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Lawyer vs. Theologian: The Tabash-Craig Debate

In February 8 of 1999 at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, California, atheist EdwardTabash debated Evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig. Tabash is a Beverly Hills attorney affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism, and Craig is a renowned speaker and writer for Christian Theism and the Campus Crusade for Christ. The point of debate was whether Secular Humanism is preferable and more supported by the evidence than Christian Theism.

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In raw production values, the video tape is adequate but not of professional quality–though there is no zooming in on the faces of the debaters, you can hear everything that is said. The moderated structure gave each side a 20 minute opening statement, a 10 minute rebuttal, and a 5 minute closing, and this was followed by 20 minutes of Q & A (included on the video). This was similar to the Naturalism vs. Theism debate that was the focus of the superb Lowder-Fernandes debate.

I highly recommend the purchase of the videos of both debates, though for different reasons. Lowder’s presentation was the best cumulative case I’ve seen, he made good use of visual aids, and his presentation style was smooth and inviting, very conversational. His was a model example of how to win a debate. In contrast, Tabash didn’t do as well, despite the fact that Craig was not in top form. But this is even more instructive, revealing those things that ought or ought not to be done in a debate. These videos would be excellent library material for campus freethought groups, activists, freethought organizations, and freelance debaters, and should be in every collection.

Who Won?

After the debate, there was some confusion over who had won. Even many theists were disappointed in Craig, whose arguments were often poorly constructed or outright fallacious, and they credited Tabash, who certainly made several good arguments that were not addressed, or only ineptly, with the win. However, in the opinion of this author, the rhetorical victory was Craig’s.

In general, though Craig had that conversational, easy style of speaking that made people comfortable and coo over his arguments even when they didn’t make any sense, Tabash seemed rushed and confrontational throughout, and that was off-putting, and no doubt played into the stereotypes that Christians have of us as mean and harried. If we are to get our ideas across to the fence sitters and questioning believers we need to present ourselves like Craig and Lowder: easy, paced, “I’m just a nice guy so you should really care about what I have to say.” Comparing the two speaking styles is thus very valuable preparation for any debate.

Equally important, the main point where Tabash seemed unprepared (and thus where Craig took most advantage, to strong rhetorical effect) was the issue of the secular foundation of morality. Seekers don’t want to hear, for example, arguments against the supernatural (Tabash’s main pounding post, which Craig never adequately rebutted). They want to hear how Secular Humanism is good for them and for society. They want to know what the basis of its value system is. Tabash did not address this in any sound fashion, and Craig focussed on that to such an extent that it certainly secured him a public relations win.

In contrast, however, Craig was so plainly playing a rhetorical game, that he could have been spanked quite nicely on several occasions, and in some Tabash indeed spanked him good, but in others the opportunity was missed. For instance, Craig dodged several bullets on serious problems with the basis and nature of Christian morality (immoral verses in the Bible, doctrine of Hell, etc.), only at the cost of all but admitting his Evangelical creed was entirely false and unacceptable. Had Tabash pounced on that hypocrisy and asked Craig whether he was now going to renounce Evangelicalism and join the ranks of liberal Christians, a powerful rhetorical victory would have been his. After all, Craig is not merely a member but president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, whose members must sign a sworn agreement that they believe “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the originals” and he is a member of the faculty of the Talbot School of Theology, whose declared mission as a seminary holds that “The Scriptures…are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind” and “All those who persistently reject Jesus Christ in the present life shall be raised from the dead and throughout eternity exist in the state of conscious, unutterable, endless torment and anguish.”[1] Thus, when Craig says in this debate that inerrancy, and the doctrine of hell, are not necessary beliefs for the Christian, he technically wins on that debating point (since he is only defending Christianity, not Evangelicalism). But to get this win he essentially sacrifices his integrity, for Craig himself believes these doctrines are true, and yet he doesn’t tell the audience this, nor does he renounce them even though he acts here as if they really are indefensible.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The following analysis is aimed at helping viewers of the tape learn from what went on, to better prepare them for their own debates, formal or informal, on the same subject. It will be necessary to actually view the tape to understand and catch the full force and relevance of every point made here, and especially to see how difficult it is to perform ideally under the trying conditions of a live debate. For much of what I discuss is not very obvious on first viewing, and this shows you how hard it is to get a point across–it is not enough merely to make it. Viewing the tape, you will get good ideas on how things could have been better put, and I guarantee it will be a lot of fun thinking just what you would have said in response to Craig (or Tabash) if you had been his opponent, and how you would have said it. Pay particular attention to the arguments each side made, which the other didn’t address at all. Though what follows is not thorough, it is long, and I recommend not reading it until after you have seen the debate and formed your own impressions first.

