Shermer, Ridley, and Dawkins vs. Craig, Wolpe, and Geivett: Retrospective on the Debate

I’ve finally returned home after two weeks of travel and speaking, which included a debate in Puebla Mexico. I posted details about the event here prior to leaving for Mexico. There you’ll find links to English and Spanish versions of YouTube recordings of the debate.

I’ve had the chance to read some reactions posted in the blogosphere about this debate. I now want to list some specific points and observations of my own, partly to add clarity and partly to set the record straight about some things I’ve seen written.

I hope you’ll watch the debate and leave your objective evaluation in the comments box of this post.

  1. Usually, a debate question features one side taking the affirmative and the other side taking the negative. Here, the question for debate was “Does the universe have a purpose?” It was obvious from the correspondence I received from the debate organizers that I was to team with two individuals who agreed in taking the affirmative, and that the other three would take the negative—that is, they would deny that the universe has a purpose.
  2. The three of us on the affirmative side—William Lane Craig, David Wolpe, and Doug Geivett—all believe that whether the universe has a purpose depends on whether or not God exists. So we could argue that the universe does have a purpose if God exists, even if time did not allow for detailed arguments that God in fact exists. It would be up to the others—Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins—to argue that the universe does not have a purpose. Presumably, they would have to include arguments that God does not exist, since that would be crucial to their claim that the universe does not have a purpose. Or, they might argue that even if God exists, the universe does not have a purpose.
  3. The moderator introduced us as “theists” and “atheists,” and framed the debate as a debate between theists, who affirm the existence of God, and atheists, who deny the existence of God. Thus, two questions were conflated from the beginning: (1) “Does the universe have a purpose?” and (2) “Does God exist?” The question for any participant, then, was whether to focus on question (1) or question (2).
  4. Each of the six of us was allotted exactly six minutes for initial arguments. We were timed and stopped at six minutes. Strict enforcement of time limits is characteristic of debates, but not always understood by observers. I’ve noticed that some who’ve commented on the debate at various blogs have remarked that the moderator should not have interrupted debaters when they were about to make an important point. (The debate was part of a larger conference program.)
  5. Rebuttals were limited to three minutes each. Following rebuttals, Michio Kaku was permitted time for a few comments on the debate through that point. His remarks were followed by 90-second closing statements.
  6. The decision about which side would go first was determined by a coin toss. The atheist side won the coin toss and Matt Ridley went first. Each team was permitted to sequence its presenters in the order they preferred. Our side followed the order Craig-Wolpe-Geivett for all three components of the debate. We made our decision based on the tasks we each had agreed to perform during the debate. In my judgment, this sequence proved to be effective.
  7. How did the opposing teams work together as teams? It should be obvious that our team of theists worked very closely together. Our individual presentations complemented each other neatly and intentionally. We provided a united front in our presentation of evidence and response to objections. We worked together across the board. To illustrate, in his rebuttal, Bill Craig used a brief that I had prepared in response to the problem of evil, should it come up. Collectively, we argued for two main contentions: (1) If God exists, then the universe has a purpose, and (2) If God does not exist, then the universe does not have a purpose.
  8. Close observers will understand that our two main contentions directly addressed the published topic of the debate: “Does the universe have a purpose?” Further, they speak to the question of God’s existence in a direct manner. Third, as conditional statements, they do not require for their support any argument that God does, in fact, exist. Fourth, we repeated these two contentions for two primary reasons. First, to remind the audience of our claims, as debaters on both sides took turns speaking. This is a matter of effective communication. Second, to remind the atheist team that this was our position and that it was this that they must address in their response to us. This is a matter of holding the other side accountable to the actual arguments we mustered during the debate. I’ve seen some in the blogosphere complain that I repeated our two fundamental claims in my opening statement. But this was after David Wolpe’s opening statement, which did not repeat the claims, and three opening statements by the atheists. Nearly half an hour had passed since the two claims had been explicitly stated.
  9. In his opening statement, Bill Craig explained why the universe would have purpose if God exists, thus supporting our first contention. He then acknowledged that whether the universe actually does have purpose, supposing our two contentions are true, depends on the existence of God. So he used the balance of his six minutes to list several arguments for the existence of God, which all have been developed in detail in his books. In effect, he placed them on the table for the atheist side to refute.
