Editor’s note: Although Lowder attempted to be as accurate and complete as possible, Lowder wrote this report without the benefit of a recording of the debate. Instead, Lowder wrote this summary during the debate itself by typing as fast as possible.
On Wednesday, October 24, 2001, Paul Kurtz debated William Lane Craig at Franklin & Marshall College. In contrast to the majority of Craig’s debates which adopt a question as the debate topic, the topic for the Kurtz-Craig debate was the resolution, “Resolved: Goodness without God is Good Enough.” Kurtz defended the affirmative side; Craig took the negative.
Dr. Laurence Bonchek briefly spoke on behalf of the Boncheck Institute, the organization sponsoring the debate. Stanley Michalak, the moderator of the debate, then introduced both of the debaters.
Kurtz’s Opening Statement
Kurtz began by saying that for many individuals goodness without God is not only good enough, but better than a religious morality. Furthermore, belief in God is not sufficient to guarantee morality.
Kurtz noted that millions of Americans believe in morality but do not believe in God. “God and patriotism are not synonymous.”
Kurtz then listed off a number of nontheistic intellectuals who lived moral lives. 60% of American scientists are unbelievers; 93% of the National Academy Sciences are unbelievers. 39% of Americans are unchurched.
Kurtz then noted that America’s religiosity is an anomaly among Western democracies. Nonreligious people constitute hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Many of these countries have less crime and less violence than in the United States.
Kurtz then suggested that religion could be an impediment to society. Kurtz noted that belief in God is compatible with a variety of contradictory ethical beliefs, including monogamy, divorce, homosexuality, birth control, etc.
Humanists believe that happiness here and now is the basic good; this life is not simply the preparation for an afterlife. For secular humanists, life is meaningful. The meaning of life is what we invest; we are in control of our own destiny. The moral consciousness is autonomous.
The nature of human beings is such that they are capable of moral behavior. Moral behavior depends upon social conditions, moral education, etc. Under these conditions, it is possible to develop a sense of empathy for other human beings. There are moral dilemmas in which we cannot depend upon moral absolutes. There is a developed moral sensibility that does not depend upon authority and mere commandment. Morality is basic to the human condition.
Kurtz then suggested that religious texts are too outdated to be useful in deciding contemporary ethical problems. Instead, he argued, humans need to use their intelligence to identify common moral principles according to which ethical dilemmas can be resolved.
Craig’s Opening Statement
Craig agrees that a person can be moral without belief in God. We’re not talking about goodness without belief in God, but goodness without God. Craig then talked about the basis for moral values. Kurtz distinguishes three options: theism (moral values are grounded in God), humanism (moral values are grounded in humans?), and nihilism (moral values are groundless).
Humanism is not the default position. If theism is wrong, humanism does not win by default. Perhaps nihilism is right. In particular, Kurtz must show that in the absence of God, nihilism is not true.
I. If theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality.
(1) If theism is true, we have a basis for objective moral values. To say that moral values are objective means they are true independently of whether anyone thinks so. On a theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God.
(2) If theism is true, then we have a sound basis for objective moral duties. We have certain moral obligations, regardless of whether we think so or not. If theism is true, God’s commands constitute our moral duties. God’s commands flow necessarily from his moral nature.
(3) If theism is true, we have a sound basis for moral accountability. On the theistic view, God holds all persons accountable for their actions. We can even take acts of extreme self-sacrifice and yet know they are not meaningless.
II. If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality.
(1) If theism is false, why think human beings are the basis of objective moral values? If there is no God, what reason is there to regard human flourishing as objectively good? Humanists refuse to accept the full implications of reducing human beings to just mere animals. Humans treat humans as morally different from other animals. On an atheistic view, human beings are the byproducts of naturalistic evolution. Uses standard Ruse quotation. On the atheistic view, there is no reason to believe that the morality evolved by human beings is objectively true. Humanists are guilty of specie-ism. If atheism is true, there is nothing objective morally wrong about rape. Such behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. If theism is false, it is far from obvious that humans have objective value.
(2) If theism is false, then what is the basis for objective moral duties? On the atheistic view, human beings are just animals. Animals have no moral duties. Quotes Richard Taylor. Who or what imposes these moral duties on us? Quotes Taylor again. One can neither morally condemn nor morally praise anything. If theism were false, why wouldn’t nihilism be true?
