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How to Debate a Christian Apologist

June 29, 2014     Time: 21:44
How to Debate a Christian Apologist


Atheist physicist Dr. Victor Stenger lists items the non-theist will encounter in a debate with theists and how to respond

Transcript How to Debate a Christian Apologist


Kevin Harris: Back in the studio again with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. This is Reasonable Faith. Dr. Craig, Dr. Victor Stenger, who is a best-selling author and physicist and with whom you have had a couple of debates, has written an article, “How to Debate a Christian Apologist.”[1]

Dr. Craig: Yes, the voice of experience speaks!

Kevin Harris: He has had a few debates and some debates with you. Refresh me – were these existence of God debates?

Dr. Craig: Yes. That's right. I think both of them were on that topic. The first one was at the University of Hawaii which is his former university.[2] Then the other one was stateside.[3]

Kevin Harris: He starts this article out, “How to Debate a Christian Apologist:”

Recently there seems to have been a rash of debates between atheists and Christian apologists. . . .

However, most debates involve an atheist scientist, philosopher, or former clergyperson against a Christian theologian or clergyperson. Occasionally we have an atheist layperson against a clergyperson. It is very unwise for a layperson to debate a theologian.

There is something about this constant reference to “apologists.”

Dr. Craig: I think what is clear is that there is a sort of attitude of condescension here exhibited in the fact that the atheist debater is described as a philosopher or a scientist whereas the theist is consistently described as a Christian apologist. In fact, he says later in the blog that “the atheist can be just as smooth as the preacher” with enough training in debate. So here these atheists are philosophers and scientists, and the people they are up against are not themselves characterized as philosophers or scientists but as preachers and apologists. I think that is very prejudicial. The fact is that Vic Stenger is himself a leading apologist in the infidel community for the cause of atheism just as much as spokespersons for theism would be apologists for their point of view.

Kevin Harris: You've said many times an apologist is anybody who presents and defends a view.

Dr. Craig: Yes, he has a case to defend or present. In that sense, both of the persons on either side of the debate could be characterized as an apologist for their point of view. But the way Vic Stenger uses the word, it is clearly meant to denigrate the person who is on the Christian side: He is not a bona fide scientist or philosopher, just an apologist.

Kevin Harris: He says,

And, after you have watched or participated in a number of these events, you find there very seldom is a new argument. All have all been refuted many times, but most in the audiences do not know that.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that is my experience as well, Kevin. You rarely hear in these debates a new atheist argument. Almost all of them have been refuted innumerable times! Not only is the audience largely unaware of this, frankly, but I find that the atheist debater is usually unaware of this. He doesn't read philosophy of religion. He doesn't know Plantinga, Robert Adams, William Alston, Stephen Davis, and so forth. So he brings out his objections from his Intro to Philosophy class, thinking that these are going to suffice, and it is just the same-old, same-old that is easily refuted.

Kevin Harris: It says something though if there are some classic arguments out there. Bill, when you go in, people know what your arguments are going to be. I think that says something.

Dr. Craig: Fair enough. That's right. The arguments that I present, I don't claim that they are new. Sometimes there will be new formulations of them. For example, I think it is fair to characterize the fine-tuning argument as relatively new in that it has only arisen within the last quarter of the 20th century or so. The classic argument from design is, of course, not new but this particular version of it counts as new historically. So I think some of the arguments can be new. But newness is not a criterion for truth.

Kevin Harris: That is what I was going to ask you. What I am saying is, it is very telling – people know your material usually if they read you or look at a few videos. What that shows perhaps is the strength of these arguments.

Dr. Craig: I think that is a good point. It is not as though this is catching anyone by surprise. If these arguments are so shopworn and easy to refute then it ought to be relatively easy for the atheist debater to explain where the fallacies in these arguments lie.

Kevin Harris: I'm afraid this is just an assertion it seems. We are all guilty of that time to time but somebody always says, “That has been refuted.” “Where?” “Well, there is a paper somewhere. I heard about a paper.”

Dr. Craig: Or “I saw a video on YouTube.”[4]

Kevin Harris: Yeah, and it totally refuted it. Really? Well, let's hear it. He says,

Certainly atheist debaters will make their own arguments for atheism during their opening statements.

Dr. Craig: That has not been my experience, Kevin. I have been in a lot of these debates, and I find that atheist debaters rarely make arguments for atheism during their opening statement. It is very rare to find an atheist who is prepared to give a well thought through, well formulated argument for atheism. At best one will get gestures in the direction of, say, the problem of evil. How could an omnipotent and all-loving God permit all the horrible evil in the world? That is not an argument. That is just a question. So at best you get gestures toward arguments, but frankly atheists have not done very well in shouldering their share of the burden of proof. They will sometimes just content themselves with trying to poke holes in the theist's argument. But they rarely give much of a positive case for their own atheistic point of view.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Stenger says,

In what follows I will provide a primer on the most common arguments made by apologists and suggest canned responses.

