On 17th October 2011 Ellie Cookson and I went to hear the opening debate in William Lane Craig’s series, ‘The Reasonable Faith Tour’. As part of this UK tour, Craig (who is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot Theological College, California, and a Christian) is presenting lectures on the rational grounds for the truth of Christianity and debating the existence of God with leading atheists. The debate took place at Westminster Central Hall with atheist philosopher Stephen Law (who is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and editor of the magazine of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Think.)
I should say now that the entire debate is online at: Premier Radio
What follows here is a selective account of the arguments that struck me most, and the reflections are personal, so do go online to hear the debate in full and see which points engage you most!
The event was structured as three sets of short lectures, or arguments, to which the opponent then responded (though not always to the point they had been challenged on). Craig spoke first. The theme of the evening was ‘Does God exist?’ and Craig began with a version of what philosophers call the Cosmological Argument (an argument for God’s existence from the existence and design of the cosmos). He asked: if God doesn’t exist then how did the universe come into being? This is a formulation of the classic question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ He presented us with some quick-fire mathematical gymnastics to argue that if there is no beginning to the universe – if the universe is infinite – then ‘metaphysical absurdities’ will result (within infinity you can do certain calculations so that the same sum can render two different answers, which is a contradiction, and in the context of the universe becomes a ‘metaphysical absurdity’). His argument went a bit like this: If there is no beginning to the universe, then we are left with infinity (the universe extends forever into the past); this leads to absurdities; absurdities aren’t allowed, therefore the universe must have a beginning; and so something must have brought the universe into existence: therefore God must exist.
Personally, I struggled with this argument for at least two reasons. Firstly, Craig’s argument assumes that metaphysical absurdities are not consistent with God’s existence. Actually, a great number of theologians would advise us otherwise, and see the ‘running into paradox’ of our minds and language at the limit of our understanding as a sign of proximity to the divine. This isn’t to say that faith is unreasonable. Rather, we have to expand our idea of reason and rationality so as to accommodate the reasonableness of an intelligent and informed faith. Secondly, he did rather naughtily slip in the word ‘personal’ into this definition of the thing that must have caused the origin of the universe. This was a leap in his argument. Perhaps he could argue that the universe could not be infinite (because of the resulting absurdities) and therefore that it had to have a beginning, and therefore (presuming that the relation of cause to effect works outside time and space) that something must have ‘caused’ this: he describes this as an intelligent, immaterial (because no space yet), eternal (because no time yet), but also personal being. But the ‘personal’ quality is not derived, as the other qualities are, from his argument. Is it nevertheless required? That’s an interesting question! Either way, a lady quite rightly shouted from the balcony ‘Why personal?!’, and this was the only time, amidst a lot of heckling and calling out on both sides, that Craig actually looked up at the protestor. Perhaps he recognised the challenge of her point. And, in many ways, when it comes to the relationship between science, religion and philosophy, it’s the clincher. Talking about a personal God brings us beyond the world of philosophy and into the realm of revelation.
Craig’s other argument for God’s existence is ‘objective moral values’. This argument says that some things are good/right and others bad/wrong in an absolute way: in other words, they’re not good or bad depending on where you live, what you happen to think, what your culture says (all forms of moral relativism or moral subjectivism), but certain actions or attitudes are good or bad absolutely. Craig gave certain highly provocative examples. Having already been bamboozled by mathematical stunt work (infinity!) I was now aware of some use of shock tactics. But actually here was a point that Craig’s opponent, Stephen Law, had to confess causes the atheist some difficulty. Without God, can we ground our ideas of good and bad? Without God, without the appeal to an authority who is the source of goodness, how do we justify and enforce the idea that some things are absolutely and at all times good, and other things absolutely and at all times bad? If there’s no God, why should we even care about ‘being good’? There wasn’t much that is new in Craig’s and Law’s debate here. As with the New Atheists (we should re-name them ‘Old Atheists’) these were really rehearsals of nineteenth century arguments. But Craig persuasively pointed out that great atheists such as Nietzsche, who famously believed that ‘God is dead’, were nevertheless distraught about the affect this collapse of faith would have on morality. They could see no grounding for ‘good’ without ‘God’. Stephen Law struggled here, as he wants very much to keep the idea of objective moral values. But, in the end, when asked by Craig why he (Law) could continue to believe in objective moral values without God, Law simply answered ‘because that seems to be the way things are:’ which was exactly the argument he had condemned Craig for using earlier. This was certainly a weak-point in Law’s evening. There were some intakes of breath in the audience, and the first feeling of a unanimous spirit among the huge group of people. Perhaps everyone was a little surprised to discover the strength of the atheist’s faith.
