The Sam Harris-William Lane Craig debate: a review

You can hear the audio of the debate here. Here’s what I took away from it:

Harris is a really good speaker

How good? Good enough that, if I ever wanted to brush up on my public speaking skills, watching videos of Harris would be at the top of my to do list. Good enough to make me question whether Craig is even all that great of a debater.

With that last comment, I emphasize that I’m talking about rhetoric here, not quality of arguments. I went into the debate expecting Craig’s arguments to suck: I’ve said before that Craig doesn’t deserve to be praised as logical and rational. I’ve dissected his moral argument in detail here, and I’ve had some fun with it here. (But cf. my criticisms of Harris.) In the past, however, I’ve always thought Craig is very rhetorically effective, and often gets the rhetorical win even when his arguments suck.

[Addendum: looks like Luke is going to be more thoroughly picking apart the arguments. He also has a nice round-up of reviews.]

Seeing him against Harris made me re-think that. I still think Craig is good at beating up on weak opponents–ones who ramble and run out of time, who let him control the framing of the debate, or who just aren’t good public speakers. However, against Harris, he seemed less impressive… and realize that some people *do* find him off-putting. After, I heard an audience member (Christian, I think) complain about him being repetitious; another described him as “smarmy.”

When Craig was speaking, Harris spent a lot of time smiling and typing furiously on his Macbook, as if he were thinking of brilliant things to say in response to Craig. But when he actually got up to speak, it sounded a lot more like a carefully prepared talk than a statement in debate: lots of carefully crafted lines (many of which got a good laugh out of the audience), only a few quips quips explicitly responding to things Craig had said in his speeches.

This isn’t to say he didn’t respond to Craig: he spent a lot of time explaining and defending his moral views and critiquing Craig’s divine command theory. He just didn’t make a big deal of saying “hey, I’m responding to Craig now.” He just didn’t go for a tedious point-by-point, which was probably the right move.

Harris did stray off topic quite a bit at times, with things like the problem of evil, Hell, and a couple jabs at the Catholic church. I have mixed feelings about this. He had worthwhile things to say that some audience members might not have heard otherwise. He said them without rambling or running out of time. On the other hand, some people were annoyed that Harris went off topic so much, so probably there are better ways Harris could have used his time–but also much worse ways.

[I now believe most of what I said in this paragraph to be false, see here.]

Not taking Craig too seriously

In particular, Craig spent a lot of time attacking Harris for not believing in free will, and at one point accused Harris of hiding an admission that he doesn’t believe in moral responsibility in his endnotes. Craig quoted Harris as saying that moral responsibility is a “social construct,” and that “In neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible for any other for the actions they perform” (actually a quote from Michael Gazzaniga, though one Harris says he agreed with).

This was misleading, since Harris was saying that moral responsibility applies to “people and not to brains,” and that “it is a social construct that can make more or less sense given facts about a person’s brain.” Worse, it was obviously irrelevant to the God and morality question, but Craig pretended he was saying something about atheism, at one point calling it his most important objection to Harris. Then he complained lots when Harris went off-topic.

The difference between what Harris did and what Craig did was made clear to me in the post-debate discussion when someone, defending Craig, said that at least Craig faked being on topic. But it’s that very fakery that offends me so much. It tends to confirms my suspicions that he really doesn’t care if his arguments are any good. It’s just what he can get away with saying.

I did want to raise the hypocrisy issue in the Q&A, but made the mistake of letting a bunch of people cut me in line, so I didn’t get to. And maybe Harris should have pointed out the hypocrisy briefly. But I don’t think going over the above in tedious detail would have done him any good. It would have been taking Craig way more seriously than Craig deserves.

