William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens: First Report

Tonight, Biola University hosted a debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens on the question “Does God Exist?” The debate was moderated by Hugh Hewitt and seen live by several thousand in attendance at Biola and many more at remote locations in 30 states and several countries.

I’ve just returned home from the event and will record a number of my observations as a first report from the front lines.

  1. This event was no mere spectacle, but a legitimate debate that addressed substantive arguments.
  2. Everybody behaved themselves, including members of the audience.
  3. Bill Craig made two claims in his opening argument: (A) There are no good arguments for atheism, and (B) there are several good arguments for the existence of God (theism). The balance of his opening argument was devoted to four carefully delineated arguments and a fifth thesis about the role of experience in grounding belief in God. This organization of the case for God’s existence has been used by Bill Craig time and again. The first argument is a cosmological argument, based on the origin of the universe. The second was a version of the teleological argument that emphasizes the improbability of the existence of a universe inhabited by human beings, given the evidence of both physics and biology. Third, he argued that the best explanation for the existence of objective moral facts is the existence of God. Fourth, he stated three sets of historical facts that are uniformly accepted by New Testament scholars, which together provide ample evidence that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, implying the occurrence of an important miracle and hence the existence of God. Each argument was constructed as a valid deductive argument, so that rational denial of the conclusion would require a direct challenge to one or more of the premises in each argument. His fifth point was that belief in God can as well be grounded in direct experience of God, though this is not to be confused with an argument for the existence of God. He ended with a challenge to Christopher Hitchens to show how these arguments err, and also argue that God does not exist.
  4. Bill Craig made the interesting point that believers in God should not be so distracted by arguments for the existence of God that they miss the experience of God.
  5. In his opening argument, Christopher Hitchens argued first that Bill Craig is not a consistent evidentialist, and that, to the extent that Craig is an evidentialist, he is, like any evidentialist Christian, a “retrospective evidentialist” who appeals to evidence now that no theist could have centuries ago. Further to this point, Hitchens suggested that contemporary (Christian) theists have, in the face of scientific evidence for evolution, “retreated” from their earlier strategies by claiming that evolution is evidence for theism, or is at least compatible with theism. Next he argued that even if God did exist (by which I think he meant the God mentioned in the conclusion of Craig’s arguments), no reason has been given to believe that this God cares, while there are reasons to think this God is indifferent. (I think, consistent with his practice in his book god Is Not Great, Hitchens would use the word “god” without caps.) His third point was that Craig is obligated to “prove to a certainty” that God exists, while atheists like himself rightly value the role of doubt in the absence of evidence and intellectual humility. This led directly to disclaimers about Craig’s definition of the term “atheism”—Hitchens regards himself as an “a-theist” in the sense that he believes no good reasons exist for believing God exists and so he does not believe that God does exist. Thus, he does not claim to know that God does not exist; therefore, he has no obligation to argue that God does not exist. He concluded with a direct response to the teleological, or fine-tuning argument, for theism. First he said that most physicists acknowledge that “we hardly know what we don’t know” about the origin of the universe and its early history. This looks more like an objection to Craig’s cosmological argument, so Hitchens may have mispoken. He then said there were three “layman’s reasons” for rejecting the fine-tuning argument. I was only able to distinguish two, since they were not enumerated clearly. First, he asked whether prior to the beginning of the universe there was pre-existing matter, as a step toward the question, “Who designed the Designer?” Second, he asked whether theists have considered the “nothingness that is coming,” his point being that the universe will eventually fade into oblivion and that therefore the so-called “Designer” seems to have designed poorly.
  6. The two opening speeches differed dramatically. Bill Craig laid out a case in straightforward manner, with numbered premises and his conclusion. (A complete outline of his cumulative case was included on one sheet of the program that was printed for the occasion.) Christopher Hitchens adopted more of a narrative style that was more loosely argued and less linear in its progression. Both were articulate and engaging.
  7. In the rebuttal, cross-examination, and response portions of the debate that followed, Bill Craig pressed Christopher Hitchens on his conception of atheism, his reasons for being an atheist, and his responses to the arguments presented in Craig’s opening speech. In this respect, Craig was in greater control of themes in the debate. This was helped immensely by the clear progression, crisp identification, and repetition of his original arguments. Hitchens resisted Craig’s efforts to extract a more precise definition of Hitchens’s atheism than his simple denial that there is adequate evidence for theism. Hitchens claimed that if you believe the universe is designed, then you also have to believe the designer is short on the excellence attributed by theists to God. There is a tension between there being a god who is completely indifferent to human suffering, or a god who provides a bizarre remedy in the form of having “someone tortured to death during the Bronze Age” and Roman rule, a god who demands conformity to his requirements in order to be saved from damnation, and, in any case, who leaves countless individuals without opportunity to hear about and accept this remedy.
