Review: Sam Harris vs William Lane Craig


Sam Harris

I just finished watching a debate held at the University of Notre Dame between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on the topic “Is Good From God?” The audio and video of this debate can be located further down on this page in the comment section. I’ll encourage you to watch or listen to it as objectively as you possibly can.

First of all, I have to commend Sam Harris for actually agreeing to a debate on an issue like this. He is one of the four horsemen of Atheism in the world, and as such, his views on the issue of morality, is predictably going to carry some weight.

As we have seen, Dawkins has refused to debate Craig despite a flood of requests for him to do so. After all, as the chief apostle of Atheism in the world, you would think that he shouldn’t feel any qualms about an honest discussion on the God-issues he regularly inveighs against. What is he so terrified about that he consistently shuns a debate with Craig? If he is so sure and correct about his beliefs, and he wants to expose the pathetic ‘ignorance’ or unreasonableness of Theism, then he shouldn’t mind a discussion/debate with one of Theism’s strongest apologists.

Dennett has also interacted with Craig—Dennett is also a philosopher like Craig.  But as we have seen in that exchange, and with other debates involving Dennett, he is practically useless at formal debates. As a matter of fact, he is so inept at it that you can practically feel his embarrassment when he is trounced by the opposite side.

What about Hitchens? Hitchens is probably the most oratorical of the New Atheists, but he came to the debate with Craig very unprepared; unprepared to deal with the arguments that Craig laid out and sometimes, even unprepared to have his own positions logically and critically examined. As a result he was also defeated in that debate.


William Lane Craig

Now, I have to point out that the rightness or wrongness of a worldview is not predicated on how poorly or how magnificently someone performs in a debate. But you have to marvel at the unjustified arrogance of the New Atheists when their best spokespersons are regularly confounded in debates against the side they deem to be populated by unsophisticated ‘faith heads’ and possibly delusional or psychopathic people.

Back to this debate with Sam Harris—I have to say that Sam Harris actually carried himself well. His task in this debate seemed to be to establish that science has a say in any discussion on Morality. He wanted to show that “the good” is just anything that tends to increase or maximize creaturely survival and comfort; and that “the bad” is anything that tends to decrease the chances of creaturely survival and comfort. His debate was liberally sprinkled with strong moral declarations. There wasn’t any doubt that he clearly apprehended a realm of objective moral values. On the existence of clear and objective moral values, he seemed to be pretty much in agreement with Craig. The only difference was that he could not provide a basis or foundation for these moral values that he eloquently espoused.

Craig, as he was wont to do, agreed with Harris’ moral indignation at some things that happen in the world.  However, Craig’s burden in this debate was to show that objective moral values were properly grounded in God. In other words, the debate was not about whether Atheists could be moral, or whether they can live and act morally.  Craig already concedes that indeed Atheists can and do live moral lives. The debate also was not on Moral Epistemology (which is how we come to know morals). It was on Moral Ontology—the existence in the real world of moral imperatives. Craig would argue that on an atheist worldview, there is no anchor or foundation for morality and as such, nothing on atheism makes morality binding on us. His argument seems to be that you need a transcendental anchor (in God) for the moral imperatives that force themselves on us.

Frankly, there was nothing new in this debate. If you’ve ever watched Atheists and Theists debate publicly and openly on the issue of Morality, you’ll find that the same issues are talked about ad nauseam. In fact, at this stage, it appears that the two sides are set in their ways and cannot be persuaded by the other no matter how well their viewpoints are articulated.


Posted on April 7, 2011, in Religion/Spirituality, Reviews, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. There are many way of deciphering the question of God, goodness and suffering. Biblical convictions which includes the notion that suffering does not originate with God and will be eliminated at some point,God works good in the midst of suffering and that physical suffering and death are relatively non-relevant when compared to spiritual and eternal suffering will lead one to believe that goodness is indeed from God.
    However,in the non-theistic world that we live in today where values are mostly social conventions, means of survival, majority opinions and in most cases, the assertions of the most powerful,I believe that there can be no absolute, eternal values. “Good” as a social convention in my opinion is merely what a society declares to be good. In one community or socoiety it might be eating one’s enemies and in another vice-versa.
    late entry

  2. Peteru:

    The discussion on Morality is never easy as far as I can tell. The reason, it seems to me, is because people seem to have different perceptions of what Morality really entails. What is the ‘good’? What is the ‘bad’? Are there things that are ‘Objectively good’?

