Atheists’ Lack of Listening: Is It Arrogance or Defensiveness?


It’s not just that they’re wrong. It’s that they’re so sure of themselves. I wonder if they think they’re so much smarter, they don’t even need to read what we write. It’s the arrogance, in other words. Or maybe something else, like defensiveness perhaps.

It isn’t every atheist, certainly, but it’s pretty common. Last week, for example, Luis Granados wrote at The Humanist about William Lane Craig,

His signature argument, borrowed from Thomas Aquinas, is that the universe must have a cause, and the cause therefore must be God. (He uses more words, but that’s the gist of it.) He conveniently omits, though, what the cause of God is or why whatever it is that caused or didn’t cause God couldn’t have done exactly the same thing directly to the universe, skipping the God step.

Craig’s Signature Argument

Those “more words” that Craig speaks on his signature argument, the Kalam cosmological argument, boil down to this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist must have a cause of its existence outside of itself
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. The universe has a cause of its existence outside itself.

This is pretty much the shortest possible way to state it. Now, let’s count Granados’ basic errors.

Four Ways Granados Got It Objectively Wrong

First, this argument shares but one thing with Thomas Aquinas: It’s an argument for God that can be labeled a cosmological argument. Other than that, none of it was borrowed from Aquinas.

Second, Granados’s “gist” omits Premises 1 and 2, without which the argument is incomplete, distorted, and silly-sounding. You don’t have the gist unless you include all three statements in the argument. It can’t be stated any more compactly than that without distorting it.

Third, Granados by omits the reasons Craig gives for thinking the cause must be God. So did I, in my very short summary above. It’s actually an extension of Craig’s Kalam argument, implied by what it must mean for the universe’s cause to be (a) outside the universe, (b) sufficient to cause the universe to come into existence, and (c) able to bring it into existence at a time in the finite rather than the infinite past.

I don’t need to develop a, b, and c for you to be able to tell that Granados didn’t bother to do it himself, and apparently didn’t care. He stated it in Least Mockable Unit form, signaling that he was looking to mock, not to understand.

Fourth, Granados made a mistake that Craig has corrected time and time again,* so often that he probably made the correction when Granados himself heard it. The argument doesn’t claim that everything must have a cause, as Granados implies when he wonders what caused God, but that everything that begins to exist must have a cause.

Craig shows in his development of Premise 2 that the universe hasn’t existed eternally, so it needs a cause. When we go searching for something else that meets requirements a, b, and c, however, we find something that very plausibly has existed eternally: God. Granados throws in a snipe on “skipping the God step,” but he ignores the fact that whatever anyone might propose to do that would have to be very much like God anyway.

All of that are things that Granados should have and would have heard explained correctly, if he’s ever encountered Craig’s own statement of the Kalam.

And a Fifth Error Besides

Fifth (not quoted above), he calls Craig a theologian, overlooking the fact that Craig has a worldwide reputation as a philosopher. Atheists typically think they can dismiss theologians because they think they can dismiss theology. Acknowledging that Craig is a philosopher would have spoiled Granados’s chance to belittle him in that way. I don’t know if that was Granados’s reason for calling him a theologian, but it’s at least a strong possibility; and it’s consistent with the mocking tone Granados took in dismissing the Kalam so quickly.

Now, that came from just slightly more than one paragraph of Granados’s article. Five complete distortions. Five smug, scornful dismissals. Five demonstrations that Granados either didn’t or wouldn’t care to understand what he was mocking in that way.

Where Do These Errors Come From?

The rest of his article is directed toward Craig’s argument on meaning and purpose, delivered at a [forum not long ago at Wycliffe College (below) . Craig had some very hard things to say about atheists and meaning, value, and purpose. Granados dismisses those, too. I’ll have to save most of my comments on that for another day. For now I want to dwell on Granados’s complete failure to represent Craig’s signature argument anywhere near accurately. I wonder what’s going on there? I can think of several possibilities. None of them are going to sound good, for how could they? I’m trying to find possible ways to explain a significant failure. So I wonder whether:

  • Granados doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand the Kalam argument? That seems unlikely. It’s not that complicated, and Granados shows no indication of being unintelligent.
  • He doesn’t want to represent it accurately because that would be socially unacceptable in his chosen circle of peers and friends? Social pressures can be powerful. So he defends himself from that risk by distorting the argument into silliness.
  • He can’t deal with it for what it is, because on some level he feels the force of the argument, and doesn’t want to face the conclusion it would force him to adopt personally? Personal pressures can be powerful, too, leading to a similar defensive strategem.
  • He really feels he’s smarter than Craig, so he doesn’t need to listen to what Craig says? I’ve seen this in some atheists, and I’ve called it the argumentum ad smarterum: basically, that one who believes in God can’t be very smart, and therefore his arguments must be wrong, not matter what those arguments may be. In that case it’s not defensiveness at play, it’s smug arrogance.

