God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist

The question of god’s existence has long been a subject of debate among philosophers, not to mention laypersons. It’s one thing to believe that a higher intelligent mind is behind the origin of the universe, and it’s quite another to offer arguments in defense or refutation of that belief. Yet more problematic is how we define such a being, what attributes and characteristics we ascribe to it, and to what degree any arguments for god actually resemble the god most people seem to believe in. These issues and more are taken up in the 2003 book, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist.

Arguing in the affirmative, that god does exist, is William Lane Craig, a popular Christian philosopher and apologist who is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. Arguing the negative, that god does not exist, is Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College, and author of numerous books, including Moral Skepticisms (2006) and Morality Without God? (2009). For God?, Craig and Sinnott-Armstrong have transcribed, refined, and added to their two prior debates at Dartmouth in 1999 and at Wooddale Church in 2000 (the latter is reviewed here). The book is broken up into two parts, each with three chapters. The first part begins with Craig’s defense of theism, followed by a rebuttal from Walter, then a response from Craig. Part two begins with Walter’s defense of atheism, followed by a rebuttal from Craig, then a response from Walter.

I. Reasons to Believe

In the first chapter, William Lane Craig lays out the same five arguments for god that he has made in countless debates: the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral argument, the argument from the resurrection, and the argument from personal experience. Since Craig’s case is so formulaic and easy to find online,1 I will not spend time describing it here, and instead will move on to discuss chapter two.

Sinnott-Armstrong (henceforth abbreviated as SA) begins by remarking on Bill’s “shotgun strategy” of throwing out so many arguments that your opponent can’t have time to say much on any one of them. While there are technically only five arguments in Craig’s case, each argument is accompanied by a variety of claims and points, making it difficult to give everything the attention it may deserve in the short span of a 20 minute opening speech. But Walter assures his readers he will do his best, and if there are some things left unaddressed, he will address them in his later chapters for the second part of the book.

Caveat aside, SA’s rebuttal is impressively thorough and on-point. Elaborating on the traditional concept of god, he explains that Craig’s arguments focus on a powerful creator and provider of certain experiences, but they don’t get him to the common divine attributes of omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Even the moral argument makes the perfect goodness of god an assumption rather than an argument. Some of Craig’s arguments contain questionable dichotomies, too. Refuting competing ideas does not show that god exists. SA also urges caution in how one considers appeals to authority, noting that New Testament scholars are likely in their field because they are somewhat favorably disposed to the New Testament.

Walter takes Bill’s arguments out of order, beginning with the moral argument. If god’s commands are good because of his nature, as Craig claims, this conflicts with the supposition that god has reasons for his commands. To act from one’s nature seems to be more an instinctual action than a deliberate, reasoned action. SA knocks down a wide range of common reasons believers give for obeying god’s commands, and says that what should matter is harm, specifically whether or not causing it is adequately justified (both of which are covered in my review of Morality Without God?, linked to above). Causing harm without justification “just is” wrong, he says, and it is not at all like the Atheistic Moral Realism that Craig ridicules in chapter one, which would be to suppose that justice is a good that exists by itself, even in the absence of people.

SA offers several points of contention to the resurrection argument, namely that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, especially when primed, that we have no real evidence that Jesus’ disciples had no expectations, that the most likely cause of an empty tomb would be that the body was taken, and that there is no reason to think the postmortem appearance accounts are independent. On religious experiences, Walter counters that they are caused by emotions and prior beliefs, and they conflict with other religious claims, which calls for independent confirmation that has not been forthcoming.

Regarding the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, SA argues that there are differing views on the implications of the Big Bang, that the god hypothesis cannot explain why the Big Bang occurred when it did or why it had the features it had, and that it’s practically incoherent to imagine how a “strictly timeless” being, as Craig words it, can “enter into time”. Fine-tuning estimates are additionally problematic because we have no way of counting all the possible values that could permit life of some kind, not to mention intelligent life. Theories like the multiple cosmoi theory may seem complex, yet they are comparatively simpler than the god hypothesis because the latter proposes a wholly different kind of explanation. We know what a cosmos is, but after centuries of debate, there is still much disagreement over what a god is, and how useful it can be as an explanation.

