UofT Debate: Is God a Figment of Our Imagination? 
Monday, October 2, 2017 at 10:44PM

Alister McGrath (top) and Michael Shermer (below). Photos: Dhoui Chang/Wycliffe


ALMOST A THOUSAND people, 45 percent of them students, assembled in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto Sept. 15th to hear a debate on the topic: “Is God a figment of our imagination?” 

Alister McGrath, the atheist who became a theist, and Michael Shermer, the theist who became an atheist, spoke for two hours in what proved to be a quite congenial dialogue.

Dr McGrath is Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and the founding president of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He regularly debates leading atheists, including Richard Dawkins, and is presently researching the iconic role played by Charles Darwin in atheist apologetics. With doctorates from Oxford in both molecular biophysics and divinity, it is not surprising that the interaction of Christian theology and the natural sciences has been a major theme of his work. The Anglican priest is also the author of numerous books including Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith (2012).  

Dr Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He teaches Skepticism 101 at Chapman University in California and is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.


McGrath’s opening argument 

Each speaker had twenty minutes at the beginning of the debate to address the topic. McGrath concentrated on explaining that “We need both science and faith to make sense of this world. The two are not opposed.” He clarified: "It is not that religion is wrong but it can go wrong. Both science and religion can go wrong. Both can be abused."

“Human beings are very good at inventing worlds that they would like to be real. The desire comes first and the justification comes later.” He continued: “The rise of atheism in Western Europe in the later 18th century reflected the desires of many who wanted to be free of external limits or divine interference. Are we willing to confront this awkward truth about fashionable or desirable beliefs that applies as much to atheism as to Christianity? In a post-truth world we all run the risk of believing what we’d like to be true.”

As a young person McGrath thought religion was “just the pointless relic of a credulous past and atheism was the best answer.” But he discovered Christianity at Oxford and it was as though an “intellectual light had turned on.” He said, “Science and faith came together not to compete but to enrich my vision of reality. There was an explanatory capaciousness to faith that I found exhilarating and exciting.” McGrath quotes Einstein who said,” We need more than a purely rational conception of our existence if we are going to live out meaningful lives.” 

“We’re not just looking at how the universe works, which is science’s domain, but deeper questions of how we generate values and understand questions like purpose. We can only prove shallow truths. We can’t prove the things that really matter to us. So in that sense all of us live by faith. I concede that I cannot prove Christianity conclusively but it provides a cognitively and existentially satisfying explanation of our world and gives meaning to our lives. 

“Whether Christian or atheist, you believe something to be meaningful which cannot actually be proved. We have limited capacities and live in a complex world but I am not saying ‘anything goes.’ We all need to show there are good reasons for our beliefs -- whatever they are. 

“Social psychologists say we are meaning-seeking animals. Do we really matter? What is the good life and how do we lead it? All of us live by faith to some extent. We can’t prove those deeper truths. The contrast is not between irrational faith and rational facts but making judgements about making sense of our world and our lives. We all take positions of faith whether we are explicit about this or not.

“I have reasons but I concede honestly I cannot prove this: Belief in God is both cognitively and existentially satisfying. It makes sense of our world and gives meaning to our lives. I now find Christianity to offer a deeply satisfying explanation of our world while at the same time engaging the deeper human longing for meaning. We all need a way of seeing our world that is deeply satisfying rationally, morally and aesthetically..

“Faith is not running away from reality but recognizing the realistic limits placed upon us.  

”Whatever position we take lies beyond totally demonstrative proof. I’ve found Christianity to bring a new depth to my life and a new quality of engagement with the natural sciences. I believe Christianity to be trustworthy; it satisfies the deepest longing of my heart and my mind.”


Shermer’s opening argument

Shermer began by asking how many in the audience believed in God. The vast majority raised their hands.

“Atheism describes what we don’t believe. Atheists don’t believe in God. Period. We cannot prove there is no God but there is more evidence to show we constructed the idea of God than vice versa. Yes, God is a figment of our imagination. Huxley coined the term ‘agnostic.’ He meant it is not knowable [if there is a God]. An agnostic is not just waiting for one more piece of evidence. There is an absence of evidence.