Dr. Craig: That is interesting – isn't it? – that he would use that language and say, Here are some canned responses that you can use against these theists. Usually it is the atheists who are accusing Christians of giving pat answers, easy answers, superficial answers in a sort of “if he says this, you say this” primer. Yet, this is precisely what Stenger is offering – little snappy pat answers.

Kevin Harris: If I read between the lines here – and I hate to say this – he is saying, You atheists are not looking good!

Dr. Craig: Right. He does seem to be saying atheists are not doing real well in these debates.

Kevin Harris: At least have some canned responses.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's right. Have these canned responses memorized so that you can at least move your audience toward your point of view. In my experience, Victor Stenger isn't really in a very good position to be giving this sort of advice to non-theists because in the debates at least that we had I didn't find that he presented very compelling objections against the theistic arguments and very little by way of justification for atheism. So I find it a little odd that he thinks himself to be in a position to offer advice to his fellow atheists that he thinks are not doing very well.

Kevin Harris: Bill, he lists several things here that you can be guaranteed to hear he thinks. He says,

I will mainly emphasize scientific arguments, that is, those based on empirical evidence or lack thereof. However the atheist debater is very likely to be confronted with any one of many possible philosophical arguments based on logic alone, so I will present these first.

I need to get you to say something about that as well. Empirical verification versus these philosophical arguments.

Dr. Craig: It is a little too neat – isn't it? – this bifurcation. Because any sort of argument for God's existence is going to be, by its very nature, philosophical. I think empirical evidence at best will provide support for a premise in an argument for a conclusion having theistic significance. But any of these arguments are going to be philosophical in nature. Now, what he wants to lead off here with will be the ontological argument which he thinks is based sheerly on logic alone and has no appeal to any sort of non-logical justification or warrant.

Kevin Harris: His answer to it is if the Christian brings up the ontological argument, just say, Well, I'm looking for the perfect pizza; that doesn't mean that it exists.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I was really surprised that he would bring this up because that came up in our debate and I thought just got blown away. To be a successful parody of the ontological argument, you have to show that the idea of a most perfect pizza is a logically coherent idea. And that is far from clear. It is far from clear that pizzas even have objective great-making properties, much less that they have some sort of maximal value so that it would be possible to talk about a most perfect pizza. In fact, if a most prefect pizza is supposed to include necessary existence (as it must if it is to exist in every possible world) then it is clearly an incoherent concept because a pizza by definition is a foodstuff – it is something that can be eaten. But a metaphysically necessary being cannot be eaten or destroyed.[5] It wouldn't be metaphysically necessary. So, as I explained in our debate, this is not a successful parody of the ontological argument. He is proposing an incoherence here – the idea of a most perfect or metaphysically necessary pizza. It is a complete failure as an objection to the ontological argument.

Kevin Harris: It wouldn't have anchovies!

Dr. Craig: No, not if it's perfect! [laughter]

Kevin Harris: Again, Dr. Stenger is just saying, Just say something! Bring up a perfect pizza if they bring this up. You are not going to have time to break down that ontological argument. Another thing he says you are going to run into is, “Science and religion are compatible as evidenced by the fact that many scientists are believers.”

Dr. Craig: Kevin, I don't think that an argument from counting noses is a good argument, especially an argument based on what scientists think about religion. The funny thing about his response is that he doesn't spot the real fallacy in this argument, namely, that it is an argument simply from authority or popularity. Instead he tries to challenge the idea that many scientists are in fact theists. And he quotes this old statistic about the percentage in the National Academy of Sciences without any sort of sociological analysis of that survey. I think it is very suspicious, and in any case isn't representative of the scientific community as a whole which has, I understand, around 40% of the scientific population when polled say they believe in a personal God who answers prayer, which is pretty much the same as the surveys that were taken back around 1910 or so. So, I don't think that this response on his part is at all convincing. And the whole argument really ought not even to be considered important because you can't argue from just counting numbers.

Kevin Harris: A related objection he'll hear is that he says that we will say, “Science was the result of Christianity, which introduced the use of rational thinking. Galileo, Newton, and other early scientists were Christians.”

Dr. Craig: One of the interesting questions of the history of science is why modern science originated in the West, rather than, for example, in the Orient or in Africa. Quite a number of scholars have argued that it is the contribution of the Christian faith to Western culture. In contrast to the Orient with its pantheistic religions, Christianity did not regard the world has divine but rather as a natural product of a transcendent creator which is endowed with a rational structure and therefore open to exploration and discovery. In contrast to polytheistic religions, such as you had in Africa, Christianity does not view the world as a haunted house indwelt by spirits. Rather, it is a natural place that runs according to the order that God has structured it with. Again, that makes it open to rational exploration and discovery. So the fact that modern science originated in the West rather than in the East or Africa is something that cries out for explanation. And a good many people think that it is due to the influence of the Christian faith upon Western culture.

Dr. Stenger is not a historian clearly. When he says here,

But the Catholic Church muffled science when it took over the Roman Empire in the 4th century, ushering in the 1,000-year period known as the Dark Ages.

