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Why I Secretly Root for the Atheists in Debates

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Around 2008, after my book The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible came out, I was asked to fly to Ireland to participate in a debate on the existence of God at University College Cork. I had been doing radio interviews for my book and was very comfortable discussing some of the sillier arguments atheists use to attack Christianity or the Bible – for example, that the Bible is full of scientific “errors” and therefore is obviously complete nonsense. Attacks such as these are basic category errors – a comparison of apples and oranges – that are easily refuted.

But despite studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I didn’t really feel qualified to debate the existence of God. Plus, I was super busy with other things and with business projects, about to go on a trip to Rome, and so I politely declined the offer in Ireland.

At the time, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins were supposedly going around doing debates, taking on people like Dinesh D’Souza and the Oxford theologian and former scientist Alister McGrath. The impression I got was that Hitchens was simply demolishing the theists with his allegedly rapier-like wit and vast erudition. Also, I have always looked with awe on Oxbridge philosophy – home of such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Elisabeth Anscombe and so on – and so I assumed that the UK philosophers would trot out their allegedly superior logical skills, decades of logical analysis, and easily smash the dusty old arguments of theism. (Truth be told, however, Fr. Coppleston more than held his own against Lord Russell in their famous 1948 debate on the BBC.)

It turns out that I was utterly deluded. In recent times, I’ve begun to systematically record and listen to all of the debates on the Existence of God that I can lay my hands on and listen to them at my leisure.

I made a shocking discovery. It turns out that the atheists are really, really good at insults but are actually quite poor debaters.

Thus, since Christians and observant Jews are typically polite, they are usually at an extreme disadvantage when “debating” atheists such as Hitchens and Harris – especially when they discover that the “debate” consists in nothing but a half-hour of put-downs, snide remarks and petty insinuations. The atheists insult Christianity, Judaism and religion generally with a nastiness that is almost breathtaking. They belittle. They demean. They insinuate. But the one thing they don’t do is offer intelligent arguments.

In fact, they don’t actually reason at all.

Reasoning, after all, is a systematic questioning of assumptions… a marshaling of evidence… a critical examination of arguments. It is not, primarily, name-calling. When I first started watching these debates, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I just assumed the atheists would put forward logical arguments that the Theists would be hard pressed to answer. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the atheists didn’t really marshal arguments at all: they merely sneered. The New Atheists were plainly accustomed to standing up in front of large groups of college students, making snide put-downs that got a lot of laughs and applause; and they were quite good at demolishing arguments made by young earth Creationists and snake-handling fundamentalists. But when faced with genuine Christian intellectuals – such as the philosopher William Lane Craig – they failed utterly to even engage the principal arguments that were made.

For example, when Craig debated Sam Harris on the topic of moral values – whether you can establish the existence of objective moral values without recourse to God – and Craig offered three extremely precise reasons why Harris failed to prove the existence of objective moral values in his then-latest book, The Moral Landscape. He offered a detailed, step by step critique for why Harris’s argument in his book is, at bottom, logically incoherent.

When it came time for Harris to respond, he didn’t. He didn’t respond to a single one of Craig’s logical arguments. Instead, he simply changed the subject – and fell back on his snide one-liner attacks on the Bible and how stupid Christians are.

I actually felt sorry for Harris because he was so clearly out of his depth. Harris studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Stanford, but his Ph.D. is in the new pseudo-science of “neuro-science,” a new inter-disciplinary degree that brings together neurology, psychology and a little philosophy in order to discuss Big Ideas without the burden of actually having to think clearly.

