Matt Dillahunty debates David Robertson on atheism, morality and evil

Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!
Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!

OK. So I think it’s safe to say that of all the Christian apologists out there, David Robertson is my least favorite debater. Why? Many reasons, but mostly because he does not bring in evidence, especially scientific evidence. And he seems to make these clever quips like G. K. Chesterton. I like evidence. I would rather that he talk about scientific and historical evidence.

Dina asked me to listen to this debate a while back, between David Robertson and agnostic Matt Dillahunty (he’s not an atheist, he’s just an agnostic). I went in absolutely convinced that Robertson was going to have his ass handed to him by Matt Dillahunty. And I could not have been more wrong.

Here’s the debate posted on YouTube (audio only):

This snarky summary is just a paraphrase from certain parts of the debate, it is not designed for accuracy, but for fun – to make you listen to the debate. Listen to the debate to get the exact words in context.


  • Matt Dillahunty: he’s an agnostic who calls himself an atheist
  • David Robertson: he’s from Scotland, could we not get someone better?
  • Robertson opening statement is incredibly weak, as you might expect, he only had two arguments embedded in a long list of nonsense: 1) origin and design of the universe 2) reality of evil requires objective morality

1) Creation/Design:

Robertson: The fact is that matter exists. There are 3 views that could account for this fact: 1) created, 2) eternal, 3) self-generated out of nothing. Option 3) is self-contradictory, 1) requires a Creator, and 2) is falsified by the Big Bang cosmology. So what’s your view?

Dillahunty: You’re trying to get me to say what my view is, but I can just say “I don’t know” and get out of having to take any position on how matter got here.  I can say “I don’t know” to all the scientific evidence for the Big Bang cosmology, too!

2) Evil requires objective morality, requires a moral lawgiver:

Robertson: evil exists, e.g. – the Holocaust. If atheism is true, objective morality is impossible. Richard Dawkins agrees. Therefore, theism is the best explanation for the existence of evil.

Dillahunty: In my opinion, morality means doing what helps people have well-being. And I think that the Holocaust is obviously bad, because it hurts the well-being of the victims.

Robertson: The problem is that on your view, different people decide what well-being is to them. If you were raised in the Social Darwinism of the Nazi regime, you would believe that the Holocaust was the best for the well-being of the society as a whole.

Dillahunty: Isn’t it obvious that killing people is bad for their well-being?

Robertson: Is it bad for the well-being of unborn children to kill them?

Dillahunty: Yes

Robertson: So you’re against abortion, then?

Dillahunty: No

Robertson: So you think that killing the child in the womb is against the well-being of the child, but you’re for that?

Dillahunty: I don’t know! I don’t know!

Then Dillahunty tried to claim Hitler was a Christian:

Dillahunty: here is a quote by Hitler saying that secular schools are bad, and religious schools are good – see, he’s a Christian!

Robertson: when was that said and to whom?

Dillahunty: I don’t know, I don’t know!

Robertson: It was said in 1933, during an election campaign, to Catholic authorities – he was a politician, looking for votes from Catholics so he could become Chancellor.

Good and evil on atheism:

Dillahunty: good actions results in states with more well-being, and evil actions result in states with less well-being.

Brierley: but when the Nazis slaughtered all those people, they believed they were increasing well-being

Dillahunty: But you could demonstrate to them that their action is not going to increase well-being. Survival of the fittest is descriptive of what happens, but it’s not prescriptive.

Robertson: Whose well-being will human beings think about most, if not their own? Do you really think that you can stop people like Charles Manson from being evil by sitting down and trying to prove to them that they are not helping their victim’s well-being?


Robertson (to Dillahunty): Is it a fact that Dachau (a concentration camp) was morally wrong?

Dillahunty: (literally, not a paraphrase) I DON’T KNOW

My thoughts:

When I listened to this debate, the overwhelming conviction that emerges is that Matt Dillahunty is not someone who forms his worldview based on evidence. His rejection of the Big Bang cosmology with “I don’t know” is just atrocious. His comments about slavery in the Bible and Hitler being a Christian show that his investigations of these issues is far below the level of a responsible adult. His dallying with the Jesus-never-existed view just shows him to be fundamentally anti-intellectual, as even atheist historian Bart Ehrman denies that view. His definition of faith has nothing to do with the Bible, or Christian authorities, or Christian scholars – he invented a definition of faith that allows him to mock Christians as morons. That’s just irresponsible – letting the desire to mock others cause you to distort the definition of a word. When asked to state his positions or respond to specific evidence, his response is very often “I don’t know”. It seems to me that atheism, to him, means not pursuing truth with the aim of grasping it. He wants to keep reality at a safe distance – that’s why he says “I don’t know” so often.