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Tabash’s argument had many strong points. After arguing that there is no evidence of the supernatural, he concluded with a well-put Doubting Thomas analogy that Craig never directly addressed. Tabash noted that flexibility in the light of new knowledge was an advantage to Secular Humanism that Christianity lacked, an argument Craig ignored entirely. Tabash made a very thorough case for the Argument from Evil that anticipated so many objections Craig had nothing left to say against it, except two fallacious rebuttals (see below), although unfortunately Tabash did not point these fallacies out. And though Craig dodged the “Hell” bullet by claiming Hell was not a necessary Christian doctrine, Tabash made a very strong and emotionally persuasive argument out of it anyway: he quoted Craig admitting that the resurrection is “shockingly absurd” and then made a plea to the audience that “certainly the Christian god is the most vicious sadist in the universe if he would punish us eternally just because we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe something ‘shockingly absurd’.” Though fallacious (Craig all but denied that God sends us to Hell, and the fact that God is a sadist would not make Christianity false per se), it was nice to see Tabash giving as good as he got.

It is true that a compassionate God owes us more evidence, since the danger is so great, and Craig ended up with no recourse but to insist that atheists only disbelieve because they want to and no amount of evidence would sway them–despite the fact that Tabash had already said otherwise, even stating the evidence that would sway him, so Craig was essentially calling him a liar without any justification. Tabash also made an argument from religious experience and diversity that Craig never answered. Tabash also made a very novel and clever argument against the moral argument for god by quoting Craig’s opinion of Hell, which you simply have to see to appreciate.

But Tabash foundered in some places and made some bad choices. He frequently relied too much on Biblical atrocities, even after Craig’s rhetorical tactic rendered this a dead letter. This time should have been spent instead on positive arguments for Secular Humanism, especially the justification of its value system. Tabash also used, and continued to use, an argument from physical minds against a disembodied soul, but instead of using it as an argument against the existence of a disembodied god, he used it as an argument against Christianity, and that is a straw man: Christianity does not require souls, since in the End Times God will recreate everyone’s bodies, so that, e.g., the unbelievers will suffer physically in hell. Craig won here by pointing this out.

And Craig’s major victory was in taking control of the debate and redefining Secular Humanism as a moral system, not merely a commitment to scientific empiricism (which is how Tabash presented it). This allowed Craig to hammer away at this supposed “Achilles’ heel” repeatedly. In fact, he used it twice in his closing statement: Tabash gave no good arguments for humans being the foundation of moral value (so it’s an “absurd leap of faith”), and Tabash did not rebut the moral argument for God (i.e. moral value requires God). This is entirely true: Tabash did not adequately rebut these arguments at all, and seemed not to have been prepared for them.

Craig resorted all too often to fallacious arguments, but all too frequently Tabash did not call him on it. For example, Craig “rebutted” some of Tabash’s argument from evil by claiming Tabash had not “shown” that more souls would be saved if God actively reduced suffering on Earth and provided better evidence. But Tabash failed to point out that this was a fallacy of burden-shifting, since Tabash’s claim that more people would believe if they had better evidence and if God was nicer has inherent plausibility, and in fact it seems logically inevitable, so the burden is on Craig to explain how that would not be so, especially since his assumption that more evidence and goodness would not lead to more believers has no inherent plausibility and seems illogical from the start. And though Craig opened by pontificating against using emotional appeals and basing conclusions on what you want to be true, his entire moral argument (in both its uses, i.e. pro-god and anti-secular) was just such a fallacious appeal, a point Tabash never played up.

