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Hitchens / Craig Debate — Random Observations

Still processing the Hitchens / Craig debate this weekend at Biola dscn1478University. This was a big deal, much bigger than I’d previously realized. The debate was moderated by Hugh Hewitt and seen live by several thousand in attendance and many more at remote locations on campus, in the community, in 30 states and several countries. It had the feel of something historic. Here’s some random observations:

The atmosphere was electric! — Long lines of energetic collegiates waited hours for a shot at the coveted blue wristband that allowed one into the main venue. Several atheist contingents were present, but the crowd was extremely civil, before, during and after the debate. The chatter was loud inside the packed, rather warm, gymnasium. People sat fanning themselves with their brochures, which reminded me of acounts of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Yeah, it had that feel. The first several rows were for the press and there were notable academics like J.P. Moreland in the crowd. A ticker on the overhead counted down the time and, as it reached the 10 second mark, everyone did a raucous 3-2-1 cheer. Needless to say, there was tangible anticipation for this debate.

I’m not sure if the couple in front of us were humans. It was a guy and girl, maybe twenty-something, who didn’t speak nor show emotion the entire time. They sat like mummies. I bumped the fella with my knee once and he looked at me with a glazed, inhuman, scowl. Excuuuse me!

A contrast of styles — One noticeable difference between these two debaters is their contrasting styles. The outline handout was indicative of this. On one side, under Does God Exist?, Craig listed four or five main points and subpoints, which he continued to return to throughout the debate. Hitchens, on the other hand, under  Does God Exist?, had a blank page. I’m not sure if this was intentional on his part, as if suggesting the question is unanswerable, or if it was indicative of his extemporaneous style. While Craig is deft and clinical, marching through his points in near robotic fashion, Hitchens meanders, appears aloof, and leaves important topics unaddressed. I personally find this nonchalance endearing. But it also leaves one wanting. On the one hand, I wish Craig engaged emotion more, rather than a purely logical, intellectual, approach. For Hitchens, I wish he’d stay on point and answer questions more directly.

The topic wasn’t really addressed — This was more true for Hitchens than Craig. Whereas Craig used common apologetic arguments for the existence of God like the cosmological argument, teleological argument, moral argument, and the resurrection of Christ, Hitchens seemed content to use a common atheist approach that suggests you can’t prove a negative.  I must admit, I have a hard time with this assumption.  I mean, if someone asserts there’s an invisible pink elephant in the room, there’s several ways to go about challenging that assumption — no evidence of elephant tracks, no elephant dung, the absence of observable non-pink elephants in the rest of the world, etc. And, unlike the existence of God, if there really was an invisible pink elephant in the room, it would have no bearing on my life, so there’s a logical non-necessity to the pink elephant question. At the least, the atheist must dismantle theistic assertions about pink elephants and build a case for their non-existence. Either way, Hitchens offered no proof for God’s non-existence. In this way, the debaters seemed to be talking about two different things: Craig kept pulling the discussion toward evidence for theism, while Hitchens kept returning to a critique of religious doctrine and atrocities.

What was up with the lighting? — Hey, I said this was random. Not only was the gym unusually dark, there were funky red lights overhead. It gave the place the feel of a balmy old disco. Hitchens’ sweaty, open-collared, disheveled appearance was giving me Saturday Night Fever flashbacks.

Does religious extremism prove God’s non-existence? — This is such a huge plank of the atheist’s arguments against the possible existence of God, and a tactic employed often by Hitchens in this debate. But the catalog of atrocities — the Crusades, the Inquisition, suicide bombings, human sacrifice — do little to advance the atheist’s position, and after a while it appeared to skirt the issue at hand. Bad religion could prove there’s bad people, even a bad god. But just because some have killed in the name of God does not automatically mean there is no god. After one such cataloging of said atrocities, the moderator tossed Craig a softball regarding the amount of evil atheists have done in the world. He responded with what I thought was one of the better comebacks of the night. From the transcript: “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.”  I suppose some could interpret that as sidestepping the question, but I felt it was a good retort to Hitches’ repeated hammering of the issue.

Two notable cornerings — A good debater knows how to corner his opponent, and it was clear throughout the evening that these two men were attempting the same. Two such notable occurrences. At one point, Craig pressed Hitchens to claim agnosticism or atheism. “Are you saying there is no god, or just that you don’t know if there is a god?” Hitchens hemmed and hawed over this issue but never answered the question. On the other hand, Hitchens pinning Craig into naming “false religions” was uncomfortable. I’m not sure if Hitchens’ intention was to show that Christians are judgmental, self-appointed arbiters of truth, or if he was attempting to get Craig to side with his assertions that there is “falsity” in many religions. Either way, when pressed, Craig said that Islam was a false religion. But when he happened to mention he was not Reformed and believed some Calvinistic elements were false, the moderator quickly interrupted and cautioned Hitchens about trying to start a “holy war.”

