William Lane Craig Debates Victor Stenger

Link [The audio may take a minute to load]. Stenger is the author of The God Failed Hypothesis which I reviewed here.

I found Vic's opening statement:
There Is No God

Aloha. It's wonderful to be back in Hawaii where Phylliss and I spent so many happy years. Our two children were born in Hawaii and both graduated from the University of Hawaii. I would like to express my thanks to Keli'i and the other organizers and sponsors for inviting me.

It's certainly an honor to share the platform with William Lane Craig. I've read that he is one of the world's foremost Christian apologists.

In his opening remarks, Dr, Craig has appealed to your common sense. You know what common sense is. It's the human faculty that tells us that Earth is flat. Objective observation, on the other hand, tells us that Earth is round.

In tonight's debate, I will be defending the view that the universe, life, and mind are purely material. I will argue that objective observation as well as reason and logic lead to the conclusion that a God with the traditional attributes of the Christian God does not exist, beyond the shadow of a doubt..

I will give four arguments to support my position.

1. Attributes are self-contradictory

The attributes of the Christian God are self-contradictory. They are like a square circle.

2. Attributes incompatible with what is known

The attributes of the Christian God are inconsistent with what we know about the world.

3. Naturalism is a better explanation than supernaturalism

Supernatural explanations for events in the universe are unnecessary. Natural explanations are simpler, are based on objective observations, and are fully consistent with all we know about the world.

4. God's actions should be observable but are not

The attributes of the Christian God imply actions that should be objectively observable. But they are not observed.

Attributes of God

Let me list a set of attributes that are traditionally associated with the God of the monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity.

1) He is the creator of the universe.

2) He is an immaterial being who transcends the physical world.

3) He is all-powerful all-knowing, all-good.

4) He is perfect in every way.

5) He is a person. He loves humans and wishes us to know him.

6) He is forgiving and merciful.

7) He speaks to humans, revealing truths to us that we would not otherwise know.

8) He answers our prayers, as he sees fit.

9) He performs miracles, violating natural laws.

Incompatible attributes

Many philosophers have argued that the traditional attributes of God are logically incompatible. Here are just a few of these:

1) Perfect v. creator. If God is perfect, then he has no needs or wants. This is incompatible with the notion that God created the universe for some divine purpose. Divine purpose implies that God wants something he doesn't already have, which makes him imperfect.

2) Transcendent v. Omnipresent. How can God be beyond space and time and everywhere within space and time≠at the same time?

3) Just v. merciful. To be just means to treat a person exactly as they deserve. To be merciful means to treat a person better than they deserve. You can't do both.

4) Immaterial v. personal. To be a person is to have a material body.

So a God with these attributes cannot exist.

Existence of nonbelief

The God of monotheism also has attributes that are inconsistent with what we see in the world. For example, an all-powerful, all-knowing God who also has the attribute of wanting all humans to know and love him is inconsistent with the fact that there are nonbelievers in the world.

The Problem of Evil

Perhaps the most ancient and strongest of the arguments for God's nonexistence is the problem of evil. An all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God is inconsistent with the fact of evil and gratuitous suffering in the world.

God's reasons for evil and suffering

Theologians have, of course, grappled with the problem of evil for centuries, and still do. For example, Richard Swinburne says of the problem of evil,

"If the world was without any natural evil and suffering we wouldn't have the opportunity . . . to show courage, patience and sympathy."

But . . . is so much suffering necessary?

Certainly, pain has a role in warning us of illness or injury. But does God really need so much suffering to achieve his ends? Is there any good purpose behind so many children dying every day of starvation and disease? How are they helped by the rest of us becoming more sympathetic?

Logically consistent gods

Dr. Craig and many other theologians have spent their lives building models of God that are logically consistent and at the same time in broad agreement with the traditional teachings of Christianity.

This has mainly consisted in trimming off God's characteristics one by one until he is defined mostly in the negative: not-material, not in space or time, not seen or heard. Apologists have reduced God to an almost undetectable background -something like what we physicists used to call "the aether" until we found the aether didn't exist either.

I have no doubt that a logically consistent picture of some kind of God can be devised. But I have considerable doubt that this God can be made consistent with Christianity.

Computer games

These theologians remind me of the creators of computer games. Programmers invent whole new universes in which the characters have all kinds of superhuman powers and many of our familiar laws of physics are violated. Yet the rules of the games are logically consistent. They wouldn't run on a computer if they weren't. But the computer game universes have little connection to the universe we see around us. They exist in what is called "virtual reality."