On morality, it’s even worse. It’s not surprising to me that he is pro-abortion and has no opinion about concentration camps being objectively evil. Most atheists are pro-abortion, by the way. When it comes to morality, Dillahunty only has his own personal opinions, and they refer to nothing outside his own mind. (His opinion of morality as related to well-being is utilitarianism – a very problematic view – but moreover, it is his subjective view – he isn’t offering it as any sort of objective moral system that would be prescriptive instead of descriptive. Without an after-life, there is no reason for anyone to care about the moral point of view when it goes against their self-interest, anyway. Atheists use moral language, but their statements are not referring to any objective, prescriptive moral reality. Atheism is materialistic and therefore deterministic – it does not even ground the free will that is needed to make moral choices. Their view is Darwinian survival of the fittest, that’s what emerges from their origins story – and it does not rationally ground morality. The strong kill the weak, if they can. I’ve written before about how difficult it is for atheists to rationally condemn things like slavery, and nothing in Dillahunty’s presentation led me to believe that he had solved that problem.

Anybody can be an intellectually-satisfied atheist with an empty head – it’s knowledge that causes people to conform their beliefs to reality. If one strives to keep one’s head as empty as possible, then of course one can believe anything one wants. I’m glad, speaking as a Christian theist, that I get to follow the evidence wherever it leads. It seems to me that we should do that, rather than decide how we want to live first, and then invent a worldview to justify our desires.

Positive arguments for theism

3 thoughts on “Matt Dillahunty debates David Robertson on atheism, morality and evil”

  1. Hey, don’t have time to watch the whole debate right now, but I wanted to reply to a few of the points you included in your summary.

    Firstly, what’s with the agnostic/atheist nitpicking on Dillahunty? Unless you are attempting to go by the colloquial definition of atheist, as in one who professes to know for sure god doesn’t exist.

    Second, on the point of of matter self-creating out of nothing – you’d have to talk to a physicist studying quantum mechanics. Which, from my very limited understanding, is full of exactly those kinds of seeming contradictions.

    Third, how is “I don’t know” a rejection of the big bang? Unless you’re very knowledgeable on astronomy and cosmology that seems like a reasonable answer to me. At any rate, I don’t see the Big bang as relevant to the argument.

    As for Hitler, christian or atheist doesn’t much matter, he was an evil man and men have used many philosophies and faiths to justify their actions. The philosophy is only the issue if it prescribes the evil actions.

    Finally, morality. This seems like your main focus, but I’m going to try to be succinct. Also, I can only truly speak for myself, though I think I would have at least some agreement. For myself morality is rooted in the golden rule, empathy, and consent. Those three ideas, along with the standards of the specific society we are raised in as taught by our parents, seem perfectly adequate to cover things.

    That got more long-winded than I had intended, but hey it’s a post about a debate! I’m not even going to think about tackling your “positive arguments for theism” section just now, but I’ll throw this in quickly: arguments are great, but they aren’t evidence.

  2. I think the definition of atheist generally accepted before the “I just lack belief” fad was someone who could state “God does not exist.”

    “Second, on the point of matter self-creating out of nothing – you’d have to talk to a physicist studying quantum mechanics. Which, from my very limited understanding, is full of exactly those kinds of seeming contradictions” I’m not a physicist, but I would assume that one would have to show that it is obvious that such behavior in the quantum scale manifests in the macro scale. One does not generally worry about the wave function of one’s car.

    “As for Hitler, christian or atheist doesn’t much matter” If it didn’t matter, people would not keep bringing it up.

    “how is “I don’t know” a rejection of the big bang? Unless you’re very knowledgeable on astronomy and cosmology that seems like a reasonable answer to me.” Unless you are one of Boghosian’s street epistimologists. Isn’t the tactic, generally, to ask questions until the believer admits that he doesn’t know and then point out how it is unfounded faith because otherwise he’d know the answer?

    1. Reformed-Canadian: Interesting that you mention Boghosian’s Street Epistomology, which is what my apostate son is involved with. He tried it on me during a visit last year, but didn’t make much headway!
      Their approach would probably only work with people who are weak on the foundations of their faith, i.e. what they believe and why they believe (and I’ve seen some pretty off-the-wall comments by Christians online – a sign of poor discipleship).
      On the other hand, Dillahunty’s arguments and responses (as mentioned in WK’s summation) are on a par with some of the atheist keyboard warriors’ arguments I’ve encountered, also evidence that they are regurgitating standard anti-theist propaganda (a la Dawkins?) and have not really thought through the issues properly.

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