Dealing with Doubt? On William Lane Craig’s rather bad advice

Posted on 08/26/11 39 Comments

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.”

Brrrr.

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…

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  • http://elbryanlibre.wordpress.com El Bryan Libre

    I think the doubt he’s talking about is strictly whether Christianity (or even just theism) is true. I don’t think he expressed himself in a manner that was incautious or misleading. Out of the different ways you could have interpreted him what made you choose to go with the most negative (and easiest to knock down) instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt?

    I’m curious what your opinion is of his work as an apologist (since you are also an apologist). Have you read much of his work or watched many of his debates?

    • randal

      I’ll respond to the first paragraph in the blog post. As for the latter, you ask: “I’m curious what your opinion is of his work as an apologist (since you are also an apologist). Have you read much of his work or watched many of his debates?”

      I first met Craig in 1994. I have used his book Reasonable Faith in the apologetics course I teach for about 5 or 6 years. I’ve read several other books by Craig and probably about 20 of his papers. I’ve probably listened to about 30 of his debates and have heard him speak in person at churches, conferences and universities about 10 times.

      • http://elbryanlibre.wordpress.com El Bryan Libre

        So what’s your opinion of his work?

        • randal

          Outstanding. I described him as the world’s leading apologist, didn’t I? :)

          I have never seen a more skilled debater. And I can count on one hand the number of philosophers who have made contributions to as wide a field as Craig, from historical Jesus to the philosophy of time and big bang cosmology to theological theories of the Trinity, inspiration and inclusivism. He’s done it all.

          • randal

            I would add that in the midst of all he does he also regularly teaches adult Sunday school at his home church. I’ll do a two or three week stint at my church, but Craig will do a twenty week series. The guy is a machine.

            • http://elbryanlibre.wordpress.com El Bryan Libre

              I really like his apologetic work (although I don’t think he presents the best case in that 5 views on apologetics book), but I find his stuff on theology to be rather boring and traditional. His debates are great. He actually got me interested in philosophy of religion.

              • Jpuras

                Randall, your posts just reek of jealousy of Craig.

                • randal

                  Something sure does reek, but it is not my posts. Rather, it is your ad hominem attack.

                  At my blog I try to encourage readers to rise above that.

                  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

                    Few of us succeed.

  • MGT2

    Randal,

    Having read some of Craig’s works, I agree with El Bryan Libre; it is with whether Christianity is true. And on that basis, I would say the Devil is behind those doubts.

    However, I have read Craig arguing that it is reasonable and even the responsible thing for Christians to intellectually examine those claims you mentioned, and he did not invoke the Devil as the cause of the doubts.

    From what you have written in this post, both of you basically agree.

    • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David P

      It seems like Randal is beating a straw man here, but I’ll respond more later. ;-)

    • randal

      “From what you have written in this post, both of you basically agree.”

      Not at all. Craig believes the justification we have for our beliefs is ultima facie, not prima facie. I’ll respond to the first couple sentences in a blog post.

  • http://ponderingthepreponderance.blogspot.com David P

    I’m not sure why we should fault Craig for assuming that someone is doubting basic Christian truth rather than your list. Why shouldn’t he focus on the more important issue? At debates, he is often asked about inerrancy by students…and tells them he doesn’t think they should let it get in the way of becoming a Christian. This is something atheist’s critique him for, because they feel like he is using a bait and switch tactic. (Once you’re in the pack, then Craig gently persuades you to accept inerrancy too.)

    See this link for a sample Craig’s approach to inerrancy:http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5717

  • Brad Haggard

    I’ve heard Craig on other forums talk about the “web of beliefs” in which belief in God and Christ is central and the doubts you raise are secondary or tertiary, and as such, open to doubt. Perhaps that is what needs to be highlighted.

    I do disagree that beliefs are completely involuntary, though.

    • randal

      That begs two questions: (1) which beliefs about God and Christ have ultima facie justification?; (2) why those beliefs and not others?

