Last Wednesday I went to the debate between John Lennox, professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, and Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton. The topic was ‘Is there a God?’
Due to the amount of publicity in churches around Melbourne, the debate had garnered quite a buzz, and so there was a sense of expectation as we rolled up to the beautifully ornate Melbourne Town Hall. Lennox of course, has reputation as a well-respected and admired Christian apologist, being the author of more than a few books on apologetics. Singer, on the other hand, is more of the infamous variety. He is well known for being a staunch proponent of utilitarian ethics, especially his controversial views on late-term abortion.
In the opening statements both men scored points for succinctly putting forward their personal view. However, Lennox easily wooed the crowd right from the start with his folksy Irish style. More than a few of my friends vocalized their wish that he was their grandfather. He spoke with warmth and conviction. He quickly picked up the classic argument of if our minds are just neurons produced by millions of years of random mutations, then there is no reason why we should trust anything that they come up with. Therefore a belief in evolution is every bit as irrational as a belief in God. Lennox also brought made his argument personal by speaking of his own relationship with God. (Singer never really responded to this point.)
Singer was quite eloquent himself, but lacked the warmth of Lennox, coming across as just being a bit grouch in comparison. He quoted LaPlace’s famous response to Napoleon’s inquiry as to where God fitted into his work on the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter: ‘I had no need of that hypothesis.’ He followed this by responding to the Christian argument of ‘First cause’ by saying that as far as he was concerned the universe may just as well have existed forever, and therefore there is no need of God as ‘first cause’. However, he admitted that he couldn’t prove this, since scientists simply don’t know what happened before the Big Bang, thus his point didn’t really hit home.
A particularly crowd-pleasing moment came when Singer was attempting to discredit Christianity with the ‘Christian by environment argument’ – people are only Christian because of their environment and culture growing up. Lennox, without a moment’s hesitation shot back ‘Yes Peter, but tell me, were your parents atheists?’ ‘Well…. errrrr… yes…’ Enough said.
The debate then headed into a time of moderated questions, where the moderator picked up on different things the debaters had said and asked the other to respond. Lennox spent a lot of time insisting that his faith was based on evidence, and he was often convincing but not always so. However, Lennox on the whole responded well to his questions, which was not an easy thing since much of Singer’s critiques of Christianity were not what you would expect from an academic of his calibre. Singer’s shots were often badly researched – he questioned the historical validity of the Gospel of Luke, pointed out ‘contradictions’ in the gospels, questioned the reliability of biblical texts, suggested that it was clear that Jesus and Paul expected that Jesus would return within the lifetime of the disciples and expressed extreme doubt about the Resurrection. Lennox did his best to dispel these badly aimed shots, and for the most part did a good job, even quoting Mark 9:1 verbatim in response to the latter (while admittedly skipping over Luke 21:32). However, considering he has just written a book on the evidence for the Resurrection, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t go into things like the proof of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul says that Jesus appeared to over 500 of his followers, especially since most scholars agree that 1 Corinthians has a very early date of authorship.
The climax came when the issue of suffering was put on the table. Singer brought out the good ol’ ‘how can a good God allow evil’ argument. Lennox’s response was almost exactly what I wanted to hear. He admitted that he had no good answer to this question. Now there’s any number of legitimate arguments he could have trotted out to explain God’s sovereignty, but instead he simply pointed to the cross, to the Suffering Godman, one who is not unconcerned with our plight, but has experienced it himself in every way. I think this was the better way to go. To trot out a few clever apologetical tricks would have put the audience immediately offside. In my mind Lennox gained more than a few points by being willing to admit that there are no easy answers to the question of suffering – especially none that could be adequately explained in the few minutes he had. The only unfortunate part of his answer here was him saying that the wonders of heaven would more than make up for the sufferings of this life. While this is true, he neglected to mention that this only holds true for Christians, and that for those who reject God, the sufferings of human life will be nothing compared to the eternal torment of separation from God.
To sum-up, it was an enjoyable evening, mostly because of the generous nature of both men. Lennox was keen to establish which points were agreed upon by both parties. Singer was also fairly restrained, and resisted taking too many shots below the belt. However, one couldn’t help but notice that many of his responses seemed to be along the lines of ‘Well, you’re irrational’.
For the Christians in the audience, it was wonderful to see a man like Lennox passionately and eloquently defend his faith – my hope is many there were inspired to themselves study to be able to ‘give an answer for the hope that we have’. For the unbelievers, hopefully some there will have food for thought in the coming weeks as they wonder if possibly Christians aren’t quite as irrational as they thought.