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John Lennox and @Eusebius McKaiser debate: does morality need God?

eusebiusMckaisercroppedA trip to Johannesburg last week (for the unlikely purpose of presenting a paper at a nutrition conference!) was well-timed, in that I had the opportunity to both attend a debate between Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, as well as to join Eusebius in studio the next day for a chat on religion and its place in state-run schools.

You can find the embedded stream of my interview with Eusebius at the bottom of this post. But while it’s still relatively fresh in memory, I thought I should capture a few thoughts on the debate for those of you who could not attend. A recording of debate will appear on YouTube at some point too, I’m told.

The topic of the debate was “Morality and God: is there a connection?”, although the conversation also ended up touching on other issues including the role of God in generating significance in life, and whether atheists are at all handicapped with regard to understanding science.

In his opening remarks, Lennox made the claim that science and atheism were essentially in conflict, as atheism undermines rationality. This was the first of many occasions where I had the clear sense that Lennox was failing to extend himself beyond certain premises that he considered to be axiomatic.

For him, God generates meaning, in that God creates the syntax and grammar of science – the order of things, the directions in which they flow, how they fit together. So without grasping God, you’re handicapped in your capacity to understand science at all. (This is my analogy, but I think it captures what he was saying.)

This question of mine (above) was put to him later in the evening, and he responded by professing ignorance regarding the state of Islamic science. This evaded my question, in that the dilemma I tried to make him grapple with was the possibility that his religion was interchangeable with any other for the purposes of generating this scientific foundation.

If it was not, he’d have to argue that his was superior – an easy thing to assert, but not easy to make a case for, and one of those occasions where the fundamentalism of the axiomatic premises I spoke of above would be exposed.

Another moment of disappointment to me was when he described evolution as a “mindless unguided process”, which reveals a rather caricatured and false view of evolution. Evolution is strongly guided by natural selection – but if one equivocates around what “guided” means, or rather, stacks the deck in favour of only one sort of guided (by a conscious agent, like God), then Lennox can certainly win the day, but only at the expense of making a plainly circular argument.

And that’s the problem with these debates. I’ve debated a couple of apologists over the years also, and besides the opportunity these debates present for showing an audience how arguments work (or don’t work), there’s pretty much zero prospect of productive argument between the antagonists.

Even strong critiques have little impact, such as when McKaiser exposed the inconsistency of Lennox (and all religious folk, to an extent) happily living in the empirical world of cause and effect when it comes to their day to day lives, but then bringing what is (to an atheist) essentially magic into the conversation when speaking of the souls, free will, morality and so forth.

We have a number of compelling (and competing) accounts for how morality evolves or is generated in animals that demonstrate moral instincts – and many of these are more plausible than an account requiring the sort of leap of faith that religion does (and, never mind the difficulty of then making a principled choice between the various religious accounts).

Again, it would only be if you’re predisposed to be sympathetic to the religious (and Christian) account of these things that they have any chance of gaining traction. In a fair fight, as it were, the religious account would be dropped from the list of plausible hypotheses fairly early on.

Similar tactics (and results) were in evidence with questions around the significance of life – a question that only becomes interesting if you grant that life needs some grand metaphysical meaning. There’s no reason to grant that premise, though – it’s a challenge that only has any force because it’s the product of centuries of religious privilege.

The conversation was fair-minded for the most part, although there were a number of sly digs from each debater towards his opponent. I thought Lennox more guilty of this, but my count might be unreliable, thanks both to my epistemic framework and the fact that Eusebius is a friend.

I suspect that Eusebius and I don’t agree on the morality question, although that requires that I hear his view outside of a context in which he was mostly attempting to rebut Lennox, rather than offer his full explanation of how moral principles are generated.

From what I heard on Thursday, Eusebius is a moral realist, which I’m not, but then, at other times, he seemed to speak as if his account of the objectivity of moral truths was one grounded in something like rationality, reciprocal altruism and the social contract, which together make certain moral principles binding on any rational agent.

If that’s true, we’d agree in substance, but I’d object that this doesn’t mean objectivity or moral realism, but rather that we’d converge on the same principles for pragmatic and contingent reasons – certain moral principles would be akin to conclusions in science, in that they are the best-evidenced, rather than being true by necessity.

Were you there? If so, feel free to let me know what you thought, below.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

11 replies on “John Lennox and @Eusebius McKaiser debate: does morality need God?”

