Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Dialogue with Triablogue

Steve: 3.It is needlessly provocative to introduce the issue by insisting that the atheist lying to us or to himself. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but it’s prejudicial to cast the question in such sweeping and exclusive terms. VR: The claim is that the atheist is engaged in self-deception. Care to distinguish between self-deception and lying to oneself?

4.It also carries the smarmy insinuation that a Christian apologist or theologian who takes this position is slandering the atheist by automatically imputing to him the worst possible motives. The debate needn’t be that emotionally charged.
VR: You are making a charge of intellectual dishonesty. Why not own up to the fact?

5.To some extent, the idea that unbelievers are repressed believers, or believers are repressed unbelievers, depending on which side you take, is inevitable on either score.

Atheism tries to harmonize two propositions:

i) There is not God

ii) Many men believe in God

These two propositions are stand in apparent tension to each other. If (i) is true, how is (ii) true as well?

If there is no God, then theistic belief must be accounted for by some naturalistic mechanism.

Atheism harmonizes the two propositions by assigning the source of faith in God to a naturalistic factor, commonly supplied by psychology (e.g. Feuerbach, Freud), or sociology (e.g. Marx, Durkheim).

VR: Nevertheless, even if atheists appeal to some cognitive pathology to explain theism, I'd want to say that someone who went to church every Sunday, thought of himself as a believer, did his or her best to live the Christian life, is a believer. The fact that their belief is in the last analysis the result of, say, wishful thinking is not the same as saying that they don't believe at all.

You have a parallel situation in Christianity:

Christian theology tries to harmonize two propositions:

i) There is a God

ii) Many men disbelieve in God.

For its own part, Christian theology harmonizes the apparent tension by a parallel, but opposing move. In Calvinism, infidelity is attributed to the noetic effects of original sin.

There’s nothing inherently offensive about ascribing belief or unbelief to an ulterior motive since the opposing positions are, in fact, logically committed to some indirect explanation.

If there is no God, then you could explain unbelief on the simple grounds that there’s no God to believe in.

Yet if many men believe in God, although there is no object answering to their faith, then an atheist must account for theistic belief by seeking the source of origin outside of God. And Christian theology makes the same move in reverse.

Hence, there’s no reason to take this analysis so personally. Both sides do it because both sides must account for an apparent disconnect between what there is, and what people believe there is.

On one view (atheism), there is often a belief without a corresponding extramental object; on another view (theism), there is an extramental object, but often absent a corresponding belief.

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?

6.From a Christian standpoint, does this make an atheist a liar? There are a couple of problems with framing the issue that broadly:

a) Maybe there is no general answer to that question. Maybe some are liars and some are not. Must we characterize every unbeliever the same way to characterize any unbeliever in a certain way?

b) At the risk of stating the obvious, deception and self-deception range along a continuum with many levels and degrees.

We all hold inconsistent beliefs. We all compartmentalize our beliefs in some measure.

VR: I think that everyone is caught up in self-deception to some extent. 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.

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.

7.Reppert says: “you have to assess what someone really believes based on what they say and how they act.”

Why do we have to do that? Is this a proposition that Reppert would care to universalize? I hardly think so. Counterexamples leap to mind from every direction.

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.

8.Suppose you are a Bible-believing Christian. Suppose the Bible says there’s no such thing as innocent unbelief. If the Bible says an unbeliever is a fool, then isn’t the unbeliever fooling himself?

Should that information not figure in whether you take the unbeliever’s claim at face value or not?

The exegesis of Ps 14:1 is a complex matter. Some can believe something foolishly and at the same time actually believe what he believes. If atheism is folly, the folly is real, not imaginary. I have also heard the interpretation that the word for fool in Hebrew is "Godless one," making the statement a tautology.

9.As to judging an unbeliever by what he says and does, many unbelievers look like fugitives from divine justice.

And believers often look like wishful thinkers to unbelievers. 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. Nobody is completely intellectualy honest. Intellectual honesty is a full-time job. 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.

10.In addition, the diagnosis of an unbeliever as a repressed believer is not limited to an outsider’s perspective. Believers and unbelievers are not static categories. Many of us have made the transition from infidelity to faith. So we know both states from mind from the inside out.

