Thursday, May 14, 2020

Theism As A Rival To Christianity

William Lane Craig recently concluded a podcast with the following comments:

It really surprises me, honestly, that here's a fellow who is willing to admit that the arguments for theism are stronger than the evidences for Jesus and for the resurrection! He thinks that's the weak link. Well, he's really put himself in a difficult position because if you argue for theism successfully, you're more than halfway there to getting Christianity. If you've got theism then your choices are going to be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or maybe deism of some sort. And of those I think Christianity is clearly the most plausible. I think the arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and the historical reliability of the Gospels are such that Christianity is very defensible against this fellow’s sort of skeptical attacks. So he has really adopted a losing strategy, I think, here. You give up on theism – yield on theism – then just try to fight the remaining parapets to prevent Christianity from being established. The problem is it is going to be much, much easier to establish Christianity if you’ve already got theism in place.

It's true that Christianity is easier to argue for with theism in place. But he doesn't mention one of the major rivals to Christianity.

What about theism that isn't affiliated with any organized religion? I'll call it unaffiliated theism. That kind of theism is appealing to a lot of people. That sort of God can be conceived of in so many different ways and accommodate so many lifestyles. People who identify as a Christian, Muslim, or follower of some other organized religion can combine elements of that religion with theological views that aren't part of that religion and even contradict it. That sort of variation of Christianity, Islam, or whatever other organized religion can be so different that it's a fundamentally different belief system. It would be more accurate to call it something like Christianized theism or Islamized theism. There are so many ways in which a person can affirm the existence of God, including a God who's active in human affairs, without accepting any organized religion.

Part of why that sort of theism is so appealing to people and is such a significant rival to Christianity is that it can so easily be perceived as something that's supported by reason and evidence. Unaffiliated theism seems sensible to a lot of people. They project their own moral standards and preferences onto God (Psalm 50:21). There's no need to defend something like Trinitarianism, the slaughter of the Canaanites, a traditional Christian view of hell, or a religious book like the Bible or the Quran. And apparitions of the dead, seances, near-death experiences, and other paranormal phenomena are often perceived as evidence for unaffiliated theism or some other view that's different than organized religion.

A lot can and should be said about that sort of belief system. Most importantly, it's contradicted by the evidence we have for Christianity. We've documented that evidence in a lot of depth, and anybody who's interested can consult our archives. The moral standards and preferences that people often project onto God are frequently poorly considered and open to various counterarguments. The idea that God would let mankind live for so long without doing far more to reveal himself to us than he has under unaffiliated theism seems unlikely. That sort of lack of communication is also contrary to how most people view marriage, parenting, friendship, and other relationships. We tend to want people to communicate far more than God has been communicating with mankind under unaffiliated theism. I've said a lot about paranormal issues elsewhere, and much of what I've written is relevant to what I'm addressing in this post. See here. And so on. These are just some examples of what could be offered in response to the forms of theism under consideration.

It's a problem when people, like William Lane Craig, overlook or underestimate such a significant rival to Christianity. Theism is good, and Christianity is a theistic religion, but theism can, and often does, take on anti-Christian forms that are independent of organized religion. And those anti-Christian forms often mislead people who are Christians, so it isn't just a matter of how those views affect non-Christians.


  1. Isn't that "maybe deism of some sort"?

    Basically, you admit that God exists, but not much else. This is basically describes most of the agnostics I come across. Most of them will admit that God probably exists when push comes to shove, but they won't commit to more than that.

    When it comes to self serving morality, this gives you the best of both worlds. God exists, thus you don't have the problems of objective morality that come with atheism. Yet, you don't commit to a specific objective moral framework, so you get to pick and choose.

    1. SomeRandomGuy wrote:

      "Isn't that 'maybe deism of some sort'? Basically, you admit that God exists, but not much else. This is basically describes most of the agnostics I come across. Most of them will admit that God probably exists when push comes to shove, but they won't commit to more than that."

