Douglas Wilson Interview:
Q&A with the Advocatus Atheist
First off, allow me to say what a pleasure it is to have a discussion with someone as down to earth and intelligent as you—someone who can pull P.G. Wodehouse quotes from memory nonetheless! I first heard of you when I watched the movie Collision in which you square off against the infamous anti-theist Christopher Hitchens and take the God debate on the road. I must have watched my copy of the film six or seven times trying to catch all the minute details of each discussion. That film was so well edited and I felt it did both of your perspectives justice. Also, I have just finished reading your books The Deluded Atheist and God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything.
This month I decided to come back to Christian apologetics and take up my Christian friend’s offer to read some of the books which they felt might convince me to come back to the fold (however unlikely). Among their recommendations was God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything, as well as some other recent apologetical works. That said I thought instead of writing a book review, why not go straight to the source? I am truly thankful that you (Pastor Douglas Wilson) have agreed to take the time out of your busy schedule, especially with the recent passing of your mother, for which I am truly sorry.
So without further to-do…
AvA: Were you raised a Christian, and if so, would you mind briefly explaining your life growing up with regard to Christianity?
DW: Yes, I was brought up in a godly and consistent Christian home. My mother was a missionary in Japan when my father met her, and during my years growing up they were involved in evangelistic work of all kinds.
AvA: When did you hear the calling and take up a life of ministry and become a Pastor? Was there any special reason you wanted to do this profession? If life had dealt you a different hand of cards, what other profession would you have liked to consider?
DW: I actually wanted to run literature ministry bookstores like my father did. I was involved in a church plant (as the song leader), and when the church was just a year or two old, the man who was preaching moved to another town. As the song leader up front, I was left holding the bag. It was a Jesus people type of thing, and pretty informal, so that is how I wound up in ministry. I preached the next Sunday, and have been doing that now for 33 years. Had I not gone into church work, I think I would want to be a writer with a political edge.
AvA: What is Reformed Evangelical theology exactly and how it is different from other theological considerations? Also, can you briefly explain what Federal Vision is?
DW: By “Reformed,” we mean the basic historic doctrines that came out of the Protestant Reformation—salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, and the truth about such things to be determined by Scripture alone. The implications of this necessitate a Calvinistic approach to Scripture and to the world. By “evangelical” we mean the absolute necessity of the new birth. It is not enough to think Christian doctrines in your head—you must be born again. The “Federal Vision” is a name given to a subset within the contemporary Reformed world, and that debate revolves around questions that have to do with the nature of the church, the role of sacraments, and so on.
AvA: In The Deluded Atheist you criticize weak theological arguments such as Pascal’s Wager (which is basically a false dichotomy) calling it bad and others such as the ontological argument and the aesthetic argument misplaced, but at the same time you claim atheists like Richard Dawkins don’t seem to have considered the Transcendental argument. Many may not be familiar with Transcendentalism, or what it entails, would you mind explaining what the Transcendental argument is and why you feel this a good argument for the existence of God?
DW: The Transcendental argument reasons in this way. What sort of universe would we have to have in order to be engaging in this debate? Before a Christian and an atheist examine their respective statements, in which their disagreements would become evident, we should first look at what both of them are assuming to be the case, prior to any statements. What kind of universe do they both believe themselves to be living in, and then you ask whether their worldview can account for that universe? For example, both the atheist and the Christian believe their statements about the world to be such that true or false can be said of those statements. But this requires the laws of logic, and where did they come from? I submit that they could only be here if the universe is a Christian universe. Much more could be said, but that is the heart of it.[i]
AvA: Later on in the book you mention the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) and how this lends support for God’s transcendence of all things. What is DDS exactly and why is it not self negating? For example, I would assume the monotheistic Allah of Islam is simpler than the triune God head of Christianity—regardless of whether they are the same entity (as there are different trains of thought as to who holds the rights in defining the Jewish God of Abraham) it seems to me that basic logic dictates that a triune God wouldn’t necessarily be the most simple entity possible, i.e. it seems Allah is less complex still? What are your thoughts?
DW: The problem is that if you reduce complexity too far you cannot account for complexity in the world. It is the old problem of the One and the Many. You need a simplicity that covers the situation. One God in three Persons addresses the problems of form and freedom in the world, as well as unity and diversity. Parmenides cannot account for diversity and Heraclitus cannot account for unity. The Trinitarian has the simplest explanation for both—and we have to give an account of both.
