CFI Debate: What’s Right and Wrong with Religion?

I had the distinct pleasure of attending an event co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry – a skeptical organization and Reasons to Believe – a group that promotes the harmonious co-existence of science and religion. The event took the form of two 30-minute presentations from a skeptic speaker and a believer:

  • Dr. Hugh Ross (the believer) is an astrophysicist from the California Information of Technology
  • Brian Lynchehaun (the skeptic) is completing a degree in philosophy at UBC

This was the first such event I’ve ever attended personally, but I’ve watched videos of several. The usual format is that the religionist makes a series of unfounded assertions, tortures logic and evidence to support those assertions, and spouts old and refuted theology as a conclusion. The skeptic/atheist speaker, thus completely drowned in nonsensical and illogical statements, must spend his/her valuable time refuting these statements and, as a result, has no time to present any reasonable argument of his/her own. The feckless wimp of a moderator then says something along the lines of “well we’ve heard a lot of good arguments on both sides” and opens the floor to questions. I assumed this CFI/RTB event would be much of the same.

Happily, I was only half-right, and the forces of stupid were not allowed to roll on unopposed.

I took the liberty of recording the presentations by Dr. Ross and Mr. Lynchehaun. As fair warning, Dr. Ross’ presentation is not for the faint of brain. If you are prone to headaches when exposed to assertions passed off as fact, theology substituted for logic, or self-contradiction, you should probably not watch this video. My father, who as a former priest in the Catholic church is fairly knowledgeable about church doctrine and theistic philosophy, joined me in recognizing that the theories propounded by Dr. Ross are both scientifically and theologically way off base. It might be worth watching for lulz. Also, the people sitting next to me were being jerks and laughing disruptively, so occasionally that happens.

Here’s part 1:

Part 2:

and part 3:

Like I said, it’s some pretty heady stuff. Apparently, aside from the outright lies like the proof of the existence of Adam, we are to believe that there is scientific evidence that there is a being outside of space/time (note: evidence not shown). Also, God likes to tinker with species from time to time because He apparently can’t get it quite right the first time. Additionally, the biblical writers believed simultaneously in a geocentric universe and the Big Bang – two perspectives which are directly contradictory. Ross’ explanation of the problem of evil is about the least artful I’ve ever heard – God invented evil so he could test us to make sure we can get into Heaven; why He didn’t just start humanity in Heaven is a problem best left unmentioned. This is all to say nothing of the fact that Dr. Ross has studied all the world religions, and only Christianity is the true one (again: evidence not shown).

At this point, I was dreading listening to Mr. Lynchehaun’s response – not because I was worried that his argument would be as brainless as that of Dr. Ross, but because I was worried Mr. Lynchehaun would try and address the glaring contradictions and illogic present in his counterpart’s reasoning. I was pleasantly shocked when Mr. Lynchehaun started his talk by saying ‘I’m not going to address the science – I can tell that this crowd is not amenable to another science talk.’ From there, Mr. Lynchehaun presented a coherent argument for why Christianity is not a good moral system, which was supposed to be the topic of both presentations (to Dr. Ross’ credit, astrophysics can say very little about ethics, so it wasn’t really a good idea for him to try).

Here’s part 1:

and part 2:

I disagree with Lynchehaun on a couple of points, the largest of which being that science cannot inform ethics (note: he may not have actually said this… sorry Brian :P). I guess the material sciences can’t really say anything about ethics, which may have been what he meant. However, the scientific process of testing hypotheses from reasoned first principles can be adapted to issues of morals. The point that you can’t measure good and evil with scientific scales is well taken. However, on the whole I think Lynchehaun did an admirable job of presenting a non-judgmental and inoffensive argument for why secular value judgments are not only superior to those from scripture, but are actually what’s done already even by believers. It’s crucial to note something here, and that’s the fact that Lynchehaun started his presentation by providing a definition of his first principles. He didn’t just launch in and then try to shift goalposts when confronted; he defined his terms a priori and even allowed his opposition a chance to object or refine them. That’s real debate.

After the two presentations, the participants were invited to engage in a moderated debate, in which they were allowed to address each other. I didn’t record this part (I had poor sight-lines – if CFI puts the video online I’ll link you to it later). Suffice it to say that it was essentially more of the same – Dr. Ross made assertions and wove cherry-picked sciency-sounding things in order to support his claims, while Mr. Lynchehaun sat quietly and waited until Dr. Ross stopped speaking.

The floor was then opened to questions from the audience, which is, in my mind, a complete waste of time. Dr. Ross has shown himself to be logic-proof and absolutely will not accede any points that refute his narrative of the universe. The skeptic audience members who asked their questions were not going to unseat his arguments because they are relying on logic and reason while Dr. Ross is starting from a “God is true, therefore anything else can be explained in terms of God” position. There was only one believer who got up to say something to Lynchehaun, but his “question” was just a series of faith-based platitudes about the infinite mercy of God. Lynchehaun, without missing a beat, said to the guy “this will likely come as no surprise to you, but I disagree” which got thunderous applause from the audience.

The other high point occurred when Dr. Ross explained the reason why God has not directly intervened to make the world a paradise yet – yes, in direct contradiction of both scripture and his own previous statements. See, since we know that the world is 5 billion years old, and God created the world in 6 “days” and rested on the 7th “day”, we can assume that we are still in that 7th day of rest. God isn’t dead, ‘Es just restin’.

