Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Barker–D'Souza Debate, Part 2

Following the two 15-minute opening statements, Dan and Dinesh each got a 7-minute rebuttal. Dinesh said much of Dan's argument was irrelevant to how religion affects the real world. He pointed to Dan's history as a biblical literalist and called him an "atheist fundamentalist" who continued to take the Bible too literally. Dinesh dismissed Dan's Job argument by saying that Job was merely a fable, one that certainly did not teach that God is a moral monster. He argued that we should take religion seriously because 95% of the world experiences God in some way. He also told parable of his own: if there is a certain tribe in which most members claim to be well-acquainted with a man named Bill, then it would be silly for the other tribe members to claim he doesn't exist even if they have never met him. He ended by equating faith in the afterlife to faith in no afterlife, and called atheism "a happy-faced council of complete despair."

Dan said Dinesh committed the genetic fallacy in his opening statements by confusing origin with cause—the good things Dinesh associated with Christianity aren't Christian concepts any more than algebra is a Muslim concept. He quickly countered several of Dinesh's arguments: far from being caused by religion, the Enlightenment helped free us from it; no passage in the Bible advocates democracy; Jesus mentions slavery in Luke 14 but never criticizes it; abolitionists were called "infidels" by many Christians; the Bible preaches equality among Christians, but then turns around and echoes Old Testament denigration of Arabs; the Bible is anti-science in that it teaches Christians to "bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." Finally, he said that Stalin and other atheist dictators did not commit their crimes in the name of atheism, that the Nazis were primarily Christians, and that Hitler was essentially on a religious crusade in his killing of Jews.

Next was a cross-examination segment where the two debaters addressed each other directly. Dinesh claimed that Hitler was feigning his religious views and cited the widely criticized pro-intelligent design book From Darwin to Hitler in support of the idea that Hitler was motivated by Darwinian principles. He added that Stalin was a Marxist who worked to get rid of religion, and atheism was a large part of Marxist ideology. Dan reiterated what he had said about Hitler's support for religion based on his writings, and responded that Stalin disagreed with the church's political views, but had no problem with religion itself. Later, Dinesh emphasized European diseases as the main cause of Native American deaths, while Dan focused on the Christian "liberators" brandishing Bibles and guns.

During the Q&A, Dan was asked about schisms among atheists as compared to those in Christianity. He response was that disagreements among atheists are a sign of free thought, whereas Christianity claims absolute truth, and one would expect God to make that truth clear. Dinesh downplayed morality in animals by saying there was still scientific debate about it and claiming that rape is common among the apes. Later he claimed a discrepancy between Dan's claims of "knowing" about religious truth and concluding from "lack of evidence." Dan said the "knowing" applied to the falsity of Christianity and clarified his position as an agnostic atheist, which Dinesh didn't really seem to grasp. The debate moderator (conservative radio host Mark Larson) was generally quite charming and funny during the debate, but I thought it was out of place for him to "cut in line" to ask Dan whether he donates royalties from his old Christian music to charity, then quip something pro-life when Dan said he donated to a pro-choice group.

In the concluding remarks, Dinesh said science didn't have all the answers, cited a study claiming that the religious are more compassionate than the non-religious, and said that religious beliefs bring people happiness. Dan countered that one should ask "Does it work?" and not "Does it work for us?" He also reemphasized his Job illustration and contrasted religious and secular ethics: religious people need excuses (i.e. heaven and hell) to be good, while secular people use reason to draw conclusions about morality.

My primary criticism of Dan's performance is that he focused a bit too much on the truth or falsity of religion as opposed to its effect on the world (although Dinesh did this a few times as well). I also thought he could have been more forceful in his rejection of "atheist atrocities." However, I liked that he emphasized religion's tendency to make other problems worse. That point was illustrated well when he countered Dinesh's claim that the Middle East conflict is a land dispute: while it's about land, religious differences are the driving force behind it.

The biggest flaw in Dinesh's argument was that he consistently confused correlation with causation. He failed to establish a causal link between religion and good, or between atheism and evil. Why does he claim Stalin's killing was motivated by Marxist atheism rather than his paranoid lust for power? Why does he credit Christianity for the Enlightenment, yet apparently not for the superstition that dominated the Middle Ages? His "95% experience God" argument is ridiculous too. First, the statistic is wrong: the estimates I found put theism at 77%, 84%, or 88% globally. Second, they "experience" radically different, mutually exclusive gods—if anything, it suggests a naturalistic explanation. His "Bill" story is also a horrible analogy because Bill has none of the extraordinary and unfalsifiable traits associated with God.

A few more errors: Dinesh's comparison between believers' faith and unbelievers' "faith" was a false equivalence that ignored burden of proof. "Science doesn't have all the answers" was a straw man that no one familiar with science would claim. "Rape is common in apes," even if true, is still compatible with their having a sense of morality. Finally, I appreciate how Dinesh matter-of-factly embraced evolution and rejected biblical literalism, although it probably made the evangelicals in the audience a little uneasy—a good thing for unbelievers, perhaps bad for him.

Overall, although Dinesh may have exceeded Dan in the charisma department, his arguments were riddled with errors and fallacies. Dan could have been a little more forceful and to the point, but nearly everything he said was perfectly logical. This was the first debate I've attended, and it was definitely well worth it. I learned some interesting facts here and there, and it gave me a better idea of the strengths and limitations of the debate format.

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