In contrast, Craig earned two master’s degrees in theology, a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Birmingham in the UK, a doctorate in theology under Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich, and then, after all that, spent six years doing post-graduate research at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. What’s more, Craig is a professional philosophy in the analytic mode – meaning, he breaks down philosophical subjects into the various possible options, uncovers the logical assumptions in each of the possible options, and then demonstrates how the hidden assumptions in philosophical arguments or claims undermine the point being made or, in some instances, provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for the argument to make sense. As an analytic philosopher, Craig is quite comfortable with rigorous logic, sufficient reason, proof, demonstrations and so on – and so, when doing battle on the field of pure reason and logic, he is able to expose the arguments of the New Atheists (such as they are) as little more than empty rhetoric. Here is how a typical debate between a New Atheist and someone like Craig goes:

Craig: But secondly, the problem that’s even worse is the “ought implies can” problem. In the absence of the ability to do otherwise, there is no moral responsibility. In the absence of freedom of the will, we are just puppets or electro-chemical machines. And puppets do not have moral responsibilities. Machines are not moral agents. But on Dr. Harris’s view, there is no freedom of the will, either in a libertarian or a compatibilistic sense, and therefore, there is no moral responsibility. So there isn’t even the possibility of moral duty on his view. So while I can affirm and applaud Dr. Harris’s affirmation of the objectivity of moral values and moral duties, at the end of the day his philosophical worldview just doesn’t ground these entities that we both want to affirm. If God exists, then we clearly have a sound foundation for objective moral values and moral duties. But if God does not exist, that is, if atheism is true, then there is no basis for the affirmation of objective moral values; and there is no ground for objective moral duties because there is no moral lawgiver and there is no freedom of the will. And therefore it seems to me that atheism is simply bereft of the adequate ontological foundations to establish the moral life .

Now, those were fighting words. Craig just demolished most of the argument in Harris’s most recent book in front of a large audience at the University of Notre Dame. You might think that Harris would be called upon to actually defend his position, to offer reasonable counter-arguments to show why Craig’s attacks were unfair or were missing the point.

But he doesn’t!

Much to my astonishment and disappointment, Harris just reverts to what Atheists do best – which is to change the subject and begin name calling!

Harris: Well, that was all very interesting. Ask yourselves, what is wrong with spending eternity in Hell? Well, I, I’m told it’s rather hot there, for one. Dr. Craig is not offering an alternative view of morality. Ok, the whole point of Christianity, or so it is imagined, is to safeguard the eternal well-being of human souls. Now, happily, there’s absolutely no evidence that the Christian Hell exists. I think we should look at the consequences of believing in this framework, this theistic framework, in this world, and what these moral underpinnings actually would be.

Alright, nine million children die every year before they reach the age of five. ok, picture, picture a, a a Asian tsunami of the sort we saw in 2004, that killed a quarter of a million people. One of those, every ten days, killing children only under five. Ok, that’s 20, 24,000 children a day, a thousand an hour, 17 or so a minute. That means before I can get to the end of this sentence, some few children, very likely, will have died in terror and agony. Ok,, think of, think of the parents of these children. Think of the fact that most of these men and women believe in God, and are praying at this moment for their children to be spared. And their prayers will not be answered. Ok, but according to Dr. Craig, this is all part of God’s plan. Any God who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way, and their parents to grieve in this way, either can do nothing to help them, or doesn’t care to. He is therefore either impotent or evil.

This is what passes for reasoned argument among the New Atheists.

Well, I thought, perhaps this is unfair. After all, Dr. Craig is a trained professional philosopher with two doctorates and a lifetime of training as an analytic philosopher. Sam Harris studies “neuro-science.” It’s hardly a fair contest. Dr. Craig is trained in mathematical logic; Sam Harris is trained in school yard insults.

So, it seems fair that we compare apples to apples – in this case, an Atheist philosopher versus a Theistic philosopher.

As a result, I started looking for debates between Dr. Craig and some famous atheist philosophers. Much to my delight, I found some! In 2005, it turns out, Dr. Craig debated the British philosopher A.C. Grayling at the Oxford Union on the topic of, “Belief in God Makes Sense in Light of Tsunamis.”

