an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 9, concluding remarks

with 5 comments


Now I want to make some final remarks about the debate process and the way it can be manipulated, and some general remarks about the growth of atheism.

I’ve taken some time to respond to Dr Craig’s arguments, and I could’ve taken longer, but I didn’t consider all of them worthy of an elaborate response. In any case I’ve taken a lot longer than twenty minutes for my overall response, and that’s as it should be. To make a claim is generally easier and less time-consuming than to refute a claim, and it has always been thus, and Dr Craig knows that very well. This is probably why Dr Craig insists on setting the agenda and why he always claims that, if every one of his points isn’t refuted in 20 minutes, he wins.  This is essentially a modified version of the infamous ‘Gish gallop’, in which the opponent has little hope of addressing all the erroneous elements embedded in every point in the allotted time, so he or she (but actually I don’t recall a female ever debating Dr Craig) has no choice but to select two or three points to focus on. This allows Dr Craig to claim a very dubious ‘victory’ for the points that aren’t addressed. Hopefully in pointing this out, I’ve helped you to see the limited relevance of the time-constrained debate format in answering these big questions.

Now, I want to focus finally on the growth of the non-religious trend in the west. I recall hearing Dr Craig in an interview stating that only 2% of the US population was atheist. He probably got this figure from the 2009 ARIS report, the American Religious Identification Survey, which did indeed find that some 1.6% of surveyed American adults self-identified as atheist or agnostic. However the same report found that some 15% of Americans identified as having no religion. Make of that what you will. That same report also found that, in 2008, some 76% of Americans identified as Christians, compared with 86% in 1990. The report concludes that:

‘The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion’.

A more recent 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

The USA, however, is a lot more religious than other western nations. My own country, Australia, is I think more typical in its profile. In Australia’s 2011 census, the non-religious category amounted to 22.3% of the whole, the fastest-growing category by far, and considering that 8.6% of the population chose not to answer the question, and that a substantial proportion of those would be non-religious, it probable that more than a quarter of the population would identify as non-religious. Some 61% of Australians now identify as Christians, compared to around 84% in the early seventies, and it’s been falling more rapidly in recent years. Figures from Great Britain and Canada are much the same, with rapid growth in the non-religious categories in recent years.

Yet in spite of all this evidence, Dr Craig scoffs at the challenges to his theism and dismisses atheists as intellectual lightweights. He even likes to make the claim that atheists have been using the same arguments for the last 300 years and that all their arguments have been quashed. This amuses me, because this is exactly what any number of atheist philosophers have been saying about theists and their arguments. And I have to say, having read a few essay collections on the existence of god, I’ve always thought that atheists had by far the best arguments – but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

The difficulty that Dr Craig and his cronies must face is this. If he has all the best arguments, why are the majority of philosophers – trained analytical thinkers – non-believers, even in his own country? Why is it that non-belief is growing far more rapidly among the most educated than among the least educated? Why is it that millions and millions and millions of people, in Australia, Europe, North America and Japan, are comfortably rejecting Christianity and religion? Is there a virus going around? Have people dumbed down from the glorious days of pre-Enlightenment Christendom? Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shake Dr Craig out of his smug complacency – not that this would be possible – but I do want to pose that question to you, the audience. What has changed over the past half-century? I’m not saying that I know the answer myself, though I have my speculations on that question, which I won’t share with you today. But let me be clear that there is a change under way.

Dr Craig, as I say has spoken of 300 years of atheism. The writer Jack Miles has written about how galling it must be for atheists that the term has been around for a couple of thousand years, with still only a minority of followers. But Miles has misrepresented the situation. A couple of thousand years ago there were very few people, mostly intellectuals, who scoffed at the religious superstitions of their fellows. Epicurus, Seneca, Lucretius, these were largely isolated individuals, islands in a sea of theism, or at least deism. The term atheist in fact began to be bandied about with the rise of Christianity. The Christians called the Pagans atheists, and the Pagans called the Christians atheists, and in a sense both sides were correct, because each side refused to believe in the only god or gods worth worshipping, according to the other side. Of course to modern observers, neither side was atheist.

Atheism as a ‘movement’ is of far more recent vintage. Isolated individuals cropped up again in the eighteenth century – Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach, Hume, Diderot and a few others – but many of the Enlightenment and early nineteenth century critics of Christianity, such as Voltaire, Paine, and the American founding fathers, were deists. Even in the late 19th century, the great voices of atheism, such as Robert Ingersoll, were largely voices in the wilderness, though the intellectual claims of atheism were forwarded by many philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill who simply ignored the ethical claims of religion completely, as have most moral philosophers since their time.

But it’s really only in the twentieth century, and the later half of it, that atheism has become common-place. This is a trend that I cannot see being reversed, in a world where knowledge – of our universe, of our psychology, and of our human origins – expands on a daily basis. Religious belief is becoming out-moded and, to many, positively embarrassing in its simplistic claims about good and evil, sin and redemption, and gods as lords over us, to be worshipped and feared and so forth. Of course we live in a multi-speed polity, as far as the absorption of new ideas is concerned, and we will long continue to have our backward-facing Islamists, our Haredi Jews and our Amish-style Christian sects, but they will not be among the world’s movers and shakers.

