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Debate on Secular Humanism

June 01, 2009     Time: 00:20:12
Debate on Secular Humanism


Conversation with William Lane Craig. Discussion of secular humanism, including Dr. Craig's debate with Paul Kurtz, and the book that followed: " Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?"

Transcript Debate on Secular Humanism


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, when one thinks of secular humanism, one often thinks of Dr. Paul Kurtz, the so-called Father of Secular Humanism. He is one of the original drafters of the Humanist Manifesto. A while back you had a chance to debate Paul Kurtz on the topic “Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?” This exchange has been published into a book by the same title – and by the way is one of the resources available on our website, – Kurtz really desires to make the case that secular humanism is the superior view. Give us some background on this debate which has now become a book.

Dr. Craig: This was a result of an invitation to come to Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania to debate Kurtz. The year before there had been a debate that some listeners may have seen between Alan Keyes and Alan Dershowitz, and it was a circus if you’ve ever seen these two go at each other. They were interrupting each other and just behaving like nincompoops. It was wild, this Dershowitz-Alan Keyes debate. But the next year they asked me and Paul Kurtz to come and participate in a public debate on the basis of ethics. The title of the debate was going to be “Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?” Kurtz would argue that it is good enough and I would argue that it is not. So at the invitation of Michael Murray, who is a prominent philosopher at Franklin & Marshall, we had this debate. The book then flowed out of the debate. Nathan King and Robert Garcia, a couple of young Christian philosophers, edited the transcript, secured some respondents of note – some prominent philosophers –, and then gave Kurtz and me the chance to give a final afterword to our respondents. This then was produced in the form of this book that was just released last year.

Kevin Harris: Was the material that you used in this debate your moral argument for God?

Dr. Craig: Basically, it was, though I did try to put Kurtz on the defensive in the sense that I wanted him to show us that goodness without God is good enough. What I pointed out to the audience is that secular humanism doesn’t win by default. Sometimes people think that if you refute the existence of God, say, as the foundation for moral values then humanism just wins – it doesn’t have to prove anything. What I pointed out from Kurtz’s own writings, by the way, is that Kurtz faces challenges both on the left and on the right. On the right, so to speak, are those who would base moral values in God. But on the left are moral nihilists – people who say that in the absence of God there are no objective moral values and duties. Anything goes. We are just animals and there are no objective moral values or duties in the world. So Kurtz doesn’t win just by default. He has to show not merely why the theist is wrong; he’s got to show why the nihilist is wrong. That was the thing I was constantly trying to rub Kurtz’s nose in during this debate – to say you’ve got to do more than just refute me. There is a third party in this debate; namely, the nihilist. I want to see why should we think that human beings are of intrinsic moral worth and have any moral duties if there is no God. Why isn’t the nihilist right? That was the challenge that I wanted Kurtz to address.

Kevin Harris: It seems that nihilism would make a better default position if there is one. [1]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, unless you can give some sort of justification for thinking that you’ve got the explanatory resources for moral value, you would seem to be without any explanation . . .

Kevin Harris: In other words, give us reasons why secular humanism would be the default, or even the superior view, rather than just nihilism.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. That was what I was trying to get Kurtz to do, and he never seemed to understand that. It was remarkable in the debate, Kevin. He would actually accuse me of being a really kind of depressing, awful person who thought that human beings have no moral value, no moral worth. He thought I was a dreadful sort of fellow. I said, “No, no! These aren’t my views. I think that human beings do have value and worth because I’m a theist. What I don’t understand is why on your worldview, your naturalistic worldview, human beings would have value and worth. It is your worldview that seems to me to have these dreadful consequences.” And Kurtz never seemed to really grasp that fact.

Kevin Harris: It’s like he’s saying, “Dr. Craig, don’t you understand that there is something special about human beings and prominent and perhaps sacred or something like that?” And you are like, “Well, yeah!”

Dr. Craig: Exactly! And the funny thing is, Kevin, I would quote from his own writings where he would say, “Some people in this post-Darwinian world still try to invest human beings with some special significance, as though they were important. But we now know that is not true.” And I said, “Dr. Kurtz, this is your own view. It is the humanist who still tries to invest human beings with special significance – to think they have moral worth and intrinsic value. What justification is there for that?” And he never could fend off, I think, the moral nihilist on his left.

