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Does God Exist?

Does God Exist?: The Debate Between Theists and Atheists by J.P. Moreland & Kai Neilsen, with additional contributions. A review by Sue Johnson.

This book consists of transcripts of two debates, including questions from the floor, between J.P. Moreland (theist) and Kai Nielsen (atheist) on the questions ‘Does God exist?’ and ‘Do ethics depend on God?’. The transcripts are followed by contributions in response from William Lane Craig, Antony Flew, Keith Parsons and Dallas Willard. Peter Kreeft provides the Introduction and Conclusion.

The existence (or non-existence) of God and the foundation of ethics are two perennially live issues, and this is a readable account of many of the main points, suitable for ‘A’ level students, undergraduates or general interest readers.

The debates are not as useful as they could be, a fact acknowledged by Kai Nielsen, owing to the differences in approach of the main protagonists.

In the first debate, Professor Moreland begins by apparently claiming that one is within one’s epistemic rights to believe in God – in other words, that it isn’t illogical to believe in God given the evidence available. This seems like a fairly weak claim! His reported speech shows, however, that he is actually claiming something along the lines that God’s existence is probable, although not certain. He refers, rather briefly in some cases, to the teleological, moral and cosmological arguments, and he uses scientific discoveries and theories, including the second law of thermodynamics and quantum theory, to bolster his case for God’s existence. He spends rather more time on archaeological confirmations of Biblical narrative, on the putative validity of the resurrection accounts, and on the argument from religious experience, including his own. “I have had close to two decades of walking with Him [Jesus Christ] … and falling more and more in love with Him daily…”, he says – a testimony which jars oddly in style with the rest of his argument. Nielsen, by contrast, adopts a linguistic approach, contending that theological language in general, and the term ‘God’ in particular, is incoherent. There is little, therefore, in the way of rebuttal of argument in the debate as recorded; rather, each contributor makes his own assertions, supported by argument and evidence.

Nonetheless, each of them makes interesting points in an accessible way, although the complete beginner in philosophy of religion would do well to consult a standard text (eg The Existence of God, edited by John Hick) for fuller statements of the arguments under discussion. Both Moreland and Nielsen then spoke briefly in rebuttal of the major arguments of the opposition, and then again to close the case on each side.

There follow transcripts of questions from the floor and the answers from the speakers. Some of the questions were quite subtle, and some interesting points were made – on both sides – in response.

The issues raised ranged across the fields of linguistics, religious experience, the possibility of various forms of personal survival after bodily death, cosmology and the evidence for agnosticism rather than atheism, with incidental matters arising en route.

The debate on ethics was briefer, and once again there was little rebuttal of argument in the main speeches. From the preamble, it was apparent that this wasn’t the fault of the protagonists, since Moreland was required to reply to Nielsen without previous sight of Nielsen’s text. Nielsen argues that either an atheist existentialist view (eg Sartre’s) is coherent, or that, with Camus, one can “fight the plague”, ie “Even if” like Camus, “you are sceptical about transforming the world, at least you can try to cut back some of the evil in the world, and sometimes you can succeed in some measure.” (The specific evil which Camus opposed was Nazism: he was a leading member of the French Resistance during WWII. He did however use ‘fighting the plague’ as a general term for active opposition to evil). Nielsen asserts that knowledge of what is good and what is evil is accessible through reason: “You start with these considered judgements. You get them into a coherent packet with themselves and with everything else we know; that’s as much – indeed it’s the only kind – of objectivity I think you can get in ethics.”

Moreland’s response is that, without an Ultimate Good (ie, God), there is no reason to choose one course of action rather than another, and that this defeats the atheist’s claim to be able – or necessarily willing – to lead a moral life. For Moreland, moral absolutes exist, while Nielsen thinks they do not, but Nielsen, as a Marxist, believes that people will make choices which are ultimately beneficent rather than otherwise. This debate was shorter and less satisfactory than the first, and was followed by a brief question time – “about twelve or thirteen minutes”. I was left with the impression that shortness of time had led to superficiality of treatment of a large subject.

The arguments suffered from being transcripted debates rather than written papers, and the questions and answers would have benefited from editing in the interests of easier reading.

The responses from other philosophers were extremely valuable in setting the arguments in context. It has to be said that scholarly standards were better upheld by the atheists than the theists, but none of the contributions was without merit or interest. Both Moreland and Nielsen replied to the comments of the additional contributors.

Peter Kreeft’s introduction and conclusion are masterly. The introduction would in itself make a good revision handout for the Philosophy of Religion component of the ‘A’ level course. The copious footnotes and references provided throughout the book invite the reader to further study and are a major strength of the publication. A valuable bibliography is provided, but, sadly, there is no index. This is a surprising omission in view of the general quality of the book.

Altogether, a book well worth reading for anyone who is not already thoroughly familiar with the subject. I have only ever encountered one person who has claimed to be converted from disbelief to belief by rational argument and the belief in question was Buddhism, not a personal theism. This book is as unlikely to make converts as any other, but it does make a worthwhile contribution to the ongoing debate.

© Sue Johnson 1997

Does God Exist? is published in paperback by Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-823-6 £14.50

Sue Johnson is Head of Religious Studies and Philosophy at The Grammar School for Girls, Wilmington, Kent.

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