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Aug 02

Atheism vs Christianity Debate

Last night I attended a debate in Sydney’s Town Hall, presented to a standing room only full house. The debate was between an Atheist (Dr Peter Slezak) and a Christian (Dr William Lane Craig). In a modified debate format – 20 minute introductions, 12 minute first rebuttal, 8 minute second rebuttal and 5 minute conclusion with each side alternating – the two scholars, each with impressive credentials, set out to prove their respective positions in the age old debate of whether God exists. Craig in particular is world-renown for defending the faith, and despite this, Slezak was up to the challenge of engaging Craig, who practically makes a living doing this sort of thing. Neither debater disappointed and it was, without a doubt, a highly stimulating, intellectually exhausting, 2 hours. There was a lot of information in it and I’ve probably remembered and/or interpreted some things wrong, so what is written below may be slightly inaccurate.

Both speakers were unpaid for their time, and given the time pressures of the debate and the requirement to think on your feet, both were highly impressive. There were some inconsistencies in both arguments, but I would put this down to the environment of the debate rather than pure oversight.

When it comes to beliefs and religion, people on either side of the fence are most unlikely to change their beliefs overnight, if at all. To expect an Atheist to be converted post-debate is unrealistic, as is for the Christian to lose faith. The audience was, I suspect, made up of a majority of Christians, a substantial portion of atheists, and more significantly, some curious agnostics. The agnostic “fence sitters” are those who are as yet undecided, based on the evidence presented to them, whether to believe or disbelieve. Because of this unsureness, they are perhaps more likely to be affected by what was presented on the night. However, the direction the debate headed was perhaps different to what many were expecting, but it is a direction I believe was the better choice.

Many Atheists attack Christianity’s validity based on its doctrine and the Bible. Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? Why are some things clearly stated in the Bible not followed today? What’s the deal with creation versus evolution? Is God narcissistic? Why are there so many denominations of Christianity? And so on. An interesting line of questions, but an avenue the debate did not travel down. The debate was conducted on a much “higher” level (or, in terms familiar to those in the IT industry – a lower level, at the root of things) than most expected. That is, the brunt of the debate focused on the sole question of: Does God exist? The lower “root” level comparison is apt, because if you can chop off the argument at this level, all higher-level arguments cease to be valid. If God does not exist, all contention about the Bible and doctrine cease to exist as well. Furthermore, many doctrinal and Biblical questions revolve around human interpretation. Human interpretation is flawed, because we are human. This sullies things and it is hard to reach any resolution when “human flaw” is used as a point of argument, or some would say, excuse. Arguing about these things if often inconclusive. So, the way to address things is to strike at one of the very lowest levels. As a result, the debate centered more around the ontologically related disciplines of philosophy, logic and metaphysics, rather than history or theology. By extension, science – cosmology in particular – was used extensively as common grounds for making points. As I recall, the Bible was not quoted once by either side.

Craig opened the debate, with the main effort focused on the existence of God. Preliminary comments were made regarding burden of proof and requirements for proof. Should the onus be on the Christian to prove God exists (what evidence is there that God exists?), or should the onus be equal on the Atheist to prove Atheism exists (what evidence is there that God does not exist?)?

Craig made five major points. Evidence for God’s existence can be seen in (1) the origin of the universe, (2) the complexity of conditions and probability of our existence as intelligent life, (3) the presence of objective morality as proof of existence, (4) the evidence of Christ’s miracle, unnatural, resurrection implying divinity and (5) immediately personal experience with God. Interestingly, only one of his major points linked existence of God to an existence of a Christian God (4). The points were also coincidentally ordered in sequence of ferocity of debate, with 1 and 2 being the most actively argued, and the most confusing.

I am still hazy on much of point 1. Craig basically stated that the mere emergence of the universe, as established in science’s Big Bang theory, is grounds for proof of a higher intelligence. The Big Bang theory recognises that the universe came out of nothingness. Before the bang, nothing existed, including the concept of time. Things as they were, were timeless, and there was nothing. Therefore, something formed out of nothing. This flies in the face of logic and everything we understand. Clearly, to have something form out of nothing implies the existence of a higher being – otherwise, how could something that is timed (the universe) have formed out of timelessness? Craig provided an analogous example of you hearing a loud “BANG!”, asking, “What was that? Where did that come from?” and having him reply with, “Oh nothing. Nowhere.” Which is clearly absurd.

After other counterpoints I can’t remember regarding the concept of time and dimensions, Slezak retorted that to use homely examples such as the “Bang from nowhere” example (and the “horse appearing out of thin air to defile the lounge room carpet” example) is impossible, because our conceptual understanding of the world is fundamentally different from the existence of the universe such that we cannot draw comparisons. We cannot use such “homely examples”. Because something does not fall into our realm of understanding, does not necessitate divine presence. Quantum physics, accepted in academia globally, is on the surface preposterous. Even Einstein disputed some of what is accepted today. Nonetheless it goes to show that just because something is incomprehensible, does not preclude the fact that it is possible and “natural”.