      It also runs into an additional problem. This kind of stipulation also requires that a whole raft of other beliefs, not about God or Christ but rather about epistemology, have ultima facie justification. For example, it would require us to believe “Some beliefs have ultima facie justification” itself has ultima facie justification, because obviously if we started to doubt that, we could no longer believe that certain beliefs about God and Christ had ultima facie justification.

      In terms of belief and doubt being involuntary, I said that we exercise indirect control over our beliefs, but not direct control. I don’t choose to believe that p. Rather I encounter evidence and either find myself believing p or not believing it. Doxastic voluntarism, the claim that we can will to believe things, is a thoroughly refuted thesis.

      • Brad Haggard

        Well, I’d say that God as existing and Creator, and Jesus as the Christ, along with the idea of the Trinity, are the core beliefs. This has been the accepted core since the start of the church, or at least for over 1500 years.

        I’m actually with you about ultima facie justification, but I do remember in my time of doubt, there was another force inside of me that for some reason wouldn’t let me go of my commitment to Christianity. Those are not the same things, though. However, I do feel strongly that if I had not decided to pursue my doubts in the way that I did (along with confession of sin), then I would not be a Christian today.

        • Brad Haggard

          BTW, my existential crisis was brought on by numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 above. You’re dead on about that.

  • pete

    I also think Dr. Craig’s audience is worth noting.

    I don’t want to come across as an intellectual snob, but the specific audience he mentioned are those educated in Christianity primarily by the church, and outside of the seminarian disciplines of theology, epistemiolgy, etc.

    Alot of time, properly basic belief is all an individual possesses, and can possibly be shaken and broken with less effort.

    For those who do believe in conservative orthodox views of judgement, the consequences could possibly be fatal. Dr. Craig was providing his message through a 5 minute YouTube medium, and I think was probably seeking the best bang for his buck.

    On the topic of prima facie vs. ultima facie evidence, while I would never seek to quench doubt/discernment of anything presented as “the truth”, I do also think it is possible to arrive at a ultima facie/faith in a self-evident truth, using the prima facie evidence as your starting point.

    The ultima facie position has sustained the church during the onset of the Copernican march of rationalism, and I think in 2011, we are the beneficiaries of the scientific evidence now coming together “big picture” to tip the scales in favour of Christian Theism.

    So I agree with Randall that all things CAN be questioned and doubted, as it would be intellectually arrogant and negligent to rest on a properly basic belief and/or the historical laurels of the church, and then present an individual’s market on “truth” as “THE TRUTH”. That, very rightly, should be deemed as lazy and irresponsible. Christian Theists do have a responsibility to present the REASON for our hope in Jesus.

    However, I also think it is also acceptable in the case of a person with a properly basic belief in Christian Theism (granny in the front pew, etc) for a person not to question their properly basic belief in the face of arguments and evidence that appear to refute Christianity. I think Dr. Craig did very well to provide them with a “spiritual first aid kit” to ask for a little divinely-assisted triage on the battelfield, through the irrefutable witness of the Holy Spirit.

    While we would like for everyone to be called to a position that they could engage in critical thought about all facets of Christian truth and error, in all likelihood, this is probably not reality.

    I also note (In my limited viewing of Dr. Craig’s debate and literature) that Dr. Craig has not, and probably would not make this type of self-evident appeal to the Holy Spirit as proof or evidence for Christian Theism in a debate with an atheist or agnostic.

    But I admittedly could be wrong on that point.

    • MGT2

      Pete, you are right that Craig would not use that appeal when debating.

      You are also right that the reality is that the vast majority of Christians do not think in those terms, but rely on the Holy Spirit. Craig distinguishes himself by acknowledging this. Because, philosophical reasoning and debates aside, the reality is that the Holy Spirit through His witness is the final arbiter.

  • Chris

    Some might enjoy this quote on doubt; I know I do.