AvA: Shifting gears, I’d like to ask you about the New Atheism, as you have debated with leading proponents of atheism such as the verbose Christopher Hitchens. You mention in The Deluded Atheist that:
Previous atheists had adopted the strategy of an urbane sophistication, an attitude that rose above the unwashed superstitions of the masses. We theists were allowed our silly beliefs and practices, while “educated people” had the confidence to know that these assumptions of ours presented no threat whatever to the continued regency of unbelief.
Continuing on you state that such a patronizing attitude is disappearing and a new breed of atheism, a “take no prisoners” styled polemical strand of atheism has arisen. Why do you think this is, and do you think these New “militant” Atheists are less patronizing because they are upfront with gripes about theism or do you think less of them for being boisterous in voicing their opinions?
DW: The new atheists believe, rightly in my view, that religious faith is formidable, and they perceive it to be more of a threat than the old school atheists thought. The old school guys thought history was on their side, and that a continued inexorable enlightenment would soon banish all our old superstitions. But the Christian faith is pretty resilient, and the new atheists see that. I appreciate their fighting style to the old patronizing style.
AvA: Recent polls have shown that non-belief is the fastest growing “religious belief” in America. Meanwhile Barna Research consistently reports that more and more evangelical pastors are leaving the fold. With such a mass exodus of religious leaders and a steady secularization of America, what are your concerns as a Christian, and what would you tell your congregation which would able them to cope with the apparent decline of Christianity in mainstream America?
DW: I don’t think that America is becoming more one way or the other. I think it is in the process of dividing, and hence all our conflicts. There is an increasing secularization of one part of America, and an increasing openness to the idea of what I have called “mere Christendom” on the other. More Americans believe in the virgin birth than in Darwin. But lots of people are on each side.
AvA: Do you think Richard Dawkins was correct about a zeitgeist, or rather, a change in cultural/religious attitudes in American culture? Do you feel it is merely a trend, or perhaps something else, a sign of the end times maybe?
DW: No, I don’t believe we are in the end times at all. And while I agree with Dawkins that this is a time of foment and turmoil, I don’t see it as a uniform and smooth transformation. I think we have nine miles of bad road ahead of us.
AvA: I personally feel this quickening secularization has less to do with the New Atheist movement than is has to do with what the Christian theologian Hans Frei argues in his book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics, mainly that questioning the historicity of the biblical documents in the modern era has led to the loss of the integrity of the narrative structure. Essentially, in searching for the historical Jesus historians have moved away from the powerful message of the Gospel narrative and have supplanted it with a framework for a historical narrative—placing the importance of the history above the importance of the message.
v Would you agree this is the larger part of the problem regarding today’s society, who being born and raised in a modern scientific age, are more interested in brute facts than the truth which can come from subjective spiritual insights or experiences? I mean, for me I feel this is where the dividing line is… between those who maintain their faith and relying on full spectrum of religious experiences they may have vs. those who would rather deal with intellectual arguments and engage critically with what can be known rather than felt (the age old psyche vs. eros / mind vs. heart problem). Am I way off on this hypothesis, and if so, where do you think the problem lies?
DW: I believe that Frei was on to something, but I would take it in bit of a different direction. Most secularists are content to live on one side of Lessing’s ugly ditch, and existential faithy-types are content to live on the other. The older forms of modern fundamentalism wanted to build a permanent bridge across. Some forms of fundamentalism want to jump it on a motorcycle, like Evel Knievel. I am a postmillennial Calvinist and want to turn Lessing’s ditch into a landfill, and then plant some grass on it.
AvA: Finally, what would your advice be to Christians who are on the fence about the existence of God and the authenticity of Jesus? Say, for example, they have been reading the New Atheist literature and are beginning to have doubts. In addition, like most average or moderate Christians, they are probably unaware of many of the philosophically compelling theological arguments and probably don’t really want to bother (nor have time for) dealing with the convoluted nature of much of Christian theology. What would your advice to them be regarding their dwindling faith?
DW: George MacDonald once said that obedience is the great opener of eyes. And a church father once put it this way—credo ut intelligam. “I believe in order that I might understand.” I would urge folks like that to find a church where the people love Jesus, love the Scriptures, and intend to live that way. And an important part of living that way means loving God with all their minds.
AvA: Well, thanks again for your time. I look forward to thinking about these new perspectives!
DW: Thanks for the opportunity.
Glossary of Terms
Atheism –the theory or rejection of the belief that God exists; either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none.
Calvinism –the Protestant theological system of John Calvin and his successors, which develops Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone into an emphasis on the grace of God and centres on the doctrine of predestination.
Doctrine –a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a Church, political party, or other group.
