Is belief in God rational? My Reasonable Doubts debate with Chris Hallquist

Posted on 01/19/14 11 Comments

Just over a year ago I did my first debate with Reasonable Doubts. The debate was on the nativity with Jonathan Pearce and is available for viewing here:

That debate was such a smashing success :) that I was invited back for another debate. The topic was the rationality of theism and my debating opponent Chris Hallquist had opted to defend the absurdly strong thesis that belief in God cannot be rational. We recorded the debate in Sept-Oct of 2013. I blogged about the debate back on October 23.

And then silence.

Now the new debate is out. You can listen to / download it at Reasonable Doubts right here. Meanwhile, I’ll be fielding questions and hosting comments in this thread.

Happy listening


  • Andrew J.P

    I really enjoyed listening to this debate! I think having it prerecorded over time was really a brilliant idea. It allowed both debaters time to gather their thoughts and present better rebuttals than would otherwise be able to in a live venue.
    I’m wondering how the debate premise was chosen? Was the idea of what is rational intended to be so prominent? It seemed like Chris didn’t feel it as important to engage with what is rational as much as Randall. Did Chris just use the word rational for lack of a better one?

    • Randal Rauser

      “I’m wondering how the debate premise was chosen?”

      Justin Schieber of “Reasonable Doubts” approached me, asking if I would debate this topic with Chris Hallquist. I don’t know which of the two came up with the debate resolution.

      I should say that I would never have chosen a debate resolution like this because it is so extreme. It’s like debating the topic “Are all scientists evil?”.

      It is interesting to read the comments in response to the debate at “Reasonable Doubts”. Folks call me a “shithead”, and decry me as full of “bullshit”. They criticize me for opening with a critique of Chris even though this is the format imposed upon me. They dismiss my critical analysis as pedantic logic chopping. And through it all they have demonstrated no real understanding of the arguments I presented. It’s like listening to a panel on Fox News respond to the latest Obama speech. What makes this deliciously ironic is that “Reasonable Doubts” is always harping on the alleged superior rationality of atheists, and yet their own audience (or at least all those commenting) act like an ignorant mob.

      • Andrew J.P

        It is unfortunate the comments some have written about you. I wouldn’t sweat it though, I’d hazard a guess that their uncharitable comments would be in the minority. As I said before, I really enjoyed the debate and both arguments. I think it would have been great if more care was given to clarify the direction the debate was meant to take and so the debate resolution could have been adjusted to reflect this. Perhaps a preamble? I like a good preamble before a debate. And a moderator, and maybe a bell, oh, and cheerleaders. Ooh, and definitely swag shot out of a cannon during halftime for the audience.

      • Dusten Whisnant

        “(or at least all those commenting) act like an ignorant mob.” I’m just going to point out that making such an all-encompassing statement after reprimanding Hallquist for making a similar statement is hypocritical at best. I think it’s in really poor taste and shouldn’t have happened for someone to call you “shithead”, but dismissing any and all criticism from the comments section on Reasonable Doubts and categorizing “their own audience (or at least all those commenting)” into the same group because of a select few people is a pretty irrational.

        Additionally, the way you tried to equate “people who are rational means their god belief is rational” would apply here with my being able to dismiss everything you say because you’ve demonstrated irrationality with that comment (although it should be noted, that this idea is demonstrably not true).

        There were significant problems with both arguments in that debate. However, dismissing any kind of criticism because someone called you a “shithead” seems pretty unreasonable. In all honesty though, I’m not sure how much it is possible to have “real understanding” of your arguments whenever your arguments contradicted, so perhaps you are right that no one had “real understanding” from the Reasonable Doubt audience. In fact, I’m not so sure that it’d be possible because it didn’t seem like there was “real understanding” anywhere in the debate, especially given that the direction did seem somewhat unclear, and even the topic of the debate did not seem explicitly clear. I think both sides of this debate should refine the arguments that were presented, but I think first a more clearly defined topic and more agreed upon format should be established, as the entire debate just left some clarity to be desired.

        • Randal Rauser

          “I’m just going to point out that making such an all-encompassing statement after reprimanding Hallquist for making a similar statement is hypocritical at best.”

          When I wrote that I was referring to twelve comments on a blog post. Yes, that statement does encompass those twelve comments because the first twelve comments did reflect the aggression and ignorance of a mob. For you to compare that with Chris Hallquist’s unevidenced assertion that all theists — all six billion of them — are irrational qua theism, is absurd.

          “Additionally, the way you tried to equate “people who are rational means their god belief is rational””

          I didn’t argue that way. Either you failed to follow the argument or you are deliberately straw-manning it.

          “given that the direction did seem somewhat unclear, ”

          I kept on track. But I was presented with a resolution that was extraordinarily vague. That’s not my fault. Blame Chris Hallquist for his resolution.

          “I think both sides of this debate should refine the arguments that were presented”

          I argued that it is reasonable to believe at least some theists are rational qua theism, but it is not rational to believe no theists are rational qua theism. That is very clear.

