The Cambridge Debate

The Cambridge Debate

A behind-the-scenes look at the strategies and complexities of Dr. Craig's Parliamentary-style debate at Cambridge. Hear why Dr. Craig's team won the debate!

Transcript The Cambridge Debate

Kevin Harris: It's the podcast of Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. Bill, I see the videos and I read the transcripts and hear the audio of your tour in the UK a while back. I'm so glad that transcripts and other things are available. We are going to be watching the results and aftermath and ministry continue to come in from that tour. We can talk about all aspects of it, and I think that we will for some time. But one night that was really special was the Cambridge debate.[1]

Dr. Craig: Yes, it was. We had this debate at the Cambridge Union Society, which is the oldest debating society in the world. It's right in downtown Cambridge. They have a whole building, the society does, and a staff that runs it – very impressive. Some of the British Prime Ministers have debated there and other important politicians. It's really a privilege to have taken part in a Cambridge Union Society debate such as we did.

Kevin Harris: There was a dinner beforehand, and you got to meet the other debaters. You knew them. You and Peter Williams were debating Copson and Ahmed.

Dr. Craig: Right, Peter Williams works with the Demaris Trust. He is a Christian apologist who works with students who are in what we would call high school age students, and is a speaker and author, and I think a very capable philosopher. He wrote his own opening speech. We figured that Peter would go first because I was the more experienced debater, and so I would be the one to go second and sum up our case. This was a British style – Parliamentary style – debate, so it was very different from what I'm used to do.

Kevin Harris: You're used to speaking without interruption, and there are strict no cat-calls and no applause, and things like that.

Dr. Craig: Right, and there are a number of speeches. There are constructive speeches, rebuttal speeches, closing statements, and this was going to be very different. So we decided to have Peter Williams lead off. He wrote his own opening speech which he ran past me, and we talked about it, went through several revisions. He wanted to use the ontological argument of all things! And since I think that's a good argument and I don't know that I've ever used it in a debate, I thought, well, why not. So he had an ontological argument, contingency argument, and a moral argument that he developed. They were all original with him, and I was happy to stand by that case and support it. And then on the other side was Andrew Copson who's a spokesmen for the British Humanist Association. He said to us over dinner that he doesn't really like participating in these debates, but he said he feels obligated to do it because he is a spokesman publicly for the British Humanist Associations. So he was tapped for it. And then Arif Ahmed who is an ex-Muslim atheist philosopher at Cambridge University whom I debated several years ago in Cambridge. At that time he was very caustic, very condescending, and rather unpleasant in the debate. And so he was going to be the other person that Peter Williams and I would face. So it would be a four man debate.

Kevin Harris: The strategy for the debate, I noticed you pointed a couple of things out during that debate that you had noticed, a little switcheroo going on.

Dr. Craig: Well, this was really funny, Kevin. Our intention, as I say, was to have Peter Williams lead off and I would speak extemporaneously. Because the first speaker, you see, can have a thoroughly prepared statement. He doesn't need to be a very good debater, as such, because he doesn't need to think on his feet, he simply gives a prepared speech. But the person giving the second speech needs to be more skilled at extemporaneous speaking, able to parry arguments and reestablish the original case, and things of that sort. So we figured that since I was more experienced I would be the second and Peter would go first. Well, as we neared the end of our dinner Arif Ahmed said something to me like, “Well, are you going to be leading off tonight?” because I almost always go first in the debates I participate in. And I said, “No, no, Peter Williams is leading off for us.” And he got this disconcerted look on his face and immediately went over and started talking to Andrew Copson. And it turned out they had planned that Arif Ahmed would go first in response to me. They thought I would lead off, and Ahmed would respond to me, the philosopher to the philosopher, and then Andrew Copson would give the summation at the end. Well, since suddenly they found out I wasn't going first,[2] they decided to switch their order as well, and they asked if Andrew Copson now could go first and Arif Ahmed would go second and do their summation. And we, of course, agreed that they could do that. Well, the result of this was that because Andrew Copson isn't trained in philosophy he couldn't really respond to Peter Williams' arguments in his opening speech. He only responded to one of the three. And that left it to Arif Ahmed to respond to [Peter] in the final speech after the whole debate was over. It was at the end of the debate which was the first time then that he got to get up and respond to the arguments. And as I pointed out in my closing speech, by adopting this strategy really what they'd done was preclude having a good debate because they didn't respond to our case until their final speech when it was too late for us to respond to the arguments, and that's bad debate etiquette, as I put it.

