"So the atheist says to the scientist . . ."

Yesterday I had to make a choice: I could go to hear Josh McDowell speak at Queensway Cathedral (and why oh why do protestant churches ever call themselves cathedrals?) or I could go to hear a debate at the University of Toronto, sponsored by a Christian campus group known as Power to Change.

I heard Josh in 1975 at Kansas State University (that makes both of us sound really old). None of the Christian students I spoke to last night had even heard of McDowell, which surprised me, given the theme of the debate. Anyway, I chose to hear the debate. The debate was between a science professor from the University of Guelph, Kirk Durston (the Christian), and a philosopher of science from the University of Toronto, James Robert Brown (the atheist). The name of the debate was Should a Scientist Believe in God?

I appreciated that the debate was a true debate, not like the Canadian political debates where the candidates try to out-soundbite each other with loud witticisms and comebacks. First, Dr Durston was allowed 20 minutes to state the affirmative, that a scientist should believe in God. This was followed by Dr Brown’s negative assertion. Then each was given 10 minutes in turn for rebuttal, followed by a 40 minute question period (I was too far back in line and didn’t get a chance to ask a question), then each had a 5 minute summary. The auditorium at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) was almost full.

Dr Durston, in his twenty minutes, presented a cogent argument from an evidentialist apologetic viewpoint. He later told me that this, he felt, was the level at which most of the students were operating, that they were seeking evidence for faith. I think he is well-aware of the presuppositions that underlie the acceptance of evidence, but he did not use those kinds of arguments in this debate. After listening to the two of them, I think he was wise in his choice, and presented his arguments clearly and fairly. I am biased, of course, as a Christian, but I felt he was very straightforward. He moved all the way from the creation of the cosmos to Jesus as God incarnate, which is pretty impressive given the time. Neither  presenter said much about evolution until asked, and it is fairly clear that Durston believes in Intelligent Design.

In contrast to Durston, Brown was much more animated. He began as disarming, friendly, congenial, jovial and witty. In this way seemed, at times, to try to channel the late Christopher Hitchens, who was always interesting, even when wrong. It was pretty evident that as Brown moved from good-natured humour to stern attacks on faith, that he was engaging in a well-worn rhetorical device which first disarms the audience and then moves in for an emotional “kill,” this time being over the question of theodicy: “How can a loving, omnipotent God allow (fill in the atrocity).

Both presenters were easy to follow, as both proceeded from the same starting point: the reasonableness or non-reasonableness of their respective positions.  I came to hear what the top scholars in their respective fields would have to say about faith, and was surprised to learn that the arguments hadn’t advanced further than they had. Both men had debated before, and joked about doing this every five years. I think a great opportunity could be had in asking Dr Brown a few questions:

1) He saved most of his vitriol to attack faith, even saying (tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure), that one “should be ashamed of themselves to have faith in God without rational justification” and “grow up!” A valid question could be, “What then, is your rational justification for your faith (belief) in rationality?” If faith, as a pre-theoretical commitment is so bad, what constitutes a valid theory of rationality? Do you not, Dr Brown, have faith in rationality itself? And isn’t any attempt to justify rationality required to use reason to do so? This is like interlocking one’s fingers to give a friend a boost over a wall; I lock my fingers together to make a step, my friend steps on it and is lifted up. But if I need the lift up, using my own hands as a means to do so means I will fall on my face. To use reason to show that reason is a true method requires that one already accepts reason as true, and so assumes the outcome rather than proving it.

2) This leads to another point. Brown’s arguments beg the question. Yes, if God does not exist, then all the nasty things said about faith might stand; but that hasn’t been shown. If God does exist, then the question of theodicy may be approached theologically. If God does exist, He does so whether or not we like it or believe it. He is shrouded in mystery, and we do not understand fully why disasters overtake the innocent. This being said simplistically, because there are good answers available, not, however, apart from a knowledge of God. All the question-begging however reveals something important about the “new” atheism (which, it seems, isn’t so new after all): atheists don’t like God. The idea of a being Who created all things, including the mind of the atheist, and to Whom all people are accountable, is very offensive.

I think the problem of starting an apologetic argument from evidence and reason is that it assumes a common-ground between the atheist and Christian that simple isn’t there. It assumes that reason is a neutral place where which believer and unbeliever can meet and at least agree upon the basic foundations from which all arguments can proceed. According to the Bible, however (and yes, I’d be accused of question-begging here), the unbeliever is a moral fool, and blind. As Cornelius Van Til writes:

The picture of fallen man as given in Scripture is that he knows God but does not want to recognize him as God (Rom 1). That he knows God is due to the fact that all things in the universe about him and within him speak clearly of God. It is as “knowing God” that man rebels against God. Moreover, at the beginning of history Adam, representing mankind, received from God direct supernatural communication about himself and his task in the world. All men are responsible for this revelation. Speaking of the Gentiles, Paul says that “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom 1:21). And further, that they “changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom 1:25). In consequence of their rejection of God as their Creator and Lord they are now subject to the wrath of God. “Wherefore as by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom 5:12), and having sinned in Adam they are now by nature born dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). They are “children of disobedience” (Eph: 2:2); and “… by nature the children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). They walk “in the vanity of their mind,” “having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph 4:18). Paul speaks of fallen man as having a “carnal mind,” and says that “… to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom 8:6).

Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969).

Now, simply calling Brown a fool would not make for a great debate. But anytime a Christian speaks to an unbeliever, it is important to see them, as God sees them; and to remember that such were we (1 Corinthians 6:11).

So, why discuss evidence at all? John Frame suggests:

As “Reformed epistemologists” have emphasized, we do legitimately believe most things without proof or argument. This is obviously the case with young children, but it is also the case with adults, and with some of our fundamental beliefs: the belief that there is an external world beyond our own mind, the belief that other people have minds like ours, the belief that the future will resemble the past, and so on. I also agree with the Reformed epistemologists that it is quite legitimate for someone to believe in Christ without basing that belief on some argument or other. The Spirit creates faith in the heart, as we have seen, and that faith may or may not arise through an argumentative process. I do believe that faith is always (logically, not causally) based on evidence. Romans 1:18–32 makes clear that the evidence of the natural world yields knowledge of God in every human being, a knowledge that many suppress. But argument is not strictly necessary for faith. The importance of apologetics, then, is not that one can’t believe without it; it is rather that apologetic arguments can articulate and confirm the knowledge of God that we all have from creation.

John M. Frame, “Presuppositional Apologetics” In , in Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowan, Zondervan Counterpoints Collection (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 215-16.

All this being said (and I will have to say more on this later), given the foundations for the arguments, I believe that the Christian won the debate. I would like to see a debate at the philosophical level that challenges the presuppositions of atheism. It might not, at this time, have a mass-appeal to students, but these questions will not go away.