This is a critical review of a 2009 debate between Christian apologist Matt Slick and atheist lawyer Eddie Tabash. Having previously heard Slick debate Matt Dillahunty on The Atheist Experience, as well as Tabash’s 1999 debate with William Lane Craig, I found myself curious to see how these two would square off against one another. Matt Slick is President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, an ordained minister, and has a BA in Social Science and a Masters of Divinity. Eddie Tabash is chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Inquiry and holds a law degree from Loyola Law School. The question this debate is focused around is, “Does God exist?
Surprisingly, Mr. Slick opens with a single argument for the existence of God. Yes, you read that right: one single argument. Over the years, I’ve listened to Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and many other theists defend the existence of God, and they typically provide a minimum of three distinct arguments. Obviously, Slick believes his solitary argument to be so forceful and effective that he is willing to rest his entire case on it; a centuries-old and frequently debated question addressed by only a single argument. Imagine how complex and persuasive such a thing must be. And as it turns out, Slick decides to put all his chips on the cosmological argument.
I have written on the cosmological argument elsewhere, so I won’t go into much detail here. Slick’s version of the argument is similar to the Kalam, but with a lot of additional premises. These added premises generally attempt to force the opponent into a corner by making extremely bold claims about where one can fall on the question of whether or not the universe had a beginning. Much of Matt’s opening statement is spent knocking down ideas like an actual infinite, an impersonal cause, and an oscillating universe, so that he might preempt objections to the argument. I will discuss these issues in a moment, but for now I only want to say that Slick’s first speech is conducted professionally, despite its surprising limitations. From here, it seems that this is going to be a good debate. As Tabash makes his opening statement, I continue to believe this. Eddie announces up front that he will provide his arguments against the existence of God and then address Matt’s argument in his rebuttal. Unlike Matt, he defines what he is arguing against (God is a “supernatural personality”), and proceeds to offer several arguments for naturalism and against the supernatural.
Following Tabash’s opening remarks, things get ugly, and fast. Slick needlessly gripes about Tabash not addressing his argument, which, as already noted, Eddie said he would save for his rebuttal. In a ridiculously dramatic imitation of David Caruso, Matt whips off his glasses and questions if the audience would rather hear logic or emotion during the debate. For a third round of superbly irrelevant posturing, Matt brings up a debate between Tabash and Phil Fernandes, wherein he counted the number of questions Tabash posed to his opponent, drawing on this to supposedly illustrate that merely asking a lot of questions is not sufficient to make a case or a rebuttal.
Slick’s fanciful summary of Tabash’s opening statement is nothing short of grossly dishonest, however. Eddie proposes the argument from divine hiddenness, he argues for mind-brain dependence, contends that a being with no physical attributes cannot interact with the physical world, and makes a few other claims that are not questions, nor are they emotional appeals. Tabash is in the habit of using questions to illustrate his points, but this is no fallacy, and it is something that Slick does, too. Throughout the debate, Matt bemoans a thematic focus on morality, claiming that it is irrelevant to the existence of God. In some contexts perhaps this is true, but when the God you defend is understood as a perfectly good being, then evil and suffering present real problems.
Unfortunately, smear tactics are relatively common in debates, particularly those on such heated subjects as the existence of God. Matt’s misrepresentation of his opponent’s opening speech is not as surprising as where he goes with it next. Atheism, he declares, leaves people “intellectually bankrupt.” How does he know this? Well, he’s debated atheists before, on his radio show and his website. He’s seen all their arguments, he says, and they don’t hold up. Furthermore, Matt claims, he can answer “every single one of the questions” Eddie’s got. So why doesn’t he? What better place for it than a debate? Instead, Slick seems to prefer making absurd generalizations and grand assurances. What’s worse is that he engages Tabash’s arguments primarily by asking questions, the very thing he criticizes Eddie for doing. Yet in Slick’s case, the questions he asks are hardly demonstrative counter-examples.
