My Debate with Dr. Frank Turek

Last night I had the privilege of debating the question, “What Best Explains Reality? Naturalism or Theism?”, at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas before an estimated crowd of approximately 900 people. Although the breakdown of Christians and atheists was probably 898:2, I truly felt like the audience was respectful. In fact, after the debate, several Christians came up to me and said some version of, “I think you were very brave to defend atheism in Topeka.” I explained that I didn’t feel brave because everyone in Kansas had shown me such great hospitality.

Neither Dr. Turek nor I cared who spoke first, so, by the flip of a coin, it was determined that I would go first. The format was as follows:

  • Lowder’s Opening Statement (20 minutes)
  • Turek’s Opening Statement (20 minutes)
  • Lowder’s Rebuttal (10 minutes)
  • Turek’s Rebuttal (10 minutes)
  • Lowder’s Cross-Examination of Turek (10 minutes)
  • Turek’s Cross-Examination of Lowder (10 minutes)
  • Audience Q&A (15? minutes)
  • Lowder’s Closing Statement (5 minutes)
  • Turek’s Closing Statement (5 minutes)

I’m guessing a video of the debate will be available on YouTube in a couple of weeks; I’ll make an announcement once it is available. In the meantime, since I do not have the benefit of the video recording as I write this, going from memory here’s how I think I did.

(Note: This paragraph was added a few hours after the original publication of my post.) I hold all debaters to a high standard. I have been very critical of other debaters in the past. I hold myself to the same or an even higher standard. I may change my assessment below after I’ve had the opportunity to watch a video of the debate.

Opening Statement

Content and Slides: A

I defended three contentions:

  1. The best explanation is the explanation with the overall greatest balance of intrinsic probability and accuracy;
  2. Naturalism is an intrinsically more probable explanation than theism; and
  3. Naturalism is a more accurate explanation than theism.

In support of my third contention, I argued that naturalism better predicts 7 lines of evidence than theism:

3.1. Physical “Stuff”

3.2. Success of science (without appealing to supernatural agency)

3.3. Biological evolution

3.4. Pain and Pleasure

3.5. Mind-Brain Dependence

3.6. Empathy and Apathy (including the neurological basis for some moral handicaps)

3.7. Nonresistant Nonbelief

Delivery: C (or possibly even worse)

I had rehearsed my opening statement several times; it was supposed to take me 19 minutes and 53 seconds to finish it. Instead, to my horror, I finished the opening statement in just under 17 minutes. Apparently my adrenaline had gotten the better of me and I spoke too fast.


Content: A

In his opening statement, Dr. Turek’s basically summarized the major points of his latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make their Case. The major points are summed up in the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science).

I was expecting this, so I answered with an acrostic of my own VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). I introduced the acrostic this way:

Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIMs (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Morality, Science). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.

Delivery: C+ or B-

Having spoken too fast in my opening statement, I think I may have overcompensated during my rebuttal and spoken too slow. I didn’t get to my response to the “S” in CRIMES (for science) in my speech before I ran out of time. In other words, I “dropped” an argument. I know better than this.

My Cross-Examination of Dr. Turek

Content: B?

I had a strategy, a pre-written list of questions, and even corresponding visual aids (more PowerPoint slides).

The first half of my questions was designed to get Dr. Turek to agree with the inductive Rule of Total Evidence, which says that the premises of inductive argument need to embody the total relevant evidence. Imagine I have a jar with three slots (one slot for red, blue, and yellow jellybeans) and the total number of jellybeans in all three slots is 100. If I reach in and pull out one, two, or even three blue jellyeans out of the blue slot, but you can’t see how many jellybeans total are in each slot, you don’t yet have enough information to say that the jar has mostly blue jellybeans.

The second half of my questions was designed to expose the fact that his book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, is fatally flawed because it violates the Rule of Total Evidence. I showed Frank Turek screenshot after screenshot of my bibliography of arguments for atheism as defended by actual atheists. Each time, I asked him if he had anywhere addressed any of the arguments for atheism (or naturalism). Each time he said no.

Delivery: ?

I’m not sure how I would rate my delivery here. When I did cross-examination debate and mock trial in high school, I was trained to avoid trying to ask “gotcha” questions, and so I did. But I think I overcompensated by being too subtle. Three different people who attended the debate asked me the purpose of my questioning. I should have begun my opening statement with the “results” of my cross-examination: Dr. Turek admits that three blue jellybeans isn’t enough data to say the jar has mostly blue jellybeans, but his book makes precisely that mistake. He can argue (in his book) that that God’s existence is established beyond a reasonable doubt only by ignoring the facts which naturalists argue are evidence against theism. In effect, in his book, Dr. Turek pulled three blue jellybeans out of the blue slot (for theism) without ever pulling jellybeans out of the red slot (for naturalism). So his book doesn’t come close to establishing that our universe is best explained by theism, much less than the conclusion that it establishes theism “beyond reasonable doubt.” I think this should create some cognitive dissonance with Dr. Turek’s fans, who probably had no clue about the wealth of atheistic scholarship.

