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Atheism vs Christianity (William Lane Craig vs Peter Slezak)

October 7th 2006 23:42
William Lane Craig
William Lane Craig
7.30pm, Tuesday 27 August, 2002. The debate was entitled “Atheism v Christianity”. Speakers were Dr William Lane Craig (Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, California) and Dr Peter Slezak (Senior Lecturer in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at UNSW). I wasn’t expecting much from the night. Venue was Sydney Town Hall, which seats about 2000 people, and the place was sold out. Neither speaker was paid to be there, though I suspect someone coughed up for Craig’s plane ticket.

Format was: both speakers were meant to give an initial 20 minute presentation, then a 12 minute rebuttal, then an 8 minute rebuttal, then a 5 minute closing summary. Christianity/Craig went first.

Peter Slezak
Peter Slezak
Let it be said from the outset that there is much to admire in the American culture of rhetoric and speaking. There is no doubt that Craig was the better speaker. The ways in which he judged, amused and used his audience outclassed Slezak, who at times talked down to the audience, who made too many references to Hume (a mannerism that was later made fun of by Craig), and whose ums and ahs and phlegmy coughing were at times embarrassing. Craig’s presentations were polished and organically whole: Slezak always ran out of time and his presentations were by contrast strikingly less structured. Slezak talked too fast, and not always distinctly, making jargonistic allusion to philosophical concepts, and apparently thinking he was delivering a lecture to undergrads.

But Craig’s speech also illustrated the general downside to good rhetoric: if you want to emphatically deliver a few points, you can only deliver a few points. There is no doubt that Slezak presented the more sophisticated argument, albeit the more confusing.

The dynamics of the debate turned in Craig’s favour. As a foreigner, he was probably accorded more courtesy by the audience. Slezak’s academic air in context made him look like a sophist instead of an authority. And the fact is that the audience was probably mostly sympathetic to religion anyway. The presenter/mediator was a Protestant minister.

But Craig also made a smart initial move, making it appear as if the onus of proof was on Slezak to dislodge him from belief in deity. Emphasis was laid on the question: What evidence is there for thinking that atheism is true? He followed this up addressing another question: What evidence is there for believing in God? And five arguments for deity were provided.

Slezak was tempted into a trap. Instead of making an introductory presentation, he took advantage of being second speaker to begin on a rebuttal, and even then he only dealt with two of Craig’s five arguments. He mainly presented a negative case: what he didn’t do was clearly enough address Craig’s first question about positive grounds for believing in atheism. And this was a neglect that probably cost him the night.

Craig later made a big deal about the omission -- “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”. After Slezak had mentioned that he was open to the possibility of a deity if there was only the evidence for it, Craig replied: If your only reason for being atheist is problems with the arguments for theism, then you’re not actually an atheist at all. You’re just a fence-sitting agnostic. You’ve at best established neutral ground. You haven’t proved why one should take the extra step of disbelieving.

This is probably a move that’s common in these sorts of discussions. But in context it drew a murmur from the audience, and came across as a blow that Slezak never recovered from. It didn’t help that later he even stumbled over his own words, “As an agnostic, I mean atheist...”.


Craig’s five arguments

1. Origins of the universe. Everything has a cause. Nothing comes from nothing. And if it were possible for something to come from nothing, then things would pop into existence all the time. (I suspect Craig got the phrasing of this one from Lucretius.) Horses would materialize in your living room. You’d hear a bang, and your friend would ask you what that came from, and you’d say, Nothing, it just happened. So, obviously the cause of the universe must have been a personal, intelligent, intentional being.

In reply: Slevak too-academically said that Craig was misusing the word “cause” and that it only applied to time-space, not to what went before time-space. Also, feelings are dodgy. Our everyday expectations and intuitions about causality don’t apply to the beginnings of the universe.

For some reason, Slevak didn’t ask, Um, but if everything has a cause, doesn’t a deity have a cause, and how do you explain where He came from?

2. Complexity and “fine-tuning”. The probability of a universe happening that could support intelligent life is astronomically small. So there must have been intelligent design. Nothing would take more faith to believe in than a universe like ours that happened by chance.