So to return to Dr Craig and his crusade against the world’s atheists. None of his arguments withstands much scrutiny but he will never admit this and he will go on repeating them, unbent and unbowed until, if I may quote the bard, ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’ puts a stop to the farce. I mentioned earlier the flat-earthers who filled halls only 150 years ago with their speeches against the round-earth conspiracy. Not one of those flat-earthers ever admitted he was wrong. Every last one of them went to their deaths proclaiming their ‘truths’ with just as much confidence as when they started out. Creationists never change their minds either, or very rarely. They just die. And they’re not replaced, or the replacement rate is unable to match the death rate, and so the species eventually dies out. This has been the fate of the flat-earthers. It will happen to the creationists too, though it’ll take a little longer, and as to those who in future want to take up the cause of Dr Craig or his later incarnations, you’ll no doubt find the going increasingly tough, and the potential audience increasingly indifferent. The real world is becoming just too interesting to keep focusing on rehashed arguments about done and dusted worldviews.

Go in peace, and thanks for listening.

5 Responses

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  1. […] and in that piece I talked also about trends, comparing the censuses of the past. I also wrote more recently on the overall trend away from religiosity in the west, quoting some interesting recent figures out […]

  2. Overall, not bad. There were a few places you fell and stumbled:

    1. The math one. The mathematicians themselves tend to fall on WLC’s side, with many of them being Platonic. Will you criticize them or suggest they don’t know what they are talking about? Or have some mistaken notion of how they practice their own profession?

    2. There is a kind of dilettante and fawning attitude towards current scientific concepts. Such concepts are protean and deserve no such affection.

    3. Tackling WCL per se. The man is who he is and does what he does. It’s like buying something in a store: no one is holding a gun to your head to make you buy anything. Same with WCL’s schtick . Everyone has a reason why they believe what they believe. By putting yourself up against him in this fashion, you are tying yourself to him hip to hip.

    4. The electroshock thing at the beginning. I’ve thought similar things before, but it’s really not a good way to go, funny or not.

    One of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite authors sums up my overall impression of your piece:

    “Unawakened man knows only facts, no mysteries, to him things are their own explanation; the world is there and what else is there to know? Such is the animal outlook; to the bovine mind pastures may be good or bad, but they need no explanation. Thus unawakened man is content with the facts of existence–his environment, his food, his work, his family and friends are so many facts surrounding him, pleasant or unpleasant, but never in need of explanation. To speak to him of mystery hidden in his life and his world would not convey any meaning; he exists and the fact of his existence is sufficient unto him. Death and life themselves may for a while cause him anxiety or joy, but even then they do not arouse any questions; they are familiar and customary. It is the very familiarity of life which hides its mystery to the animal mind. ”

    Knowledge is like a spiral. When you are looking down at lower windings, the mysteries seem absurd from that vantage point. When you look up towards higher windings, they are inevitable.

    And if you wish to come and critique my stuff in a similar vein, I am always open to constructive criticism.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed reading it.




    July 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    • Thanks for your comments.
      I think stumbling comes before falling, at least in my universe, but then on some drunken occasions order does become confused.
      On the first point, I’m far from being a mathematician but I certainly have heard mathematicians expressing astonishment at the world’s being mathematically explicable, especially at the most abstract levels, though few have then leapt to a supernatural cosmic organiser. This is a fascinating conundrum, I agree, and I may well try to explore it further some time. I’ve also heard mathematicians poo-poo this idea and take the line I’ve taken in the above piece. I’ve no idea who are in the majority. As to Platonism, I’ve always felt, like I think Aristotle did, that Plato took the rough and ready concepts and ‘regularities’ of the real world and then abstracted them into his ‘forms’, not the other way round.
      On the second point, I am of course a dilettante, and how could I be otherwise? I’m not a professional or ‘expert’ philosopher or scientist or debater, I’m only an English teacher. So, for entirely self-serving reasons, I reject anything pejorative in the dilettante designation.
      I have no idea what you mean by ‘current scientific concepts’, but I can’t deny that I’m fascinated and excited about what we’re learning about the brain, the body, human origins, universal origins, etc etc. Whether the concepts we use to probe these fields will become outmoded, I’ve no idea – prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
      To your third point about WLC, I find it a bizarre one. What you’re saying is ‘people have reasons to believe what they believe, so there’s no point in arguing with them. If you do, you’re tying yourself to them hip to hip’. This is entirely the opposite of, say, Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘a philosopher who doesn’t engage in argument is like a boxer who refuses to enter the ring’. Imagine a philosopher who finds a philosophical argument that they don’t like, or that they see has various logical flaws, stopping and saying, ‘well, they have reasons to believe what they’re saying so I won’t interfere’. That would mean the end of philosophy, but more importantly, the end of challenging any and all beliefs. Where would we be then?
      On the electroshock, humorous or not, my obvious point was that these timed ‘performances’ are pretty well worthless, and far inferior to the on-paper (or now via electronic media) to and fro arguments of philosophers, however dull these may be to onlookers.
      Anyway, thanks again for your comments, I will check out your blog more thoroughly when I have the time.


