Summer 2009

‘Blockbuster’ Debate Draws Over 10,000 Viewers

Hitchens, Craig Clash at Biola on ‘Does God Exist?’

By Brett McCracken

In his senior year, Biola’s Associated Students president Eric Weaver wanted to bring a “blockbuster event” to Biola - something that explored “the biggest question of all: Is it reasonable to believe God exists?”

On April 4, a blockbuster event is exactly what Biola got.

In a sold-out Chase Gymnasium, huge crowds - including people wearing “Just your friendly neighborhood atheist” T-shirts - witnessed a highly anticipated debate between William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and Christopher Hitchens, a renowned journalist, author and leading figure in the so-called “new atheism.”

The debate, sponsored by AS and Biola’s Christian apologetics department, was unprecedented in scope. In addition to a capacity audience in Chase, crowds watched a live feed from three other on-campus venues and an off-campus overflow site. Live video of the debate was purchased by 126 church and university groups spread out over 30 states and four countries. All told, the 2 1/2 hour debate was seen live by an estimated 10,000 people, and will be available on DVD for many more to see (http://www.biola.edu/apologetics).

“It exceeded my expectations,” said Abigail Schilling, who works for the apologetics department and helped plan the event. “God really answered prayers - on everything from the actual debate content to the logistics of huge masses of people.”

Craig approached the debate in a very systematic manner, laying out five arguments for God’s existence and then challenging Hitchens to deconstruct them and offer positive arguments for the truth of atheism.

For his part, Hitchens - known for his biting sarcasm, colorful language and entertaining rhetorical flourishes - was much less methodical. Rather than taking on Craig point by point or offering a positive defense of atheism, Hitchens attempted to lay the burden of proof on Craig, insisting that skepticism was the more intellectually honest position and that no foolproof arguments for the existence of God had been raised.

Much of the debate centered around morality. Hitchens suggested that religion did not have a monopoly on morality, and that in fact many of the world’s most immoral actions have been religious in origin.

“The suicide bombing community is almost exclusively religious,” said Hitchens, who also mentioned that the Dutch Reformed church started apartheid in South Africa and that Nazi Germany was closely allied with the Christian community.

Craig answered that the truth of a worldview can’t be judged by its social implications or benefit to society.

At one point, Hitchens raised evolution as an argument against the existence of God, but Craig found a way to turn it into an argument for God’s existence.

“Evolution itself is complex and fantastically improbable,” said Craig. “If it did occur on this planet, it was literally a miracle and therefore evidence for the existence of God.”

Though lively, the tenor of the debate was restrained and cordial. In the final moments, Craig actually extended an invitation to Hitchens to become a Christian on the spot. Hitchens smiled wryly and remained silent, yielding his entire concluding speech.

Following the debate, Hitchens and Craig were available to sign copies of their respective books, God is Not Great and Reasonable Faith.

Reactions to the debate were extensive, with coverage filling up numerous newspaper pages, Web sites and blogs. Many people commented on the toned-down rhetoric of Hitchens. Apart from calling Mother Teresa a “Catholic fanatic” and describing the Christian God as “a kind of heavenly North Korea,” Hitchens maintained a calmer demeanor than he’s typically known for.

Atheist blogger Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism described Hitchens’ performance as “rambling and incoherent” and concluded, “Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.” Most other reactions were more moderate, though the consensus seemed to be that Hitchens was largely ill equipped to answer the arguments of Craig.

Regardless of the perceived victor, the event was a big win for apologetics, which has sometimes had a reputation for being too combative and uncongenial.

“What’s been most impressive to me has been the fact that everyone just loved being here. Everyone felt welcomed, no matter what their theistic persuasion. And that is a new day for apologetics,” said Craig Hazen, director of Biola’s M.A. in Christian apologetics program. “It’s not just about winning an argument. It’s about doing apologetics as a full-orbed Christian, serving people, caring for them and giving them good reasons for what you believe.”

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