Student Versus Professor Debate At Oxford University 04/27/2012

Last night I was at Oxford University to watch the debate on whether or not God exists between Calum Miller, a third-year medical student, and former professor of chemistry Peter Atkins. Miller defended the theistic view and Atkins argued against God’s existence.

Miller opened the debate with an excellent explanation of methodology and then he presented three arguments that followed through with his methodology: expected order, fine-tuning, and the physical resurrection of Jesus. Atkins’s opening contained six arguments: contingency, constants, purpose, miracles, theodicy, and morality. I was genuinely surprised at how well Atkins did in his opening remarks. Although there was definitely some anti-Christian rhetoric there, he was quite prepared. But that was all there was to Atkins’s sophisticated remarks. The following rebuttals and closing speech were more like cheap shots to theism (which I plan to address a few below).

I think the debate focused too much on Occam’s Razor. Both tried to argue that their view was the simplest explanation, and this led to some fairly nitty-gritty discussion on issues like the simplicity (or complexity) of God and the simplicity of nothingness (if nothing could even have such a property). My point of contention is that the Razor does allow for more complex theories when there is greater explanatory power. And I’m not convinced that the debate between Miller and Atkins allow for that (I don’t even recall that being brought up).

Miller, for being an Oxford med student, did an excellent job responding to many of Atkins objections. For example, Atkins consistently made the point that theists are lazy because they use God to explain too many things. Miller correctly noted that theist do still seek to understand the mechanisms which they believe God uses for his purposes. I wasn’t sure if Atkins believe this or not, but he certainly implied that he has the belief, ‘If someone is a Christian, they must be a 6-day creationist.’ Theistic evolution might be one example supporting Miller’s response of seeking to understand mechanisms.

Throughout the debate Atkins would say many things that would seem odd (or just blatantly false). I’ll provide three for you. First, in his second rebuttal, Atkins began talking about creationism and that some Christians want to call it science. To my knowledge, Miller hadn’t brought that up. Atkins’s remark felt like it came out of left field. He didn’t even try and set up his comment, as one might expect in a debate. This might be a trivial point on debating skills, but let’s keep in mind…it was a debate.

Second, in Atkins’s opening remark, he referred to the Gospels as “wholly unreliable” and “political propaganda.” Miller made the point that no credible historians actually believe they were political propaganda. So what might be odd about this remark, other than that it is false? In his first rebuttal, Atkins went on to say that “Jesus was crucified,” that Jesus was “probably a very nice man,” and a “very likely possibility” that the swoon theory is true. This is problematic because on what grounds can he make these claims if he also holds to the belief that the Gospels are “wholly unreliable?” Perhaps he might say that extra-biblical supports this idea. Yet the historical extra-biblical data doesn’t support the swoon theory nor speak of Jesus as a nice man. Atkins is just ignorant on the historical stuff.   After all, he’s a chemist not a New Testament scholar or historian.  There’s really no excuse to be to be ignorant on this stuff if you want to debate with Christians on it.  You should be reading their arguments and more careful in your word choice (like toning down the rhetoric, if that’s what “wholly unreliable” was).

Third, Atkins loved to bad-mouth “faith.” It was the traditional New Atheist bashing of the term. Miller did an excellent job of explaining the origin of Christians’ use of the term (trust rather than blind/ignorant hope) and even did enough reading of Atkins’s own work to find a section in one of his books where Atkins himself refers to the faith he has in science. Here was the odd remark: during the planned discussion between the debaters, Atkins said that faith is synonymous with superstition. But Miller reminded Atkins of what he wrote and the former Oxford professor had to admit that he used the word ‘faith’ as a term for belief.

This is all to say, Atkins ought to be more civil and temper down his passion with well-reasoned arguments devoid of his anti-Christian rhetoric. I say that for his own benefit. If he wants to win people over to his cause, he shouldn’t appear so unpleasant. One helpful tactic might be something like giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt. Example: “My opponent said x. If by x he meant y (where y describes x) then I respond with A, if he meant z (where z describes x) then I respond with B.”

My musing on the debate here probably isn’t a good summary of what went on. I just wanted to get my thoughts out there in the blogosphere and to address some of the trivial points. Although they may only be trivial, I think if you can address this points and forces atheists like Atkins to think more carefully about what they are saying, they might be more careful in their research and in how they approach dialogue on worldviews. It’s just more enjoyable to talk to honest atheists.

Miller did a great job defending theism, especially against the (sometimes sporadic) claims that Atkins made.

For a better summary of the debate, you might have to find another blog (perhaps Miller’s own site Dove Theology) or you should be able to watch the full debate once Miller and his team get it up on the web (which I’ll post here as soon as I become aware of it).

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Kurt Jaros is the Director of Operations at Apologetics.com, where he oversees various projects, including Real Clear Apologetics (which he founded). He holds a Master's degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and a Master's in Systematic Theology from King's College London. He teaches part-time at Naperville Christian Academy and also blogs at ValuesAndCapitalism.com, a project of the American Enterprise Institute.

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