Eros –a) (Greek Mythology) the god of love, son of Aphrodite (known as Cupid by the Romans); b) sexual love or desire; c) in Freudian theory the life instinct, often contrasted with Thanatos; d) in Jungian psychology the principle of personal relatedness in human activities, associate with the anima, often contrasted with Logos.
Evangelical –a) of or according to the teaching of the gospel or the Christian religion; b) of or denoting a tradition within Protestant Christianity emphasizing the authority of the Bible, personal conversion, and the doctrine of salvation by faith in the Atonement; c) zealous in advocating or supporting a particular cause.
Existentialism –a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.
Fundamentalism –a) a form of Protestant Christianity which upholds belief in the strict and literal interpretation of the Bible; b) strict maintenance of the doctrines of any religion, notably Islam, according to a strict, literal interpretation of scripture.
· Modern Christian fundamentalism arose from American millenarian sects of the 19th century, and has become associated with reaction against social and political liberalism and rejection of the theory of evolution. Islamic fundamentalism appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries as a reaction to the disintegration of Islamic political and economic power, asserting that Islam is central to both state and society and advocating strict adherence to the Koran (Qur’an) and to Islamic law (sharia), supported if need be by jihad.
Heraclitus –(c. 500 BCE), Greek philosopher. He believed that fire is the origin of all things and that permanence is an illusion, everything being in a (harmonious) process of constant change. The guiding idea of his philosophy was that the logos (law or principle) governing all things: this logos is capable of being heard or hearkened to by people, it unifies opposites, and it is somehow associated with fire, which is preeminent among the four elements, although he is principally remembered for the doctrine of the ‘flux’ of all things, having commented, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for new waters are ever flowing in upon you.”
Hermeneutics –the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.
Parmenides –(fl. 5th century BCE), Greek philosopher. Born in Elea in SW Italy, he founded the Eleatic school of philosophers. In his work On Nature, written in hexameter verse, he maintained that the apparent motion and changing forms of the universe are in fact manifestations of an unchanging and indivisible reality. Showed that within a profound consciousness there exists a conflict between reason and experience, and the contrast between the changing perceptible world and the unchanging and eternal intelligible world has exercised philosophy ever since.
Postmillennialism –(among fundamentalist Christians) the doctrine that the Second Coming of Christ will be the culmination of the prophesied millennium of blessedness.
Protestant Christianity –a division of Christianity springing from the Reformation, a Western Christian Church that is separate from the Roman Catholic Church in accordance with the principles of the Reformation, including the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran Churches. Protestants are so called after the declaration (protestation) of Martin Luther and his supporters dissenting from the decision of the Diet of Spires (1529), which reaffirmed the edict of the Diet of Worms against the Reformation. All Protestants reject the authority of the papacy, both religious and political, and find authority in the text of the Bible, made available to all in vernacular translation.
Psyche –a) the human soul, mind, or spirit; b) a Hellenistic personification of the mind/soul as female, or sometimes as a butterfly. In Greek mythology the allegory of Psyche’s love for Cupid is told in The Golden Ass by Apuleius.
Reformation (the) –a 16th century movement for the reform of abuses in the Roman Church ending in the establishment of the Reformed and Protestant Churches started when Martin Luther (1517) issued ninety-five theses criticizing Church doctrine and practice.
Secular –not connected with religious or spiritual matters. Used in Christian Latin to mean ‘the world’ (as opposed to the Church); contrasted with sacred.
Transcendentalism –an idealistic philosophical and social movement which developed in New England around 1836 in reaction to rationalism. Influenced by romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy, it taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive views on feminism and communal living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were central figures.
Trinitarianism –relating to belief in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Trinity (Holy) –the three *persons of the Christian Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
(All definitions and descriptions are reproduced from the Oxford Dictionary of English 2005 and the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 2008.)
[i] AvA note: Although I agree with Wilson that logic must exist in this universe for us to even be having such a discussion, I think he makes the mistake of a dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter, the fallacy of taking out a needed qualification: e.g. ‘If we use logic to reason about the universe we are thus conscious minded, therefore reason dictates there must be a conscious mind behind the logic found in the universe—therefore God’. I don’t think God would be so easy to prove, otherwise there would be no atheists or agnostics in need of convincing. Yet because it is basically a fallacy, those who catch the fallacy remain unconvinced. Even so, I personally feel that metaphysical naturalism explains our human capacity to reason (and where consciousness comes from) better than Christianity. However, when I was still a believing Christian I didn’t even know what metaphysical naturalism even was or what it entails—like how it predicts an atheistic “godless” universe. For anyone interested in a thorough defense of metaphysical naturalism see Richard Carrier’s book Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2005.