Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Atheists, lies and suppressed knowledge of God

In the second half of Craig’s latest "Reasonable Faith" podcast, he talks about how, he supposes, atheists know that God exists, despite the fact that they assert that they don’t. I’d previously said in a post that Craig’s view would seem to have the consequence that atheists are lying about that, then. Actually, maybe that doesn’t follow. In the podcast, Craig denies his view is that atheists are lying when they deny they know God exists. We should accept that denial.

However, Craig’s explanations for why atheists are not, then, lying when they claim they don’t know when they do is not, I think, very convincing.

First he draws an analogy with someone who tries to rationalize away or suppress what they know. His example is of a married man who has an affair.

The human psyche is so capable of rationalization and suppressing things that we find uncomfortable that I think it's very plausible to think that an atheist could somehow suppress the knowledge of God or rationalize it away so that he doesn't have to face it overtly. You can think of cases, especially involving moral misbehavior, where this human ability to rationalize comes out. For example, men who get caught in sexual affairs will, at least in the beginning stages of the affair, typically rationalize away the behavior even though they know that what they are doing is wrong.

Another example would be, I suppose, a man that does not love his wife, but suppresses this knowledge and behaves like and says that he does in a attempt to fool both himself and his wife.

These are plausible examples of suppressed knowledge. But do they make the point Craig wants? Suppose the first man says, “I did nothing wrong,” when asked about his affair. He knows deep down that he did do something wrong. Would we say that this man is lying? Would you?

I’d say he was, both to others and also to himself. True, he may at that the moment he says it mean what he says. But what he says is nevertheless, deep down, a lie.

But if that is right, then Craig’s chosen analogy backfires on him. If the atheist similarly suppresses his knowledge that God exists, and says, meaning it, “I don’t know God exists”, he is also, deep down, lying both to others and himself.

Perhaps Craig would deny the man who has the affair is lying. "A lie", Craig might insist, "Cannot be sincerely asserted. It cannot be meant."  But is this true? It doesn't seem to me to be true (the above example involving the man having an affair seems to be a counter-example, in fact - he means what he says when he says it, but, it seems to me, he's still lying). At the very least, the affair example does not strike me as a clear cut example of someone's not lying. But then it doesn't really help support Craig’s case much, if at all.

Craig’s other thought is to borrow Plantinga’s idea that atheists may have a malfunctioning sensus divinitatis or God-sense. A religious person may know God directly via the operation of their healthy sensus divinitatis. But the poor atheist’s God-sense does not operate properly. It's been corrupted by sin.

That’s an interesting idea, but it hardly helps Craig given that the result of atheist’s non- or mal-functioning sensus divinitatis will be that they don’t know God exists (at least not by that route). Craig's view is precisely that atheist does know God exists – so, as it stands, his appeal to Plantinga actually ends up undermining Craig’s position, not supporting it. It’s odd Craig doesn’t spot this.

Of course, Craig may want to develop his Plantingian explanation in some way, but as it stands it fails.

So, perhaps Craig is right that the view that atheists know that God exists does not have the consequence that they are lying when they say they don't. But Craig has so far failed to come up with a clear explanation of why they aren't lying.

However, the really interesting issue about Craig’s suppressed knowledge thesis is not whether atheists are lying when they say they don’t know God exists. That's not a very significant question.

Craig seems to think we atheists just want an excuse to take offence at the suggestion that we are liars. He says: “I think the reason atheists raise this is because they want to be able to get their backs up and take righteous offense and indignation at being called liars by these Christians and theists.”

Frankly, I’m not bothered at all about that. The more interesting issue is whether we atheists do know God exists, choose to suppress that knowledge, and so do deserve to burn in hell for eternity as a result. Once it’s been suggested that we atheists are so morally depraved and disgusting that we deserve infinite torture (P.S. or punishment, or whatever you want to call it), adding “Oh, and by the way, you’re also lying,” is hardly much of an additional insult.

The main reason I’m interested in this issue is not that I want to take righteous offense at the claim that I'm lying, but rather that this sort of Craigian "suppressed knowledge" view and its connection in his mind with the concept of damnation involves such a foul and twisted – and I think potentially dangerous - vision of humanity. And also that it is pretty obviously false. I’ll post on that shortly.

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