      Deism often refers to the idea of a God uninvolved in human affairs, especially if there's a nearby reference to theism that isn't identified as a synonym in some way. Craig not only used the term "deism", but also referred to "theism" nearby without suggesting he had the same concept in mind. Go to the page at his site that I linked. Do a Ctrl F search for "deism" (and whatever variations you want). Then do one for "theism" (and whatever variations you want). He only refers to deism on the one occasion I cited, but refers to theism much more. Given how much more popular unaffiliated theism is than deism in our day and how easily deism can be taken to refer to a God uninvolved in human affairs (as Craig himself uses the term here, for example), I think he should have used some term other than "deism" if he meant to refer to unaffiliated theism or meant to refer to something that includes it.

      But more than his use of the term "deism" is involved here. I've seen Craig make comments elsewhere similar to what I've quoted above. He wrote on another occasion, "They [theistic arguments] narrow down the options of the world’s major religions to the great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Deism. Now the Deist God, though personal, is uninvolved in the affairs of the universe." He clearly isn't including my notion of unaffiliated theism there, and those comments are similar to the more recent ones I quoted in my original post.

      Furthermore, before referring to deism on his recent podcast, he says "maybe", as if it's significantly questionable whether the deism he has in mind should even be included. That kind of qualifier makes more sense if he has deism in the sense of a God uninvolved in human affairs in mind. That sort of deism is far less popular and far less evidenced than the unaffiliated theism I've been discussing.

    2. And when we look at Craig's work in general, how much significance do we find him assigning to unaffiliated theism? It would be ridiculous to suggest that he's unfamiliar with the concept or thinks it has no importance. He's addressed some of the relevant subjects from time to time, such as here. But my impression is that he addresses these issues much less than is warranted.

      Maybe he forgot about the category of unaffiliated theism when making the comments in his recent podcast. Maybe he would frame things differently if he were to address the subject again with criticisms like mine in view. All of us forget things or misspeak at times. But the fact would remain that there's a substantial neglect of the issues under consideration in Craig's work in general and among modern Christians more broadly.

      And it's that broader situation I'm more concerned about. I don't want this to become a thread that's primarily about William Lane Craig. He's a great man (better than me) who's done great things (better than what I've done), and I agree with him on the large majority of issues. And there's no need for him to give a lot of attention to unaffiliated theism. His work is mostly focused elsewhere. Different people focus on different things. That's good. But when he's summarizing something as he did on his recent podcast, listing what options people have to choose from, he doesn't have to specialize in every item he includes in the list in order to include it.

    3. You wrote:

      "When it comes to self serving morality, this gives you the best of both worlds. God exists, thus you don't have the problems of objective morality that come with atheism. Yet, you don't commit to a specific objective moral framework, so you get to pick and choose."

      Yes, that's part of the appeal of unaffiliated theism.

      I want to address some related issues, though, since I think many Christians abuse the point you're making. I often see Christians suggest that if people have moral reasons for rejecting Christianity along the lines of what you've referred to, then evidential matters become irrelevant. The unbelievers in question can't be reasoned with, we should just wait for the Holy Spirit to change them, or some such thing.

      But the presence of moral objections like those you've mentioned doesn't prove the absence of other objections. People can reject Christianity for multiple reasons. Even when somebody is rejecting Christianity primarily or entirely because he wants to be sexually immoral, for example, it doesn't follow that we shouldn't reason with the person about that issue and others. We may persuade him to change (whether through normal means or with God's intervention accompanying our arguments). Or if he changes for some other reason in the future, the arguments and information we provided in the past might be instrumental in his understanding Christianity, believing in it, or living as a Christian. In other words, we don't just look at where the person is currently. We also anticipate where he may be in the future and try to prepare him accordingly.

      Furthermore, not all unbelievers are unbelievers for moral reasons. There are individuals like Cornelius in Acts 10.

      You probably agree with much or all of what I'm saying here, SomeRandomGuy. But I wanted to use this as an opportunity to address a common Christian abuse of the point you made.

  2. Something to keep in mind is how the development of Islam might impact what I'm addressing in this thread. As the Islamic world comes into more contact with Western culture, modern technology, modern scholarship, more democratic forms of government, etc., we'll probably see substantially more of what I referred to above as Islamized theism. And I classify that as part of unaffiliated theism.

    If you add the Islamized theism number to Christianized theism, Judaized theism, and other forms of unaffiliated theism, the overall number has to be at least in the hundreds of millions. I suspect it's already a billion or more and will grow significantly in the future.