Craig’s case was settled on a variety of overplayed and weakly stated arguments, but Tabash did not adequately point this out in enough cases to make for a clear victory. For example, Craig rested his case for God on the cosmological argument (there had to be a first cause and it had to be God), the contingency argument (there has to be a reason for existence and it has to be God), and the moral argument (objective moral values require a God). There were so many holes in these arguments it is a shame Tabash didn’t poke them to death. For instance, Craig’s contingency argument was that the universe is a “thing” and every “thing” has a “reason” to exist, which must be God. This is a non sequitur (he stated no premises that justified going from “a reason” to “God”), and suffers from the additional objection that God is a thing, so he, too, must have a reason apart from himself. If Craig were to argue that God can not be a “thing” but the universe must be a “thing” that would be special pleading, since their attributes are not adequately dissimilar (the universe is omnipresent, and before the formation of matter was an immaterial body, e.g. it consisted of only physical laws, space and time, etc.). Eddie rushed through a claim that Craig was begging the question here, but this rebuttal was not clearly presented, and none of the possible objections I just raised were articulated.

There were also some wins and losses intermingled. Tabash did soundly refute Craig’s cosmological argument, despite Craig’s use of special pleading again: Craig wrongly calls Tabash’s response (that a cause is a temporal concept) a “gratuitous assumption” when in fact Craig’s claim that the word ’cause’ can make sense without a temporal context was really the gratuitous assumption here–and an implausible one at that: Craig cannot have any experience on which to base any generalization regarding what would be the case without time, and his special definition of ’cause’ goes against normal linguistic convention and thus amounts to a word game. Tabash refuted even this maneuver, though Craig refused to acknowledge it, repeating the same claim in his closing statement. (Incidentally, only after repeated viewing did I catch the fact that Craig on at least one occasion confused ex nihilo with nonpersonal cause and more than once confused necessity with plausibility–can you catch where?)

In contrast, at one point Craig got unjustified applause for saying that nothing “requires more faith” than the view that the universe came from nothing. Even though Tabash never argued such a thing, he did set himself up for this by not being clear about the precise nature of the secular explanation of the universe’s origin. That is a warning to all debaters: make sure your ducks are in a row, and when you still get caught by a zinger like that, don’t drop it: deflate it by pointing out why it doesn’t relate to your position or why it is fallacious.

Finally, Tabash did get Craig in a major way on one issue, but only after the debate was concluded. In the debate Craig claimed there was “no reason” to think God lacked “morally sufficient reasons” for the suffering in the world, reasons we cannot perceive, which not only begs the question (Craig presented no evidence for any such reasons) but amounts to special pleading, claiming that God can have special excuses, ones we cannot perceive and that he is somehow not morally obligated to reveal to us (but Tabash did not make these points). Craig eventually tried to give examples of “morally sufficient reasons” for evil that in fact badly hurt his case and made him look rather cruel. I am not joshing you here: Craig actually said that God has the right to commit murder, and that God allowed the Nazi holocaust in order to get the nation of Israel refounded in 1948. Tabash spanked him hard on this one in Q & A. Tabash pointed out the dizzying incompetence of a God who couldn’t get a nation founded except by allowing the torturous murder of six million people and the destruction of countless families and minds.

Craig’s only other embarrassing foray into justifying God was equally shocking: he actually said that forcing captive women to marry their Israelite captors (and hence forcing them into a contractual agreement and sexual exploitation against their will) was necessary “to protect them” because otherwise they would have no other means of support. Tabash did not rebut this, though a rebuttal would have been easy: couldn’t God have just told the Israelites to support the women? Forcing these women into sexual relationships is gratuitous and thus evil, which was Tabash’s point, and thus Craig did not really address it. Of course, had the Israelites not been told by God to murder all their husbands and fathers to a man, this would not have been an issue in the first place. Is Craig saying that murder can create a morally sufficient reason for rape? Whose moral values are twisted here? But none of this came up.

The Resurrection: A Confused Issue

Naturally, in any debate over the truth of Christianity, the Resurrection takes a prominent part. But in debates like these, where two worldviews are pitted against each other, it often becomes a side issue, and not enough time is ever available to really debate the crucial points. The Christian is always at an advantage in such circumstances, because he can rattle off a dozen bogus claims and it always takes longer to rebut each one, and sweeping generalizations (like Tabash’s “science has found no evidence of the supernatural”) are not convincing. So it is tricky territory. I summarize the main problems Tabash encountered here.

