Originally created 09/27/03

Two philosophers debate modern twists on the age-old issue: Does God exist?



Oxford University Press gets the prize for the year's snappiest book title: "God?"

As the subtitle explains, this is "A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist" about whether God exists, one of humanity's great questions. The book doesn't assess any old deity but the Bible's unique, all-loving and all-powerful God.

This ancient question became quite current with two recent opinion pieces in The New York Times.

In one, Tufts University's Daniel Dennett caustically championed those like himself who don't believe in "ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny - or God." Dennett said atheists are "the moral backbone of the nation" and (ignoring opinion polls) its "silent majority." He called atheists "brights," implying that believers are "dims" or "dumbs."

In the second piece, the Times' own Nicholas Kristof lamented a growing, "poisonous" divide between "intellectual and religious America." He blamed believers for clinging to tenets he finds unreasonable, and implied that they lack applied brainpower.

However, there's ample intellect with William Lane Craig of California's Talbot School of Theology, God's defender in "God?" In fact, he presents the opposite problem, employing new twists taken from physics and mathematics that will flummox ordinary readers.

Quick: What do you get when you subtract infinity from infinity? And do you favor the Oscillating Universe, Chaotic Inflationary Universe, Vacuum Fluctuation Universe or Quantum Gravity Universe?

Craig's equally able counterpart is Dartmouth College atheist Walter Sinnot-Armstrong. (The book is based on two face-to-face debates they held.)

Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, an estimable Protestant philosopher (who must have escaped Kristof's notice) has proposed "two dozen or so" arguments for God. But Craig thinks just five make the case, if taken cumulatively:

-One is the evidence for supernatural miracles that display God's power, using as an example the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not a bad argument, but it's unlikely to convince those who aren't already Christians.

-God makes sense of the existence of the universe (which is where math and physics come in). Craig says it's good logic that "something cannot come from nothing," and God is the only reasonable explanation.

-God also makes sense of a universe that's "fine-tuned" to support the existence of intelligent life despite the astronomical odds against it. He thinks it's more plausible to believe an "intelligent Mind" caused this than that it just happened.

-God's existence explains the moral values whose objective reality we recognize, even when they're violated. (The Holocaust was evil even if the Nazis had won; child molesting is always wrong, and so forth.) Where do these absolutes come from, if not from God?

-Hosts of people profess that God can be immediately known and experienced. There's no way to absolutely prove this reality, but we all follow such basic beliefs drawn from experience in other contexts, and "it is perfectly rational to hold them."

Sinnot-Armstrong, of course, finds Craig full of fallacies, as follows:

-Miracle accounts are "feeble testimony" from "self-interested parties."

-On origins, we just don't know enough, and citing God as the cause "is to explain the obscure by the more obscure, which gets us nowhere."

-Even if "fine-tuning" for intelligent life is highly improbable, what's to say a Mind created it? Maybe we're just lucky, like lottery winners.

-If moral values are objective, they're true whether or not God commanded them, so "God is superfluous."

-Religious experiences don't suffice because they contain competing ideas of God. Anyway, if there were a God, he'd have the power to directly make his existence obvious to everyone.

Sinnot-Armstrong also uses what Craig acknowledges is "atheism's killer argument," how to explain the reality of human suffering. (To even skim that discussion would require a separate article.)

Note: The same publisher has a more accessible case by a believer, minus the atheist - "Is There a God?" by Oxford scholar Richard Swinburne.

On the Net:

"God?" promotion: http://www.oup-usa.org/isbn/0195165993.html