God's actions should be observable, but are not

Just because something is logically consistent, it doesn't necessarily follow that it exists. For the theologians' logically consistent God to actually exist, he must have something to do with the observed universe, some attributes that can be objectively observed. Otherwise God is as useless as the aether.

Naturalism is a better explanation than supernaturalism

Even if a God can be devised who is consistent with logic and observations, natural explanations for phenomena are better than supernatural ones. They better explain why nonbelievers, evil, and gratuitous suffering exist. They better explain the origin and structure of the universe, life, and mind. They are based on objective observations and theories that are testable.

Supernaturalism offers no explanation for these except "God did it," which coveys no more information than "Santa Claus did it."

Most scientists do not believe

Only seven percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in the personal God worshipped by perhaps 90 percent of other Americans. Most scientists don't believe in God because they don't see any objective evidence for him! When they look at the world around them, they see no sign of God. They don't see God when they peer through their most powerful telescopes. They don't detect God with their most sophisticated microscopes and other instruments. Furthermore, scientists find no need to introduce God or the supernatural into any of their explanatory theories.

Here are a few of the famous scientists who have been outspoken in their nonbelief: Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Francis Crick, and Carl Sagan. Let me add that all of these great scientists would have become believers had they been shown sufficient evidence.

Objectively observable actions of God

A God with the attributes I have listed implies phenomena that should have been easily observable by now. For example, let us consider revelation, prayers, and miracles.


Most people believe in a God who has a substantial, and detectable, role in the universe and in human affairs. One common characteristic attributed to this God is that he communicates with humans and provides them with verifiable new knowledge.

The theistic religions have traditionally taught that God speaks to humanity. Their scriptures are widely assumed to be the word of God and he's believed to have revealed knowledge to religious leaders in the past that they would otherwise not have known. Many believe God continues to do this today, speaking even to common people.

Revelation Is verifiable

Surprisingly, these claims can be easily verified­≠if they are true. All we have to do is find some fact supposedly gained by divine revelation that was unknown at the time of the revelation, and then confirm this fact at a later time.

For example, suppose the Bible had predicted that men would walk on the moon in two thousand years. Then we would have a rational basis to take seriously what else is written in the Bible.

No revelations

Unfortunately, no revelation of previously unknown knowledge has ever been empirically validated.

The scriptures contain nothing that could not have been known to or imagined by the ancients who wrote them. The Bible reads exactly as we would expect it to read, based on existing knowledge at the time it was composed.

Failed revelations

There are many examples of the failure to confirm of Biblical revelations. Consider the failed prophecy of the Second Coming:

"They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory." (Mat 24:30)

"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Mat 24:34)

We're still waiting. It was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago. It's time to give up and move on.

All in the head

Those who have claimed to talk to God have provided no knowledge that was not already in their heads. Many people have claimed religious experiences in which they felt the presence of God, but they never return from those experiences with any exceptional knowledge that would easily validate their claim.

Furthermore, religious experiences can be induced in the brain by drugs, electromagnetic pulses, and oxygen deprivation. Consider the example of pilots undergoing high-g in a centrifuge. They experience a tunneling of their vision, with the "light at the end of the tunnel" characteristic of the near-death experience.

Does God choose to hide?

In Rom. 1:20 St. Paul says:

"Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."

In other words, God may be invisible but his actions are visible.

Theists may respond that God's actions are obvious to those who wish to see them. Well, I would love to see them, but they are not obvious to me, or to the millions of other nonbelievers in the world.

Prayers and miracles

Another commonly believed attribute of God is that he listens to entreaties from humans to change the natural course of events. He can be expected to grant a sufficient number of these requests so that the results should be observable. Otherwise, what's the point in praying?

Many people will testify that they've had prayers answered. But personal testimony is insufficient since it doesn't rule out other more mundane explanations. For example, if someone is ill and recovers after praying, it could be that the prayers had nothing to do with it. After all, the body, sometimes with medical help, does a pretty good job of healing itself. In fact, it works every time≠except the last time.

If prayer had value in healing we'd have doctors prescribing Prayer Aspirin. "Say three Our Fathers and four Hail Mary's and call me in the morning."

Convincing evidence for a God who answers prayers can, in principle, be scientifically demonstrated with high probability≠if he really exists. Well-designed experiments on intercessory prayer should turn up solid, statistically significant results on the success of prayer in healing.

