Last night I watched an extremely enjoyable debate between Christian scholar William Lane Craig and renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens, which took place in April 2009 at Biola University, a Christian college. Both sides made a strong case, but they seemed to be operating on different playing fields. While Craig put forward his arguments in classical philosophical fashion—laying out his premises and following them to a conclusion—Hitchens avoided strict philosophical analysis altogether and merely cast doubt over the entire Christian worldview by pointing out the many absurdities it leads to. Whereas Craig was talking in terms of “If A and B therefore C”, Hitchens didn’t challenge A and B but merely said, “Well then you have to accept D and E and F as well”.
If Hitchens’ intention was to spark doubt in the heavily Christian audience, his tactic may have been more practically effective than the approach I would have taken, but when all was said and done I was left feeling unsatisfied that Craig’s arguments were left standing, their flaws never having been directly and specifically exposed by Hitchens. Many in the audience who think the way I used to think (I was once adamantly religious and fervently searching for philosophical arguments to justify my faith) could have picked any of Craig’s arguments and held fast to them, merely brushing aside the problems Hitchens highlighted as mere divine mystery, a result of man’s inability to understand God’s ways.
As such, I’ll take it upon myself to look at all five of Craig’s arguments and address them head-on. This is mostly for my own edification (this is my favorite topic and I love writing about it) but it’s also to provide atheists with a little more ammunition for their theological debates and hopefully to show theists (though I doubt any theists are reading this) that their faith is not grounded in logic and if they choose to believe in God, they must accept the groundlessness of that belief.
Just to be clear, I think everyone has a right to believe in God if they choose. I just take Kierkegaard’s position that this belief is a leap of faith, that it can’t be rationally justified, and God’s existence can never be proven. Belief in God itself is not evil—it is the supposed certainty of that belief which leads to the justification of all kinds of moral evils—and so it is that I attempt to generate as much uncertainty as possible.
So without further ado, let’s get to it. I have to start by first addressing the two major contentions that Craig says he will be defending:
Craig’s Contentions: 1- There is no good argument that atheism is true. 2- There are good arguments that theism is true.
Right off the bat, Craig tosses the burden of proof to the wrong side of the aisle, something I used to do all the time in my religious days. “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” I used to say to my atheist challengers, and be satisfied because they of course couldn’t refute this.
But the atheist has nothing to prove, as Hitchens points out later on. That’s like saying, “You can’t prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist” or “You can’t prove the non-existence of Santa Claus”. Of course you can’t. In fact, it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything. Prove that unicorns don’t exist—go ahead. You can take me to every square meter of the planet and if we don’t find a unicorn, you still haven’t proved that they don’t exist. We just didn’t find one, but they could have just been hiding, or on another planet, or in another dimension. Proof of non-existence is logically impossible.
It’s up to the prosecutor to prove that the defendant committed the murder—it’s not up to the defendant to prove he didn’t commit the murder. In the same respect, it’s not up to the atheist to prove that God doesn’t exist. It’s up to the theist to offer a convincing reason as to why we should believe that God does exist. Craig believes he has five convincing reasons, and I will show that he has none.
1- The cosmological argument: Why is there something rather than nothing?
As I wrote several years ago in my philosophy journal, I think the cosmological argument is the strongest of all rational attempts to prove the existence of God. In the end, it rests on an assumption, but it is a very strong assumption: that nothing can exist without a cause.
Craig points out that if there was no First Cause that started the universe, then the chain of causes would have to stretch back in time to infinity. I’ll grant him this, but I won’t go so far as to say that an infinite regress of causes is, as he contends, impossible. He quotes a few mathematicians on the concept of infinity, saying how it leads to self-contradictions (e.g. what is infinity minus infinity?) and does not exist in reality but is merely an abstract idea.
But I don’t accept the claim that because something leads to logical difficulties it is therefore impossible. It is extremely arrogant on the part of human beings with limited mental capacity to make such definitive pronouncements on concepts as incomprehensible as infinity or a First Cause. Who are we to decide, based purely on thought experiments, that the universe must be finite, that there can be no infinite regress of causes, and that nothing can exist without a cause? We are dealing with things so far removed from human experience that to simply pronounce that something can’t be true because our brains can’t conceive of it is pure hubris.
Craig cites the Big Bang Theory as evidence of the truth of the cosmological argument, which I find amusing. Christianity never used science to back up its claims in the old days, but as soon as the Big Bang Theory was introduced they pounced all over it as empirical evidence that their beliefs were correct all along. Craig correctly characterizes the theory as asserting that all of space and time began at a particular instant. But he then says incorrectly that the atheist now has the difficulty of explaining how something came from nothing.