In reply: Highly improbable events happen all the time. Improbability by itself doesn’t mean anything. If you are dealt a hand of 13 cards, and you get all the cards from spades, you would think it’s astounding and call the newspaper. But the fact is, that hand is as probable as any other hand you’ve ever been dealt. It’s just that we don’t ascribe special significance to most hands. It is the nature of freak occurrences and coincidences that they look intentional though they’re not.

In reply: The fact of intelligent life is just so surprising and so improbable that it’s design and not just chance.

3. There are objective moral categories in the world, and objective morality is only possible in a world with intelligent design. The Holocaust was a bad thing even if no one believed it bad, even if Nazis had won the war and brainwashed or exterminated everyone into thinking it was good. There is no more reason to doubt the reality of objective values than there is to doubt the reality of the physical world.

In reply: Just because we feel there’s objective moral values doesn’t mean there really are objective moral values. Feelings are dodgy. Feelings give way all the time to more systematic methods of inquiry. Strong feeling doesn’t guarantee truth. Just because we feel the earth is flat doesn’t mean it is. We might feel certain things are right or wrong, but the Aztecs also felt they had to cut out human hearts to keep the sun rising each day.

Just because I don’t believe in a transcendent basis for morality doesn’t mean I don’t believe in any basis for morality. Rational morality is surely better than blindly obeying some supernatural authority.

In reply: If Andromedans felt it was okay to rape, and they came to earth to rape earth women, we would have no basis for objecting to them if there weren’t objective morals.

4. Historical facts about the resurrection are hard to doubt. On historical grounds, actual resurrection is the best explanation. Three established facts are best explained by resurrection: the empty tomb; the sightings by different groups after death; the sudden belief of the disciples in resurrection and the sudden rise of Christianity.

In reply: The historical evidence is way dodgy. Human testimony is always unreliable. You don’t now believe what the Aztecs wrote in their 500-year-old texts. Why believe 2000-year-old Middle-Easterns? And surely there are more probable naturalistic explanations. Why reach for miracles? Maybe Jesus wasn’t really dead, and his disciples took him out of the tomb when no one was looking. Any story other than the miraculous one is more plausible.

In reply: No one believes the “apparent death” theory. It was shot down in the mid-nineteenth century. The Romans were professional executors, and shoved spears in people’s sides to make sure they were dead. And if that process were survived, Jesus would have died of exposure in the tomb. And how could he have moved that rock. And even if he escaped and appeared to his disciples, why would they take a half-dead and bleeding man as evidence of miraculous resurrection?

5. On purely personal grounds, everyone knows in their heart that God exists.

In reply: Feelings are dodgy. Plus, these feelings aren’t really that certain. If we were to have a debate on whether the Harbour Bridge exists, no one would turn up. We obviously feel more certain about the bridge than about a deity.

In reply: It’s true that feelings can mislead, but why should I doubt these feelings? They are as real to me as my perception of the physical world.


On evidence

Slezak initially ran an argument like this: I can’t disprove a Christian deity, but I can’t disprove an Aztec deity either, and yet you wouldn’t believe in one. Denying an existential claim is to make a universal claim, and no universal claims can in principle be verified.

There is no evidence for believing in a deity. As a matter of scientific method, no evidence is as close as you can get to disproof. But this doesn’t mean that one should be fence-sitting agnostic. In other cases where there is no evidence -- like UFOs or Spiderman -- you clearly don’t believe. The only reason why you don’t disbelieve in this case also is that I’m consistent and you’re not.

In reply: There is currently no evidence of gold on Pluto, but this doesn’t mean that there’s no gold on Pluto. In fact, lack of evidence for a thing only matters if we should expect to see more evidence if that thing existed. In the case of a deity, you have to prove to me that we should expect to have more evidence than we already have, more evidence than the five grounds I’ve outlined.
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20 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by JoshZ

October 16th 2006 13:08
Interesting arguements, both of them.