In fact, some studies claiming positive effects of prayer have been published in refereed medical journals to great media hoopla. However, you can't rely on media reports but need to look at the actual published papers. Applying the same criteria that are used in conventional science when testing extraordinary claims, you'll find that none of the reported effects is significant. Furthermore, most of these experiments are severely flawed and none of the claimed positive effects have been successfully replicated.

Mayo Clinic study

The best study published so far was done at the Mayo Clinic. Here is the summary:

"The results of 26 weeks of intercessory prayer, a widely practiced complementary therapy, were studied in 799 patients randomized to an intercessory prayer group or to a control group after discharge from a coronary care unit. As delivered in this study, intercessory prayer had no significant effect on specifically defined medical outcomes, regardless of risk status." (2001)


1. The traditional attributes of God are self-contradictory. Such a God cannot exist.

2. The traditional attributes of God are incompatible with objective facts about the world. Such a God cannot exist.

3. Natural explanations are superior to supernatural explanations. No basis exists for anything supernatural.

4. The traditional attributes of God imply actions that should be objectively observed, but are not.

It is possible to hypothesize a God whose attributes are logically compatible with each other. But, it does not follow that such a God exists unless it has objectively observable consequences. No such consequences have been observed.

If God exists, where is he?

Stenger's first rebuttal:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

Carl Sagan said: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Dr. Craig has made the extraordinary claim that certain empirical facts require supernatural explanations.

In order to refute this, all I need to do is provide plausible natural explanations for these phenomena. I need not prove these. If he wants to argue that God is required to exist in order to explain the observed universe, Dr. Craig must disprove all possible natural explanations for these phenomena.

Cosmological Argument

Dr. Craig argues that

1) Whatever begins must have a cause

2) The universe had a beginning

3) Therefore the universe must have had a cause

Not everything that begins has a Cause

Physical bodies begin to exist all the time without cause. In the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus, an alpha, beta, or gamma particle begins to exist spontaneously, without a cause. The universe at the beginning of the big bang was a subatomic particle.

Is the big bang is evidence that the universe had a beginning?

Even if everything that begins has a cause, this does not apply to the universe if the universe did not have a beginning.

Dr. Craig argues that the big bang is evidence that the universe had a beginning. However, the universe need not have begun with the big bang.

Many prominent physicists and cosmologists have published papers in reputable scientific journals proposing various scenarios by which the big bang appeared naturally out of a preexisting universe that itself need not have had a beginning. Once such recent scenario is called "The Cyclic Universe".

Does an infinite universe have a beginning?

Dr. Craig also claims that the universe had to begin because if it were infinitely old, it would take an infinite time to reach the present.

However, if the universe is infinitely old, then it had no beginning - not a beginning infinitely long ago.

Universe can be finite and still not have a beginning

Einstein defined time as what you read on a clock. It's a number, the number of ticks of the clock. We count time forward and never reach infinity. We can also count time backward and never reach minus infinity. The notions that the universe has a beginning and will have an end are theological, not scientific.

Is the universe fine-tuned for life?

Dr. Craig calls upon the currently popular argument that the physics of our universe is fine tuned for life. This is taken as evidence for divine purpose behind the existence of life.

However, even if any given kind of life is highly improbable to have arisen by natural means, some kind of life may be highly probable. Another form of life might evolve in a universe with different physical constants or even different physical laws. We certainly don't have sufficient knowledge to rule out the possibility of every conceivable form of life under every conceivable circumstance. Dr. Craig cannot prove that only carbon-based life like ours can exist.

Argument from improbability

Dr. Craig claims that the universe and life are too improbable to have come about by purely natural processes alone.

The Improbable happens

However, this is a fallacious argument. To use probability to decide between two alternatives requires a comparison of the probabilities of each alternative. Simply saying that one has low probability without calculating the probability for the other is inadequate.

What's the probability that the laws of nature are violated? What's the probability that there's an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing--but undetectable­--super being? Complex things are common. We see natural events every moment. We've never seen a supernatural event.

Low probability events happen every day. What's the probability that my distinguished opponent exists? You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply it by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth. Even if you stop the calculation at Adam and Eve, you will get a fantastically small number.

To use Dr. Craig's own words, "improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers."

Dr. Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly small probability for existing, yet here he is before us today.

Modern versions of the argument from design, both the fine-tuning argument and intelligent design share this fatal flaw. They are based on the idea that natural causes can be ruled out by some arbitrary notion of low probability.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Dr. Craig asks: why does the universe exist instead of nothing? Why should nothing be a more natural state than something? Why would you expect nothing rather than something? In fact, how could nothing ever exist? Wouldn't it then be something? Why is there God rather than nothing? Dr. Craig leaves these questions unanswered.

