Saturday, February 04, 2006

Fox-hunting for atheists

The dialogue with Victor Reppert continues apace:

“VR: The claim is that the atheist is engaged in self-deception. Care to distinguish between self-deception and lying to oneself? “

This is simplistic. The way VR originally framed the claim was: “Are Carr, Loftus and Lippard just lying to us? Or themselves?”

Lying to others (deception) and lying to themselves (self-deception) are not convertible propositions. The distinction is not between self-deception and lying to oneself, but between deception and self-deception.

Either VR forgot what he said, or he needs to choose his words more carefully. Which proposition does he have in view?

“VR: You are making a charge of intellectual dishonesty. Why not own up to the fact? “

VR seems to be conflating what I said is what others have said. I’m not a part of the Borg collective consciousness. He needs to confine himself to what I said.

I never leveled a blanket charge of intellectual dishonesty. To the contrary, I drew some elementary distinctions.

“VR: With respect to every disagreement about beliefs, do we need to explain the other side away in some way? If I think string theory is a good physics, and you think it is bad science, to we have to explain our difference in terms of some mechanism of self-deception? “

An overstatement. We were not discussing “every disagreement about beliefs,” but rather, religious or irreligious belief.

We have a personal investment in the truth or falsity of certain beliefs. That can lead to self-deception.

“To say, in the face of the fact that there exists some kind of self-deception, that a person doesn't really possess the relevant belief that that person seems to have seems to be a big mistake.”

False antithesis. It’s more a question of conflicting beliefs. If I believe I’m a sinner, and I also belief that God is the judge of sinner’s, that can induce a state of cognitive dissonance which is relieved, to some degree, by suppressing or repressing the offending belief, or redefining it.

“Every time I turn away from God and sin, I act as if God does not exist. Does that mean that I am self-deceived that I am a theist. I am afraid that the criteria you are using to try to get to the conclusion that there are no atheists will get you the conclusion that there are not theists. Which is the tack people like Babinski and Loftus seem to be taking.”

The problem with appeal to neutral criteria is that reality isn’t neutral. Either there is a God or there isn’t. To propose criteria which are indifferent to the answer is to propose criteria which are indifferent to reality. In that event, evidence cannot adjudicate the answer since truth and truth-conditions are detachable.

“I'd like to see the counterexamples. Maybe I spent to much time hanging out with Wittgensteinians when I was in gradaute school. If it walks like an atheist, and talks like an atheist, and quacks like an atheist, it's an atheist.”

VR seems to lack a capacity for critical sympathy or detachment: the ability to get inside the opposing position.

What he’s doing here is to use the word “atheist” the way he himself would use it, then impute that meaning to Bahnsen or Van Til, then say their position is silly.

But, of course, they are defining unbelief in a far more inflected fashion. It isn’t black and white, as though the atheist isn’t “really” an atheist in the sense that VR uses the term.

They are saying, rather, that the atheist is in state of denial. His atheism is a defense-mechanism. This is a common psychological phenomenon—hardly distinctive to religious psychology, per se.

“Looking at the overall evidence based on what I have seen and experienced, I would have to say that it does not look as if Christians (or Calvinists) have a monopoly on intellectual honesty. The noetic effects of sin are so pervasive and widespread that it important not to see them only in the minds of the other guys.”

The problem with this statement is that it assumes the truth of Christianity—the noetic effects of sin—only to turn it into a double-edged sword as if it cuts both ways with equal force.

If you’re going to admit the noetic effects of sin, you cannot very well treat belief and unbelief as if they were on an epistemic par since your operating premise is a theological to begin with.

Also, it would be nice if VR could refrain from hyperbole and caricature. This forces us to engage is a lot of needless ground-clearing. No one is saying that believers have a monopoly on intellectual honesty.

“I can see believing that all atheism results from the unrighteous suppression of the truth by faith on the basis of Scripture, but my best reasoning tells me the weight of the evidence is against it. That means I will much prefer an interpretation of the relevant passages that is more in line with my experience.”

Well, here we simply part company. I find the diagnosis of Scripture exactly anticipates the evidence.

“I'm not even trying to argue that there aren't ulterior motives behind the unbelief of atheists. But I'm too busy trying to get the log out of my own eye to remove the speck in my atheist neighbor's eye.”

What does this have to do with apologetics?

“The Bible is not authoritative for atheists. If there's no God, the Bible was written by humans, and gets it wrong on the most fundamental of issues. In order to get the atheist to acknowledge the authority of the Bible, the atheist needs to believe in God first. I was referring to evidence that an atheist ought reasonably to accept.”

I appreciate the clarification.

It’s true that you can’t directly invoke the authority of Scripture when dealing with an atheist.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t appeal to Scripture at all. You can draw attention to internal evidence for the veracity of Scripture, as well as corroborative evidence for the veracity of Scripture.

The atheist need not believe in God first to believe in Scripture. Many unbelievers have come to faith in God through the study of Scripture.

