Top 10 Debate Topics

Top 10 Debate Topics

Dr. Craig looks at ten topics that theists and non-theists are discussing these days


Transcript Top 10 Debate Topics

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, I would like you to look over this list. I found this on a popular blog.[1] From time to time, someone will list what they see as the state of the debate among theists and atheists. That is, what people are most frequently talking about online and at public events concerning theism and atheism. So this is a top 10 list that we will look at briefly. Keep in mind, we've done podcasts on all of these topics. I think this list is pretty accurate. I keep up with this as well for this podcast and the Reasonable Faith ministry. In fact, about fifteen years ago, I compiled a list of the current topics online and they were things like Pascal's Wager, Ockham's Razor, God of the Gaps, and one that always seems to make the list – it never goes away – is this blogger's number one: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. He includes it with who has the burden of proof when it comes to claims about God.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and it seems to me these are actually two separate claims – the second doesn't follow from the first – and therefore need to be dealt with independently. The first one, I think, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence sounds so common-sensical and yet I think it is not only false, I think it is actually demonstrably false. You can prove that it is false. The way in which one calculates the probability of some event relative to a certain body of evidence is through the probability calculus which is called Bayes' Theorem. In calculating the probability of some event relative to a body of evidence, we not only have to consider how extraordinary that event is relative to our background information, we also have to consider how probable is it that we would have the evidence that we do if the event had not occurred? Even if the event is intrinsically extraordinarily improbable, that improbability can be balanced or counter-weighed by the enormous improbability that if the event did not occur then the evidence would appear to be just as it is.

This kind of slogan usually occurs in the context of arguments for miracles like the resurrection of Jesus. Applying it to that issue, what this would mean is we have to calculate not only the probability of “God raised Jesus from the dead” – that hypothesis – relative to our background information, we also have to calculate how probable is it that we would have the evidence of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, the transformation in the lives of the disciples, if Jesus had not risen from the dead. I think it would be extraordinarily improbable that if there were no resurrection of Jesus that we would have that sort of evidence. That counterbalances any sort of improbability that might be thought to lodge intrinsically in the resurrection hypothesis relative to the background information.

So this slogan, I think, is simply demonstrably false. In fact, it is contradicted all the time when we believe highly improbable, perfectly natural events have occurred because we have good evidence for them – not miraculous or extraordinary evidence but ordinary evidence. But it would be very, very improbable that we would have this sort of evidence if the event had not taken place. So this first claim is nothing more than a slogan that the unbeliever can use to dismiss any evidence that you present. He can use it as a slogan and simply say that is not extraordinary enough for me to believe. It really tells us more about his personal psychology and skepticism than it does about the value of the evidence we are presenting.

Kevin Harris: That is why it seems to me that “extraordinary” – that term, that word – is highly problematic because, is it extraordinary according to your worldview? Extraordinary according to what you would accept?

Dr. Craig: Right. Does this word mean miraculous? When he says extraordinary, miraculous claims require miraculous evidence? I don't think that is true at all. Usually it is construed to mean highly improbable events would require I guess highly improbable evidence or something of that sort.[2] But, again, as I say, Bayes' Theorem demonstrates that that is simply not the case. So this slogan, I think, is nothing more than that. I think it is just a slogan for masking one's personal incredulity.

Let me say something about the second one – that the burden of proof is on the theist rather than the atheist. The burden of proof occurs in a legal context where a case is being established or in a debate context. That is what this blogger is talking about – the context of debating an atheist. In a debate context, anybody who makes a claim has the burden of proof to provide warrant for that claim. If you make a knowledge claim – a claim to know something – in a debate context then you need to back it up with argument and evidence. In this case, the atheist makes a claim to know something just as much as the theist does. The theist claims to know “There is a God.” Therefore, in a debate context, he has a burden of proof to support that claim. The atheist claims “There is no God.” Therefore, the atheist needs to provide some sort of warrant for his claim to know that truth. So they are exactly on a par. The person who has no burden of proof in a debate context is the agnostic who says, “I don't know whether there is a God or not” and therefore makes no claim. He is just ignorant. Obviously, someone who is ignorant and makes no claim to anything doesn't have a burden of proof because he isn't making a claim. But both the theist and atheist are making knowledge claims that would, in a debate context, require that they each shoulder their share of the burden of proof.

Kevin Harris: What if you are debating a resolution?

