A few debates

As you might be aware, I enjoy listening to, and occasionally taking part in debate and discussion on religion. This post is mostly links to and commentary about a few such debates I’ve come across recently.

robhu has been posting about William Lane Craig. I don’t like watching Craig, partly because he usually cows his atheist opponents, but also because of how he does it. After you’ve watched or heard him in action more than once, you realise that Craig has a script which he rattles off, and some debating tricks which he uses to great effect (for instance, because debates are time-limited, you can always use your opponent’s lack of time to claim that your opponent cannot refute your argument because they have not had time to do so). Craig often seems to omit the basic courtesy of listening to your opponent. I don’t find his arguments that persuasive either (see gjm11‘s recent blog posting on the evidence for the Resurrection, for example).

Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath’s discussion at the Oxford Literary Festival was a gentler affair than one of Craig’s debates. McGrath seems a little unwilling to spell out what he does believe, which I found odd for a Christian, and which allowed Dawkins to land some easy blows merely by asking him to spell it out:

Dawkins: Well I mean, do you believe in the virgin birth?

McGrath: Well I do, but the issue I think really is not simply how one makes sense of these things but actually what they point to.

Dawkins: No, no. Look, you are a scientist, you are a biologist and you believe in the virgin birth, on scriptural grounds. You actually elevate scripture above science in this case.

McGrath: Well in this case, here is something which seems to me to be an integral part of the Christian tradition, which may well be in conflict with part of our present day scientific understanding, that’s certainly an area of tension.


Dawkins also turns up alongside a host of other public intellectuals (A.C. Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey) in a debate on the motion “We’d be better off without religion”. The two sides sometimes seemed to be speaking past each other, in that the proponents were mostly thinking of the religious as people who believe something, and the opponents talked in terms of community and feelings of transcendence. Some commenters on the Dawkins forum took this is a sign of victory, in that so much ground has been yielded to atheism that the proponents of religion are not even prepared to argue that it is true.

Not being a huge follower of politics, I wasn’t aware that these Drinked Soaked Trots took their name from George Galloway’s insult to Christopher Hitchens. I’m not sure about the war, but I’m more in agreement with Hitchens’s views on the moral necessity of atheism.

6 Comments on "A few debates"

  1. WLC also threatens people with legal action if they put transcripts of what he has said in a debate online. See the infidels.org page on him for more information.

    I got one of his booklets, and one of his books at the recent debate. They are unsound on a scale I was previously not aware of. If he is the best UCCF could get their hands on I’m pretty glad I’m no longer in that camp.


      1. The latter. He has to resort to arguments that aren’t found in the Bible to support his arguments too (which is fair enough, but not highly evangelical).

        He likes cherry picking quotes from scientists to support his position. I handed the booklet to a Cambridge mathmo who told me he doesn’t have any understanding of maths either (he uses arguments about infinity). When he encounters maths or physics he doesn’t like he says it’s a trick and doesn’t really mean what the physicist says it means. For instance he denies virtual particles are causeless essentially because his key argument for God would be on shaky ground (which it is anyway) if he did so.


      2. Maybe unsound in the Christian sense too? All the evangelicals I’ve spoken to have distanced themselves from WLC’s view on evil – i.e. that God created the world with all the evil because somehow he gets more converts that way.


  2. “Present day scientific understanding”? That’s historical chauvinism.

    Someone (Lewis, I think) pointed out that even if first-century people couldn’t give a complete biological description of reproduction, they knew as well as we do that it requires both a mother and a father, and the idea of a virgin birth would have been as miraculous or impossible to them as it is in our time.

    McGrath would have done better not to make out that the “tension” was recent or that modern science could take the credit for it.


    1. People in the first-century were more willing to accept supernatural explanations for things than moderns are (certainly, reading I, Claudius gives me that impression). I’m not aware of any other specific occasions when they accepted a virgin birth, although gods impregnating women was a common idea, I think. Having less understanding of science means you’re more open to that sort of idea, because if you don’t know how something does work you’re more likely to accept that there might be supernatural involvement somewhere (lightning is caused by a god throwing thunderbolts, or whatever).

      So I think moderns rightly have a more difficult time accepting a virgin birth than those in the ancient world would. That’s not historical chauvism: we really do know more about how babies are made now than people back then.


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