A humorous, weird, final statement — Craig was first and, in his typical clinical style, revisited his initial outline, counting off the reasons for the existence of God. He cited what he regarded as Hitchens’ non-evidence for god’s non-existence and minor concessions by Hitchens, and on these grounds, concluded by inviting the atheist to become a Christian. It was a funny moment. And then came the weird one: Hitchens passed on his closing arguments.

Who won the debate? — I hate approaching debates this way, but it’s where most observers gravitate. As the crowd was leaving I overheard several people already debating who won. It’s interesting that several groups, like the Inland Empire Atheists group, openly concede the debate to Craig. The moderator of Common Sense Atheism even admitted, “Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.” Apparently, many atheists don’t think Hitchens is the greatest head-to-head proponent for their side. Either way, I dislike the “who won the debate” banter. Ideas are what’s at issue. We should judge the ideas by their own merit rather than the lucidity, wit, or charm of the messenger. Yes, delivery is important, and in this I’d say William Craig was the better of the two. Nevertheless, the Christian still faces legitimate, weighty, objections to their faith.

But the final question posed by the moderator may have been the most important. Tens of thousands of people were watching the event in multiple venues around the world. Why does the question of God’s existence continue to generate such interest? In the end, that may be one of the most important questions we primates will ever ask.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Elaina Avalos April 6, 2009, 11:50 AM

    Wow! Thanks for the recap. Here are a few thoughts in response:

    1. Red lights = lame Biola pride. Our colors are red and white.

    2. JP Moreland is awesome and taking one of his classes is even more so.

    3. I had a very long talk with an atheist no too long ago. I was struck by how often the argument of the atrocities committed by religious persons was mentioned. Yet, when I requested arguments for God’s non-existence from a scientific perspective, he couldn’t give me an answer and referred me to several books. I’ve read some of them. They raised more questions for me about atheism and in fact, made me doubt the assertions to a greater degree. I asked him to answer some of my main questions raised by the book and I’ve never had a response.

    4. That experience leads me to wonder if atheists are accustomed to Christians who have responses like, “He just does.” Or “Because I believe in my heart.” Or whatever other feeling based answer. Perhaps when challenged intellectually they back down? I don’t know. I’m curious to know if that’s how other debates have gone…

    5. Robots in front of you were atheists. They were afraid they’d catch some sort of weird disease by being in the gym of a Christian university. Kind of like when Christians get creeped out by Scientologists or JW’s or really perky Mormons. They were afraid if they talked to you, you’d eat their eyeballs out of their heads like they’ve heard happens to atheists in the lair of the Christian. And Biola? Oh…even worse my friend. Biola turns out all types ready to engage the culture. Scary indeed.

  • JeffR60 April 6, 2009, 12:32 PM

    I appreciate Hitchens for the same reasons you mentioned.

    I think your comments about the “who won the debate” discussion reflect the problem with debates, at least as seen today, they’re about the debaters and the thrust and parry and that is discussed – the form – and not the ideas being discussed.

    Nice summary. Thanks.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 6, 2009, 1:46 PM

    I have to chuckle, Mike. Your post and mine, I think, show up the contrast to our personalities. 😀

    I love what you said. You captured the flavor as well as the substance. Meanwhile I’ll continue droning on in a logical, somewhat analytical manner for the next couple days.

    Was a highlight experience, to be sure.


  • Kaci April 6, 2009, 8:54 PM

    You know, you made me think of a worldview panel that goes on every year at the school I graduated from. From right to left, you have a representative Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’i (sp?), Buddhist, and one other Eastern religion I’m momentarily blanking on. I was familiar (somewhat) with all but Baha’i.

    Anyway – The panel was a bit lacking, for some reason. The atheist guy answered ‘not applicable” to most of the theological questions; the Sikh and Muslim spent a lot of time explaining the difference between the two; the Baha’i lady spent most if not all of her time explaining what the heck Baha’i even is…and overall it was just lacking.

    I came away feeling very sorry for the Eastern religious reps and feeling very disappointed by the atheist guy (who I at least thought would talk about a disconnect between hard science and faith or emotionalism or something).

    Anyway – your recount seems similar.

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