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Debate: Former Atheist Neurosurgeon vs. Former Christian Activist

At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other

“Does God exist?” On September 17, in a rip-roaring old-fashioned debate, Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty debated the question at Theology Unleashed. We’ll cover this debate for you, including transcripts and notes. First, each participant was given a chance upfront to state where he is coming from and why. Michael Egnor, representing the Yes side, went first. How did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is a God? And how did a fundamentalist Christian come to be hosting The Atheist Experience?

The debate hosts are Arjuna Das for Theology Unleashed and Nathan from Digital Gnosis as the moderator. A partial transcript and notes follow.

Michael Egnor’s opening statement

Michael Egnor: I’m a neurosurgeon at Stony Brook, New York. I’m a Christian, I’m a Catholic. I converted to Catholicism about 20 years ago. I was originally for most of my life, at least an agnostic and probably an atheist. And I came to believe in God and to believe in Christ for a whole bunch of reasons. I was raised in a Protestant environment although my family wasn’t particularly religious. I got dragged to church occasionally. And by the time I reached college, I was really at least functionally atheist.

I never disliked Christians. I always thought they were nice people, but that what they believed didn’t make a lot of sense. I thought it was just a fairy tale. I majored in biochemistry in college. I love science. I went on to medical school. I became a neurosurgeon. I still love science. I still think science is fascinating. And I believed that in order to be a Christian specifically or to believe in God in general, I had to leave my brain at the door, basically. That if I went to church, I couldn’t really be a thinking person. [00:02:00]

Michael Egnor

I came to feel very differently about that over time for a whole bunch of reasons. I had a Damascus road experience related to the illness of one of my children. But I also investigated the questions about God’s existence in considerable detail. I read a lot of Thomistic philosophy. I read and watched a lot of debates between Christians and atheists. And I must say that, repeatedly, I was amazed at how little atheists had to say about the question of God’s existence. I was shocked actually that the atheist arguments were as weak as they were. And that the arguments for God’s existence were remarkably strong. [00:02:30]

And so that certainly helped me a lot of belief in God, because it’s a personal relationship goes beyond simple reason in the same way that your love for your spouse goes beyond simple reason. There’s no reason to doubt. You feel it. But there are very, very strong reasons to affirm that God exists and there’s been a lot written about that. My own view is that there are 10 reasons that are very solid, that are really irrefutable. That has been very important to my faith because I believe that a genuine faith needs to have a rational component to it. And so that’s where I stand. [00:03:00]

Matt Dillahunty’s opening statement

Matt Dillahunty: I’ve been hosting the Atheist Experience for the last 16 years, but I didn’t start off anywhere near there. I was raised primarily a Southern Baptist. I did go to Pentecostal churches on a couple of occasions, but we were pretty much Southern Baptist. And my mom’s side of the family was Catholic, but Catholics were Mary worshiping, Saint worshiping, evolution accepting, drinking people. And so that was forbidden for us. And yet curiously, I always had a lot more fun and, and had more pleasant times around my Catholic relatives. [00:04:30]

And at some point that kind of changed. I wonder actually — me being a former Baptist and with Dr. Egnor being a current Catholic — if that’s going to cause more conflicts in thoughts than whether or not I’m an atheist. But I walked down [00:05:00] the aisle at the age of five at a revival and accepted Jesus into my heart.

My parents have later told me that they were concerned. Could this actually happen to a five-year-old? And so they spoke to the pastor and everything else. But I grew up active in the church and there was just an assumption or a declaration in some cases that I was going to grow up to be a preacher. My mom had told me that — without telling me that. I won’t go into the whole story, but eventually [00:05:30] I said I don’t want to do that. And when I graduated high school, I ran off and joined the Navy and served for eight and a half years. And did not find my way out, but didn’t really care that much about my religious belief and got out and began working in the tech industry.