This shows an astonishing ignorance of history. What ushered in the so-called Dark Ages, which did not last for 1,000 years (it was a couple centuries) was the barbarian invasions of Rome that took over the Roman world and brought in this eclipse in literacy and learning and culture. It was the invasion of the barbarians that brought down the height of Roman culture. It was only thanks to the Church that literacy and learning and manuscripts from the ancient world were preserved, as in the monasteries. These were copied and re-copied, and literacy and learning were kept alive. A few years ago there was a book published called How the Irish Saved Civilization and it was making precisely this point. During those Dark Ages when the culture at large was falling into illiteracy and intellectual darkness, it was through the Irish monasteries – the priests – that literacy and learning were preserved and eventually came to flower again. So this is just a dreadful ignorance of Western history that is exhibited here.[6]

Kevin Harris: The next thing that Dr. Stenger says that atheist debaters will often here from us is, “The obvious presence of design and complexity in the world, especially in life, proves there was a designer.” Dr. Stenger's answer to this is, Yeah that was all well and good until Darwin.

Dr. Craig: Right, and he has confidence in the Darwinian mechanisms to explain biological complexity. I think this is a confidence that needs to be severely challenged. The contemporary neo-Darwinian paradigm is composed of several theses. One would be what one might call the doctrine of common ancestry – that all living life-forms have evolved from previous life-forms that existed in the past. The other major thesis is that the explanatory mechanism behind the emergence of increasing biological complexity is random mutation and natural selection. And those mechanisms have by no means been shown to be adequate to explain the degree of biological complexity that is exhibited in the world today in such a relatively short period of time. And if I am mistaken about this then I would love to see the demonstration of it in detail. Show me. What is the evidence that these mechanisms are explanatorily adequate?

I would refer interested listeners to the debate that I had with Francisco Ayala[7], who, unlike Dr. Stenger, is a world-class evolutionary biologist. And in this debate in response to my plea for evidence of the explanatory adequacy of the standard Darwinian mechanisms, to explain biological complexity, all Dr. Ayala could offer were things like Darwin's finches, the peppered moth, and the development of resistance to drugs on the part of certain bacteria. That is it. To extrapolate from that to say that these mechanisms are adequate to explain the range of diversity in biological systems we observe today is an extrapolation of gargantuan proportions. It is, in fact, a leap of faith. I think we can rightly demand from the naturalist some sort of warrant for such an extrapolation.

Kevin Harris: Let's skip down a couple of these because he mentions your kalam cosmological argument. He says the objection you will hear against atheism is, “The big bang proved the universe had a beginning. Everything that begins has a cause. Therefore the universe had a cause, which was God.” He says in reply to this,

Modern cosmology implies that our universe began in total chaos and so possesses no memory of a creation or creator. A number of models, fully worked out mathematically, show that no laws of physics were necessarily broken to produce the universe. Quantum mechanics demonstrates that not everything that begins has a cause.

Dr. Craig: In this answer, he seems to want to go after both premises. First with respect to the arguments for the beginning, he says there are models of the universe that show that no laws of physics were necessarily broken. Well, I don't think any proponent of the kalam argument has ever claimed that laws of physics were broken in the universe beginning to exist. It is very, very important, Kevin, to understand that the proponent of the kalam argument is not offering an alternative to standard Big Bang cosmological models. He is not offering a sort of creation science which postulates God as a sort of theoretical entity in the theory. Rather, he is saying that the secular theories which do not involve breaking the laws of nature necessarily point to the beginning of the universe and that that requires some sort of an extra mundane cause, something beyond the universe that brought the universe into being. But the theist is in no way interested in proving that the beginning of the universe involved some sort of violation of the laws of nature.

So take for example the Hartle-Hawking cosmological model which I think is probably what Stenger has in mind here. In the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary model, the universe begins to exist (it is finite in the past) but it doesn't have an initial singular point where the laws of physics break down. So there is no violation of any of nature's laws; nevertheless, it is a universe with a finite past which does not explain why the universe came into being.

Now, Stenger would appear to address that by saying quantum mechanics demonstrates that not everything that begins to exist has a cause.[8] That is simply not true, and Dr. Stenger admits this in his own writings. This is what is ironic to me here, Kevin. He is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. I have in my files statements from Dr. Stenger's book on “there is no God” where he admits that the interpretation of quantum mechanics is wide open today and that nobody knows whether or not these virtual particles, when they come into existence, have causes or not. There are physical interpretations of quantum mechanics which are fully deterministic; these entities have causes. The indeterministic interpretation is just one of many and I would say even one of the most implausible. I noticed Sean Carroll in his debate admitted that – that the indeterministic interpretations he says are just science fiction.[9] So there is no basis for his claim that quantum mechanics demonstrates that not everything that begins to exist has a cause.

Kevin Harris: OK. Let's pick it up right there next time as we continue to look at this list. As we've mentioned in this podcast, look at some of our podcast archives for more information on some of the topics that we've discussed today. We will see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.[10]