…When in Doubt, Just Assume

Apologetics, Religion — By on April 5, 2009 at 10:33 pm

debateimg.jpgLast Saturday night, April 4th, Biola University sponsored a debate between prominent atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and Biola’s own Dr. William Lane Craig, one of the world’s foremost philosophers of religion. Not only were the Biola gym, three overflow sites on-campus, and an overflow site off-campus filled, but a live feed of the debate was also sent to another thirty states and four countries across the globe.
Needless to say, there’s still enough wiggle room in the question at hand to draw a [surprisingly avid] crowd. That’s not to say that most of the attendees weren’t assured in their respective points of view, (shout out to the visiting atheist clubs), but more to point out that the question still requires addressing, perhaps simply by merit of the fact that 1) everyone seems positive in their view and 2) they don’t agree.
Debate over a question that is considered objectively settled, and you’ll have an agonizingly boring debate.


To illustrate, possible titles of debates you’d never want to attend:

  • “Do People Enjoy Paying Taxes?”
  • “Are Traffic Lights A Good Idea?”
  • “Does Exercise and Diet Discipline Improve Health?”

…et cetera ad infinitum.
Nevertheless, in the “Does God Exist?” debate, the logical proofs that Craig presented for the existence of God (God being a ‘supernatural,’ omnipotent designer) were never truly approached by Hitchens. As if the rationale behind their worldviews was of little or no significance, Hitchens instead emphasized the emotional and sociological arguments against deism, as well as asserting his right, as the one negating the concept of God, to defer all burden of proof onto Craig.
Essentially, what Hitchens seems to assert by doing this was not that there is ‘wiggle room’ in the inquiry, but no room, no house, no place in which to move in the first place. In order to appeal to any concept of absolutes, that is, a standard by which he can even claim to have credibility in condemning “religious atrocities,” Hitchens was forced to fall back on his evolutionary standards. What does not promote solidarity of society is, by merit of that alone, ‘immoral.’ [Who, then, gets to decide what a ‘good’ society looks like? The most people alive? The strongest people alive?] By setting man as the standard by which to judge the universe and refusing to consider the possibility of God as such, Hitchens polarized the debate.
I admire Mr. Hitchens’ passion for truth, and agree with him that society’s preservation often does align with morality. But can it provide a satisfactory standard, or must we appeal to that which transcends mankind? A key objection that Hitchens made was that Dr. Craig’s argument for God worked from the unspoken assumption “God.” However, the objection was unfounded: Craig made careful cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God that Hitchens never directly addressed. If either of the debaters was working off assumptions, it was Hitchens, who assumed “No God” to the extent that he was unwilling to assume Craig’s worldview long enough to refute it.
My conclusion on the debate was that Hitchens adequately represented the ingrained doubt that we all feel regarding God’s existence. I rarely, if ever, ‘feel’ God’s existence or have religious experiences, and Hitchens voiced that he does not/cannot relate to those experiences either. In order to cope with this situation, though, he has resorted to creating what I consider to be illusory experience of hubristic liberty. Does he ‘feel’ any more as an atheist than he might as a deist?
Ironic, too, that the question would come down to that: the arguments are not capable of resolving the debate, and thus, ‘faith in God’ or ‘faith in personal experience’ becomes the determinate. I have chosen faith in something–Someone–that transcends myself, for not only do the logical arguments indicate the existence of God, but also, Christianity gives (among other things) life a meaningful syntax that my personal, narrow experience of life does not. Hitchens wants me to live for some thing called “society,” but why should I? Hitchens wants to seek some thing called “liberty,” but what right has he to say what it is or why it is valuable?
Hitchens wants to default onto an assumption of ‘no God’, but I can’t help but think that to do so very well may be the most terrifying, unreasonable prospect possible, and a cynical delving into the depths of our own human psyches that offers little hope of re-surfacing. If one must assume–and it seems they must if they wish to make sense of life–then I will assume that there is ‘something rather than nothing’ for a reason beyond the perpetuation of the ‘something’ itself.



