Why Harris Lost the "Is Good from God?" debate to Craig


I just stumbled upon a year-old YouTube video named, “Sam Harris gets destroyed by Dr. William Lane Craig”. It’s the 2-hour University of Notre Dame debate held on April 7, 2011, between Harris and Craig. It was titled: “The God Debate II: Is Good from God?” The video can be found at the bottom of this page.

And guess what? Harris really was destroyed by Craig! What a disappointment.

Craig started off with the premise that objective morality can only exist if God exists and, alternatively, if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.

Harris then presented his premise that science can identify objective morality by determining what contributes to the well being of conscious creatures.

Craig rebutted with a scholarly evisceration of Harris’ premise that cited: the absence of moral objectivity in atheism; the subjectivity of human flourishing; the is/ought distinction; and more.

As Harris walked up to the podium for his own rebuttal, I realized that he CAN’T rebut Craig because he agrees that there is an objective basis for morality: namely the application of science to the question of human flourishing (well being). And sure enough, Harris didn’t counter a single Craig rebuttal. Instead, he launched into his usual attack on the Bible and its morality.

In disgust, I stopped watching when Craig came back to the podium and rightly pointed out Harris’ lack of a rebuttal.

Harris was so invested in his flawed thesis that “science can solve moral problems” that he was blinded to the risk of agreeing that morality is objective. The fact is that Craig is right! Objective morality can only exist if God exists: if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.

The atheist position should have been that objective morality can not exist because God does not exist. In other words, morality is subjective.

If atheists do not believe in God and the supernatural realm, that leaves only the natural realm: the universe and everything in it. Nature has only a prime directive: survive. There is no good or bad, right or wrong, in nature. Morality is a human construct and, as such, can never be perfect – because humans can never be perfect. Human morality can never be objective: that would require a perfect God, a perfect authority.

Harris should have had a 2-pronged strategy: 1.) point out the lack of perfection in the biblical God and 2.) provide a naturalist understanding of morality; admitting up front that it is subjective and relative but, in the end, far superior to the flawed morality of an imperfect God.

As atheists, we’re familiar with the myth of God’s moral perfection so I won’t go into much detail except to flesh out the slavery criticism because it’s upheld in the New Testament as well as the Old.

I’ve recently written on the naturalist understanding of morality. If the following is familiar to you, just skip to the end.

The naturalist understanding of morality asserts that we have evolved empathy as an impetus to cooperation. Combined with personal experience, empathy leads most of us to a "Golden Rule" sense of morality. From experience, I know what hurts me: with empathy, I know the same things likely hurt you too. Experience and empathy is all we need to decide most moral matters. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . because we need each other to survive and prosper." We are complex social animals, so this rule of thumb isn't sufficient for every moral decision but it is fundamental to most. Without this impulse for cooperation to counter our impulse for violence, we would probably squander the intellectual prowess responsible for our survival advantage.

It's a fallacy (with obvious religious motivations) that “we can not be moral without God”. Our morality is part of the human condition and existed long before Moses. Morality is not a dispensation from God: it is subjective and personal and, because it is informed by experience and empathy, develops as we mature. As a matter of fact, we ALL use our personal morality to overrule Biblical morality. And by ALL, I really do mean ALL: believers and nonbelievers alike. This fact is amply demonstrated by our universal rejection of slavery and the subjugation of women (well, maybe not the Muslims so much). Even though God/Jesus condoned the subjugation of our fellow humans in both the Old and New Testaments, we ALL overrule God's morality with our own and reject such human subjugation. Not only is God NOT the source of morality but he stands corrected by us all. WE decided what is moral. WE decide what is religiously worthy. NOT God.

You need to ask yourself: "If we overrule God, why do we need him at all?"

This subjugation of our fellow humans is a failing of Biblical morality that can't be reasonably addressed by apologetics. This is critical for all believers to understand. THEY CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Either God is perfect or he's not. Either the Bible is divinely inspired or it's not. Either God is the source of morality or he isn't. Even a believer, if he’s honest with himself, must admit that if God's morality grows outdated, it was never perfect and timeless to begin with. The alternative is to claim that God is right and that the subjugation of our fellow humans is NOT at all immoral – that it is, in fact, desirable. But we ALL know that's an untenable position. We all know that is WRONG. We will not reverse our hard-earned moral progress to align it with God’s morality. This is why the issue is out of reach of apologetics.

The truth is that the Old Testament, New Testament and Quran reflect the morality and level of ignorance that existed in their respective eras and areas . . . precisely as they MUST if they’re written without the benefit of God's input. These ancient tomes are NOT divinely inspired. God is NOT perfect. The issue of human subjugation proves that the personal, revealed, theist, God of the Abrahamic religions is irrefutably false. This doesn't completely close the door on God, however: there's still supernatural hope for the impersonal, cosmic, God of deists and pantheists.

Empathy is a human trait that spawns a number of other human traits just as naturally as it spawns morality. Empathy also spawns human dignity and worth, cooperation and compassion. We can live reasonably moral lives without God but not without empathy.


© Copyright 2012 AtheistExile.com
eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com

Views: 301

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 4:40am

@G. Michael Williams,

I mean holy shit, Craig's initial premise is that a god exists based upon nonsense.  That was not open to debate, that's sort of like spotting him 100 points before the game began.

Reread the OP. I made exactly that same point.

Comment by G. Michael Williams on May 8, 2012 at 4:50am

Let's call it a case of violent agreement.  (Agree on the conclusion- just different courses to get there)

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 4:52am
@Kris Feenstra,
You've succinctly advanced the discussion with a very cogent observation. I wish I had expressed myself as well :-)
Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 4:57am

@G. Michael Williams,

Yeah, claiming the atheist lost against the believer is not a good way to garner agreement on an atheist site. I believe Harris has often proved formidable against believers in debate. But he's got some quirks. And I think he's embarrassed himself with his philosophically naive "science can solve moral problems" thesis.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 5:03am

@Kris Feenstra,

When Harris followed Craig's rebuttal without addressing his points, I considered that running away with his tail between his legs. Not the way to represent us atheists. He DID change the subject. He DID obfuscate. He WAS outmaneuvered by Craig.

Comment by G. Michael Williams on May 8, 2012 at 5:05am

@Atheist Exile, can't argue that....I don't imagine too many of us didn't do a "WTF"?   Morals are subjective by nature...history shows that.

Comment by G. Michael Williams on May 8, 2012 at 5:08am

Being on the Harris team, I viewed it as not giving stupid a response....hence the agreement on agreeing to a format that caged him to an indefensible position, was the mistake. 

Comment by John Siqueiros on May 9, 2012 at 12:30am

I saw that debate awhile ago, and regarding morality: it seemed that Harris, while arguing that there is objectivity in morality, there can be ambiguous situations. He compared it to science trying to figure out how fast someone must run in order to be "good." As an example, while the precise speed for goodness might be subjective, surely Usain Bolt is a "good" runner, while Stephen Hawking is a "bad" runner, and that's quite objective.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 9, 2012 at 2:06am
@John Siqueiros,

Yes, that's true as far as it goes -- as is the Golden Rule. The question is, how well do they work for more complex moral questions such as abortion or the Palestinian question.
Comment by John Siqueiros on May 9, 2012 at 9:51am

@ AtheistExile

(Sorry I mistakenly deleted my prior comment, so here's my attempt to repost.)

Try applying the Golden Rule to abortion or the Palestinian question. It will be like an umpire calling balls and strikes. There are going to be instances where the correct call is objectively obvious.


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