Mr. Slick’s rebuttal basically consists of misrepresenting Tabash’s position, making unwarranted generalizations about atheists, and flaunting his experience as an apologist, as if it gives him instant credibility or victory. He invites Tabash to study his diagram of the cosmological argument, to have a Bible study with him, and so on, yet anyone paying attention will easily notice that for all his pomp and confident repetition, Matt doesn’t actually address any of Eddie’s arguments in his rebuttal. He attempts to sweep all of it aside by asserting that asking questions somehow fails to accomplish anything. When Eddie’s arguments cut to the heart of the problems behind theistic claims about god, or when they defend a naturalistic worldview, such dismissive rhetoric can only miss the mark, severely so.
On the other side of things, Tabash demonstrates how to conduct a real rebuttal in his response to Slick. Right off the bat, Eddie challenges the Christian’s ability to ascertain moral values, exposing how Divine Command Theory excludes human reason from morality and arbitrarily assigns value to the mere decrees of God. Next, he begins dismantling Slick’s cosmological argument by noting how Matt invents “God time” to try and get around the incoherence of having a cause before time (and causality) began. Slick distinguishes God as an ontologically prior cause, rather than a temporally prior cause, but this in no way dodges the problem. Ontology is the study of being, or existence, and thus an ontologically prior cause is the very same thing as a temporally prior cause, because a cause before existence would also entail that the cause is before time. This imaginary God time where the cosmological argument magically escapes the problem of a “pre-causality” cause is, as Tabash rightly points out, only the wishful thinking of Mr. Slick, and it’s entirely ad hoc.
To comment on the alternate ideas Slick tries to knock down in his opening statement, I will say I believe that his objections are without basis. On the notion of actual infinities, a question is asked of Matt during the Q&A about whether he denies that integers are actual infinities. Matt tries to sidestep the question by repeating his point: “I wasn’t talking about integers…” At least William Lane Craig has addressed this issue, in his essay, The Finitude of the Past and the Existence of God, but his response exposes a questionable assumption. Craig argues that the mathematical world is separate from the physical world, and so infinities in mathematics are potential rather than actual infinities. However, this separation of the mathematical and physical worlds seems to presuppose a kind of Platonic realism. Many mathematicians, like Georg Cantor, have argued that there is more of a connection between these two worlds than we might realize. Craig’s favored example of the Hilbert Hotel may also have an answer in W.V.O. Quine. The reason we find it absurd to think of adding or subtracting infinities could simply be in the context and how we’ve defined infinity. While words like “married” and “bachelor” function just fine on their own, a married bachelor becomes incoherent not by any conspiring force, but because of how we’ve defined the words. Putting an infinite against another of itself in such a way might not show us anything other than the limits of language. Thus, I am not yet prepared to grant the premise that actual infinities cannot exist.
Matt’s argument against an oscillating universe is also presumptuous. Tabash notes that physicist Victor Stenger finds the notion of an oscillating universe perfectly consistent with the second law of thermodynamics because the universe is expanding, which indicates it is not a closed system. The objection is also raised that an infinite regress of events is impossible, but once again this may be nothing more than the difficulty of the human mind to grasp the concept of infinity when applied to certain phenomena. Nonetheless, the atheist is not obligated to claim either of these two possibilities, or to claim Matt’s third example of an impersonal cause. Matt says that another option of “something I don’t know yet” is not an option because the dichotomy is that the universe either had a beginning or it didn’t. However, Slick’s attempt at excluding other unknown alternatives is unconvincing. Not only are his objections dubious, but he seems perfectly comfortable asking, ‘how do you know?’ in other contexts, such as when the atheist makes virtually any assertion about God. There is no shame in admitting ‘we don’t know’ when we truly do not know. And in this case, that is no grounds for the theist to declare victory.
