– Photo by CEE

Bwog Theism Bureau Chief James Downie grabbed a stiff plastic chair in Roone Arledge for the first Veritas Forum event. The second event will be tonight at 8:00 PM in Miller Theater.  The third event, which includes Matisyahu, will take place tomorrow at 7:00 PM in Miller Theater. 

The evening began on an odd note, after the moderator, Professor David Eisenbach, remembered that he had a new television show coming out. Called “Beltway Unbuckled,” and appearing on the History Channel in March, Eisenbach asked the attendees to watch the pilot,  promising that “you’ll never look at Abraham Lincoln the same way again.” The audience groaned at the image.

The evening’s question was “Is God Necessary for Morality?” and the first speaker, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, argued no. Kagan instead posited that a self-sufficient morality can be constructed from basic rational desires, such as helping rather than harming others. As to why the belief that evil is wrong is so strong, and where that strength comes from, he admitted that atheist philosophers disagree on answers. Some believe in social contracts between people, others suppose a veil of ignorance, but, more importantly, there is some rational basis under all of it – “the rules of morality are an objective fact, what philosophers refer to as categorical.” Contemporary Civ references would only increase as the night went on.

His opponent, Talbot School of Theology professor William Lane Craig, then took the floor, and began by defining morality: “if by morality you mean certain patterns of action, then no, but if you mean certain things are truly good and certain things are truly bad, then many atheists and theists agree that God is necessary.” Craig argued that without God, then neither objective moral values, moral duties, nor moral accountability exist. Without God, there is no basis for objective values, and humans in fact have no moral worth.

Morality under the atheist view, according to Craig, has only biological worth, and is effectively an illusion, “jerks of sensory perceptions, nothing truly moral. “If life ends at the grave,” he declared, “then it makes no difference whether you live as a Stalin or as a Mother Teresa. There is no objective reason why man should do anything, save for the pleasure it affords him.” One almost expected Epicurus to come out shouting, “SEE! I WAS RIGHT!”

The Q&A session broke down into two parts: the debaters asking each other questions, and audience questions read out by Eisenbach.  Craig asked Kagan: what fundamentally separates human morality from animal morality if there is no larger, God-fueled significance. Kagan replied that “it’s becuase we can appreciate and reflect upon the reasons why it’s harming people,” but Craig suggested that that meaning is self-created, and has no substantive value. Kagan, for his part, took issue with Craig’s equation of ethics being illusory with deeper meaning being illusory. Craig said that, “on a naturalistic view, everything is destined to destruction, and in light of that end, it’s hard to understand how our choices have any moral significance.” But Kagan remained confused, saying “it does not matter to me whether my actions have larger significance; what matters is that they mean something to me!”

The audience questions, though, saw two interesting points of agreement: first, when asked why humans so often fail, both agreed to a basic concept of sin and human fallibility. Kagan even suggested “more moral education” as a way of improving the social contract. Second, the pair agreed that some societies are more morally advanced than others, with Kagan comparing it to some societies being more scientifically advanced than others.

But the evening concluded by once again demonstrating the debate’s fundamental circularity, with Craig repeating that the removal of God removes any substantive value to human morality, and Kagan saying that such cosmic value is not necessary, and human rationality produces a true morality on its. Like so many debates, the answers were hung on interpreting a word in the question, and in this case the interpretation seemed only justified by the debaters’ answers. Nevertheless, the 90 minutes saw a sharp, but never too heated conflict between the speakers, and the Roone audience certainly went home intellectually sated. Especially the Contemporary Civ buffs.