We know a rebel when we see one, because we were once on the run ourselves. Our own face was up on God’s ten most wanted.

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.

11.What are we to make of Reppert’s stark disjunction between the Bible and “real” evidence?

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.

12.To discuss or dismiss the awareness of God in terms of “innate” knowledge is too narrow. That suggests a particular theory of knowledge.

It would be better to speak of the natural knowledge of God. Whether we account for this knowledge according to rationalism, empiricism, or some synthesis thereof, is a separate issue.

VR: My point would only be that even if people had some kind of a natural knowledge of God which they were suppressing due to an attitude of non serviam, the fact is that by any reasonable mehtod of determining what someone believes you would have to say that that person believes that God does not exist.

Similarly, a theist whose belief in God is completely the result of wishful thinking nevertheless believes in God.

13.In addition, to discount an appeal to the natural knowledge of God on the grounds that no theistic argument rises to the level of apodictic proof is a category mistake.

The natural knowledge of God need not be the result of a formal theistic proof.

And even if it were the result of a formal theistic proof, the theistic proof need to be absolutely certain for the unbeliever to be fooling himself if he denies the existence of God.

Again, would Reppert really want to universalize this rule of evidence or burden of proof?

Even if van Til et al. are right that nonbelievers are not intellectually honest, 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.

14.Perhaps the larger point which Reppert is laboring to make, however inchoately, is that appeal to what the unbeliever “really” believes is strategically futile. For the unbeliever would deny the charge if it were false, and he’d deny the charge if it were true.

My main point is, and always has been, that in order to make statements like "There are no atheists" we need some criteria for determining what a person believes. Using those criteria, even if you accept van Tillian presuppositionalism, I can't see how you can get to the claim that the denizens of Internet Infidels are not exactly what they say they are: atheists. It would be more reasonable to just say there are no intellectually honest atheists, as Jason has pointed out. 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.


Paul Manata said...

VR: "My main point is, and always has been, that in order to make statements like "There are no atheists" we need some criteria for determining what a person believes. Using those criteria, even if you accept van Tillian presuppositionalism, I can't see how you can get to the claim that the denizens of Internet Infidels are not exactly what they say they are: atheists."

PM: *WE* need a criteria? As in Christians? Well, does not God's word suffice? If God says that all men "know" him, then all men "believe" that he exists.

If you accept this, then *you* must also give an account for how all men believe that God exists yet some men do not believe that God exists.

Also, if *you* believe that all men have a "natural knowledge" then *you* also belive that all men, including atheists, "believe" that God exists, since belief is a sub-set of "knowledge."

So, it looks like you're in the same boat that we are, we're just trying the give a defense of the paradox when others just ignore it.

Dr. Reppert, I would read this:

You also ask what is the difference between "self-deception" and "lying." are you saying that the Puritan preacher, Daniel Dyke, who wrote a four-hundred page treatise published in 1617, entitled The Mystery of Selfe-Deceiving just meant "lying?" When Bemjermin Franklin said, "No one has deceived me so often as thyself" did he mean that he was "lying" to himself? Indeed, the term "self-deception" has been around for a while and has been distingushed from mere lying. So, if we're going to be sticklers on langauge :-)...

Bahnsen writes, "You see, the natural thing to do is to model self-deception on the well-known activity of other-deception. Deceiving oneself is thought of as a version of deceiving someone else. A problem here, of course, is that in other-deception the roles of deceiver and deceived are incompatible; yet in self-deception a person is thought to play both of these incompatible roles himself!"

and he continues,

"Let us stop and analyze the situation. In a case of other-deception, Jones is aware that some proposition is false, but Jones intends to make Smith believe that it is true - and he succeeds. If we take Smith out of the picture and substitute in Jones, so as to gain "self-deception," we end up saying "Jones, aware that p is false, intends to make himself believe that p is true, and succeeds in making himself believe that p is true."[59] Such a statement is surely puzzling, for it suggests, "that somebody could try to make, and succeed in making, himself believe something which he, ex hypothesi, at the same time believes not to be true."[60] It would be easy to conclude, then, that self-deception is an incoherent project that cannot be fulfilled."