Perfect. Surely, I thought, an atheist philosopher of Grayling’s stature would mount scary, logically airtight arguments against the existence of God and would demolish Dr. Craig – at least teach him a lesson he wouldn’t quickly forget. I was actually rooting for the atheist side! Dr. Craig reminds me of Thomas Aquinas: His logic is so impeccable you have to attack his premises. He is so relentlessly rationalistic you start to root for the underdog.

But, again, I was quickly disappointed. Dr. Craig made his case in his characteristic analytic style: step by step, premise by premise, pointing out the possible weaknesses in his own argument and helpfully suggesting ways his Atheist opponents could possibly prove him wrong.

He began to remind me of Chess Masters who are so confident of their abilities that they actually point out to you, in advance, why you probably don’t want to make that move… because in ten steps it will result in Checkmate. Alas, Craig’s debate with Grayling was as one-sided as was his debate with Sammy “I’m Just So Darn Smarter Than Everyone Else” Harris. Grayling was reduced to stammering… and fell back, as Atheists almost always do, on insults. Dr. Craig started off by explaining the underlying presuppositions of the classic logical argument against God from the existence of evil:

Craig: Traditionally, atheists have claimed that the co-existence of God and evil is logically impossible. That is to say, there is no possible world in which God and evil both exist. Since we know that evil exists, the argument goes, it follows logically that God does not exist. It is this version of the problem of evil that professor Grayling recently defended in his debate with Keith Ward in The Prospect.

So, according to the logical version of the problem of evil, (the two statements on your hand-out):

“(A) an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists”

and,

“(B) evil exists”

…are logically incompatible.

The difficulty for the atheist, however, is that statements (A) and (B) are not, at face value, logically inconsistent. There’s no explicit contradiction between them. If the atheist thinks they are implicitly contradictory then he must be som – uh – assuming some hidden premises that would serve to bring out the contradiction and make it explicit.

But, what are those premises? Well, the atheist seems to be assuming two things:

“(1) If God is omnipotent then he can create any world that he desires”

and

“(2) If God is omnibenevolent then he prefers a world without evil over a world with evil”

The atheist reasons that: since God is omnipotent he could create a world without evil, and since he is omnibenevolent he would prefer a world without evil, therefore if God exists, evil cannot exist.

Dr. Craig goes on to explain that this version of the problem of evil, based on logical incoherence, has been “seriously undermined” by the incisive critique of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga and has fallen out of disfavor among academic philosophers. He points out that Plantinga has demonstrated that the atheist must show that both of the critical assumptions (1) and (2) are necessarily true in order for the argument to be logically valid. But, Plantinga argues, if it is even possible that human beings have free will then (1) and (2) are not necessarily true.

This is what Analytic Philosophy does best: Break down arguments into their underlying premises… and then demonstrates what must or must not be true in order for an argument to be logically valid.

Okay, I thought, pretty slick. But now the Atheist team is going to bring in one of their Big Guns – an Oxford philosopher, trained in the same logical jujitsu as Dr. Craig. Surely he’s about to meet his match. Then Grayling spoke. If possible, he was even more meandering and non sequitur than Sammy Harris, albeit with slightly better manners.

GRALYING: Um, let me just begin with a remark about the tsunami which, as you know, killed several hundred thousand people – among them small children and elderly people – a great majority of them were not Christians – they were people of other faiths and all faiths – I suppose – and of no faith. So I suppose one would need an assumption to the effect that the deity, if, he/she or it caused it or countenanced it or wasn’t able to stop it, nevertheless it would have – in some sense – to be the same deity for all those people, and if there is a greater good envisaged in the event then it would have to be one that, um, is somehow captured in very different forms in these different faiths. And I leave that point hanging in the air because I think it’s something that we need to bring up a bit later on – remembering that there was a competition between the faiths! After all, a Christian will tell you that that the founder of that religion said “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father but by me”, which seems rather bad news for very many of the people who were swept away by that grave wave .

Once again, the Atheist declines to actually address the topic at hand and simply and quickly changes the subject – in this case, to the multiplicity of religions on earth.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I was by this whole performance.