“Even if van Til et al. are right that nonbelievers are not intellectually honest…”

I don’t see how we can avoid saying that unbelievers are, at some level, intellectually dishonest. The Bible says that unbelief is sin. Unbelief is culpable. There is no such thing as innocent atheism. Idolatry is transference.

“…any method of belief-ascription that I know of has people like Carr, Loftus, Lippard, Parsons, and our other friends on coming out as atheists.”

I can’t comment on these particular individuals. But it’s hardly a state secret that in many cases there’s a pretty direct connection between infidelity and immorality. Read Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals. Read Michael Jones’ Degenerate Moderns.

For that matter, many men who have crossed over from infidelity to faith will admit that their public reasons for infidelity were not their real reasons: that their real reasons lay below the belt rather that above the neck.

Does this explain every atheist? No. You also have inverted father-fixation, documented by Paul Vitz.

“I personally don't care to get into the game of challenging the intellectual honesty of my intellectual opponents, even though I suspect it at various times. I think that these charges of intellectual dishonesty make it hard to follow Peter's prescription of "gentleness and respect" in the doing of apologetics. But that's just me.”

VR is acting as if Van Til’s charge is an accusation that he would level in a public debate with an atheist. That’s not how it functions.

VR needs to go back to my illustration of the homicide detective. If he’s adept, he won’t accuse the suspect of being the killer. Instead, he will him a number of trip-wire questions to tease the incriminating information out of him.

Dropping the metaphor, this can be useful in personal evangelism. You ask leading questions which draw the unbeliever out of his shell. There’s nothing accusatory about this technique. Quite the contrary.

The purpose is to make him see that what he denies with respect to God lies in conflict with many other things he affirms, and must affirm to be rational.

Remember, too, that this analysis isn’t by any means limited to atheism. It is equally applicable to alternative belief-systems, such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Mormonism.

And which side you come down on this has practical consequences. If you think that unbelief or alternative belief is merely due to insufficient evidence, then you’ll deal with, say, the threat of jihad very differently than if you think it’s in spite of, and in defiance of ,the available evidence.

If, on the one hand, you take the former position, then you’ll be much more optimistic regarding the prospects for successful diplomacy or interfaith dialogue. You’’ll be an ecumenist. You will give the suicide bomber the benefit of the doubt. Prejudice is the problem, education is the answer.

Your template will be Plato’s cavemen. Plato’s way is the way of the East—of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Gnosticism.

If, on the other hand, you take the latter position, you’ll be much less trusting and, dare I say, gullible. You will keep your guard up and your powder dry. You will situate unbelief in the will rather than the intellect. Evil is due to idolatry, not ignorance—an ethical revolt, not a rational impediment.

You will see Islam as a Christian heresy—not merely unchristian, or subchristian, but antichristian. Marxism is a Christian heresy—secular Messianism. Marx, Freud, Lenin, and Durkheim were renegade Jews. Darwin was an apostate. Bultmann, Ingersoll, Wellhausen, Whitehead, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche were sons of the manse. Samuel Butler was the grandson of Bishop Butler, while Gilbert Ryle was the grandson of Bishop Ryle.

Your template will be Milton’s Lucifer. It’s no coincidence that Milton reflects a Christian conscience while Plato reflects a pre-Christian conscience, and the Romantics (e.g. Goethe, Butler, Byron, Blake, Shelly) a post-Christian conscience.


  1. “I can see believing that all atheism results from the unrighteous suppression of the truth by faith on the basis of Scripture, but my best reasoning tells me the weight of the evidence is against it. That means I will much prefer an interpretation of the relevant passages that is more in line with my experience.”

    Wow. This is a strong statement. This is, in point of fact, an argument that could be used by a naturalist to argue against Scripture itself by unbelievers and Christian liberals alike. There is little difference, for one has made one's experience, whatever that may be, the grid by which one interprets Scripture. As a Christian apologist, you are bound first the Word of God and what it says about man's condition and the reasons for it. Your experience is to be interpreted by Scripture not vice versa. That is your basis for the activity in which you are engaged. One fails to see how viewing believers in any other manner is preferable. In fact, it panders to the unbeliever's self-interest. Why should I pander to his self-interest? He certainly won't accord me that privlege. It's one thing to find common ground like Justin Martyr did, quite another to look at his character and condition in a manner that is not informed by Scripture because I allow my experience to shape my exegesis, which, in turn I apply to my apologetic method.

    “Even if van Til et al. are right that nonbelievers are not intellectually honest…”

    I don’t see how we can avoid saying that unbelievers are, at some level, intellectually dishonest. The Bible says that unbelief is sin. Unbelief is culpable. There is no such thing as innocent atheism. Idolatry is transference.

    This is a great observation. The Bible has it's own defintion of unbelief and its cause. What does Reppert believe that to be? So, are van Til and Bahnsen and co. correct in their exegesis of the relevant passages? That's the question. Why are we not to use that to ground our view of unbelievers? Unbelief is idolatry. It is suppression of the knowledge of God's existence. To deny God exists is a dishonest proposition. When an atheist uses the law of non-contradiction, he's secretly presupposing God exists in order to deny He exists. How is that not a dishonest thing for him to do?