Genesis confirmed?

Dr. Craig claims the big bang confirms the Biblical view of creation.

Genesis falsified

Let's look at what Genesis actually says. In the first day, Earth is created. Not until four days later does God create the sun, moon, and stars. This is clearly at odds with modern cosmology, which says that the Earth did not form until 7 billion years after the big bang. There are many other disagreements.

Genesis implies that the universe is only about 6,000 years old. Here's a picture of a quasar whose light left its source 12 billion years ago.

Every one of the thousand or so religions in the world has a creation myth. Most probably resemble modern cosmology as well or better than Genesis.

Objective morality

Dr. Craig calls upon our common sense to attest that morality is objective and so must come from God.

Subjective morality

Not everyone shares the same morals. So, there is no evidence for objective morality.

But, even if morality were objective--its source could be natural--an evolutionary process that aids in human survival and built into our genes. Dr. Craig has not disproved hat possibility.

Is the Gospel historical?

Dr. Craig claims the Gospel stories describe actual historical events, such as the empty tomb of Jesus.

The Empty Tomb

There is no evidence outside the Bible. The story of the empty tomb is second and third hand, written years after the event from the oral testimony of supposed eyewitnesses. Paul did not seem to know about it. Furthermore, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

Even if the story of the empty tomb is accurate, it could have a simple, natural explanation. If you went to the Napoleon's tomb in Paris one morning, and found that his remains were not in their usual place of honor, would you conclude Napoleon had risen bodily into heaven?

Hardly. You would figure that somebody took the body! Dr. Craig has not shown that Jesus's body could not have been removed. So that remains a more plausible explanation and a supernatural explanation is not required by the data,

Personal experience of God

Dr. Craig says that many people have a personal experience of God. Well, many, including myself, have not. So that cancels his final argument for the existence of God. We can't rely on subjective experience. Any successful argument for or against God's existence needs to be objective.

No Evidence for God

Dr. Craig has not ruled out plausible natural explanations for any observable phenomenon in the universe. He has failed to prove that God or any supernatural hypothesis is required to explain the universe.

Thus, he has failed to prove that God exists. In the meantime, I have proved that a God having the traditional attributes of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God cannot exist.


Josh said...

Wow! Thanks for posting this. Looks like Mr. Craig received a thorough beat down. Now I'm off to listen to the audio.

There was one small point that I was unsure about. He mentioned that the attribute of god as a person is incompatible with him being immaterial. I've never heard god defined as a person, unless Stenger was referring to Jesus, or something like that?

This is an argument I've not heard before, so it's interesting.

Anonymous said...

Josh, maybe I am missing something. Where is Craig's response? Not Stenger's summary, but the actual response?

How did he receive a thorough beat down?

Not one of Stengers arguments is original.

Anonymous said...

Yep. Craig wins another one.

Shygetz said...

Wondering, John included the link for the entire audio. And the reason none of Stenger's arguments are original are, quite simply, because none of Craig's arguments are original, and all have been successfully refuted before. Craig overplays his hand as usual, as his "evidence" does not show what he wants it to show.

anonymous, very funny. Did you bother to listen?

Scott said...

One thing I'd note in the debate.

Stenger points the contradiction of a perfect creator. If God creates something, this implies he want's or needs something outside of himself and cannot not perfect.

Craig says that God does not create man as part of divine need or want, but for the 'benefit of the creature'. For the sake of argument, I'll agree that God, in his infinite wisdom, could have known that human beings would benefit from being created.

However, this still doesn't get us from an unfulfilled potential of creating human beings for their own benefit, to God actually and specifically deciding to create human beings for their own benefit. He simply attempts to sweep the problem under the rug and hopes we won't notice.

If God was playing a cosmic game of 'what if', he'd also know that creating humanoid-like creatures that were twice as smart as us would also benefit from being created. So could creatures that were twice as strong as us or twice as disease resistant than us. One could go as far as to say there is an near infinite number of potential intelligent and sentient beings that would benefit from being created, including the wide range of alien creatures we see in sci-fi movies. Since it appears that a near infinite number of intelligent and sentient beings do not actually exist, nor are they mentioned in the Bible, God must have specifically wanted to create human beings so they would benefit from the act of creation.

Again, this appears to be a contradiction for a perfect being.

It also seems to conflict with Craig's notion that our existence would be meaningless without being part of God's death transcending plan, which he wants to be fulfilled.