Never mind that the theist has the exact same difficulty when it comes to the Big Bang. Okay, so the theist can say that God caused the Big Bang. Then what caused God? Whatever you decide is the First Cause, you then have to ask what caused that Cause, and what caused that, and so on to infinity. Craig completely ignores the option open to the atheist, the one I believe is true, that our universe is one of many universes, and the Big Bang that started this one was caused by a natural event that occurred in another universe, which was caused by something that happened in another universe, and so on.
Craig simply asserts that whatever caused the Big Bang must be beyond space and time (the fact that the human mind can’t conceive of this doesn’t seem to bother him now) and that it can therefore be only one of two things: an abstract object or a personal mind. Abstract objects such as numbers can’t cause anything, so the only option left is a personal, intelligent mind. Quite the huge logical leap, as a moment’s thought will reveal. For one thing, he hasn’t shown why these are the only two candidates for First Cause. Couldn’t it have been something besides these two things, such as a naturally occurring event in a meta-universe? Second of all, he hasn’t offered the first shred of an argument as to why the mind is beyond space and time. The debate as to the nature of mind rages on in philosophy and shows no signs of coming to a resolution. If Craig wants to back up this argument, he has to show that mind is non-physical, something no philosopher has ever been able to conclusively do. His defense of the cosmological argument, and his assertion that the Big Bang Theory proves the existence of a personal creator God, therefore fall flat.
2- The teleological argument: The laws of nature are fine-tuned for intelligent life, so they must have been designed.
This is an interesting argument because it leads to some mind-blowingly fascinating conclusions. Basically, it says that when you consider all the fundamental constants in nature such as the strength of gravity and the nuclear forces, the speed of light, the rate of entropy and so on, you find that if you alter any of these constants even slightly, you’d get a universe in which life was impossible. For instance, if the weak nuclear force was just a little bit weaker, there would be no stars or galaxies and therefore no planets or heavy elements or life either.
According to Craig there are only three possible explanations open to the atheist for why the universe is so fine-tuned. The first is necessity: it simply couldn’t have been any other way. This is clearly not true—there’s no physical reason the speed of light couldn’t be a bit faster or slower than it is, that gravity couldn’t be a bit weaker or stronger than it is, and so on. The second possibility is chance: the universe just happened to have all the right constants. This is clearly absurd as well, as the odds are infinitesimally small that any random universe created would have the properties necessary to sustain life. It would be like rolling a billion dice and hoping they all land on 6.
But the third possibility is conceivable, and I’d say downright likely. Let’s say you roll a billion dice an infinite number of times. Eventually, you’re going to get an outcome in which all of them do land on 6. It may take 10 x 10^Googol attempts, but eventually you’ll get there. In the same respect, if you posit an infinite amount of universes all with different cosmological constants, you’re going to get a few universes in which stars and galaxies and planets and life are possible. We just happen to be in one of those universes, so it looks amazing to us that everything seems so fine-tuned. I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ puddle of water, marveling at what a fantastic coincidence it is that it fits so perfectly into the groove in the ground where it sits.
Craig dismisses this idea as though it were ridiculous, saying how there’s absolutely no evidence that such a multi-verse exists. Okay, fair enough. The claim that our universe is just one of many is [currently] scientifically un-verifiable and un-falsifiable. But the only alternative explanation, the God hypothesis, is also un-verifiable and un-falsifiable. The question is which is more likely to be the case? Which assumption are we more justified in making? In his rebuttal, Hitchens gives us many reasons to doubt the idea of an intelligent designer: if the universe was really designed with intelligent life in mind, why all the empty wasted space? Why all the wasted time? Billions of galaxies, billions of years, all kinds of major cataclysms and mass extinctions before humans arrive—it hardly seems intelligently designed at all. It’s far more likely, in my opinion, that this universe is just one of an infinite number (to me it seems impossible that Existence is finite at all, and I therefore believe that logically there must be an infinite number of universes) and one of only a small percentage which generate inhabitants capable of marveling at how accommodating the laws of physics are to itself.
The multi-verse hypothesis, Craig says, is subject to a “devastating objection” which is as follows: If our universe were just a random member of a multi-verse, it would be overwhelmingly more probable that we would be witnessing a much different universe than the one we observe. He cites Roger Penrose in saying that it is infinitely more probable that our solar system should come together through a random collision of particles than that a finely tuned universe should exist. Craig says that if our universe were just a part of a multi-verse, we should be observing an orderly region no larger than our solar system. Because we don’t observe this, we can dismiss the multi-verse hypothesis.