The debate underlined a lot of things about Craig

In addition to the issue of Craig’s hypocrisy over relevance, there was a revealing exchange at the end of the Q&A:

Harris: This is the kind of morality that you get out of divine command theory that, again, offers no retort to the Jihadist other than, “Sorry buster, you happen to have the wrong god.”
Craig: But that’s exactly your retort, Sam, that God has not issued such a command, and therefore, you’re not morally obligated to do it.
Harris: No, if God did, he would be evil. So I can get behind that God, if God is issuing that command, he’s an evil bastard.
Craig: The problem is that you see, on atheism, you don’t have any basis for making that kind of moral judgment.
Harris: I’ve tried to give you a basis, sorry.
Cue laughter and MASSIVE applause from the audience.

This is a great example of why I find Craig obnoxious: he tries to interpret his opponents views in whatever way he thinks is convenient for him, and when cornered, changes the subject and repeats old talking points as if his opponents’ rebuttals never happened. It also makes clear why Craig’s moral views are so indefensible: all he can say about Al Qaeda and the Taliban is that they’re mistaken about what God commands.

After the debate, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the audience reaction. Did they laugh because they thought Harris got Craig, or were they just laughing at the “no you don’t, yes I did” character of the exchange? But re-listening to the debate and hearing how much applause Harris got, I think a good chunk of the audience got what happened. And if I ever had to debate Craig on the existence of God or morality, I’d certainly bring up his admission about what his views entail re: Jihadists.

I tend to think Harris should have said these things sooner. When something happens this late, Craig (or whoever’s) supporters can tell themselves, “nah, that’s not what he really meant.” Better to have hammered it over several rounds. Still, great work on Harris’ part.

Craig’s internet fanboys need to be taken with a grain of salt

If you take a look at Craig’s Facebook pages, you’ll see a bunch of people congratulating him on his performance, saying “Sam Harris got creamed!” stuff like that. I confess that if I hadn’t been there, I might have concluded from that that Craig had won on rhetoric, if not substance. But when I went around talking to people after the debate, no one was saying anyone creamed anyone. (And to be clear: I wouldn’t say Harris creamed Craig, just that he got across some strong points.)

The lesson here is that the reactions of Craig’s fanboys aren’t any indicator of general audience reactions. In the future, atheists need to not assume Craig was even *rhetorically* effective based on what a few people say online. If you look at the comment thread on the “Sam Harris got creamed” comment, you see one guy (“Alex”) chiming in to say he thought it was a draw–and here’s here’s one of the responses:

Well the fact that Alex is still an atheist (rather than a more reasonable agnostic at the very least) after allegedly watching every Dr. Craig debate with diligence, says something in itself. If such an extensive bombardment of sound logic… and clearly argued syllogisms are not enough to sway one’s stance in favour of the truth which they all point towards, then clearly either a presuppositional antipathy towards theism is at play, or otherwise an intellectual deficiency in cumulative reasoning – being unable to, or refusing to draw an OBVIOUS conclusion about reality even when you’ve got all the resources and compelling reasons in front of you to do so.

[I'm taking the liberty of inserting a paragraph break here--Hallq.]

I mean we saw last night how objective morality doesn’t exist without God – so why choose to believe that God DOES NOT exist? It’s self-defeating on every front. It would be a great prospect in humanitarian terms/ends to see people begin to use their minds and actually reason with common sense. Choosing atheism in these modern times should be considered intellectually detestable by any person who values reason and moral living – why it seems the other way around is beyond me!! Clearly a vast number of people are just plain stupid! :O

These are not rational people.

Craig is petty

I don’t have a lot to say about this, but it strikes me as incredibly petty for Craig to need to attack not only his opponents, but his opponents’ supporters. And two relevant observations:

(1) I’ve managed to verify that tickets were given out to students for free before being sold to the general public. This guarantees most of the audience was in fact Notre Dame students, and makes the idea of an outside group trying to “pack” the debate ludicrous.

(2) The idea that Notre Dame students wouldn’t have asked such bad questions is silly. I’ve TA’d for Notre Dame undergrads, and while many of them are fairly bright, they’re still undergrads. Of course they’ll ask things that won’t seem “high quality” from the point of view of someone with years of philosophical training.

