Fr. Philip Cleevely, left, debated atheist Justin Trottier, right, on the existence of God at the first Chesterton Debate. Hosted by the archdiocese of Toronto and its youth office, the debate was moderated by Stephen LeDrew. Photo by Ruane Remy

Debaters tackle God’s existence

  • February 11, 2014

Toronto - The philosopher, the skeptic and the question of God’s existence — that drew more than 500, both Catholics and atheists, to a sold-out Isabel Bader Theatre for the first Chesterton Debate.

Sponsored by the Office for Catholic Youth and the archdiocese of Toronto, the Feb. 7 debate saw St. Philip’s Seminary professor Fr. Philip Cleevely defend the existence of God, taking on Justin Trottier who argued the atheist side. 

Cleevely based his argument in logic rather than Scripture. He argued that the mystery of existence points to the existence of God. The mystery of the world is not how the world exists, he said, but why it exists. The world cannot explain why and, therefore, this mystery originates from that which is external to the world. 

“It was very nuanced,” said David Postill, who was surprised by Cleevely’s “deep philosophical approach.”

“I was concerned that in a debate format, his opening seemed more suited to a course lecture,” said Postill, a marketing executive and business strategist who attended the event. But “he was able to move beyond a teaching moment and did connect well with the audience.”

First Cleevely defined reality as existence beyond thought, and defined mystery as the point at which explanation has been defeated.

“Explanations depend on there being something to explain,” he said.

Drawing upon the world’s existence, he argued that we take its “sheer existence” for granted, wanting to discover and understand it, wrapped up in the “how,” ignoring the “why.”

But “sheer existence is in a very fundamental way inexplicable,” said Cleevely. “What something is and why it functions as it does can never tell you why it exists.”

Calling upon the audience to use themselves as an example, he said our conception by our parents can explain what we are and who we are, but why we come to be remains a mystery. There is a universal “defeat of explanation.”

“Not only is science incapable of dispelling the mystery of existence, science as an exploration of what’s real, depends radically upon that mystery for its very possibility,” he said.

He concluded that when we affirm God, we are not offering an explanation because we are affirming something “incomprehensible to us.” He calls it a “demonstrated unknowability.” Cleevely makes no claim to closure.

“It’s a kind of necessary horizon to free thinking, an inescapable recognition of what lies mysteriously beyond us,” he said. “Such wonder is as far as we can go when, as tonight, our context is reason, not faith.”

He elaborated by saying that referring to God as all-powerful, all-knowing or all-good can only be clarified in the context of faith.

Cleevely went on to argue that though atheism is unreasonable in light of the world’s existence, it is a reasonable position in the world as we know it, a world that leaves people feeling abandoned by God.

Trottier, an advocate for secularism and founder of the Centre for Inquiry Canada, opened by saying he was not going to argue that no God exists, but that he does not believe in any God, which he calls a minimum position for atheists. Drawing from examples rooted in nature — evolution by natural selection, the existence of suffering — history, geography and science, he built what he called “a body of doubt” that makes “atheism the more reasonable conclusion.”

Likening himself to the defense attorney in a court trial, and subsequently implying Cleevely is the prosecutor, Trottier said his job is not to prove God’s non-existence, but to show why the case for His existence fails. 

Trottier argued that the “ill-defined concept of God” as all-powerful, -knowing, -present and -good makes no sense and that God cannot exist because He leaves no evidence of His existence, no matter how hard we look.

“If theism were true we might expect God to act in the world in ways that science would have to take into account,” he said, adding that debates on the existence of God suggests “reasonable grounds for disbelief.”

“God could have given each of us a clear inner, unmistakable awareness of His presence, still leaving us with a choice to accept His love,” Trottier said.

Trottier then turned to neuroscience to demonstrate that the human mind arises from physical processes in the brain without the need for an “immaterial soul.”

He said the trial-and-error nature of evolution by natural selection opposes intelligent design, even if theistic evolutionists accept evolution as a God-guided process.

The two debaters, moderated by CP24 host Stephen LeDrew, had the opportunity to respond to the other’s opening remarks and then ask each other three questions.

The debate series is inspired by G.K. Chesterton, the 20th-century English Catholic writer.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.