  10. In his opening statement, David Wolpe developed the argument from fine-tuning for the existence of God, and hence of purpose for the universe. He then drew a close existential connection between this argument and the human quest for meaning and purpose.
  11. I my opening statement, then, I—Doug Geivett—recalled our two main contentions, then addressed the possibility that some on the other side would argue that the universe has purpose even if God does not exist. Following that, I developed an argument, not often heard in debates, that our very interest in the question of the debate is evidence that God does exist.
  12. So the trajectory of our three arguments on the theist side was itself purposeful and progressive. Together they represented an eighteen-minute opening argument for theism and purpose. If you put these together in the order in which they were presented, you’ll see that they made for a natural progression, with a build-up along the way toward a climax.
  13. It would be absurd, then, to expect any one of us to “carry the day” within the narrow scope of our individual presentations. For example, it’s ridiculous to scold Bill Craig for failing to develop theistic arguments more fully. Considered as a unified whole, our three opening statements complement and serve each other.
  14. Now what about the atheist side? This is my opinion and people are free to disagree, but I believe the atheists operated much more independently of each other, and even contradicted each other. In his opening statement, Matt Ridley argued against the idea that the universe has a purpose. Michael Shermer, on the other hand, argued for purpose, precisely as I predicted he would when Bill Craig and David Wolpe and I discussed strategy prior to the debate. This is why my opening statement includes a response to this type of claim with a special argument for the existence of God (see description above), and why my opening statement was third in the series. The atheists struggled to clarify the distinction between purpose in the universe and purpose on the level of human existence. Thus, they seemed sometimes to be arguing against purpose and sometimes to be arguing for purpose.
  15. While the atheists alluded to the argument from evil against theism, no one developed the argument in any detail. This was quite surprising and seemed to me a missed opportunity for their side. Of course, we were prepared for something more strenuous, and Bill Craig did address the argument, even more fully than it had been presented. Notice, too, that Craig’s response compounded the evidence we presented for the existence of God, since it embedded an argument from evil for theism. The atheists never had another word to say about this. Nor did the atheists answer my argument for theism. And in response the Wolpe’s fine-tuning argument, they simply mentioned the possibility of multiple universes and the like.
  16. Richard Dawkins is hero to many atheists today. So his participation and relation to the other two atheists deserves special notice. You’ll find that Dawkins made numerous assertions and almost no arguments. If you disagree, you should be able to reconstruct his arguments by identifying individual premises and specific conclusions. So far, those who have praised Dawkins’s performance in the debate, all of whom have been atheists themselves, have not attempted this reconstruction. I urge them to try. I will gladly address carefully reconstructed arguments in the comments section of this post. Dawkins called religious belief “pathetic” and accused Bill Craig of making an emotional argument. As I stated in my brief closing statement, it was Dawkins, more than anyone else, who made an “emotional argument.” First, he gave no arguments against the existence of God. Second, he offered no rebuttals of the arguments we presented, and third, he dismissed religious belief as pathetic without argument. If I’m wrong about any of this, I would be happy to see evidence of my error and respond to whatever arguments he did present.
  17. There has been considerable commentary about the “Craig vs. Dawkins debate” as a result of this event. Prior to this debate, Richard Dawkins had refused all invitations to debate Bill Craig. It’s for this reason that Bill was surprised to learn that Dawkins had agreed to participate in this debate. This, clearly, was the safest venue for Dawkins to appear in debate with Craig, since it was a three-on-three debate with unusually brief allocations of time for each speaker. But Dawkins was not debating Bill Craig only. He was in debate with three theists, in partnership with two fellow atheists. There was nothing the least bit threatening or intimidating about Dawkins on this occasion. I would happily debate him in a one-on-one situation. So if he prefers not to debate Bill Craig, for whatever reason, he’s welcome to debate with me.
  18. Some have criticized the moderator of the debate for the style of his facilitation. But people fail to consider the total context of the debate. This was but one of many events scheduled in a three-day conference. Also, the debate was aired at the end of the day following the much-watched boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito. Hence, the pugilism metaphor so emphasized during the debate. I happen to know that some who watched the boxing match on Mexican television stayed tuned to channel 7 and watched the debate. I’ve heard it estimated that around 2 million viewers have seen the debate as a result. Andreas Roemer seems to have good instincts about how to raise public awareness of an event worthy of more attention.