“How would you even know if you encountered God? How would you ever know God was omnipotent or omniscient or omnibenevolent?

“The burden of proof on proving God lies with believers, not with skeptics to disprove God. Skeptics are withholding judgement until we see the evidence for belief. And until then it’s okay to say we don’t know. [Some] assert there’s a God because it makes [them] feel good. Okay. But what have we proven? Nothing. It’s just an assertion.” 

Shermer quoted fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens who said, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” 

Shermer defined a skeptic as a scientist asking for a convergence of quality evidence.

“Most religious claims are by internal evidence--that is personal validation. There needs to be a shift from inside my head, what is true for me, to external evidence. I would like to have external evidence where we can.

“Did Jesus really exist? Yes, probably. Was he crucified? Probably. The Romans crucified everybody. It was a violent world. He died for my sins? Different category of truth. That’s entirely internal. How would you ever prove it? The resurrection? There is a  100 billion-to-one odds that this really happened. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

“We can build a case that God was made by humans.” Shermer concluded his opening remarks by saying that anthropology, the sociology of religion and world literature all provide examples of many common creation stories, flood myths, virgin births and even resurrections.

“There is no more evidence for your [Christian] resurrection than for all the other resurrection stories.

“….All these parallels indicate our capacity as a story-telling species to create common mythic themes… not that there is external evidence for them. I beseech you, withhold judgment on the God question and be a skeptic.”


Question period

In the question-and-answer period that followed, both speakers espoused many common values such as freedom and democracy and civil liberties and human rights but McGrath held that you need a transcendental God to stabilize those values while Shermer believed you could generate such values without God.

The moderator for the debate, Karen Stiller, senior editor with Faith Today, asked both men for their view of the soul.

“The soul is who we are and is essential to our identity,” said McGrath. “We need to recognize the importance of every human being so that we don’t dehumanize or collectivise people.”   

Shermer replied that some people think every memory you have is your soul but there is no fixed set of memories. Memory is fluid. So the soul is just now. Here. This is it.  There is no soul. 

The two speakers were then asked by Stiller to discuss their views of human nature. McGrath said the view of human nature as good is “naïve. Empirical evidence goes against it. Man is capable of being good and dreadful.”

Shermer agreed. “Headlines show how bad things are but if you look at trend lines 2017 is the best year in the history of the world and 2018 will be even better. The Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation just released data that showed poverty would be ended by 2030.”

He acknowledged that the Christian view of human nature was more realistic than the liberal perspective that people are just naturally good but are corrupted by society. “We have a dark side. Christianity got that right in terms of original sin. We don’t call it that. It’s our inner demons.”

At the same time he held that “You can derive purpose, meaning, love without religion.”.

Stiller raised the issue of theodicy, the problem of evil, asking, “When disasters and tragedies strike, how do we make sense of God?”

McGrath held that two things are important. “First, what is our human response? That would show what kind of people we are. We should be involved in relief. And secondly, the key theme of the Christian narrative is redemption through suffering. The Christian God chose to suffer in order to bring about the redemption of humanity. But this doesn’t alleviate the pain or excuse us from trying to do something to prevent a similar disaster from happening in the future.

Shermer asked McGrath if God still reaches into our world in any way as he supposedly did with Old and New Testament miracles? McGrath answered that God is in some sense ”present” in this world and therefore shares in its suffering and its pain.

“What does it mean to say God is present?” Shermer asked. McGrath replied, “The Christian God is not just an utterly transcendent reality but is present with us in the world at the moment. The Christian vision is that suffering is wrong. And so Christians get involved in medicine and in alleviating suffering because they believe this is what God would want them to do.”

Shermer also inquired, “Why the whole cosmic drama? Why not go straight to heaven? Why not skip this middle section [of suffering on earth]?” He added, “When good things happens, God gets the credit, but when bad things happen, who gets the blame? Not God.”

The moderator asked for a shift of focus to Jesus, noting the Christian argument that the early disciples would not have died for something that wasn’t true.

