The Literary & Historical Society at University College Dublin invited Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Christian Thought at Patrick Henry College, to a formal debate in October, 2008. The motion under question was ‘That this house finds it irrational to believe in God.’ In the following interview, Dr. Montgomery discusses his winning arguments and what this debate can teach about God and the world.
Dr. John Warwick Montgomery
Dr. John Warwick Montgomery
JWM: The Literary and Historical Society is an organization that came into existence before University College Dublin. It was formed in the 19th century, and the leading light was John Henry Newman, a great apologist for the Christian faith, who converted to Catholicism. The society has had as speaker every president of Ireland since the republic’s existence—all the prime ministers—Yeats, Joyce, etc. It is the most distinguished literary society in Ireland. Therefore, the debates that take place there have real consequence. I was invited to lead the team on behalf of God’s existence in the debate that took place on the 8th of October. The subject of the debate was that it is not reasonable to believe in God. Therefore, the ones supporting the proposition were atheists. Our position was the opposite. We won this debate. The results of this, I think, are very positive on every level.
PHC: Were you surprised to be invited to such a debate?
JWM: I’ve done this kind of thing on several occasions, so it wasn’t strange that they would ask me to do it. It was nice that I was in a position where I was able to arrange for the debaters supporting me, and I was able to gain the services of Dr. Angus Menuge, who is a professor of philosophy at Concordia University in WI, who has done debating before and who has background in the philosophy of science, and also Dr. Alistair Noble, who is a distinguished chemist who supported intelligent design in Scotland.
PHC: Is there something particular to the spiritual climate in Dublin that makes this topic especially appropriate?
JWM: They’ve had debates on the topic before, and apparently they’ve attracted a good audience. But the problem with Ireland is that, after centuries of strong conservative Roman Catholic influence and also after centuries under the English crown, the Irish tend to react by becoming radicals. They tend to move to the left, both politically and religiously, and they have a lot of renegade Catholics—many who favor an atheistic view of the world. Think of James Joyce, for example. Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot, and so on.
PHC: Who were some of your opponents?
JWM: Professor Wolpert, a developmental biologist from England, was supposed to be there. He just wrote a book with a very interesting title: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. One of these impossible things, of course, is religious belief. Due to health problems, he did not arrive. But his substitute brought in some of his arguments, and I was particularly concerned with his position. Then there was the researcher from CalTech, Dr. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist who got his degree at Harvard, a militant atheist, who argues that the universe has always been around without a creator, and so forth. And then finally, there was Mr. Edwords, who is the executive secretary of the American Humanist Association, arguing that humanity does not need God.
PHC: How did your opponents try to dispel the existence of God?
JWM: The point of the people on the other side of the debate was that God is simply not necessary. You can explain anything and everything without reference to God. And of course there is the principle of Ockham’s Razor in science, that you always take the simplest explanation. So if it’s simpler to dispense with God and deal with phenomena independently, then that would be the approach to take. So our job was to show that in every realm that the opposition brought up, they can’t handle that realm without God. God is essential for life on all counts.
PHC: Give me some examples of an argument and how you refuted it.
JWM: Take the humanist view, that all you need are human values. Well, if law and human rights are simply developed by human beings, in their own cultures, what do you we do with the Third Reich, where law and the concept of values is damnable, is racist? They sent Jews and other prisoners to gas ovens and the like. The only way you get proper human rights is to align them with inalienable rights. But ‘inalienable’ means ‘absolute.’ Since water doesn’t rise above its own level, you’re never going to get absolute values from a non-absolute source. You’ve got to have an absolute source. That means God Almighty. That means a God who has loved us and revealed Himself to us and told us what absolute values are.
PHC: Would they agree with that premise, that there are absolute values?
JWM: They’re caught, aren’t they? They can’t really well say that the Nazi regime is just another way of looking at things. On the other hand, there’s no way that they can arrive at absolute values from human opinion. So they’re stuck.
PHC: Any other examples?
JWM: Well, for example, take the cosmological argument brought up by atheists—that the universe really has no beginning. It just goes on forever. The problem with this is, if there is any unity of opinion today in physics and astronomical circles, it’s that the Big Bang is the starting point for both time and space. Meaning, before that, there wasn’t anything. The difficulty with this kind of argument is, anything that has a beginning requires an explanation. Where did it come from? But in this kind of theory, there’s no materialistic explanation available. You’ve got to go to a source of the Big Bang. A Big Banger, if you will, who himself doesn’t have a beginning and so needs no explanation. So you need a God.
If the physicist wants to get out from under this, all he can do is say something like, maybe there are multiverses. Or maybe the universe is in constant development, or something of the kind. But all those explanations beg the question. You’re still going to have to figure out what kind of rationale rules in those contexts.
Take the second law of thermodynamics, for example. It says that in any closed system, the available energy declines to zero in a finite period of time. Well, if the universe were infinite, it would already have declined in terms of usable energy to zero, and we wouldn’t have enough energy to discuss the question. And yet here we are discussing it! So the universe must have had a starting point, and the starting point is not so far back that the universe has already been able to decline in available energy to point zero. All of this stuff points to the fact that you can’t handle fundamental physical concepts without appealing beyond the universe to the God who’s the source of it.