So, I hope that gives some anticipation to bahnsen's paper. Anyway, I still contend that it is not a "silly" idea. You may disagree, but I think we've shown that it is anything but "silly."

John W. Loftus said...

"Silly" is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, like a literal six day creation. This still makes me laugh.

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.

When you say "tack," I'm supposing here that you mean what I meant, and what I wrote was merely tactical.

If it walks like an atheist, and talks like an atheist, and quacks like an atheist, it's an atheist.

Vic, isn't it correct that if pantheism is true then all of us subconsciously know we came from a previous life, and that we're just here in between lives? It's just that we suppress this truth.

Now, what actual good does it do for the pantheist to argue for this? None at all, right?

But that's what Paul is doing.

Victor Reppert said...

We need to decide the question "What does Loftus believe about God" in the same way that we decide the question "What does Reppert believe about the Suns' chances in the NBA playoffs?" We can't be using cooked criteria to make our interpretation of Scripture come out true. We have to do honest philosophy of language. If the evidence suggests there are people who do not believe in God, and we are interpreting Scripture to say that everyone believes in God, then either there's something wrong with our Bible interpretation or we have evidence against the inerrancy of Scripture. If the latter we are left with a choice of exercising "faith" in Scripture in the teeth of strong evidence to the contrary, or not. But if it comes down to that, we no longer would have a defensible apologetic position.

Suppose the following were true: everyone would come to know God if they would set aside their attitude of "I will not serve" and open their minds to the possibility of a Lord over their life. If that were true, then we would still have to say that apparent atheists are atheists. If we introspect and report certain beliefs when asked, and if our conduct is consistent (for the most part) with those beliefs, then the person in question has those beliefs.

To say that someone is not an atheist on the grounds that, according to the Bible, deep down inside there is an awareness of God which is clearly being completely rejected by the people who have that awareness, seems, well, silly. By our normal means of deciding what a person believes, that person believes that God does not exist.

Randy said...

Pehaps another way to look at this is to realize that many of the motives behind one's personal religous belief also exist in the secular arena.
I often suspect that the really important element of a theist's belief in God is not the propositional knowledge he may claim to have of that God, but the sense of meaning such a belief brings. Non-theists also seek a sense of meaning in the world, but for whatever reason may not feel a need to attribute such a sense to a supernatural being.

Edward T. Babinski said...


In your response to Triablogue you mentioned me:

"I am afraid that the criteria you [Triablogue] are using to try to get to the conclusion that there are no atheists will get you the conclusion that there are no theists. Which is the tack people like Babinski and Loftus seem to be taking."

MY RESPONSE: Thanks for using the words "seems," though I would still disagree that I seek to even "seem" to argue that there are "no theists." [sic] Rather, I suspect there is a bit of a doubter in even the most dogmatic fundamentalistic theist, and perhaps a bit of a "hoper-in-something-more" in every atheist.


Believing hath a core of unbelieving.

Robert Williams Buchanan: Songs of Seeking

One does not have to believe everything one hears.

Cicero, De Divinatione, Book 2, Chapter 13, Section 31

A man must not swallow more beliefs than he can digest.

Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life

All great religions in order to escape absurdity have to admit a dilution of agnosticism. It is only the savage (whether of the African bush or the American Gospel broadcast) who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely.

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

H. L. Mencken

We have infinite trouble in solving man-made mysteries; it is only when we set out to discover “the secret of God” that our difficulties disappear.

Mark Twain

Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.

Thomas Jefferson, Writings, Vol. II, p. 43


Let God alone if need be. Methinks, if I loved him more, I should keep him--I should keep myself, rather--at a more respectful distance. It is not when I am going to meet him, but when I am just turning away and leaving him alone, that I discover that God is. I say, God. I am not sure that is the name. You will know whom I mean…

Doubt may have “some divinity” about it…

Atheism may be comparatively popular with God himself…

When a pious visitor inquired sweetly, “Henry, have you made your peace with God?” he replied, “We have never quarreled.”

