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#322 Critical Questions

June 17, 2013
Q

Dear Dr. Craig,

I am an atheist from, and living in, the United Kingdom, a place where Christianity is in pretty sharp decline at the moment. I have viewed some of your debates online with some curiosity. I would like to ask you some critical questions.

1) Don't you agree that the whole time-limit debate format is an extremely poor way of determining the truth? There are numerous flaws. For instance, the fact that a debate can be "won" by tactics and rhetoric alone does not make this seem like a very constructive use of time. Also, the fact that timing is such an important factor means that certain points raised aren't answered by one's opponent, not because they cannot answer them, but because they don't have time to, which gives the audience a misleading impression. Also, heck, anyone who thinks a question like the "existence of God" can be answered in just 2 hours seems pretty dashed overconfident to me!

2) Aren't you a little too arrogant in your approach to atheism and non-Christians? I've seen you describe followers of Dawkins and Hitchens as "ignorant and arrogant" (a little ironic, as some of your acolytes wouldn't exactly qualify for Mensa membership), I've heard you dismiss atheistic arguments as "unimpressive", and I think I've also heard you affirm that there are "no good reasons to disbelieve in God". To me, this sounds like extreme over-confidence. If all of this is true, then why do so many perfectly intelligent and reasonable people disbelieve in God's existence? Arrogance is a luxury you can ill afford if you want your religion to survive nowadays, given the huge increase in intellectual scepticism about theism in Europe and elsewhere. I think you could do with being a little more civil and courteous in your discourse sometimes.

3) Is philosophy ultimately a waste of time? I've heard you say that, even if all the arguments for God's existence fail, God may still exist. This is perfectly correct, and is also true the other way around; they may all be perfectly logical and God may still not exist. So, why bother with philosophical arguments at all if it's so inconclusive? Why not just stick with the facts of science?

4) Is the alleged rise in Christians in philosophy as significant as you think it is? Irreligion is on the rise in the population as a whole, and the statistics indicate that atheism and agnosticism are the majority viewpoint in science, lest we forget.

I ask these questions, not out of pure hostility, but out of concern and a genuine desire to understand where you are coming from. I just worry that your approach will create more division and anger rather than constructive discussion.

Yours sincerely,

Adam

United Kingdom

Dr. craig’s response


A

I have been deeply troubled and grieved by the decline of Christian faith in the U.K. It is so hard to imagine that this land which has given the world such Christian giants as Wesley and Wilberforce, Butler and Paley, Lightfoot and Westcott, and so many, many others, too numerous to mention, should have sunk to such a state. A few years ago I asked the Warden at Tyndale House in Cambridge why, in his opinion, Christianity was in such serious decline in Britain despite the fact that Britain boasted some of the greatest Christian intellectuals of our time. "Oh, it's not among the intelligentsia that Christianity is underrepresented," he responded. "It's among the working class that unbelief is rife." That response is worth pondering. I have noticed in my experience that the average unbeliever in the U.K. seems even more uninformed, if possible, than his American counterpart. They do not seem to have read much of anything on the existence of God or the historicity of the Gospels, and their arguments are generally terrible (see QoW #318 for an example). I wonder if unbelief has become so common in the U.K. that it is just thoughtlessly taken for granted by many Britons today.

Now in response to your questions:

1. I think that the formal debate format is an excellent way for both sides of a controversial question to be aired, if not settled, in a reasonable time. The goal isn't to settle the issue in two hours but to fairly present the best arguments pro and con. I'm bothered by the fact that secular speakers rarely give the opportunity for the opposing point of view to be made. They just present their prepared speech or have a conversation amongst themselves, rather than risk critique by someone of a different point of view. They engage in monologue rather than dialogue. The debates I engage in are really quite remarkable when you think about it. The very best representatives of the opposing side are given the opportunity, not only to present uninterrupted their own point of view, but to subject mine to withering criticism. Academic debate (in contrast to the political sort of debate that goes on in Parliament) is a fantastic forum for acquainting students, who would probably not otherwise be exposed to such material, with the main arguments.

Yes, the fact that a debate can be won by tactics and rhetoric alone is a drawback and a great risk of going into one of these events. One of the most frustrating debates I have ever been in was with a philosopher at the University of Leeds who, instead of presenting arguments for his position, just used dry British wit and ridicule to win the students over to his side. Here what Aristotle said about the ethos of the speaker is important. A man of character does not resort to sophistry to win debates but relies upon the force of his arguments, clearly presented, to persuade.

Having time limits on the speeches is characteristic of formal debate and ensures that one person does not dominate the proceedings and that the audience's attention span is not overtaxed. So knowing how to manage the clock is an important debate skill. The novice spends a disproportionate amount of time on the first argument and never gets to the rest. If you have 12 minutes to cover five arguments, then you know you'd better not spend more than a couple minutes on each one! That said, I find that audiences are very forgiving of a speaker who is unable to get to all the points. They realize that he didn't have time to cover all the arguments, and so they weigh what he had to say about the arguments he did discuss.

Of course, these concerns are obviated once a debate is transcribed and turned into book form, as several of my debates have been. Here the respondents are given months to craft and refine their essays in response to the arguments. I invite you, Adam, to have a look at some of these books, for example, my debate Does God Exist? with the late Antony Flew, one of the twentieth century's most prominent atheists.[1] Judge for yourself how my arguments hold up.

