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Kyle Butt speaks at the Faulkner debate, with opponent Michael Shermer and moderator David Hester behind.
Photo by Calvin Cockrell

Christian apologist and prominent atheist debate God’s existence

Attendees at Faulkner University debate appreciate civility, chance to hear opposing views.

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — There was no interrupting, no yelling, no hurled insults, no pounding the podium in this debate, despite its divisive and eternally consequential subject.

Instead, the two speakers — Kyle Butt, a Christian apologist, and Michael Shermer, an atheist, or skeptic — treated each other with remarkable respect as they argued the existence of God.

Faulkner's Tine Davis gym was nearly at capacity for its high-profile October debate.

A crowd of several hundred from around the world gathered in the Faulkner University gym for a debate on the existence of God.

So did the audience of several hundred packed into Faulkner University’s Tine Davis Gym in late October — an ostensibly hostile crowd for Shermer that never booed or jeered, even if it did let most of his jokes fall flat.

Butt, an apologist for Montgomery-based publisher Apologetics Press, was strait-laced and methodical in his arguing for the proposition, “The God of the Bible exists.”

On the other side, Shermer, co-founder of The Skeptics Society, took a more lighthearted approach as he argued not so much against God’s existence as against any certainty of it.

Related: Faulkner Bible Lectureship showcases young speakers

During the two-hour-long debate, Butt laid out his case based on what he called the “four foundational truths.”

First, “every material effect has a cause,” Butt said. In other words, something can’t come from nothing.

Kyle Butt argues the existence of God at the Faulkner debate, with Michael Shermer behind.

Kyle Butt argues the existence of God at the Faulkner debate, with Michael Shermer behind.

Second, because the universe has a complex, functional design perfectly suited for life, it must have had an intelligent designer.

Third, objective moral values exist — without God, they wouldn’t.

Fourth, the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus — what is known of him both through the Bible and secular history — point to God’s existence.

Shermer, meanwhile, pointed to disagreements not only between many scientists and people of faith but also among different religions — particularly Christians, Jews and Muslims — as evidence of the elusive nature of truth.

“None of us knows anything for certain,” he said.

Shermer also referenced a well-known quote by the 20th century scientist Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and argued that God is “in the realm of religious truths or mythic truths — truths that have values other than what science can provide for us.”


Kyle Butt and Michael Shermer debate the existence of God during the Faulkner Bible Lectureship. #churchofchrist #churchesofchrist #apologetics #christiantiktok

♬ original sound – The Christian Chronicle

He added that humans must have the intellectual humility to say, “I don’t know what caused the first cause.”

“And really, that is the scientific answer,” he added. “Nobody knows. I know nobody knows because I don’t know, I know you don’t know, and I know the scientists who study this — they don’t know either.”

Michael Shermer makes arguments against the existence of God at the Faulkner debate.

Michael Shermer makes arguments against the existence of God at the Faulkner debate.

Butt retorted, “Just because you don’t know everything doesn’t mean you don’t know something,” pointing to the apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20 that “God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made.”

“And so, can we look at what God has created and see aspects about God: that he must be eternal, that he must be supernatural — not part of the material cosmos and universe — and that he must be intelligent, he must be a moral person? Yes, we can do that.”

Other points discussed included naturalism versus supernaturalism (whether there are forces outside the laws of nature), the origin of objective moral standards, free will and the reason for suffering.

“You can’t use the argument of evil, pain and suffering against God logically,” Butt said in response to an audience question on why a loving God would allow human suffering, noting it was difficult to answer within two minutes.

Butt and Shermer respond to questions from the audience at the Faulkner debate.

Butt and Shermer respond to questions from the audience at the Faulkner debate.

“And then the emotional argument comes up: Well, where is God when I suffer? Why doesn’t he do something? … God is the same place he was when he allowed his son, Jesus, to die on the cross. … What comes after suffering, seen in Jesus Christ, is ultimately the answer.”

“I just don’t buy it,” Shermer responded. “I mean, childhood leukemia, you know the poor, miserable, suffering children, and then they die, and then their parents’ lives are in grief for the rest of their lives? And this is because God works in mysterious ways?”

