Debate Review


On Saturday night, I attended a debate at Biola University between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchins on the question, “Does God Exist?” Craig began the debate with the same opening argument he uses in all debates on God’s existence. He began by making two broad claims (1) there are no good arguments for atheism, and (2) there are several good arguments for God’s existence that provide a powerful cumulative case. He mentioned this because he wanted to make the point that in order for atheism to be a rational position in this debate, Hitchens would have to tear down each of his arguments for God’s existence, and then erect his own arguments against God’s existence. In other words, in the absence of good arguments for atheism, all we are left with is agnosticism at the most; we are not justified in being atheists simply because of a lack of evidence for God’s existence.

Craig then went on to adduce 5 arguments for God’s existence as follows:
(1) Kalam cosmological argument – God is the cause of the beginning of the universe.
(2) Teleological argument – God is the designer of the universe because it is specifically designed to be life-permitting.
(3) Axiological argument – God is the only ground for objective moral values.
(4) Argument from Jesus’ resurrection – God’s existence is the best explanation of the historical facts regarding Jesus’ resurrection.
(5) Experiential argument – Ultimately, belief in God is properly basic; we do not need arguments in order to believe in God–rather our direct experience of God is grounds enough for belief.

Hitchens opening statement was much less orderly than Craig’s. He accused Craig of being an inconsistent evidentialist because he, like all Christians, appeals to evidence that was not available to Christians several centuries ago. He pointed to the biological evolution and asserted that now that this view has become mainstream, theists have attempted to use this as evidence for God’s existence, or at least to see it as being compatible with God’s existence. He further asserted that Craig need to prove with certainty that God existed. He also claimed that physicists acknowledge that “we hardly know what we don’t know” about the origin of the universe, and so to arrive at the conclusion that God exists is extremely premature. Finally, he concluded with three reasons to reject the design of the universe: (a) Prior to the beginning of the universe was there pre-existing matter?, (b) Who designed the designer?, and (c) the designer seems to have designed poorly because the universe will eventually die in a heat death. In sum, Hitchens opening statement was not very well thought out, did not have arguments that were understandable, and included a lot of unsupported assertions.

The following are what I considered to be the highlights of the debate:

1. Hitchins tried to claim that an atheist was actually just an a-theist, that is, a non-theist. Craig pushed him on this and asked him what kind of a-theist he was: (a) what we usually mean by atheist (someone who positively asserts “God does not exist”), (b) an agnostic (someone who withholds belief in God but does not assert that “God does not exist”), or (c) a verificationist (someone who believes that the statements “God exists” and “God does not exist” are meaningless). When pushed, Hitchins backpedalled to affirm that he is an atheist in the traditional sense, which made his long spiel about being an a-theist irrelevant. The point of all this was that Hitchins did not want to have the burden of proof for God’s non-existence. Craig could easily have pushed Hitchens further, but he was running out of time. Had Craig pushed further, he would have discussed whether the absence of evidence for God’s existence is actually evidence of the absence of God. He would further have argued that absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when we would expect more evidence than we have. This puts the atheist in the position of having to argue that if God exists, he would have provided more evidence of His existence–which is an extremely doubtful point and probably impossible to prove.

2. Hitchens briefly mentioned the theory of evolution in passing. Craig struck back on this point powerfully by showing that the probability of evolution is so infinitesimally small that if evolution did occur, it is literally a miracle which would be powerful evidence for God’s existence.

3. Hitchens attempted to portray the atheist position as a tolerant position of intellectual humility, and the theist position as being the height of arrogance and hubris. Craig countered this forcefully and graciously by showing that the atheist position is a claim to exclusive truth. In the same way that evangelical Christians believe that Christianity is true and all other religions are false, the atheist claims that atheism is true, and all claims to the contrary are false. Craig pointed out that Hitchens made his own truth claims on behalf of atheism, but did so without supporting arguments. In his own words, “you’ve got to come to a debate prepared with arguments.” Any arguments that Hitchens did produce were irrelevant, disjointed, and unclear.

4. At one point, Hitchens asserted that he believed in freewill as though Craig had attacked him on this point. He wasted a good amount of time discussing this when he could have been responding to some of Craig’s actual arguments. This was kind of humorous to me, because it is obviously a weak point for the naturalist who believes that humans are nothing more than complex materialistic machines. On a naturalist worldview, the only type of freewill that makes any sense is compatibilistic freedom–which I doubt is genuine freedom at all.

5. Hitchens completely missed the point of Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence. Craig argued that (1) If objective moral values exist, then God exists, (2) objective moral values exist, (3) therefore, God exists. Hitchens continually tried to respond to this by stating that he could still do good actions without believing in God. This completely missed the point and force of Craig’s argument that if moral values are not grounded in God, then there is nothing about them that is objective. There’s nothing about rape or genocide or torture that is actually wrong; rather they might be distasteful to my personal preferences, but there is nothing objectively wrong with these actions if God does not exist. I began to wonder if Hitchens really did understand Craig’s argument, did not have a response, and so was just rambling on about how he could do a good action wholly apart from belief in God.

6. At the close of the debate, Hitchens yielded the time he could have used to wrap up, and allowed that time to go towards the question and answer time. I’m not sure why he did this.

Doug Geivett
was sitting right behind me with his daughter. He summarized the debate well in a recent blog:

…this debate exposed a difference in preparation on the part of these two debaters. This is far more significant than it might seem at first. William Lane Craig has debated this topic dozens of times, without wavering from the same basic pattern of argument. He presents the same arguments in the same form, and presses his opponents in the same way for arguments in defense of their own worldviews. He’s consistent. He’s predictable. One might think that this is a liability, that it’s too risky to face a new opponent who has so much opportunity to review Craig’s specific strategy. But tonight’s debate proves otherwise. Hitchens can have no excuse for dropping arguments when he knows—or should know—exactly what to expect. Suppose one replies that William Craig is a more experienced debater and a trained philosopher, while Christopher Hitchens is a journalist working outside the Academy. That simply won’t do as a defense of Hitchens. First, Hitchens is no stranger to debate. Second, he is clearly a skillful polemicist. Third—and most important—Hitchens published a book, god Is Not Great, in which he makes bold claims against religion in general and Christianity in particular. With his book, he threw down the challenge. To his credit, he rose to meet a skillful challenger. But did he rise to the occasion? Did he acquit himself well? At one point he acknowledged that some of his objections to the designer argument were “layman’s” objections. His book, I believe, is also the work of a layman. It appears to have been written for popular consumption and without concern for accountability to Christians whose lives are dedicated to the defense of the Gospel.

I think Doug is right. Hitchens should have prepared more, but even if he had, there’s no way he would have had a chance debating Craig. Craig is a debating machine, and his skills and knowledge are unrivaled by any atheist opponent. I would have liked a better debate, because it would have shown the strength of the theistic position more clearly. But it was a fun night, and my little brother was able to meet Bill Craig and get his book signed by him. And most importantly, God was honored as the weakness of the atheistic position was exposed in a gracious, loving, and sincere manner.

For more on this debate, check out William Lane Craig’s website. You’ll be able to purchase a DVD of this debate in the future, and audio of the debate will probably made available for a free download sometime in the near future. You can find many of Craig’s debates on his website right now for free. If you’ve never read anything by Craig before, I highly recommend his books, Reasonable Faith and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. I believe that every American pastor ought to interact with the material in these books.

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