Dr. Turek’s Cross-Examination of Me

Content and Delivery: C?

From memory:

One of his questions was essentially a version of the argument from reason. He wanted to argue that, if naturalism is true, there is no reason to trust our reasoning ability, so one has to borrow from from God to argue for naturalism (and against God). Part of his supporting argument was that, if naturalism is true, we’re just “moist robots” who are the result of blind, impersonal process. In my response, I pointed out that he is confusing the origin of a cognitive mechanism with its accuracy. Just as (on naturalism) our eyes are the result of unguided evolution and yet almost all humans have sight which is generally reliable, so too (on naturalism) our brains are the result of evolution and there is clear survival value in having generally reliable cognitive mechanisms. If I remember correctly, he also tried to link reason to the determinism vs. free will debate. I responded by arguing that debate is completely irrelevant: whether I am a “moist robot” whose beliefs are pre-determined or I am a being with free will has precisely nothing to do with whether or not my beliefs are accurate. Indeed, if we are “moist robots” that would seem to be an argument for the strength, not weakness, of reasoning abilities on naturalism, since robots, computers, and calculators, generally do things correctly.

His other major line of questioning had to do with morality. He presented me with the horrific story of a woman who had been repeatedly molested as a child. He asked some version of, “If there is no God, why is that wrong?” I first clarified whether he was asking from the perspective of metaethics (i.e., moral ontology) or normative ethics (e.g., utilitarianism, deontological ethics, etc.). He said he was interested in moral ontology. I said I could give two answers, since I am torn between the moral anti-reductionism of Erik Wielenberg and the naturalistic moral reductionism of Larry Arnhart. On Arnhart’s view, the good is the desirable and so what constitutes goodness or badness is determined by how well it satisfies universal human desires.

At this point, I think the cross-examination broke down, at least in content if not also in decorum. As even some of the Christians told me after the debate, they thought Dr. Turek started to mock Arnhart’s Aristotelian ethical naturalism.  I think he asked me something along the lines of, “Why human flourishing and not cockroach flourishing?” With all due respect to Dr. Turek, I didn’t get the impression he was very familiar–if familiar at all–with Arnhart’s book. I will have to write a separate blog post about that once I have a copy of the debate video. With all due respect to myself, I don’t think I had a good “soundbite” answer. I think I may have rambled in my explanation and I think that is why he kept repeatedly interrupting me. Because I was in Topeka, Kansas and because I am very much aware of the ‘angry atheist’ stereotype, I did not interrupt him. But I should have been much more concise and I should have made this point: “Arnhart’s view is partially an updated version of Aristotle’s view. Aristotle’s view is not an anti-God approach to ethics; in fact, it forms the basis of natural law theory, which (I think) is pretty much the ethical theory of the Catholic church. So it’s not just atheists like myself who say that moral value doesn’t depend on God; Aquinas and (I think) the Catholic church say pretty much the same thing.”

And I never got to mention during the CX period the other major option, what I call “moral anti-reductionism,” as defended today by Erik Wielenberg and as goes all the way back to Plato.

Morality is such a complex topic that it really cries out for a dedicated debate of its own.

Audience Q&A

I don’t have much to say here, other than there were no “gotcha” questions and I think I did well.

Closing Statement

Content and Slides: A

I began by reviewing my three contentions. I pointed out that Dr. Turek never disputed my first or second contentions and instead focused on my third contention. Even there, he did not address all of my arguments.  He never said anything about my arguments from physicality or empathy and apathy (including the neurological basis of moral handicaps). I next refuted the “S” in his acrostic CRIMES, which represents the claim that science depends on God.

Delivery: C?

I prepared hard for this debate. In fact, I may have over-prepared. I had so much material that I was struggling to jump around from PowerPoint slide to PowerPoint slide in my closing statement, so that I would address only the points raised by Dr. Turek, but do so within the allotted time limits. (I mention this not as an excuse, but as an explanation.) I need to come up with a better system for my next debate. Even if that had not been a factor, however, I still would not have had enough time and I still would have dropped arguments.

On a positive note, all of the basic points from my earlier speeches were intact (e.g., positing God assumes, not explains, most of the things in the CRIMES and VICTIM acrostics; by itself theism doesn’t predict a lot of the data he says it does; all six of my objections to his ‘fine-tuning’ argument; etc.).