Stephen Law (as Craig repeated all evening) never really responded to Craig’s first cosmological argument: the universe must have a beginning, so God must exist. Law’s main argument against Craig took the form of the classic ‘Problem of Evil’: it is absurd to believe in a good God when there is so much evident, and seemingly pointless, suffering in the world. Why is belief in a good God more reasonable than belief in a bad God? Craig had talked about objective moral values as proof of God’s existence. Law claimed this argument could be run ‘in the other direction’ to argue that if God exists then he must be evil, since there is at least as much suffering as joy exhibited in the world. Craig pointed out that believers in a good God do not believe in His goodness by looking at the world. On a Christian model of life, he continued, this world is not actually about happiness.
Craig responded to Law’s argument against a good God from ‘the problem of evil’ with two controversial claims. He argued that the existence of evil is proof for, rather than against, God’s existence. It is only God’s existence, as goodness, that makes evil ‘evil’ (the fact that we are aware of moral evil points to the existence of that which, in opposition to evil, makes us aware of evil’s existence: Good (God) ). The fact that we object to moral evil is proof of our inherent awareness that that which is opposed to the nature of God must be prevented. This point drew some clapping from the audience, I couldn’t tell whether for or (sarcastically) against. Distinctly disturbing was part of Craig’s response to Law’s example of terrible suffering in the animal kingdom. Craig stated that, after some research, he had discovered that differences in the construction of human and other-animal brain cortexes showed that animals do not feel pain in the way that humans do: this quickly (almost seamlessly) became the claim that animals do not feel pain at all. I wondered then why we have the RSPCA. Craig definitely went too far here to score a point, and threatened to alienate himself from those (most) people for whom it is obvious that animals suffer, and that we have a moral obligation to oppose this suffering. I have heard anti-religious protestors claim that Christians do not care about animals and the natural world because Genesis depicts the placing of the animal kingdom under human beings for their exploitation: this interpretation of scripture is terribly unbalanced. If Genesis depicts anything, it is the huge responsibility Christians (and other religious believers who cherish this book) hold for the responsible stewardship of a creation which comes to us as a precious gift.
Craig also attempted a response to the ‘problem of evil’, or ‘the problem of suffering’ (secularised version), by arguing that we humans cannot see, within the limitations of human vision, how suffering may work to bring about God’s purposes: suffering may bring people to God. Now there are two different interpretations of this statement: (i) suffering might ‘bring us to God’ in the sense that suffering, which is not God’s desire for us, and is not of God, might inadvertently bring us towards Him as we contemplate where our strength and hope may reside, as opposed to (ii) the idea that God might actively inflict suffering on us (he wills our suffering) to bring us to Him. Surely this is not a God of freedom, but manipulation. I’m sure Craig is aware of the difference, but he didn’t elaborate this at all: and so sounded worryingly like he meant the latter. At best his point was desperately (and dangerously) over-simplistic. (Granted, it raises questions about God’s disciplining of the unfaithful throughout scripture: but discipline – in the context of love, which defines the covenantal relationship – and suffering are two very different things, which surely we learn from the everyday experience of raising our children). At worst, this attempt to justify suffering is perverse. Craig came unstuck here: as Law pointed out, Christian philosophers have themselves recognised the inadequacies of such responses. Such a world, as Law amended the classic phrase, would not be ‘a vale of soul-making’ but ‘of soul-breaking.’ In his effort to out-manoeuvre Law, Craig veered dangerously off-course.
