William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law

I’d like to leave intra-Christian and intra-Catholic debates behind for now and comment on the debate that took place on the Reasonable Faith tour in England between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist philosopher Stephen Law.

Both Craig and Law have commented on the debate post factum, and it has generated quite a bit of discussion.

Both won?

After listening to the debate, I had the impression that actually both could be interpreted to have won the debate. And indeed the post-debate comments by Craig and Law seem to confirm my impression:) The problem was that the speakers seemed to be speaking past each other.

From Craig’s perspective, Craig established the existence of a God with the cosmological argument, which Law was unable to refute. Moreover, the problem of evil (Law’s main argument) simply shows that objective moral values exist, and so God, too, must exist, for atheism cannot explain objective moral values. Moreover, the Resurrection of Jesus shows God to be the Judeo-Christian God: the Resurrection is much more plausible than UFO-sightings because of the religious salvation-historical context.

From Law’s perspective, the huge amount of suffering in the world gives us powerful evidence against a good God (Craig’s God), just as the huge amount of good in the world gives us good grounds to rule out a hypothesis of an “evil God” behind the cosmos. Since the cosmological argument is morally neutral, it doesn’t establish Craig’s good God, and the good God can be ruled out as an explanation as well as an evil God. Any appeal to God’s mysterious ways equally apply to the evil God. So, why Craig’s God?

The arguments

Craig brought only 3 arguments into the debate: the cosmological, the moral, and the historical (leaving out fine-tuning, the ontological argument, and the argument from religious experience). Law went with just one: the problem of evil combined with the evil God hypothesis.

In response to the cosmological argument, Law confessed he is not exactly sure what is wrong with it, but that there are still some conclusions that can be reasonably ruled out, such as the evil God hypothesis. If so, then why not rule out the good God, too? Craig wished simply to establish a Creator as a part of a cumulative case for the Christian God.

In response to the moral argument, Law argued Craig has not provided evidence for the premise that there are no objective moral values if God does not exist. Craigs response was to say it’s a matter of the best explanation. Both agreed that there seem to be objective moral values, but no consensus was reached on what they are based on, if anything.

The third argument focused on the resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately, this argument was minimally handled by both debaters and thus cannot play a decisive role in the evaluation of the debate. Law responded by saying unusual things are sometimes reported, but that does not mean they really happened or should be believed.

As for the evil God argument, Craig responded briefly by saying there can be no evil God, for the definition of God entails worthiness of worship. One could posit an evil Creator, though. Here Craig says one does not come to believe in a good/evil God/Creator by an inductive survey of good and evil in the world. In addition, we could never show God cannot have sufficient reasons for allowing evil or suffering in the world – perhaps only in such a world the maximal number of people would freely come to God.

The misunderstanding

Both in the debate and in the post-debate comments, Craig seems to have misunderstood the evil God argument: it’s not saying we should (positively) come to know the moral character of God by looking at the world, and so we can conclude that there is neither a good nor an evil God, because there is both good and evil in the world.

What it is trying to say is that just as we can and do (negatively) rule out an evil God by looking at all the good in the world, so we can as well rule out the existence of a good God. The question is: why the good God instead of the evil God? What’s the evidence for one and not the other? The difference is subtle, and Craig seemed to miss it.

The misunderstanding is evident in Craig’s comment in the debate where he says “I agree that the good things in the world fail to disprove anti-God” (at 0:46:50). This is precisely the disagreement, not the agreement: for Law, the good in the world rules out anti-God just as the evil in the world rules out God. As a consequence, I believe, Craig focused too much on giving reasons for why the good God might permit evil, thus falling into Law’s trap of “the same argument could be made for the evil God”.

Conclusions and contributions

Although at around the middle of the debate Craig seemed to be doing better in the debate (in terms of arguments, debating style and rhetoric as well as audience applause), after the entire debate and some of the post-debate comments I can see why even a Christian blogger could argue that Craig lost the debate.

My own feeling is that both won, as explained above. Since I am writing from a Christian perspective, in a way I’m happy with Craig’s perspective. But on the other hand, from Law’s perspective the question was left unanswered. Not that I want to try to convince Law in a brief blog post, but I do think I have an important point to make about how one should approach Law’s argument.

First, Craig should’ve pushed the philosophical concept and definition of God more. I think he did much better in his post-debate comment:

“Since this being is evil, that implies that he fails to discharge his moral obligations. But where do those come from? How can this evil god have duties to perform which he is violating? Who forbids him to do the wrong things that he does? Immediately, we see that such an evil being cannot be supreme: there must be a being who is even higher than this evil god and is the source of the moral obligations which he chooses to flout, a being which is absolute goodness Himself. In other words, if Law’s evil god exists, then God exists.”

Here Law tries to escape by retracting from “evil god” to a god who “likes suffering”. Then he goes on to say this is question-begging because it all assumes Craig has a good moral argument for God. I disagree: it seems to me this itself is a moral argument for God, it leads us to recognize that the supreme being cannot be evil.

And then why equate evil with suffering? Here you face the sort of problems Sam Harris did in equating good with the well-being of conscious creatures. It seems to me that if you give up the moral aspect of the argument (evil), the whole argument fails, since all along it focused on the moral nature of God.

Second, Craig should’ve run the argument from religious experience. Law’s nagging question was: why believe in the good God, but not the evil God? Why rule out the evil God, but not the good one? The answer seems to be linked with the fact that we along with countless others have a religious experience of a good God. Curiously, there are no world religions of evil gods.

Third, Craig should’ve focused more on the salvation-historical argument, for here lies the real cause of our faith in a good God. The reason to believe in the good God is the whole of salvation history, the marvelous works of the God in history, his self-revelation, culminating in the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit (leading to and coupled with the Christian religious experience throughout the centuries).

Obviously, this is too broad a reality to defend in a short debate, but precisely because of its vast scope it provides us with a decisive weapon against equating a hypothetical evil God with the God of Christians.

Explore posts in the same categories: Stephen Law, William Lane Craig

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