Um…okay? Maybe he didn’t really understand the multi-verse hypothesis. I certainly don’t know how you come to the conclusion that if it were true, our universe would be the size of the solar system, but I insist again that given an infinite number of universes, it is not overwhelmingly improbable but actually a complete certainty that a finely-tuned universe will exist. Again, roll a billion dice from now until the end of time and eventually they will all land on 6. Craig has completely failed to refute that.
At this point, I’ll skip his third argument and deal with that at the end because I believe it to be the most important. His fourth and fifth arguments are the least compelling.
3- The resurrection of Jesus: The best historical explanation is that Christ’s claims of divinity were true.
Turning from metaphysical to historical argument, and turning from the attempt to prove Theism in general to Christian Theism in particular, Craig puts forward three historical facts that he believes are best explained by Christ’s divinity: 1- On the Sunday after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by his women followers. 2- On separate occasions different groups experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death. These appearances were witnessed not just by believers, but unbelievers and skeptics as well. 3- The disciples of Jesus came to believe in the resurrection despite every predisposition to the contrary. The Jews had no belief of a dying or rising Messiah, but the disciples came to believe in the resurrection so strongly that they were willing to die for that belief. Because, Craig insists, there is no plausible naturalistic explanation for these facts, Christians are justified in believing that Christ rose from the dead and was what he claimed to be.
The first two facts are based on nothing more than Biblical Scripture, and can therefore be dismissed out of hand. The New Testament wasn’t written by witnesses to these events but by men who, at least fifty years later, wrote their accounts of the story based on hearsay and rumor from those who had supposedly been there at the time. Craig cites a few Russian scholars who say that it can be taken as historical certainty that these things happened, but on what authority can they make this claim? It’s a historical certainty that Jesus rose from the dead? Really? Because there are no other written accounts to the contrary? Really? By that reasoning we should also believe in the literal truth of The Iliad because there are no contrary accounts to suggest that Achilles was not in fact dipped in immortality juice by the gods who quite absent-mindedly forgot about the heel.
As for the fact that the disciples of Jesus were willing to believe in the resurrection to the point of death, Hitchens successfully tore apart that claim by pointing out that the strength of a belief has absolutely no bearing on its veracity. Islamic suicide-bombers believe in the divinity of their Messiah with just as much zeal as the early Christians who were fed to lions believed in theirs.
Sorry, but the best historical explanation for the resurrection story is that it was made up, just like every other miracle-story in every other religion.
4- The immediate experience of God: You can know that God exists wholly apart from argument, simply by immediately experiencing Him.
This is the theist’s trump card: you can’t convince me that God doesn’t exist because I know He does. I simply feel that it’s true. When I’m alone, I feel His presence. When I pray, I feel Him listening. When I’m in pain, I feel Him comforting me. That’s all the proof I need.
Craig says that belief in God, to those who experience Him, is a “properly basic” belief, on par with the belief in an external world, the belief in the existence of the past, and of the existence of other minds. These beliefs are not based on argument but are the foundations of belief, and while none of them can be proved to be true, they are nevertheless grounded in experience, they arise naturally from seeing and feeling things, from having memory, from communicating with others, and are therefore justified and “properly” basic. Just as communicating with others gives rise to the properly basic belief in other minds, Craig argues, communicating with God gives rise to the properly basic belief in God’s existence.
Because this is not an argument, per se, it can’t be refuted with pure logic. However, I can point out that while there is definitely some phenomenon that believers experience when in a state of prayer or meditation, there is no reason to believe that this is God, let alone the specific God of their own religion.
As I said, I used to be very religious. When I prayed, I felt something. I felt differently in a Church than I did at home. Reading certain Bible passages gave me chills or a tingling sensation. Doing things condemned by my religion made me feel guilty. Doing good things made me feel good. All these kinds of feelings are natural to human beings, whatever their faith may be. The belief in such inner emotional states or in a ‘spiritual’ frame-of-mind may be properly basic, but there’s nothing proper or basic about the inference to an intelligent designer of the universe who is responsible for these feelings and states of mind.
To be clear, even after abandoning Christianity I’ve had some rather profound experiences in which it feels all of a sudden like I’m floating on another plane entirely, that all of Existence seems to be in perfect Harmony and I feel at complete peace with the world and every living thing in it. And I would say that this does constitute evidence that there is in fact something more to the universe than forces, particles, and random chance. Neuroscientists may have their own materialistic explanations for such phenomena, but I’m willing to grant that when you are in that state of mind, you just know that it’s more than brain chemistry.