Dr. Craig: Oh, well now in that case the affirmative side has the burden of proof. But even then, if the negative team wants to bring some objection to the affirmative team's case, still the negative team has a burden of proof to support the objection they bring. If they assert, for example, that the affirmative team's plan has certain disadvantages or is unworkable they can't just assert that. They need to provide argument and evidence that the plan has these disadvantages or is unworkable. So even when you are on the negative, insofar as you make positive assertions, you have got to back them up. You have a burden of proof, too.

Kevin Harris: “2. Science has radically altered how we understand the universe, so theism must grapple with the implications of science before offering prescientific beliefs as truth.”

Dr. Craig: We certainly would agree with the antecedent clause – science has radically altered the way we understand the universe. That is clear. But the consequent clause is the one that is problematic. Theism must grapple with the implications of science before offering prescientific beliefs as truth. I think that is clearly wrong because we are not talking here just about, say, religious beliefs but metaphysical beliefs like the reality of the external world, ethical beliefs about the good and the bad, aesthetic beliefs, mathematical beliefs. All of these things were known and believed prior to the rise of modern science. It is not as though these are in any way discredited simply by the scientific revolution that has occurred. So I would say a belief in the existence of God is something that is a philosophical or metaphysical belief that certainly should take account of the deliverances of modern science. Theists don't live in a bubble and we want to have a worldview that takes into account the discoveries of modern science. I am deeply committed to that sort of synoptic view of the world. But it is not true that you have to take account of the implications of science before you can regard your non-scientific beliefs as true.

Kevin Harris: Let me add: the definition of science has been so radically altered today that we must address science in any ministry or apologetic efforts. In other words, scientism. We even discussed that little girl who said, “No, I don't believe in God, I have science.” Adults say the same thing. They think that there is a conflict.

Dr. Craig: I am really shocked, Kevin, quite honestly, how deeply modernist and scientistic our culture seems to remain; or at least maybe it is the infidel community that is characterized by this sort of scientism that seems a hangover from an earlier age that I think has been really undone by philosophical work in theory of knowledge that shows that this kind of scientism is far too narrow to be a good criterion of knowledge or rationality and ultimately really is self-refuting.[3] Take this statement: theism must grapple with the implications of science before offering a prescientific belief as truth. That is itself not something that is capable of being proven by science. So we ought not to believe that.

Kevin Harris: It's a philosophical statement.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, it is a philosophical statement about what we must do and isn't something that could be shown in a laboratory. As Christians, we need to inform ourselves about the worldview of the contemporary sciences and to try to integrate that with our theology as best we can.

Kevin Harris: “3. There is a gap between natural theology and revealed theology. Arguing for a prime mover is not the same thing as arguing for any faith tradition.”

Dr. Craig: This is an objection that I find bizarre on the lips of the unbeliever because this is a truism that Christians insist upon. The arguments of natural theology go to establish a kind of generic theism. Then if you want to hone in on some specific kind of theism – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – you've got to then offer additional evidences for that specific type of theism. So this is just self-understood. Every Christian apologist knows this. Why unbelievers think that this is an objection is beyond me.

Kevin Harris: You've made that point about the kalam. It will get you to a more generic theism.

Dr. Craig: And it has been an argument that has been employed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews in defense of theism.

Kevin Harris: “4. An atheist is under no obligation to take your theology seriously. It's your belief, you need to justify it in secular terms. Just as a Hindu or a Scientologist would.”

Dr. Craig: This one I am not sure what he is getting at. I am not under any obligation to take the atheist's anti-theology seriously. By the same token, yes, of course theism is my belief. If I am going to justify it to an unbeliever certainly I will want to find common ground with the unbeliever. I am not going to use circular reasoning. So why is that problematic?

Kevin Harris: Yeah, and when he says “secular terms” I think this probably harkens back to number 2 when I look at it. If you are going to discuss theology, you better give it to me in scientistic terms.

Dr. Craig: Ah, and that is not the same as secular. Secular here could encompass metaphysics and philosophy. Just so long as you are not reasoning in a circle and assuming God's existence in order to prove God's existence.

Kevin Harris: Maybe they have science in mind. But what do you think is meant here “secular terms?” If you are going to communicate your faith, do it in secular terms.

