Can anyone sincerely lack belief in God? And even if they can, can anyone sincerely lack belief in God for the rest of their lives? Many people, including nontheists but not just nontheists, think the answer to both questions is plainly “yes.” But some (many?) theists, no doubt motivated by beliefs such as divine goodness, Biblical inerrancy, and Christian particularism, deny this for the second question and possibly the first. We’ll call people who deny a “yes” answer to the second question “sincere lifelong nontheist deniers” or “sincerity deniers” for short.
To many nontheists this denial is not only false, but offensive, for it can come across as a not-so-veiled accusation that nontheists are lying when they claim they lack belief in God or that God’s existence isn’t obvious to them. In fairness to sincerity deniers, however, we should keep in mind that ‘sincerity denial’ doesn’t have to amount to a conscious denial of a belief in God. Instead, a sincerity denier may hold that a nontheist’s nonbelief is the result of self-deception. (This was, for example, the position of the notorious Christian presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen, among others.) A sincerity denier may also hold that, at a given time, a nontheist’s nonbelief is genuine, not the result of self-deception, but temporary. This option may be less offensive since it doesn’t require that all nontheists are resistant to theism for the entire time they are a nontheist. The idea seems to be that if a nontheist is nonresistant to belief in God, then said nontheist will eventually come to believe in God before they die.
In any case, what’s important to notice is that, regardless of the flavor of sincerity denial, the one thing all sincerity deniers seem to have in common is this. No one dies a sincere, nonresistant nonbeliever.
Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig is a well-known defender of Christian particularism, so it comes as no surprise that he is a sincerity denier. He reaffirmed his position in a recent answer to a question on the Q&A section of his website. Craig not only denies that there could be a sincere, lifelong nontheist, but he also denies that there could be a sincere, lifelong theistic non-Christian (e.g., Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and so forth). He writes:
Therefore, if a person ultimately fails to come to faith in Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties with the faith. At root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Holy Spirit on his heart. Now this convicting power and drawing of the Holy Spirit may take time. It may take years in order for the unbeliever to finally come to Christ. Nevertheless, no one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments or evidence; he fails to become a Christian because he rejects God. But anyone who does respond to the drawing of God’s Spirit with an open mind and an open heart can know with assurance that Christianity is true, because God’s Spirit will convict him that it is true.
Furthermore, he offers the following reasons for doubting the lifelong sincerity of non-Christians.
Now I don’t think we’re in a good position to say with any confidence that there is ultimate (lifelong), nonculpable unbelief, Muhammad. First, as I say, God’s drawing of a person may take time, years even, so that we can’t say of someone who is moving away from God that that’s where he’ll end up. (Read the many testimonials we receive from ex-unbelievers who for many years were moving away from God.) It is particularly the case that many Muslims go through a phase of atheism after shedding Islam before they come to Christ.
Moreover, we’re not really in a position to read a person’s heart or deepest motivations. Sin is incredibly deceitful, and we have an amazing ability to rationalize things so as to justify our behavior. Read C. S. Lewis’ provocative The Great Divorce about the self-justifying rationalizations of people in hell. If we can convince ourselves that our obstacles to faith are intellectual rather than moral or emotional that makes our unbelief respectable in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. How do you know what lies in the heart of a person who resists the drawing and conviction of the Holy Spirit until the end of his life?
Furthermore, I do think that we have good reasons for supposing that Christianity is true. First, there is the witness of the Holy Spirit. It can be an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters brought against it. Second, there are good evidences for the truth of Christianity, particularly for the historicity of the radical personal claims and resurrection of Jesus, whereby God vindicated those claims.
There are many things which could be (and have been) said in response to this sort of position. Here I’ll summarize what I think are the three most important points.
First, notice that sincerity deniers are committed to a universal generalization: there has never been (and never will be) a single sincere, lifelong nontheist. If even just one sincere, lifelong nontheist existed, exists, or will exist, then this universal generalization is false. Thus, it does Craig little good to refer to former atheists who claim that they engaged in all sorts of insincere rationalizations when they claimed to be atheists. Even if that is an accurate description for those former atheists, it doesn’t follow that it applies to all atheists or, more broadly, all nontheists.
Second, we have strong inductive evidence that this generalization is false. There are several lines of evidence which combine to create a powerful cumulative case for the existence of sincere, lifelong nontheists. Following the outstanding work of the Canadian philosopher John Schellenberg (in his recent book The Wisdom to Doubt), we may summarize this evidence as follows.
(a) The prima facie evidence of nonresistant nonbelief. In Schellenberg’s words, “in the actual world persons who do not believe that there is a God, and that in at least some of these people the absence of theistic belief is not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.”
(b) The prima facie evidence of former believers. To paraphrase Schellenberg, such individuals, from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief in God. In other words, if theism is true, then such individuals already were in relationship with God and the loss of belief has terminated that.
(c) The prima facie evidence of lifelong seekers. Schellenberg describeres these individuals as people “who don’t start out in what they consider to be a relationship with God and may not even be explicitly searching for God, but who are trying to find out where they belong and, in their wanderings, are open to finding and being found by a Divine Parent–all without ever achieving their goal. These are individuals who seek but do not find.” (233)
(d) The prima facie evidence of converts to nontheistic religions. Paraphrasing Schellenberg, these are individuals who investigate other serious conceptions of the Ultimate and who turn up evidence that produces religious belief in the context of nontheistic religious communities and/or on account of nontheistic religious experiences–and the truth of atheistic claims may be seen to follow by implication. (236)
(e) The prima facie evidence of isolated nontheists. Schellenberg defines these individuals as “those who have never been in a position to resist God because they have never so much as had the idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful spiritual being who is separate from a created universe but related to it in love squarely before their minds–individuals who are entirely formed by, and unavoidably live their whole lives within, what must, if God exists, be a fundamentally misleading meaning system” (238).
