Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Debates with Atheists

Have you ever debated an atheist? Formal exchanges between theists and atheists are popular and instructive, even entertaining. Many such encounters have been published or recorded in recent years. When an audience is present, they sometimes behave like partisans at an athletic contest. One such debate occurred between philosopher/theologian William Lane Craig and atheist professor of philosophy Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. In the first chapter of God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, Craig laid out five major reasons for his theistic belief. This chapter was essentially a development of his opening remarks in a debate at Dartmouth College in 1999.

A brief overview of Craig’s five major points follows: (1) a discussion of ontological arguments: beginnings, causes, infinity; (2) the existence of moral values as an indicator of God’s existence; and (3) an inner certainty that God exists and can be immediately experienced and known directly. Philosophers call such beliefs “properly basic beliefs,” according to Craig. They do not need to be justified by other beliefs. The other two major points appeal more strongly to the science-minded person. Let’s call them evidential support pillars for God’s existence: (4) the features of the universe, describing hundreds of characteristics which must be “just right”—tuned to an unimaginable degree of precision in order for life to exist anywhere; (5) plentiful physical and documentary evidence related to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

Evidential apologetics, particularly with respect to science, have become a more vital channel for affirmation of the theistic Christian belief system. Atheists such as Sinnott-Armstrong complain that the evidence to justify belief in God is weak or non-existent. Many atheists are materialists, believing that there is no reality that does not have a physical manifestation. They claim science supports materialism. Physical evidence such as apparent design, coupled with the complex function of apparently designed living systems, does not serve to convince atheists either. Well-reasoned theistic arguments become buried under an avalanche of refutation. For the atheist, the process of searching for the truth of God’s existence is secondary to the defense of their worldview, perhaps even secondary to the process of developing their argument. For many science philosophers, describing or defining the science process is not the same as discovering truth. Objective truth about what is “really real,” however, does exist. Truth in today’s culture is becoming increasingly subjective and relative, but Holy Scripture proposes that truth is accessible.

The created order is generously salted with evidence of the existence of God. It is perfectly rational to infer His creative acts through the traditional methods of science. Psalm 19:4 says the heavens “speak” as if with a voice and with words. Doubters reject such evidence and systematically rationalize it away. Believers, however, examine the evidence and rationalize a Cause.