Dr. Craig: I take it he means you can't reason in a circle. You can't presuppose the truth of your theism in arguing for theism. Of course that is right. You are going to need to offer arguments and evidence that are non-circular for your theistic conclusions. The atheist is under the obligation of doing the same thing for his anti-theistic conclusions. So, I have to offer arguments and evidence for theism that don't presuppose the truth of theism. Otherwise, I am reasoning in a circle. But by the same token, he has to offer arguments and evidence for the truth of atheism that don't presuppose the truth of atheism. Otherwise, he is reasoning in a circle. So perhaps it would be better to say that we need to argue for our views in neutral terms or on the basis of common ground. That is quite true and unobjectionable.

Kevin Harris: “5. The problem of miracles is a serious challenge that must be overcome for any testimony or private revelation of the divine to be taken as veridical.”

Dr. Craig: That seems to me to be right. Therefore, in my work I've discussed at some length the so-called problem of miracles, about the alleged impossibility of miracles or the impossibility of the identification of an event that is a miracle.

Kevin Harris: “6. Faith is not an [sound] epistemology, and the retreat to faith is a concession of the failure of the belief to be defended on rational grounds.”

Dr. Craig: The antecedent of this sentence – “faith is not an epistemology” – is a point that I have insisted on over and over again.[4] I think it is a point that unbelievers misunderstand. They think that faith is a way of knowing something, or at least that that is what it is alleged to be. Therefore, they dispute that. But I don't take faith to be an epistemology. Faith is trusting in what one has good reason to believe is true. So faith is not a way of knowing something. It is a way of trusting in something that you have good reason to think is true. So there is no need to retreat to faith as a basis for how you know Christianity, for example, to be true. We can give rational argument and evidence for the truth of Christian theism or we can defend the proper basicality of Christian beliefs. But in neither case are we appealing to fideism or the idea of a leap of faith.

Kevin Harris: “7. The link between theism and morality has been conceptually (Euthyphro dilemma), empirically (evolutionary ethics), and culturally (morality existing without theism) discredited. Thus coupling God with the notion of Good is not only misleading, but trying to own a fundamental aspect of the human condition.” You do run into this all the time. We can be good without God.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. But when you look at it carefully, I will simply dispute that the link between theism and morality has been conceptually severed. A good number of atheists will agree with us on that point. Quite a number of atheists will say that if God does not exist then there are no objective moral values and duties and that moral values and duties are just the spin offs of the bio-evolutionary process. The Euthyphro Dilemma has been refuted again and again as a false dilemma. We are not under any obligation to choose between saying something is good because God wills it or that God wills something because it is good. Those two are not contradictories. Those are not A or not-A. Therefore you can have a third alternative which is that God wills something because he is good. God is the good and his will is an expression of his essential nature. So atheists who are pressing the Euthyphro Dilemma really need to get with the program and begin to respond to people like William Alston, Robert Adams, Philip Quinn, and others who have defended an ethics that is rooted in a metaphysics of theism.

As for the claim that evolutionary ethics has somehow empirically severed the link between theism and morality, it seems to me that here we will want to appeal to evolutionary ethics to say that on naturalism and the absence of God it is plausible that moral values and duties are not objective but are just the spin offs of the evolutionary process. But there is nothing here that, if God does exist, would show that therefore objective moral values and duties don't exist. If God really does exist, and values and duties are grounded in him and his commands, then the fact that we through evolution have gradually and fallibly come to discover these values does absolutely nothing to undermine the objectivity of those values and duties. To think that it does is to commit the genetic fallacy which is trying to invalidate a view by showing how a person came to believe it. So this argument to really work has to presuppose the truth of atheism which is question-begging.

Finally, the cultural concern – morality existing without theism – there the theist thinks that of course morality exists without belief in God. The Bible, in fact, teaches that all men have the requirements of the basic moral law written on their hearts. So they have an instinctual grasp of the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and that wholly independently whether they believe in God or not. So the question here is not whether morality can exist without belief in God; the theist affirms, yes, certainly it can.[5] The question is: can morality exist without God in an objective way. That is not a cultural claim. That is a conceptual or metaphysical claim which is not at all been discredited by saying that there are cultures or societies that are non-theistic but still have an apprehension of objective moral values and duties.

Kevin Harris: “8. Atheism is not materialism. Materialism is a scientific doctrine, while atheism is a stance on the position of gods. Arguing against materialism is not going to make the case for theism.”

