Thoughts on the Hitchens-Craig Debate

This was a fascinating debate at BIOLA in 2009. I think its the most interesting debate on theism that I have seen, although the Hitchens-Wilson debates are also interesting and have more back-and-forth interaction. The references to N.T. Wright’s argument for Christianity from the rise in the belief of the resurrection are surprising – I wouldn’t have expected that point to surface in a debate like this, but it comes up several times. I think Hitchens is a fascinating human being. At times he can be intolerably rude, but in several of the debates I’ve recently watched,  I’ve been struck by how laid back and off-the-cuff his manner is – he frequently yields his time, and almost never responds to an opponent line by line. In the Wilson debate especially you see a softer, more humane side of him. He is certainly an eloquent spokesman for the atheistic viewpoint. I think he’s is at his most forceful when he is recounting the abuses and injustices that religion has caused. Although that in itself is not a decisive argument against God or the Christian faith, it has a powerful emotional impact. And in some cases (for example, his criticism of the reality of genocide in the book of Joshua), I don’t exactly know how to answer. I do feel that many of Craig’s arguments go unanswered in this debate, especially those related to the cosmological and teleological arguments. I also think that throughout the debate, Hitchens seems to persist in misunderstanding Craig’s argument for God from objective morality. The issue is not whether people behave better if they believe in God, or whether theists can know moral values better than atheists, or whether moral values historically preceded religious values, or anything like that. The issue is whether anything can be objectively wrong without some kind of transcendent Law Giver. How does you get an “ought” from an “is?” When Craig presses him on this in the Q+A, he admits (starting around 125:30) that there is no objective morality in atheism. Yikes!

I’m more in the presuppositional apologetics camp, but of course I still think that there can be value in debate and argumentation. The cosmological and moral are two arguments that I would appeal to in certain contexts as examples of creation testifying to the Creator, as Romans 1:20 speaks of. Kant spoke of “the starry host above and the moral law within,” and these two arguments roughly correspond to those two testimonies, each of which seems to me to difficult to deny. The cosmological argument, in particular, it seems to me exposes the laborious and wild difficulty of atheism. According to standard Big Bang cosmology, the universe came into being out of nothing roughly 13 billion years ago. To me, it seems like quite a leap of faith to posit that the finite space-time universe leapt into existence for no reason, without some kind of transcendent cause standing behind it. Just imagine it: before the Big Bang, you don’t have just empty space – you have literally nothing. I cannot conceive of real nothingness – when I try, I think of blackness or darkness, but blackness and darkness are of course each something, opposite light and color and whiteness. Pure nothingness is quite impossible to fathom. And out of nothing the space-time continuum we inhabit leaps into being. How do you understand this apart from some infinite, timeless Cause, “in back of” the universe, so to speak?

Hitchens responds (with many other atheists) by asking, “if everything needs a cause, what caused God? Who designed the Designer?” But this misses the point. The cosmological argument does not argue that everything needs a cause. It says that everything which begins to exist needs a cause. All finite, contingent reality needs a cause. God, by definition, is a different kind of reality – necessary and eternal and uncaused. One can certainly deny that such a reality exists, but then the thing being denied is understood to be uncaused Causer, the unmoved Mover. Asking who caused Him is a category mistake – its like asking “how long is eternity?” or “how big is infinity?” Hitchens also counters by pointing out that the universe is winding down to heat death. The idea seems to be – “look at this shoddy, clumsy, universe – some design, huh?” But as Craig points out, just because something terminates does not mean it was not designed. (For example, computers don’t last forever, but they are still designed.) Nor do alleged imperfections in themselves negate design. Besides, whatever imperfections you might ascribe to the universe, you still have a universe to ascribe them to. The classic question of philosophy remains on the table: “why is there something rather than nothing?” It seems inexplicable to me to try to answer this question without reference to some Ultimate Cause.

Why do we connect the cause of the universe with the idea of a personal God? Well, whatever this cause may be, it would be quite surprising if it were less than personal, beautiful, and intelligent, since the universe is filled with persons, beauty, and intelligence, and the effect is generally not greater than the cause. Also, to bring something about seems to require an act of will, which is a personal quality.

I go back again and again to this entry in my journal from December 2005. It was the product of a college philosophy class, interactions with skeptics, and personal struggling and questioning. It still captures for me how powerfully the finitude of the universe suggests the idea of God:

“Why does anything exist at all? This is the great mystery, says Wittgenstein. Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did the the universe come from? What is the Beginning which stands behind all other beginnings, the Reality which gives ground to all other realities? At every level, at every angle, we find ourselves confronted with the necessity of what Barth calls “the Wholly Other.” The very fact that we are here to ponder the question is already the greatest miracle, the greatest improbability. Unless theism is presupposed, all thought and action becomes absurd – without purpose and suspended over nothingness. Unless the infinite exists, the finite would never have come to be. What sense does the painting make unless there is paper on which it is drawn? God is the great truth, we are his dream.”

3 Comments

  1. davidd329

    This is helpful to me, Gavin. Thank you!

    ~david d

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  2. […] Thoughts on the Hitchens-Craig Debate (gavinortlund.wordpress.com) […]

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  3. Very nice discussion, but the scientific explanation is really not that difficult if you accept the holographic principle of quantum gravity as an explanation for how the world is created, the principle of equivalence as an explanation for how the observer (the soul) creates its own world, and understand the void as an empty space of potentiality that is the source of the world and the nature of the observer’s underlying reality (consciousness and being).

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