    I am very hesitant to refer to moral absolutes precisely because it appears to me that as society evolves, certain values evolve with it. But is that the same as suggesting that there are no objective moral values? Is that the same as suggesting that there are not indeed certain things which are really really evil?

    I would think the answer to that is NO. There are indeed certain things like the Holocaust or other forms of genocide, torturing or murdering babies, rape etc that are evil, which should be abhorred period–any one who pretends that such things aren’t clearly morally reprehensible is mentally and morally deficient in some way and may need some help. In other words, these clear objective moral evils are not permissible by someone simply claiming to have a difference of opinion.

    Now, we might talk about societal conventions prescribing a set of actions which some of us might now take to form some basis for morality. But I doubt if that really touches on clear and objective moral facts. It would seem to me that if we are just talking about social norms and conventions, then we aren’t really dealing with the sort of Morality I think about which is sometimes antithetical to our pleasure-seeking imperatives. For example, we now believe that slavery (the form practiced in the New World a few centuries ago) is WRONG. But there was a time that people perfectly believed that it was okay to OWN another human being, and furthermore, to treat those human beings as if they were property. Going by the societal conventions of the time, it means that those people who rose up to oppose Slavery and seek for its end must have been crazy people acting IMMORALLY. I find that difficult to accept, if we are going by the idea that Morality (true objective good and evil) are to be derived from the ever-changing and imperfect conventions of a society.

    This is why I have to ask you whether you think that Morality is so fluid and subjective that indeed you would agree that it is a morally right thing if in some hypothetical society out there, the people thought that it was perfectly okay to cannibalistically devour the flesh of their enemies. Do you feel like Morality is such a nebulous concept that this behavior may be hand-waved as a morally indifferent or perhaps morally just behavior?

    • Morality in the context of social interpretation(s) does evolve other time in a society.”Are there things that are ‘Objectively good’?”(Godfather).The answer to that question is ‘NO’.Can we ever be objective about any matter?Isn’t the ‘subject’ already involved in observation, the subject with all his prejudices?Objectivity(either good or bad) does not mean neutrality..How is it possible to completely(100%) bring ones beliefs, actions,and values more under the influence of an
      “impersonal standpoint” even without the assurance that this could not be revealed from a still more external standpoint as an illusion?

      “any one who pretends that such things aren’t clearly morally reprehensible is mentally and morally deficient in some way and may need some help”(Godfather). You just made my point. You just subjectively defended was you believe to be an objective view.You do realize that Objectivity and skepticism are closely related but not necessarily the same.

      In response to the last paragraph of your comment, yes, some people actually see “cannibalistic ally devouring” their enemies as moral(saw a special on it on the national geographic channel)and as a matter of fact they devoured witches and suspected thieves(subjective).My point is that we can evaluate the system that was derived from the premise of either subjective/objective moral beliefs on the basis of consistency but it is impossible to objectively evaluate the premise itself.

      The kind of moral system we end up with depends on what we subjectively choose to start with in the first place. Deductive reasoning requires we subjectively choose some premise to start with and then deduce moral behaviors that are consistent with that premise.Button line Godfather….we judge

  3. Having read your last piece, it seemed to me that your argument is basically that individuals or human societies determine what Morality is. I also think that we might be using the words “objective” and “subjective” in a different manner or perhaps, with different meanings. But rather than base a discussion with you on a possibly imprecise definition for some words, I think I’ll take another method. Here, the method I want to use is to ask a series of questions to get a sharper or clearer understanding of what exactly your convictions are. That way, I can see where we agree and where we might agree to disagree.

    1) On your view, how do you define Morality? Is it just a social contract that spells out what a particular society deems good or acceptable? In other words, are you claiming morality to be no more than the subjective herd-inclinations of groups or societies?