Shermer acknowledged that in literature there is a theme of death and destruction and redemption, or sin and redemption and forgiveness: “Those are important concepts. But that is different from saying this person actually came back from the dead. Why can’t God just forgive us? God sacrifices himself to himself to save us from himself. It sounds barking mad.”

McGrath said he believes the story of Jesus Christ, while unprovable, to be historically reliable. “It is saying something very deep about not only what human nature is like but what God is like. The Christian narrative tells us about not only the will of God but also that the face of God is known [in Christ]. For me it is a very powerful and moving story. This is about the illumination of the human situation, a framework that allows us to find meaning, it’s about the inhabitation of suffering with meaning and dignity and living with hope. I know these are all non-empirical things but we are human beings who need these things. I’m not saying the need generates the reality but it does connect us with some very deep things about who we are. The Christian narrative enables us to journey though life with meaning and dignity and hope for the future even when going through times of suffering and despair.”     

Questions could be tweeted or texted from the hall or anywhere it was being live streamed. One such question asked McGrath why he chose Christianity when he was at Oxford. Why not one of the other world religions?  

McGrath replied that he didn’t choose Christianity because it was “the nearest cultural option.”

When he was an atheist McGrath thought, “What good is a God up in eternity if I’m down here in history and time?’ He has no relevance to me whatsoever in space and time. But through the Christian concept of the Incarnation, God enters into history and inhabits it. That is a game-changer. He’s not distant and disinterested but is compassionate. He knows what it is like to suffer and to go through everything history throws at us.”

Shermer said he had chosen enlightened or secular humanism--a worldview full of many beliefs both of them could share such as democracy, freedom, prosperity and human rights.

“Science tells us how we came to be here but not why,” said McGrath. “Science can’t engage in existential issues.” 

Shermer went on to distinguish between a happy life and a meaningful life. “Not all that we do is fun, like caring for elderly parents or raising young children, but we feel a better person in the long run for being involved in such stressful relationships.” McGrath agreed.  

Stiller asked them to each define good and evil.

“We need a moral framework outside ourselves, beyond us” that allows us to value individual people,” said McGrath, “otherwise we are at risk of dehumanizing and stripping others of any human value as the Nazis did.”

Shermer went beyond humans and spoke of good as “the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings"--that is, animals as well as humans. “We want to lower the suffering of sentient beings. There are some actions that are truly, objectively evil.” He quoted Lincoln: “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Then Shermer added, “If the Holocaust is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” 

Recognizing absolute evil in slavery and the Holocaust was common ground for both speakers. The difference lay in what motivated them to hold such views.


Concluding remarks

Shermer concluded that “Is there a God?” is really a “proxy question” for what we all care about: “Why are we here? What is the purpose and meaning of life? Science and reason are the only tools we have for determining what is true. And from there we can build a better society. The worldview offered by science and reason is uplifting; it’s transcendent to me.”   

“Science is wonderful,” concluded McGrath, but it doesn’t tell us why we are here. It may inform things but it doesn’t determine things. We need something more. Do we make it up or does it exist beyond us? I’m a Christian humanist. For human nature to reach its fulfillment it needs to relate to God. Christianity gives me the motivation for wanting to do good in the world.” 

Books by both speakers sold briskly. Many in the audience stayed afterwards to continue conversations of their own outside in the hall’s portico in the warm September evening. It proved a fine beginning in critical thinking for the academic year. 

The event was sponsored by two secular organizations (The Centre for Inquiry Canada and The University of Toronto Secular Alliance) and seven Christian ones (Wycliffe College, Faith Today magazine, the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Power 2 Change, and Network of Christian Scholars).

The debate was live-streamed to 26 sites and to date over 6,300 have watched it on YouTube. It can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eScykHWO4LY.


For a debate that focuses specifically on The Nature of Evil and Suffering see:


It is between atheist and author, Dr. Michael Shermer, and Oxford mathematician and Christian, Dr. John Lennox.  


Article originally appeared on The Anglican Planet (http://anglicanplanet.net/).
See website for complete article licensing information.