  8. The most noteworthy difference between these debaters consists in this: preparation. One may agree or disagree with Bill Craig’s claims, but there can be no question that he was thoroughly prepared for every aspect of the debate and never faltered in his response to objections by Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, dropped several of Craig’s opening arguments, and seriously misunderstood or distorted the moral argument, the argument from the resurrection of Jesus, and Craig’s appeal to experience. I think Craig was most successful in demonstrating the error in Hitchens’s discombobulated rendition of Craig’s moral argument. Whether the audience followed the competing interpretations of N. T. Wright’s historical argument concerning the probability of the resurrection is another matter. But I can vouch for Craig’s construal of Wright’s argument, and, for that matter, for Hitchens’s confusion on the point. As for the appeal to experience of God (and the witness of the Holy Spirit), I might have put the point differently than Craig did and treat it as a kind of evidence that serves the subject of the experience without the need for argument. But Bill Craig and I may have a different view of the epistemology of such experience.
  9. Christopher Hitchens made a couple of odd points in his rebuttal, as if to answer arguments or objections that Bill Craig had not given. For example, he asserted that he believes in free will, and went on about it as if Craig had pressed him directly on this point. This was a strategic mistake, if only because it wasted valuable time that should have been devoted to what was already on the table. Worse, Craig could have challenged Hitchens’s claim to believe in free will, given his naturalism. I gather that Hitchens sensed this, saw its relevance to the question of moral conduct, and attempted to pre-empt Craig on the point. But Hitchens’s complete failure to understand the moral argument presented by Craig landed him in enough serious trouble as it was. Hitchens also digressed about the embarrassing canonization of Mother Theresa by the Roman Catholic Church. I suppose he couldn’t resist, since he had written a whole book on the subject. (See this link for the crass title of that book.)
  10. The only thing that surprised me about Bill Craig’s strategy in the debate was his determination to get Hitchens to specify more precisely his self-identification as an atheist. Much of Craig’s cross-examination time was taken up with this question. That is due in part to Hitchens’s bobbing and weaving on the point. I understand Craig’s rationale for tasking Hitchens with clarification of his position. I’ve encountered the same maneuver in my debates with Michael Shermer and Greg Cavin, for example. As I see it, regardless of the standards of formal debate, both parties to a debate of such existential significance should be clear about their own positions and be prepared to present good reasons for them. (While this is a burden of proof issue, the term “burden of proof” never came up, if I remember correctly.) Christopher Hitchens has a worldview. It is thoroughly naturalistic and scientistic, and indeed materialistic. It hardly matters what he means by “atheism” in application to himself, since this is clearly his positive stance. And he made no attempt to argue that his worldview is true. Bill Craig is right about this.
  11. Christopher Hitchens’s attempt to distinguish between the hubris of the argumentative theist (my term) and the intellectual humility of his kind of atheist was totally unconvincing. Hitchens’s tone in the debate, consistent with his hallmark practice, belied his disclaimers about claims to knowledge. Once, in his closing argument, Bill Craig drew attention to this point, and did so dramatically but graciously. He pointed out that Hitchens made his own truth claims on behalf of atheism, that he did so without supporting argument, and that “you’ve got to come to a debate prepared with arguments.” While Hitchens did make arguments, they were largely unfocused, sometimes disconnected, and often irrelevant.
  12. The second half of cross-examination must have been interesting to the predominantly evangelical audience. Christopher Hitchens asked Bill Craig directly whether he believes that there are devils, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that some nonChristian religions are false, and that some Christian denominations entertain false beliefs. Craig answered each, respectively: yes, yes, yes, and yes. But he added (a) that the existence or non-existence of demons has no bearing on his argument from the resurrection for theism, (b) that while he did not think the virgin birth could be proved, whether it happened is also irrelevant to his case for theism, (c) that Islam is among the false religions, and (d) that while there are differences among Christian brethren (Craig is not a Calvinist but more of a Wesleyan, for example), their differences are on less substantive points. While Craig may not have expected this line of questioning, he answered well. It was a sign of Hitchens’s lack of preparation, I believe, that his cross-examination of Craig was unproductive. (One further indication of this is that Craig’s answers were never brought up for special criticism.)
  13. The main development of the cross-examination period is that Hitchens allowed that morality could be “purely evolutionary and functional.” Given his comments on morality throughout the evening, I don’t see how they could be anything else than that on his view. Thus, he is, Craig would argue, caught in a contradiction if he also claims that morality is objective in the sense Craig defined. And Hitchens had made such a claim. Note: Hitchens could hardly have denied this and remained consistent with his condemnation of religion in his book.