And around 2000, 2001, I lost my job and everything fell apart. And I sincerely thought it was God punishing me. And I figured, okay, God had called you to be a preacher and I said no. And so now he’s taking it out on you. And so I spent a lot of time in serious prayer and study and talking with family members who were ministers and missionaries and others as well. Mainly because I had a roommate who was an atheist and I didn’t want to get to heaven and have God say, “Why is this guy who you love like a brother burning in hell? You didn’t do what you’re supposed to do.” And so I set out to try to find the way to convince an atheist. [00:06:30]

Matt Dillahunty at QEDCon 2015

And I don’t even disagree with Dr. Egnor in the sense that the arguments against the existence of God are generally weak. But that’s because if you haven’t established that you’ve remotely met your burden of proof in claiming there is a God. You don’t only have to do much other than to say, “I don’t think you made your case.”

I didn’t have a Damascus road experience, but also unlike what some people would say, I never got mad at God. I never got angry at God. There wasn’t a how-dare-you-take-this-away-from-me? or anything else. It was — and maybe I’m weird — a purely an intellectual exercise. There was emotion involved as well, at different times. But I just came to realize that I didn’t have a good reason for my belief. And as I began looking into it more and more, I couldn’t find anybody who did. I understood why people believed and understood why they looked at reasons that were good and thought they were good, but I kept finding fault with them. And eventually, it led to me hosting the Atheist Experience TV show and doing lectures and debates. And here we are today. [00:07:30]

Two different lives. Two opposite views. And a debate!

Next: A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God

The complete debate, with transcripts and notes:

Two chess knights facing away from each other
  1. Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
  2. A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
  3. Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
  4. Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
  5. Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
  6. Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down.
    If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
  7. Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise.
    Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.
  8. Does morality really exist? If so, does it come from God? Matt Dillahunty now challenges Michael Egnor: There is no way to know whether a moral doctrine represents any reality apart from belief. Michael Egnor insists that a moral law exists independently of varying opinions. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that has always been the traditional view worldwide.
  9. Michael Egnor explains why Matt Dillahunty is not an atheist. Not really, anyway, Egnor insists, because he keeps invoking a moral standard that can’t exist if materialist atheism is true. Egnor: I’ve encountered few people who demand as much fairness for themselves as atheists. They don’t live like atheists. They live like theists.
  10. Christian Egnor and atheist Dillahunty now take questions… For example, “ What is Mr. Egnor’s best evidence of any god that would make me believe?” Key questions turned on whether abstractions like “right” or wrong “wrong” represent realities. It’s the perennial realism vs. nominalism question again.
  11. Is evil in the world simply the absence of good? Christian Michael Egnor argues for that view. Then he and atheist Matt Dillahunty clash over whether a cause can be outside of time. Many traditional philosophers have held that evil is the absence of good in the same way that darkness is the absence of light. It has no independent existence.
  12. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How can God be both just and merciful? After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy. Under what circumstances, a debate watcher asks, would it not be contradictory to show both justice and mercy?
  13. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: Are singularities a part of science? Also, an audience member asks the debaters: Does atheism make better predictions than theism? Dillahunty denies that atheism is a single position; Egnor responds that that is a suspect claim because atheist positions are quite predictable.
  14. Debate: Is morality a mere emotion that we project on others? Theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty continue their conversation about basic issues at Theology Unleashed. Michael Egnor argues that God created the universe, imperfect in relation to himself, out of an excess of love — perhaps so that we all have some type of being.
  15. Debate: How can a cause and effect occur at the same time?? In the broken window analogy, the brick becomes a cause simultaneously with the shattered glass becoming an effect. In the wrap-up, Egnor restates that atheism is not really an argument, just ignorance, and Dillahunty restates that Egnor was attacking him personally.

You may also wish to read these pieces by Michael Egnor:

Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.

The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.

Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.

Theists vs. atheists: Which group has the burden of proof? Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post. Both atheists and theists make positive statements about the nature of the universe. If atheists shun the ensuing burden of proof, it should count against them.


Atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty refuses to debate me again Although he has said that he finds debates “incredibly valuable,” he is — despite much urging — making an exception in this case. Why? For millennia, theists have thought meticulously about God’s existence. New Atheists merely deny any need to make a case. That’s partly why I dumped atheism.

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Debate: Former Atheist Neurosurgeon vs. Former Christian Activist