Defensiveness? or Arrogance? Which do you think?

What If I’ve Got His Intentions Wrong?

But what if all of those four possibilities are off by a mile? What if Granados comes along and explains how I’ve misconstrued his intentions completely? Then I’ve blown it. It’s possible, after all. And I’m sure if that were the case, he’d want me to correct my error, and do it publicly. It wouldn’t be the first time. Long-time readers here know that I’m willing to accept correction when I’ve been shown that I’ve erred.

But here’s what I haven’t gotten wrong. Maybe I’ve misunderstood his intentions, but I have not mis-analyzed the words that he wrote. My analysis of his version of the Kalam was done both objectively and accurately. I am very confident that I have correctly identified several ways in which Granados got it wrong. He made errors there. I wonder if he’d want to correct them — publicly — as he would surely like for me to do, if I’ve made errors in other parts of this blog post. It would be kind of like him doing to others what he would like me to do for him. Sound familiar? Think I introduced it here because it comes from the Bible? No; in fact there are versions of it in all kinds of non-biblical literature; and besides, it was Granados himself who brought it up. He tells us later in the article, “In pre-K I began appreciating the value of the golden rule, as it applied to toy sharing, and I’ve been attached to it ever since.”

I’ll be interested to see whether he’ll apply the Golden Rule here.

His comments on meaning, purpose, value, and happiness are also worth looking at, but as I said, I’ll have to save that for another day.

Related to this topic, to the extent (unknown, but not insignificant) that atheism intersects with modern liberalism: See here and here, at The Stream.

*Craig has corrected this error so often, even he might begin to wonder whether an actual infinite is possible after all. (Inside joke for those who have studied his argument.)

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13 Responses

  1. When I see signs of a strawman argument (silliness, misrepresentations, hyperbolic language, and other indications of reductionistic argumentation), I usually want to stop reading at that point and only sometimes continue to see where the train wreck actually happens.

  2. Jeff says:

    I was with you until the jab at “liberals”. It’s your blog, but it would be great if you could save the politics for your other site. Some of us have more left-leaning views that you do on health care, taxes, our illustrious president, etc., and yet (gasp!) are real Christians. I know — mind blown.

    On a related point, while it’s probably true that there are more atheist liberals than atheist conservatives, it’s probably also true that there are more nominal (i.e. not real) Christians with conservative views than nominal Christians with liberal ones. You know, the kind of person that goes to church on Sunday because it’s the cultural thing to do where they live and behaves however they want the rest of the week. And being a nominal Christian is arguably worse than being an atheist (Rev. 3:15-16).

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    That’s a fair point. Let me clarify. Of course not all liberals are atheists, but a very large majority of atheists are liberals or progressives. So the findings I reported on over at the linked pages at The Stream would likely apply to the great majority of atheists.

  4. John says:

    Defensiveness or arrogance? False dichotomy. I don’t listen to William Lane Craig for instance because he admits no evidence would change his mind, despite agreeing to debates. Is this authentic?
    Why should I listen to someone who won’t listen to me?

  5. Dr Sarah says:

    Would you appreciate it if someone applied your title and first paragraph to Christians? Even with the half-hearted disclaimer in your second paragraph?

    I’ve come across very many Christians who don’t appear to show any signs of genuinely listening to the arguments of the other side, and would still never dream of writing a title like ‘Christians’ lack of listening – is it arrogance or defensiveness?’ I don’t consider it appropriate or polite to dismiss Christians collectively in that way, with or without a disclaimer.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    If you’re ever in a direct conversation with Dr. Craig, John, I’m sure you’ll find he listens a lot better than this one popular, out-of-context snippet would suggest. Anyone who thinks he is inattentive to evidence has a distorted view of his overall message.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Dr. Sarah, I wrote it based on what I’ve experienced. Frequently. It isn’t every atheist, but it’s common, and I stand by that.

    The question isn’t whether I’d appreciate it if someone applied the charge back at Christians. The question is whether it’s true. If you’ve experienced that among Christians, I’d encourage you to call them on it.

    I should add that it’s not everyone’s duty to listen to everyone in the world, so “failure to listen” is only wrong if it’s wrong contextually. The example I gave in this OP was of one who had made a pretense of listening. That’s wrong. In other cases it’s people who are actively engaging in dialogue, except their answers indicate that they don’t actually care what the other has said. In some cases it’s two or more people trading comment slots on a web page or Facebook post, ignoring almost everything the other(s) are saying.

