“Debate” about morality between Sam Harris and William Craig

I don’t usually watch these dog-and-pony shows between theists and atheists because there is little point, at least in terms of learning anything new or forming different ideas. I don’t need to listen to another traveling Christian circus to know that the idea that morals or anything else is God-given is a farce, for two simple reasons: The Christian god is a pitiful but ferociously persistent fiction, and moral behavior and frameworks are adequately explained in naturalistic terms.

But I like watching Sam Harris for the same reason I enjoy watching Christopher Hitchens — I just like his style (and Hitchens and Harris could scarcely be different). So I watched the April 7 “debate” between Harris and William Craig at Notre Dame (video below). My impressions are below the fold lest you prefer for some reason to watch the debate without the dubious benefit of my “spoilers.”

Craig, like every traveling Christian debate circus, is a genial and polished speaker. He is also someone whom I would, if I were an alien placed on planet Earth and given a basic understanding of what human beings can perceive and how they think, assume was mentally deficient in some way. It is or should be evident to any objective observer that Craig makes no effort at all to meet Harris head-on here. His contentions are these:

1) If God exists, God provides a source of objective morality.
2) If God doesn’t exist, there is no source of objective morality.

So taken together he’s claiming that objective morality exists if and only if God does.

The first ludicrous thing Craig does in this “debate” is deny Harris the suggestion that God in fact doesn’t exist, asserting that that is a question for a different “debate.” Only in the purest philosophical sense is this meaningful. Debates that involve accepting flawed premises as starting points are permissible at the level of raw argumentation, but are vacuous in the real world. I could, if I liked, debate a lunar conspiracy theorist whose claim is that if the moon landings never happened, then NASA is covering up vast amounts of deceitful behavior. But if this person insisted that I not introduce the evidence for moon landings because that is a different argument, it would render the discussion even more frivolous. Since Craig can introduce no evidence supporting the existence of his God, Harris or anyone else pointing this out has made a meaningful contribution.

As far as specifics go, Craig makes predictable use of the fact that each participant in this “debate” has a very limited amount of time to speak. He throws out a bunch of bullshit about Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, thereby nominally forcing Harris to respond to Craig’s quote-mining and misquoting. He makes continual references to “atheism” as a world view, when in fact it’s merely the absence of a dogmatic view, so as to knock over a straw man — that is, rather than accept that what Harris is doing is establishing that God in any guise is not needed to define and establish morality, he’s playing games and pretending that Harris is putting some faceless yet active surrogate agent in God’s place. Harris is merely removing the idea of agency, which humans in general and theists by definition cannot get their minds around. He claims in a self-congratulatory way to have made a knock-down philosophical argument when he has not, stating that Harris has merely re-defined “objective morality” in a way that makes his argument circular, when in fact Harris is merely expanding on the idea that theists do not get to narrowly define “moral” for their own purposes. Craig caters to the audience with a bunch of smiling faux-paternalistic head-shaking as unmitigated bullshit spews out of him (the part that I think would make him look mentally challenged to any intelligent entity familiar with the human intellect but not well-versed in the way that otherwise intelligent creationists and theists subvert and abandon it altogether).

Most damningly, when Harris gives powerful, incontrovertible examples of how the Christian God is (if taken to exist) not only morally absent but morally reprehensible, Craig responds with a hand-wave, pointing (literally) to a book and saying “read this, that’s all dealt with here.” It’s the same bullshit Christian traveling circuses always engage in — that’s been answered already, I don’t need to get into it.

It doesn’t surprise me that people ignorant enough to think that Craig has done anything besides unload drivel and nonsense in this “debate” exist in abundance; I just wonder, with a strange mixture of dread and amusement, whether their numbers are shrinking as fast as I’d like to believe.

Harris’ own remarks on the “debate” — which I have not yet read so as to not color my thoughts here — are posted on his blog.

  1. #1 by Marie on April 20, 2011 - 11:05 am

    This really has nothing to do with the debate, just kind of a tangent observation: I never really saw anything admirable about morality when people only practice it to avoid punishment. (“Do it or I’ll fuckin’ spank you!”) By that same rationale, would you then only refrain from stealing/raping/murdering/whatever because you’re afraid of getting caught? I think MY morality (and this probably sounds all hipster-douchebaggy) comes from a better place because I do it even though I believe there would be no consequences otherwise.

    I’m stating the obvious. But there you go.

  2. #2 by Barlow on April 20, 2011 - 7:55 pm

    Where Craig really failed was after saying that without God there is no objective morality he had no way of showing that — even if we could prove God exists — we would have no clue what was objective morality would be with God existing.

    Craig going to the that is a debate of epistemology, not objectivity made his claim pretty useless.

    Harris pointed out that lots of people hold different religious beliefs. If there is no objective way to determine what is objectively moral by God, what purpose does objective morality based upon God serve?

    Morality within religion changes all the time but I guess Criag would claim that is debate about epistemology too.

    And as Harris has pointed out that someone can live a perfectly moral life but if he doesn’t believe in God he is going to spend eternity in hell. Meanwhile someone who does a lot of bad shit but then accepts God just before death he goes to heaven. Is that a God worth worship? Is God that needy that decision and actions one has made throughout their lives matter little but love of him is all that ultimately matters?