As a christian it offends me when christians use feelings to rationalise things. God gave us brains not because He had five or so pounds of grey matter that He wanted to get rid of, but so they would be used.

Comment by Adrian

October 24th 2006 14:43
I'm undecided on the issue of feelings; I'm inclined to think one can't get by without them.

But one question I'd pose to a Christian is this: don't you need faith to be a Christian; and does reasoning, argumentation, remove the possibility of faith?

Comment by JoshZ

October 25th 2006 11:18
Not necessarily.

Okay, that hardly answers a fairly serious question.

The interesting thing is that the first commandment that christians (like me) have to follow is to love God with all your heart, MIND, soul and strength. Faith is an interesting virtue, partially because you can only really have it when you have some very good reasons not to have it. Also because faith can work with or without my reasoning behind it.

What is faith? The evidence of things unseen. Do I have to understand a situation to believe it might turn out how I am hoping? Not really. It helps but it isn't necessary. If there was no room for doubt (which could also be reasoning or argumentation) there would be no room for faith.

Hopefully that ramble helps a little.

Comment by Adrian

October 25th 2006 20:47
I suppose there's always some point or other that you just take on faith. Where reasoning is concerned, there might be no such thing as absolute certainty. Even logical laws are open to question.

Comment by JoshZ

October 25th 2006 22:09
I remember reading in a book somewhere an author saying that the laws of gravity might not exist.

Comment by Anonymous

January 27th 2007 11:44
Craig won the debate hands down. Atheists look like a bumbling mess when they take on Craig. I have watched over 15 debates and Craig wins every time. The simple reason is because there is simply better evidence for God.

Comment by Anonymous

February 12th 2007 14:31
It's no surprise that the author says Craig was the better speaker on the night. Craig specializes in debating atheists in front of large non-specialists audiences. His been doing this for at least 15 years and has probably done it 100’s of times by now. I know Peter and while Peter is familiar with the subject matter (he regularly teaches a course on the arguments for theism), he has no where near the debating experience that Craig has. Most of the people that Craig debates are in a similar position to Peter. Because of this Craig usually seems to come out on top in these debates, after all a general audience tends to be easy swayed by a charismatic debater with appealing rhetorical (as opposed to logical) arguments, and cannot follow the debate at a technical level. (But check out the debate between Craig and Michael Tooley, there should be a link to it on Tooley’s homepage. Tooley does a pretty good job at arguing against Craig in a way accessible to general audiences.)

Personally I think most of Craig’s arguments are weak and based on suspect premises and most of them wouldn’t cut it in professional academic philosophy. However, where Craig has made his mark in professional philosophy is with his resurrection of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. Craig has published a book and many papers on this (see for example, Craig, William Lane, 1979, The Kalām Cosmological Argument, London: The Macmillan Press). If anyone wants to read a more robust and technical argument for theism I suggest they read this work of Craig’s. And for a strong reply read: Grunbaum, Adolf, 2004. ‘The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology’. British Journal of Philosophy of Science. 55: 516-614.

Comment by Adrian

February 12th 2007 22:36
Dear Anon, thanks for enriching my post with your comment!

Comment by Jeff Musall

September 13th 2007 01:53
While being able to debate and present an argument with zeal is commendable, it doesn't overreach what is a flawed belief system. The debate, eventually, needs to be framed only in the parameters of myth versus knowledge, superstitions vs. science, dogma vs. reality.

Comment by Nonymous

September 13th 2007 02:38
Hey Jeff, thanks for reading!

While being able to debate and present an argument with zeal is commendable, it doesn't overreach what is a flawed belief system.

My personal take is that not only is it commendable, it's necessary! Flawed in the sense of "false" needs argument and debate -- how else does one establish it?

The debate, eventually, needs to be framed only in the parameters of myth versus knowledge, superstitions vs. science, dogma vs. reality.

Well, you're right to point out that theism vs atheism, or in fact any debate, would do well to look at epistemological grounds. But I don't know that the existence or non-existence of a deity can be reduced to the issues you've cited. If only it were so easy... I mean, Lane Craig and others probably claim to believe on non-mythical, non-superstitious, and non-dogmatic grounds. And if they're willing to mount some sort of rational argument, then one might as well take them at their word.