Again, I hope to hear from you with your reflections about the debate. Before leaving comments, you may want to review the comments policy for this blog here.

Other places where the debate is being discussed:

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

38 Responses to Shermer, Ridley, and Dawkins vs. Craig, Wolpe, and Geivett: Retrospective on the Debate

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Thank you TBW for your compliments about my blog. Since my entries are all personal reflections, the only plurality I can allow is when multiple personality disorder kicks in. Seriously, I appreciate your offer to contribute articles. But I’m afraid this just isn’t the place. I would, however, be interested in reading your blog.



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  3. Hi professor,

    So I’m having some discussions on this blog I created as a response to The Atheist Experience blog. I wonder if you could give me some words of advice on how to maintain a gentle and respectful tone while I present what I think are mistaken views on their part. You seem to be very good at that. I find that to be the biggest struggle, as a part of me truly desires not to spew out logic but to glorify God in my tone and my attitude.
    And if I am by nature somewhat sarcastic and playful (my friends know), when is it appropriate to bring that out?




  4. Aries Daya says:

    The atheist trio are not really united. While Shermer and Ridley agree that the universe does not have any purpose (but just patterns), Dawkins believe there is, and Science (physicists) will soon discover it—a philosophical question with a scientific answer. Hmmm!


  5. Aries Daya says:

    I noticed that Dawkins argued for the “science of the gaps.” I wish he would have explained why the question of the universe’s purpose is eventually answerable by science.


  6. cam says:

    I watched the debate and was reminded of a quote, possibly from one of the Huxleys; “We don’t believe in evolution because it’s such a good theory. It’s not. We believe in evolution because the alternative – creation – is untenable.”

    One of your team I believe spoke of creation as a signpost. How succinct. That is exactly the purpose of creation. It is The Signpost.

    Ridley and Dawkins both appear as insecure people. Some of the posts here have mentioned Dawkins as being an icon, but both he and Ridley seemed to be empty of coherent arguments for their side. They have certainly found their purpose in life and definitely are not lazy; after all it’s got to be strenuous work building a case against Truth so evident.

    The fact that Dawkins consistently belittled the question “why” indicates a genuine nervousness on his part. Under his mask of confidence and pseudo-science he really doesn’t want to open the “why” door; I think he knows what he will find.

    While both teams carried themselves very well, I believe the theists easily carried the day. The atheists just appeared to be empty of substance……I guess there’s a reason for that.


  7. truth4taiwan says:


    I was relistening to the fantastic debate you had with John Shook which touched on morality (which I think Shermer brought up in the debate in Mexico). The thing I was curious about is, atheists can come up with explanations for the origins of morals and moral behavior. Yet what about the origin of immoral behavior and what makes it immoral? (After all, if someone is just following what comes “naturally”, why is that wrong? Furthermore, what gives them the right to impose their own standard of morality on another individual so as to tell them their behavior is “immoral”?)

    That morality would have a place in the mind of a person who believes in evolution is a little bizarre. Treating others the way you would want to be treated, very practical morality as Christ Jesus teaches, would seem to be unwelcomed or, at least, out of place in an evolutionary mindset, right? It would mean that you are allowing competitors for food and reproduction the chance to live and compete, an act that would endanger ones own survival, no?

    So, could the differences in the moral stances between theism and atheism be summarized faily as this: moral = Because God says so; moral = Because I said so? Is there a better way to summarize them?

    Thanks for your time!


  8. Doug Geivett says:

    Hey, Alex. Lucas does bear a likeness to Chesterton, in the way you suggest—though, thankfully, not in all of Chesterton’s most pronounced qualities. Our generation could learn much from Chesterton’s style. Style must be consistent with temperament, and some of us just aren’t constituted to be Chestertonian. Still, Chestertonian chestnuts can be learned, adapted, and used, even by those of us more dialectically challenged. And let’s not forget that we can learn from skilled rhetoricians on the other side.

    Humor during debate, I’ve come to believe, must serve a particular point of logic or evidence in most of its uses, and it mustn’t be over-used. That is, it can be over-used. I’ve heard it said of an opponent, now and then, that his frequent injection of humor seemed to substitute for argument, and that he lost the debate as a result. This by people who favored my opponent’s general point of view and wanted to see him win.

    Of course, people say all sorts of things after a debate. And there’s real danger in generalizing from the comments of a few about the impression made on the many.

    I like your phrase “haystacks of rhetoric” in reference to the rarity and obscurity of bona fide arguments in much neo-atheist literature. Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion illustrates this perhaps more than any other.

    Yes, the neo-atheist’s conception of science is more or less idiosyncratic. They are confronted with two very serious problems. The first is the one you mention. Not only must the neo-atheist scientist be careful to delineate his position regarding realism versus anti-realism in science, but he must defend his own peculiar type of realism, which is scientism. And he must tally the strong empirical evidence supplied regarding the actual practice of scientists in the various fields of specialization. Sorting this out takes time, which is precious during a debate. And all must be done with the audience’s own facility in mind.

    Monday morning quarterbacking after a publicized debate seldom takes into serious consideration the time constraints. Even debates with larger blocks of time are severely restrictive—which you learn by doing. And almost no one contemplates the basic principle of communication that “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” that matters; and what people hear has as much to do with the mental habits of the people who hear you (my addendum to the principle just cited). (On this, the book Words That Work, by Frank Luntz, is very good.)