But, can we use an example at all? Scientific theory is based upon falsification, so nothing can really be universally definitively proven – this is a tenet held by all in the field of science. So, where do we draw the line, if we can, at using an example? In reply, Craig pulled out a reference to metaphysics. I guarantee you that 90% of the audience did not know what metaphysics is, and with good reason because it is reasonably esoteric. I have a fair understanding of the concept, but I am not entirely sure myself. The prefix “meta” is rather enigmatic and can mean a large number of things, mostly as a replacement preposition meaning things like: between, with, after, behind, over, change, etc. In philosophical terms, it may refer to something as “one level of description up” – a self-referential term, so to speak. For instance, metadata is data used to describe data, and meta-linguistics is language used to describe language. Therefore, metaphysics would seem to refer to the views underpinning the physical world. (In actual fact, metaphysics is understood to have been derived from meta phusika, the title of Aristotle’s treatise on first principles. Meta in this context means “after”, as meta phusika followed his work on physics.) Today, it is used to refer to the science of being and existence. The philosophy of science, so to speak. It is ontology – how we believe the universe to exist – the root of science and knowledge generation. In science and scientific method, there are various epistemologies and theoretical perspectives to adopt, but underlying all this is an ontological stance which dictates a framework by which science can work within. Before we begin anything, we must establish the context of our existence. Confusing, yes?

Let me put it this way. Is nothing in this universe universally generalisable? If so, what is the point of science? Clearly(?) there must be some concessions made to “overlook” this. One rule expounded by metaphysicists (philosophers, really), is deemed to be universal and immutable. I can’t remember the exact wording Craig used, but it was something along the lines of, something cannot come out of nothing (and by extension we can get the well known first law of thermodynamics). If that metaphysical law is then regarded as an unassailable universal truth, then the existence of the universe can be regarded as miraculous, thereby bringing Craig’s assumption back to being feasible. In response, Slezak did not regard metaphysics as science, therefore, to use a non-scientific principle to prove his point in a scientific way was not valid. This point was debated at great length and I got lost several times, so take what i write with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, a lot of people did notice that both speakers seemingly contradicted themselves in their use of illustrative “homely” examples after these opinions were expressed.

There was also something about causality (cause and effect) covered regarding this point, but I don’t remember exactly what. [See comments below]

Furthermore, a recurring theme arose that the absence of proof does not prove of the absence of God. On the other side of the coin, the absence of proof to the atheist implies a high likelihood that God does not exist. Craig’s riposte was to say that the absence of proof is significant only when it is expected. Slezak inquired that, is it not reasonable to expect some form of proof from God of his existence? (Luckily no one pulled out granny’s “God works in mysterious ways” line here.)

(As a sidenote, and a bit more on metaphysics, I will pull out an example from Star Trek. At the beginning of Star Trek 4, Spock is answering questions fired at him by a computer in order to retrain his mind. One of the questions posed was, “What was Kiri-kin-tha’s first law of metaphysics?” Spock replied with, “Nothing unreal, exists.” Kiri-kin-tha is fictitious, but the law is worthy of consideration. It’s common sense, naturally, but common sense does not constitute scientific proof. Slezak did quip, though, that it is only in academic circles things as ludicrous as this are discussed! How that law is interpreted is seemingly independent of our perception of reality – our ontology. Is reality independent of the perceiver? Or is reality determined by the perceiver? Regardless, nothing unreal, exists. Read more.)

In Point 2, Craig postulated that our existence, despite the sheer improbability of it, is cause for attention. Scientists have calculated that the requirements for life to exist at all in the universe are ridiculously infinitesimal. Pretty much as close to impossible as you can get. This is factoring in things such as speed of the universe’s expansion, and scientific constants. How did this unlikeliest of unlikelihoods come about? Craig examines three possibilities: Natural law, chance and design. He discounts the former two, citing that nothing points to nature being anything other than arbitrary – there is no reason for nature to behave in a completely different way (thereby creating a completely separate reality, one of the vast majority of realities that do not support life). By this logic, design seems to be the only logical and most likely alternative.

Slezak quickly pointed out that this point made an underlying, flawed, assumption. Let’s take a simplified example – if we take a bunch of cards, any old hand is just as likely (unlikely) as a royal flush. If we get a royal flush, one would suspect the possibility of a rigged deck of cards. Yet, if we take any old hand, which is just as improbable, we do not suspect foul play. So what is significant about the way the universe currently is? Craig quickly dispensed with this point saying that the difference is in the significance of the hand dealt. Life existing is a lot more significant than life not existing, by the nature of life in addition to the sheer improbability of it. Slezak tried again, this time saying that reality as it currently exists is only remarkable because we are here to ponder it. I don’t fully grasp what point he was trying to make – I’d need to listen to his speech again – but I imagine a comparison can be made with the analogy of falling cats. Statistics show that cats falling from balconies higher than the second storey of buildings tend to survive more than die. The fallacy in this idea, however, lies in the fact that people are more likely to report an unlikely occurrence (the cat surviving) than an expected one (a dead, flat cat). People tend to only note the remarkable.

