BOULDER – It was billed as a “conversation,” but what the 1,000-plus people who packed a campus ballroom witnessed the evening of Nov. 13 was clearly a debate.
University of Colorado Professor of Distinction and atheist philosopher Michael Tooley engaged Christian apologist and Oxford mathematician John Lennox for roughly 90 minutes. The passionate, yet civil, exchange on the subject of “Atheism and Christianity” was so well-attended that hundreds were turned away at the door for lack of space.
Organized by members of The Veritas Forum, a Christian group on campus, the goal was “not to have a winner or loser … but to have a dialogue that is thoughtful, respectful, and helps the broader campus community engage on the topic of atheism and Christianity,” event planner Aaron Shalosky said.
In opening statements, Tooley and Lennox talked about their upbringings.
Lennox spoke of growing up in Northern Ireland, where religious sectarianism was notorious.
“The kind of atheists we met in Ireland were either Protestant atheists or Catholic atheists,” he joked.
Tooley, in turn, described growing up in a religious rural community in Canada, where he harbored no doubts about the truth of Christianity until his exposure to Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals. The British philosopher’s writings initiated a training of thought that eventually undermined Tooley’s conservatism.
The interlocutors agreed on the definitions of atheism and Christianity, but there the agreement ended.
Tooley wasted no time bringing forth one of the most powerful and well-worn weapons in the atheist arsenal: if God is so good, why does he allow such evil to transpire on the Earth?
“It’s quite natural,” Tooley said, “to say ‘if there was an all good, all knowing, all powerful God, why wouldn’t he intervene to prevent this suffering?'”
Lennox conceded this was the hardest problem facing the Christian, and responded in part by pivoting away from the theoretical problem of evil to the practical problem of how human beings should deal with evil. To this problem, he said, Christianity had the better response.
“What denying God means is the removal of ultimate hope and hope for morality,” Lennox said. To which Tooley retorted: “Atheism at least allows freedom from eternal suffering.”
During a segment on Christianity and science, the two men took very different tacks. Lennox focused on the evidence for a creator, while Tooley took aim at specific Christian beliefs. Lennox rejected the idea of a “God of the gaps” who is only called upon to explain the things science can’t account for… until it can. Such a conception of God, Lennox claimed, artificially puts religion in conflict with science.
“God is not the God of the things we don’t know,” said Lennox, “He’s the God of the things we do and don’t [know].”
Lennox went on to argue in favor of intelligent design, saying just as we would rightly infer an intelligent designer to words written on a sign, so should we infer a designer behind the human genome, which Lennox described as a 3.6 billion letter word.
To his credit, Tooley shied away from the science-mongering of Richard Dawkins and other popular defenders of atheism. Science doesn’t prove atheism, Tooley said, but it does come to bear on certain Christian beliefs, such as whether illness is caused by evil demons, or whether human beings share common ancestry with primates.
The trouble with debunking efforts of this type is that they depend on interpretation. Not surprisingly, Lennox and Tooley soon became hung up on the point of whether Jesus Christ predicted the second coming would occur within the generation of his contemporaries. Lennox disputed Tooley’s skeptical interpretation. Tooley meta-disputed. If not for the benevolent intervention of the moderator, the dispute might have continued until the actual second coming.
Many other issues came up in the course of the discussion, including the merits and demerits of Christian morality, and the viability of the free will defense for the problem of evil, until they reached their closing statements.
Here, the interlocutors sounded the same note of agreement on which they had begun.
Tooley admonished members of the audience to seek out arguments without fear.
“I trust you will find your journey, however unnerving it might sometimes seem, to be very rewarding in the end,” he said.
Lennox likewise ended by encouraging students to interact with people who disagree with them, in the spirit of seeking the truth. He quoted Jesus: “If you seek, you will find.”
Fix contributor Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.
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