    Duhem’s perspective lies within the anti-realist zone of theories about the nature of science. I’ll have to read “To Save the Appearances.” Thanks for that suggestion.



  9. Alex says:

    Dear Doug,
    Very good thoughts vis-a-vis rhetoric vs. dispassionate rational presentation, viz., that it could have been, given the general expectation of seeing emotional theists, rhetorically effective afterall. I certainly agree that the theists should be the upbeat and unaffected. I really wish I could’ve seen Chesterton in debate with Bertrand Russell. I think of friends like Lucas, and how effective ironic humor is to both disarm and make a crucial incision in the discussion.

    I would love to see you debate Dawkins or any of the new atheists. I think, on your toes, you would be quite effective. You could always keep in your back-pocket the fact that you’ve taught classes on their books and spent hours and hours in search of the arguments, needles in haystacks of rhetoric, and come up empty handed.

    One question I had that I wonder about: should one plank in the argument against new atheists be one about the philosophy of science. I have been recently studying that a bit and find the pure realist position to be problemmatic –the scientistic position then, all the more absurd. Have you read the book Pierre Duhem, the great Jesuit scientist and philosopher, called “To Save the Appearances”. Excellent brief history of astronomy, culled from a much larger, comprehensive work of his on the history of science. I would be surprised if you didn’t appreciate this book. Unfortunately, it isn’t in print.


  10. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Alex,

    These are all excellent points. I’ve often wondered how best to combine the rhetorical and the argumentative in public debate. I’m not much into manipulation, and I know you aren’t either. But it isn’t realistic to expect audiences to track rarified subtleties of argument, either.

    It may be that audiences expect theists to be more emotional and less rational in their outlook, so that it is actually rhetorically effective (and emotionally compelling) for the theist to build a rational case. This should give the lie to a bald assertion by someone like Dawkins that we are completely emotional. On the other hand, if our worldview is true, then we have every reason to be optimistic and emotionally upbeat, in real contrast to the atheists/naturalists.

    The time factor is a serious challenge. I like challenges, however, and didn’t mind this so much. I figure you do what you can with the hand you’re dealt.



  11. Alex says:

    Dear Doug,

    I watched the whole debate just today on youtube. I’ve not read the above comments. I think the strategy you all developed, making purpose depend upon God’s existence, was wise.

    I think, however, that it’s likely that the public did not see precisely how to handle the logic of conditionals. It takes a while to explain this to my students. So, I think the theists could have explained more explicitly just how a response to their claims would work. Though I spotted this in the course of the debate, I suspect it wasn’t clear to the audience.

    My guess is that the audience did not pick up on arguments you all constructed (or the lack thereof, as in the atheist side) but simply looked for impressions as to the speakers reasonableness in affirming or denying purpose in of for the universe. (Perhaps my estimation of the public is too low).

    For this reason the comments about emotionalness toward one or the other side was, I think all the more important. I was afraid the debate appeared at times to be the cynics vs. the sentimentalists. Obviously, ’emotional’ doesn’t mean anything but is itself an emotive technique so it seemed there to be roughly a tie score (though your final remarks directed at Dawkins were quite good). Martin Luther King Jr. was emotional when he argued and everyone would think him the more reasonable for it. For this reason, I thought that moral confrontation was effective and could have been better exploited by the theists (as in the case of the audience member who ascribed arrogance to the atheists). Moral confrontation would have turned the ‘if emotional then unreasonable’ assumption on its head. It seemed within sight that you were both more emotional and more reasonable, in the best sense of each.

    This is a point I wonder about. How much should the theist be the dispassionate logical argumentator, here? I wonder if that is as effective as irony and parody, of juicy analogies and vivid anecdotes.

    The biggest problem in this debate was the lack of clarity on the notion of purpose in/of/for the universe.

    I thought your appeal to absurdly meaningful lives and the Sartrean existential predicament of an atheistic worldview was very good and wished you’d have emphasized that. I also think that when the notion of value came up you could have milked it a bit more. When Michio Kaku came on the scene and asked “what is science” I got excited but it faded into disappointment. This was a point I’d like to have seen the theists tackle straight on. The gross scientism of the atheists in this debate could use a chunk of philosophy of science humble pie.


  12. bossmanham says:

    Dr. Geivette,

    If you’re interested, I summarized the different portions of the debate on my blog here.

    I’m pretty sarcastic with the atheist speeches, but I’m not claiming any objectivity here, heh.


  13. David Parker says:

    Matt,Your descriptions of the debate sound relatively accurate with respect to David Wolpe’s presentations, but do you feel the same way about the presentations of Dr. Craig and Dr. Geivett?


