Atheism vs Christianity (William Lane Craig vs Peter Slezak)
October 7th 2006 23:42
William Lane Craig
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.
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.
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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