The “Does God Exist?” debate in Bakersfield at the Garces Memorial High School between Catholics and atheists could have been renamed, “Captain Strawman vs. The Angry Atheist!”
I had some hope for this debate. Unfortunately, it went very much the way that I thought it would go.
When CVAAS was first contacted by Chris Plance, the representative from Garces, he said that he was, “… hoping to expose our students to an atheist point of view and see how Catholics interact and respond in dialogue.” He also said that students at the school were “somewhat skeptical” so it would be an opportunity “…to have them ask you questions and iron out what an atheist point of view looks like.”
But further text conversation with Chris showed that he was not actually interested in teaching students about atheism or in having any sort of informative dialog. He wanted an adversarial debate. I recognized that Garces wanted a confrontation where they could use a debate format to attack atheists.
Debates are a poor way to find out what is true. As the NCSE has pointed out, “…debates are “drive-by shootings” when it comes to critical thinking.
It really is just this simple – an argument can be logical, persuasive, and completely reasonable, and it can still be wrong. Philosopher Karl Popper has shown that claims of knowledge cannot be justified and that they are at best held tentatively, with the understanding that they are only probably true and that given the right evidence they must be modified or overturned entirely. Any claim that cannot be falsified, that makes no predictions is merely an assertion.
After being rejected by me, Chris pushed so I offered that there was another atheist group in Bakersfield. The first contact I provided also rejected him, but my friend 7 Bates (yes, his name really is a number, right on his birth certificate) was very eager to try it. 7 is the president of the Atheist Society of Kern (ASK). He told me that he was skilled in debate and that he could throw any sort of trap back at the Garces team.
7 chose Nick as his debate partner. Nick is the vice president of ASK, and is an intelligent young man and a former Marine and combat vet.
On the side of the Catholics, Chris teaches theology. His partner Timothy Gordon has a licentiate (Ph.L) that he earned in Rome. He also has a J.D. from San Diego, and he teaches math and theology for Garces. One of the bios that I read about Timothy says that he has a degree in philosophy.
From the very beginning of the debate, it was made very clear that the debate was not about exposing students to an atheist point of view. Instead, it was about crushing atheism.
The first speaker was Timothy, who whipped out his first strawman argument of the evening by saying that atheism was “the last superstition” and that Roman Catholicism was the “only worldview that was not a superstition” which demonstrated immediately that he did not understand atheism.
That happened repeatedly with Timothy. His arguments often misstated the position of the atheist speakers. Most glaringly this happened when he repeatedly spoke about atheists and causality.
One of the debate questions was about causality. 7 tried to explain the very real problems that physicists have with causality. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain this well. Briefly, there is a difference in how causality is treated in philosophy and in physics, and if you explain it from a physics point of view a (poor) philosopher may attack it using terms from philosophy.
Timothy didn’t try to understand the atheist response. He instead told the audience again and again that, “The atheists don’t believe in Causality!” He stated incredulously that the atheists must have been very surprised to arrive at the debate.
Atheists do tend to be curious about causality, and we try to understand it – even though it is complicated and wrapped up in General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The spontaneous creation of virtual particles would seem to undermine causality, and Dirac’s equation along with careful experimental measurements demonstrate the existence of virtual particles.
But we can skip most physics and look at the question from a position that would seem to agree with both physics and philosophy. If causality depends on space and time, then in a place where neither exist causality itself may not exist. Did space and time exist before the Big Bang? Could the Big Bang happen uncaused in a place where causality doesn’t exist? If space and time did exist before the Big Bang, is it connected causally to our universe? The answer to all of these questions is that no one knows. But stating that an uncaused event could NOT happen before the Big Bang is merely an assertion, unsupported by evidence.
Timothy also tried to supply evidence for God by whipping out all the old philosophical arguments for the existence of God. He diligently trotted out Aristotle, Plato, St. Anselm, Aquinas, and the “logical necessity” propounded by Descartes. He conveniently did NOT mention the ways in which all these philosophical arguments are flawed. And although he briefly mentioned Hume, he didn’t mention that Hume had provided a philosophical argument against the existence of God.
Timothy also made no mention of the modern philosophers who have put the last nail into the coffin of whether philosophy can prove that a deity exists. These include Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Daniel Dennett, and noted philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, who honestly pointed out in his book “Reasonable Faith” that NO apologetic argument or philosophy can prove that Christianity (or God) is true.
When I compared Timothy’s philosophical arguments for God against Dr. Craig’s admission that philosophy fails to prove God I started wondering if Timothy actually had a degree in philosophy.
Timothy holds a Juris Doctor degree, so it is unsurprising that he briefly tried to use the analogy of a court case to say that these philosophical arguments are reasonable. This conveniently disregards the facts that science doesn’t build and organize knowledge through court cases, and the Innocence Project has provided clear evidence that things “proved” in court are not necessarily true.