  14. Matt says:

    I think i have a pretty good understanding of the arguments the theist side made but when presented in the format a lot of it sounded like wishful thinking. I agree that without God the universe has no purpose and without purpose we cannot claim to have any significance no matter how much we try to form it individually. I also agree that some questions are outside the realm of science and that the atheists’ commitment to verificationism leads to infinite regress. That being said, when these arguments were presented in the format of the debate they gave the impression to me that the case for meaning was: 1. It would be really awful if there were no God and therefore no meaning and 2. No one really uses science in their personal life so it does not help us find meaning. I’m glad they got around to the design argument as that comes off as a more objective argument.


  15. Andrew says:

    Hi Dr Geivett,

    I watched the debate and thought you and Craig did a great job. These are my comments:

    1. The topic of the debate is closely related to the question whether God exists or not, but no good argument was offered by the atheist side for thinking that God does not exist (the argument from evil was briefly mentioned in the first round, but it was not defended by the atheists after the theists’ rebuttals). The theist side offered about 10 arguments for thinking that God exists, and they defended them against the atheists’ rebuttals. While the format of the debate did not allow them to explain each of these arguments fully (the time for each speaker was too short), these arguments can be found in the books which they have published (see, for example, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology).

    2. I’m surprised at how often the atheist side and the other people who were asked to comment on the debate (e.g. Michio Kaku) failed to listen carefully and respond to the arguments which William Lane Craig and Doug Geivett had presented.

    3. The atheist side and the other people who were asked to comment on the debate naively thought that science is the answer to everything, such that they thought that the question of the debate has to be decided by science. The trouble with their thinking is that it is self-defeating, because science itself cannot answer the question ‘what reason is there for thinking that science is the answer to everything’ (if you don’t believe, ask yourself this question, and see whether the answer you come up with ultimately has to involve philosophical thinking or historical evidence or not). Therefore, science is not the answer to everything. For answers concerning our universe, and in order to justify the enterprise of science, one would also need philosophical arguments, historical evidences, etc, and all these valid methods of inquiry have arguments based on them which point to the truth of Christian theism: For example, the Kalam cosmological argument based on the impossibility of an infinite regress of causes, the argument from the fact that the scientific laws of the universe can be understood in terms of elegant equations, the argument from the fact that we possess highly abstract and complicated true beliefs which are not necessarily advantageous for survival, the argument from the historical evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection. All these arguments, by the way, are (contrary to Dawkins) not ‘God-of-the-gaps’ argument, but are based on evidences (details of which can be found in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology). Contrary to Dawkins, believe in God is perfectly compatible with hard work in the sciences and scientific progress, as the lives of many scientists (e.g. Newton, Francis Collins, etc) have demonstrated.

    4. Michio Kaku said that he predicted that 100 years later there will still be debate about the existence of God, and concluded that this issue is undecidable. The fact that there will still be debate in the future, however, does not show that there are no better reasons to accept theism. The reason is that the persistence of debate can be explained by other factors: Kaku mentions the ‘religious gene’, which might indeed exist (the existence of such gene is also compatible with the Christian worldview), but another reason would be original sin, the depravity of mankind which the Bible speaks about. This is manifested in the form of stubbornness of many who refuse to believe in God despite strong evidence for theism, and choosing instead to find irrelevant and invalid excuses to continue the debate. Dawkins etc demonstrated such stubbornness in this debate, and this demonstration is evidence that the Biblical doctrine of original sin is true. Of course, the question is undecidable by science, but theists do not say this question has to be decided by science (as shown above, to say that all questions has to be answered by science is self-defeating); there are other evidences (cosmological arguments, Jesus’ resurrection etc mentioned above) which can and does decide this question.

    5. The atheist speakers kept saying that we can create our own purpose for our lives regardless of whether the universe has a purpose. Of course, everybody (atheists and theists) can formulate their own purposes for different aspects of their lives (such as writing a book, loving his wife, etc) and sincerely believe in them. The trouble is that many atheists don’t realize the fact (as shown by Craig and Geivett in the debate) that their purposes and values ultimately have no adequate rational justification if atheism were true, and since they don’t realize this fact many of them still live their lives sincerely thinking that they have a purpose for life. This, therefore, is The Atheist Delusion.

    6. Therefore, it is more rational to believe that God exists, and more consistent to live our lives freely and joyfully according to His purpose for the universe.


  16. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Joshua,

    Thank you for your encouraging words. I remember well my debate with John Shook. Regrettably, the audio for my opening statement is poor. But I think you can make out what I’m saying. The rest, as I recall, is pretty good audio. For those who are interested, here’s the link for the Geivett vs. Shook debate on YouTube.

