Dealing with Doubt? On William Lane Craig’s rather bad advice
Last week The Atheist Missionary made us aware of the following five minute piece of advice on dealing with doubt from the world’s foremost Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. Go ahead, take the five minutes to watch it. I’ll still be around when you’re done to share my opinion.
Craig offers three points in response to the query of how one ought to deal with doubt. Let’s summarize them quickly before turning to critique.
Summarizing Craig’s advice
First, Craig wants us to understand the proper relationship between faith and reason. He says:
“The way that I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity I don’t think that that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit.”
Based on this belief about the genesis of our Christian beliefs Craig believes we ought to conclude the following: whenever I have a doubt there is an answer to the putative defeater that gives rise to the doubt, even if I am presently unable to perceive that answer. And once we recognize this we can find peace in knowing that there is an answer. To fail to recognize this point will leave our faith vulnerable to the “shifting sands of evidence and argument….”
Second, Craig wants us to keep in mind that doubt always has a spiritual dimension:
“There is an enemy of your souls, Satan, who hates you intently and is bent on your destruction and who will do everything in his power to see that your faith is destroyed.”
While Craig does not explicitly say that the devil is behind every doubt, you don’t have to be a very creative interpreter to find that message hidden between the lines. (And if not the devil himself then presumably one of his cronies.) Consequently, we should always take our doubts to God in prayer. And we should come to terms with the fact that we will always have a “question bag” of unanswered questions on the shelf.
Third, Craig encourages us to take a question out of that question bag every once in a while so that we may pursue it until we reach intellectual satisfaction.
What’s right about Craig’s advice
Now let me turn to some points of agreement. I agree with Craig that Christian belief is rational apart from evidence and if it is true it can constitute knowledge apart from evidence. I also agree that doubt has a spiritual dimension and that we should regularly dip into our question bags to pursue difficult conundrums until we reach intellectual satisfaction (or until our vision starts to blur, whichever comes first).
While that is quite a lot of agreement, I also have a lot of disagreement.
What’s not so right about Craig’s advice
Let’s begin with a question: why is it that people have doubts? Craig conveys the impression that doubts come exclusively or primarily from the devil. (If that is not what he means then I think he expressed himself in a way that was incautious if not misleading.) But is this true?
Well to answer that we must take a step back. What is it that is being doubted? Craig never addresses that fact, apart from assuming that whatever is being doubted is something at the core of Christian belief. But let’s pause for the moment and consider some of the concrete issues that a student listening to Craig’s advice might actually be doubting.
Doubt 1: Is the earth really six thousand years old? Many Christians who have been raised in a bubble come to university thinking the earth is thousands of years old. When they encounter the universal consensus of scientists that the earth is 4.6 billion years old it creates a crisis of faith for many of them.
Doubt 2: Is the King James Bible really the one authoritative, divinely revealed English translation? There actually are more KJV only people than you might realize, and doubts about the KJV by someone raised in this tradition could shake their Christianity to its core.
Doubt 3: Do the Gospels record the very words (the so-called ipsissima verba) as spoken by Jesus? Yet another shakedown comes with conservative Christians who first consider the notion that the gospel writers summarized the words and teachings of Jesus, often with their own particular spin.
Doubt 4: Did Peter really write 2 Peter? If Peter didn’t write it then God is a liar, isn’t he?
Doubt 5: Did Moses really write the Pentateuch? Jesus believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch, didn’t he? And if Jesus was wrong about that….
Doubt 6: Did God really command the eradication of entire tribes of people? How can Christians commend genocide in any time and place? But then Joshua sticks out like a rather sore thumb.
Doubt 7: Will the damned really burn forever in a lake of literal flame? The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Doesn’t it?
There are innumerable other doubts like these but this list provides enough doubts to work with. Each one of these doubts can be existentially painful, even devastating, to a person of faith. So when Craig offers advice on how to maintain their Christian faith, those Christians would take that advice as applying to these specific doubts. And thus we have Craig’s answer: there is an answer for that doubt so trust God and recognize that your doubt is being spurred on by the devil who wants to destroy your faith.
But wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. I think these things should be doubted. And I bet you would agree that many, most or all of these beliefs should be doubted.
In other words, this seems to mean that doubt is often a healthy thing. It is a healthy thing at the very least because some beliefs should be doubted. And how do we know that some of our beliefs do not belong in that very list?
And so Craig’s advice, well intentioned though it may be, can actually be deeply damaging for it threatens to atrophy a probing faith.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “But didn’t Craig deal with this? After all, he encouraged us to dig into our question bag to deal with questions.”
Yes, that’s true, to an extent. But there are two problems with this picture. The first problem is that Craig has already offered a guarantee that if we can’t find a satisfactory answer we should continue to believe there is one. And without specifying which beliefs this safety net applies to, he has effectively offered the KJV only advocate a free card to continue believing his absurd beliefs about the King James Bible. No matter how absurd those beliefs become he can reassure himself that the challenges are coming from the devil and that answers to those devilish charges will be found one day.
The second problem is that Craig treats this dipping into the question bag as a wholly voluntary past time. The KJV only advocate is never obliged to defend his belief. He may opt to do so one day out of intellectual curiosity. But it is never a matter of maintaining basic rationality.
This, it seems to me, is a huge problem, and it brings me to my very deep disagreement with Craig’s epistemology, at least as it is presented in this clip.
Doubts arise when you come to recognize a defeater to that belief, that is, some evidence which seems to be inconsistent with your belief. But Craig seems to present his putative “self-authenticating” Holy Spirit derived-belief to provide ultima facie justification. In other words, once you believe p and you believe that you came to believe p through the self-authenticating Holy Spirit process, then no defeater is sufficient to undermine your justification for believing p.
I think this is false. On my view our justification for Christian beliefs is prima facie rather than ultima facie. And this leaves it open that evidence can arise which provides defeaters to certain Christian beliefs we hold. We do not necessarily have to provide defeaters as individuals, but at the very least we have to be aware of defeaters to those defeaters. And this means that sometimes we wrestle with those questions in our question bag not merely out of personal interest but also because doing so may very well be part of the process by which we restore or retain our justification in believing p.
Of course Craig already provided a response to my position. His response, presumably, is that I have tied belief too much to evidence and defeaters, and thus have subjected the faith of individuals to the changing winds of academic opinion.
My response is two-fold. To begin with, who says that Christian belief is not supposed to include doubt? Who says that Christians should reach a state of content epistemic equilibrium as soon as possible? Who says they should shut down every doubt as a temptation of the devil?
Maybe some doubts come not from the devil but from God as he challenges us to test our faith and let the false beliefs burn up like chaff in the furnace of insurmountable counter-evidence. Maybe some doubts come simply because we’re wrong, period, and we need to come to terms with the fact.
I don’t disagree with Craig’s point that some doubts have resolutions beyond what we can presently understand. But that hardly means we’re entitled to cash a blank check to shut down any putative defeater to any of our Christian beliefs.
The second part of my response is that doubt is largely involuntary because belief too is involuntary. We don’t control our beliefs. Rather, we find ourselves with them. I can exercise indirect control over what I believe but I cannot choose my beliefs nor can I choose my doubts. And this means that despite Craig’s bad advice, Christians still might find themselves continuing to doubt. “Gee, I know what Dr. Craig said about the Holy Spirit and the devil’s wiles, but this sure doesn’t seem right to me.” In cases like that Craig ultimately offered bad advice without any real payoff.
In other words, Craig seemed to be aiming for pastorally helpful advice. Unfortunately, it is also epistemologically bad. And it turns out that it may not be all that pastorally helpful anyways. In fact, if it is epistemologically bad I don’t see how, in the long run, it can possibly be pastorally helpful.
Craig’s advice is like encouraging a child with an overactive imagination to close his eyes every time he thinks he sees something scary with the promise that “it’ll go away”. Most of the time that may be helpful advice.
But every once in a while a frothing rottweiler really does break free of its chain…