Dr. Craig: I think that as a technical point this is true. You can have non-materialistic forms of atheism. For example, the great naturalist philosopher W. V. O. Quine believed that in addition to physical objects there also exist mathematical objects – sets, abstract objects – and these are immaterial entities which he thought are just as real as people and planets and dogs and stones. So atheism cannot be equated with materialism, but nevertheless I think the vast majority of atheists are materialists. Once you begin to admit that there can be non-physical realities, that tends to open the door a crack for theism – why couldn't there be spiritual realities, spiritual beings, who are not physical beings. You are already admitting them into your ontology. So these non-physical objects tend to fit much better with a theistic metaphysical worldview.

Now, when he goes on to say that materialism is a scientific doctrine, that is patently false. It is a metaphysical doctrine. It is a philosophical stance. There is nothing in modern science that would say that only material realities exist. In fact, I mentioned Quine. The reason Quine was not a materialist was because he believed that modern science is committed to the reality of mathematical objects. Modern scientific theories, physical theories, are shot through with references to mathematical objects. Quine thought in order for these theories to be true – to be our best descriptions of the world – we are committed to the reality of the mathematical objects that appear in these theories. So, for Quine, materialism was not at all a scientific doctrine. On the contrary, he thought that science required that you reject materialism. So atheism, correct as he says, is a stance about whether God exists or not, and while it is not enough to refute materialism in order to make the case for theism, nevertheless I think it makes theism much more plausible because a worldview in which, for example, immaterial minds exist or other non-physical objects exist is a worldview that is much more easily assimilated to theism than it is to atheism.

Kevin Harris: Can you say the same thing about naturalism? Atheism is not naturalism?

Dr. Craig: Yes. I think naturalism is one of these accordion words that expands or contracts in its meaning from person to person. Some naturalists (I think most) would be materialists. But one might imagine certain naturalists who say, “I do believe that there are immaterial objects but I am a naturalist in the sense that I reject any supernatural entities – any personal spirits or gods that might exist.”

Kevin Harris: Related: “9. Atheism is a conclusion, not a worldview. Atheism is not an answer to life, the universe, and everything - just the conclusion that theism isn't.”

Dr. Craig: I am a little bit surprised that he would think that this is a very common view among atheists. I find for most atheists that they don't think that atheism is a conclusion. They usually are very reluctant to offer any sorts of arguments for their atheism. Very often they will just simply say atheism is the lack of belief in God. It is a component of a worldview but not a conclusion to which one argues. So I find precious little by way of argument for atheism as a conclusion. I am a little surprised that he would think this is prevalent.[6] So atheism, I would say, is an important component of a worldview that will have implications for your view of ethics, meaning to life, purpose, and so forth. Certainly atheism is much more than the conclusion that theism isn't the answer. An atheistic worldview will have answers to those sorts of questions as well. Atheism will be a very, very important component of that sort of worldview. So I think the way you would characterize it is: he has an atheistic worldview, or he has a theistic worldview. They are not identical, but that worldview is shaped by, say, atheism or theism.

Kevin Harris: Finally, “10. Attack the arguments for what is said, not what isn't. Though this should apply to everyone - not just theists. Arguing against interpretations not in the text is setting up a caricature, as is arguing against uncharitable interpretations of what is said.”

Dr. Craig: And here we will say Amen and Amen! This is good advice for atheists, too. I am so disheartened sometimes when I see the silly comments on Facebook or in forums in response to theistic arguments or other positions which make it so evident that these persons have not seriously tried to engage with what is said. I sometimes think they just read the title of the video clip and never really bothered to watch it. Then they are just giving their off-the-cuff response to the title of the clip rather than engaging with what is actually said. So intellectual responsibility really does require serious engagement.

Kevin Harris: Thank you Dr. Craig. We will update this list from time to time and see what people are talking about. I would like to also invite you as our listener to consider giving a financial gift to Reasonable Faith to keep this information and work expanding. You can do that any time by going to our website www.ReasonableFaith.org. It is such a blessing to receive this from you and to hear from you. Thank you so much. We will see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.[7]



[1] http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2014/05/kel-on-ten-things-christians-should-kep.html (accessed August 4, 2014).

[2] 5:03

[3] 10:22

[4] 15:12

[5] 20:08

[6] 25:04

[7] Total Running Time: 27:39 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)