    Because Dawkins is an icon among many atheists today, a debate with him might yet be productive. If he is seen dodging arguments and simply dismissing religious belief with emotional vitriol, then his reputation for reasoning calmly and clearly about the issues may be adjusted. This would probably be a good thing.



  17. truth4taiwan says:

    Always enjoy hearing you in a debate, Doug. You’re always sharp, friendly, but not afraid to put a point to the other side strongly. Your debate with John Shook is one of my favorites. (He was relatively tame in your debate, though overly friendly [slightly fake] at the beginning.)

    Do you have any other debates scheduled over the next little while?

    By the way, I’m afraid a debate with Richard Dawkins wouldn’t be worth the time. The bulk of his responses these days is just insults. (And should we expect someone who thinks life is merely an accident of nature and that the universe has no purpose to not be crabby?)

    Of course, it doesn’t make sense that atheists spend so much time arguing with what they deem are “mere chemical reactions” in the minds of theists. 🙂




  18. Pingback: Video of the Geivett/Craig vs. Dawkins/Shermer debate from Mexico « Wintery Knight

  19. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi J. W.,

    You’re right, the time frame is very limiting. So we have to consider what can be accomplished in the compressed time allowed.



  20. J.W. Wartick says:

    Thanks for the recap, Doug. I think you evaluated the debate well. I wanted to offer a few of my own insights. First, I was not a big fan of the format. Your post clarified many of the reasons why it followed this format, but I felt it was too little time to fully address any arguments.

    Second, I felt that the atheistic side really waffled between the universe having a purpose or not. Well, more accurately, the atheists seemed to agree the universe has no purpose, but Ridley and Shermer seemed to think that having some kind of purpose for oneself gave life meaning. I forget who it was, but one of those two argued that a good life (which is meaningless, on a universal level, according to the atheistic side) was to have some kind of principles to live by–which included the principle of not interfering with other people’s principles. It was a rather convoluted statement which garnered some applause, but I felt it was completely ridiculous. What reasons do we have for picking the purposes we do, on atheism? What reason do we have for not interfering with others’ principles, on atheism? Why should we strive to live the “good” life, whatever that means, on atheism? Etc. I wish this part of the debate had been able to develop further, because it was a huge mistake on the part of the atheist to bring up such arguments.

    Third, Dawkins is a fantastic public speaker and a phenomenal writer. He sounds smart, and he writes with a stirring rhetoric. I could see how he deceives the masses as easily as he does. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer any arguments whatsoever. And whatever points he did make were spurious. He does know how to get the sheep to follow, however.

    My biggest complaint is the short time frame. I really wish there had been more time to expose the paucity of the atheistic side’s arguments.


  21. Jason says:

    A big thank-you to Craig, Wolpe and Geivett for a very coherent, reasoned and unified front.


  22. Doug Geivett says:

    Thanks, Mike. Your point is central to the theistic argument I presented in my opening statement.


  23. Doug Geivett says:


    We on the theist side noted, during the debate, that the atheists had failed to distinguish clearly between “objective purpose” and “subjective purpose.”


  24. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Sam,

    David Hume, unfortunately and misleadingly, described our relationship to evidence in terms of habits of mind and “natural beliefs” for which there is no adequate evidence. As you point out, due to what we observe in a case of apparent causation, we have a natural belief that one event has caused another event. But what we have to go on does not provide us with epistemic justification for this belief. Hume thus repudiated the important role of “seemings” in grounding our beliefs. Evidence, I hold, consists in what we have to go on, all things considered, in believing what we believe. So if, to all appearances, it looks as if one event causes another event, then we are right to believe that the first event causes the other.

    On this view, it’s true that we may be mistaken in our epistemically justified beliefs. But this isn’t especially controversial. Belief quite often comes with this sort of risk.

    The neo-atheists prefer to speak in terms of psychological and/or sociological explanations for belief—when it comes to religious belief, at any rate. We naturally search out patterns and infer design when we seem to observe patterns in things. This tendency they chalk up to our evolutionary history, as if it is not a rational tendency. But their description of this tendency is question-begging. They have not established that this is all there is to our pattern-seeking behavior. Further, science would collapse if it weren’t legitimate for us to do this. Also, without an argument that religious belief is irrational, it begs the question to explain religious belief in terms of evolutionary constitution.



  25. Doug Geivett says:

    Hello Kamal,

    Your argument has merit. In epistemology, philosophers speak of the “principle of credulity.” This principle—sometimes applied strictly to sensory perception—holds that it is reasonable to believe what appears to be the case, unless there is good countervailing evidence to the contrary. Thomas Reid, an 18th-century contemporary of David Hume, made significant use of this principle in his work on epistemology. He extended it to the domain of testimonial evidence, as well. I believe the principle is broadly useful, applying to most modalities of human belief formation.