  14. Speaking of Hitchens’s condemnation of religion, I think he found the balance that was needed if he was to remain faithful to the spirit and tone of his book without completely alienating his audience. His diatribes in god Is Not Great are mean and visceral in the extreme. During tonight’s debate, he was more cautious in his declamations. He did say “I’ll be damned” if I don’t say what I really think of religion and Christianity. But this was mild in comparison with what Hitchen is capable of. The problem is—and he knew this—his off-the-cuff remarks were not germane to the debate. Someone reading his book for the first time after seeing this debate may be surprised by the venom they find, but they probably will not be shocked. I say this because I do think it was a delicate balancing act for him to be more measured while still acting in character.
  15. Christopher Hitchens attempted to drag Old Testament accounts of “genocide” and other divine sanctions of dubious moral character into the debate. This was predictable. Bill Craig rightly noted that these complaints concern the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, and are not salient to his case for theism. Some in the audience may have wondered how Craig could avoid these issues and also invoke the New Testament in describing the grandeur of God’s plan of salvation. As it happens, Hitchens didn’t raise the point. But it also happens that there is no inconsistency in Craig’s view of the bearing of Scripture on aspects of the debate.
  16. Another comparison of interest to me has to do with the existential appeal of their respective points of view. Bill Craig seemed actually to be enjoying the dialogue (as one of my daughters noted). Certainly he was unapologetic about his Christian faith. He spoke convincingly of the transformation of his life after believing in Christ. And he explained the basis Christians have for hope in this life and the next. He even urged Christopher Hitchens to become a Christian, since Hitchens wants to say that there are objective moral values but can’t account for them in his worldview. Craig said this without seeming the least bit supercilious. I thought Craig struck an excellent balance in describing the future hope of Christians and its bearing on the endurance of suffering now, and a Christian activism on behalf of those who are oppressed or even deprived of life. For his part, Hitchens explained that he finds meaning in life by seeking liberty for himself and for others, and that, since so much violence against humanity is done in the name of religion, he is constrained to combat religion publicly.
  17. I’ve already mentioned how Christopher Hitchens responded to Bill Craig’s moral argument for theism. It struck me that this argument was the most widely discussed of them all. The irony is that for all that he had to say in response, Hitchens actually “dropped” the argument. (To say that he “dropped” the argument is to say, in debate-speak, that he didn’t actually address the argument.) In his response to Craig’s argument, Hitchens recast the argument as an argument that atheists can neither know what is morally right nor do the morally right thing unless they believe in God. That is not the argument at all. It baffles me that so many atheist, agnostic, and skeptical debaters distort this argument so consistently. The question is how to ground the objectivity of moral truths without reference to God, not whether moral truths can be known without believing in God or whether it’s possible to behave morally without believing in God. The point is neither epistemic nor behavioral, but ontological. My preferred formulation of the moral argument is a little different than Craig’s, but my experience has been the same as his. Debate opponents miss the point.
  18. Returning, finally, to something I mentioned previously, this debate exposed a difference in preparation on the part of these two debaters. This is far more significant than it might seem at first. William Lane Craig has debated this topic dozens of times, without wavering from the same basic pattern of argument. He presents the same arguments in the same form, and presses his opponents in the same way for arguments in defense of their own worldviews. He’s consistent. He’s predictable. One might think that this is a liability, that it’s too risky to face a new opponent who has so much opportunity to review Craig’s specific strategy. But tonight’s debate proves otherwise. Hitchens can have no excuse for dropping arguments when he knows—or should know—exactly what to expect. Suppose one replies that William Craig is a more experienced debater and a trained philosopher, while Christopher Hitchens is a journalist working outside the Academy. That simply won’t do as a defense of Hitchens. First, Hitchens is no stranger to debate. Second, he is clearly a skillful polemicist. Third—and most important—Hitchens published a book, god Is Not Great, in which he makes bold claims against religion in general and Christianity in particular. With his book, he threw down the challenge. To his credit, he rose to meet a skillful challenger. But did he rise to the occasion? Did he acquit himself well? At one point he acknowledged that some of his objections to the designer argument were “layman’s” objections. His book, I believe, is also the work of a layman. It appears to have been written for popular consumption and without concern for accountability to Christians whose lives are dedicated to the defense of the Gospel.

Much more can be said about the debate. I’m confident that it will elicit much discussion worldwide. Viewers and listeners will draw their own conclusions. But after tonight, there is reason to think—as Bill Craig suggested—that we may soon witness a great renaissance of Christianity.

Recommended Reading:

For details on the 2010 debate between Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Matt Ridley on the atheist side, and William Lane Craig, Doug Geivett, and David Wolpe on the theist side, go here.

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