Debate reflection: Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig in Melbourne

I’ve now watched two of the three “Life, the Universe and Nothing” debates between cosmologist Lawrence Krauss (LK) and apologist/theologian William Lane Craig (WLC), and wanted to share my reflections. While some will undoubtedly try, it is impossible to assert who really “won” in any of these debates – they are (thankfully) better described as dialogues – and you’ll notice that in any event most opinions about such a thing tend to line up with the person’s preferences beforehand. I will try my best to be objective, but to guard against any bias will also make a point to post reviews that differ with mine as I find them. Of course, the best thing you can do if you’re interested is to simply watch the debates yourself.

First, to mimic Krauss’ opening statement in the Brisbane debate (I’ll post my reflections on Brisbane later), I want to lay out my biases in detail. I consider WLC a minor intellectual (case in point, he’s more famous for his activity on the debate circuit and for his Christian apology books than for any scholarly work or major contributions to philosophy), and think he is often deceitful in his use of language and argument. He is, in my opinion, much more style than substance, and has a habit of making sweeping generalizations about areas outside his specialty, namely ancient history and cosmology, as well as taking others’ words out of context and/or distorting their intended views. I have also never seen him (and can hardly imagine him doing so) concede that he was or has ever been wrong. This last point is a major concern, as it’s difficult to trust someone who is not legitimately open to changing his or her opinion given new arguments or information.

Also, in full disclosure, I think the ethos of science – characterized namely by skepticism, peer-review, open inquiry, and test-ability – is more effective at determining truth than the general ethos of religion – characterized namely by deferral to authority, tradition, revelation, and personal experience.

With that said, I will just make the following observations about the dialogue in Melbourne, for which the topic was “Is a belief in God reasonable?”:

  • LK over-stated the similarities between Jesus and contemporary pagan/mythic Gods like Dionysus, Krishna, Horus, et al. The tropes of these mythic stories do have similarities with Jesus, including virgin births and resurrections, but I agree with WLC that the evidence Jesus was a whole-sale copy of any of these Gods is lacking. If anyone knows of credible scholarship in this area, please let me know, as I’ve been unable to find much.
  • I think WLC is (charitably) exaggerating when he says the testimony of the Gospels can be traced to “within 5 years” of Christ’s death. This seems absurdly early compared to the estimates I’ve heard elsewhere, and he would have to get there indirectly because the earliest written accounts we have do not come up until at least 20 years after Christ’s death. Again, any sources on this would be helpful.
  • LK is a bit out of his element in discussing morality and moral philosophy, and does much better when sticking to questions of science and particularly physics. That’s not to say Krauss is wrong, because I actually agree with him, but he’s just not as well-versed as Craig in this area and it gives the impression he’s losing the argument. Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan does a terrific job handling Craig on the question of morality in this debate.
  • Craig’s syllogisms, as Krauss correctly points out, are over-simplistic and based on premises that are likely wrong and very far from certain. Time and time again, what is astounding to me as I watch William Lane Craig present his 6 arguments (he always offers the same six) is how tenable the premises are, yet how certain he seems of their conclusions. The Cosmological Argument, for example, does what’s known in introductory logic as “begging the question” that is, assuming the conclusion in a premise intended to confirm the conclusion. To show how over-simplistic Craig’s syllogisms are, Krauss gave the audience a humorous one: “1) All mammals display homosexual tendencies, 2) William Lane Craig is a mammal … ” In any event, even if Craig’s syllogisms were proved correct, they wouldn’t get you from deism to theism, and certainty not from theism to Christianity. Debate opponents, other than Hitchens, tend to forget to point this out to Craig.
  • To me, the most effective part of Krauss’ strategy in this debate was just to continually ask Craig, “how do you know that?” and to show that there is nothing like absolute certainty in cosmology or ancient history, and that it’s therefore unreasonable to make such grand claims – and God is certainly a grand claim – without equally grand evidence.
  • Krauss effectively argues that Craig’s arguments could be used to support almost all the creation myths. Craig demurs on this, pointing out that few non-Christian creation stories having creation literally coming from nothing, but Krauss again argues that if you take those other stories metaphorically, they could just as well be supported by his syllogisms. He also traps Craig in highlighting the contradiction between saying the Bible isn’t a science textbook on one hand, then pulling out the pieces that agree with science and trying to prop it up as a book prescient of modern cosmology.
  • I think Craig’s weakest argument is the one regarding the resurrection. He – and this makes me pull my hair out every time I hear it – seems convinced that it’s actually more likely that 1) God exists (NOT a trivial assumption) 2) the Bible is true 3) Jesus was divine 4) Jesus rose from the dead and 5) Jewish oral tradition was immaculate, than it is that somebody stole Christ’s body and/or his followers either hallucinated or made-up visions. We have evidence for the latter happening all the time (think of UFO’s or the many cults that go in and out of existence each decade), but absolutely no evidence for someone rising from the dead (or of oral tradition being remotely consistent over large swaths of time). How is the former more reasonable than the latter? Craig seems to distort the alleged visions of Christ into a very narrow band, whereas he images hundreds of people having almost identical, independent experiences of Jesus at the same time. There’s just no objective evidence for that, and it’s such a cartoony, simplistic way to imagine the past that I feel embarrassed for him every time he utters it – he’s just so committed to believing in the Bible that he will ignore any evidence against it.

Before watching this debate, I heard rumors that Krauss dominated. I don’t think that’s the case (I actually think he did better in Brisbane), but I do think he was effective in showing uncertainty as a very real issue in cosmology and history, and thus demonstrated the inherent problems with Craig’s overly simplistic syllogisms.