Incidentally, to follow on from Anon's comment, some popular modern contenders for God arguments are those made by Swinburne (Is there a God? (1996)),
Plantiga (though I don't think he believes his own argument) and, yep, William Lane Craig, which seem to be less-easily-dismissable varieties of argument from design, ontological argument, and cosmological argument respectively.

The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy has some entries on two of these (links above -- though I haven't bothered trying to read through them properly; and incidentally, the ontological article includes the odd detail that Goedel was working on a variety of such an argument!).

Comment by Anonymous

May 26th 2009 10:16
You say Craigs first argument was that 'everything has a cause'. That's incorrect. He said 'everything that begins has a cause'.

the universe began to exist. therefore the argument applies to it, but not God.

Comment by Anonymous

December 12th 2009 00:19
Really Long Link

Why atheism is on its way to becoming just like any other religion.

Comment by HairyH

December 30th 2009 10:16
"Why atheism is on its way to becoming just like any other religion."

I think you are mistaken. Religion is organised with rituals, dogmas, creeds ... etc. Atheist do not care much about organising and developing creeds.
That is why Craig has an advantage. He is a "professional" theist. He makes his living out of being a theist. While his opponents are amateurs. They have their day-jobs and cannot devote as much time to train to debate theist, as Craig does.

Comment by Anonymous

April 7th 2010 09:15
Satan really has deceived many with all these different whacky religions. There is only one and it is purely from the Bible but so many different religions have adopted Pagan ceremonies like the Catholics did with Easter, Christmas and blah blah. I feel sorry for people who choose to be Atheists without researching the Bible. You guys can't really think that we amazing humans who have the incredible ability to feel, anger, hate, love, happiness, jealousy and more? Think of it this way, when someone builds a house they know it was made, they know it had to be designed and then created it couldn't possibly do it by itself and science can definitely prove that we are more complicated than a house that doesn't even have the gift of life. There for we HAD to have some kind of creator and that creator would have wanted us to know about him in some kind of way. God is the most well known and accurate religion, its unique. Of course a lot of people have twisted the true meaning of Christianity but its still the most loving and kind of them all. Just...think about it for a bit and look up what the Jehovah witnesses teach. Also a lot of people don't believe in God because of all the bad stuff but look up Armageddon.

Comment by Shae

April 7th 2010 09:21
Many Atheists argue that if God really existed he would show himself but its said in the Bible he is a spirit that is unknown to the human eye. It sounds cliche but seeing isn't believing, we can't see the wind but we can feel its there. All of the Bible's prophecies are coming true and i ask any of you who have no faith to at least do some research to back up your theory. type in the search box: how do we know the Bible is real. if anyone would like to email me

Comment by Wen

September 1st 2010 15:03
Faith is not good enough for evidence. So many people, whatever religion they believe, in the end claim faith is the reason why one should believe. Why did god put Dinosaurs on this earth? Because god wanted to test our faith. Ok... Such things need to be weighed carefully, when we're talking about what to believe in, and as Peter mentions Hume, that there's no competition when it comes to comparison there's just not enough evidence of your 'god'. Do you really believe that god created dinosaur bones to test our faith or the possibility that the earth is older than the bible states and there were gigantic creatures before us (with good evidence: bones). Faith by definition to me is something more along the lines of "I have faith I will succeed in my studies' where as "I have a faith in stories about the very essence of reality and existence in a 2000 year old book written by humans that are as flawed as I" sounds like a blind conviction.

Secondly, Peter talks about 'cause' and 'beginning' and Craig uses this to argue that something that begins MUST have a creator. This we understand is within the space time boundaries, (and before anyone tells me to investigate the bible again, I suggest you investigate quantum physics first) the same rules that apply to what is inside this universe are not the same rules that applies outside of it, because they don't exist, because nobody knows for sure what it is outside of our universe. Before the big bang, there was no time, nor space, so how could there be the concept of 'beginning' the whole notion of cause and affect and the whole idea of creating is not as you conceive it now. Thus Craig cannot use this argument (although it appeals to your 'common sense') to justify why the universe requires a creator.

