Debating Gods: Christianity vs. Islam on the One True God

April 24, 2009

Christian scholar William Lane Craig and Islamic scholar Jamal Badawi presented a series of debates about their religions at the University of Illinois in 1997. Their debate about the true concept of god has our attention here. In this brief blog entry, we can only discuss two nine-minute segments, Craig’s opening and Badawi’s opening. These videos on YouTube are accompanied by the rest of the segments if you want to view the entire debate.

Craig begins (in segment 1/11) by talking about religious relativism: the view that many or all religions offer partial knowledge about god. Craig is sure that Christianity’s god cannot possibly be Islam’s god too, so he starts by attacking religious relativism. Craig says that religious relativism cannot be true, because two different religions contradict each other about some essential traits of their gods. Since logic demands that nothing real, not even a god, can have contradictory essential traits, these two religions must be describing two different gods. On the further supposition that there is only one god (all monotheisms agreeing there), it cannot be the case that both gods exist, and therefore, that one or the other (or both) religions are quite wrong about god. Religious relativism is thus false, because some religions (we may not know which) cannot offer any knowledge about the essentials of god.












It should be pointed out that there is one further necessary premise lending plausibility to this anti-relativism argument. Craig’s argument assumes that religions do claim to infallible knowledge about essential traits of their gods. Unless religions claimed such infallible knowledge, religious relativism could still be legitimate. Put another way, if there were two religions who believe in quite different descriptions of god, but neither religion claimed to know that their description was absolutely correct, then both religions could admit to having imperfect knowledge of their god. Both religions must then admit that it is at least logically possible that they are both describing the same god. And that is all religious relativism at minimum claims: that religions may be partially describing the same god.

Craig is quite confident that Christianity offers some perfect knowledge about god, and that this perfect knowledge is contradicted by Islam. That is why Craig quickly shifts to a discussion of the New Testament’s account of Jesus’s divinity. Craig needs a description of god (the divinity of Jesus) and perfect knowledge of this divine Jesus (the NT account) in order to argue why Christianity is true and Islam is false. Craig proceeds to offer “good reasons” for believing that descriptions about Jesus’s divinity are entirely accurate. There is a serious logical problem with Craig’s efforts here. In order to establish by deductive argument some piece of perfect knowledge, all premises must also be perfect knowledge (any fallibility in a premise infects the conclusion). Can Craig offer enough supporting premises that can be known as infallibly correct? (Belief on faith can’t count here, of course.) Watch the videos, and decide for yourself.

In Badawi’s opening segment (4/11), he shows how to take Craig’s argument against religious relativism to its logical extreme. Staying true to his monotheism, Badawi claims that there cannot be many religions, but only one religion. Badawi’s argument is that if there is only one god creator and holy lord of the universe, then believers in this god belong to the true religion, and non-believers simply have no religion at all. False religions are delusions, not religions. Badawi points out that the Christian belief that Jesus is fully both human and divine is itself logically contradictory, so the Christian Jesus couldn’t be real. So Badawi is basically informing Craig that Christians have no religion, and that Christians must be horrible blasphemers against god, denying god’s exclusive divinity by falsely asserting Jesus’s divinity.












Badawi does not push these devastating points about Christianity’s description of god, but instead turns to Craig’s second problem, the reliability of the NT accounts of Jesus. Badawi proceeds to interpret the NT so that passages which appear to credit Jesus with divinity actually don’t go that far (consistent with Islam’s view that Jesus was only a human prophet). Badawi outlines his debating strategy, designed to show that plenty of fine NT scholars cannot agree with Craig that the NT offers infallible evidence of Jesus’s divinity.

Badawi’s argumentative tactics illustrates how religious relativism can prove useful to a religious believer. From Badawi’s perspective, the most charitable stance towards Christianity is to approve its monotheism (so that Christians are Muslims too) and to disapprove its Jesus-worship (so that Christians have a partially false view about Jesus). Can Craig be as charitable towards Islam? Stay tuned….



#1 Reba Boyd Wooden on Friday April 24, 2009 at 12:22pm

So, should we debate which is the one true giver of gifts?  Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny?  or maybe it is the tooth fairy.

#2 Commenter123 (Guest) on Saturday April 25, 2009 at 9:45am

Huh. Way to bring down an interesting philosophical debate with a non sequitur.

I think it’s quite relevant for non-believers to engage philosophically with believers (or, in this case, believers with each other). It allows us to clarify points of belief and see where there is agreement or lack thereof. It also allows us to use logic to demonstrate potential falsehoods in various religious arguments. So, to dismiss it as debating about Santa and the Tooth Fairy is to miss the point, I think, and to reinforce the stereotype that nonbelievers are just cranky people who don’t care to engage in the real issues about faith.

#3 Vadjong on Sunday April 26, 2009 at 4:01pm

Comment #1 is spot on.
Commenter123, you appear to have fallen for ‘the Courtier’s Reply’ [look it up in Wikipedia].
Also, what stereotype ?? Oh shut up already!

#4 LarryC (Guest) on Monday April 27, 2009 at 6:04am

Vadjong, I agree that arguing the (non)existence of god is disjoint from arguing about which version is correct.  However, it seems to me that getting people to notice that the two versions are inconsistent with each other is one step closer to getting them to notice that both versions are inconsistent with reality.

#5 Commenter123 (Guest) on Monday April 27, 2009 at 7:00am

@Vadjong - I really don’t see how “the Courtier’s Reply” has anything to do with what I said. RationalWiki describes it so:

“[A] form of intellectual bullying that questions a person’s right to rebut an argument due to the rebutter’s supposed lack of experience with the subject in question.”

I did nothing of the sort. I merely pointed out that Ms. Wooden did not treat this important issue very seriously. She brought down the whole tone of the debate by dismissing complex arguments about the deities worshiped by major religions as if they were in the same category as the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. I said nothing about her intellectual ability - she could be really smart and informed about philosophy, for all I know. I’m just saying that she did us all a disservice by being flip and dismissive rather than addressing the issues at hand. It made her sound like she was saying, “oh, that whole religion thing is just worthless - it’s all superstition, and I can’t be bothered to think about the details,” rather than acknowledging it as an important issue.

As for the issue of stereotypes, I’m pretty sure every skeptic/non-believer has had an experience where someone tells them that their views come from a position of denialism not based on evidence, rather than a positive viewpoint supported by evidence and reason. Once we recognize this, we can take steps to make sure our public behavior works to *undermine* such negative views rather than reinforce them.

#6 Commenter123 (Guest) on Monday April 27, 2009 at 10:47am


>Also, what stereotype ?? Oh shut up already!

Shouting at the people who have different views from you is not an especially productive way to get people to agree with your position. Perhaps if you gave some evidence, or actually addressed the points I made, you would be a little more convincing.

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