In 2008, after my book The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible came out, I was asked to fly to Ireland to participate in a debate on the existence of God at University College Cork. I had been doing radio interviews for my book and was very comfortable discussing some of the sillier arguments atheists use to attack Christianity or the Bible – for example, that the Bible is full of scientific “errors” and therefore is obviously complete nonsense. Attacks such as these are basic category errors – a comparison of apples and oranges – that are easily refuted.
But despite studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I didn’t really feel qualified to debate the existence of God. Plus, I was super busy with other things and with business projects, about to go on a trip to Rome, and so I politely declined the offer in Ireland.
At the time, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins were supposedly going around doing debates, taking on people like author Dinesh D’Souza and the Oxford theologian and former scientist Alister McGrath. The impression I got was that Hitchens was simply demolishing the theists with his rapier-like wit and vast erudition. Also, I have always looked with awe on Oxbridge philosophy – home of such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Elisabeth Anscombe and so on – and so I assumed that the UK philosophers would trot out their superior logical skills, decades of logical analysis, and easily smash the dusty old arguments of theism. (Truth be told, however, Fr. Coppleston more than held his own against Lord Russell in their famous 1948 debate on the BBC.)
It turns out that I was utterly deluded. Recently, I’ve begun to systematically record all of the debates on the Existence of God that I can lay my hands on and listen to them at my leisure, usually while driving.
In the process, I made a shocking discovery. It turns out that the atheists are really, really good at insults but are actually quite poor debaters. The atheists insult Christianity, Judaism and religion generally with a nastiness that is almost breathtaking. They belittle. They demean. They insinuate. But the one thing they don’t do is offer intelligent arguments that disprove the existence of God.
In fact, they don’t actually reason at all.
Reasoning, after all, is a systematic questioning of assumptions… a marshaling of evidence… a critical examination of arguments. It is not, primarily, name-calling. When I first started watching these debates, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I assumed the atheists would eventually put forward logical arguments that the Theists would be hard pressed to answer. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the atheists didn’t really marshal salient arguments at all: they merely sneered. The New Atheists are plainly accustomed to standing up in front of large groups of college students, making snide put-downs that get a lot of laughs and applause; and they are quite good at demolishing arguments made by young earth Creationists and snake-handling fundamentalists. But when faced with genuine Christian intellectuals – such as the philosopher William Lane Craig – they fail utterly even to engage the principal arguments being made.
For example, when Craig debated Sam Harris on the topic of moral values – whether you can establish the existence of objective moral values without recourse to God – Craig offered three extremely precise reasons why Harris failed to prove the existence of objective moral values in his then-latest book, The Moral Landscape. He offered a detailed, step by step critique for why Harris’s argument in his book is, at bottom, logically incoherent.
When it came time for Harris to respond, he didn’t. He didn’t respond to a single one of Craig’s logical arguments. Instead, he simply changed the subject – and fell back on his snide one-liner attacks on the Bible and how stupid Christians are. (go to Page 2)
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