Kevin Harris: Well, you wouldn’t have been able to respond to whatever he was going to say about the ontological argument, the argument from contingency, and the moral argument.

Dr. Craig: Exactly, and that was why in my closing speech I said “In a moment Arif Ahmed is going to get up and he's going to tear into these arguments and refute them, and we won't have a chance now to respond because they have adopted this strategy of waiting until the final speech to respond.” So in one sense it was a real bad strategy, I think, on their part because it meant that they didn't really give a substantive response until the debate was over, in effect.

Kevin Harris: When I heard it was going to be a parliamentary style debate I thought, boy, this is going to be chaos. There are going to be a lot of young students there. The place was packed with college students, high school students, and people from the university. But, Bill, you know, it was really pretty calm. But it is unusual, you're making your speech and somebody were to suddenly stand up and go “hello!” and you have to stop and let them address a point.

Dr. Craig: That's right. At any point in your speech someone in the audience can say “point of order,” and then you call upon them. Now that is where there is some decorum. It is not as though they just get up. They ask for a point of order and then the speaker has the liberty to acknowledge them or to say, “Not yet, wait a moment.”

Kevin Harris: Got it.

Dr. Craig: So there is some decorum but nevertheless it was very, very different than the normal kinds of American style debating that I normally do. But I wanted to experience this challenge, and I wanted to do something that the Brits were used to seeing – a debate that they're familiar with from the House of Parliament, and so that was why we agreed to do this style.

Kevin Harris: You let of couple of those students go and ask the question. One you said, “Hang on for a moment and I'll let you address your point of order in just a moment,” finished the thought, and then went back. That was good; that was the way it went. There was a lot of decorum. Now, in the Cambridge Union Society you vote by which door you exit.

Dr. Craig: That's right.

Kevin Harris: And so the aye's (or the yes's) and the no's, and then there is a third door that is – what?

Dr. Craig: Abstain. If you chose to abstain from voting you can walk through the unmarked center doorway. But it was quite a dramatic moment.

Kevin Harris: And they count, and that's how they judge.

Dr. Craig: Yes, there are counters at the doors.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, and they're going to judge the yes's and the no's and the abstentions.

Dr. Craig: And then they will announce this in the student bar upstairs. They actually have a bar in this Union Society building; I mean, it's quite the place. And the bar was even full of people watching it on closed-circuit television. They had not only the chamber packed, but two overflow rooms and then by television in the student bar. There was a lot of interest in this. And so, yes, as the students exited they would register their votes in that way and then it would be announced later. So it was really nerve-wracking.

Kevin Harris: Oh, yes. And you had to wait and see how it was going to turn out, you know, as well, when they counted. It's rare, as well, Bill, for you to be involved in a debate that involves a resolution. Most of the time you debate a question.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's true.

Kevin Harris: Which I think is more effective because it shares the burden of proof on the other side.

Dr. Craig: Again, this is typical of the British style. You'll notice the resolution was stated: “The house believes,” and then a certain proposition.

Kevin Harris: Which was?

Dr. Craig: That belief in God is not a delusion. So in this case the house believes that God is not a delusion. And we were the house, and then Ahmed and Copson were the opposition, and then the people in the audience could speak either in favor of the house or speak in favor of the opposition.[3]

Kevin Harris: To win the debate you just had to affirm the resolution, carry your burden of proof.

Dr. Craig: Right, we had to carry the burden of proof of showing that God is not a delusion.

