Last night I attended a conversation between atheist and cosmologist Professor Lawrence Krauss and Christian and philosopher Dr William Lane Craig. The conversation was the first part in a series of three events on the topic of “Life, the universe and nothing”, presented by The City Bible Forum. In this post I will make some general observations about the conversation entitled “Has Science Buried God?”.

Click here to read the debate highlights.

Click here for an update on the video for this conversation.

One of the City Bible Forum’s objectives in hosting these events is to promote civil discussion on issues of God, religion and science. The key word being “civil”. Just how civil was it?

To me, civility is certainly not about finding agreement with everyone, but rather the manner in which one goes about expressing disagreement. However, it soon became clear throughout both opening addresses that Krauss didn’t seem to be there for that same purpose, using ad hominem, ridicule and gimics; in particular, he used a buzzer to express his disagreement with Craig’s arguments, while Craig was talking. Krauss was clearly playing up for/to his vocal fans, as well as attempting to disrupt his opponent.

The thing is at other times, Krauss was quite charismatic, funny and articulate, effectively sweeping you up in the beauty of the scientific process. Now, Krauss was not there to win converts (he said he was not expecting or attempting to convert anyone) but rather to encourage rational thinking and inquiry. The problem was that in using cheap tactics, like a buzzer, he didn’t actually model the kind of rationality he was arguing for. I am baffled as to why someone so learned and articulate felt such tactics were acceptable for a public debate or necessary for his pitch, when he had plenty of opportunity to address the claims directly.

Now while Craig attempted to address arguments rather than characters, I felt he still wasn’t able to gain much momentum in the discussion, for at least two factors. The first, is the format of the conversation – an opening address by each speaker, followed by moderated discussion, followed by audience Q&A. I was hoping the moderated discussion might allow a more free-flowing exchange, which it was, but not in a good way – on quite a few occasions both speakers were talking at the same time, which made it impossible to hear what each was saying. The moderator, while he did a good job at teasing out issues raised in the conversation, could have done more to rein this in. Krauss is admittedly quite entertaining and engaging, and no doubt enjoys the live audience; his performance was probably stronger, exhibited more presence, relishing what was almost open slather on Craig, not because Krauss’ arguments were revolutionary or persuasive, but because he was simply more dominant, overbearing perhaps.

The second problem was the recurring “slaughter of the Canaanites” issue, which Krauss raised against Craig in his opening address and seemed to be stuck on, which is unfortunate because it wasn’t actually the topic of the debate. The issue is a challenging problem for apologists but probably not insurmountable. Over at St Eutychus, Nathan does a much more critical analysis of the approach than my brief excursion here, and offers a possible framework for the way Craig could have addressed the issue.

Perhaps a formal debate structure would have allowed Craig to systematically work through the issues raised in Krauss’ address, as is his way, rather than at times fighting to be heard; despite Krauss’ dominant performance, there were a few moments when he (Krauss) was clearly struggling to respond. But more on these in the next post.

All up, it was a curious and mildly disappointing night, frustrated at times due to a railroading of the discussion and the uncharitable tone that was set early on, the format, and a conversational technique I hope I will never see in a public debate again.

More thoughts after the weekend.

Meanwhile, read the two speakers cases here:

A universe without purpose – Lawrence Krauss

Is the material world all there is? Arguments for the existence of God – William Lane Craig

Edit: the above articles do not reflect the cases presented at the Brisbane discussion. You’ll have to wait for the audio/video.

NEW: Life, The Universe and Nothing link page now added