The Auckland debate between Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, and atheist historian, Bill Cooke is now up on YouTube (HT: MandM). Commentary has also been available from some of those that attended the debate: Ian Wishart, Dale Campbell, and organiser Matthew Flannagan have offered their reflections on the proceedings (I particularly recommend Matt’s excellent summary). The consensus of their thoughts (and even of those without theistic sympathies) accords with the reaction of most that I talked to on the night: Craig clearly emerged as the better. He offered and defended a more rigorous case for his negation of the moot – that belief in God is not a delusion but a reasonable conclusion from the evidence. Cooke is no stranger to debates and as vice-president of the NZ association of Rationalists and Humanists I expected more from him. On the night, however, he seemed sorely absent. Cooke disparaged the format and theme of the debate, displaying throughout an unwillingness to confront the substance of Craig’s arguments and strangely even refused to respond to some of Craig’s comments during the Q and A session.
Craig marshaled five solid arguments for his position that I thought enabled a good starting point for discussion. Cooke, in his opening address, on the other hand, presented social and political commentary on the consequences of dogmatic religious belief. This was an unnecessary derailment. Of course we should always try to understand and follow the social implications of what we believe, but this is not how we settle questions of truth. Whether dogma inhibits intellectual progress, moral understanding, or religious dialogue is completely beside the point; we need to first test our beliefs against reality. The only other significant argument Cooke raised was a similarly irrelevant discussion of the origin and evolution of monothestic belief. When Craig rightly pointed this out as an instance of the genetic fallacy and dismissed Cooke’s pragmatic notion of truth, the atheist historian retreated chiefly to moral posturing for the remainder of the debate.
However, articulations of moral outrage make for a poor substitute of actual arguments. Cooke’s indignation towards Christian doctrines seemed even more hollow when he equivocated on the objectivity of morality. He decried the anthropocentricity and arrogance of religious belief and affirmed that the true spirit of humanity rests in each of us crafting our own purpose. But Cooke never presented any real metaethical foundation for this view, apart from a discussion of evolution in his rendering of the concept of “reciprocal altruism”. This was simply question-begging. Why should our instincts be followed? And why should we trust natural processes to tell us what is moral or rational? According to the evolutionary framework, our knowledge is directed to what is most conducive to our survival, not necessarily to representing things as the way they are or morally ought to be.
This was further borne out in the Q and A session, when Cooke was asked how it was that morals actually bound him. His response was in the vein of postmodern pragmatist, Richard Rorty, suggesting that we determine our morality on the basis of the reactions we get from others. Craig incisively pointed out, in response, that this is a definition of prudence, not morality. If Cooke is right; that we invent our purpose and own set of principles – what then if we believe that we won’t get caught? What would stop us from changing our principles to suit us? For if we can bind ourselves, then we can free ourselves from those same restraints, because the capacity to create moral principles rests within the same self that crafted them.
In contrast to Cooke’s groundless “cosmic humility” theory of morality, the theistic worldview gives an adequate foundation for objective morality because it is rooted in God’s character and his essential and necessary nature. Christianity provides actual justification for addressing the goals that Cooke is quite right to raise – poverty, hunger and other social inequalities in the world can be tackled because, in Christianity, each human has intrinsic worth. Each bears the image of God, invested with dignity and value as we each reflect the intrinsic value and worth of God.
Overall, Craig was more persuasive; at least one of them showed up to actually debate. Nothing summed up the night more, I think, than Cooke’s complaint about Craig’s “rational edifices” and how the Christian philosopher had anchored his arguments to the “shifting sands of science”. It would have been more satisfying if Cooke had actually provided more of a challenge to Craig but it was still a great evening. It was really exciting to see such a great number students (during the middle of exams, no less) and many others interested in these important issues.