Kevin Harris: You anticipated there would be various mindsets going on among the audience members and the students there when they exited one of those three doors, and you addressed it. You said, in essence, “Be careful how you vote here. What door you go through says several things.”

[Start audio of Dr. Craig's closing argument]

Dr. Craig: In a few minutes we're all going to walk through one of two doors to register our opinion on tonight's question. Some of us will walk through the door saying yes, others will walk through the door saying no. Which door you choose makes a profound statement about you personally. Through the one door will walk not only theists of different varieties – Christians, Muslims, Jews, other sorts of theists – but also agnostics who think it's an open question whether God exists, and many . . .

Student: On that point!

Dr. Craig: Yes?

Student: Might agnostics walk through the abstention door in the middle? [applause]

Dr. Craig: No! If the debate topic tonight were “Does God exist?” right through that center door the agnostic would go. But the question is “Is God a delusion?” And agnostics, because they're open, they don't know whether God exists. They can't say it's a delusion for everyone who believes in God. Agnostics will join the theists in walking through the door marked 'aye'.

In fact many if not most atheists will walk through the door marked 'aye'. They may disagree with their theistic friends about the existence of God, but they're not prepared to judge all of their believing friends as literally deluded. They recognize that the existence of God is a difficult question on which rational opinion can vary. Peter and I haven't indicted our opponents tonight as being deluded. We think they're mistaken but we wouldn’t say they're deluded. Why can't they return the favor? People can disagree without calling each other names.

So by voting with the house you show yourself to be open-minded, tolerant of a diversity of opinion on difficult questions, and also respectful of the beliefs of others. By contrast, in voting with the opposition you in effect declare that all of your believing friends and professors are literally deluded and irrational.

So which door are you going to pick? I hope that you're not that judgmental. I hope you're not that cocksure of yourself. I hope that you will join believers in voting with the house this evening and agreeing that whether belief in God is true or false, those who believe in God are not deluded; that belief in God is not a delusion. [applause]

[End audio of Dr. Craig's closing argument]

Kevin Harris: Go back over that. I though that was outstanding.

Dr. Craig: I anticipated that most of the students in the audience would not be Christians, and that this would be a largely secular audience, and that therefore it would be very hostile. And that certainly proved to be the case. When you listen to the speeches from the floor, I would just cringe, Kevin, every time someone supposedly got up to speak in support of the house. They did more harm than good. I would that they had rather just sat still instead of get up and said what they did. So the momentum up until my final summation was just completely against us. The emotional tide, you could just feel it, was against the house. And so I felt that what I needed to help the students understand is that the proposition under debate was actually a pretty conservative one, to say that belief in God is not a delusion. And so what I pointed out was that anybody who believes in God – whether he be a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a deist, or whatever – would agree that belief in God is not a delusion. But then I said also agnostics should walk through the door voting with the house because agnostics don't know the answer to whether or not God exists, and therefore they don't think that people who believe in God are deluded.[4] They think that belief in God or non-belief in God are equally valid options. They don't know which one is correct, so they don't think that belief in God is a delusion. So agnostics should vote with the house. And then I said, finally, really, many of you who are atheists ought to vote with the house because even though you don't think God exists, you don't think your believing friends and professors who believe in God are deluded because of that. And I pointed out that Peter and I didn't say that our opposition was deluded, even though we think they're wrong. It was no part of our claim that Ahmed and Copson were deluded because we disagree with their point of view. I said why can't we disagree on questions that are difficult and important without calling each other names?

So if you're a person who is open to a diversity of viewpoints on matters that are difficult to decide and important, if you're the type of person who is unwilling to call others deluded just because they disagree with you, then you ought to walk through the door that votes with the house as well.

Kevin Harris: The results: you won. You and Peter Williams got the most votes.