    At any rate, it clearly does seem that the universe was designed. Even Richard Dawkins acknowledges this in his book The God Delusion. But he believes that there is an alternative explanation for apparent design, one that does not require a designer. In effect, while the universe appears designed, it is not designed.

    One problem for Dawkins, though, is that how things seem in this case is not actually overcome by evidence to the contrary. In other words, there is no good evidence that things are contrary to the way they seem. At best, Dawkins is able only to present an alternative explanation. While even this is questionable, his alternative explanation does not constitute a good reason to think that a design inference is mistaken.

    Your argument, I think, can be developed in terms of the principle of credulity, the fact that the universe appears to be designed (or ordered to some end, or telos), and the inability for any naturalist to demonstrate that how things appear is probably mistaken.



  26. Doug Geivett says:

    That’s correct, Christopher. And Sean is an amazing guy. Later in the day he gave a truly inspirational talk.


  27. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Nathan,

    That’s a good way to put it—”common narrative.” Very helpful. Thank you.



  28. Sam Harper says:

    I want to add to what Komal said. It was Dawkins who observed that people have a natural tendency to attribute purpose to things. Dawkins offered this as if it worked out as an argument against purpose.

    But it seems to me that just the opposite is true. Those items of knowledge we typically think of as innate are some of the things we are typically most certain of. We have a natural tendency to assume causation, which Hume called a “habit of the mind,” where we see correlation. We have a natural tendency to assume that the future will resemble the past, though it’s impossible to ever verify this assumption. We have a natural tendency to assume that our sensory perceptions are giving us true information about the world.

    Our knowledge of morality, our knowledge of other minds, and our knowledge of teleology is no different. If we question these things on the basis that they are innate, then we’d have to question the other assumptions as well, and that is irrational.


  29. Egads, how could I have been so remiss? The man that I thought sewed up the debate was not a quadriplegic nor a doctor. He is Sean Stephenson, noted speaker.


  30. Initially, I found the shortened speaking times to be frustrating and hindering to the debate . . . but as it progressed, the common narrative of the Theism-side became very clear. I tried to listen to the common narrative on the Atheism-side, but there was none to be found.

    I particularly found the Atheists’ frequent appeal to individual, self-directed purpose to undercut their own argument(s) at times and contradict each other.

    In summary: Very interesting format which turned out to be, at times, rather fun to watch. Thank you.


  31. Komal says:

    An addendum to my previous comment:

    I suppose one could try to justify the apparent-teleology-to-actual-teleology inference by arguing that when there is an appearance of something, unless one is a philosophical skeptic, one ought to accept that there is something actual behind the appearance. This is, of course, in the absence of any separate evidence against the reality of that thing.

    If one accepts this principle, then it could be applied to apparent teleology as well.

    One more point: the atheists were repeatedly asserting that humans have a psychological tendency to attribute purpose to things. But that is either irrelevant or a case of the genetic fallacy. Just because we have the tendency to attribute purpose, doesn’t mean there is no purpose.

    Ok that’s enough of my ramblings.


  32. Komal says:

    I was a bit disappointed by the debate to be honest. There was a lack of clarity, especially on the atheist side.

    I’m interested to know what you think about an argument like the following:

    – There is apparent teleology in the universe (namely: the fine-tunedness of the universe for life, as well as the process of evolution as a complexification, finally culminating in the development of a species that has the desire and ability to understand God [or even just purpose]).
    – If there is apparent teleology, we should infer there is actual teleology unless there is reason to believe otherwise.

    I’m not sure how to justify the ‘apparent teleology –> actual teleology’ inference, but it seems intuitive to me.

    I’m very interested in your feedback, as I’ve been trying to clarify my thoughts on this issue for personal reasons. Thanks,



  33. I watched the debate but thought that the atheists were able to muddy the waters of clarity a bit with the way they argued for their point of view; that is as a clumsy bull in a china shop. I am not sure what you could have done to prevent this for the general audience, because I thought all three of you were very eloquent and addressed the subject fairly well. However, it wasn’t until the quadriplegic doctor in the audience made his comments that I think the case was made. He was a brilliant capstone for the affirmative’s side. I hope he made it onto television as well.


  34. Sam Harper says:

    I had a few thoughts on the debate, but I haven’t made up my mind whether to blog on it or not.

    My first thought is that it was never really clarified in the debate by either side what it means for something to have purpose. I think this was unfortunate, because it can mean one of two different things, and while the theist side seemed to stick with one meaning, the atheists seemed to vacillate between the two meanings without any clarity.

