God Questions - a dialogue

God Questions is a record of debate arising out of a correspondence between American Atheist Professor Carl Stecher and English Philosopher Peter S. Williams in 2001-2002. It is reproduced here, as edited by the authors, for the first time.

Carl Stecher – Opening Statement

After many years at Salem State College teaching American Literature, Advanced Writing, a course of my own design called The Search for God, and recently, Literature of the Bible, I decided it was time to put together and in writing what I had learned – or at least as much as I could put in a single, coherent piece. The result was an article called “Searching for a Lost God”, published in a campus publication, Sextant in 1998, and later republished, in an editorially mangled version, in The Humanist under the title “Looking for God in all the Wrong Places“. (I consider the Sextant article to be the Authorized Version.) Since I had taken a very skeptical, challenging position on the questions of the morality and even the existence of the God of traditional Christianity, I expected some controversy, some interesting and negative reaction from readers of the Sextant article – I realized that the article in The Humanist was preaching to the choir. I was surprised by the reaction I did get: nothing but congratulations and praise, many readers saying that I had effectively put in words what they had long been thinking.

I rather relish controversy, having had some success as a debater in high school and as an undergraduate, and I have not had much opportunity to indulge this pleasure – I tried to keep my teaching non-denominational, challenging, I hope, but also presenting an eclectic mix of interpretations. It was quite common for students at the end of the religiously oriented courses to tell me the experience had strengthened their traditional faith. I also wished to test my assertions against those who had come to very different conclusions about God in a context free from the student / professor factor, so I sent out copies of the Sextant article to more than twenty prominent Christians – theologians, preachers of note, etc., hoping to engage with them in dialogue. I was ignored by some, received rather rude responses from a few, and some quite interesting letters from a few others. With these I exchanged several lengthy letters and felt enriched by the experience.

In the summer of 1999, while on vacation in England, I visited the York Cathedral Bookstore and found there The Case For God by Peter Williams. Intrigued by the title, I purchased the fairly hefty book and read it with great interest. I thought Mr. Williams to be a formidable advocate for views very much in conflict with my own. I was especially encouraged by a statement that he had made in his book: “Just because I believe there are good arguments for the existence of God, and that none of the arguments I have seen against God’s existence work, does not excuse me from defending these beliefs against criticism. Likewise, even if you think you have strong reasons for believing that God doesn’t exist, you should consider and attempt to refute both my arguments and my criticisms of your arguments... At the very least, we will come to understand each other better.” Here’s my man, I thought, and sent him my article.

And I was right. Since then Peter and I have exchanged hundreds of pages of correspondence. I admire his intelligence, his zeal, his prodigious scholarship, astonishing for someone who is still only 27 years old. We have both been engrossed by this correspondence; we hope that this book, a distillation and carefully organized version of our correspondence, will also engage others in what we think to be life’s most important questions.

I would like to correct one thing in the way I have been identified – as an atheist. I am concerned about this label for two reasons. First, it suggests that I might hold views such as recently expressed by Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the so-called new atheists. In many ways, my views differ. Most importantly, I am not, like them, anti-religious. I know people of faith, including Peter, that I very much respect, and I have devout Christians in my immediate family that I love deeply. And please note that my debate with Peter was written years before the books of the above mentioned, and so is not in any way influenced by them. Equally important, I am myself a believer, of sorts. I believe that the God of Christianity – or the different Gods of different Christianities – and the God(s) of the Jews, and of Islam, and of the Hindus, and the gods of all other faiths do exist. But I believe their existence is in the ideas and emotions of their believers, rather than in some supernatural existence. This existence gives these gods great power, for both good and evil: the power to establish hospitals and schools and to care for the needy, but also the power to launch wars and inspire terrorists. They are as real as love and hate and political philosophies and scientific theories. But they live only as long as they inspire belief: Zeus and Mars are as dead as doornails. I am fascinated by religious belief, even though I cannot share a belief in the supernatural, and more specifically, Christian belief, and I am delighted by the opportunity to explore this topic with Peter.

Peter S. Williams – Opening Statement

According to G.K. Chesterton, “Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare.”[1] I’m glad to say that this book is one of the few exceptions that prove the rule. The central subject of our controversy is the God of Christian theism, and our common audience, whose role it is not only to enjoy the cut and thrust of our debate, but to seriously consider whose point of view you find the more convincing, is you, the reader.

As a Christian philosopher I wrote my first book, The Case for God (Monarch, 1999), out of a desire to communicate to educated non-specialists something of the wealth of reasons available for belief in God. I particularly wanted to pass on in a more accessible form the work of Christians participating in the contemporary renaissance of philosophy of religion (thinkers like William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinghorne, Richard Swinburne and Keith Ward).

Carl wrote to me having read my book, primarily because he had some objections to Christian theism that my book, being merely a defence of theism, did not consider. Thus began a long-running correspondence, the edited and revised highlights of which compose this volume.

I have never felt my beliefs being so thoroughly scrutinized and criticized as they have been while debating Carl. Our dialogue has posed a more worthy challenge to my faith than a clutch of atheological writings I could mention. For this I owe Carl thanks, for “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

I think it significant that, as we debated each other, we moved closer to understanding each other as fellow human beings. Christians should: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience...” (1 Peter 3:15.) While I have tried to fulfil both parts of this instruction, I recognize that the second half is actually the more important, for when the scrutiny of dogma ends, friendship goes on: “there exists not only comradeship, but a very different thing, called friendship; an agreement under all the arguments and a thread which, please God, will never break.”[2] I deeply appreciate the time Carl took to debate with me and to steer the editing and moulding of our letters, and their revisions, into a readable discussion! I think we have managed to capture the heart and spirit of our debate.

There are some very definite points of disagreement between Carl and myself, and where we disagree I believe that I am right and he is wrong (of course, Carl believes that he is right and I am wrong). The central question of our debate, as I see it, is this: “Is the most basic truth about ultimate reality a personal truth, or is it an impersonal truth?”[3] Carl and I give opposing answers of this question; we can’t both be right! This is our fundamental disagreement. However, we also have a fundamental agreement; we both agree that truth exists, that truth matters, and that two people with different worldviews can unite around the value of truth, disagreeing with the other’s beliefs without finding each other disagreeable.

Whatever opinion you currently hold, I encourage you to be mindful of the fact that the correct answer to the question of ultimate reality is the most relevant and important truth you can pursue. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

“Here is a door [Christianity], behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal ‘sell’ on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man ... to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?”[4]

Go to Chapter 1


[1] G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, (Ignatius), p.26.
[2] Ibid, p.12.
[3] Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, (Eerdmans, 1992), p.21.
[4] C.S. Lewis, ‘Man or Rabbit?’, God in the Dock, (Fount).

© 2010 Carl Stecher & Peter S. Williams
This dialogue, edited by the authors in 2002, is now being published for the first time on bethinking.org, by the kind permission of both authors.