I think Peter was trying to get the audience to start thinking for themselves. As the blog mentions he talks down to them, because the room, as Peter states 'is full of Christians' whatever Peter argues (atheism) its not going to bod well with audience that has a predisposition. But If people would just read up and think a bit for themselves about the concepts that Peter brings up, you will see through the illusions and stories of the bible.

From my personal experience of attending church and saturday school, most Christians really don't care for god, its been handed to them, (indoctrinated if you will) they really have no curiosity for what is the truth, if they did they would read into both sides of the argument because how can you know your beliefs are correct with out learning why they could be wrong. The argument of faith is really just being lazy, and metaphysics is just incoherent.Yet at the same time christians will defend their beliefs like they defend their own identity. But Of course 'lift the not the painted veil which those who live call life' or in this case call god.

Comment by Shae

September 10th 2010 14:32
but the real question is..what requires more faith...believing that some random big bang created the WHOLE universe that created our PERFECT solar system where EVERY single planet is PERFECTLY in orbit and where the earth is PERFECTLY in range to the sun and that the PERFECTLY BEAUTIFUL planet earth grew life where every animal was balanced out and that monkeys evolved into humans and MAGICALLY learned how to talk and that everythings just so PERFECT. Or, knowing that a greater being created EVERYTHING? C'mon, denying God isn't gunna make him not real. Another thing that disproves evolution is the fact that how come monkeys or apes aren't "evolving" into human beings? how come there aren't any half mutated animals running around? Just because we look like monkey's doesn't mean we were or are them...i mean, butterflies and moth's look nearly the same but they're two completely things that work completely differently. And anyways, historians have actually proved that the people in the Bible were actually real and all the facts of the battles were real and everything. So tell me, if the people and the battles are true why can't everything else in the Bible be real? Tell ya what, when this world heads into armegeddon or world war 3 and theres some crazy hitler guy demanding everyone take his mark over God, you better start believing coz God is real and you'll find out that even if you deny him a million times. And also...don't we as humans always "crave" a perfect leader?

Comment by Wen

September 14th 2010 10:25
Faith is not a criteria of truth. I could have faith in many outrageous things which are not true. It doesn’t explain why Christians don’t believe in Allah or The Mayan gods or Ra or Venus, or Zeus or Darth Vadar just lay down a few examples of ideas that stretch the imagination. This of course has already been addressed by Peter in the debate with rational reasoning, so I feel the whole faith argument is a bit invalid.

I do agree with you, at first glance, our solar system , our whole existence, our minds, body and emotions and the complexity of it all It seems very far fetched to be here all due to chance. This argument was also addressed by Peter, the idea that if you were dealt a hand of cards at random and by chance you receive all of one suite. Do you owe it to divine intervention? It’s a possibility, but you were dealt another hand of cards for your second game and received the same random mess you normally see in any hand of cards. Do you owe your second hand of cards to divine intervention? The chance of receiving the first hand had the same chance of receiving the second. Both hands were just as unlikely, but only when something so ‘perfect’ appeals to you, you give it miraculous significance. Of course you could say that this analogy is taken out of context and the complexity of the world is far greater and probability far smaller than a hand of cards. I only use this to illustrate that the only reality you know is the one you have. Furthermore on second glance the world is far from perfect. Its nice to see we’re not arguing about the heliocentric model of the solar system, so we’ve agreed that world isn’t flat and the sun doesn’t orbit the earth. But what is ‘perfect’? Could you tell the difference between a perfect solar system against a flawed one? To put it frankly, we live on a speck of dust, orbiting a burning ball of plasma that will explode and envelope the earth in five billions destroying any trace of our civilization. But not to worry, human kind would have been long gone by then. We have bodies that are delicate and prone to disease and grow old and fragile, child birth is very risky and dangerous procedure and both woman and child must endure tremendous stress and pain for it. etc etc I could go on spouting doom and gloom but I don’t want to.

