Is debating the existence of God worthwhile? A short post by John Sargeant argues that it isn’t:
For me the words of Marcus Aurelius sum up the conversation worth having. Leading a good life and the virtues to cultivate in doing so. Debating the existence or none of God clouds the issue – and detracts from the conversation. Because we can not experience an entity or concept beyond cause and effect, time and space, we end up having a meaningless conversation about something beyond our imagination.
It ends as a draw because you cannot win by saying I really cannot comprehend what happened before the Big Bang. I cannot anymore than someone can claim to know the mind of God and impose their dictates on others.
I certainly agree that we should try to lead a good life, but how exactly does debating the existence of God get in the way of that? Off the top of my head, here are four reasons why we might want to debate the existence of God:
- It can be enjoyable to participate in, or to watch.
- It can be a learning experience; not just in philosophy of religion, but also in related philosophical and scientific topics.
- We might (and often do) refine our own position as a result of its conflict with objections.
- We might change minds. The minds of onlookers, the mind of our opponent and, most desirable of all, our own mind.
I don’t see anything in Sargeant’s post that really challenges these points. I don’t think atheist vs theist debates must necessarily end in a draw, and even if they did I have no idea why that should be seen as a bad thing. I don’t watch these debates (or have casual debates with friends) in order to witness a resounding atheist victory. I watch them for the content – to see what arguments the participants bring to the table, and how they might be challenged. It encourages me to think for myself – what would I have done differently? How would I have formulated objections to the theist? What were the weaknesses in the atheist’s arguments?
Yes, I cannot comprehend the Big Bang, nor “before” it (if that notion can even be made sense of), but that does not preclude an atheist making a case for atheism (or against theism) that does not need to draw from claims about the genesis of the universe. As far as the theist is concerned, Sargeant’s claim that they cannot know the mind of God and what he wants from us does not pose much of a problem. William Lane Craig’s common arguments for the existence of a god don’t make a claim about what that god wants. Finally, perhaps an atheist can tell us what was there “before” the Big Bang. Perhaps a theist can show us what God really wants from us. We cannot assume that we’ve heard it all and there’s nothing more to learn. I’ve changed my mind on various things as a result of listening to debates, and dearly hope that I am able to do so many more times.
Sargeant is right that we should live a good life. Perhaps having a few healthy and productive debates can be a small part of that.