Dr. Craig: By a narrow margin. We all went upstairs. We were conversing, and a girl then, the secretary of the Society, came walking into the student bar upstairs clanging her bell for attention, and then she said: “We have a house divided! For the house 239,” or something like that, I forget the exact number, “and for the opposition,” then a lesser number, I think, by 14 votes, and then the abstentions, and there were a great number of abstentions from the debate as well. So the house narrowly carried the debate that evening.

Kevin Harris: When I heard that from you, I thought, if these students and these people don't get that and they walk through the nay doors, the no doors, they are doing it for emotional reasons, because you made such an argument not to do it for emotional reasons, and, are you really going to consider these brilliant people that you know who are theists deluded? But that there were still that many, Bill, shows me the tension, the emotional tension. They were going to vote for their man come heck or high water.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's right, Kevin. And I'll tell you, some of the secular people are so deeply, deeply committed to this view. And people like Richard Dawkins in the UK have really poisoned the dialogue and made it very uncivil by calling God a delusion, and people who believe in God irrational and ignorant and so forth. It really has poisoned civil discourse. And I think one of the reasons that people reacted, Kevin, so overwhelmingly positively to my debate with Peter Millican at the University of Birmingham[5] was the civility and the tone and the collegiality with which that debate was conducted. Millican and I dealt with each other as respected colleagues. We disagreed on the issues but neither one of us looked at the other as deluded or irrational or ignorant, and people so appreciated that different tone.

Kevin Harris: What was your interaction with the students like before and after the debate? You noticed a lot of students from Cambridge, and from all over the world.

Dr. Craig: Mainly we talked to members of the staff prior to the event because we were at this dinner and so didn't have the opportunity to talk to students themselves, apart from the student staff members. One of the things that rather did surprise me was this lovely young girl that sat beside me during the dinner.

Kevin Harris: Jan? [laughter]

Dr. Craig: No, no. But she was one who in the course of the debate posed a very hostile question to me about people's beliefs being determined by their brain states and that cognitive science has shown that belief in God has the same brain patterns as some other sort of illusion or something of that sort. I was really surprised when she leveled that one at me because she had been so nice during the dinner.

Kevin Harris: I noticed that there were students from all over the world in attendance.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, Cambridge is very international. You will see a lot of different ethnicities and racial make-up in the student body there; that's very true.

Kevin Harris: I want people to also grasp this – the fact that you and Peter took the debate by even though it was like 14 or 15 votes,[6] I've watched four debates in the last year from Britain wherein people vote on the results. And one of them involved Peter Hitchens and there's some others like this on religious-type topics. I'm not talking about your debates, I'm talking about other debates. One was, “Has the Catholic Church done more harm than good?” and that was the debate. I have never seen the Christian side or the religious side win. They never get the votes.

Dr. Craig: Is that right?

Kevin Harris: Well, now that's anecdotal, and it's only four, but they were four big events, and so another thing that I was thinking is, “Man, they're not going to vote for you.” If you, you know, if you turned water into wine. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Some of those persons I think you're absolutely right. As you say, their willingness to say that belief in God is not simply false but literally delusory shows how deeply committed they are to their view.

Kevin Harris: Would you say something about It looks to me like they're doing a good job over there.

Dr. Craig: Yes, this is part of the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship, which is what we call InterVarsity here in the United States. And in the UK the InterVarsity folks are doing a very good job particularly with this website that they've put up. They're putting up the videos of all of the debates there, sequentially, as they're edited and produced. And it was a privilege to be working with the InterVarsity staff who were volunteering to be part of the organizers for this tour.

Kevin Harris: Bill, we're going to be experiencing the repercussions of this UK tour for a long time. I think it was a significant event. And this year you've got some other international splashes to make on the other side of various ponds, and so we're looking forward to talking about those, too.

Dr. Craig: Great.[7]

[1] For a video of this debate, see (accessed March 19, 2014).

[2] 5:00

[3] 10:03

[4] 15:03

[5] For a video of this debate, see (accessed March 19, 2014).

[6] 20:05

[7] Total Running Time: 22:23 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)