I just stumbled upon a year-old YouTube video named, “Sam Harris gets destroyed by Dr. William Lane Craig”. It’s the 2-hour University of Notre Dame debate held on April 7, 2011, between Harris and Craig. It was titled: “The God Debate II: Is Good from God?” The video can be found at the bottom of this page.
And guess what? Harris really was destroyed by Craig! What a disappointment.
Craig started off with the premise that objective morality can only exist if God exists and, alternatively, if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.
Harris then presented his premise that science can identify objective morality by determining what contributes to the well being of conscious creatures.
Craig rebutted with a scholarly evisceration of Harris’ premise that cited: the absence of moral objectivity in atheism; the subjectivity of human flourishing; the is/ought distinction; and more.
As Harris walked up to the podium for his own rebuttal, I realized that he CAN’T rebut Craig because he agrees that there is an objective basis for morality: namely the application of science to the question of human flourishing (well being). And sure enough, Harris didn’t counter a single Craig rebuttal. Instead, he launched into his usual attack on the Bible and its morality.
In disgust, I stopped watching when Craig came back to the podium and rightly pointed out Harris’ lack of a rebuttal.
Harris was so invested in his flawed thesis that “science can solve moral problems” that he was blinded to the risk of agreeing that morality is objective. The fact is that Craig is right! Objective morality can only exist if God exists: if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.
The atheist position should have been that objective morality can not exist because God does not exist. In other words, morality is subjective. But even if you were willing to entertain God’s existence, Craig is arguing divine command theory, which was dismissed centuries before Jesus came along, by Euthyphro’s Dilemma (“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”). Euthyphro’s Dilemma stemmed from a famous conversation between Euthyphro and Socrates that took place just before Socrates stood trial for impiety and corruption of minors . Surely, Harris is familiar with it. I have no idea why he wouldn’t use it.
Euthyphro’s Dilemma can be rephrased as: “Is an act moral because God wills it or does God will it because it is moral?” If it is moral because God wills it, then it is arbitrary or capricious: without basis in reason. Anything God commands, no matter how horrendous, would be moral. If you uphold the divinity of the Bible, then you are forced to accept that God’s will is arbitrary. But if God wills a thing because it is moral, then morality is independent of, and external to, God. If morality is independent of God, we don’t need God to have morals. Indeed, God is not omnipotent if he is constrained by an external morality.
But that’s an old argument. Thanks to advances in human understanding, particularly evolution, we have a perfectly human explanation for morality that does not require God at all. Because atheists do not believe in God and the supernatural realm, only the natural realm is left: the universe and everything in it. Nature has only a prime directive: survive. There is no good or bad, right or wrong, in nature. Morality is an entirely human construct and, as such, must be subjective – because humans can never be perfectly objective: as Craig points out, that would require a perfect God – an infallible authority.
As an atheist, Harris should have had a 2-pronged strategy: 1.) point out the lack of perfection in the biblical God and 2.) provide a naturalist understanding of morality; admitting up front that it is subjective and relative but, in the end, far superior to the flawed morality of an imperfect God.
Euthyphro’s Dilemma reveals the myth of God’s moral perfection so I won’t go into much detail on that count except to flesh out the slavery criticism because it’s upheld in the New Testament as well as the Old. This is important because Christians typically cop out by claiming fidelity only to the New Testament, since it represents a new covenant with God through Jesus.
I’ve recently written on the naturalist understanding of morality. If the following is familiar to you, just skip to the end.
The naturalist understanding of morality asserts that we have evolved empathy as an impetus to cooperation. Combined with personal experience, empathy leads most of us to a “Golden Rule” sense of morality. From experience, I know what hurts me: with empathy, I know the same things likely hurt you too. Experience and empathy is all we need to decide most moral matters. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . because we need each other to survive and prosper.” We are complex social animals, so this rule of thumb isn’t sufficient for every moral decision but it is fundamental to most. Without this impulse for cooperation to counter our impulse for violence, we would probably squander the intellectual prowess responsible for our survival advantage.
It’s a fallacy (with obvious religious motivations) that “we can not be moral without God”. Our morality is part of the human condition and existed long before Moses. Morality is not a dispensation from God: it is subjective and personal and, because it is informed by experience and empathy, develops as we mature. As a matter of fact, we ALL use our personal morality to overrule Biblical morality. And by ALL, I really do mean ALL: believers and nonbelievers alike. This fact is amply demonstrated by our universal rejection of slavery and the subjugation of women (well, maybe not the Muslims so much). Even though God/Jesus condoned the subjugation of our fellow humans in both the Old and New Testaments, we ALL overrule God’s morality with our own and reject such human subjugation. Not only is God NOT the source of morality but he stands corrected by us all. WE decided what is moral. WE decide what is religiously worthy. NOT God.
You need to ask yourself: “If we overrule God, why do we need him at all?”
This subjugation of our fellow humans is a failing of Biblical morality that can’t be reasonably addressed by apologetics. This is critical for all believers to understand. THEY CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Either God is perfect or he’s not. Either the Bible is divinely inspired or it’s not. Either God is the source of morality or he isn’t. Even a believer, if he’s honest with himself, must admit that if God’s morality grows outdated, it was never perfect and timeless to begin with. The alternative is to claim that God is right and that the subjugation of our fellow humans is NOT at all immoral – that it is, in fact, desirable. But we ALL know that’s an untenable position. We all know that is WRONG. We will not reverse our hard-earned moral progress to align it with God’s morality. This is why the issue is out of reach of apologetics.
The truth is that the Old Testament, New Testament and Quran reflect the morality and level of ignorance that existed in their respective eras and areas . . . precisely as they MUST if they’re written without the benefit of God’s input. These ancient tomes are NOT divinely inspired. God is NOT perfect. The issue of human subjugation proves that the personal, revealed, theist, God of the Abrahamic religions is irrefutably false. This doesn’t completely close the door on God, however: there’s still supernatural hope for the impersonal, cosmic, God of deists and pantheists.
Empathy is a human trait that spawns a number of other human traits just as naturally as it spawns morality. Empathy also spawns human dignity and worth, cooperation and compassion. We can live reasonably moral lives without God but not without empathy.