A final thought

These debates are a lot of fun for debate nerds, but I think we debate nerds have blown the importance of “winning” them all out of proportion. In the long run, Craig does not matter–among other things, much of his shtick is playing to the prejudices people walk into the auditorium with. He’s half-admitted this, saying that he thinks his moral argument works because people have been “indoctrinated” to believe its premises.

One of the great things Harris did in his opening speech was to start off talking, not about Craig’s arguments, but about all the e-mails he gets from believers around the world, and to say that he sympathizes with some of their concerns and is going to address them. Harris has been going around doing that all over the place, and not just in debates with the likes of Craig. And I think doing *that* is what matters in the long run.

Leave a comment


  1. I wonder why these apologists make such a big deal about WLC “winning” debates. It reminds me of whn Bart Ehrman appeared on the Colbert Report- and every apologist website made a big deal about Stephen Colbert undermining Bart Ehrman. These apologists are so irritating.

  2. “to say that he sympathizes with some of their concerns and is going to address them. Harris has been going around doing that all over the place, and not just in debates with the likes of Craig. And I think doing *that* is what matters in the long run.”


    “Not taking Craig to seriously”

    It’s “too”, but we won’t take your grammar too seriously either. :)

    “He’s half-admitted this, saying that he thinks his moral argument works because people have been “indoctrinated” to believe its premises.”

    I’d like the link to that quote, plz.


  3. Chris Hallquist

    @Ben: Ooops, fixed it. And the “indoctrinated” quote is from p. 194 of the latest edition of Reasonable Faith (more here.)

  4. Lot of personal attacks on Craig, Chris.

    That is not exactly “argument” whether it comes from a theist OR an atheist.

    And your little asides about supposed remarks by audience members are simply “anecdotal evidence”…atheists all tell me anecdotal evidence is not evidence.

    But seriously, Harris sounded good because he was reproducing prepared remarks…and that is why you don’t find a lot of responses to Craig.

    Look at his rebuttal…he gave up on defending his contention that science provides a basis for morality (and since scientific views change, that means his moral views will have to change…hence his claim to objective morality can not depend on science!) and simply went into a rant against Christianity.

    But if was loads of fun.

  5. Personal attacks on Craig? Yup, and I’m not ashamed of it. When a public figure behaves the way Craig does, that behavior deserves criticism.

    (Note: part of the reason “personal attacks” have a bad name is because they’re sometimes used in place of arguments, to suggest that if someone behaves badly, they must be wrong. But I never suggested that about Craig.)

  6. Personal attacks are simply sophomoric attempts to distract away from the the evidence. Attack away Mr Hallquist. There still is more evidence and probability for the existence of a personal God behind the Universe, that has established Moral Truth regardless of whether you like it or not.

  7. Sophomoric attempts to distract? As long as the arguments are addressed, I don’t see the problem with calling someone out on their bullshit. To use the more obvious example, no one takes Hitler’s racial theories and dissects them whenever he is spoken of, we simply recognize him as a bastard and move on. That’s ok, because it’s true, and we know he is wrong (and no, I am not comparing WLC to Hitler).

    For the record, Craig has issued rather vitriolic statements against Sam Harris and atheists in general, quoting from a Charlotte Allen article. According to you, he is making a “sophomoric attempt to distract away from the evidence.” :roll:

  8. (and since scientific views change, that means his moral views will have to change…hence his claim to objective morality can not depend on science!)

    Scientific views change when the tools get better and bring the conclusions and facts closer to the truth. Yes, theories are discarded when they no longer describe the evidence, and their replacement theories better describe the evidence.

    I am not sure where any other source of objective morality could come from (if indeed there ever is an objective morality when it is actually created by living beings as a process rather than as a natural fixed law.)

  9. @Eric,

    Hey! You called me sophomoric! And accused me of trying to distract away from the evidence! Isn’t that proof that you are sophomoric and trying to distract attention away from the evidence?

