April 14th, 2011

How to Instigate a God Debate

Courtesy of Religion Dispatches.

Last week I had the chance to catch what was probably the biggest God debate of the year, in this genre of blockbuster, YouTubed, college-campus bouts. The topic was “Is Good from God?”—is religion necessary for objective morality? The debaters were William Lane Craig, the evangelical philosopher, and Sam Harris, who launched the New Atheism movement. My report appears today at Religion Dispatches. Instead of focusing on the arguments per se—for them, see a play-by-play at Common Sense Atheism—I spent my time hanging out with the debaters and the student organizers before and after the event. Here’s a bit of it:

Controversy was the intent all along. “The main reason we did it was for the discussion in the dorms,” says Malcolm Phelan, a junior, who helped put the debate together and gave the opening speech. He’s tall, a bit lanky, steady with his eye-contact, and erring on the side of clean-cut. Around here, he’s someone who can get things done and get money out of the administration. Even professors talk about him with a shade of awe. As a freshman he was class president, but then he quit student government for greater things. He also has a visionary streak, and a knack for stringing winged words together into crescendos. Busy Notre Dame students need this, he says. They live in an “upper-class Catholic Disneyland” and need to be shaken up. “I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an instigator, but—” he says, trailing off. His word, not mine.

Phelan’s co-conspirator behind the scenes was Arnav Dutt. Someone introduced him to me as The Thinker. While he talks, he looks down and pauses mid-sentence if it isn’t coming out exactly right, his eyes covered behind glasses and a Justin Beiber-type mop-top. He’s the child of a Catholic and a Hindu, both non-practicing. Like Phelan, Dutt considers himself an atheist, though his education has been mostly in Catholic environments. “This issue”—that of the debate—“has thrust itself on me my whole life.” He takes it seriously and wonders whether some of the critics are right; maybe a big debate is the wrong approach. When I ask what he thinks it will do for people, he turns pensive again. “There’s a big difference between what I think they’re getting and what I hope they’re getting,” he says.

While I was at Notre Dame, I had the pleasure of a long afternoon’s conversation with John O’Callaghan, a philosophy professor there who specializes in Thomist thought, and who runs the Jacques Maritain Center. Before the debate even happened—I guess the same afternoon we met—he put together a very different kind of essay from mine, a reminder that the debate’s apparent choice between religion and science isn’t one we have to make.

The greatest among our Christian forebears certainly didn’t think we had to. Even if one remains unconvinced by the logic of Aquinas’ Five Ways, the attitude expressed in them is not one of natural explanations in competition with God. His natural science was almost unimaginably false with regard to what we now know or claim to know. But the reality of natural causes that allows for scientific understanding was for him the best and “most manifest” argument for the existence of a god, a god Who does not compete with His creatures but, rather, enables them.

The upshot of all this should be obvious enough: if you’re looking for the subtle truth, maybe a big staged debate like this isn’t the place to find it.

I remember an instance of good, anyway, with or without God, when Arnav Dutt and I were leaving the debate. A woman dropped her pocketbook as she started walking out into the rain. A handful of others around noticed, and called out—“Miss! Miss!”—and handed it to her. “That’s nice to see, after this,” I heard Dutt mutter. I think I also heard some irony.


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2 Responses to “How to Instigate a God Debate”

  1. Fr. B

    “Is Good from God?” and “is religion necessary for objective morality?” are two different questions. St. Thomas Aquinas would certainly have answered yes to the first question but would probably have said no to the second. He had a very optimistic view of the power of human reason to arrive at truth, doctrinal or moral, even apart from revelation and faith. “Sin is an offense against reason,” was his conviction.
    On the other hand is the view of Ivan Karamazov–although the words are not found in Dostoevsky’s great novel–that if there is no God, everything is permitted.
    Aquinas has reason on his side; considering the attempts of several 20th-century regimes to remove God from their societies, Ivan has history on his.
    Am I imagining that the desire for a public atheism in the West is motivated by a hope that Karamazov was right and that atheism will anesthetize the sting of conscience? I do not say that this is the agenda of the public figures who are advocating atheism. I’m only wondering if this might be the hidden wish of those who cheer them on.

  2. Nathan

    Sharp distinction! Yes, definitely. And those two different phrasings—”Is Good from God?” and “is religion necessary for objective morality” (rather, replace “religion” with “the existence of God”—reflects the somewhat different approaches the two debaters each took that night. And your observation about how Thomas would interpret the second brings to mind this bit of my report:

    Eventually I made my way to a reception at Morris Inn, the on-campus hotel. The organizers were there, as was Craig, his wife Jan, and a handful of philosophy professors. Harris made an appearance later, and one of the elder philosophers greeted him, saying, “Thanks for representing the Catholic view!” (This turned out to be a controversial claim.)

    That “sin is an offense against reason” is an old and sensible view, in the abstract, I agree. And I think you may be right that some people who want to do away with God have bad motives for doing so. Just as people say they believe in God for all kinds of terrible reasons, to get sex and power and the rest of it. If the good is in harmony with reason, we should all be able to call each other its tasks, whether we’re New Atheists or evangelists or otherwise.