    2) If the above is your proper understanding of what Morality is, then on what basis can you or anyone else outside a particular society in reference decry their actions as immoral? For instance, I am going to assume that you think that the NAZI holocaust, to use a very common example, was morally unjustifiable or reprehensible. In other words, it was morally wrong or evil. If there is no objective right and wrong, or good and evil, but rather the subjective culture-specific consensus of societies, on what grounds can you condemn these Nazis? That is, if a Nazi told you that his actions during the Third Reich (barbaric and cruel as they must seem to you and me) were good or morally decent actions because it was perfectly acceptable in World War 2 Germany, how would you respond?

    3)I agree that some values are very culture specific. But in my understanding, social conventions are just that–social conventions. One could decide not to follow prescribed social conventions. We would just say that such a person was acting unfashionably and not that his or her actions were morally evil abominations. For example: a society may decide that it is “good” to belch in the presence of your hosts after a good meal. Their reasoning might be that belching indicates that you fed sumptuously and was very satisfied. They might coincidentally think that it was ‘bad’ to release flatulence at the table in the presence of a host. If someone were to flout these social conventions or values for instance, do you think that such a person’s behavior has a MORAL DIMENSION which offends some deep sense of right and wrong? Or would the person simply just be acting unfashionably?

    4)If your answer to the above is YES, it basically means that you are saying that flatulence is a morally repugnant act which should be abominated. Perhaps, to you, they might carry the same force as murder and rape and torture. If so, what sort of punishments would you mark out for such gross transgressions? If your answer to question 3 is NO, what do you think gives you the right to condemn the “morality” that the people in such a society had chosen for themselves seeing as you are not part of that society to begin with?

    5)You talked about a moral system which you describe as being the product of something like a “subjective deductive reasoning”. I am not sure I fully understand how a moral system can be deductively reasoned (which I assume you must mean to say is LOGICAL)and at the same time subjective. Can you resolve this quandary for me please? It is either the moral system you envision is LOGICAL and can be apprehended by deductive reasoning (irrespective of anyone’s particular sentiments) OR it is simply the product of our subjective desires, whims and caprices. It cannot be both, can it?

    6) In any case, let us assume that we (you and my humble self) set forth some basic ground rules as members of a larger community to guide us morally. Let us say also that we think that our moral framework is logically airtight. What do you propose should be done if other members of our hypothetical community decide that those ground rules we came up with should be discarded because they, through the accidents of their biology or nurturing were not intelligent enough to see how logically sound our framework was? How do we decide what is moral in a society or environment where people for one reason or the other have differences in opinion on what should constitute a morally laudable or morally culpable act?

    You said “we judge”. Now is your time to judge. Help me with answers to these questions.

  4. Too lazy to read through all the arguments in the comments because I’m at work but I think that there are really no absolutes in the world we live in, and what is judged as repugnant, in a certain time, under certain circumstances might become acceptable under differing conditions.

    I’m at a loss as to how all these things add up, how to handle the stringent dictates of religion (even though the religion itself has evolved in doctrine over generations).

    In the end, which judgement is one to trust as one cannot use one’s own moral compass as the solely deciding factor in issues of right and wrong because one lives in a society. But then again, is a democracy truly right? Is it not influenced by a beliefs of one or several strong personalities, convincing the masses towards a particular direction?


    P.S. (Sorry I haven’t been around in a while, it’s good to be here again)

  5. Hey Afrosays,

    How have you been? I am positive that everything’s been okay with you besides your hectic work schedule. Good to have see you around again.

  6. I do not agree that Hitchens or Harris was defeated by Craig. Craig is overly academic. No actually I think he’s an idiot whose main skill is to confuse the issue. Most christian ministers are skilled at that.

    • Yes Craig can sometimes be overly academic with his approach to these issues but that is simply because the issues in question often call for thorough scholarship–one he is well equipped to handle. Nevertheless, I find that he is remarkably easy to follow in his debates and oral presentations. The real intellectual heft is probably only seen in his papers or books. It is rather immature to deride his thoroughness on these matters as idiocy when the real problem is that one does not understand his argument. It is an entirely different matter however, if one having actually understood his arguments, refuses to buy them because of one’s ideological commitments.

  7. What does it even mean for morality to have a “basis” in God?

    Is this even properly defined? Does this “God” mete out morality by injecting it into every conscious being at birth?

    Or is this some kind of unwritten edict that plays out in the actions of man?

    Either way, they seem to be confused about how to pronounce “tomato” properly.

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