Doug to Debate Louise M. Antony, “Does God Exist?”


Doug will soon debate atheist philosopher Louise M. Antony at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Los Angeles.

Barnsdall Gallery Theatre

Topic: “Does God Exist?”

Date: Friday, February 17, 2012

Time: 8:00-10:00 p.m.

Location: Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90027

Cost: $5.00 for students with student I.D.; $20.00 for the general public

Tickets can be purchased from the Center for Inquiry here.

Louise M. Antony is Professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Program Note: Prior to the debate, at 7:00 p.m., Eddie Tabash (Los Angeles Attorney and Atheist Spokesman), will lecture on the topic “Debating Religion in Public.” Cost of admission to this event is included in the cost for the debate.

Archbishop Worries That Atheism is “Cool,” and This Makes Atheists Happy


Recent statements by Britain’s Archbishop, Rowan Williams, have provoked some interesting discussion. Williams has said, “Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool.” He’s thinking of books like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

For news coverage, see the article by Jonathan Wynne-Jones, published in The Telegraph September 19, 2011.

Today I read a post about the Archbishop’s statement at an atheist blog hosted by Martin Pribble

Dr Rowan Williams PC, DPhil, DD, FBA the 104th...

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. I then left a comment in the comments stream, which otherwise appears to be uniformly atheistic in orientation.

Here’s my comment:

Hasty generalization is a blight on much thinking on all sides of most issues. (I hope that statement isn’t an example of hasty generalization!)

In this case, the good Archbishop surely over-generalizes if he claims that a recent bump in the popularity of atheism is due to its “cool” factor. The explanation is far more complex than that, and the weighing of evidence for and against the existence of God is surely a factor for many people.

On the other hand, I think that Martin is a bit hasty in his generalization about theistic responses to current atheism advocacy. To be sure, there are books that pass over evidence and argument in breezy fashion and simply attack the messenger. But Martin implies that this is true of all published responses to Dawkins. He can’t be serious. One might, as he suggests, do a simple Google search to turn up more sophisticated treatments, of Dawkins’ work, yes, but also of the atheistic or naturalistic position more generally. Some are published by prestigious presses that are careful to publish only the best serious and academic work on such topics: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge, for example.

Also, I notice that ad hominem rhetoric is tossed about on both sides of this issue. In the comment stream for this post, for example, Rowan Williams is chided in uncharitable terms and William Lane Craig is said to be stupid.

I’m new to this website, so I don’t know about its general tenor or the tone of regular commentators. But if the byline is “Attempting to make sense,” then I urge Martin to admonish his readers to take greater care to marshal evidence in support of their claims rather than to make safe and provocative assertions and tender emotional arguments.

If this site seeks to engage readers in meaningful dialogue, I suspect it will attract more thoughtful responses, from a spectrum of positions, if it monitors the discussion and facilitates reasoned debate. A wise proverb says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” In other words, if sophistry prevails, find someone else to talk to.

Last I checked, my comment was “awaiting moderation.”

Update: My comment at Martin Pibble’s site has been approved, so it now appears there, as well. I should note that here at my own site comments “await moderation” until “approved.” I believe a process of screening to be good practice.

Christians Who Behave Like Atheists


Augustine

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In my recent post Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?, I suggested that it may be common for atheists to entertain severe doubts about their atheism, and contemplate the possibility that God does exist and is worthy of belief and even worship.

It would be easy for Christians to explain atheistic belief in terms of rebellion against a God whose existence is only too obvious and personally offensive. But I would encourage Christians to consider that something resembling this may be found among believers, as well.

Any refusal to face the facts about God in the light of ample evidence is rebellion and idolatry. So one may believe that God exists, but refuse to believe certain things about God. Or one may believe certain things about God but then act in defiance of such a God. And one may assert the existence of God, even argue vehemently that God exists, and yet remain indifferent toward God on the personal level.

A believer, then, should be careful not to apply a double standard in comparing himself with nonbelievers. He should reflect on the possibility that he is like the typical skeptic in fundamental ways.

