Atheism vs. Christianity - Where does the evidence point?

Notes on the Debate between Dr William Craig and Dr Peter Slezak (Sydney Town Hall, 2002)

Is there a God?
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
Is Christianity true?

These are some of the most important questions anyone can ever ask.

In this debate, two fine speakers address these issues as they debate the topic “Atheism versus Christianity – where does the evidence point?”

Dr William Craig is one of the foremost contemporary defenders of the Christian faith. He is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, California.

Dr Peter Slezak is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales. He teaches and speaks widely in the media of philosophy, science and religion.

Presented by St Barnabas Anglican Church Broadway, the debate was held in August 2002 in front of more than 2000 people in the Sydney Town Hall.

William Craig (For Christianity) - 20 mins

Two necessary questions in this debate need to be answered:
  1. What good evidence is there that God exists?
  2. What good evidence is there that God does not exist; that atheism is true?
The second question is left to the opposition in this debate.
Five points of evidence are given for the first question:

1. The origin of the universe:
    • Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
    • Premise 2: The universe began to exist
    • Therefore the universe has a cause.
    • By necessity: The cause is a timeless, uncaused, personal agent who freely chooses to cause the universe.
2. The complex order of the universe.
There are only three possible explanations for the complexity in the universe:
    • Natural law
    • Chance.
    • Design.
Scientifically the first is not plausible (the universe could have been otherwise and still exist). The second is not probable (the chance of this complexity arising randomly is unthinkable). The third is possible and likely.

  • Premise 1: there are only three possibilities
  • Premise 2: Design is the only possible and likely explanation
  • Therefore the universe had a designer.
3. Objective moral values

Our argument is not must we believe in God to live moral lives. We’re not claiming we must. Nor, is our questions ‘can we recognise moral values without believing in God’. I think we can.

But our argument is, if God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist. On this point atheists agree.

But objective moral values do exist. The evidence for this is given.

Therefore, since objective moral values do exist, then God also exists.

4. The historical facts concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus

His life: Jesus showed divine authority to speak in God’s place.
His ministry of miracles and exorcisms support his claim.
His resurrection is a divine miracle that shows us that God exists.

There are three established historical facts that are best explained by the resurrection.
    • Jesus’ tomb was found empty
    • Appearances of Jesus as being alive after his death
    • The disciples came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and came to willingness unto death for this belief.
Attempts to explain these facts away have been universally rejected. This therefore entails that God exists.

5. Immediate experience of God.

This is not an argument. Rather it is the claim that you can know God wholly apart from argument.

Dr Peter Slezak (For Atheism) - 20 mins

Dr Craig has not followed the logic of proof and disproof. ‘Evidence’ must be understood as scientists understand it. Therefore his question is misleading: There can be no proof or disproof of God’s existence, because God is not a mathematical theorem. The best you can do is point out the lack of evidence and conclude that the existence of God is not supported by what we observe scientifically.

This is the nature of all universal claims. No one has ever proved or disproved the existence of UFOs. But it is precisely the lack of evidence that makes us believe that they don’t exist.

1. Cosmological argument

    • Dr Craig’s argument relies on ones own ability to see common sense, though many of the established facts of the universe are not common sense, though they are true nonetheless (eg. Physics laws such as wave-particle duality of light)
    • Physics prevents a ‘cause’ for the universe because before the beginning of the universe there was nothing. That is, there was no before. Therefore there can be nothing before to cause the cause.
    • Dr Craig’s is rather talking about a ‘metaphysical’ cause, which is another way of saying there just must be something even though there can’t be something.
2. Design argument

Improbability is not always a good argument for design. In analogies such as the watch, it works. But you can’t use an analogy within the universe and apply it to the way the whole universe works. Nor can you trust your brain to infer anything simply from the unlikeliness of an event, unless you know something more in the background. The mere fact of the improbability is not enough. For that is the nature of improbability is not enough to conclude that it was not an accident.

E.g. A hand of total spades: It is just as probable as your usual mixed up hand. It’s just that the first is interesting. But so what?

The ones who survived in the war are the ones who get to tell the story. It is still luck, but the only reason they are there telling you their story is that someone was always going to win.

    • It is the imperfections that are the best evidence for evolution, not the perfections.
    • Why would an omnipotent God design imperfections?
3. The historicity of Jesus:
    • Human testimony is very unreliable.
It would be pretty perverse of God to give us rational skeptical minds and then expect us not to use them.

Dr William Craig (Christianity) - 12 mins

Question: what is the evidence for atheism?

Dr Slezak says the only evidence against God’s existence is the lack of evidence for God’s existence.

This is highly significant. It means he agrees that all of the traditional arguments for atheism fail (such as problem of evil etc). Therefore he claims that the only evidence for atheism is lack of evidence for God.

But absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

E.g. There is no positive evidence yet that no gold exists on Pluto – but this doesn’t mean that there is no gold on Pluto.

So when does lack of evidence mean evidence against something?

Lack of evidence for x, counts as positive evidence against x, only if in the case that x did exist then we should expect to see more evidence of x.

E.g. Absence of evidence for planet between earth and Venus. We would expect to  see evidence, of course for this.

But if God exists, should we expect to see more evidence than the 5 things we’ve pointed out?
    • Obviously not.
He has to prove that it is highly probable that if God exists we should have more evidence that what we do. But this would be pure speculation.

Thus in the case of God the absence of evidence is not an argument against the existence of God.

What about the second question:

    • Origin of universe.
He agrees with the second premise.
Therefore he is forced to deny the first premise, that whatever begins to exist has a cause. By cause we mean whatever produces or brings into being it’s effect.

He doesn't refute this premise. He just asks, what reasons should we think this premise is true.
    • Being does not come from non-being
    • Something does not come from nothing.
The causal premise is universally accepted. The only reason to deny it is because this would lead you to a conclusion you don’t want to accept.

    • Big bang: yes it can’t have a natural cause.
    • But this doesn’t prohibit a supernatural cause.
Dr Peter Slezak (For Atheism) - 12 mins

Atheist doesn't say God does not exist categorically. Therefore proof is not necessarily.

What are the rules for metaphysics? How do we define ‘cause’? Physics causes cannot be metaphysically. Science is the only ground we have for assessing things. What’s the rational for going beyond science?

Now to the issue of:
    • Objective moral values

‘If you escape the social consequences, there is nothing really wrong with you raping somebody?’ in the absence of God.

The point is that we can share his intuition. But his appeal is simply to ‘what you think’. This shows that ‘yes’ we do all think that morals do exist. Yes we all do have strong moral convictions. But this doesn’t mean that they really do exist, just because we all feel they do.

They don’t have a cosmic status, as the Aztecs show, which cut out the hearts of others to please their gods!

In the Andromeda galaxy, our morals don’t exist.

Now to more on:
    • Jesus and miracles
Arguments for biblical miracles haven’t got any better. We don’t have to doubt the historicity. It’s not the facts that are in dispute. It’s the interpretation that is in dispute. Eg. Our interpretation might be ‘He was not dead’, ‘the disciples stole the body’.

It is not just the miraculous interpretation that is possible. And actually any other interpretation other than miraculous is more probable.

Dr William Craig (For Christianity) - 8 mins

Back to:
    • Objective moral values
Which premise does Dr Slezak deny?

Without God there is no basis for existence of morals, even though we feel they exist. He seems to agree with this!

If Martians came from Andromeda would we accept their other morality, even if they wanted to rape our women in order to reproduce?

He has no answer. ‘We humans feel it’s wrong, but so what?’ he says. We agree that the moral values don’t exist in the absence of God.

But we maintain that they really do exist. We are justified then to believe in the existence of God, in the same way we are justified to believe that physical objects exist.

Now more on:
    • Life, death, resurrection of Jesus.
Notice that he doesn't deny any of the actual historical facts.
What he tries to do is offer an alternative explanation of the facts, such as ‘The old apparent death theory’. It is universally rejected. Why?

    • Roman method of execution
    • Spear
    • Bleeding in tomb.
    • Even if he’d revived, tomb was sealed.
    • Even if he’d gotten out, his appearance wouldn’t have caused his disciples to worship him as the conqueror of death etc.
He says it’s a better argument of miracles. Any natural explanation is of course more probable than a natural resurrection. But that says nothing of a supernatural resurrection. It doesn’t make it improbable for a supernatural resurrection.

And he has not yet answered the question:
    • Why cannot we trust our experience of God as evidence for the existence of God?
Notice his huge shift in this debate:

He now admits the absence of evidence is not positive evidence that God doesn’t exist. He just says that ‘I don’t believe…’

That is not atheism. That is agnosticism.

So even if all my arguments are rejected we still end up on neutral ground, because the debate is about atheism.

Dr Peter Slezak (For Atheism) - 8 mins

Distinction: being agnostic is about not being sure which way to go. Atheism is being sure that there is no better way than to be sceptical; to be in confirmed disbelieve.

On the matter of
    • Personal experience
I don’t deny these. But they are not grounds for belief.

On the matter of:
    • Jesus
It is inconceivable that you cannot think of more naturalistic explanations than the miraculous one.

On the argument of:
    • Ethics
Dr Craig insists there’s nothing objective if God doesn't exist. But he want’s to call absolute values the objective ones. To do this first of all you need to have independent grounds first for the existence of God.

Now to more on the matter of
    • Logic (the logic of belief)
Dr Craig is himself skeptical about the existence of intelligent life being elsewhere. And this is the exact reason why we are skeptical about the existence of God.

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