The final part of the debate centered around Jesus’ resurrection. Craig argued that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is proof of God’s existence. Law argued that given the regularity with which human beings claim and report supernatural phenomena or extraordinary events, of which he used a UFO report as prime example, it is highly likely that at some points in history some of these claims will gain the status of fact. Law (wrongly) claimed that there is little documentary evidence for the resurrection (we believe in the historical existence of many people for whom we have nowhere near the amount of eye-witness reporting that we have in the case of the post-resurrection appearances, and in the recording, through letters and other documents, within secular as well as Christian sources, of the often perilous lives of communities living out the profound conviction that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead). For Law, the eye-witnesses’ conviction that Jesus was raised was not sufficient to count as evidence: the policemen called to view a UFO (which turned out to be a spectacular apparition of Venus) were also convinced: and think, he asked us, how embarrassed they knew they’d feel if they turned out to be wrong? But they still reported a UFO! At this point I wondered how the local embarrassment of some policemen could compare with the extraordinarily brutal executions and persecutions early Christians were prepared to suffer out of the conviction that they had themselves seen, or had spiritually encountered, the living Christ, and out of the refusal to give this belief up. And you can’t just reply here that they persisted in their belief because they couldn’t bear to live without it. If your conviction kills you, what good is it to keep it because you cannot live without it? And let’s not forget, with all respect to policemen, that, as even atheists such as Iris Murdoch have commented, these were geniuses who wrote the gospels. They were also, in the case of Luke, men of science (interesting that this medical doctor should stress the virgin birth the most). Law stated that UFO sightings, and claims of supernatural events, like a resurrection, are simply to be expected, and are believed because expected. Craig pointed out that, actually, part of the strength of the case for the rising of Christ is the extreme unexpectedness of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Jewish messiah. And I felt that another unanswered question was hanging here in the background: what might the need in human beings to seek out supernatural events in the first place be evidence of? Doesn’t the fact of our yearning suggest the something yearned for?
This was certainly a lively debate. But I was left with the feeling I almost always feel after any conversation between theology and science, theology and philosophy, or religious believers and atheists. We’re just not talking about the same thing. God is not a scientific object. This is a basic insight which most (certainly not all) theologically and philosophically informed atheists appreciate, but is missing from the popular mind completely. Very likely, even hopefully, there are dimensions of God’s life which science can talk meaningfully about: the idea, for example, that as well as order, logic and pattern, ‘metaphysical absurdities’ might also be signs of God’s infinite presence at every point in the ever-expanding physical universe. But science will never give us the whole of God: no more than literature, or poetry, or drama, or history. Our systems of knowledge, of which science is only one (though a fabulous, wonderful one), are part of an organic, mutually-interdependent whole, which together give us glimpses into the life (and purpose) of our universe. None of them are more ‘true’ than others: they are only more true to the kind of life they are attempting to describe. It is nonsense to ask if science is more ‘true’ than poetry. True to what? Science tells us about scientific objects; poetry tells us about beauty, memory, wordplay, imagery, atmosphere, value…You might ask me to tell you about my husband: I can give you a love poem I wrote about him; I can also give you a scientific statement of his physical properties. If you held the pieces of paper out, one in each hand, and asked me ‘But which is the truth about him?’ I’d probably look puzzled, and then say ‘both.’ It is not the case that one is more ‘true’ than the other: they simply tell you different things about him. They are different ways of speaking about the same reality (in this case, my husband). They are equally valid.
When it comes to religion, we cannot have a debate with atheists or enquirers until the latter two are willing to be theologically informed (theologians already pay this compliment in the other direction), and until we are willing to talk not only about the properties of God which may be discernible and discoverable through scientific research, but also about the nature and status of religious experience, scripture, revelation, the philosophical status of religious belief, and other things which come together – and only together – make up an account of faith. And all this must take place against a background where the limits of truth and possibility are determined not only by science, but by religion as well: otherwise we’ve predetermined the limits of reality before we’ve even begun the journey. How can I know where the opposite shoreline is, before I’ve even set sail?
This is why I get nervous when apologists such as Craig adopt scientific language to attempt to ‘defeat’ atheism and to make ‘a case’ for God. No doubt this is why Dawkins fears to meet with Craig: here, in Craig, is someone willing to have a shot at meeting Dawkins’ simplistic scientific arguments on his own terms, and (unusual for Christian apologists) whose voice is as sturdy, persistent, and as capable of polemic as his opponent’s. In the end, though, Craig has to concede too much to the opposition, because the terms of his debate give the impression that God’s existence can be exhaustively demonstrated in these reductively scientific terms. This isn’t to say that belief in God is incompatible with scientific rationalism. But it may be the case that scientific rationalism won’t get you all the way to God.