    Will I say "You're being dishonest!" No. Will I point this out to the atheist, yes, in order to show him his unbelief is irrational. The whole point this exercise is the grounding of the way I approach the atheist, not the gathering of information to use to accuse the atheist. Yes, I may find a way to smuggle that into an argument, but one can say many things with different kinds of words. Just ask any Southerner. We can tell you go take a hike and ask you out on a date all in the same breath and smile when we do it.

  2. If I were a pantheist I could say that you are a sleeping god. Deep down you know you're god, you just won't acknowledge it. I could argue that you are not being intellectual honest with yourself if you didn't espouse pantheism.

    Let's say I pointed this out to you. What would you make of it? Probably nothing. You know you're not a pantheist (presuming you aren't). That's all you can say.

    So what difference does it make to argue the way I see Christians argue when they say there is no atheist? Nothing. It has no more force to atheists as my aforementioned pantheist argument has on you.

    It's a waste of bytes. It doesn't solve anything. It's a silly claim. This is merely a theological discussion between theists and has no business being any apologetical tool with atheists like myself.

    See my blog for more Scroll down to read the first few posts and comments.

  3. I want to first focus on the issue of whether, based on the Bad Faith Theory of atheism, we can reasonably say that there are no atheists. In other words, let me concede for the sake of argument, that all atheism stems from a suppression of the truth, by that meaning that if the atheist formed beliefs in the way that he ought rationally to form beliefs, he would be a believer and not an atheist.

    In other words we ought to distinguish the question of whether or not someone is an atheist from the question of whether that person has become an atheist in an intellectually honest way. It may be a nice rhetorical flourish for presuppositionalist to say that there are not atheists, but it is linguistically inaccurate and highly misleading. Vantillianism is better off without it.

    After all the Bible does not directly say that there are no atheists. But maybe I should type the phrase into a Bible program to see if maybe I missed a verse somewhere. Maybe it's hidden away somewhere in the Book of Hezekiah. On the assumption that Ps 14:1 is talking about atheists, it seems pretty clear that the Bible teaches that there are fools who say in their hearts that there is no God.

    Nevertheless, if that is the case, you still have to say that these self-deceived people are atheists, by any reasonable analysis of "S believes that P." You can't say that a person doesn't really believe something if he professes and acts on the belief.

    I am a little bit concerned by Gene's implied claim that there cannot be evidence against a claim clearly taught by Scripture. By his account, nothing could count as evidence against any biblical claim, because all experience must be interpreted by Scripture and not vice versa. At this point you are running afoul of what I think is right in Flew's falsification challenge. An atheist can just as easily say that his experience must be judged in light of atheism, in which case nothing we can say can possibly count as evidence against it. This is why Vantillianism is often perceived as a form of fideism.

    There are serious and difficult objections to Christianity. There are Scripture passages that are hard to reconcile with one another, we lack overwhelmingly strong arguments for theism (including the ones that I've defended in print), why God permits evil is difficult to understand, etc. There are also sinful motivations for not wanting to be a Christian, and there is plenty of evidence that these are at work (Oedipal hatred, desire for sexual freedom, an unwillingness to submit to a supreme being, etc) in many cases, surely, but I know other atheists with stable marriages and good father-relationships.

    There is a further problem with this "hermeneutic of suspicion" directed toward the unbeliever. According to logic, once an argument is on the table, it is the subject of discussion, not the reason why someone might be putting the argument forward. Once you say "I don't believe in God for such and such a reason," it commits the ad hominem fallacy to say "You're only saying that because you don't want to submit to a supreme being."

  4. the fog of academia: sometimes it does a body good, myself included, to go for a late night walk, and get away from the ivy covered walls and go get a cup of coffee down where the townies hang out and get away from the "gownies" who wear their academic robes.

    I agree with centurion, that most atheists I know and truck with dont ring true to me in their motivations and justificatory rationales.I once made up a "test" for a large group of academics and askd them to rank in order a long laundry list of "forensic horribles"i.e. bad things in the world that needed intervention,and then asked them to rank modern christianity in the laundry list as well. I was amazed at how many atheist acacdemics rated Christianity as a higher evil than so many other truly palpable evils. But then there was "group 2" of atheists that rated christianity very low on the list. I asked them, if so low, then why did they spend so much professional intellectual energy in fighting christianity as opposed to fighting these other, clearly more serious evils. It would take too long to 'exegete' all of this, but suffice it to say their answers then, and now just do not ring true to me. Someday some sociologist may figure out a shrewd way to clinically study this, for now, I just have to be content with knowing that atheists just arent fessing up. As an academic aside, atheist profs/teaching assistants sure do go to elaborate ethical backflips to try to justify the non ethical problem of their seducing and sleeping with nubile undegrads! social darwinisnm anyone?