But to know that there is something deeper to the universe is not, by any means, the same as to know that there is a singular personal creator God, that humans were created in His image, that he sent his only son to Earth on a suicide mission to save the souls of those he created, and the rest of it. This transcendent feeling may justify the belief in something, but not the Christian God or the truth of any particular religion.
5- The moral argument: If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
While this is Craig’s third argument I saved it for last because I believe it’s the most important. The most important, but also the weakest in terms of a logical proof of God’s existence. It goes like this:
1- Without God, there are no objective moral values.
2- There are objective moral values.
3- Therefore God exists.
I’ll grant that Premise 1 is true. As Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. Indeed, philosophers have been struggling to erect a firm foundation for ethical claims without relying on divine authority for a long time. My entire college thesis is devoted to the attempts of Albert Camus to do just this, and while he offers what I believe to be some very valuable perspectives on morality, he never offers a basic, objective foundation for ethics. If moral rules are not built by God into the fabric of the universe, the atheist must accept that morals are purely subjective, not dictated from above but chosen by us.
Hitchens admits that this is not a desirable conclusion. We all want to believe that certain things are absolutely right and others absolutely wrong. If we want to condemn an action, it’s so much easier to appeal to a Divine Dictator who says quite clearly that This Is Wrong, rather than get into all this messy business of weighing the suffering it causes versus the suffering it prevents, determining whether it would work as a categorical imperative, debating whether the intention deserves more weight than the consequences, and on and on and on. Without divine rules to call upon, ethics is tricky business. But if we don’t believe in God, we must accept the consequences no matter how undesirable.
But Craig’s argument isn’t that a Divine Moral Code is preferable, but that it simply exists. We just know that rape is wrong. We know that murder is wrong. It’s not just a result of social evolution, the product of our ancestors having to live together. It’s just wrong, and we know it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it.
And for the people who believe in Moral Absolutes, you just can’t convince them otherwise. It’s like the argument from immediate experience—moral outrage is so immediate and undeniable that to suggest it’s not built into the fabric of the universe but something purely psychological will be dismissed out of hand. “Are you telling me that there’s nothing wrong with raping a child?” they’ll challenge you. “That it’s a mere social convention that we are perfectly free to choose not to follow?
To which I would reply: yes and no. Yes, it’s something we’ve chosen, but no, that doesn’t make it any less valid than if it were dictated by God. (Incidentally, God said nothing about rape or child abuse in his 10 commandments, but that’s beside the point). To put it another way, what difference would it make if you decided not to rape a child because you personally chose not to, or because God told you not to? Do we really need God to tell us that raping children is wrong? Can’t we just decide not to do that without it being an order from above?
Craig and other religious apologists insist that because we know there are objective moral values, we can know that there is a God who created them. We can’t know that there are objective moral values, so this argument is a dud. But it leads to a very important point, the point I’d like to conclude on:
We do not need God.
If humanity wants to survive and thrive as a species, we need to divorce our morality from God. We can’t keep justifying our actions based on whether or not God approves or disapproves. There are too many different sects of too many different religions with too many different ideas about what God wants and what God hates. And if you’re only doing good because you want God to reward you, and only avoiding evil because you’re afraid of God punishing you, then you’re not really behaving morally at all—you’re only behaving selfishly.
Moral values do not have to be built into the fabric of the universe. Moral values can be just as real and legitimate if they are chosen by people rather than chosen by God. And while we may not be able to agree on everything, once you toss God out of the equation you’ll be surprised at how much we can agree on. No more pointless disputes over how best to worship Him, over which foods are acceptable or not, over whether masturbation is evil, over countless little details of doctrine such as whether you should be able to receive communion if you haven’t gone to confession first, and all of this meaningless garbage that has caused so much pointless conflict and suffering and death over the centuries.
If we don’t have God to give us values, then we have to make them ourselves. Nietzsche wrote that we must create our own morality. Sartre wrote that we have to take responsibility for what we do. Camus wrote that a value is created every time a rebel stands up and fights for it. All of them, and countless others, have shown us that values are created by us, not imposed on us. And I personally think this makes them even more valuable. I’d rather refrain from rape and murder because I choose not to cause that kind of suffering than to refrain from such activities out of fear of eternal punishment.
Treat others as you’d like to be treated. That’s a start. We don’t need God to tell us that. And I think we’re better off without Him.