Debate: Does God Exist?

Christian apologetics don't do much to support the notion that God exists“Does God Exist?” This was the topic at a public debate I attended on Monday. Here’s a brief summary. See how you would respond to the points that were raised.

The moderator started with Ian Barbour’s four criteria for assessing hypotheses:

1. Agreement with Data. We never have proof (outside of mathematics and logic), but we can provisionally accept the hypothesis that fits best with the data.

2. Coherence. A new hypothesis should be consistent with and support already-accepted theories. If not, it had better be a pretty compelling hypothesis. Simpler is better.

3. Scope. Broader is better.

4. Fertility. What new things can this hypothesis tell us? What predictions can it make? What new questions does it invite?

The two speakers were Lutheran pastor Gary Jensen (also a member of Reasons to Believe, an old-earth Creationist organization) and humanist and lawyer Jim Corbett.

I felt that Corbett won the event. Call me biased, but his arguments were much more concrete. Rev. Jensen was comfortable speaking to the crowd of roughly 200 people, but his arguments were shallow. I’ll do my best to give highlights of each speaker’s points. For Rev. Jensen, I’ll add occasional comments.

Jensen spent much of his opening statement speaking in what (to my mind) were tangential generalities: quoting famous people, asserting that we must follow the evidence wherever it leads (Socrates? Sartre?), showing how the Bible encourages a sensible interaction with nature, giving a summary of the progress of the modern cosmological view, and so on. He said that the Bible is the only religious story with a cosmic beginning. (Huh?)

He got to his first claim with a reference to the fine tuning argument, but he simply pointed to Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees. (Okay, that’s a data point, but it’s hardly an argument.)

In talking about cosmology, he threw in the term “Darwinism.” (Ouch—that may due to too much hanging out with the Reasons to Believe guys.)

He talked about God as a given and made a mistake that I see frequently—confusing statements about his beliefs (which he made) with an apologetic argument (which he didn’t).

He cited Sir William Ramsay’s argument that Paul’s journeys documented in Acts are accurately described and therefore the gospel story is likely also accurate. (No: that the names and places Paul documents are the least we’d expect of a book that claims to be historical. This is no argument that the supernatural claims are accurate. The Harry Potter books accurately refer to London, but that is no evidence that the supernatural elements are accurate.)

He cited Antony Flew’s There is a God as evidence of a smart person who changed his mind. (This was a mistake. I’ve read the book. First, it was ghost-written, and second, the arguments that supposedly turned Flew into a deist are scientific arguments. The critique by a non-scientist of scientific arguments is uninteresting to me.)

Modern science was hatched in a Christian culture. (Okay, and it was a carnivorous culture as well. So what? I see no cause and effect here. To argue that a Christian culture was necessary to birth Science, you must provide evidence.)

Jensen made a vague reference to professors “kicked out” for being Creationists and gave Guillermo Gonzalez as an example. (I wonder if he’s read the other side of the story. That there is another side doesn’t make Jensen’s claim wrong, but it is mandatory that he at least be aware of it.)

He says that he encourages free inquiry but that scientists who reject the supernatural are therefore closed-minded.

He referred to information in DNA (that some protozoa have 200 times the DNA that humans do shows that DNA isn’t “designed” as we use the term) and absolute morality (that we see considerable social evolution from biblical morality to today’s morality overturns this notion).

Corbett had some interesting points (any transcription errors are my fault):

  • We have a moral responsibility to treat supernatural claims with skepticism. Otherwise we open ourselves to every snake oil salesman.
  • Religion is the only impediment to science education in America, and science education is tied to national security.
  • We’ve found clues of python worship in Botswana from 70,000 years ago, our earliest evidence of God of the Gaps thinking—that is, God lives in the gaps where science says, “we don’t know.” In this pre-scientific world, this was understandable and even laudable. But in the 21st century, it’s inexcusable.
  • Lawrence Krauss called God of the Gaps thinking “cowardly.”
  • When Christianity was in charge, we called that the Dark Ages.
  • One imam helped stifle the Islamic Golden Age, and we’re seeing the same thing in America.

Corbett concluded with an interesting parallel. It took about 300 years from Christianity to go from having negligible impact (at the death of Jesus) to being the official religion of the Roman empire (by the Council of Nicaea). If you count Darwin’s Origin of Species as the beginning of modern atheism in the West, we’re halfway through our 300-year transition period. Polls indicate that religion is declining, new knowledge explains away God, and God of the Gaps thinking is no longer necessary.

I’m not sure if that should be seen as optimistic (we’re making good progress) or pessimistic (we have a long way to go) or even unrealistic (Christianity has weathered storms before and we mustn’t count it out), but it’s an interesting parallel.

Photo credit: YouTube

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