Kevin Harris: What a terrible position to be in that secular humanists are going to have to embrace some kind of Darwinian naturalistic theory of humanity, and yet at the same time try to deny what it leads to.

Dr. Craig: Right. I said it looks like speciesism to me – just an unjustified bias in favor of your own species.

Kevin Harris: There are several divine command theories, right? An argument that you use quite often is under the subheading – is it under the category of a divine command theory?

Dr. Craig: Yes. Now, the argument itself doesn’t require divine command theory. The argument is very simple. It just says:

1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties, however, do exist.

3. Therefore, it follows that God exists.

That itself doesn’t tell you the correct moral theory to adopt. But I would say a divine command theory of some sort is the most plausible way to relate God to moral values and duties.

Kevin Harris: The book also has some respondents. Any highlights from some of the respondents?

Dr. Craig: I have to say that some of the respondents, particularly Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who is a professional ethicist, a philosopher at Dartmouth College, and Louise Antony who is at the University of Massachusetts – their responses seem to fundamentally misunderstand the argument. I was surprised that professional philosophers could make these sorts of mistakes. What they would show over and over again was that in order to live an ethical life you don’t need to believe in God. You can have moral values and live a good life without being a theist. And I pointed out to them my argument is not that in order to live a good moral life you have to believe in God. It is not saying that belief in God is necessary for morality. I am saying that God is necessary for morality. You need to have a foundation for the objectivity and the moral values you follow. So they confuse epistemology with reality.

Kevin Harris: You said that until you are blue in the face.

Dr. Craig: I know, I know.

Kevin Harris: You debated Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, you debated Louise Antony. You said the disclaimer. Many atheists have been very grateful to you for pointing this out because many people of faith – Christian people – think that if you are an atheist you are automatically immoral.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, an evil person.

Kevin Harris: We’ve done disclaimer after disclaimer on this, but yet Paul Kurtz and Louise Antony seem to be kind of accusing you of the same thing here. She said, “Bill, I’m surprised you have any friends.” Kurtz is saying, “Bill, don’t you see that there is something good about humans? Don’t you want to do good for humans?”

Dr. Craig: Kurtz was amazing in this debate in that sense. He never got the argument. Over and over again he would insist that you don’t need to have a belief in God in order to be a good person and to have meaning and joy in your life and things of that sort. [2] And I would say, I’d get up and say, “Dr. Kurtz, I am not denying that an atheist can have a joyful, meaningful existence. What I am saying is God must exist in order for there to be objective moral values and duties. You need him as a foundation. Whether you believe in him or not is irrelevant.” And he never got the point, Kevin. The obtuseness was remarkable.

Kevin Harris: Well, people can read the book.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: It is “Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?” and it is available on the website I read an article this morning. There is a humanist organization that wants to spread more humanist congregations around the country to accommodate people who are atheists or agnostics or various non-believers. For them to come together and have community and have music and have togetherness and fellowship and all those things. Paul Kurtz responded to that saying that he really doesn’t like that approach because he doesn’t want any religious language or religious similarity involved in any of the so-called secular humanist congregations.

Dr. Craig: That’s interesting.

Kevin Harris: The reason, probably – my suspicion why Dr. Kurtz said this – is because it brings up the fact – Geisler has pointed it out to him, others have pointed it out – it points to man’s need for God. Man’s need for transcendence. Man’s need for fellowship and togetherness and all of these things that secular humanist congregations complain they don’t have but try to replicate.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: So he is saying, “You don’t need any of that. Just get together and eat chicken.” But that sounds like a bunch of baptists, I don’t know.

Dr. Craig: [laughter] I was thinking it is sort of like the Unitarian Universalist church in a way. That is sort of the kind of community that they try to foster as well. But that is a very good point. I think there is in the human psyche a yearning for transcendence and for something more. I am not surprised that some humanists would feel that a deficit of their worldview and try to have a kind of religious humanism, though I wasn’t aware that Kurtz was opposed to that. That is extremely interesting.

Kevin Harris: The article also said that after thousands and thousands of years of evolution, we are finally at a point where we are moral beings. That seems to be a Darwinian argument for morality. Is that what the secular humanism says?

