So the debate with Joe Puckett went off without a hitch last night. It was a cordial exchange of views. The church seats 800 people and I estimate that there must have been about 500-600 people there. Mark Tiborsky, the person who initially acted as the intermediary between Joe and me and who is very well connected in the local skeptical community and had advertised it widely, said that the number of people he knew who had signed up to attend numbered around 60-70, so most of the attendees were religious folk, which was what I expected. Mark recorded the whole thing and will be posting it on YouTube soon
The debate was moderated by a man named Alan who is a parishioner in Joe’s church and I thought that he did an excellent job. At the end of the debate all the religious people stood up and said that I had convinced them to become atheists. Ha! If only that were true. Of course, that did not happen. As I said, these events rarely if ever change people’s minds at the moment. At most they lay the seeds for future transformations.
The debate itself was a marathon event, starting promptly at 6:00pm and ending around 9:30pm. I made my opening argument for 20 minutes, Joe responded for 20. Then I gave my rebuttal for 15, and Joe gave his rebuttal for 15. Then Joe gave a closing statement for 5 minutes and I gave mine for 5. That took us to about 7:45. Then we had a break of about 15 minutes before we went to the Q/A and there were a lot of questions, which is always a good sign. At the end of the Q/A, I gave a short closing statement which was less than my allotted five minutes because I felt the audience must have been exhausted, and Joe spoke for five minutes. And we wrapped up shortly after 9:30. After that, about 50 of the local skeptics met at a nearby restaurant and I joined them and we had a great discussion over food and drink.
So what were my feelings about the debate? I thought it went fairly well for the skeptic side, but then I am not unbiased. Usually after these functions, I second-guess myself quite harshly about things I could have said better or arguments that I should have introduced but didn’t. I had less of those this time, suggesting that I am either getting better at this sort of thing or that in my old age I am becoming less self-critical.
The full video will be posted soon so I will spare you a re-hash of the arguments but instead give my general impressions.
There were two things I noted. One is the different style of argumentation between Joe and me. Joe spent an enormous amount of time using quotes from other people as arguments. He would quote some theologians (especially Alvin Plantinga) but most of them were from atheist scientists and non-scientists who had said things that he felt were favorable, or at least open, to the idea of god. I find the quotes-as-arguments strategy puzzling. As I have said before there are some self-professed atheists who for whatever reason seem to want to believe in a god and go out of their way to say positive things about god and religion. Scientists also freely confess that there are things we do not know yet. Hence it is easy to quote-mine them, to find things that they say that seem on the surface to leave an opening for god’s existence. But why they are considered arguments eludes me.
In contrast, I used only two quotes, both at the end of my closing statement, not as arguments but because they expressed so well what makes unbelief so satisfying. One was by Robert Ingersoll who said: “When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, of the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust.” The other was by Bertrand Russell who said: “Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end, the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”
Then other difference arises from the fact that if there is one thing that the new atheists have done successfully, it is to destroy the credibility and even respectability of the god-of-the-gaps argument. When arguing at a more sophisticated level like last night, religious people almost always deny that they are saying that because we cannot explain something, therefore it must be god. But right after saying that, they turn around and do nothing else but use it, by pointing to things that they say that science has no answers for (origin of life, origin of the universe, morality, consciousness) and then say that only god can explain them. This is pure god-of-the-gaps and Joe depended upon it almost exclusively. I can sympathize with their plight because they have no choice. Since they have no positive evidence for the existence of god, they have only this kind of negative evidence.
But I had anticipated this in my opening statement by pointing out that scientific logic, which we use in almost every aspect of our lives, places the burden of proof for any existence claim (and saying that god exists is one) on the person making that claim to provide a preponderance of evidence in favor of it. In the absence of such evidence, non-existence becomes the default position.
I said that it is important to realize that you cannot back your way into an existence claim, which is the essence of the god-of-the-gaps argument strategy. Some religious people spend an enormous amount of effort poking holes in scientific theories such as evolution or cosmology thinking that if they succeed in showing them to be false or inadequate, the only alternative theory is that god did it. That is futile because it runs against something that has been firmly established for centuries and that is that there are an infinite number of theories that can be constructed to encompass any set of data, however large. If you show that the theory of evolution is false, the only thing you get is that the theory of evolution is false. You have not proved any other theory, god or otherwise, to be true.
At the end of the evening, people came up and spoke to me. Most of them were pleasant and curious. A couple wanted to clarify some scientific questions about the Big Bang. One woman came up and said that she thought I was a nice person and was sorry that I was no longer a believer and requested permission to pray for me. She was very sweet.
But another woman came up to me with her eyes flashing and asked me how I could possibly deny that god existed when for her all the world was evidence for god. She also asked why atheists, if they believed there was no god, were so intent on getting rid of him everywhere. I told her that we didn’t care if people believed in god, we just felt that the public sphere should be religiously neutral. She was not happy.
Another man who looked angry whenever I spoke came up and said that he had two reliable sources who reported that Robert Ingersoll had had a deathbed conversion. I said that false deathbed conversion stories were common among religious people and even if that happened, all it showed was that the person was afraid of dying. I also asked him what if the ‘true’ god was someone other than whom the person converted to. Wouldn’t that god be ticked off even more? He said that was a different discussion and left.
I looked up some stuff this morning about so-called deathbed conversions of prominent atheists and it is quite hilarious. Not only are they purely rumors, these supposed conversions involve people giving quite elaborate speeches as their last words.
One last amusing side note. The topic of the debate was “God Does Not Exist”. But when I drove up to the church where it was being held, the big sign in front that churches have advertised the debate but said it was on the topic “Does God Exist?” I laughed because I figured that for a church to have a sign asserting in big letters that god does not exist would have been too big a step for them to take.
All in all a fun, but exhausting, evening.