          “and more agreed upon format should be established,”

          Again, I followed the format given to me. I was told not to provide an opening statement but instead to begin by directly rebutting Chris’ opening statement. And then I get criticized for following the formal instructions I was provided. Yeah, makes perfect sense.

          • Dusten Whisnant

            You agreed to the debate format when you participated in the debate. If it was a poor format, you share in the blame. You are attempting to play a victim card like you were subjected to this and didn’t have a choice. That is absurd.

            Making a judgement about an entire community of people based on 12 comments, is also irrational. The first three comments are about getting the script of the debate. That’s hardly the mob mentality you accused the entire community (or at least the people who are posting comments) of being a part of, and you still stick to the first twelve comments as being aggressive and ignorant. Even if it were the case that the following comments were all aggressive and ignorant (they are not, although a few comments are made in poor taste), you’ve still given a huge blanket judgement that was undeserved.

            “I didn’t argue that way. Either you failed to follow the argument or you are deliberately straw-manning it.”

            You did argue that way. Either you fail to follow your own argument, or you deliberately dismiss any criticism as a strawman. You shift the burden of proof for establishing that belief in a god is rational by saying that because people are rational in other areas of life, it is up to the dissent to establish that their belief in a god is irrational. That’s not how establishing truth claims works though. If I am to believe that a theist’s beliefs are rational, I need to be presented with his or her reasoning. Until that is done, there is no way to establish rationality, so I will not believe that he or she has rational belief about theism until that burden of proof is met.

            Again, the debate format and the topic may be to blame for this being unnecessarily convoluted “debate”, but your argument does fail. The very basis you used could also be used to justify just about any belief as rational so long as there is someone who is rational in some areas of his/her life who has an otherwise irrational belief. That justification does fail.

            As for your last comment, if you are so quick to say you agreed upon the format (consent by willful participation), then you definitely share in the blame. That’s pretty straightforward and does make perfect sense, unless of course you have no capability to negotiate and/or decline participation in a poorly formatted debate and/or resolution. In other words, both parties are accountable for the agreed upon debate resolution and format.

  • Michael


    I listened to your debate and read the comments. It is unfortunate that somebody used that kind of invective, which is out of place. To be fair though, most of the comments were more thoughtful and related to the actual content of the debate.

    During the discussion, Chris asked several times for your explanation on how the rape and murder of a five-year old girl was consistent with your view of an all-loving and all-powerful god. In my view, you evaded the question in favor until the end, at which point you listed a number of possible objections. I don’t have recall them all, but at least one seemed irrelevant, such as the chaotic explanation of natural disasters (?)

    In your closing, you provided a response for what you seem to suggest is a parallel problem, that of a son dying from some disease. You quote the mother’s justification, in part by saying “how could we be expected to know?” If you are willing to answer related but easier questions, why not address the one posed by Chris?

    I don’t see the question as a cheap dramatic debating trick. I think it is exactly the kind of challenge to theism which helps keep me as a non-believer.

    Perhaps you could take this opportunity to share your point of view. What are the best arguments for explaining how a loving god would allow this kind of rape / murder, which by the way is not a unique event but replicated on a massive scale across the world and throughout history?

    If you think this kind of act is actually evidence for god, as I think you suggested, I would be interested to hear your views on that as well.

    I think many of the listeners at Reasonable Doubts, and perhaps your own blog followers, would rather hear your answers to this than some of the more narrow arguments which occupied much of the debate.

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts. I hope you find this respectfully offered.

    • Randal Rauser

      Thanks for your comment Michael. I’ll be happy to respond in a full article later today.

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  • Derek M

    In your rebuttal where you quoted p. 154 of Mackie’s “The Miracle of Theism”, I’ve always read that as a reference to a Swinburne type theodicy and not in reference to Plantinga, which he hasn’t addressed at that point. I noticed that Dr. Ronald Nash read this in reference to Plantinga as well in his book “Faith and Reason” so I am confused about it. Any thoughts?

  • Rob Gressis

    I finally listened to the debate today, after it was pointed out by a friend that I was mentioned. IIRC, Hallquist claimed that I said that the reason many philosophers think that Mackie’s argument worked is that they hadn’t read Plantinga. I believe that he also implied — or perhaps even said — that I was under the impression that if they read Plantinga, they would realize the logical version of the PoE fails. I hope I didn’t get what Hallquist was saying wrong.

    Assuming I’m right, I just want to say: that wasn’t my view. All I was saying is that a lot of atheistic philosophers seem to think that Mackie’s argument works, but they haven’t read Plantinga. This doesn’t mean that I think Plantinga would convince them (I even went on to note that Jordan Howard Sobel thought the logical PoE worked, and he had read Plantinga). It was rather meant to point out that, though 72% of philosophers surveyed are or lean atheistic, at least some of them — I would bet, a significant number — don’t know the field of philosophy of religion well at all. Consequently, I’m not sure that you should give their opinions very much weight.