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to mention this part. Lynchehaun did take a moment to expose Dr. Ross’ weird argument about the disappearing body of Jesus. He (Lynchehaun) mentioned casually that growing up in Ireland, he was aware (although he was not personally associated with, again my apologies for not making this 100% clear, Brian) that there were great many people who were experts at making bodies disappear, and that it’s probably not as hard as Dr. Ross was making it out to be. Dr. Ross countered by saying that it’s impossible to perpetuate such a large fraud only 30 years after the event. I felt like asking him if he wanted to buy a bridge from me.

If there’s any lessons to be learned from this talk, it’s how startlingly bankrupt the argument “well some scientists believe in God” is. When you have to rape and pervert the scientific method to accommodate your belief in a supreme being, you’re betraying science. During questioning, Dr. Ross said that the way to establish the truth of scripture is to give consider the “truth” therein to always have the best possible benefit of the doubt – a complete inversion of the scientific process. If you’re willing to abandon the ideals of establishing truth through observation and reason, then you abdicate the title of ‘scientist’. Of course, this smacks of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy that Lynchehaun talked about, but it’s different in an important way. Science and belief are incompatible because the former demands a default position of skepticism, while the latter begins by assuming the truth of unprovable claims and then fits evidence to support those claims. They are polar opposites. Can scientific findings be twisted to fit religion? Absolutely. Can blind belief and faith advance the philosophy of science? God Almighty, I hope not.


UPDATE: PZ Myers has cross-posted this entry over at his blog, Phayngula! Hits! Oooh, sniny!


  1. says

    Hey Crommunist, thanks for the awesome writeup, glad you enjoyed the debate! We do have video of the whole thing, and we’re working on getting it online as quickly as possible. We’ll let you know when it’s available, and a link would be great.

    Thanks again for the writeup, I hope to get a chance to meet you at one of our upcoming events.

  2. says

    Hi Jesse,

    Yes please let me know when you get the video up. It’s probably of a higher quality than I was able to shoot on my little camera from the pews.

  3. says

    I’d like to clarify a couple of points, if I may. I may have mispoken in the Q&A, but my recollection isn’t that I said that I *knew* anyone involved in body disappearances, but that ‘there are people in Northern Ireland’ who are quite proficient at it. Not to quibble, but I really do not wish to be associated with the scumbags. 😉

    Secondly, I don’t believe (and I don’t have access to a PC with sound right now) that I said that science can’t inform ethics. It certainly wasn’t in my write up, and it’s definitely not something that I believe. If I said it (and I’ll check the videos when I’m home later), then I’d like to take this opportunity to retract it and put it down to stage fright (and running at the mouth).

    I completely agree that ethics has to be testable, and I think (and thought) my 20min opening bears that out.

    I strongly agree with your final paragraph. 🙂

  4. says

    Brian, my sincere apologies if I misquoted you. The first 2 minutes of your talk are cut off, and I may have mis-remembered what you said in the Q&A.

  5. Randall Fisher says

    My wife & I and a couple of friends saw the debate at UBC Fri. night and at the church Sat. night. A couple of highlights, one of which was mentioned is when Brian said he wouldn’t address Ross’s “science”. If I remember correctly I thought Ross squirmed in his chair over that and looked uncomfortable but another highlight came at the end when the moderator asked each participant what would it take to change their minds about their belief (or lack thereof). Ross gave his answer but Brian stood fast and said that it’s not likely anything could as we always seem to find natural reasons for what we thought as “god did it”. Ross was clearly bugged by this as he perked right up and challenged Brian with (paraphrasing) “I gave you what I thought would change my mind but you can’t/won’t do that?” Brian was superb by sticking to his viewpoint.
    Anyway, this is from my memory and is subject to correction by the video evidence.
    I had an opportunity to question Ross on his biblical cosmology just before he left the church and it seemed to me I made him quite uncomfortable with my question(s). I am an amateur astronomer and have been for some 45 years so I could ask him some pointed questions.
    My friend was beside me and also seemed to cause Ross some discomfort because he had caught Ross contradicting himself.
    I have to compliment Ross though with his ability to answer questions without actually answering them and then move on to the next questions.
    While I don’t agree with Ross and his interpretation of cosmology I’d have to give him the win of the debate @ UBC but at the church where he debated Brian I’d say Brian bested Ross.

  6. says

    “Your passion tells me you really do believe in god but you don’t like him.” Sigh… Do you get the feeling he’s not really listening?

    The Freethinkers group I used to be involved with would bring in speakers from time to time. What I’ve always found interesting is that there seems to be myriad approaches to explain belief, but at base, only one way to explain disbelief.

    Thanks for the great write-up, Crommunist.

  7. says

    I feel I must apologize for the Christian Community sometimes. However, it might be worth considering that what you view as logical completely depends on your worldview. If you want to read something intelligible on the side of Jesus, I would suggest The Reason for God by Timothy Keller.

  8. says

    I disagree. Logic is a well-defined and comprehensive discipline. It’s not subject to anyone’s personal definition. If it were, then all things would be equally likely and logical. Your belief that gravity is a fundamental property of matter would be equal to my belief that it is controlled by invisible gremlins that pull on all atoms with equally invisible string. Just because you can’t prove that there are no gremlins doesn’t mean my weirdo theory has any validity whatsoever.

  9. says

    As someone who tutors logic on a regular basis (every semester for the last 3+ years), I would also like to affirm that logic is entirely separate from any given viewpoint or framework or worldview.

    If you would like to discuss any logical points, please feel free to email me. Let me assure you that there are no logical errors in the statements that I made in that particular presentation, but Ross’s list of logical errors are many (but not varied: he repeated one or two errors repeatedly).


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