This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
I must say I feel completely defeated and I could use your help and insight. I had a discussion over God's existence tonight and totally botched it!! I feel I did a dis-service to the reasonableness of the Christian worldview.
I've been studying apologetics for quite some time. I felt I knew the material pretty well. Now I'm not so sure. Dr. Craig, I know you're one of the great Christian debaters. When you were younger, did you ever feel you completely botched a debate and felt like a failure? That is how I feel right now!!
My wife and I met some friends for dinner and one of the young ladies we were eating with brought along her new boyfriend. I strike up a conversation and he tells me that he is a crime analyst. We started discussing laws and deviant behavior. That got me thinking about morality. I asked him if he thought there was objective morality from a creator or if all morality is simply a social construct. He proceeds to tell me he is an atheist and we went on to discuss what is faith, if belief in God is reasonable, etc. unfortunately, I did not do the best job of making my case for Christianity. In retrospect, he was always leading the discussion and I was constantly on the defense. He used much rhetoric and would try to poke holes in my points but he never actually defended his claims. He always asked me "why" when I should've been asking him "why". I should have put the burden of proof on him to defend his own claims. He kept saying things like there's no way to know if there's absolute truth. Or why do I even care to prove that there is. He said not knowing is okay and we should be more willing to accept uncertainty. He asked why do I feel the need to even believe there is a creator? (I wanted to tell him that I don't feel the "need" for a creator for its own sake but I do want to know the truth and that's what drives me. I wanted to say "without a creator, objective morality and goodness there's ultimately no meaning or real purpose to our lives!! Unfortunately, I would get tongue tied and freeze up).
He would answer my questions in analogies or with another questions but never in detail. My other friend told me later that they feel he had the upper hand and walked all over me. He was able to make me seem foolish with his wit but he never gave one single argument in favor of his worldview. He just continued saying there's no real evidence for the existence of God. I began to point out cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. I tried to explain in depth the argument from contingency but he just ignored it and asked why I feel the need to have a creator. He even stated that I must live with a lot of guilt and that's why I probably feel the need for God and the church, etc. He was quite good at turning my words against me.
It reminds me of your debate with Christopher Hitchens. He was known for his rhetoric and wittiness but he never once answered your objections or gave alternatives for your arguments. Yet in my case, to outsiders it seemed he had the upper hand. I'm at a loss, Dr. Craig. I even question the point of it all. Why have I spent so much time studying apologetics if I freeze up in a debate? Why even debate atheists in the first place? He obviously had his mind made up. He claimed if he saw proof for God's existence he would change his stance yet there is much evidence already!! I'm really bothered by my responses tonight. The only thing I can say, it's been a humbling experience. What should I do? How can I be better prepared for real-life debates? What should I have done differently? Please help!!
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Don’t be discouraged, Marshall! Doing a belly flop is painful and embarrassing, but in this case it can be just the incentive you need to perfect your skills. I think it was Douglas Hyde, a Marxist activist who later became a Christian, who related that the first thing they did with a young recruit was to send him out on the streets to argue with people about the virtues of Communism, knowing fully well that he would get intellectually beat up. They found that such a humiliating experience was just what the young recruit needed as a spur to really master his arguments and engage people in debate.
We all identify with your experience. I remember once, after graduating from Wheaton College, I tried to share my faith with a university professor at Northern Illinois University and came away feeling frustrated and utterly defeated at my performance (or lack thereof). I even tried to meet again with him to have a second go-around, determined to do better, but he wasn’t interested! The important thing is to learn from such experiences. Analyze what you did wrong and take concrete steps to be better prepared next time.
What’s interesting about your experience is that your interlocutor apparently didn’t present any arguments or objections that you can’t answer. It’s not as though you were stumped and now need to find answers. You’ve got the answers; you just need better methods. I’d suggest you take a look at a book like Greg Koukl’s Tactics (Zondervan, 2009) to learn effective techniques for engaging an unbeliever in conversation about Christian faith. You were quite right to let the other chap do most of the talking, but, as you yourself recognize, you erred in letting him put you on the defensive. Koukl’s two simple questions: (1) “What do you mean by that?” and (2) “Why do you think that?” can help you to stay on the offense in the conversation and make your interlocutor bear his fair share of the burden of proof.