Next, the debate moves into questions between the two debaters, followed by audience questions before the closing statements. Many times over the course of the night, Matt fallaciously claims that atheists have no right to assert moral values because we are all “just” animals, “just” a bunch of atoms, etc. He ignores that there are varying kinds of naturalism that do not emphasize a hard-nosed physicalism. But we are also very unique assemblages of atoms and matter, and it is this assemblage that lends significance to differentiate us from other animals. We have a more developed consciousness and can thus perceive of crimes like rape and murder, whereas other members of the animal kingdom lack this ability. Slick proudly touts the doctrine of being made in the image of God while he carelessly dismisses the Bible’s numerous examples – slaughter of the Amalekites, murder of the firstborn Egyptians, stoning of disobedient children – showing just how little that doctrine meant to God and to God’s people. Matt is content to use morality to charge atheists with inconsistency in their worldview, but the instant Tabash brings morality in to question theistic ethics and the biblical god, Mr. Slick cries foul.
The only other moment from the Q&A worth commenting on is Tabash’s response to the fine-tuning argument. When we think about the constants of the universe that teeter so perilously on the edge of supporting life, why do we find this evidence of design? Imagine a computer programmer who designed a program with coding so unstable that if any other program ran simultaneously, it would crash. Would we call this good design? Not at all! As living organisms, we ought to expect to find that we exist in a universe conducive to life. But if an intelligent, all-powerful, and all-knowing being created us, we might expect it would not produce a design with such potential for absolute failure. Fine-tuning may pose interesting questions for a naturalistic, evolving universe, but it may also present its own unique problems for an intelligently-designed universe.
In his closing statement, Slick rails against atheists once more, claiming that they don’t do their homework on Christian issues and biblical theology. It would have been wise for Matt to cite some examples at this point, but yet again he just makes bald assertions. If Mr. Slick wants to keep track of the questions Eddie asks in a debate, perhaps someone should start keeping track of how many times Matt invokes his own experience/credentials in a debate. I counted at least 4 separate times where he mentions how many atheists he’s debated, atheist books he’s read, how atheists refuse to learn from their discussions with him, and how he’s been an apologist for so many years. He arrogantly suggests 3 to 1 would be a good match of atheists to deal with his rigorous Christian “logic” and invites atheists to come knock the chip off his shoulder. If all his debates tend to go this way, though, Slick has exceptionally little to be bragging about.
By contrast, Tabash’s closing statement shows why he gave William Lane Craig a run for his money. Rather than attacking his opponent, generalizing about all Christians, or puffing out his chest, Eddie responds to Matt’s closing remarks, summarizes his own points in the debate, and notes how Matt failed to adequately engage his arguments, instead clutching to his single cosmological argument “like a drowning man in the ocean holding on to one piece of driftwood.” The careers of these two men can interestingly predict how they do in this debate. Tabash debates like a lawyer, building a cumulative case and dealing with the arguments; Slick performs like a radio host, making bold statements and peddling his own favorite product, but ultimately consisting of big talk and little substance.
Prior to hearing this debate, my impression of Matt Slick was very different. He struck me as moderately intelligent and civil. This exchange has changed all that. Throughout it he commits a number of logical fallacies, while boasting of his superior thinking skills, he alleges that atheists are intellectually bankrupt, and declares that he’s been able to refute all the arguments brought to him by atheists. He misrepresents his opponent’s position, generalizes and stereotypes the other side, and claims to have the only rational foundation for morality as he also ignores challenges brought against scripture and his brand of biblical theology. For all the frustration atheists receive from the religiously-perpetuated caricature of all atheists as pinnacles of angry egotism, Mr. Slick makes some of the most abrasive atheists pale in comparison. You get the feeling that if we were living in the 19th century, Matt would have taken to whacking Eddie on the head with his Bible during his parts of the debate.
Perhaps this has also changed my impression of Mr. Tabash though, too. Despite enduring over an hour of vicious maligning, brazen arrogance, and fallacy after fallacy, Eddie never loses his composure or resorts to petty comebacks. He deals only with the arguments, and only discusses his opponent and Christians in general whenever it’s actually relevant to the debate. In a final show of good will that I’m not sure I could have mustered myself, at the end of the closing speeches Tabash walks right over to Slick to shake his hand and give him a hug. It may come across to some as a bit patronizing, after Eddie clearly wiped the floor with Matt, but it’s nonetheless far more courtesy than our good Christian showed his unbelieving interlocutor.