Krauss seemed at times tired and more than frustrated at having to engage with a man who is so unlikely to ever change his views. As LK pointed out several times, Craig “assumes the answer before even asking the question,” and I can’t think of anything more opposed to reason than that.



  1. Hi

    As one who is exploring this area of God vs Atheisim and Sceince, I think your review is all too typical of both pro-theists and atheists is all too typical – despite some superficial critiques of Krauss. Basically, whoever represents your point of view won, perhaps a few minor critiques to provide a facade of “objectivity.” Often there are varying degrees of Ad hominem attacks added in. I see this on both sides. All too often, the main argument on both sides seems to be be your stupid, dishonest, close minded or fanatical if you don’t agree with my point of view.

    I am in the process of doing something unusual, I am actually devoting time to studying and evaluating the merits of the two sides of the argument before reaching a decision. I have been reading books on these subjects and have watched You Tube debates and books on the subject.

    One thing I can say is that Krauss tends to damage the atheist (although I think perhaps he is an agnostic who is close to being an atheistic because he believes the theist perspective lacks credible evidence) However, his tendency to constantly interrupt and overtalk his opponent, take more of the time, make his arguments largely uninterrupted while disrupting his opponents, snide remarks, verbal, overaggressive bullying greatly interrupts the process of understanding and evaluating the merits of both his and his opponent’s position. If I only get to hear 5 minutes of Krauses agruments, try to filter out a couple of snide and irrelevant shots at his opponents that detract from the points Kraus is trying to make and then, when his opponet has his five minutes to respond, I have to listen to Krauss interrupt him twice and take two of his opponents five minutes time for responding to Krauss, I really don’t learn anything about either position.

    To use an atheism free example, suppose I was asked to read and evaluate two 30 page papers and then write a paper on my position in a time limited period of say 4 hours.. One is on the The Ekpyrotic Cyclic model of Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turock. The other is a critique of their paper by Krauss. I get to read all 30 pages of the Krauss paper without interuptioin. Then, when I turn to read the Steinhardt/Turock paper, Krauss comes into the room, starts interupting my reading with by his interjecting his critiques of their work and then tears out the last 10 pages of their paper and walks off with them. How would this be a valid or fair intellectual or scientific learning exercise? It’s ironic that Kraus doesn’t like moderated discusssions of formal debates because he wants to have civilized one on one dialouges and conversations between two opponents? Yet he himself has stated on Youtube his is one of he most obnoxious.

    Here is a suggestion for both sides. Stick to the merits of the arguments and refrain from character and personallity issues. I don’t care whether or not Krauss or Craig is an ass, liar, fanatic or conman. I want to learn and evaluate their arguments. But when debates become personal it is at the expense of the substance of both sides.. Ironically, I recently viewed a strucured, classical debate in which Krauss participated. The format did not allow for interruptiions and the atmosphere was distincly hostile to personal and snide attacks. In this format, I was actually able to learn something about Krauss viewpoints instead of having to endure a scientific Jerry Springer show.

    For my part, I am through reading these debate reviews on either side of the the arguments.. I’ll rely now primary on books and debates held under formal rules. Too bad, because I think good reviews have been helpful in other areas of science I have been looking at. But the atheist/god debate reviews on simply reading about how the person I agree with won.

  2. Good attempt at a review! I am a believing Christian who is going through the process of putting his beliefs to the test in order to establish if they are actually reasonable or simply the output of social conditioning and fanciful notions of a higher power. It is, in fact, a far more difficult area of research than people on either side of the divide would think. In some areas atheism seems more tenable, in others theism.

    Just on the point of Craig’s expertise:

    1) He’s not an expert in physics, although as Aron Wall put it after Craig’s 2014 debate with Sean Carroll : “William Lane Craig is a skilled debater who has done his best to keep abreast of Modern Cosmology. This is commendable, but it was inevitable that his depth of knowledge in Cosmology was not as great as Carroll, who works on this subject professionally. And often it showed. That is why Craig had to rely mainly on a lot of quotes from famous physicists such as Alex Vilenkin—and sometimes this backfired, as in the case of Alan Guth, who apparently believes that the universe is eternal.”.

    Personally I think Craig should leave the physics to the physicists. His only real argument is that it seems counter-intuitive to argue that the universe doesn’t need a cause (as Sean Carroll put it), but being intuitive is no measure of accuracy as the difficulty for victorians to accept evolution shows.

    2) He is a lot better on ancient history. He has a PhD from Munich University where he researched the historical evidence for the resurrection. So he has to understand the methodology, if not the content, of ancient history and he often writes and debates on the subject. The German intellectual milieux are not known for their sympathy to miraculous events, so it is unlikely that his thesis was passed on the basis that it made for good apologetics.

    Craig is a true believer, and more than a minor intellectual, but he has the hallmarks of someone who just cannot accept the validity of any argument that contradicts his perspective. Although this may be because he is a competitive debater who wants to win, and that may be the context in which most people encounter him, overall I think this is to his detriment. However he is a superb debater, and I think that is what makes him appealing to theists. If you listen to a WLC debate you usually end up with the warm fuzzy feeling of “your guy” winning the debate. Unless it’s the Sean Carroll debate. He lost that one, and that is why I am on this little journey of belief.

    In terms of bias, Alvin Plantinga is better. He is a major intellectual, and on several occasions I have seen him attack theistic arguments which he could support for sectarian reasons. His arguments for God are also much more grounded in reality and of a higher quality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s