The next biggest strawman came when Timothy tried to pin down a definition of atheism. 7 pointed out that he was an agnostic atheist, which to him meant that he can’t prove that some sort of deity does NOT exist. Timothy took that to mean that 7 was “on the fence” about God and that he was already halfway a Catholic! And he pounded on this strawman several times.
Unfortunately, the atheists didn’t take the opportunity to point out that Timothy was also an atheist toward many thousands of other possible Gods, so if we are talking about “percentages” Timothy is much more an atheist than 7 is a Catholic.
Mostly, 7 did fairly well for not being a philosopher or a physicist. I disliked the “parting shots” he took at the end of his time periods that derailed the conversation into areas that were too often firmly biblical. Most atheists do know the bible fairly well and are interested in bringing up problems with it, but Catholics are possibly the only Christians who are better versed in the Catholic Bible than atheists. And these were Catholic teachers, who presumably know the Catholic Bible VERY well. (Note: The Catholic bible is somewhat different from the Protestant bible.)
And although 7 is a good speaker, he also worked too hard at trying to be a friend to the audience. His casual attitude didn’t fare well against two charismatic speakers who are also trained teachers.
But I’ve said a lot about 7 and Timothy. Nick and Chris were also there. In comparison with their counterparts, Nick and Chris were definitely the weaker speakers. Nick let his emotions get in his way. He took the debate as a form of combat, and by the end of the debate he had alienated most of the audience. It didn’t matter how good his points were – he needed to be calmer, more dispassionate. Unfortunately, the meme of the “angry atheist” was perpetuated.
Chris responded to the baiting comments tossed out by 7, and instead of staying on topic he was diverted. Chris did mention on several occasions that he came to Catholicism through atheism. But since this wasn’t a dialog the atheists didn’t have the opportunity to ask him a very relevant question. “Why did you think atheism was convincing, and why do you no longer believe that to be true?” This could have been used to speak about the difference between implicit and explicit atheism. It could also demonstrate that a person who doesn’t come to atheism through reason won’t require reason to leave it. Was Chris merely an implicit atheist, for the same reasons as C.S. Lewis or Lee Strobel?
Chris also said that Catholicism was true due to the Three Motives of Credibility of Faith (motiva credibilitatis) which is mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Chris said that these reasons for believing that Catholicism is true include the witness of miracles, the witness of prophecy, and the witness of the long existence of the Catholic Church itself.
But we should ask ourselves, where are these miracles witnessed? In the Bible. Where are these prophecies witnessed? In the Bible. The Bible here is being used as the evidence. Using the Bible as evidence is seen to be reasonable by Christians. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke ch.6) that his words are the foundation for everything. But really the Bible is just testimony, it is a series of claims that must in themselves be backed by evidence. Chris also said that the existence of the Church is the evidence that the Bible (and its claims) are true – which is a circular argument. The Bible is true because the Church exists, and the Church exists because the Bible is true.
And miracles happen all the time in stories. Miracles are so common that they are called “Deus ex Machina” which refers to a very ancient practice of using a crane to lower God (or a god) onto the stage to set things right at the end of a theatrical play. Prophecy is also a story favorite. Over 700 years before the supposed birth of Christ the Iliad and the Odyssey featured both fulfilled prophecy and many miracles. The earlier books of the Harry Potter series had a prophecy that was fulfilled in later books. Shall we assume that Harry Potter and the gods of Olympus are real?
The three Motives of Credibility as quoted by Chris turn out to be merely unsupported assertions, no matter how much he wants to believe otherwise.
The debate was long, and the audience was very pleased. It reminded me of the scene in “Persuasion” at the pump room in Bath where a member of the Philosophical Society crows to Lady Russell, “The atheists were completely routed!” The tone of victory after the debate was identical.
And that tone also made it very clear that this wasn’t about dialog. It wasn’t about understanding. It wasn’t about learning about atheism. It was a way of both shielding students from understanding while telling them that atheism was wrong or unfounded. And a lot of words, unsupported by evidence or fact were used to do this.
After this win, Garces Memorial High School is eager to schedule another debate. 7, as president of ASK is also eager to join them. The next debate could be on morality. But the question of the existence of a deity remains unsettled, so any assertion of a morality based on a deity will also be unsettled. The cart would be placed in front of the horse in such a debate. The debate might as well be about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Debates seem of little use to me. Too often they are like this – assertions made without evidence, poor philosophy, and lots of ego. As President of CVAAS I will continue to refuse any invitation to a public debate. If people want to learn about atheism I will happily arrange a dialog – a discussion around a table. I am happy to offer a presentation followed by questions and answers and dialog. I would be happy to engage in a written dialog. I invite anyone interested to contact me and CVAAS. If you’re serious, I can make it happen.
But don’t confuse a debate with a dialog. It is intellectually dishonest to say that you are interested in “an atheist point of view” when it is obvious that you are only interested in attacking a threat to your faith-based beliefs.