    In other words, I’m talking about failing to listen while ostensibly carrying on some kind of communication.

    If some Christians do that with you, I’d say you should say so, whether it’s polite or not. If a lot of Christians do so, and if you can back it up with examples, I’d say we need to hear that from you. People gotta find out how we’re coming across.

  8. Jeff says:

    John, whether or not Craig would change his mind based on some hypothetical evidence isn’t the point. The point, rather, is the strength of his arguments. Are they sound and valid? I believe so, having actually heard and considered them. You appear to be inventing a lame excuse to avoid this exercise. Perhaps you should ask yourself why that is.

    As an aside, no one who has heard Craig debate can reasonably claim that he doesn’t “listen.” He listens better and responds more coherently than most people.

  9. John (…second try/post…)

    “…. I don’t listen to William Lane Craig for instance because he admits no evidence would change his mind, despite agreeing to….”

    I think you have to be careful about context and what is meant there. Craig also defends the rational mode in which sufficient defeaters ought to displace currently held premises / beliefs and so on. What is rational is this:

    No evidence will compel the rational mind to embrace a logical absurdity.

    It is there, and not some other landing zone, that your comment leads us. Should the metaphysical naturalist — the Non-Theist — demonstrate for us the ability to follow his own trail of breadcrumbs through to his own “paradigmatic explanatory termini” without falling into the pains of absurdity, circularity, and the illusory, well then the rational mind will “listen” in the sense you seem to want to imply. Until that demonstration is forthcoming, the rational mind, on charity and on desire for understanding, will of course “listen” to all incoming data (…in another sense of that term “listen”…).

    A few excerpts from add context:

    Question: “I would presume… that you are aware of the different metaphysical systems underpinning your different arguments. How do you reconcile these differences, if at all? What is your metaphysical system? Do you think that it is wise to defend arguments with such different and seemingly incompatible metaphysical assumptions? Doesn’t this just make your case for the existence of God more incoherent? I ask this last question, because it seems to me that many atheists frequently misrepresent theistic arguments, and the biggest problem (I suspect) is ignorance of the metaphysical underpinnings of these arguments.”

    Reply: So in answer to your question: I deny that there are “different metaphysical systems underpinning your different arguments.” The arguments, while drawing upon metaphysical concepts and insights which appear in various systems (concepts and insights many of which have become generally or at least widely accepted), are independent of those systems in which these concepts may have been initially enunciated. So there’s no need to “reconcile these differences.” Do I “think that it is wise to defend arguments with such different and seemingly incompatible metaphysical assumptions?” No, but the arguments I defend are characterized, quite deliberately, so as to be as free as possible from extraordinary metaphysical assumptions, not to speak of seemingly incompatible assumptions, so as to broaden their appeal as much as possible. The premises of the various arguments are perfectly coherent, and no one I’m aware of has argued otherwise.

    Finally, “What is your metaphysical system?” This question made me smile. I guess I don’t have one! I mean, I’m a theist, a tensed time theorist, a Divine Command theorist, a substance dualist, an anti-realist about abstract objects, and, I suppose, many other things. But I don’t have any sort of system other than the composite of these various commitments. In any case, my natural theology aspires to be as system-free as possible in order to appeal as widely as possible to people of different persuasions.”

    End excerpts.

  10. Jenna Black says:

    Dr. Sarah and Tom,

    I notice in your conversation a view of the nature of our dialogue between Christians and atheists that I wish to challenge. The dialogue is not about Christianity and “the other side” or about the other person’s willingness to “listen” and “change their mind” based on the other person’s arguments. Fundamentally, atheists and theists have different concepts or understandings of what the name “God” means. IMO, atheists often misunderstand monotheism and are actually making straw man arguments. After a few minutes or a few posts into a conversation with an atheist, I am tempted to say, and often do say this: I explain to the atheist that if I believed about God what the atheist believes about God, I wouldn’t believe in God either. So to be induced to somehow change my mind about belief in God and come over to the “side” of the atheist, I would have to accept the atheist’s misunderstanding of what God is according to monotheism in the Abrahamic tradition and my own logical, rationale understanding of God, the Creator. According to my understanding of God, it is simply impossible for God not to exist because God is the source of all that exists and if God did not exist (in the unique way in which God exists), nothing would exist.

  11. Well stated J. Black.

  12. Jenna Black says:

    Yet another flaw in the atheist’s view of discussions about the two “sides” of the God question is the notion that the atheist has evidence that could convince Christians that God does not exist, when clearly there can be no evidence of a non-existent God.