    No. You are, however, wrong, but for other reasons. As I’m sure you agree, given your comments about me, calling out bad behavior by debaters is valuable. It gives people a reason not to behave badly. It helps people who are new to the issues learn to spot similar bad behavior. It helps people figure out who is and who isn’t to be trusted with factual claims.

    If you actually care about debating arguments, go to my old articles about Craig and defend his arguments there. Or respond to my points here about the irrelevance of Sam Harris’ views on free will. Or tell me why Craig is right to say that the only thing wrong with the Taliban is that they’re mistaken about God’s commands. I’d perfectly happy to engage with you.

  10. Nice article. I watched the debate on YouTube…or maybe it was on Sam Harris’ website, but I came to the same conclusion as you, and assumed everybody else did in the audience when Dr. Harris very calmly stated he’d tried to give WLC a basis…and he had. I don’t think Dr. Harris was as strong in driving home some of his points as I’ve seen him in the past, but in relation to WLC, he definitely had much better developed arguments and was much more professional.

  11. A specific example of how science can not provide a basis for “objective morality”…we now know that Roe v Wade was based on a faulty view of when the fetus could feel pain, which was a key argument of Justice Blackmun.

    So to all those fetueses whe died in agony…sorry boys and girls!

    Where is the “objective morality” provided by “Science” in that one? :twisted:

  12. I certainly agree that Harris TRIED to give a basis.

    And thats the key word…TRIED.

  13. JD wrote: (and since scientific views change, that means his moral views will have to change…hence his claim to objective morality can not depend on science!)

    That’s an interesting theory! If that is a valid test for whether a moral theory can be objective, what happens to religion as a source for objective morality? Whether religious views have ever changed is an empirical question that has already been answered.

  14. Indeed it has.

    And it has been answered for Science as well.

    Ergo, the claim of Harris that Science provides a basis for Objective Morality is false.

  15. Chris Hallquist


    I think Craig would say here that you’re confusing moral ontology with moral epistemology. :)

    In all seriousness, history is about objective facts in the sense of “things that don’t change just because people’s beliefs, attitudes, etc.” If historians discover a document that makes them realize that what they had previously thought about some historical episode is wrong, and it happened differently than they thought, they’re learning a new historical fact. It isn’t that the historical fact changed. Nor does the fact that historians changed their mind about something mean it is impossible to know anything about history.

    This proves it is possible for a discipline to uncover objective facts, even though practitioners of that discipline sometimes change their mind.

    Certainly it would be nice to have a source of knowledge about the world that is never, ever wrong. But there are strong reasons to think we don’t have any such thing. In the real world, the people who refuse to admit they’re ever wrong tend to be the ones who are wrong a lot.

    (See also this post in Luke’s “Reading Yudkowsky” series.)

  16. Eric Ness April 13, 2011 at 12:07 am
    …There still is more evidence and probability for the existence of a personal God behind the Universe, that has established Moral Truth regardless of whether you like it or not.

    N: Unsubstantiated and frankly silly rhetoric. Humans *evolved* into their present state about 40,000 years ago, most broadly and realistically around no more than 1,000,000 years ago, transitioning from ape-like precursors. There just were NO “personal” agents in the universe before that.
    Moreover “God” hasn’t been defined or explicated by Ness or anyone else. He doesn’t know what it IS. Of what material(s) it is composed. Where to find it. His “personal” God is a delusion and a projection of his own personality onto his child-like sky-man.

  17. Chris, thanks for the write-up. Craig has always irked me, his premises seem assumptive, and he has a smarmy demeanor. Recently I commented on one of the youtube videos of his debate with Krauss, asking how one derives morals from a book that contains rules regulating the ownership and abuse of other human beings, citing chapter and verse.

    A few videos down the play list I tried to comment again and had been blocked. My first comment may have been rudely worded (I was angry), but I’m sure it was clean language. So instead I sent a private message asking why I was blocked (and why the first comment was apparently deleted), and I never got a response. It is that kind of deceit that really concerns me among those who claim superiority of their morality.