Craig responds in chapter three by first attempting to connect his arguments with the traditional theistic god. The cosmological argument, he says, shows a personal, uncaused, eternal, changeless, immaterial, and “enormously powerful” being; the fine-tuning argument shows a super-intelligent being that cares for us; the moral argument shows the goodness and metaphysical necessity of this being; the resurrection argument identifies the being with the “God of Israel”; and the experiential argument shows a being that is knowable. What the astute reader will notice is that none of what Bill claims here gets us an omnipotent god (enormously powerful need not be all-powerful), an omniscient god, an omnipresent god, or an omnibenevolent god.

Another interesting sleight of hand that Craig tries to pull involves his insistence that there is “no ambiguity” about whether the Standard Model in physics indicates a beginning to the universe. Allegedly in support of his position, he cites John Barrow and Frank Tipler, who write:

At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo.2

The key phrase here is “if the Universe originated at such a singularity”. This quotation is not support for an unambiguous beginning of the universe, it’s a conditional statement with an antecedent clause that science has not confirmed. Worse still, Stephen Hawking has been arguing against an initial singularity since the late 1980s, and nearly 30 years later, there remains “no reason to believe that our Universe ever had a singularity in the past”, according to theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel.3

Responding to Walter’s questioning of how a “strictly timeless” being can enter into time, Craig makes the startling claim that god can be either temporal or atemporal, because his temporal status is contingent rather than essential. This doesn’t actually answer SA’s question, though, it merely restates Craig’s original assertion, and the issue of how an atemporal being can become temporal is left entirely unresolved. However, Craig gives himself another out by also arguing that god might exist in some “metaphysical time” prior to the Big Bang. This, he contends, does not contradict any scientific theory because it’s outside the reach of natural science. Eddie Tabash, a previous debate opponent of Craig’s, playfully refers to this idea as ‘god time’, and indeed it seems quite an ad hoc solution to how a cause could exist before time and space. Any sort of time before the Big Bang also sacrifices the very notion of creation ex nihilo that Bill is arguing for, but unfortunately he gives no consideration to this problem.

In defense of the fine-tuning argument, Craig elaborates that “pattern and improbability” indicate design. He uses the analogy of picking the one white ball out of a lottery with a billion, billion, billion black balls. “[S]ince it is overwhelmingly more probable that your pick be black rather than white,” he says, “you should reasonably conclude that your pick was not by chance.” I don’t really see where pattern factors into this example, but it seems baffling enough that Craig is apparently content to infer that the lottery is rigged even when he lacks any evidence whatever that it has been rigged. This just looks like a prejudice in favor of design rather than any workable means of distinguishing chance from agency. Craig even pulls a Dembski by claiming that “intelligent design” is the focus of the argument, not god. Of course, when he states in the same breath that fine-tuning is better explained on the “theistic hypothesis”, the jig is up.

Disappointingly, Craig misrepresents an important part of Walter’s response to the moral argument. Although he comments on SA’s position that preventing unjustified harm is what’s good, he confuses unjustified harm for morally unjustified harm, and then seems to conveniently forget this on the very next page. First, Walter means rationally unjustified harm, which is clarified and discussed in his book Morality Without God?:

A reason is a fact with rational force. Its force can turn an otherwise irrational act into a rational act… The fact that an act causes harm to others is a reason not to do that act, and the fact that an act prevents harm to others is a reason to do that act… If I choose not to do it because it would harm the victim, then I will not be choosing for no reason at all… Of course, some rapists might not care about harming others. They are rapists, after all. However, all that shows is that they lack motivation to be moral. Motives are crucially different from reasons. Even if rapists lack motivation not to harm their victims, there is still a reason for them not to harm their victims, because it would not be irrational or crazy for them to refrain from harming those other people simply in order to avoid harming other people.4

This addresses both of Craig’s misrepresentations, the second of which is that he portrays Walter as arguing that “rape is wrong implies that no account need be given of why rape is wrong.” To the contrary, SA explains that rape is wrong because it causes harm to the victim, harm that we would not be irrational to avoid causing. One could conceivably still protest that it hasn’t been explained why harm is the focus, instead of pleasure or any other consideration, but this is why Walter went after theistic reasons for being moral in chapter two, to show that neither side is in any better position and both have to stop at some point. Even Craig indirectly concedes this, SA notes, by saying that, “If someone really fails to see the objective moral truth about [rape], then he is simply morally handicapped.”