Henry David Thoreau as quoted in Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man? By Edward Wagenknecht

I believe in Someone Out There--call Him God, since other names, like Festus or Darrin, do not seem to fit--but I am not entirely certain that He is all that mindful of what goes on down here. Example: Recently a tornado destroyed a town in Texas and dropped a church roof on a batch of worshipers. One of the few things left standing were two plaster statues, one of Jesus, the other of Joseph. The townspeople, according to the news, “looked at the statues’ survival as a sign of God’s love.” Hold the phone. This sounds like the he-beats-me-because-he-loves-me line of thought. If the Lord in his infinite wisdom drops a concrete roof on the true believers but spares two hunks of modeling compound, it is time to question the big Fella’s priorities. If I have to be made up of plaster to command attention in this universe, something is amiss.

James Lileks, “God Has Call-Waiting,” Notes of a Nervous Man


Who truly knows what the cosmos "is" and whence it came to be? I don't, and don't claim to know.

Perhaps our cosmos (or the cosmos behind the cosmos behind the cosmos, ad infinitum) is pantheistic or pan-en-heistic and has always been fluctuating somewhere between divine and less-than-divine omniscience, or between omnipotence/powerlessness, or between individual and collective consciousness, for eternities upon eternities

Or perhaps a Platonic demiurge (Divine Tinkerer) has been toying with cosmoses for untold infinites (splitting zeros into “plus ones” and “negative ones,” i.e., splitting “nothingness” into cosmoses of “matter” and “anti-matter”), and came up with this one, and perhaps some others like it (and some better than this one, this one not being the most prosperous nor the most bountiful of cosmoses what with death and extinction from cosmic collisions, explosions, black holes, or radiation remaining a distinct possibility, and with life restricted to only one-planet-in-nine in our own little star-system, which itself lay in but one arm of a spiral galaxy with over one hundred billion galaxies out there--yet only two of those galaxies are near enough to the earth to be seen with the naked eye. (The two galaxies that are visible only appear as faint white dots in the nighttime sky. The rest of the white dots you see are stars in our own galaxy, along with a few “wandering stars” or planets, which appear as white dots too. Obviously the rest of the galaxies were not created to "light the earth, nor for signs and seasons on earth,” since no one knew they were even there until after the world’s largest telescopes had been built).

Some people say the choice is between believing in either a Designer or absolute randomness, and they say that the latter view does not make sense, but not for the reason they suppose. The trouble lies in the word, “absolute,” not in the word “random.” For they don’t realize that discussions of “absolute randomness” are fraught with philosophical self-contradictions. If you grant for the sake of a thought experiment that “random” cosmoses exist, how “absolutely” random could such cosmoses be? Wouldn’t some interactions or patterns repeat themselves in them? And repetition is a form of order. So to keep orderliness out, you would have to posit a force that knows every past interaction or pattern and also knows how to prevent them from repeating themselves. But such a force would constitute a form of “order” needed to maintain “absolute disorder.” But if absolute randomness requires a form of order to keep itself “absolutely” random, then absolute randomness does not exist. In other words, given a random cosmos, some things would tend to repeat themselves over time, and some form of order would thus transpire. Possibly even the most improbable events might take place given matter/energy and an infinite amount of time. Acknowledging this possibility does not make me atheist. I am simply admitting questions and limitations inherent in philosophical language and concepts.

But if the idea of “absolute randomness” doesn’t make sound philosophical sense, then maybe the idea of “absolute order” is an equally sterile philosophical concept? Perhaps in the end, Plato’s “demiurge,” or “Divine Tinkerer,” as I proposed in the first paragraph, might be considered as a possible compromise?

Searching for the meaning of life seems a bit of a daunting task given the shortness of life and the immensity of ignorance and depth of the swaying seas of emotion on a planet filled with walking talking primates--a planet that is adrift like a tiny lifeboat in a cosmic sea of space. We haven't even crawled off this cradle planet but we have invented gods and holy books and doctrines about invisible and unseen things that one “must believe,” plenty of them in fact. The most popular of those holy books begins by claiming everything was created for a flat earth that was called forth even before the sun, moon “and the stars also” were “made and set” above it, and for whom the first light was created merely to ensure “evenings and mornings” on that flat earth, with everything in this vast cosmos being created according to “earth-days.” How geocentric.

Perhaps it's not the meaning of life but the question of life that is meant to propel us all.