(3) If theism is false, what is the basis for moral accountability? Even if there were objective moral values and duties under atheism, they would be irrelevant. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference how one lives. If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted. Acts of self-sacrifice are particularly inept on an atheistic view. On an atheistic view, heroic acts like rescuing people from a fire is “stupid.”
Kurtz accused Craig of conceding Kurtz’s main point by admitting that one can be moral without belief in God.
The alternatives are not theism vs. humanism vs. nihilism. Quotes Woody Allen. Kurtz referenced the Islamic martyrs who flew airplanes into their targets praising their God. Even if everyone believed in God, there would still be moral disagreements.
Would Hindu, Moslem, Jew, the Buddhist, and the nonbeliever be saved if Christianity is true? Do they have meaningless lives? The events of 9/11 provide evidence against the existence of God.
Why should we favor human beings? Yes, this is specie-ism. Altruism, empathy, and compassion is basic to the human species. There are objective standards that are relative to human interests and human needs. The theist does not have a monopoly on moral virtues. Craig has libeled so many people who believe in doing good, who believe that life is intrinsically worthwhile, and who do not believe in God.
If the reason why you are moral is because you believe in God, then you have not developed the full dimensions of the human personality. Moral development is autonomous.
Belief in God is not necessary to living a moral life. But if God does not exist, then there are no objective values, duties, and accountability. Quotes Kurtz’s Forbidden Fruit about the ontological foundation of morality. Kurtz must show that in the absence of God, human beings would have intrinsic value, moral accountability, etc.
It is not obvious that if God does not exist, secular humanism would be true. On the contrary, it seems that if God does not exist, nihilism would be true.
Kurtz raised several red herrings. Kurtz raised the problem of evil, but this debate is not a debate on the existence of God. So even if the problem of evil showed that God does not exist, this would be irrelevant.
It is also a red herring to raise the questions about moral epistemology, about which God exists, and how we would know that the moral duties are. Not all gods are the same. It is important to discover which theism is true, but that is a secondary question to the topic of the debate. Kurtz has not refuted Craig’s first contention.
What is the basis for objective moral values, if atheism is true? They’re relative to human needs and desires. They are not categorical and universal. Why think that human beings and their values are special on an atheistic view? Quotes Pigliucci about lion infanticide.
Kurtz’s Second Rebuttal
There is a great tradition showing there is autonomy of moral judgments. There is a field known as practical wisdom.
Craig says theism is an adequate foundation, but he has not answered Kurtz’s question, “whose theism?” There are various conflicts around the world and yet their belief in God does not enable them to solve moral problems. God does not provide an adequate foundation for morality.
Why should we prefer the human species to other species? We are humans and we love one another. Morality is human. Theism is created in the image of man. Humans create gods.
There is no evidence for salvation, no evidence for a soul. Those beliefs are an article of faith. It is important to go beyond faith and work out moral disagreements on rational grounds. Reason, not faith, is how we should resolve our moral differences.
Craig’s Second Rebuttal
Craig’s appeal has been to reason, not to faith. First contention undisputed. Kurtz just brings up red herrings. Of course we can bring moral judgments without religion. But what is the ontological foundation for moral duties? That is the central question. Why is it wrong for Johnny to hit Mary? Why is it objectively wrong for homo sapiens to behave in this way? Whose theism? That’s not the question here tonight. Christian theism is an adequate basis for morality.
The second contention stands. What is the basis on atheism for objective moral values? Why is this primate species special? Imagine if superior alien beings came to earth, what could the atheist say to show that humans have intrinsic value. Prejudice in favor of humans is not justified.
Claim is conditional: if theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality. Where do moral duties come from? In short, humanism is utterly intellectually bankrupt. It has no basis for the affirmation of moral values. It has the right values. What the theist can offer the humanist is a secure foundation for the affirmation of those values. Therefore, Craig would like to challenge Kurtz to becoming a believer in God.
Question and Answer Period
Question: What is the difference between humanism and self-interest (ethical egoism)?
Kurtz: Humanism is more than self-interest. Humanism involves the flourishing of humans.
Craig: The problem with altruism on an atheistic view is that altruism is simply the result of evolutionary conditioning. No basis for altruistic view. Rational thing to do on atheism is to look out for oneself.
Question: If God exists, how do we know he is not evil? Just because Craig says so?
Craig: The ontological argument shows that God is not evil. St. Anselm showed the very concept of God is the greatest possible being, which includes moral perfection. By definition, to be a being worthy of worship, God would have to be the source of moral goodness.