    “A devout and honest scepticism on God’s side, not to be put down by anything called authority, is absolutely necessary to him who would know the liberty wherewith Christ maketh free. Whatever any company of good men thinks or believes, is to be approached with respect; but nothing claimed or taught, be the claimers or the teachers who they may, must come between the soul and the spirit of the father, who is himself the teacher of his children. Nay, to accept authority may be to refuse the very thing the ‘authority’ would teach; it may remain altogether misunderstood just for lack of that natural process of doubt and inquiry, which we were intended to go through by him who would have us understand.”

    — George MacDonald

  • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

    “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.)”

    After a second listen, I can see how you got this impression. He refers to Satan being bent on destroying faith, and this was the only reason he gave for paying attention to the spiritual dimension of doubt, a reason for taking your doubts before God and church community with a serious attitude.

    From personal experience, many of my apostate friends went overboard from doubting subtle discrepancies in the synoptics or evidence against a universal flood…not the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ (which is what Craig likely has in mind when he talks about doubting the Christian faith).

    Your attitude is probably that the church was too hard on those apostates about their doubts. Falsely attributing their doubt to Satan only made their situation worse. Made them feel like they were really under spiritual attack for doubting the universal flood. Maybe they’ve sinned in some way and God is allowing Satan to attack them with doubts about Noah or Jonah.

    Of course, you’re right in some cases. But Craig doesn’t live in that world. He doesn’t have a bone to pick with fundies. That isn’t his motif.

    If all doubts have a spiritual dimension and Satan seeks to destroy us, it doesn’t follow that Satan is the primary source of all doubts. It follows that Satan is potentially involved in doubts aimed at destroying faith. But Craig never says that all doubts aim to destroy faith. To the contrary, he’s affirmed elsewhere that doubts are part of a balanced epistemic breakfast. What he is saying is that doubts are a serious matter. A seemingly harmless doubt swept under the rug is a bad thing… a strong hold if you will. ;-)

    Professional philosophers and theologians can become oblivious to the untrained mind’s perception of these things. They live in a world where someone doubts every solution to every problem in the field…and they study the problems for decades. This can’t possibly compare to the youth pastor who preaches about sanctification but continues to struggle with a porn addiction.

    Personally, I’m glad that Craig keeps that perspective on doubt. But I don’t hear him saying that all doubt is of the devil.

  • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

    “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.”

    Craig thinks the testimony of the Holy Spirit can’t be overcome by any opposing defeaters. However, an undercutting defeater is still possible (see Fitelson).

    It follows from this that any putative defeater should be met with an attitude of “well, this must turn out to have some satisfactory answer that is compatible with my basic beliefs.”

    You are reading him as if he’s saying all doubts must turn out in favor of whatever the person doubting thinks they should. A doubting KJV-Onlyist must think that his doubt bag will eventually turn out to support his KJV-Onlyism.

    That isn’t what Craig is saying. He’s saying that the KJVO should believe that his doubt bag will eventually turn out to support the basic beliefs entailed by his experience with the Holy Spirit. Beliefs like “God exists” and “Christ saved me”…not beliefs like “only the AKJV is the inspired word of God.”

    • randal

      “You are reading him as if he’s saying all doubts must turn out in favor of whatever the person doubting thinks they should.”

      I never said that at all. Rather, I pointed out that he provides no criteria to guide which beliefs count as ultima facie justified and which do not.

      Your final paragraph is pure eisegesis. It also is completely beside the point if the KJVO advocate believes the inspiration of the KJV is part of the deliverances of the Spirit.

      • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

        “Rather, I pointed out that he provides no criteria to guide which beliefs count as ultima facie justified and which do not.”

        I think he does. He says the way “we know Christianity is true is on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit…and that this gives me a means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.”

        So the questions to ask are: what kind of things does the Holy Spirit witness to? And what is entailed by those beliefs.

        Is this not a pretty clearly defined criteria?