Finally, on the resurrection argument, Bill dismisses Walter’s objections with a flurry of bold claims. The postmortem appearances are literarily independent, he states, citing no sources. Laws of nature don’t discount the hypothesis that god raised Jesus from the dead, he argues without unpacking the further assumptions behind such a claim, or attempting any judgment of its prior probability. The stolen body theory is improbable, according to him, because it lacks an explicit motive, the tomb’s location wasn’t known to most, there was too brief a time span, the theft would’ve come to light, the grave clothes were left in the tomb, and there’s still the matter of the postmortem appearances and the resurrection belief itself that need to be explained. As any historian will realize, though, all of these objections presume a high degree of accuracy in the gospel accounts. Even if Craig’s four facts are widely recognized by scholars, he gives no indication that these additional details are so highly regarded. Somehow I doubt that a majority of New Testament historians will agree that the evidence strongly suggests that the grave clothes were found in Jesus’ empty tomb.

II. Reasons to Disbelieve

In chapter four, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong presents his three reasons for doubting the existence of god. His first and primary argument, the problem of evil, is mainly a transcription of his opening speech from his 2000 debate with Craig at Wooddale church. Since I have already reviewed that debate (the link is in the beginning of this review), I will not spend time covering the argument here, and will move on to Walter’s two other arguments instead.

For his second reason, SA presents what he calls the ‘problem of action’. God, being outside of time, he argues, cannot act to change things in time. If numbers are timeless, it would make no sense to say that the number three causes anything to occur in time. Furthermore, an eternal cause faces the problem of explaining why it causes something at one point, but not others. This view of a non-homogeneously existing god is incompatible with traditional theism.

The last argument Walter offers in chapter four is the argument from divine hiddenness, which he terms the ‘argument from ignorance’, as in the fact that god’s existence is not known like we’d expect it to be known. We ought not believe in entities for which we have no evidence, he contends. In Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, Linus believes in the Great Pumpkin despite lacking any evidence for it. Going a step further, Linus even elaborates his belief in such a way as to preclude any counter-evidence. But a being that hides itself from us, when there are reasons to think it would want to show itself, should not be believed in, and this goes for god as well as the Great Pumpkin.

Craig briefly touches on Walter’s two additional arguments before moving onto the problem of evil in chapter five. The argument from hiddenness only gets as far as agnosticism, he claims, not to atheism. More importantly, though, there seems to be no reason to think that more people would enter into a relationship with god if he were to reveal himself more clearly. In response to the problem of action, Bill asserts again that god is “timeless without creation and temporal with creation.” Bizarrely, he insists that the nature of divine eternity is a philosophical, not a biblical, question, while stating that the Bible doesn’t teach that god is timeless. Finally, Craig’s principle objections to the problem of evil are that god has reasons for permitting evil that we cannot expect to know, and certain Christian doctrines make apparently gratuitous evils look much less gratuitous – indeed, not gratuitous at all.

Does the argument from hiddenness only work as an argument for agnosticism? SA notes that when Craig makes this claim, he neglects to consider one of the argument’s premises, that we can expect to have strong evidence if an all-good and all-powerful god that can act in time exists. In the case of such a being, it is not fallacious to accept that absence of evidence really is evidence of absence. This move does make the hiddenness argument an argument for atheism, whether it succeeds or not.