Anonymous said...

Scott, if god created me for my own benefit, why would he sentence me to an eternity of torment in hell because I don't believe he exists?

Doesn't make sense to me!

Scott said...

Scott, if god created me for my own benefit, why would he sentence me to an eternity of torment in hell because I don't believe he exists?

Fritz, That's a very good question - one to which I have yet to hear a very good answer. I was just agreeing with Craig on this point for the sake of argument.

Anonymous said...

I notice that opinions among the commenters on this blog and on YouTube are divided, but personally, I think for once Craig received proper flogging! Stenger may not be a great showman, but what he lacks in flare, he more than adequately makes up for in authority and clarity.

Finally, one of Craig’s opponents who has actually done his homework, which alas, Christopher Hitchens did not. Why, I do not know. Hitchens bangs on about how great Stenger’s God, The Failed Hypothesis is and even wrote the foreword for the paperback edition. He ought to have re-read it in preparation for meeting Craig, since Stenger demolishes Craig’s arguments within its pages!

Make sure you listen to the tape all the way through to the Q & A after closing statements and Stenger floors Craig on his appeal to “the universal opinion of modern scholarship” on the reliability of the New Testament. “Dr Craig keeps mentioning ‘the majority of scholars’. I don’t know where he takes these polls of scholars. You take them at Bob Jones University?!”


Also, do you notice how in cross-examination Craig is evasive about the horrors of the Old Testament, saying that his moral argument for God is not based on the Bible and this is a question of whether or not the Bible is inerrant? Well, Craig obviously does believe that the Bible is inerrant and therefore thinks that Yahweh was perfectly justified in using the Children of Israel to wipe out the Canaanites.
If you read my piece on Craig’s take on the OT God, it is almost like reading the manifesto of the 9/11 hijackers: “If God wants us to wipe out countless innocents it is moral and right to do so!” Sickening.

There is an Internet campaign afoot to get Richard Dawkins to debate Craig, which Dawkins has so far refused to do, despite repeated invitations. If you read my recent piece on the Dawkins/Grayling –v- Harries/Moore I2 debate on atheist fundamentalism, during the Q & A Dawkins finally put paid to all hopes of him debating Craig.

Without even repeating his name, he said that Craig’s only claim to fame is as a professional debater and that he was “busy”. I’m sure Craig would mop the floor with Dawkins, but it would be the result of multiple punches below the belt. Besides, Dawkins does soundly refute all five of Craig’s “arguments” in The God Delusion.

I’m glad that Dawkins took the opportunity to put this matter to rest. I will certainly credit Craig with being an expert debater, but that is all he is. His five “arguments” have been refuted ad nauseum yet he still keeps on using them. Stenger himself commented during a recent lecture (YouTube Part One) that he refuted Craig’s cosmological argument during this debate on the basis that Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time recanted his and Roger Pemrose’s earlier thesis and now state that the universe did not begin in a singularity known as the “Big Bang”. According to Stenger, Craig is clearly “lying” to his scientifically ignorant audiences by continuing to use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

John W, why are you so keen to debate Craig? The man is hack and you would only be giving him yet another platform to spread his pseudo-intellectual garbage!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment edthemanicstreetpreacher. Let me answer your question with another one. Would you debate Craig if someone set it up?

Anonymous said...

To answer your question, John, no I would not share a platform with Craig even if it was set up for me and he begged me to it. It’s not a million miles away from asking whether I’d debate Robertson, Falwell or Haggard!

I don’t think it would be a debate that an audience would enjoy either. I’m sure Craig would play all his dirty tricks and in return I’d throw mud along the lines of, ”Opponent X in Debate Y debunked Your Argument Z. Why are you lying to these people by continuing to use it?”

Now tell me, what’s the attraction? You studied under Craig when you were a believer? This all sounds a bit Darth Vader/Obi Wan Kenobi to me!


P.S. While I’m here, I read Stenger’s opening statement in full and Craig fails to respond to three quarters of it: the failures of revelation, the ineffectiveness of prayer, the existence of non-believers, the absence of special knowledge in the Bible.

In his first rebuttal Craig even agrees with Stenger that naturalistic explanations are preferable to supernatural explanations, but lamely concedes that when naturalism falls short, we have no alternative but to resort to a supernatural explanation.

So basically Craig’s cosmology boils down to, “The zeros after the decimal point are too many, it’s all to complex and improbable for my mind, it must have been The Thing That Made The Things For Which There Is No Known Maker!”