apologetics, Historical Apologetics

“Debate on the Evidences for Christianity” – Alexander Campbell vs. Robert Owen (1829) Part 3- Historical Apologetics Debates

Alexander Campbell (1788-1866)

Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was a Scots-Irish immigrant in the United States who debated Christianity with a few well-known skeptics. One of his best known debates was with Robert Owen (1771-1858), who argued in favor of agnosticism. This debate was published as “Debate on the Evidences of Christianity” (1829, see link for download). Here, will look at what answers Campbell gave and where his arguments might have been improved. Owen was a fine opponent whom Campbell himself acknowledged as a worthy scholar.

Debate on the Evidences for Christianity Part III

Campbell’s reply

Campbell here rises and responds to Owen by going back to the propositions he seeks to prove, namely, Owen is trying to demonstrate that all religions are founded upon ignorance; that all religions “are directly opposed to the never-changing laws of nature”; that all religions are the “source of vice, disunion, and misery of every description”; that religions are the “only bar” to human society forming in a way of charity and intelligence; and that religions can no longer be maintained but by “the ignorance of the mass of the people, and the tyranny of the few over that mass” (30).

Each of these propositions, notes Campbell, is independent of the others and requires its own set of proofs. The twelve facts that Owen alleged (p. 22-23) themselves require establishment and also interpretation–how are they to be applied in such a way as to demonstrate the five propositions Owen seeks to demonstrate against religion? After some other preliminary concerns, Campbell also notes the difficulty of pinning down exactly how Owen is using key terms in the debate. This may seem to be a kind of obfuscation on Campbell’s part, but given the broadness of Owen’s claims, it is important, as Campbell notes, to understand how Owen is using terms like divine, religion, morality, virtue, and the like. Owen throws these terms out alongside what he calls proofs without really going into how these are proven. If it is true that all religions lead to vice–what is it that is meant by vice? One might think that it is a vice to waste one’s time going to a worship service every week, but that is only a vice if the worship itself is to a false god and truly a waste of time. Indeed, some modern studies have suggested that going to church can improve mental health, suggesting that even if there is no God, the practice itself may have pragmatic benefit.

Looking back to Campbell and Owen’s time, the terms in question are therefore very important, and coming to agreement on their use is beneficial. But again, one wonders if the debate  will be able to get off the ground if it begins to circle the questions of exacting definitions of every term.

Campbell then moves to the offensive and suggests that he could affirm each of Owen’s 12 facts and still have no trouble maintaining his belief. He notes several reasons for this, including that the facts pertain to the physical and so cannot prove or disprove the metaphysical; that the facts, if granted, do not seem to have a specifically logical connection to any of Owen’s 5 theses; and that the facts themselves require organization into premises (33-34).

Owen then Rises

Owen surprisingly suggests that:

it did not, nor does it now, appear to me that I stand pledged to prove the fallacy of the Christian religion, separated from all other religions. To me they all appear one and the same in principle and in general practice, except the difference in the rites and ceremonies, which I deem mere
form. (35)

After some back-and-forth over the exact nature of the debate, Owen continues, asserting once again that Campbell and others are not to blame for their alleged ignorance in being Christian any more than anyone of any other religious tradition is to blame for their own. Each, he suggests, is merely the product of their time and circumstance, such that if one were born to a family of Buddhists, one would be Buddhist. Thus, Campbell happens to be Christian, but one can’t blame him for it (37). Here, it is worth noting something that Owen has yet to acknowledge. Namely, that his own birth is also a product of time and circumstance, and so perhaps his own beliefs are a product of the same whims of history that he alleges all religious believers succumb to. After all, if he believes that the chance of one’s birth is truly a logical reason to doubt the beliefs one has, then what makes his own system of beliefs excluded from the same charge?

Owen’s reading of his address digresses into areas of his own personal interest, including the allegation that two sciences are now capable of being spread globally: the science of “influence of circumstance over human nature” and the science of the “means of creating infinite wealth and of its equal distribution” (38). He alleges that if all humans would just embrace this knowledge, the need for religion would disappear, all revolutions would cease, etc. It seems possible that if we could truly generate infinite wealth and distribute it evenly, that might end a number of societal ills, but whether Owen truly possessed such a knowledge remains to be seen.

Campbell answers that Owen has yet to establish an argument for his positions, and the meeting adjourned for the moment. Here, we, too, will await the next installment.


  1. Does the chance of one’s birth provide a reason to doubt one’s beliefs? If so, how? If not, why not?
  2. How important is it to establish definitions in a discussion like this debate?


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Apologetics Read-Through: Historical Apologetics Read-Along– Here are links for the collected posts in this series and other read-throughs of apologetics books (forthcoming).

Dead Apologists Society– A page for Christians interested in the works of historical apologetics. There is also a Facebook group for it.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


One thought on ““Debate on the Evidences for Christianity” – Alexander Campbell vs. Robert Owen (1829) Part 3- Historical Apologetics Debates

  1. how religion is organised can lead to confusion, amen

    Posted by bwcarey | December 16, 2019, 6:48 AM

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