Suffering was one of the major causes of Shermer, a 1976 graduate of Pepperdine University, losing his faith in early adulthood. His college girlfriend was paralyzed by injuries from a car accident.

“I prayed for her, you know, and nothing happened,” he recalled. “I thought, what kind of a loving God would not just fix this problem? … That was kind of the last straw for me.”

In the final moments of the debate, both speakers compared the existence of God to that of a watchmaker.


Michael Shermer and Kyle Butt debate “The God of the Bible exists” at the Faulkner Bible Lectureship. #churchofchrist #apologetics #atheism #agnostic #intelligentdesign #creation #evolution

♬ original sound – The Christian Chronicle

“I could go to the Tag Heuer company and see where they make it,” Shermer said, referring to the watch on his wrist. “I can see the designers designing it and making it. Where do I go to see there’s an intelligent designer, a supernatural intelligent designer? You can’t show it to me. There’s no place to go.”

For Butt, the question was not so much whether it’s possible to see the watchmaker but whether it’s necessary.

“Did he (Shermer) go down to the watch company and see it?” Butt asked. “I doubt it.

“What does that mean? It means that you can look at the thing itself without ever going to the company and (know) something about what the company does. … You could have a singular artifact that you could look at, and regardless of where it came from, you could know that there was intelligence behind its construction. And I think that’s what we do.”

Related: Faulkner University’s ninth president ‘doubling down’ on Christian mission

Ultimately, Shermer never took a direct stance against faith in God.

“If you want to believe, go ahead,” he said in his closing statement. “If having a religious truth, like a mythical truth, is useful and works for you, fine. But take it out of the realm of ‘I can prove it’s true.’”

Are Christian debates still useful?

The Faulkner event marked the most high-profile debate involving Churches of Christ in recent history.

College students, families, ministers and others from across the U.S. — even some international visitors — were present, and more watched through the Gospel Broadcasting Network’s livestream.

A 1976 Christian Chronicle front page reports on the Warren-Flew debate.

A 1976 Christian Chronicle front page reports on the Warren-Flew debate.

The event didn’t quite match the magnitude of some of the debates of old, though — when, for example, 5,000 people attended a four-day-long debate on the existence of God between Thomas Warren, a professor at Harding School of Theology, and Anthony Flew, a British philosophy professor at the University of Reading, at the University of North Texas in 1976.

Even when Christian debates were more popular, there were questions about their effectiveness.

“The debater at best may swing a few non-committed persons into his camp and at worst may further alienate those opposed to his position,” a 1969 Christian Chronicle editorial supposed.

But for Faulkner President Mitch Henry, the goal was not so much to change anyone’s mind as to strengthen the faith of Christians who listened — especially young college students like the ones on his campus.

“On most issues, in order to get to the truth, it’s important for you to understand that there are two sides and … to give due consideration to two sides of an issue,” he told the Chronicle. “When you do that … your faith is built and you have a more solid understanding of truth.”

That’s why Julie Miller, a member of the Panama Street Church of Christ in Montgomery, attended the debate with her husband and five children.

“I wanted my kids to hear the debate,” she said, adding, “I think people appreciate hearing what both sides actually have to say rather than just hearing one side isolated by itself.”

Attendees talk with Michael Shermer after the debate.

Attendees talk with Michael Shermer after the debate.

Mabalo Sinyangwe also appreciated hearing the two arguments, having come from his home country of Zambia in southern Africa to attend the week-long Faulkner Bible Lectureship headlined by the debate.

“It’s opening our mind to see where we should stand as human beings because if I was doubting that there is no God, someone is going to clearly prove that there’s a creator,” he said.

All three Christians believed Butt presented the better case.

Related: Team devotional leads 37 Faulkner University athletes to baptism

Henry said Faulkner plans on hosting more debates, with potential topics ranging from the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision on gay marriage to human suffering.

And he hopes the decorum of the recent debate can set an example for conversations on other hot-button issues.

“I think that so often today, we struggle as a culture, particularly in America now, to have civil discourse,” Henry said. “I think that our national political debates could take a few lessons from what we experienced here today.”


Filed under: Apologetics press Atheism Christian colleges and universities Debate Existence of God Faulkner Bible Lectureship Faulkner University Kyle Butt Michael Shermer National News Partners Top Stories

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