Though the two apologists in the title of this post are both Christians*1, there is a general problem for those asserting knowledge based on religious texts that is frequently a motivation*2 for epistemological inconsistency and even epistemological dishonesty.
The problem is this: all religious texts diverge from reality at multiple points. When this occurs, it becomes obvious that either one must compare text to reality to determine the truth of the text, or compare reality to the text to determine the truth of reality. Sye ten Bruggencate takes the position that reality is to be compared with the text to determine the truth of reality. Where reality differs from text, reality is wrong. Though ten Bruggencate would prefer to phrase this as “we are wrong about reality,” for him there is no evidence, there is nothing about reality that could ever be contradictory of the text. The text is the standard against which all else must be compared.
For many, it becomes maddening to speak with someone like ten Bruggencate. Attempts to point out the double standard of comparing reality to one text, while other texts are considered to be disproven by comparison to reality, frequently (and often repeatedly) fail. Even more maddening, believers in the mold of ten Bruggencate appear to fail even to understand that a double standard is being employed. What atheists and skeptics so often miss is that these persons are, in fact, correct that no double standard is being employed. One text is a source of truth. Reality is compared against that source of truth. Other texts are compared against that source of truth. Oral statements are compared against that source of truth. Even personal sensory experiences are compared against that source of truth. There is one standard: for ten Bruggencate and fellow travelers, it is their bible. In their minds, to point out that they do not compare reality to the Vedas is not proof of any double standards. To compare reality to the Vedas would in fact be to hold a double (or multiple) standard, one using their bible as the standard, one using the Vedas.
William Lane Craig, on the other hand, has a deep interest in cosmology and attempts to use facts about the universe to argue that his bible is correct in its assertions about a god. He appears to want his audience to compare his bible to reality in order to determine the truth of that bible. And yet, even if Craig had both a thorough understanding of cosmologically relevant math and physics, and even if Craig had an appropriate level of academic and intellectual humility about his conclusions, he does not, in fact, want readers of his bible to treat reality as the standard. He repeatedly insists during public statements and debates that his god “transcends” not only local spacetime, but any and all universes or multiverses that exist or can be said to have ever existed or to someday come into existence. By all of Craig’s accounts, his god transcends anything that we might call reality.
Reality, then, cannot be proof of anything about his god. Everything explainable by appeal to a god with a good nature can be equally well explained by a god with a whimsical nature who created multiple universes and happened to create this one with some aspects consistent with what a god with a good nature might create. Likewise, such things are equally well explained by a god with an evil nature carefully crafting a universe to deceive humans into believing that there is a good and loving god waiting for them so that the emotional blow of finding only a hateful god waiting to punish them will be all that much more emotionally devastating in those moments after death.
We know, then, that Craig is committed to relying on his religious texts for his accounts of any divine nature. This ultimately constrains what Craig may concede to reality. While reality can be a standard against which some things may be compared, and while facts about reality can an interesting hooks to entice his audiences to take his ideas about god more seriously, his ultimate standard is his bible. If and when reality conflicts with his bible, his bible must negate reality, not the other way round.
Yet Craig is far less open about this than the ten Bruggencates of apologetics. Craig, like many apologists of his ilk, accomplishes his acts of concealment by simply pretending that reality and his bible are not in conflict in many places where conflicts apparently exist. Plants exist before stars, the moon, and the sun? Tish, tosh. Genesis is metaphorical, don’tcha know? In the beginning some white skinned dude whose omnipresence wasn’t contained by his very, very white skin spoke a word and the universe poofed into being. Also, this instantiation of spacetime either had a time = 0 or is at least left-bounded at t=0. In agreement? Yep. There’s definite evidence of poofs at the moment of creation.*3
Now Craig may assert in public that this is evidence that his bible is true, but his inability to state facts about reality that contradict statements in his bible is telling. To all appearances, Craig holds the same view as ten Bruggencate, that reality cannot contradict his preferred bible.
Ultimately, then, both Craig and ten Bruggencate see their bibles not as collections of true statements, but as their sources for truth. If you’re familiar with the two, you know that ten Bruggencate is willing to put his name on events billed as debates about the existence of a god and related topics (whether the diversity of life is explained best by design or by reproductive variance with genetic inheritance of most traits from previous generations with reproductive success, genetic diversity, and phenotypic diversity promoted and limited by natural factors). Yet when he shows up at such events, he is quite clear he is not willing to actually argue such points as to do so would implicitly concede that there is more than one position on these topics where each is consistent with his source of truth. Craig, on the other hand, shows up to such events apparently willing to examine evidence other than the statements of his bible, but nothing in what he says or does ever admits to possible error in his bible.
It is hard to determine which position is the more dishonest or whether it wastes more time and energy to falsely promote an event at which a religious apologist will, in fact, state openly and truthfully what source for truth the apologist employs or to accurately promote an event at which a religious apologist will deceptively conceal the source for truth the apologist employs. Either one, however, is incredibly frustrating. It’s too bad that their god didn’t put, “Thou shalt not lie” somewhere in their important commandments.
In the meantime, I’ll simply continue to ask people for their source of truth when I begin conversations about the nature of reality and (if they can be said to be separate) existence. When reality and your holy book both say something similar, is that evidence that your holy book made a true statement? Or is that evidence that our senses are accurately perceiving reality? If we are going to continue to have conversations between people of different religions and no religion, between secularists and theocrats, between people of faith and people of reason, logging our epistemological foundations is going to continue to be crucial to honest dialog and debate.
*1: If I remember correctly and if their positions have not recently changed.
*2: Or a “spark,” if you prefer to believe that the apologists under discussion do not make a conscious choice.
*3: While evidence of straight people doesn’t come until several days later, which makes me wonder why Christians are more opposed to gay marriage than to straight marriage when poofs clearly came first.