  3. #3 by Barlow on April 20, 2011 - 8:03 pm

    Ah, fuck.

    That first paragraph is a mess.

    Harris offers a foundation to determine if something is objectively moral. Craig offers no foundation. He just claims that without God there can be no objective morality. Under Craig’s scheme, I am not sure how one would ever be able to determine what is objectively moral even accepting the premise that God exists.

  4. #4 by kemibe on April 20, 2011 - 8:24 pm

    I think Plato laid the whole God/morality issue to rest a long time ago. His basic argument was that if God chose the morals he did because they were good, then they were already good, and if they were good because he defined them as such, then “good” is arbitrary. I know no person, no matter how religious, who would suddenly feel comfortable with the idea of random infanticide if word came down that God had decided that this was good.

    Craig is annoying. He’s like a mentally handicapped, blithering version of the actor Sam Neill. He pulls the usual theist-philosopher bullshit — repeatedly declares victory, spits out noncontributory syllogisms and other bafflegab, throws out challenges that don’t bear responding to and then charges his opponent with failing to answer them. Harris won the debate the moment he pointed out that God as understood by Craig was guilty of moral atrocities and that god-free people were imbued with moral goodness (despite Craig’s protests that Harris had redefined “moral”). Harris should have given him the finger, laughed in his face, kicked him square in the nuts and skipped off the stage, but this behavior is generally outside the parameters of most formal debates.

  5. #5 by jomike on April 22, 2011 - 6:41 pm

    Craig, along with most Christian philosophers, argues that the Euthyphro problem is a false dilemma:

    Or as noted in Wikipedia,

    [i]”God’s commands are not arbitrary: there are reasons which guide his commands based ultimately on this goodness and badness.[74] God could not issue horrible commands: God’s own essential goodness[75] or loving character[76] would keep him from issuing any unsuitable commands… God is identical to the ultimate standard for goodness”[/i]

    One can argue that that doesn’t address the dilemma, but merely puts it back a step (or renders it circular):

    [i]”If we identify the ultimate standard for goodness with God’s nature, then it seems we are identifying it with certain of God’s properties (e.g., being loving, being just). If so, then the dilemma resurfaces: is God good because he has those properties, or are those properties good because God has them?”[/i]

    Point being, whichever side you come down on there’s more to it than might be apparent on first glance. I’m guessing our little choir here is of a mind, but the interesting thing to me is that few mainstream religious people — even the most devout and liberal-minded thinkers — seem to even consider the question.

    Which I find fascinating. This is one of a very few problems that must be addressed by any religion or system of thought or ethics if it’s to have any chance of convincing people of ordinary intelligence. The vast indifference to it blows my mind.

  6. #6 by jomike on April 22, 2011 - 8:18 pm

    Jerry Coyne has a thoughtful post up today:


    “I’m starting to realize that for many the presence of human morality is the most powerful argument for a god. Certainly Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health director, thinks so: he claims that there is no explanation other than God for what he calls the “Moral Law”: the internal feeling of right and wrong we have about many acts.

    Yet none of these people seem to even consider the alternative arguments for morality. For one, many moral sentiments may have been instilled in our ancestors by natural selection …religion comes from instruction and tradition, not God, and yet people feel innate religious drives. Innateness is no evidence for divinity”

    Right on point. It isn’t just that people feel that without a God there is no basis for morality (though that’s certainly powerful in itself). It’s that people intuit that their innate sense of right and wrong originates from somewhere outside themselves.

  7. #7 by kemibe on April 23, 2011 - 2:49 am

    I watched a debate about the existence of God between Craig and Christopher Hitchens at Biola University a couple of years ago.

    I just can’t get past the glaring vacuity of Craig’s approach. He may sound like a masterful philosopher even to some who know he has no real arguments, but he’s not even that. When he actually said in the Hitchens debate that he knows God exists because he can feel God in him as a Christian, and that X and Y and Z logically follow, my jaw almost dropped. Really? No one in the audience understands the concept of faulty premises? If I asserted that Mel Gibson is actually a robot created by Jews to make Catholic actors look bad, and then proceeded to make an argument based on that “fact,” someone would have to stop me. Then again there’s an obvious reason why these debates are always staged at religious institutions. I’m trying to imagine Craig trying to answer Hitchens’ questions at the end in a room full of Dawkins and Coyne acolytes. They’d laugh him off the stage, chase him outside, key his car, have sex with his daughters and egg his house and give him huge noogies. And that’s just for starters.

  8. #8 by jomike on April 23, 2011 - 8:05 pm

    When he actually said in the Hitchens debate that he knows God exists because he can feel God in him as a Christian, and that X and Y and Z logically follow, my jaw almost dropped. Really?

    And you know, after all the fog and blather clears, that really is the essential theistic starting-point. Even the most liberal Christian who rejects almost everything in the Nicene Creed still plants their flag on this “knowledge,” this “other way of knowing.” The assertion is that the theistic “world view” (which phrase turns up often in debates and blogs and various apologia) is on the same footing as scientific “world view” of “methodological naturalism.”

    I’ve often wondered why the theistic position isn’t described as “methodological supernaturalism,” but whatever. Anyway, incredible though it may seem, Craig’s view really does represent the mainstream. People like Harris and you and me are the odd ones out.

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