I just returned from the debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens at Biola University. It was a bigger deal than I realized. Over 3,000 people were there, and groups from dozens of countries – including Sri Lanka, apparently – had purchased a live feed.
Of three recent Craig debates, I was most looking forward to his matchup with Morriston, which has yet to be posted online. I was somewhat excited for his debate with Carrier, which was disappointing. I was least excited for this debate with Hitchens, but it was the only one in my area, so I went.
The debate went exactly as I expected. Craig was flawless and unstoppable. Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab. Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child. Perhaps Hitchens realized how bad things were for him after Craig’s opening speech, as even Hitchens’ rhetorical flourishes were not as confident as usual. Hitchens wasted his cross-examination time with questions like, “If a baby was born in Palestine, would you rather it be a Muslim baby or an atheist baby?” He did not even bother to give his concluding remarks, ceding the time instead to Q&A.
This always seemed like a pointless matchup to me. One is a loudmouthed journalist and the other is a major analytic philosopher. You might as well put on a debate between Michael Martin and Bill O’Reilly.
For some reason it occurred to me that it’s too bad the contenders were not more physically appealing. Hitchens is a sweating, unkempt, bulbous louch. Craig has better presentation, but he is withering away to nothing. I swear at one point I could see through the flesh between the thumb and pointer finger of his right hand.
Craig’s physical deterioration makes me especially sad. He is absolute perfection in debate performance. It’s a good thing we have him on video because debaters on any topic should study him like actors study Brando. Anyway, we could use some sexier debaters. Let’s see Austin Dacey vs. Kevin Harris!
I had come prepared with a question to ask, but unfortunately only Biola students were allowed to ask questions. But here’s the question I wanted to ask Craig:
Tonight you’ve argued that objective moral values cannot exist apart from grounding them in the traits and opinions of a particular person. Your choice is Yahweh. That seems like an odd way to get objective moral values, but nevertheless, you’ve elsewhere argued just the opposite: that objective moral values do exist apart from Yahweh.
For example, in your answer to question #61 on your website, you write that abortion is wrong because life has intrinsic moral value – that is, moral value within itself, apart from anything outside it, including the opinions of Yahweh. Is this a discrepancy, or have I misunderstood you?
There were very few atheists in the crowd. Being at Biola reminded me that there are dozens of universities with entire programs devoted to teaching students how to argue for the existence of God. Hundreds of bright young students are being trained like Craig. Many will probably become pastors or theologians, but many of them will be writing books and getting professorships in philosophy and the sciences. In contrast, I don’t know of any programs that teach arguments against the existence of God (except philosophy of religion programs, which teach both sides). And there is certainly nobody who believes it is their divine and cosmic purpose to devote their life to defending the truth of atheism. It’s a wonder atheism is so vastly over-represented in American academies.
I have little to say about the points of the debate itself because Craig gave the same case he always gives, and Hitchens never managed to put up a coherent rebuttal or argument. I will bring up one point that I liked, though. After Hitchens finished elaborating a list of religious atrocities, moderator Hugh Hewitt jumped in and asked Craig to explain how atheists had committed atrocities in the 20th century, too. Craig responded admirably:
Well, this is a debate, Hugh, that I don’t want to get into because I think it’s irrelevant… I’m interested in the truth of these worldviews more than I’m interested in their social impact, and you cannot judge the truth of a worldview by its social impact – it’s irrelevant.
Hitchens jumped in and said, “I completely concur,” and explained that he mentioned religious atrocities as an example of how bad people use God to justify any and all wicked actions.
So that was good. Otherwise, it was what I expected. One person was conducting an academic debate, the other thought he was hosting a polemical talk show, and there was little connecting the two performances.