In a debate with religious people on the existence of god, atheists should win easily because all the evidence and arguments are on their side. After millennia of religious effort, what have religious people got to show in support of the existence of god other than vague appeals to the ineffable nature of his being? As Stephen Colbert said in an interview when his guest asserted the ineffability of god, claiming something is ineffable is great because you can say that you are right without having to explain it.
But in real debates, atheists don’t do as well as they should. This is because religious people have the advantage that theology is a static (I would say dead) field and that all its knowledge is really old and well known. Theologians simply keep recycling and reformulating the arguments of Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo and the like, giving them new labels and terminology that are more consonant with modern science and knowledge. Science, on the other hand, is a dynamic field with new results always coming out in widely diverse fields of study.
Why does this favor the religious debater? The lack of new knowledge in their own field enables them to keep their rear flank secure, so to speak, because the scientist cannot bring out a new and unknown theological argument that contradicts the religious person’s argument. Hence their defenses are solid and well-rehearsed and they are free to always be on the attack.
If the religious person who debates scientists is not too scrupulous, it is quite easy for him or her assert a plausible sounding argument supposedly based on new science and say that it is the result of a scientific or mathematical ‘proof’. They can comb through the scientific literature and find some result that they think will confound the scientist they are debating, and say with a flourish that other scientists have ‘proved’ something that is central to their religious case.
In doing so, the religious debater can take advantage of the fact that while the world of scientific knowledge is vast, any individual scientist works in a narrow field of study and often has just a superficial knowledge of even old knowledge in other areas. Another fact in the religious person’s favor is that scientists tend to be cautious about talking about areas that they know little about and are willing to say so. When confronted with a supposedly new or unknown scientific result, an honest scientist will be forced to concede ignorance, allowing the religious person to claim victory. So the scientist debating the religious person will often be suddenly confronted with some assertion about a theorem that mathematician David Hilbert supposedly proved or some esoteric result from information theory or thermodynamics or cosmology or string theory or probability or evolutionary biology or some other field that he or she knows little about and may not know how to respond.
The scientist cannot pull the same stunt on the religious debater. It is no good telling them that another theologian has shown something new that undermines the case for god because there is nothing new in theology. Theologians know that and even they recognize that theological arguments don’t have the weight of scientific claims and so any inconvenient ones can be ignored.
As a result, to continue the war metaphor, the scientist is like a general who has to defend all directions against attacks from an enemy, while the religionist has the luxury of having to defend only one direction while being able to carefully pick the weakest point of his opponent to attack. Hence the religionist can attack with boldness. The late Duane Gish was renowned for this debating tactic and it earned the title of the ‘Gish Gallop‘. This is why engaging in verbal debates with such religious people can be tricky and it is far better to do so in written form where one has the time to check the other person’s assertions for accuracy.
Theologian William Lane Craig is the modern day sophisticated version of Gish. He too loves to read the popular science literature in order to pick up esoteric bits of knowledge that have impressive names in order to impress people who do not know the science and to cow his debate opponent who may have only a hazy idea of the scientific development he is exploiting. But where Gish’s arguments were crude as was to be expected from a young Earth creationist, Craig’s are more polished as befits the times he lives in and the milieu in which he operates. Where Gish was like a mugger, Craig is the smooth-talking confidence man. In recognition of this, let me give the label of the ‘Craig Con’ to what Craig does and I will discuss it and how to combat it in Part II tomorrow.