  • Uncle Don

    From conversations with classmates, did you get a sense that Hitchens made any inroads in his attempt to make them insecure about their faith (doesn’t look like it worked with you)? After all, I don’t think he’s doing this for his own aggrandizement. He’s out for disciples just as we are. What I’d like to see more of are these sorts of debates at the Princeton’s and Columbia’s of the country. Let’s make the atheist students start to question their world views for a change.

  • Suzanne R. Jones

    Somebody must like paying taxes……….

  • JillD

    Kudos to Biola for a beautiful job of organization. Even with that much interest, and four on-campus venues all carrying the debate, no one seemed to be a headless chicken. The video was perfect; in fact, I think I’m glad we were NOT in the gym, but in Sutherland. Not only did we have an extremely clear view of the debaters, but we got to see close-ups of the big yawn by one student and the mumbling by another. A little welcome levity courtesy of the cameraman.
    I was surprised by how unprepared Mr. Hitchens seemed to be. He seemed to rely on his cynicism to make his points. And he also didn’t seem to be responding to the question “Does God exist?” but rather to something along the lines of “Is it sensible to believe in God (especially within the context of a religion)?” An entirely different question.
    And what in the world has he got against Mother Teresa, for crying out loud? He seems to hate that (almost) sainted woman.
    Hitchens made a couple of points that I felt Dr. Craig gave weak responses to, but good answers might have carried the debate into subjects that perhaps he didn’t want to go into. Or maybe he knew what Hitchens was angling to hear and he wasn’t going to go there. A little like a game of chess, perhaps??
    The whole experience was very enjoyable. Again, congrats to the crew that put it all together. You did a great job!

  • Winsome

    I was shocked at how little Hitchens had to offer, how little I was challenged to reconsider my belief in God based on solid, rational argument. It was as if he were phoning in poor readings from his book.
    My program had an insert with WLC’s 5-point outline, but on the reverse, under Hitchens’ name, was nothing. He was completely free-wheeling, and okay, that’s his style, and though some may believe it’s a sign of true genius to be able to speak on a topic without notes, as WLC pointed out more than once, Hitchens only responded to two of WLC’s arguments, and those where very weak. When WLC outed him, he even forfeited his rebuttal, for no other apparent reason than he’d pretty much said all he could, and didn’t care (a second time) to take up the arguments WLC put on the table. He couldn’t make a high school debate team with preparation/performance like that.
    You’d think he’d at least go for something serious, like the problem of Evil. But it was all that soggy toast “Religion causes suffering, or something.” He ducked the Resurrection, apparently doesn’t understand the terms cosmological or teleological, and it was all delivered in that cavalier, superior & condescending tone (he really thinks believers are intellectually deficient, and was on the verge of insulting the audience twice with utterances to that effect; it was only the British accent that made the slaps seem like a gentleman brushing a bee off your cheek).
    Is this all the new atheists have?
    I think he wants to be the Huxley of the 21st Century.

  • ex-preacher

    I made a comment last night that still has not appeared. Is it lost in your filter or have you decided to stop taking comments from me?

  • Mike Toreno

    Winsome, dealing with the resurrection is simple. You bring me a picture of Jesus holding Sunday’s newspaper, then we’ll talk. Until then, don’t bother me. Cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God are all just arguments from ignorance. The only that the question “How could phenomenon X happen if God does not exist” deserves is “I don’t know, but that doesn’t open the door to any random explanation you want to dream up.”
    As to Hitchens suggesting that the audience was stupid, well, he was at Biola, right?

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Dustin Steeve

    Ex,
    Due to a recent spike in spam comments, I increased the “aggressiveness” of the spam filter. Unfortunately, it seemed to refuse numerous legitimate comments. As a result, I decreased the aggressiveness of the filter – you should not experience any more problems posting comments.
    Mike,
    I’m not sure why you feel the need to come to this blog to slobber your way through attacks against Biola. If that is what gives your life meaning, then so be it. Perhaps to my discredit, I won’t ban you for being a fool.
    However, for those interested in Hitchen’s impression of Biola, both my girlfriend and a good friend of mine had meals with Mr. Hitchens while he was here. Each of my friends said that Mr. Hitchens was a gentleman and a scholar, both enjoyed his company and the challenging conversations that they had with him. Mr. Hitchens remarked to one of my friends that he felt welcomed by Biola and that he was impressed by the questions asked by Biola students at the debate. It is our hope that Mr. Hitchens will put himself on the list of people, including Anthony Flew, who came to Biola to offer a controversial perspective, felt welcomed by its community, and impressed by the scholarship of its students.
    Dustin

  • http://ateam.blogware.com David N.