Craig rebuts the charge that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” calling this “demonstrably false,” using the example of a lottery winner, whose win is extraordinary but we believe it on ordinary evidence. Tabash did not answer this argument, and in fact set himself up for it by not defining what is meant by “extraordinary,” thus leaving Craig to define it his way and thus win a rhetorical victory. In actual fact, that someone should win a lottery is not extraordinary, so obviously we don’t need extraordinary evidence to believe it: the confusion here lies between general and particular propositions. When a skeptic says “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” he means, or ought to mean, claims that entail one or more general propositions that are extraordinary, not particular propositions, since particular propositions (“I own a car”) are ordinarily supported by general propositions (“many people like me own cars”) and so only require ordinary evidence, but particular propositions that are not supported by general propositions (“I own a nuclear missile”) require evidence well beyond the ordinary: for they require evidence that the necessary general propositions are also believable, and far more evidence is needed for that than for most particular propositions. Thus, it is better to spell out what you mean than to rely on undefined slogans that can be spanked by anyone as slick as Craig.

Craig again entirely defined this debate by putting forward a simple “argument to the best explanation.” He said there were three “facts” that were best explained by a real resurrection than by any naturalistic one: there was an empty tomb, Jesus was seen risen, and the disciples came to believe it “despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.” Of course, “the empty tomb” is not the fact in need of explanation, but the story of an empty tomb, but in the compressed circumstances of a live debate Craig can be excused for not being clear. However, it is hard to excuse him for declaring in his closing that “Contemporary scholarship recognizes no alternative explanation” for these facts other than a real resurrection. That is a plainly false statement and I am sure Craig did not mean to put it that way (he got a little heated in his presentation). But once Craig established this argument, Tabash was forced into his framework. The proper response would have been to answer with a better argument to the best explanation, using his own tool against him, but Tabash’s response was not framed that way, even though it had some of the right elements (scattered around a bit)–and so the rhetorical victory went to Craig again.

Tabash responded to the first “fact” that the empty tomb had natural explanations, but gave no examples and no argument, except the remark that it was probably a “legend,” which was only defended with an argument from silence. Despite the weakness of this argument, Craig responded by saying the empty tomb is “implied” in 1 Corinthians 15 (which entirely begs the question) and is in a “pre-Markan passion story” dating to the “first few years after Jesus’ death.” To a lay audience this last argument was presently very dishonestly, since there is no actual pre-Markan manuscript: this is entirely a scholarly hypothesis based on conjecture alone, and there is in fact no certainly at all regarding the story’s existence, much less its date or its exact contents (e.g. an empty tomb), yet Craig presented all this as fact, without any qualification. Tabash should have called Craig’s bluff on both claims, but he did not address them.

Tabash answered the second “fact” with the argument that the appearances were likely not physical, just as Paul’s was not. To this Craig then “re-interpreted” Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 as referring to a “post-ascension” appearance of Jesus. This is shamelessly ad hoc, for Paul never once mentions the ascension in his description of the sequence of events, an omission that is quite implausible given the context, so it is entirely gratuitous of Craig to import such an assumption. But Tabash never addressed this either. He also forgot to address the third fact (the origin of belief) altogether, until he got spanked for neglecting it, and only then closed with some good analogies that rendered their relevance to Craig’s argument moot. Though strictly sufficient, tactically this made his case look worse than it was.


Viewing the tape, you will see what I mean: public debates are difficult, and quite different in their demands than a written debate or scholarly paper. One has to pay attention to issues like public image, presentation, clarity, and charisma. And this is in addition to being prepared on every point beforehand, and deftly picking what points to make within the limited time so as to rebut all your opponent’s arguments and at the same time build a case for your own position. My hat is off to anyone who dares to enter that gauntlet, and Eddie Tabash is to be commended for doing so. Now let us all benefit from what we can learn from his experience.

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I have given Mr. Tabash the opportunity to challenge my point of view, and it may again be worthwhile to compare his impressions with mine when viewing the tape.

Tabash Responds to Carrier’s Critique:

Here is why I believe that I did better than Mr. Carrier seems to think in my debate against WLC. First of all, he avoided debating me for a number of years, claiming that I was not qualified due to my not having an academic Ph.D. So, by showing him that I was “all business” I proved my competence. My goal was not necessarily to win over the sexually repressed, acne-scarred, 20-year-old Christian kids whom Pepperdine forced to attend the debate. My goal was to score a technical win so that academic philosophers who would ever read a verbatim transcript of the debate would deem me the winner. WLC is a professional philosopher. Thus, a technical victory over him would be my most important accomplishment. I can give some of the most inspirational speeches for free thought. However, this was not the event at which to flex my fledgling “Ingersoll-of-the-21st-Century Wannabe” muscles. This was more like a technical argument, that tracking both philosophy and law would confer the winner’s medal on the one who raised the most substantive arguments that were not refuted. Therefore, my opening statement was so very staccato rapid fire.

