The Price Center West ballroom was packed with about a thousand people for the Barker–D'Souza "Is Religion the Problem?" debate, including vocal advocates for both sides. A few even had to stand in the aisles since all the seats were filled. Once we found a spot to sit down, I noticed the giant image of the UCSD emblem projected on the wall in front of me:
"Let there be light," it says—a quote taken straight from Genesis 1:3. It's a great illustration of how thoroughly religion has pervaded our society, even worming its way into places where it has absolutely no business. Ironically, the school is using that verse in Genesis as a metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge. But as Dan Barker argued, and as a poster that some audience members were holding succinctly pointed out, the Bible is a terrible source to cite in support of this theme.
Before I get into specifics, I'll just say that it's hard for me to pass judgment on who "won" the debate. Since I already side with Dan on this issue, it would probably be more productive to ask someone who was sitting on the fence. It's also not necessarily the most important question, because "winning" is largely about which side was more convincing, which is a product of rhetoric and emotion as well as the actual arguments. Overall, though, I think Dan made a far more logical case than Dinesh, so I'm happy with the results.
Dinesh opened by saying that he would stick to reason and not appeal to scripture for his arguments, and to his credit I think he honored that promise. First he argued that secular values such as compassion came into the world through Christianity, and secularism is therefore indebted to it. He said that in most cultures people care for no one outside of their family, recalling a saying from his homeland of India that "the tears of others are only water," and claimed Christianity was what changed this in the West. Slavery, he claimed, is a universal phenomenon that was opposed by Christians on the principle that all people are the same in God's eyes. He said that science first developed in a Christian culture, and many early scientists were Christians.
Second, Dinesh argued that atheism was more responsible than religion for the "crimes of history." He said that violent events from Christianity, like the Crusades and the Salem Witch Trials, were responsible for relatively few deaths. He characterized the Middle East conflict as a fight for land and the Northern Ireland conflict as a fight for power. Then he attributed "crimes of atheism" to dictators like Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Kim Jong-il, who have killed over 100 million people in total. Finally he closed by comparing Christianity and atheism and saying that the former was a far better influence on society.
Dan started by making a distinction about the nature of the problem religion poses: it's not the deepest problem, but it's the broadest; it has a tendency to make other problems worse by clouding our moral judgment. He made four points about religion: it's untrue, divisive, morally compromising and unnecessary. It's untrue because there are no good evidence or arguments in favor of it, there's no fully accepted definition of God, it's not testable, there are no good defenses against arguments like the problem of evil, and the various holy books are flawed. It's divisive because it creates "in" and "out" groups who have an us-versus-them mentality.
He showed how religion made people morally compromised with a great illustration. When he asked how many thought it would be evil for Dinesh to kill a family and then say "the devil made me do it," most everyone raised their hands. He compared this to the book of Job, where God essentially kills an innocent man's entire family, destroys his belongings and strikes him with boils, and then says to the devil in Job 2:3, "you incited me against him to ruin him without cause." Far fewer people raised their hands to call this evil, and Dan cited this as an example of how religion compromises morals. He then applied this to Christians' opinions on political issues: their beliefs warp their perception of stem cell research, abortion rights, gay marriage and so on. Finally, he argued that religion is unnecessary, pointing out that highly secular countries like Denmark are better off by virtually all measures than most of the more religious countries.
So those were the opening statements. In a later post, I'll cover the rest of the debate and offer some analysis of my own.