Thank you for an incisive overview of the debate. I thought it unfortunate that a substantial part of the debate was occupied by the participants’ position on God, but in many ways it ultimately converged upon that point. Both agreed, or appeared to have at least, on the concept of objective moral values. However Prof. Lennox did little more than insist on the belief that, as the mind (brain to the rest of us) was the “creation of God”, the ability thereof to arrive at an objective assessment of right and wrong was also the product of the divine. Axiomatic indeed… Nonetheless, I am pleased I attended, thank you for announcing it in your posts.

Thanks for this summary Jacques. Sadly I wasn’t there – but Cape Town offers other benefits. But I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind your being at a nutrition conference?

I’ll no doubt write about the nutrition conference, and post my talk, later (I still need to edit it into presentable text form, rather than as delivered). But I spoke more as a philosopher of science, and columnist, about effective scientific communication (rather than nutrition).

Hi there,
Thanks for this overview. Just two points I’d like to raise:
– While Lennox did say that he wasn’t an authority on Islam (a fair comment I think if you consider of his stance), he did mention that there have been many contributions to science under the banner of Islam.
– Do you think that the debate could have been more productive if each segment of discussion was timed and labelled, such as “John Lennox, you have 5 min to answer the claims now raised, and then 5 min to raise your own”?

On a side note, I found Professor Lennox to be more clear and structured in his arguments. He could explain why he believed something, whereas I found McKaiser seemed to have more of a “that’s not good enough to convince me” kind of statements, without bringing much specific evidence to the table himself, and lacking clear explanations of why he strongly believes morality and God are not linked.

I think it could have gotten a whole lot more meaty, and so I was a bit disappointed when it ended. I enjoyed the way they bantered a bit, with some humour too..

I would definitely like to see this kind of debate again!

On your first point, yes indeed he did. But that had only tangential relevance to my question, so I didn’t think it worth mentioning. Perhaps on your second point, although I did quite like the informality.

Regarding your side note: different people will have different views on this, but seeing as from both my and McKaiser’s point of view, the burden of proof was on Lennox, it seems entirely acceptable to simply rebut Lennox’s arguments if they are unpersuasive (I don’t simply mean making the claim that they are, but explaining why they are – as I thought McKaiser did).

I never could accept that the burden of proof rested solely on the Christian apologist, (or whatever religious belief they hold), as the the atheist/agnostic also have positions to clarify and defend. Both sides have a point of view they are trying to pass on to others and both should hold the burden to prove their beliefs.

“many contributions to science under the banner of Islam”

This is a true statement but these contributions were not done Because of Islam. Islam came out of Saudi Arabiya and conquered Syria, Iraq , Persia.. the area was already populated by civilized people who became Muslims and yes they have contributed to science. . There was tolerance of other regions as well. All in all No science came from Saudi Arabia and these scientific contribution should be credited to the people of that area and not Islam

Thanks Jacques for a great post. Eusebius’ stance on objective morality was quite a surprise to me – I thought he was really going to try and defend some kind of relative morality. I still felt, by the end of the evening, he hadn’t really stated why he had so much confidence in his own rationality or why he felt human beings had intrinsic value. I was very intrigued by those two questions from when I heard about the debate, but I guess there wasn’t time (I felt they could have gotten to the core argument earlier). Based on his article today, I still can’t see how he insists that he doesn’t move into moral relativism, especially when he speaks of humankind “learning” morality as time goes by.

In terms of the evening, my thoughts were that both of them could have been stronger; but perhaps there was reason for that. It was none-the-less highly enjoyable and such a treat having this sort of thing in SA for a change. I find value in these debates – the conversation amongst friends and colleagues there and on social media has been invigorating. It’s not just about the debaters but about the topic itself. These sorts of things help to get guys out of their slumber and thinking a bit, including me, and it’s great when the public take it seriously.

Agreed that the occasions are very worthwhile, and I hope that we can have many of of them. Just a caution regarding the phrase “relative morality” – again something that I’ve heard many times in conversation/debate with Christian Apologists – there’s a number of options between moral absolutism and moral relativism.

My concern around Eusebius’s moral position as presented was that he claimed to be an objectivist, and didn’t sound like one – I’d be as concerned as you if I thought he was a moral relativist. Even allowing that we “learn morality” doesn’t make you a relativist. We learn physics, but that doesn’t mean that we can make it up as we go along.

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