PHC: Who determines in this type of format who wins and who loses it?
JWM: It’s a straight vote of the audience.
PHC: The audience determines?
JWM: Yes, we won! Interestingly enough, when these debates have taken place elsewhere—and they take place fairly often in the United States—the God side normally stops with ethics and science. That’s not my approach. After bringing out all these arguments, I talked about Owen Gingerich of Harvard and his book entitled God’s Universe. At the end of this book, Gingerich says that Jesus is the supreme example of communication from God. When the apostle Peter asked, “Show us the Father,” Jesus replied, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” So I said, the most important thing that you can’t explain without God is Jesus Christ. He died on the cross for our sins and rose again. The evidence for his existence is so solid historically, that it’s better than the knowledge that we have of the classical events of the Graeco-Roman world. It’s imperative to face Jesus Christ. And the only way we can face him is in terms of the primary source records of the New Testament, which give a picture of him. I said, this stuff is so powerful that if you are willing even to suspend disbelief, it’s going to work on you.
In other words, I see this kind of debate as an opportunity not only to increase the number of theists in the world. Heck, the Bible says that even the demons believe in God and tremble. The idea is to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and his gospel. To carry the thing from scientific knowledge to the gospel.
PHC: Could you discern the impact this had on the atheists?
JWM: In general, anybody who is willing to donate his time like this has made up his mind. Sure, the gospel can work on anybody. But my experience is that you don’t aim for the debaters on the other side. You aim at the people in the middle in the audience, the people who haven’t yet made up their mind, who are wavering, searching, whatever. Those are the people you are trying to reach in that context.
PHC: Can you briefly summarize how you would train yourself to be effective in these settings? How do you prepare for individual events like this?
JWM: My training as a lawyer is terribly important. It is said that the difference between a lawyer and a layman is that a layman fires a shotgun, while a lawyer fires a rifle. A lawyer marshals the evidence so that it leads to a particular conclusion. He lines the ducks up and makes sure that he eliminates irrelevancies. This is terribly important in any debate. You’re not firing all over the wall, but focusing directly on what needs to be demonstrated.
My normal method of preparation is to work my head off, to read everything I possibly can that has been published by the other side, listen to anything they’ve done that they have tapes or videos of, so that I know the other side’s position better than they do themselves. The remarkable thing is that in every debate in which I’ve been engaged the other side has never done this. The other side always assumes that if you’re a believer, you’re not a very sensible individual, and so there’s no reason to waste time in preparing. That kind of overconfidence certainly has a lot to do with the success I’ve had. And I’ve had great success in this kind of thing.
There’s also the fact that unbelief softens people’s heads. The unbelievers I’ve dealt with have been hurt intellectually by their unbelief, to the point where they cannot think as clearly as they ought to be thinking. In this debate, the cosmologist on the other side argued at one point that an evidence of God’s nonexistence is that the Republican party would choose Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate. Now, really, what do you do with that? I ignored him. I thought it was beneath anybody’s dignity to be making a comment like that, whether Republican or Democrat—especially if you’re in Ireland!
PHC: Based on comments from students in the audience, what conclusions can you draw about the health of the gospel in Ireland?
JWM: That’s hard. The universities in the United Kingdom will almost always attract students of a more left-wing and radical frame of reference. When I taught for ten years as a professor at the University of Bedfordshire, I came into contact with a lot of students like this, and at the same time there are a lot of them who are searching. The years of undergraduate experience are years of searching. They don’t really know where they’re going, and so opportunities like this debate are, I think, terribly important. They give a chance for students who haven’t heard the gospel to hear it. Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is still very traditional, and is not in many respects meeting the needs of a populace that is becoming more secular. So we ought to do this sort of thing every chance we get. I must say that I don’t like flying back and forth between time zones every week, but this is the sort of thing that needs to be done. I take these kinds of opportunities when they arise.
PHC: What would you say to the students here at PHC, as far as giving some general principles to prepare themselves to be effective in such settings?
JWM: We already have a tremendous advantage with the fine training in debate, and with the classical education they receive here. In that respect, they are on a far higher plane than the students I met at the University College of Dublin. That explains why PHC students have beat Oxford in debate on two occasions. My advice to the students here, since this is an undergraduate institute and not a theological seminary, is that it is very important for them to work on their theology. Make sure their theology is clean and clear, that they know where they are in terms of the great tradition of classical theology. It is too easy in most undergraduate contexts to major in Journalism or Strategic Intelligence and this kind of thing and remain on a Sunday School level when it comes to matters theological. One’s got to have that down pat. And if that is then combined with the kind of superb general education and training in debate that is provided at Patrick Henry, they’ll really be unbeatable.
Dr. John Warwick Montgomery holds ten earned degrees, including three earned doctorates in History, Theology, and Law, is an ordained Lutheran minister and English barrister, and is admitted to practice as a lawyer before the Supreme Court of the United States. Author of more than fifty books in four languages, he has won leading religious liberties cases before the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France.