    JD, science converges on the truth by bounding phenomena with data. As Asimov put it, “…when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

    Now concerning your objection that science cannot provide a moral basis, must it? I presume you (and Craig) would agree an objective morality is desirable (as most people appear to), and you would probably claim that in the absence of a magic man in the sky, an objective morality cannot exist–but if in fact we are alone, why is our collective desire to have an ‘objective’ morality insufficient reason? (I suppose I’m asking what is wrong with fiat morality.)

  18. You know, I think this debate is a lot like other debates: people think the winner is the one they already agree with.

    I personally think Craig won; I especially side with his modal attack on defining morality. But I came into the debate already disagreeing with reducing ethical properties to natural properties due to G.E. Moore’s open question argument, Hume’s attack on morality and the like. I didn’t see any really compelling argument against these from Harris. I’m not sure Harris is aware that there is a well-known problem with identifying moral properties with natural ones; perhaps he hasn’t read any of the relevant literature in philosophy. Perhaps he doesn’t think he needs to — he’s a scientist, after all.

    Harris’s Bible-bashing replies sound just as tired to a theist as Craig’s arguments do to atheists. I’ve heard them a million times.

    I don’t know why atheists complain about Craig’s main theses so much; Does Craig have to defend the Bible against Harris’ attacks to defend divine command theory? Does divine command theory stand or fall on the Bible? Was the topic announced for the debate one about Christianity? I’m a Christian myself, but I doubt a lot of things in the Bible. I think Craig’s opening theses are right on track, given the topic of the debate. If Harris wanted to debate how silly the Bible is, he should have said so, rather than engage in his loooong red herring.

    You know, I used to think that atheists are more intelligent and intellectually formidable than theists, and more objective. My mind is changing on that.

    I’m also a theist.

  19. Edit: “modal attack on defining morality” should read “modal attack on defining morality in terms of well-being of sentient creatures”.

  20. believeordoubt, how do one decide which biblical statements to include in their ethics? You probably like the golden rule and some or all of the common 10 commandments, but not Exodus 21:7 and 21:20-21, right?

  21. Actually, Harris started out talking about the emails he got from skeptics all over the world telling him not to “blow it” in his debate with Craig. Are you sure you were there?

  22. Yes, I know I made this post on another thread. So don’t kick me off or anything. I just wan’t to make sure you read this.


    [Editor: please do not post off topic comments in multiple threads. Something like what you posted here probably would have worked better as an e-mail to me. Doing it as a comment is OK, but really, one itteration of the comment is enough for me to see it.]

  23. Sorry about that- I didn’t think of emailing :( Anyways, thanks for the patience.
    If you are still interested in responding via email- my email address is

  24. Gatogreensleeves

    Not enough people are talking about the fact that Craig often does not argue for the god or tenets of Christianity in particular, and yet Christian theists act as if Craig has somehow vindicated them. In this debate, Craig argued (as Randy Everist conceded on his blog) for Perfect Being Theory. Unless you are willing to allow the epistemological questions in to talk about what kind of good this god represents (and whether it is actually incoherent), we are NOT talking about Christianity at all. In the Kagan debate, Craig didn’t argue for Christian morality, but an abstracted perfect morality beyond epistemology as well. I would just like to see theists be less disingenuous about these facts. If it’s not really relevant, but just a game, the implications apply commensurately.

  25. Gatogreensleeves: It goes the other way too. Often people point out (for example) the conclusion Craig comes to in the KCA is “Therefore, the universe had a cause,” but what he is REALLY concluding is “Therefore, Christianity is true.” When atheists point out the absurdity of this, theists often say “No, he is just arguing for a general framework.” Never mind that Craig says (paraphrase) “The cause of the universe must be a causeless, timeless, personal being of immense power.” Oh, how convenient.