That’s because there is a part of me that finds airtight logical arguments inherently unpersuasive. Faith, to me, is bigger than logic, bigger than reason. Proving the existence of God from logical arguments seems to me a lot like proving that I love my wife from logical arguments: the very exercise seems a bit inappropriate or even somewhat demeaning. I can imagine approaching my wife and, instead of giving her roses and a box of chocolates on St. Valentine’s Day, proposing the following argument:

A. All men who give their wives presents love them.

B. I give you presents.

C. Therefore, I love you.

If that was how I proved my love for my wife, offering her airtight logical demonstrations, I don’t think I would have been married for very long.

The same is true of God. Authentic religion of any kind has a mystical component that bypasses logic or, rather, that makes logic almost unnecessary. In a very real sense, we have an experience of the grandeur of God – an experience of what mystics call the Numinous – that is above and beyond the rational arguments of the human mind. These experiences don’t preclude logic; they just make logic irrelevant. My felt sense of the awesomeness and holiness of Being – of the transcendent power that maintains in existence galaxies as well as my own beating heart – makes me want to fall to my knees. To try to conjure up a logical premise from such an experience to use in an argument seems almost as absurd as trying to do the same thing after a date with my wife.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not belittling logic and reason, or even debates on the existence of God. I just see their limitations. They say that at the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas, Christendom’s foremost logician, had a mystical experience and, after that point, he refused to write another word. “All of my writings are as straw,” he supposedly said. The same thing was true of Blaise Pascal, the brilliant French mathematician, scientist and mystic. When he was young, he had a mystical experience of some kind that changed his life. In a frenzy, he scrawled out a description of what had happened to him:

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

Pascal sewed this inscription into his coat and wore it every day of his life.

All this explains why I am not particularly threatened by logical arguments against the existence of God… and why I can even root for the Atheist team a little. If I were to debate myself, I would never use mystical experience as an argument for God’s existence because it is non-falsifiable, it is an unfair trump card that avoids logical reasoning. But just as my love for my wife is not the result of a logical demonstration, so, too, my faith in God is not the result of a chain of deduction. Reason can perhaps confirm what we know already by faith, but faith is rarely the result of reason. What’s more, I have this sense that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the Prime Mover of Aristotelian logic… and that to argue for his existence, using the paltry weapons of the human mind, seems almost presumptuous. So, that is why I came to the Atheist debates with a relatively open mind.

Although the existence of God is as self-evident to me as the existence of air, I am perfectly comfortable with the notion that his existence may not be provable logically. The Catholic Church holds as a religious dogma that his existence can be proven, but I was and am willing to entertain the possibility that, with the development of new tools of logical analysis, the traditional Theistic arguments for his existence may be found wanting. For example, I have long been persuaded that the modern argument from design, at least as presented by the Intelligent Design movement, can be persuasively overcome. The concept of “irreducible complexity,” used by Intelligent Design theorists such as Dembski and Behe, has been effectively refuted by scientists and philosophers. As a result, not all Theist arguments hold water… and I came to the New Atheist debates with an open mind concerning which arguments were solid and which could be undermined.

What I was wholly unprepared for, however, was the way in which the Atheist team completely abandoned the effort to present logical arguments at all and simply reverted to name calling. As I said, when faced with worthy opponents, such as Dr. Craig or even Dinesh D’Souza, many of the atheist debaters gave up any effort to mount rational arguments and just started making snide remarks. These remarks sometimes got a laugh – even I chuckled at some of them – but what they didn’t do was make any sort of rational case. It’s gotten so bad that the enfant terrible of the New Atheists, the popular science writer Richard Dawkins, has refused to debate William Lane Craig. In typical New Atheist fashion, he doesn’t offer reasons but only insults: He asked colleagues in the philosophy department at Oxford and “no one” had heard of Dr. Craig. Thus, Dr. Craig is too small of a fish to face such an intellectual giant as himself. Even many atheists are now embarrassed by Dawkins’s refusal to debate Craig.