In regards to the half mutated monkeys, and evolution. Seriously I think the concept you have of evolution is the same concept in Pokemon, when Pikachu evolves into its fatter more arrogant older Raichu. Evolution is a very slow and gradual process that you cannot see, even slower than grass growing, even slower than metal rusting. It takes millions of years. Nothing ever ‘half’ evolves, and there are plenty of examples of intermediate species and transitional fossils, if you only looked.

Heres a few: Really Long Link
Will Christians please gain a better understanding of the theory of evolution before saying anything like ‘KFC did NOT evolve from McDonalds!’

So what if Historians have proved that the people in the bible are real, the people in my local newspaper are real, and I can prove that first hand with much more evidence than your historians, but weight of evidence aside. Do I take their word when they tell me how the universe was a created? How to live my life? To worship a their god? I don’t think one should take this so lightly and just assume because part of the book has truth means it is entire truth. Again, why don’t you believe in the Koran?

And finally and most importantly, Hitler was a Christian and was deeply religious. Some (Christians) will tell you he was atheist, but if you read his speeches, he’s about Christian as any Christian. At various points in his political career he used ‘the word of god’ the influence of religion over the masses to build his war machine, persecute the Jews and just generally shit all over Europe. Hitler could not have done this alone, he needed the support of his country, and that’s where it came from. The unwitting masses, people who believe in this kind of dogma, prone to religious fervour and blind patriotism. The German people weren’t bad, but because the majority (not only the Germans) are so willing to buy into ideas without much thought, they were misled. The German people craved for a perfect leader, and Hitler was his name-O! Countless Horrific acts have been acted out in history, and today! in gods name, and I don’t think that faith, the bible, and the lack of intermediate species can justify for any of them.

Jesus I’ve typed quite a bit, might had enough for my own bible but anyone who reads this, please… open your eyes, take your fingers out of your ears, listen and learn, just put your bible on the shelf for a moment. How do you know your argument is a good one, if you have no understanding for what the opposing argument is? Think for yourself, if god gave you rational thinking and brilliant minds, why does he not want you to use them? I’ll tell you why THE DEVIL!!!! (hehehe just poking )

Comment by shae

September 21st 2010 11:22
You can argue all you want, but it won't make God not real.

Oneday, everyone will know of his existence whether you believe it or not.

But seriously, you would require more faith in believing this entire universe happened by chance rather than believing a creator created it all.

And don't you think its a bit odd that God has managed to be the most major and most talked about subject since ever?

But we do have a concept of perfection dont we? we are able to think of perfection therefor we have knowledge of it ? perfection is something that has no flaws,

and if you double checked your history on evolution and actually did some research on the body because as a scientific fact the body "cannot" just transform into higher intelligence. and my concept of evolution is based on scientific facts..NOT pikichu. lol

one thing i find a little ironic is how athiests spend basically their whole lives debating over christianity. the point is, if athiests really believe in only living once then why do they waste their "only" lives debating over something?

in the end though everyone is entitled to their own opinion and i dont want to sound all stuck up and stubborn and say im right and your wrong

But i can promise anyone and everyone who reads this, there will be a time..and its coming soon...#armegeddon# where it will be very bad and there will be a one world leader who will force us to make a choice between a government alligience and God. and they will be terrible times. world war 3 some people call it. and its coming. and when it does happen, whether its sixty years away or five you'd better start believing. This world cannot keep going the way it is for another fifty years....just look at us...
armegeddon will come, just as the bible that was written two thousand years ago promised

C'mon, there's more to life than just going to school, getting a job, a car, a husband and then reriting and going on a holiday then dying...seems so empty. Life is so much more, humanity has so much more depth to it. We all crave something more because there is something more. There's more to life than going bowling, getting drunk at a party....there's a reason everything is as it is

Comment by Anonymous

January 5th 2011 20:30
"the universe began to exist. therefore the argument applies to it, but not God. "

Your God, or A God?

This is an argument for deism, at best.To prove theism all of your work is still ahead of you

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