Point 3 covered objective morality. Objective morality refers to a moral standard that is true regardless and independent of external perception. In other words, an absolute moral standard. Clearly there cannot be objective morality without it being mandated by a completely external entity (God). Craig proposed that the presence of objective morality means God must exist. Therefore, if objective morality exists, then God must exist. He then proceeded into a flaky point about objective morality definitely existing given our “innate instinct”. This point was categorically turned down by Slezak. Gut feeling is no proof. This point was perhaps the most troubling of Craig’s.

It is agreed that objective morality cannot exist without God. Does objective morality exist though? Let us say that there exists extra-terrestrial life elsewhere in our universe that follows a different moral code. Where is objective morality then? Can we rely on our instincts to tell us that there is an objective moral code? A valid point. I’m not sure that Craig addressed the defence of it properly, because I don’t recall one. Slezak did criticise Craig’s opinion on the existence of extra-terrestrial life as to be so small as to be discountable – that Craig was being hypocritical in accepting the unlikelihood of existence, yet discounting the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Nonetheless, you don’t have to travel across galaxies to determine moral standards. Craig cited that objective morals included things such as rape and child abuse. However, if a culture believes rape is fine (perhaps, in fitting with concepts of social evolution – species adapt to social patterns which ensure greatest chance for survival), who is to say this violates any morals? It’s cultural relativism. This whole point sounded a little dodgy to me.

Point 4 was definitely argued more convincingly by Craig. Both men agreed to assume Christ existed, but disputed the resurrection. In the absence of natural proof for Christ’s resurrection, it is only natural to assume a miracle occurred. Slezak pointed out that it was illogical to jump to this conclusion. Because an explanation in the natural world is not readily apparent, it does not imply a miracle occurred (the reasoning is non sequitur). Why not consider the natural causes first? Here is where Craig demonstrated a distinct advantage in academic knowledge. Slezak, giving a couple offhanded examples of natural possibilities, mentioned the theory that Christ never really died. Craig demolished this remark, attributing it the same deprecated status the Flat Earth theory has, before progressing to say that modern scholarship has conclusively exhausted all natural possibilities. Ergo, in Holmesian fashion, the most unlikely possibility must be possible. One would have to verify the validity of Craig’s claim about modern scholarship agreeing with him, but people are unlikely to question someone with a double doctorate in the area. It would seem that the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is valid.

Point 5 was fairly minor in the debate’s context and was not covered extensively – immediate personal experience with God proving the existence of Him.

The styles of the two speakers as the debate progressed was interesting. Craig’s opening statement was fairly comprehensible, but being the first speaker, he also had the opportunity to control the debate’s direction. Slezak was then forced to elevate the complexity of the debate (provoking the discussion on metaphysics and so on) in order to rebut Craig’s assertions. From what I am told, the flavour of this debate was much more intellectual and convoluted than Craig’s debate at Sydney Uni on Monday with media personality Phillip Adams. Craig, with his ever-alluring American accent is a natural public speaker, and Slezak spoke in the very off-the-cuff manner of a good lecturer – he takes philosophy at UNSW, so I would not be surprised if enrolments in his subject multiply. Both are, as expected, very well read, pulling quotes from external sources at every opportunity (Craig at one stage pointing out a Slezak misquote, complete with page reference, to the delight of the audience).

Who was more convincing? Hard to say, both speakers were razor sharp, albeit both with a few noticeable inconsistencies, self-contradictions and questionable points. Then again, I can also see many people misinterpreting various things and missing some points of the debate. A comment that animals do not have morals (but merely evolve their behaviour), in reference to point 3, was readily accepted by both sides of the debate. However, some have raised an eyebrow at that statement and said, “But how do you know animals don’t have morals?” Which is an attack on a fairly trivial matter (morality requires self-consciousness/self-awareness, of which animals do not have given the philosophical definitions of those terms). It’s things like this, though, that would still nag at some peoples’ minds.

Time constraints limited discussion of many points, leaving many unresolved. The debate would be largely inconclusive for most people – although it might see agnostics become more curious about Christianity, after hearing it, for once, being defended credibly and adeptly. Nonetheless it was all a good opportunity for all to flex the cogitative muscle.

The real answer to it all though, as they say, is still up in the air. As it should be.

Updates and comments

More on causality: Craig mentioned that by the causal principle, the universe, as an effect needed a cause. Yet this cause, craig believed, had to be a ‘personal’ cause. If this cause was timeless and was not personal than its associated effect would’ve equally manifested and be timeless: we know this to not be the case. Therefore this cause must’ve had a character to ‘choose’ when to enact the cause and produce the effect that is the universe we know today. (Dave)


Just one little note though… you said at the end in regards to whether animals have morals that it “…is an attack on a fairly trivial matter (morality requires self-consciousness/self-awareness, of which animals do not have given the philosophical definitions of those terms).” I don’t think this matter is as trivial as you suggest, given that some animals (e.g. dolphins and chimps) seem to have theory of mind, which means they are self-aware. (Lill, a psych hons student)

Valid point… something I’d have to reconsider!