There are varieties of triumphalist apologetics. One form chastens nonbelievers for attitudes that one would find in oneself if one simply looked closely enough.

Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?


Archibald Alexander (1772-1851)

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Archibald Alexander, who was the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in the 18th century:

Whatever may be the truth in regard to religion, it must be admitted to be the most important subject which can possibly occupy the thoughts of a rational creature. It cannot be wise to treat it, as many have done, with levity and ridicule: for even on the supposition that there is no true religion, it is a serious thing that it has got such a hold of the mind, that it cannot be shaken off; so that men of the noblest powers of intellect and the highest moral courage have been subdued and led captive by its impressions. And they who boast a complete exemption from its influence, and glory in the name of atheist or sceptic, do nevertheless often betray a mind ill at ease, and in the extremity of their distress are sometimes heard to call upon that God whose existence they have denied, and to implore that mercy which they have been accustomed to deride. . . . They seem to be haunted with a secret apprehension that the reality of religion will at some moment flash upon their conviction. It is with them a common saying, that ‘fear made the gods;’ but it would be much more true to assert, that fear made atheists; for what but the dread of a Supreme Being could be a motive strong enough to lead men to contend so earnestly against the existence of God? . . . . Indeed, a man should first take leave of his reason before he advocates an opinion demonstrated to be false by everything which we behold.

Alexander suggests that atheists and religious skeptics often are haunted by the possibility of being mistaken. One good reason for this is that there is good evidence for the existence of God.

I’ve noticed that some of the most public and argumentative atheists today deny that there is any good reason at all to believe there’s a God. This, surely, is over-stating the case, even if you think that, on balance, the case against the existence of God is stronger than the case for God’s existence.

Another feature of Alexander’s statement has continuing relevance. The atheist who campaigns for his worldview in a public way today attests to the importance of the question of God’s existence by his vigorous efforts in the marketplace of ideas. And this, too, confirms the claim that religious concern is, for all intents and purposes, a universal concern.

Some who are agnostic about God’s existence may be understandably reluctant to deride religious belief, lest it turn out that God does exist. But if it should turn out that God exists, will it be so much better to have been an agnostic than an atheist?

Debate with Michael Shermer at Northern Arizona University


If you attended tonight’s debate at Northern Arizona University, I want to thank you for coming, and let you know that I welcome your comments or questions.

Please feel free to post them here in the comments box.

Paranoid Atheists, Take Note


There are varieties of atheists. Some manifest symptoms of paranoia about the vigor of religion in the Western world. They decry everything about religion and are determined to curb its altogether negative social effects. A good example is Christopher Hitchens, whose book is titled god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Their publications, blogs, speeches, radio and TV appearances are rants against religion, litanies of what is dangerously wrong with religion. The paranoid atheists are not discriminating. And they are loud and vociferous.

Then there are atheists who are reconciled to the fact that religion is here to stay, and even believe that positive goods have been produced by religion—social goods that would not exist but for religion. They see religion as neither good nor bad, as such, but as something capable of extraordinary good and unparalleled evil. They are discriminating. They are willing to cheer what is good about some manifestations of religion. And now they are calmly entering the fray with a distinctively different and refreshing tone.

Excellent examples are the authors John Mickelthwaite and Adrian Wooldridge. Their new book, God Is Back: How the Revival of Religion Is Changing the World, is a kind of protest against the excesses of paranoid atheism. They argue that modernity is a boon to religion, and that more of religion in certain of its forms, especially as it is exhibited in America, should be encouraged. Mickelthwaite and Wooldridge cannot be ignored. They are prominent journalists who write for the prestigious British periodical The Economist. Their message of good news about religion is bad news for scoffers like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher.

God Is Back is a book for your summer reading list. With 400+ pages, it may be the only summer reading you do. But the price is right and the balanced consideration of religion as a social good is timely

Helpful reviews of God Is Back, by John Mickelthwaite and Adrian Wooldridge:

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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