    Let me explain the two meanings so you’ll know what I’m talking about. If I make a tool so I can use it to get some job done, then the tool has a purpose in the sense that I intend the tool to be used for some end. I am the one who invests the tool with purpose. The purpose of the tool is whatever I intend to use the tool for. This is the sense in which I took the theists to be arguing that the universe has a purpose. God created it for a reason, and he invests it with meaning.

    If I intend to go to school so I can get an education so I can get a job, so I can feed my family, etc., then I have a purpose. My purpose is anything I intend to do for a reason. I have a purpose for my life. Or, I can have a purpose for a tool. Purpose, in this sense, is roughly equivalent with intention or having goals. This is the second sense in which something can have purpose.

    The theists seemed to strictly be using the first sense of “purpose” when arguing that the universe has a purpose. I think the theists are entirely correct to say that if God does not exist, then the universe has no purpose. That much seems obvious. If nobody meant for the universe to come about or to be used to some end, then the universe has no purpose.

    The atheists seemed to agree with each other that the universe has no purpose in that sense, but they nevertheless seem to think people have purpose in the second sense. And since there are sentient beings in the universe who have purposes in the second sense, then they could rightly say that “there is purpose in the universe,” even though the universe as a whole doesn’t have purpose.

    If some clarity had been made regarding these different senses of having purpose, I think the theists and the atheists could’ve agreed on these points:

    1. If there is no God, then the universe has no purpose.
    2. The universe has no purpose in the second sense explained above.
    3. Sentient beings–especially humans–can have purpose in the second sense even if there is no God.

    Since the theists were taking the affirmative in the debate, I don’t think your two contentions adequately answered the question posed. The two contentions merely spelled out what is required to affirm or deny the question for the debate. The atheists could’ve agreed with both contentions without taking your side on the question for the debate. Since your side took the affirmative, you should’ve argued like so:

    1. If God exists, then the universe has a purpose.
    2. God exists.
    3. Therefore, the universe has a purpose.

    The atheists should’ve argued like so:

    1. If God does not exist, then the universe does not have a purpose.
    2. God does not exist.
    3. Therefore, the universe does not have a purpose.

    Or, you could each spell out arguments independently of God for whether the universe has a purpose or not. Your side could’ve argued from moral intuitions that the universe has a purpose and then, as an aside, explain how purpose itself provides evidence for God, like so:

    1. If there is no God, then the universe has no purpose.
    2. The universe has a purpose.
    3. Therefore, there is a God.

    The atheists could’ve done the same sort of thing:

    1. If there is a God, then the universe has a purpose.
    2. The universe has no purpose.
    3. Therefore, there is no God.

    I don’t know how they would defend that second premise without first presupposing the non-existence of God, but there you have it anyway.

    I think the theist side was refreshingly clear compared to the atheist side. Michael Shermer’s talks were especially muddled since he seemed to vascillate wildly from using the two different senses of “purpose” that I mentioned above. I agree that Dawkins made no substantial arguments. He simply dismissed everything on the theists side as childish. And all the atheists seemed bent on misrepresenting the arguments on the theist side. But I thought Ridley did the best job.

    Craig’s presentation was the most clear of any of the debaters or commentators, and I put a lot of value on clarity. It’s one of the things I love about Craig. There’s never any ambiguity about what he is arguing for and how he is arguing for it. I thought Wolpe’s contribution was almost completely useless. I thought your presentations effectively complimented Craig’s.

    I was not happy with the format for the debate. There just wasn’t any time for anybody to develop any arguments. I doubt anybody got anything out of this debate besides just being entertained. The format didn’t allow for much more than sound bites.

    I cringed at the beginning of the debate because it appeared to be a silly circus, and I didn’t want to post a link to it on my facebook page for my friends who are already leery of such encounters.


  35. Doug Geivett says:

    I’ll check on that, James. Thanks!


  36. James Rhea says:

    Doug, the “Apologetics Guy” link under “Other places where the debate is being discussed” needs to be re-formatted. It is currently broken, though the link is nearly correct. I believe it might just be missing a colon.


  37. Mike Austin says:

    I watched the English version today. One thing I was struck with was that the atheist arguers, insofar as they asserted a purpose for human beings (loving others, helping the community) did so without explaining how such a purpose, if objective, either fits within or can be explained on naturalism. Clearly atheists can have a purpose in life, but how can they do so and claim it has objective value, if we humans are mere chance collocations of atoms?


  38. Brian Auten says:

    Great to read this recap and assessment, Doug. Excellent job to all three of you.


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