Dr. Craig: That is sort of Kurtz’s view. Kurtz says that he believes in objective morality. I think he is right in saying that what he believes in is objective, but I don’t think it is morality. What he thinks is that as a result of the evolutionary process, there has been instilled into the human species a kind of ingrained herd morality that functions well in the perpetuation of our species. It enables us to live in community, and there are certain objective truths about the way community is fostered. So, for example, to live in community you need to have mutual respect and to treat one another as ends rather than means. You should not steal and murder. Things of this sort. There are what Kurtz calls common moral decencies that are requisite for any group of human beings living in community. I think there probably are such objective truths of that sort. But that is not morality. All that is is a description of the sociological conditions that are requisite for beings to live in community and harmony. You could have similar rules for baboon society or even, frankly, for ant society – for living in an ant heap in a socially cohesive way. You have to have the worker ants and the other feeders and things of this sort, the aphids that are enslaved in that society. So that isn’t morality. That is all conditional. For the sociopath who says, “I don’t care about human community. I don’t want to be part of this society,” he does nothing wrong for flouting these conventions and refusing to be a part of it. Moreover, you can have societies that have quite different rules like, say, Apartheid South Africa or National Socialist Germany where some people aren’t included in the society. They are excluded because they are different. And you can’t say that what they do is really morally wrong. They just adopted a different set of rules. So I don’t think that that is morality in any way. If that is what morality reduces to then I think the nihilist is right – these are just social mores but they are not really ethical in the sense of having a moral value or any kind of moral obligation or prohibition to them. [3]

Kevin Harris: I’ll tell you, Bill, I’m bummed when the weekend is over. I try to distract myself from it and enjoy my Saturday. If I really thought that life was going to be over, I’d do everything I could to distract myself from my impending doom. That is a nihilistic view. It is all going to be over.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, it is hard, I think.

Kevin Harris: The weekend is going to be over and so is your life. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: That’s right. And ultimately it won’t make any difference what you did. The universe is going to end the same way. It will ultimately die a thermodynamic heat death, become cold, dilute, absolutely dark, and lifeless. And all of these decisions and things that we worried about along the way ultimately make no difference whatsoever. It all ends the same. It is really a very demoralizing worldview, I think.

Kevin Harris: Are we using the argument from outrage, though? That you are saying, “That is just outrageous. I just can’t be.”

Dr. Craig: Oh, no. I don’t think so. There is that outrage in a sense but I think the second premise of the argument that there are objective moral values and duties is based upon our moral experience. What we are claiming is that in moral experience we sense a realm of objective moral values and moral duties and that we have no good reason to think that our moral perceptions are delusory anymore than our sensory apprehensions of an external physical world are delusory. We trust our sensory perceptions of the physical world; why shouldn’t we trust our moral perceptions of the moral realm? In the absence of a defeater, we are perfectly rational to do so. And, in fact, some of these atheists like, say, Louise Antony who is a moral objectivist unlike Kurtz, she will say, I think quite rightly, that I am more confident of my moral perceptions . . .

Kevin Harris: Wait a minute. Is Kurtz a moral objectivist?

Dr. Craig: Well, he claims to be but as I say I think while what he believes in is objective it is not morality.

Kevin Harris: OK. So Louise Antony . . .

Dr. Craig: Louise Antony is a moral realist. She thinks that there really are objective moral values and duties. She says that, “I am more confident in my perception of objective moral values and duties than I am in the premises for any argument for nihilism.” And I think that that is quite right. Any argument to show that these are illusory, that we don’t have them, will be less certain than your moral perceptions themselves. So it is not just an argument from outrage. It is an argument from moral experience that there are objective moral values and duties. But then the question will be: what worldview best grounds this realm of objective moral values and duties? Apart from theism, I can’t think of any good grounding for these objective realities that we apprehend.

Kevin Harris: Bill, you seem to have to point out a lot in these exchanges that this is a meta-ethical consideration. In other words, it seems that people start getting into ethics – applied ethics, how we apply morality – but this is ultimately a meta-ethical consideration.

Dr. Craig: That is right. I think the greatest confusion, Kevin, would be between what I call moral ontology and moral epistemology. These are constantly run together by critics. Moral ontology concerns the reality and the basis in reality for moral values and duties. Moral epistemology concerns how we come to know that there are objective moral values and duties and what they are. Those are quite distinct issues. I am not saying that to know there are objective moral values and duties or to know what they are you need to believe in God. I am open to all sorts of epistemological theories about how we come to know our moral values and duties or that they exist. I am talking about moral ontology – what is the basis for moral values and duties. [4]