own straw man. Richard Dawkins has a chapter in The God Delusion about the non-existence of God. It's not called, Why God Doesn't Exist. It's called, Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist. That's an important distinction, and one that Craig and other believers of his ilk would do well to absorb if they wish to have a legitimate dialogue with non-believers. Unfortunately, I think Craig's aim is not a legitimate dialogue at all, but a showcase of smug condescension and hubris.

If the labels really put the dialogue at that much of an impasse, perhaps we ought to just do away with them. After all, with something like sixteen major branches of theology and over 30,000 denominations, I don't learn much about someone's beliefs when they tell me they are a "Christian". Perhaps instead of engaging what we think a label ought to convey, we should address what people are actually saying about their beliefs.

Comments

  1. More Craig polemics... gotta' love them.

    I wrote one recently myself.

    http://advocatusatheist.blogspot.com/2010/10/william-lane-craig-king-of-bullshit.html

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