So right at the beginning of the conversation, when he says that he is an atheist, it would be important to understand exactly what he means by that. Is he just agnostic or does he claim to know that God does not exist? If the latter, what justification does he have for so radical a position? You might comment on how difficult it is to prove that God does not exist and so express your interest in hearing his arguments against the existence of God. If he just says that “there's no real evidence for the existence of God,” that’s a perfect opening for you to say, “Wait a minute! You’re a criminal analyst, right? As a criminologist, you must know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I want to hear your evidence against God.”
Or again, when he makes a claim like “there's no way to know if there's absolute truth,” you ought to be ready for such an assertion. Take out a pen and write his claim on a paper: “There's no way to know if there's absolute truth.” Then show it to him and ask, “Is that absolutely true?” If not, then is it just his opinion? If it is absolutely true, then how does he know it? Isn’t his position self-refuting? Be nice about it. Say, “I’m really trying to understand how your position isn’t self-referentially incoherent.”
When he says, “not knowing is okay and we should be more willing to accept uncertainty,” you should respond, “Have I ever claimed to know with certainty that God exists? I’m just saying that on balance God’s existence is more probable than not.” Ask him if he wouldn’t agree with that. If not, why not?
If he demands evidence of God’s existence, then you should be ready and waiting. I don’t get the impression, Marshall, that you have memorized any arguments and their respective premises. If you have them memorized, that’s the best antidote for becoming tongue-tied. You need to have memorized: “Why, I can think of at least five arguments for God’s existence!” When he says, “Yeah, like what?”, then you recite your list of arguments that you’ve memorized:
1. God is the best explanation for why anything at all exists rather than nothing.
2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.
3. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.
4. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.
5. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.
For the average unbeliever to hear even a list such as this is overwhelming. If he then wants to talk about one of them, recite from memory the premises of that argument, e.g.,
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore God exists.
You may even want to write the premises out on a piece of paper for him to look at.
If anyone ever responds to your arguments by attacking or blaming you personally, like saying you “must live with a lot of guilt and that's why [you] probably feel the need for God,” just smile and say, “Are you not familiar with the logical fallacy of argument ad hominem?” (It’s evident by this point that you’re dealing with a really snarky person and therefore can afford to be more confrontational.) “Even if what you said were true—which it isn’t—, it has no relevance to the soundness of my argument. If you want to deny the conclusion of my argument, then you must think that one of its premises is false. So I want you to tell me which premise you think is false and why.” If you have these sentences memorized, you won’t feel tongue-tied when he makes his accusations.
Now when I encourage you to have these responses memorized, please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that you shouldn’t be interested in having a genuine conversation with the unbeliever. On the contrary, these tactics serve to guide the conversation so that it can be fruitful and interesting. You can have a genuine love and concern for your interlocutor even as you help guide the conversation in helpful channels.
So “the point of it all” is, in Paul’s words, to “become all things to all men that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9.22). Look at the Testimonials on this website to see the thrilling ways in which God has used these arguments to bring people to Himself. Sure, the unbeliever may remain unconvinced despite your arguments. But you’re planting and watering in hopes that over time the seed will germinate and bear fruit.
I want to share with you part of another question I received this week which almost seems like a response to yours. Scott wrote,
I can't thank you enough for all that you do! I'm just a simple truck driver who loves the Lord and I have struggles at times to share with unbelievers, that was until I read your book On Guard! Now I have so much more confidence when I'm talking with people at work or just around the neighborhood, I no longer hide from tough questions. I'm still just a truck driver, and I continue to work hard at mastering all of the material in your book. Someone at my church once said to me "why do you try to learn apologetics?" I quickly realized that this person does not share his faith with many people.
Marshall, if you will take the preparatory tactical steps that I’ve suggested, then I believe that Scott’s experience will become increasingly your own.