Here is my analysis of a debate between Sam Harris, an evangelical atheist, and Dennis Prager, a Jewish theist, that took place back in November, 2006.
Here is Sam Harris' day 1 opening salvo to Dennis:
In the beginning of this debate, Harris declares all religion to be jihadist, loony, and/or prejudicial. Only later in the debate does Harris, hypothetically, consider the value of some sort of religion (which he will later call "Scientismo" in day 4 of the debate). This colors how one is to interpret Harris' statement, "there is no good reason to believe in a personal God", since it can mean two different things: A) there is no good evidence for believing in God and B) there is no good usefulness for one believing in God. In the beginning of the debate, Harris is clearly stating both A) and B). In the course of this ensuing debate, Harris will relinquish assertion B) in favor of assertion A).
Here is Dennis' day 1 reply to Harris:
Here is Harris' day 2 reply to Dennis:
(Harris) Atheism does not assert that “it is all made by chance.” No one knows why the universe came into being. Most scientists readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not.
"No one knows why the universe came into being" – that is the statement that needs to be unpacked. It can mean one of two different things A) that no one can have absolute scientific certainly as to why the universe came into being – or B) that it is not possible for anyone to have the slightest clue why the universe came into being. The former assertion leaves room for religious faith, the second assertion doesn't.
If a scientist is operating with intellectual honesty within the limitations of science, he would offer assertion A). However, an atheist is not merely scientific, but is rather scientismist, believing that science is the key to any and all metaphysical questions. As such, an atheist will either firmly believe that 1) the universe was not created -- on account of science or 2) firmly believe that it is not possible for anyone to have the slightest clue as to why the universe came into being -- on account of science.
The first statement is plainly a statement of faith regarding the origins of the universe that asserts a certainty over an uncertainty. The second statement is also a faith statement, albeit more subtle, in that it places faith in the idea that science is the key to all metaphysical understanding and that all knowledge is to be made real/unreal, relevant/irrelevant within limitations of science.
It is also important to note that statement 1) and 2) are tantamount to being the same thing. The first statement plainly says that God does not exist, thereby denying the existence of any sort of God. The second statement says that God knowledge is completely unknowable, and therefore completely irrelevant to questions of truth and knowledge. The second statement thereby denies the existence of a "personal God" who, by definition, has made himself knowable to people. It is on the matter of a "personal God" not existing that Harris asserts total certainty.
And it is not a far leap from the certainly of statement 2) – that no personal God exists-- to certainty of statement 1) – that no God exists at all. At this point in the discussion, Harris is claiming statement 2) in order to downplay his claims of certainty in the face of Prager's charge that Harris is claiming too much certainty. Harris will indicate that he does in fact believe statement 1).
(Harris) Why can’t I say that the cosmos is uncreated?
Of course, Harris can say that the cosmos is uncreated. That is, in fact, what Harris believes, which is why he states it in the first person. Harris is now admitting to having the certainty regarding statement 1) that he did not admit to having earlier. This is part of the reason why Prager will later, in day 4, redirect the blame on Harris for "making maneuvers" in the course of the debate and not owning up to the true extent of his certainty, and therefore, his faith.
Here is Prager's day 2 reply:
Here is Harris' day 3 reply:
(Harris) But it is clear from our debate that you and I differ on the location of the problem. In your view, the problem must be that Europe has lost the moral backbone that only religion can provide (and Islam just happens to be the wrong religion.) In my view, our world has been shattered, quite unnecessarily, by religion itself. As I said, even if you were right, and the only people who could summon the moral courage to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world were the religious lunatics of the West, this would suggest nothing at all about the existence of the biblical God. It would only show that a belief in Him might be politically necessary, in a given time and place, to motivate people to fight (as our inimitable President says) “the evildoers.” I am reasonably sure you are wrong about this. But again, this is quite irrelevant to the question before us.
The question whether religion is useful is relevant to Harris' original salvo "there is no good reason to believe in a personal God".
Here is Prager's day 3 reply:
Here is Harris' day 4 reply:
(Harris) While the usefulness of religion might be worth debating in another context, it is completely irrelevant to the question of whether God exists.
Again. The question whether religion is useful is relevant to Harris' original salvo " there is no good reason to believe in a personal God". If A) one cannot prove whether or not God exists with scientific certainty, as both Prager and Harris have admitted, and B) believing in God is potentially useful, as Harris has admitted, then there is a good reason, under certain circumstances, for one to believe God as a matter of faith. That is why Prager, in day 1, made a distinction between bad God-belief and good God-belief.
If I believe that there is an afterlife, and believing in that afterlife gives meaning to my struggle to be moral, then there is a good reason to believe in the afterlife. In a similar vein, if I am moved by listening to Beethoven, there is a good reason for me to believe that it is beautiful.
By "good reason", I do not mean "a good scientifically verifiable reason", since I recognize that the question of "good" lies outside the realm of science to answer, whether in the realm of faith, morality or art.
If I believe that there is a moral order to the world, and I believe that an idea of God is the key to that moral order, then there is a good reason for me to believe in God. If someone else does not see that belief in God is important to moral order, then for that person, he/she may not possess a good reason to believe in God in regard to the issue of morality. As someone who believes that believing in God is important to having morality, it is my perogative to state my case and leave it alone for each to decide on his/her own.
Here is Prager's day 4 final reply:
I have more to say on the matter of "moral intuition" which Harris raises in day 3.