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Debating God

Debating God


Sean McDowell


 


Last weekend I had the opportunity of watching a debate between Dinesh D'Souza (author of What's So Great about Christianity) and Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine). The debate was held at Southern Evangelical Seminary and the question was: "Does it make sense to believe in God?" The debate was lively, informative, and fun.


 


I've included the two opening statements (abbreviated) as well as their initial responses. I offer two quick critiques of each debater first:


 


First, Dinesh argues that we cannot know what happens after death, thus we should "leap" toward the Christian side since we have more to gain (ala, Pascal). He says neither Christians nor atheists have knowledge about life after death, which is why we have faith. Thus, he sees belief as taking over when we cannot know something. But this betrays the biblical perspective that we do in fact know what happens after death. 1 John 5:13 says, "These things I have written to you who  believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life." Evidence from the resurrection of Jesus, the existence of the soul, and near-death experiences provide solid reasons to believe that consciousness (and judgment) comes after death.


 



Second, Shermer argues against the fine-tuning argument by claiming that the world is really not that hospitable for life. The vast majority of the universe, he claims, is inhospitable for life. But this raises a difficult question for Shermer: "If the universe is so inhospitable, then how did life evolve in the first place?" He wants to take away evidence for fine-tuning by reducing the hospitability of the universe, but this raises a huge problem for biological evolution, which requires an inconceivable enormous amount of hospitable environments to get off the ground.


 


 


"Does it make sense to believe in God?"


 


Dinesh D'Souza opening:


 


There are three good arguments for believing in God. It makes sense to believe in God because the deep questions we ask as human beings are only comprehensible in light of God's existence. Other responses lead to absurdities:


(1)   Why is there a universe?


a.      For many centuries it was believed the universe was eternal and, hence, needed no creator. But Jews and Christians believed the universe had a beginning and that God created time and space along with it. Also, why does the universe have certain numerical values that it does (light speed, gravitational force, strong nuclear force)? What if they were slightly different? Fine-tuning is immune to a Darwinian evolution since it refers to the entire universe.


(2)   Why do we have life vs. no life?


a.      No one knows what comes after death. We believe there is life after death, but we don't know it. The difference between Shermer and me is that he thinks he knows. I recognize that we both have faith. Yet the possibility that life continues (i.e., Pascal) is a good reason to believe in God.


(3)   Why do we have morality?


a.      We all live in a world of right and wrong. We all at some deep level accept absolute standards of morality. Some people claim to be moral relativists but it turns out such people are really relativists about your values but absolutists about theirs. If we are merely Darwinian products, then morality is a technique to get our genes in the next generation. Darwinians respond by saying we act altruistically to get back in return later. But what about moral acts we do without any possible return that can actually harm us? Example: Why help someone drowning who I am not related to (i.e., we don't share genes)? We have a moral compass that leads us to sacrifice ourselves because God has put morality on our hearts.


 


Dinesh Conclusion: Believe in God because the universe makes sense. If we believe in God our life makes sense. Belief in God makes sense because it provides cosmic accountability, which brings justice.


 


Michael Shermer opening: I grew up in a conservative Christian home. I understand the internal coherence and consistency of Christianity. Basically we arrive at our beliefs for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with science (life experiences, relationships, psychology) and then we justify them afterwards with evidence. There are many things we don't know which is why we have faith.


 


What about these questions? There is reason to believe in a universe from nothing without a top-down creator. The universe cannot not exist. Empty space is not filled with nothing. It appears that with string theory and GUT (Grand Unified Theory) that universes naturally pop into existence. When a star collapses we have a singularity that could explain the origin of the universe itself. The details are not important, but these are things scientists talk about and they are testable. Scientists offer hypotheses and fill gaps rather than simply posit God. Atheism is not a position. Atheists just don't believe in God and that is the end of the story.


 


What about fine-tuning? On a coarse scale, the universe is not very fine-tuned. There are very few places we can live. 99% is inhospitable. Why would God make a world so large that is inhospitable? It's good to be humble about deep mysteries rather than say, "This is the way it is," b/c physics is a young discipline. Who designed the designer? Who created God? Why stop the causal chain at the point of your creator? Even if there is a designer, this does nothing to show it is any particular God.


 


Dinesh response (1): I begin with a point of agreement-science is not a threat to religion.  It is a fable that as science advances God retreats. A few questions: Michael alluded to the God of the gaps (something cannot be explained, therefore God did it). There is also an "atheism of the gaps" fallacy ("don't worry, science will eventually figure it out"). Michael has tremendous faith in a particular type of science. On the fine-tuning, people abolish one God for an infinite number of universes. This is absurd!


 


I ask Shermer: What is the cause for which the universe is the effect? Did the universe create itself? There could be a natural or supernatural cause. The natural cause is impossible because the universe is all of nature. So, unless one wants to say the universe generated itself, there must be a transcendent cause.


 


There are motives for belief, but there are also motives for unbelief. Shermer says atheists believe nothing, but he has all sorts of beliefs as well.


 


Shermer response (1): Belief in God is the result of exceptional events (i.e., 9/11). We are aggressive about all sorts of beliefs about politics but not religious beliefs. Now the debate has become a bit more in-your-face. Why can't God do a miracle such as growing back limbs? Why are all miracles equivocal? If we want to posit that God exists but that all things happened naturally, then why believe in God? If the universe is indistinguishable, then what room is there for God?


 


Response to Pascal's wager: What if we picked the wrong God? Wouldn't God know that you were faking? Self-deception is a powerful thing.


 


Why believe? What is so important to how you believe? Wouldn't God be more concerned with how you lived your life? Wouldn't that matter more than simply believing? Any worthwhile God would place more emphasis on works.