Craig concludes his answer with the website equivalent of an altar call, imploring his questioner to “Look at the work of Christian philosophers and biblical scholars, such as you will find at this [Craig’s] website.” This suggestion is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. If a seeker wants to determine the truth of Christianity, Islam, or anything else, then they need to do more than just read the writings which defend those beliefs. They also need to study the work of the best critics of those beliefs.
This is simple inductive logic. If you’re going to attempt make an uncertain inference from evidence, the premises of an inductively correct argument need to embody all of the available, relevant evidence. For example, suppose you read Craig’s website and decide that God is the best explanation for both the origin of the universe and cosmic fine-tuning. Does it follow that God probably exists? No!
First, as I’ve explained in detail before, many deductive theistic arguments mask uncertainty. Consider William Lane Craig’s version of the so-called ‘fine-tuning’ argument. As I’ve argued before, even the name ‘fine-tuning argument’ is prejudicial against atheism, since the expression ‘fine-tuning’ naturally suggests a ‘fine-tuner’ ( = designer). So instead I’ll refer to this argument as the ‘life-permitting’ argument and I’ll refer to the alleged ‘fine-tuning of the universe’s initial conditions” as “the life-permitting nature of the universe’s initial conditions.” With those clarifications out of the way, then, we get the following formulation of the life-permitting argument.
1. The life-permitting nature of the universe’s initial conditions is either the result of chance, necessity or design. (Premise)
2. It is not the result of chance or necessity. (Premise)
3. Therefore, it is the result of design. (From 1 and 2)
This argument is clearly valid, i.e., the conclusion follows from the premises. We want to know the probability of (3). The probability of (3) will depend upon the probability of (2). If we have a very weak degree of belief that (2) is true, say we think Pr(2)=0.25, then, by itself, this argument only warrants the belief Pr(3)=0.25. N.B. I’m not claiming that (2) has an exact numerical probability equal to 0.25; that value is simply an example to illustrate the point.
Second, such arguments fail to embody all of the relevant, available evidence. This is because their conclusions are stated without qualification. For example, suppose we decide to ‘inductify’ or ‘probabilify’ the conclusion of Craig’s fine-tuning argument, it becomes something like this:
3′. [probable] Therefore, it is the result of design.
The problem with this revised conclusion, however, is that it isn’t justified by the premises. It may well be the case that, by itself, the life-permitting nature of the universe’s initial conditions does make it more probable than not that the universe is designed. But that doesn’t entail that, all things considered, the total available, relevant evidence makes it more probable than not that the universe is designed. In order to defend that claim, you have to look at all of the evidence, including the evidence of evolution, biological role of pain and pleasure, nonresistant nonbelief, etc. And once you do that, it’s far from obvious that the total evidence favors theism, much less Christian theism.
So instead of 3′, what we need instead is something like:
3”. Other evidence held equal, it is probably the result of design.
The italicized words are key because the conclusion is no longer claims that the universe’s life-permitting conditions alone justifies the conclusion of design. Instead, it says, if we hold all other evidence equal–i.e., assume for the sake of argument that all other relevant evidence ‘cancels out’–then the life-permitting data justifies design inference.
As I say, 3” is a big improvement over 3′ and 3, but it comes at a cost. Craig now needs additional premises or arguments to show that the total evidence favors design. For example, he might argue:
4. Biological evolution is not more probable on no-design than on design; and
5. The problem of evil in general is some evidence against design, but it is outweighed by the total evidence for no-design.
6. There is no other evidence against design.
But these kinds of premises are much more difficult to defend.
Third, as I’ve argued before, on the basis of Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper’s work, Craig’s appeal to cosmic fine-tuning is a textbook example of the fallacy of understated evidence. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the life-permitting conditions of our universe are more likely on design than on no-design. That fact–if it is a fact–hardly exhausts what we know about the habitability of our universe. We also know that so much of our universe is hostile to life due to things such as containing vast amounts of empty space, temperatures near absolute zero, cosmic radiation, and so forth. Given that our universe is life-permitting, the fact that so much of it is hostile to life is much more probable on no-design than on design. So once all of the evidence about cosmic life-permitting conditions has been fully stated, however, it’s far from obvious that facts about cosmic “fine-tuning” favor design over non-design.
Contrary to Craig’s special pleading, I conclude that nontheists and theists alike are amply justified in concluding, with a high degree of confidence, that there is ultimate (lifelong), nonculpable or nonresistant nonbelief. If that creates problems for historic Christian doctrines such as Christian particularism, then so much the worse for those doctrines.
Whenever I blog about the cosmic life-permitting argument, I always get at least one comment suggesting that the multiverse hypothesis is a good way to defeat that argument. My replies: “Good luck with that” and “Not according to inductive logic or probability theory.” We have little or no reason on naturalism (alone) to expect multiple universes, and the ‘independent’ evidence for a multiverse is far from conclusive. See here.