2. Arrogance is a terrible moral flaw, and if I thought I were guilty of it I should be ashamed to speak out for Christ in public. The quotations you give out of context were said of specific persons, such as the author of QoW #193. Some people really are arrogant and ignorant, and it is not wrong to point this out (just as you have done to me!). I have tried my best to model charity, civility, and courtesy to those with whom I interact, even in the face of personal attacks. I'm sure that I don't always succeed, but as someone who aspires to be a Christian gentleman, those values are very important to me, and I try to exemplify them.

Don't equate overconfidence in one's arguments with arrogance. Arrogance has to do with being proud, conceited, and over-impressed with oneself. Thinking that an argument is really powerful isn't arrogance. Now, certainly, I could have a misplaced confidence in the arguments I defend. (Though my claims on behalf of those arguments are actually relatively modest: that they are "good arguments" for God and that there are not comparably good arguments for atheism. I think that sometimes people mistake the boldness and zeal with which I present the arguments with over-confidence in them.) But in any case, if my confidence in the arguments is exaggerated, then that needs to be shown by refuting the arguments. There's no way around it. It won't do to cite out of context my statement concerning objections to the cosmological argument: "I've tried to interact responsibly with their proffered arguments and found most of them pretty unimpressive and the rest not insuperable" (QoW #319). In that same place I address your question, "If all of this is true, then why do so many perfectly intelligent and reasonable people disbelieve in God's existence?" These are difficult questions on which intelligent and otherwise reasonable people disagree. Yes, I think that there are no good arguments for atheism and have defended that contention in debates too numerous to recall. If you disagree, then just present your argument, and I'll have to deal with it.

3. Of course, philosophy is not a waste of time! Indeed, it is essential. Alvin Plantinga has remarked that philosophy is just thinking hard about something. There's a lot of truth to that simple characterization. Thinking hard about science is philosophy of science, thinking hard about morality is ethics; thinking hard about what it is to know something is epistemology, and so on and so forth. Every discipline at the university has a philosophical component which examines the presuppositions and ramifications of that discipline and tries to clarify its key concepts. Thus, we ignore philosophy at our peril.

In fact, your very question, Adam, betrays philosophical misunderstandings and assumptions. Yes, God may still exist if all the arguments for God are unsound; but if there is a sound argument for God's existence, then God must exist. Similarly, the unsoundness of all arguments for atheism doesn't prove that God does not fail to exist; but if there is a sound argument for atheism, then God cannot exist. Thus, the arguments pro and con are anything but irrelevant. And your question "Why not just stick with the facts of science?" betrays a naïve scientism which is too restrictive an epistemology to be plausible or even practical and is ultimately self-refuting (see my debate with Alex Rosenberg).

4. The renaissance of Christian philosophy in our time is hugely significant, Adam. I don't mean to exaggerate the number or influence of Christian philosophers today, but you have to stand back and compare the present situation to that of a generation ago, when the prevailing philosophy was that talk about God is meaningless and there were almost no Christian philosophers. (In fact, I wonder if the secularization of British culture may not be due in large part to the influence of thinkers like Russell, Ayer, and Flew. The so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins certainly seem to be the unwitting heirs of their now defunct views.) Plantinga has estimated that among graduate students in philosophy, the number of Christians is 50% higher than the number of Christian philosophers today, which suggests that the revolution will continue.

The reason this is so significant, Adam, is that the most important questions concerning the existence of God are not scientific but philosophical. For that reason I'm not particularly impressed by polls showing the majority of scientists to be unbelievers. Natural scientists are no more qualified to address these philosophical questions than political scientists. Can you imagine being impressed by a poll showing most political scientists to be unbelievers? No one would pay it much mind. But because of the enormous respect paid in our modernistic culture to natural science, natural scientists are taken as authorities on issues quite outside their field.

Moreover, social scientific studies show that unbelieving scientists typically formed their views on God before they became scientists and not as a result of their science. Their unbelief is typically rooted in the same factors that produce unbelief among other laymen: upbringing, negative experiences with religion, and so on. Ironically, those who would justify unbelief by appealing to polls showing most scientists to be unbelievers have fallen into a sort of post hoc propter hoc fallacy (i.e., after this, therefore because of this).

Where am I coming from? I believe that the Christian Gospel of God's redeeming love is the greatest news ever announced, the only hope for a sick and dying world. I do not believe for a second that what I do creates division and anger. I find that many people are already angry quite independent of me, and an appeal to sweet reason to settle these important questions promotes constructive dialogue among persons of good will. If some people react to my arguments angrily and hatefully, that is their problem, not mine. As for concern about creating division, this becomes all too easily an excuse for mass-think and conformity. Christians are called not to conform to this world but to have the courage to stand up and be different. I am far more concerned about a church which is cowed by secularists into silence and cultural acquiescence than I am fearful of being divisive by standing up for the truth of the Gospel. I consider it to be a tremendous privilege to be alive and working at this time of a renaissance of Christian philosophy. It provides real hope of cultural change for the better as its influence filters down to popular culture in coming generations.

 

  • [1]

    1 Does God Exist? With Antony Flew. Responses by K. Yandell, P. Moser, D. Geivett, M. Martin, D. Yandell, W. Rowe, K. Parsons, and Wm. Wainwright. Ed. Stan Wallace. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.

- William Lane Craig