    Mike,
    One correction. Craig’s cosmological argument was not an argument from silence. It was a deductive argument (i.e. if the premises are sound and the argument valid, the conclusion follows necessarily). None of the premises were “we don’t know what caused x.”

  • ucfengr

    You bring me a picture of Jesus holding Sunday’s newspaper, then we’ll talk.
    How would you know it was a picture of Jesus holding the paper and not someone who fit your impression of what Jesus might of looked like? Of course you wouldn’t and even if I produced the requested picture, you wouldn’t believe it anyway, so what would we have to talk about?

  • http://www.jesuscourse.info Chris

    I think this is a debate that will always go on. Philosophers have been very clever in proving that you can’t prove anything and so now we have to have endless debates about all the things we can’t prove. Atheists are in an impossible situation of trying to prove that something does not exist and so they rely on the age old tactic of dismissing any argument in favour of God as simply ignorant (often in an angry way – why?). What worries me a little is that often they imply that being an Atheist is the next step up in the evolutionary chain which seems to lay claim to being some kind of master race (of which they being Atheists are a part, of course). They never acknowledge that there have always been Atheists and Atheism is not an advance in understanding or upgrade to the human mind.
    We do have a newspaper with a picture of Jesus in it – in fact we have four of them. The gospels are as close as anyone is going to get to a newspaper from that period but still people refuse to believe eyewitness testimony. No time for debating that one – just observing.
    I’m just glad God never bothers worrying about whether I exist but just keeps on loving me all the same.

  • http://www.voiceoftruthblog.com John

    Will this debate be available to download somewhere? What I often find interesting in these debates on the existence of God, is that often the debate is one-sided, meaning the apologist is left defending his viewpoint while the atheist takes the approach of prove it to me, never having an argument to support their own beliefs.
    I’ve thought about this several times on how one could use apologetics to reach those who are strongly rooted in their atheist/agnostic beliefs and this is what I’ve come up with:
    No matter what kind of argument, founded in Biblical truth, that a Christian tries to make to “convince” another of the existence of God, it ultimately comes down to God and whether He decides to lift the cloud of doubt over that person. While apologetics can be helpful at times, they’re no substitute for absolute faith and that’s what is required for belief in God.
    Psalm 14:1 The fool says in his heart “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.
    Proverbs 26:4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
    http://www.voiceoftruthblog.com

  • Mike Toreno

    Chris, none of the gospels was written by eyewitnesses. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written about 40 years after the events it recounts. You pretend this is eyewitness testimony because it tells you what you want to believe, not because it is really eyewitness testimony.

  • http://odgie.wordpress.com Odgie

    Toreno,
    Timeframes are not the be-all and end-all to determine an account’s accuracy of any events. The earliest written accounts of Alexander the Great are dated at 400 years after his death, yet historians accept these.

  • ex-preacher

    Historians accept the accounts of Alexander with a large grain of salt. For instance, Alexander had a historian who traveled with him named Callisthenes. He was a “professional flatterer.”
    “Callisthenes stressed Alexander’s manly behavior and the effeminate weakness of the Persians. Another story that Alexander must have appreciated is that of the sea doing obedience to the new Achilles. One thing is certain: Callisthenes did not object to Alexander’s claim to be the son of Zeus.”

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Dustin Steeve

    John,
    I am not sure if Biola apologetics will be offering a download of the debate. I am sure that they will sell a physical copy of the debate. You can find out more details about that here: http://www.biola.edu/academics/professional-studies/apologetics/events/.
    Dustin

  • Rob Ryan

    “If one must assume–and it seems they must if they wish to make sense of life–then I will assume that there is ‘something rather than nothing’ for a reason beyond the perpetuation of the ‘something’ itself.”
    As a Christian, you assume a great deal more than “something”. Your assumptions are numerous, specific, and quite detailed.