  26. @JD “he gave up on defending his contention that science provides a basis for morality (and since scientific views change, that means his moral views will have to change…hence his claim to objective morality can not depend on science!)”

    You’re equivocating here, probably because you don’t understand what Harris is saying. Harris means using the scientific method as a basis. You’re talking about scientific theories.

  27. A had a thought here. And thought of a comparison.

    If all people alive agreed on a certain moral proposition then you would indeed have objective moral values on that proposiiton. Say that every erson alive agreed that killing is wrong.

    However, it seems Craig throws that aside as just personal opinions and not objective, simply personal opinion and not something true. For it to be true it would have to be commanded. And how can you command somebody who is your equal? You need to have more power to be able to command somebody, or you will only suggest him to act differently.

    So, in Craig’s view, morals simply MUST be commanded to even be morals, or they will only be opinions that are commonplace, and human opinions on morals are pointless according to him (I stand by this, I think it is what he says).

    Imagine an enclosed room with children in it. They may be good to each other and cooperate. They may act badly and treat each other badly, attack each other and abuse each other. Of course we know what is right and wrong, but since nobody tells them what to do, there are no RULES.

    RULES must be set, and enforced by something with more power than those who abide by the rules. Now you may say “but what about rules in a democratic community without leaders, when you agree on not raping each other and punishes those who do?”. Well, then the community in agreement has more power than the individual and he has to live by its rules. You are back to personal opinions.

    Craig debates his views effectively, maybe as effectively as one can debate such views in an environment that allows logic and evidence. But you can only do so much. He is of the opinion that moral values must be RULES, or they are not moral values at all. This has to be true for him to be right, and for it to be true, there has to be a more powerful being that humans are ineferior to, who has the ability to punish and reward. If that is not true, his argument falls. So however you twist it, you are back to having to believe in a storybook character that not more likely to exist than Thor or the thetans scientologist’s speak of.

    “Without God there is no sound foundation for moral values and duties!”

    For that to be true it must be true that morals must be rules.

    I will leave it at that. But if you need rules, they must be rules and not anything else. Firm, rock-hard rules. “Thou shalt not kill”. What about killing John Wayne Gacy before he was about to kill many innocent people? Would you be immoral then or would the rule have to *INTERPRETED* differently?

    And there you are left with subjective discussions leading to more or less objective consensus, and we ALL know, even theists, that that is the way to go in determining what is moral. After all, if the bible is true, why do they discuss it?

  28. Instead of sticking to the topic, Sam Harris went into specifics of Christian God, Islamic scripture etc. The topic of discussion is about the need for a notion of God who is perfect (who that God is, whether any of the religion represents such a God correctly etc is a different debate). Sam Harris should argue whether the notion of a perfect God is needed for objective morality or or not. Or agree that such a notion helps, but argue that such a perfect God does not exist. Or present a case why there is a better way for objective morality than a notion of a perfect God. Instead he makes assumptions of various specific beliefs (wrong assumptions and misundesrstandings mostly) and then attacks those specifics of belief. One would expect at least staying on the topic in a debate at this level.

  29. “The topic of discussion is about the need for a notion of God who is perfect.”

    Not true. The official debate topic said nothing about a perfect God. “Perfect being” is a popular definition of “God,” but not the only one, or the one that is most obviously relevant to the average audience member of a debate like that one.

  30. Wow. Such an emotional/irrational response. I guess this is what you get when Craig continues to embarrass atheist debate after debate. I’d encourage you to actually focus on the arguments, and better still, just read a transcript next time.

  31. I’m a theist, and I’m man enough to admit that Craig lost the debate.

    When Harris focused his attention on Craig’s religion, he was just cutting through the “bull”. Craig’s divine command theory is his premise for his Christianity, and the fact that Craig himself said “I’m not defending the Bible today” is proof that Craig can not do so.

    Instead, Craig would rather hide behind a vague, deistic god then defend the one he actually champions. What a disappointment he is; and what a cheap debating trick!

    And, I’m a theist.