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: 244

Tags: God, Sam Harris, William Lane Craig, debate, morality, objective, subjective

Comment by kris feenstra on May 10, 2012 at 2:22am

@John Siqueiros,

Your second abortion case isn't simple at all.  We'd have to examine why it is wrong to take a life in the first place.  It seems that many people would say, first and foremost that taking a life unjustly is a crime against the one who dies, but that is irrational.  Once they die, they cease to exist as a thinking, feeling human being, so how can a crime exist against a person who no longer does?  It makes no sense.  

At best, you could say that the crime against the deceased was any pain or suffering inflicted while they were being killed, but even then, not all deaths are painful.  Imagine someone kills me in my sleep making sure to end my life before I gain consciousness.  I suffer no anxiety over my last moments, no fear of death, no resentment toward my killer, no struggle, and no pain.  After that I no longer exist, so any claims of being robbed of potential life that I could have had really don't matter to me.  They cannot matter to me.  I no longer exist.

So is killing me painlessly in my sleep not wrong then?  Well, I think we can make a case that it is, but the true offense here is to the living, not the dead.  It deprives the people who knew me and loved me of my presence and causes sadness and suffering.  It also causes anxiety to my neighbourhood because people in the area will feel less safe; they will feel like it could happen to them as well.  It also undermines social order in general.  It's not pragmatic for a society to let its members be murdered.

So what of a fetus, even one day away from birth?  It is unlikely it can experience much in the way of anxiety or emotional suffering as a result, and any physical pain would be very abstract, intangible and fleeting.  There would, obviously, be no memory of the pain or emotional scarring of that nature. The only people who know the fetus with any intimacy are the parents, but even then they know the fetus more as a potential person and not an actual person with a personality.  Given that the decision to have the abortion resides with them, or at the very least with the mother, it's hard to claim that a crime has been committed to them.  What about the neighbourhood concern that other persons would fear for their own safety?  Seems unlikely as their situation is distinctly different chiefly in that none of them are unborn.
So that leaves social order.  I don't have an answer there.  It seems to bother the majority of people in my culture, so perhaps it does have a tangible negative impact there. I guess the problem is, that becomes a tautology; it's essentially something that is wrong because it is wrong. 

My point here is not to argue about abortion though.  My point is just a caution against not examining a belief because we believe it is objectively true.  I believe my assessment to be objective, but I find it harder to assert that it is correct.  Objective cases should be backed by objective evidence and reasoning, but despite my best efforts, I have to acknowledge that my evidence and/ or reasoning could be flawed precisely because this is not a simple issue.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on May 10, 2012 at 5:52am

@Kris - Excellent points. By asserting that your assessment may not be correct, i.e. the one and only “truth”, you allow it to keep its’ objectivity. Saying your reasoning may not be 100% correct and could flaw your argument based on its complexity is not what Craig does. He always ends it in the same place. If you had been using the KSA in you argument since 1978 you would have perfected it by now. However you would also be unwilling to admit there may be flaws in it if that was the case.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 10, 2012 at 9:32am

@Kris Feenstra,

Are you replying to a deleted post? I can't find the John Siqueiros post you're referencing.

I can't believe my eyes. That opening assertion of yours is just too mindless (sorry, I struggled to find a better word but couldn't). And I quote:

"It seems that many people would say, first and foremost that taking a life unjustly is a crime against the one who dies, but that is irrational.  Once they die, they cease to exist as a thinking, feeling human being, so how can a crime exist against a person who no longer does?  It makes no sense."

Are you serious? There nothing ANY of us value more than our lives. Your sentiment reminds me of one of the funniest brain farts I can recall. It was by Brooke Shields. She said:

“Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.”

I'm sorry to laugh at your expense but if you don't want to be laughed at, you shouldn't say such funny stuff. The murdered victim can't complain or mourn his own death BECAUSE YOU KILLED HIM.

Comment by kris feenstra on May 10, 2012 at 11:59am

Are you replying to a deleted post?

No, he didn't delete it.

The murdered victim can't complain or mourn his own death BECAUSE YOU KILLED HIM.

It doesn't matter; he doesn't suffer in the slightest, or do you not understand what death is?

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 10, 2012 at 1:19pm

Does anybody agree with this?

Comment by kris feenstra on May 10, 2012 at 1:56pm

@Reg:  Does 'KSA" refer to Kalam?  That reminds me on another belief that often remains unexamined because it appears simple, logical, and objective.

One of the statements he pairs with this is 'From nothing, nothing comes', which is actually a strange statement.  On the face of it, it seems perfectly logical; however, if we're talking about the kind of nothingness that would supposedly precede the universe, it would be incredibly difficult to observe (or would it be impossible?).  If I'm not mistaken, out best attempts at observing this sort of nothingness don't confirm that nothing comes from nothing.


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