Kurtz: Craig assumes what he needs to prove. Craig’s god is all-good. Does Craig’s god permit only some people to be saved? What about non-Christians? What about the god of the Old Testament who is vindictive and hateful? Craig has not answered the problem of evil, including the problem of why the events of 9/11 occurred.
Question: Does human morality differ from culture to culture?
Kurtz: Yes. There are common human needs, interests. We are all members of the same species facing similar problems. Common values develop. In Forbidden Fruit, Kurtz defends common moral decencies. Talked about liberation of women, slaves, etc, things which were condoned by the Bible.
Craig: On a theistic view, as we grow morally, we can discover new moral insights. On atheism, this moral evolution cannot be called an improvement because there is no objective standard by which we can judge the later standard against the earlier standard. All evolution shows is change. It doesn’t give you objective values.
Question: Isn’t it true that throughout history, religious morality was an outgrowth of the conditions of the era?
Craig: On theism, moral values are discovered, not invented. Thus, moral growth is possible. Craig has come to recognize the equal value of women because of his theism. There’s no objective basis for talking about moral progress as opposed to moral change if atheism is true.
Kurtz: Morality is evolving. Kurtz has been defending humanistic ethics. Atheism is incidental to that. Craig is anti-human. What is special about human beings is that we find them special, that we are human. “Ontological foundation” is gobbledy-gook. Under theism, women were suppressed.
Question: Why is rape wrong?
Kurtz: Rape is wrong because it violates the consciousness of human beings. Craig is morally insensitive. We learn by living together that sexual coercion has bad consequences. It is a crime in virtually every society. Rape would be wrong regardless of whether God says it is wrong. Is morality objective? Yes. Is it relative to human needs? Yes. It is objectively relative. But relative does not mean subjective. You can make a rational case to show that rape is morally wrong.
Craig: “Objectively relative” is an oxymoron. Why privilege human beings on an atheistic worldview, when atheism reduces humans to relatively advanced primates? What’s wrong on atheism with violating conscience? Humanism has got the right ethics. What Craig disputes is the ontological foundation of humanistic ethics. Kurtz has not even showed that there would be goodness without God.
Question: Both sides of armed conflicts invoke God. How is a fair and impartial observer decide which God or which good is valid?
Craig: This is a question of moral epistemology, not ontology, and so is secondary to the debate. But you would determine whether an action violates the intrinsic value of human beings. Also, you could look at the evidence to see which God exists. Regarding the problem of evil, the question of God’s existence is not on the table. IF God exists, that provides a sound foundation for morality. Kurtz has the burden of proof to show there is a sound foundation for morality without God. If there is no God, why is Homo Sapiens invested with intrinsic moral value and moral obligations?
Kurtz: [Answer not recorded]
Question: Would scientific observations showing the equality of humans support the Golden Rule?
Kurtz: We have obligations in rooted in who and what we are as humans. Craig is anti-human. Humans are special because we are special; we live the full life here and now. Craig has no confidence at all in the human species. Can we create a planetary humanism? The principle of equality is crucial. To ask, “What is the basis of that,” is to be morally insensitive. Ethics is autonomous.
Craig: Atheism is anti-human because it reduces humans to just another species and robs humans of moral dignity. It is specie-ism to regard humans as special. What does the atheist do with the mentally retarded? On an atheistic view, such persons are just defective animals.
Question: If you act morally just to go to Heaven, isn’t this just self-interest?
Craig: Yes, but that’s not my argument. The Christian’s motivation for acting morally is love of God, gratitude to God. Moral accountability means moral choices make a difference for all eternity. Ethic of compassion is incompatible with self-interest and survival of the fittest.
Kurtz: It does matter on an atheistic view how we choose to behave. It matters to us. We feel accountable to others. Craig has undermined morality. What about non-Christians and the ethics of the Qu’ran?
Kurtz’s Closing Statement
Craig says the existence of God is not at issue in this debate, but he spends all of his time attacking atheism. Religion can play a role in moral life, but morality does not need religion. Humanist morality is concerned with the common moral decencies. We have a sense of responsibility to human beings. We should rely on reason, not faith in an ancient god. Millions of Americans are nonbelievers but are committed to morality.
Craig’s Closing Statement
This debate is really about nihilism. If theism is false, why wouldn’t nihilism be true? Kurtz has not disputed any of Craig’s ontological points. Kurtz, and atheism, regards humans as mere animals. L.D. Rue advocated we deceive ourselves into believing some noble lie. Humanism is a noble lie and a delusion. If God is dead, man is dead, too.