In June of last year, I went to the first major prize fight at Los Angeles’ then-brand-new Staples Center. Oscar De La Hoya lost the world’s welterweight title to then-underdog Shane Mosley. After the fight, I was talking to a crusty old fight trainer, who was five feet in both directions and who looked like a Brillo pad with white hair. He told me that even though it appeared Oscar had been the most agile and looked the most attractive, the decision was correct because Mosley both threw the most punches and landed the most. When I got to shake hands with Oscar later that night, I saw that the crafty old trainer was right. Oscar’s otherwise notoriously handsome face, the face that increases the heart rate of every young Hispanic woman from Guatemala to San Francisco, was as puffy as a Danish pastry accidently stuck in a microwave. The point is that in my debate with WLC, I threw more punches at him than he threw at me and more of mine landed on him than his landed on me.

I don’t think I overemphasized the cruelties god ordains in the bible. The only document on which Christianity rests is the bible. Either it is all true or all of it is up for grabs. Craig cannot be selective in his choices of portions that he claims are inerrant and those he might admit could be flawed. If there can be no objective basis for morality other than his biblical god, than he must argumentatively live or die by what his god has said and done in only one chronicle, which is the bible. So long as he did not answer my charge that the atrocities in the bible made the bible inadequate as a basis for morality (as those horrors undercut the bible’s claim to represent any type of moral deity), a charge he did not answer, his argument for Christian morality was mortally wounded.

Most telling, though, where I believe I truly won the debate, not even by decision, but even by knockout, was, in my opening, when I hit him on all the reasons why the structure and function of human consciousness allowed for no survival of human consciousness of bodily death. I said that before he can even get to the questions of heaven and hell, which are at the core of Christianity, he must first overcome my arguments as to the extreme unlikelihood of survival after death in the first place. Since he did not even attempt to do so, he had no foundation to overcome my assertions that we do not survive death in the first place in order to have a realistic chance of experiencing either heaven or hell. Moreover, I think that we non believers have been unjustly intimidated into downplaying the force of the absence of proof of the supernatural. The evidence of and in the physical universe is so contrary to all claims of the supernatural that there is no reason not to herald this aspect of our arguments with full power.

In his book Reasonable Faith, Craig does say that even if there is no evidence of the truth of the bible, and even if there is evidence against it, and even if reason goes against it, we are still required to believe. I knocked him from pillar to post on this one, and he could never give a credible response. For him to leave unanswered the charge that he excludes reason from the human path of determining ultimate truth, is for him to lose the entire debate. How can he even debate with words, if those words are irrelevant, regardless of how “impactful” those words are in terms of logic and reason?

The supernatural, the cruelties and contradictions in the bible, the unlikelihood of life after death, Craig’s own rejection of reason as a means of reliable knowing, are all fatal challenges to his Christian worldview. His failure to counter any of my arguments on these points clearly loses this debate for him. As far as my not having put forth a more attractive face for secular humanism, this was not part of the debate. The debate was about which one, Christianity or humanism is true. It was not about which is the most attractive or most fun. Also, the question and answer session is definitely part of the debate, as we were still giving opposing views on the questions asked. Here, I picked up and amplified my points further, again with his failing to make any effective defense or counter. Quentin Smith, one of our most technically competent atheist philosophers, thinks I clearly won the debate. This was the kind of response that I was after.

Usually, I am filled with humor and levity in my public speaking, or with inspiration. In debating Craig, I had a demolition job to technically accomplish with respect to a religious belief system that is hinged on life after death, the bible, and the supernatural. I succeeded in my demolition, leaving only the structure of the natural universe still standing. My rapid fire point by point assault may not have caused people in the audience to say about me, “Isn’t he cute?” But my approach did accomplish the mission.


[1] Cf. the Philosophia Christi Application for Membership or Subscription (www.epsociety.org/memberapp.htm); and Talbot’s Doctrinal Statement (www.talbot.edu/about/doctrinal_statement.cfm). Note that for students, staff and faculty of this school “dishonesty” is “expressly forbidden” (cf. Standards of Conduct, (www.talbot.edu/studentlife/communityagreements.cfm). All websites spotted July 8,2001.

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