      July 4, 2014 at 9:19 am

      • Hi luigifun

        Thank you for seriously engaging my comments. I appreciate it very much.

        Yes, the math issue is very meaty. I don’t know if you are generally aware of philosophy of mathematics, which expresses the variety of basic views mathematicians have of their activities. Wikipedia has nice introductions to the overall topic. Platonism is one of the schools of math. Intuitionism is another, constructivism another, and so on. Each offers a different notion of what constitutes legitimate mathematics. The fact that there is debate and diversity on this front is itself interesting, given the general perceptions that lay people have about math. Years ago I got introduced to these topics reading Kline’s “Mathematics: the loss of certainty”, for which the title itself expresses well the main dilemma.

        As with anything, each view has merits and demerits, and I would never defend one to the exclusion of the others. However, given my other-worldly penchants, I generally fall in the Platonist camp.

        Now, although such terms did not exist in his era, a prominent thinker who could be considered to fall into the Platonist mathematical camp is GW Leibniz, who, as you probably know, invented the calculus we use today. Leibniz too believed the regularity of math reflected God’s design of nature.

        In regard my 3rd point, and your reply to it, what I am suggesting is that, instead of tackling WLC, who is rather low hanging fruit and quite vulnerable because of his strict adherence to a specific interpretation of Christian ideology, you should instead tackle Leibniz. It’s a rather difficult insight to express, which my 3rd point tried to convey, so if you bear with me, I would appreciate your patience. Another way I can attempt to express the idea is by the saying “A God is only as good as its followers”, which can be humorously illustrated by a scene from the 1997 movie Spawn (by Todd McFarlane):

        In this scene, Spawn goes to a graveyard, where a bunch of heavy metal devil worshipers are pretending to do a sacrifice rite (unrelated to Spawn’s reason for being there, he just happens upon them). They are portrayed as a bunch of complete idiots. Spawn’s enemy then appears, who takes the form of a disgusting obese clown, and who is the servant of a great demon of hell. The devil worshipers see the confrontation between Spawn and the clown and go to it and try to involve themselves by appealing to the clown-devil. He sees them, smacks them away and says something to the effect “Why do we get all the idiots and he…” (while looking up to heaven) ” …gets all the good followers?”.

        It’s a rather oblique way to make my point, which to be more direct, is to say that you should tackle someone truly smart (like Leibniz) who holds this opinion rather than someone like WLC, who so clearly has an agenda that so obviously distorts his viewpoints.

        In other words, it is my opinion that you will appear much smarter for tackling Leibniz on this front than tackling WLC. You will appear much smarter by tackling Leibniz and failing than tackling WLC and succeeding. That is kind of what I meant by “joined at the hip”.

        I see your point about where you are coming from with your interest in science. That is cool. I just have been doing it for so long that I guess I am jaded and much, much more critical, having seen how the gears operate from the inside. My reply then, is that you need to be aware that there is as much spin in science as in marketing. You can always tell spin science from real science because spin science is fairly easy to grasp and is emotionally titillating, whereas real science makes you think very hard about abstract things and often strains one’s mind to learn the ideas. Further, real science is characterized by the fact that the details matter. For example, qualitative ideas of the big bang are generally spin. The reality is mathematical theories and how specific aspects of nature are measured and then interpreted in those mathematical terms.

        The thing that bothers me the most, and probably played a role in me responding to your piece in the first place, is that the spin only detracts from the real thing, which itself is very, very interesting. WCL uses spin. Your response was based mainly on spin. Both miss what is really going on in science, although your view is much more balanced by considering the different opinions of scientists on some of the matters you discussed.

        Having gone through the effort and strain to learn the real ideas, it has been my experience at least, that it is something like the moment in the Wizard of Oz where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the Great and Powerful Oz is just a feeble old man. Learning real science has that quality. It is a deflation of that emotional titillation. There are just abstractions and the details of trying to measure them. And a LOT of uncertainly in all of it. Once that deflation occurs in one’s scientific understanding,then ideas such as Leibniz’ take on a much deeper meaning.

        As to the electroshock thing…I apologize for a lapse in my sense of humor. As I said, I have had the exact same fantasy for people that came off as very intelligent but were only arrogant and didn’t really know anything.

        Anyway, again, thanks for engaging me on this, and thanks for being willing to consider my opinions on these issues. They are difficult to discuss as it is, and it is nice that you engaged me in a constructive way.

        Best wishes,



        July 6, 2014 at 2:39 am

  3. Thanks for your response. I will be brief, for frankly I have a lot of other writing projects going.
    On mathematics I shall only say that though I only know mathematics peripherally through my bitsy reading of physics, cosmology and the like, I have fond memories of my youth when I shared a house with a mathematician and had long conversations with him and his friends. I found their interest in the essential issues – being, knowledge, purpose and so forth – very refreshing and exciting, coming as I did from an arts and literary background, where what you might call ‘spin’ holds sway, Having said that, I’m not very happy with the term ‘spin’, as you might expect.
    I’ll leave it at that for now, as a full response could fill volumes!
    Best wishes


    July 9, 2014 at 1:12 am

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