        • randal

          “So the questions to ask are: what kind of things does the Holy Spirit witness to? And what is entailed by those beliefs. Is this not a pretty clearly defined criteria?”

          Um, no, because some claim that a young earth or KJV only is witnessed to by the Holy Spirit.

          • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

            Those are not identical to or entailed by “Christianity is true.”

            • randal

              How many times are you going to beg the question? You and I don’t think they are entailments but others do. Believe me, I’ve met them.

      • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

        “Your final paragraph is pure eisegesis. It also is completely beside the point if the KJVO advocate believes the inspiration of the KJV is part of the deliverances of the Spirit.”

        External evidence good sir! I’m not judging Craig based on a 5 minute video clip. I don’t have a problem with your criticism of the inadequacy of the video clip…I am more interested in making Craig’s actual position clear. Chapter 1 of Reasonable Faith discusses the kinds of things the Spirit witnesses to.

        “The apostle John also makes quite clear that it is the Holy Spirit within us who gives believers conviction of the truth of Christianity…Now the truth that the Holy Spirit teaches us is not, I’m convinced, the subtleties of Christian doctrine. There are too many Spirit-filled Christians who differ doctrinally for that to be the case. What John is talking about is is the inner assurance the Holy Spirit gives of the basic truths of the Christian faith, what Plantinga calls the great truths of the gospel. This assurance does not come from human arguments but from the Holy Spirit himself.” (p. 44, 3rd edition)

        • randal

          “External evidence good sir! I’m not judging Craig based on a 5 minute video clip. I don’t have a problem with your criticism of the inadequacy of the video clip…I am more interested in making Craig’s actual position clear.”

          Okay, but that’s a rather opaque way to shift the topic of discussion. I was critiquing Craig’s advice for dealing with doubt, not his comprehensively developed epistemology. And that advice is bad for the reasons I gave.

          • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

            Fair enough. But I think you’re being too hard on Craig. I’d rather see you interact with his religious epistemology. It’s too easy to pick on a video clip. That’s like when atheists pick on Bible verses. ;-)

            • randal

              The Bible verse analogy is inappropriate. This is a self-contained unit which offers a response to a specific question that is structured in three parts. I responded to the entirety of Craig’s response and did not arbitrarily select portions of it. And it is absurd to suggest that every time a person offers a piece of advice you have to evaluate the worth of that advice relative to their entire published corpus.

              • http://theisticnotebook.wordpress.com David Parker

                “And it is absurd to suggest that every time a person offers a piece of advice you have to evaluate the worth of that advice relative to their entire published corpus.”

                Right, I don’t think you have to interact with it to conclude the video was misleading. Just giving Craig’s position a little more flesh and blood, but at the same time not entirely agreeing that the video was all that bad. Keep in mind though, I have a decade of Craig fanship keeping me from hearing what the average Christian probably does. So my opinion on the video itself is probably worthless. :-)

                • randal

                  don’t forget that I began by pointing out the substantial agreement between Craig and me.

  • pete

    all jokes aside…. the KJVO has to realize its probably the 1769 version and not the 1611 version that they hold in their hand

    bunny trail (but not the devil)….. I know

    • randal

      Just as long as they don’t have the 1631 “Wicked Bible” edition with the infamous “Thou shalt commit adultery” typo.

      Actually, if you do have that edition, let me know. A copy is worth millions.

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  • oa

    How does Craig know that the voice he hears in his head (that tells him Christianity is true) is not from satan who wants to mislead people to false religions? He has no way of knowing this. To know that it can only be God’s Spirit telling him that Christianity is true, he has to use reason. (reason is the very same thing which he claims that Christians don’t need to use, in order to know
    that Christianity is true).

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I’ve never heard Craig attribute his Christian beliefs to a “voice he hears in his head”.

      Your general skeptical question is one that can be applied to everyone as Descartes pointed out with his evil demon scenario.