  • http://dailyduck.blogspot.com/h Hey Skipper

    And he also didn’t seem to be responding to the question “Does God exist?” but rather to something along the lines of “Is it sensible to believe in God (especially within the context of a religion)?” An entirely different question.
    It is only the latter question that has any meaning whatsoever.
    Mr. Hitchens argument is that no one really knows anything about God, and religious claims to the contrary are nonsense. In and of itself, that is scarcely worthy of comment. However, the consequences that flow from religions’ metaphysical claims are very worthy of comment: they are, by and large, poisonous.
    Speaking only for myself, the claims Islam makes for itself would be comical if they didn’t create a belief system that is almost the antithesis of simple human decency. Fortunately (for me) it is easy to refute them, because they are no more worthy of belief than all other religious claims.
    The problem facing Christians is that there is no way to prefer the claims of Christianity to those of Islam. To do so effectively requires adopting Hitchens’ argument.
    Having done that, though, you have holed your own ship below the waterline.
    That is why Hitchen’s framing of the question is the one that matters.

  • linds

    I just watched a rebroadcast of the debate at our school in San Jose, and I have to say it was well worth the time I didn’t really have to spare to watch it! What a great event for Biola to host.
    I thought it was well-done, and though I think Craig’s logic blew Hitchens’ arguments out of the water, I don’t know that Christians should rest easy. While Craig won the philosophical debate (looking very much like the nerdy debate student, or as one of my own students mentioned, like a Republican candidate for the House), Hitchens won the popular one. I found myself wishing he was on the theist side, because I really wanted to agree with him.
    We need a Christian Hitchens who has solid logic and an easy cleverness at his or her disposal. Actually, Hitchens is really just an atheist Chesterton, so we just need another GK. We don’t need a hip debater who doesn’t know theology like so many popular apologists, or another suit (no matter how amazing he is!) – there’s a crowd that loves Hitchens’ candid frankness and fierce wit, and Christians aren’t reaching them in these debates. We could…

  • JillD

    Chestertons only come around about once every 500 years. I think he would have eaten Hitchens for lunch: probably as an appetizer.
    It’s easy to be cynical and dismissive and rude, which is how I perceived Hitchens. I didn’t find him appealing at all. Personal opinion, obviously, but I hope Christian apologists don’t take on his mannerisms at all.

  • http://dailyduck.blogspot.com/h Hey Skipper

    And he also didn’t seem to be responding to the question “Does God exist?” but rather to something along the lines of “Is it sensible to believe in God (especially within the context of a religion)?” An entirely different question.
    It is only the latter question that has any meaning whatsoever.
    Mr. Hitchens argument is that no one really knows anything about God, and religious claims to the contrary are nonsense. In and of itself, that is scarcely worthy of comment. However, the consequences that flow from religions’ metaphysical claims are very worthy of comment: they are, by and large, poisonous.
    Speaking only for myself, the claims Islam makes for itself would be comical if they didn’t create a belief system that is almost the antithesis of simple human decency. Fortunately (for me) it is easy to refute them, because they are no more worthy of belief than all other religious claims.
    The problem facing Christians is that there is no way to prefer the claims of Christianity to those of Islam. To do so effectively requires adopting Hitchens’ argument.
    Having done that, though, you have holed your own ship below the waterline.
    That is why Hitchen’s framing of the question is the one that matters.

  • LaughAtTheBible

    Assuming no God is better than assuming that God exists. Assuming God exists and living your life by “His” Word is no better than a mentally handicapped person living their life on the assumption that nothing exists, and that by some crazy “logic” he/she has to kill as many people as possible. Only a theist would argue that morality is the result of his/her deity. Atheists remove the supernatural cause of morality, and (most of them) follow a moral code that most people would agree to, at least for the most part.

    Studies have been conducted on the cause for morality (without saying GodDidIt), and it has been found to be an evolutionary trait. For example, if morality did not exist, then society would not form, and if society did not form, then humanity would die off. Morality came about as a survival characteristic, because it allows humans to work together and thrive.

    For more information on morality without God, read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.