So does it succeed? In addition to his initial defense of the argument in chapter four, Walter makes a few more challenging points in support of the ‘problem of ignorance’. Recall that Craig’s arguments for god do not establish the single unified being of traditional theism, even if they work. Since this is tacitly admitted by Craig himself, who never does bother to offer an explicit connection between any of his arguments and any of the omni- attributes of god, there is at least this one problem of ignorance that god could resolve. However, scientific and historical arguments for god (like the fine-tuning argument, some lines of support given to the cosmological argument, and the resurrection argument) have not always been available, because those scientific discoveries and historical knowledge have not always been known. Thus, there is the further problem of past ignorance.

Still, Craig has insisted that there is no reason to think more people would enter into relationships with god if god were to reveal himself more. Would it make any difference, then, if god did resolve to show his unity, and had made himself more apparent in the past? I have to side with SA in maintaining that it would. A disposition to the contrary would seem to assume that believers could actually lose faith from witnessing god revealing himself more, and to such a degree that it would at least counter-balance those that might come to believe from further revelation. Moreover, even if what god desires is a relationship rather than mere belief, belief has benefits like decreasing doubt and deterring crime, and it’s also quite necessary to believe someone exists before you can love them!

On the problem of action, SA mainly takes issue with Craig’s understanding of causation. Bill’s idea that the cause of an act is the agent as a whole rather than a change in the agent is incoherent from what we know of causation. Walter uses the example of how we say that “Minnesota Fats sank the eight ball”, when what we more accurately mean is not that he put his entire being into the shot, but just that he moved his arms in a way that caused his cue stick to knock the ball in a certain direction. We have no experience of agents causing things ‘as a whole’ in the sense that Craig means, so this antiquated conception of causality just seems like an ad hoc attempt to weasel out of the problem of action, much like the fantastical ‘god time’ Craig speculates on in defense of the cosmological argument.

Lastly, Walter spends the remainder of chapter six rebutting Craig’s critique of the problem of evil. Some noteworthy remarks are that since the problem is formulated as a probabilistic argument, no discussion of evil needs to be totally comprehensive or conclusive, that god having reasons for allowing evil produces strong doubt about how any of us should act in response to evil, and that although the moral argument involves objective moral values, it need not be granted that god is all-good, as he could fail his own standards (as theists often say, ‘his ways are higher than our ways’). As in his 2000 debate with Craig, Walter does a great job of making the probabilistic argument from evil, while noting that Bill’s predominant concern with mere possibility is insufficient to combat the weight of the problem.

III. Concluding Thoughts

This book has received very positive reviews on Amazon from both theists and atheists, and it was easy to see why even after reading the introduction. Craig and Sinnott-Armstrong each know their position, their opponent’s position, and the importance of good philosophical grounding. Yet they also worked hard to make God? an accessible and engaging read for laypeople on either side of the debate, which means there is little jargon and plenty of real world analogies. Both authors bring wit, clarity, and knowledge to the subject, and even the book itself is structured well, allowing for balanced and fairly thorough coverage of each position.

As much as I enjoyed Walter’s debate with Bill at Wooddale Church, this brief little text provides the fuller engagement of the issues that I hoped it would. Craig fleshes out more of his views here, which are all too often left somewhat obscure in his debates. SA not only addresses all of Craig’s arguments, but he gives three powerful arguments of his own for atheism, which is much too rare a thing among atheist debate participants. It also seems to me that Craig’s tactics are really made obvious here, with how frequently he misrepresents his opponent and retreats into some astounding admissions to salvage his case for theism. I think Walter is the clear winner in God?

In short, if you’re the type who enjoys a down-to-earth yet sophisticated debate over the existence of god, this book is a must-read. Whichever side of the aisle you count yourself on, there is plenty to learn from it and reflect upon. It can also make for a great recommendation to those you might know who would be generally curious to hear an intelligent and respectful dialogue between a Christian and atheist.


 

Sources:
1. William Lane Craig, Does God Exist?, ReasonableFaith.org. Retrieved March 9, 2014.
2. Barrow and Tipler, quoted in God? (Oxford, 2004), p. 60.
3. Ethan Siegel, Did the Universe start from a Singularity?, Science Blogs (April 5, 2010). Retrieved March 9, 2014.
4. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Morality Without God? (Oxford, 2009), p. 116, 117-118.