Post-debate reflections

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.


  1. colnago80 says

    Speaking of deathbed conversions, the most famous such spurious conversion was the alleged statement given to Lady Hope by Charles Darwin on his deathbed disavowing his Theory of Evolution. According to members of his family who were present, Lady Hope was conspicuous by her absence and, to boot, there is no evidence that Darwin ever even met her

  2. Don Cates says

    re: Alvin Plantinga (note spelling)
    Does any of this sound familiar?
    From the Philosophical Lexicon

    alvinize, v. To stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim. “His contention that natural evil is due to Satanic agency alvinized his listeners.”

    planting, v. To use twentieth-century fertilizer to encourage new shoots from eleventh -century ideas which everyone thought had gone to seed; hence, plantinger, n. one who plantings.

  3. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for these!

    Thanks also for pointing out my spelling error which I have corrected.

  4. dogfightwithdogma says

    It was indeed a fun evening. Mano is too humble to say more than what he did here about his opening remarks at the debate. But in his remarks Mano presented what I believe to be one of the most articulate and elegant expositions of science I have ever heard. I hope that Mano will consider publishing on this blog those prepared remarks in their entirety.

    Pastor Puckett was charming and personable and had a good stage presence. But his arguments were, as Mano said, filled with many uses of the God-of-the-Gaps argument. He did this without any sense of guilt or irony after having said at least three times that I recall that he was not or would not employ this argument. I don’t think he was lying or being intentionally deceitful. I think that his self-delusion about this was so deep that he sincerely believed he was not using it, even though it was as obvious as anything could be. There were also numerous instances when he committed logical fallacies, particularly begging-the-question.

    I was not impressed by Pastor Puckett’s arguments, especially his arguments that God must exist because of the existence of objective morality and that there would be no grounds for objective morality without God. It was pretty much the standard christian apologetics that many of us have heard numerous times.

    There was one point in Puckett’s remarks when he made such an egregiously wrong reference to evolution, that the science teacher in me wanted to jump up and give him a lesson right there on the spot and correct the error. It involved him describing evolution as a purely random-chance process and then using the old, tiresome and completely fallacious as well as discredited tornado-through-a-junkyard analogy.

    Throughout the evening Mano was an eloquent champion of the scientific process. He handled himself with great composure and confidence. He dealt with Puckett’s arguments and the questions with, I think, masterful skill and an a deep knowledge of the topic being debated. I for one am very greatly pleased and proud to both know Mano and to have him as a member and representative of the scientific community and enterprise and of freethought. Job very well done, Mano!

  5. tc99mman says

    How can there possibly be empirical evidence for the existence of a supernatural being? This “existence claim” puts the supporter in a predicament. I suppose theologians can argue about the supernatural by accepting some claims as being axiomatically true. This may be “begging the question” for those unwilling to concede the truth of these axioms.
    A talented debater can win the audience without winning the argument. You were skilled enough to prevent this, based on your report on the event.
    I am pleased that civility was practiced by the debaters and the audience. The outcome was no surprise, since I have witnessed your skill many times at the Socrates Cafe.


    Mike S

  6. Mano Singham says


    Thanks so much for your kind remarks about my performance. I am glad you enjoyed it.

    I thought that I might polish up my opening remarks for publication and so that prevents me from posting it in its entirety before publication but people will be able to get the gist of it by seeing the video.

  7. MNb says

    “How can there possibly be empirical evidence for the existence of a supernatural being?”
    That’s an excellent question of course. It would propel the discussion forward enormously if more believers where aware of this problem and hence quitted the attempt to argue this way. That specifically applies to the Cosmological Argument and it’s offspring fine-tuning.
    There is another side of this coin though, as pointed out by Herman Philipse in his God in the Age of Science. To maintain credibility the apologist must stay close enough to the scientific way of thinking or his/her case can be just shrugged off. In case you haven’t guessed: this is THE book that provides a philosophical fundament for atheism.

    “people will be able to get the gist of it by seeing the video”
    I’m a much better reader than listener, even in my native language (which is not English), so I would enormously appreciate it if you publish some stuff on your blog.

  8. Nick Gotts says

    How can there possibly be empirical evidence for the existence of a supernatural being? – tccmman

    Easily. Suppose prayers to one specific deity, and no other, were able to cause amputated limbs to instantly regrow, rotting corpses to return to life, the sun to halt in the sky… Or again, suppose the expansion of pi, from the quadrillionth decimal place, turns out to yield, under a simple numeral-to-letter transformation, the text of the Quran in classical Arabic – followed by more of the expected random-seeming sequence, then a repetition of the Quran from the two-quadrillionth place, another from the three-quadrillionth place, and so on. Of course none of these occurrences would prove the existence of a supernatural being beyond all possible doubt – we could be in a simulation, it could be superhuman but natural beings tampering with our perceptions and reaosning, etc. – but it would certainly be empirical evidence for the existence and powers of that deity. To deny this, apart from simply being wrong, is to act just as the presuppositionalists, and many other religious believers, claim atheists do.

  9. says

    You did an extraordinary job, Dr. Singham. I thoroughly enjoyed you well-reasoned and well-examined arguments. There were easy to understand and irrefutable positions and arguments.

    The only problem, of course, is that you were outgunned by a low-knowledge debater and a gang intellectually confused (or dead) faitheists that came for a special baptismal soak in his dribble.

    Oh dear gawd! Joe was an assault on and embarrassment to the definition of what constitutes a learned person.

    If that man actually gets a PhD, the once high honor looses all meaning. It’s worthless. The school he attends must be handing out PhDs on used bubble gum wrappers.

    Whew! Just pathetic.

  10. Ellen musser bruckner says

    I don’t see why either debater should be put down. I think some of the audience questions were a bit redundant, but it was a civilized debate. thank you Dr. Mano and Joe ! And….God bless you both ! 🙂

  11. SuzyW says

    Mano, I was quite impressed with your presentation and am truly thankful you represented the side of the nontheists. I do think that your position must have tweaked curiosity or hopefully even opened doors to further thought on this topic in some who may have not expected they’d experience this. I realize some people sitting comfortably in the this church may have never allowed themselves to listen to the type of information, views, as well as personal experience, as you shared. As another person above stated, I also encourage you to post online your prepared opening remarks at the debate. I can agree with what he thought that, ” those remarks constituted, I think, one of the best expositions of scientific inquiry and the value of science I have ever heard.”

    Thank you, again, Mano!

  12. rayvalenti says

    Mano did a great job of pointing out how morality itself is evolving at a rapid pace. If all our morality comes from God via the bible as Mr. Puckett claims then by what mechanism is god transmitting the correct changes? With a living involved God who loves us so very much, we should see several addendums at the back of the bible written since the enlightenment and signed by Yahweh himself.

    My 1963 New Catholic Edition of the Holy Bible contains this preface:

    “The increasing interest in and love for the Holy Scriptures can be attributed to the Biblical movement, inaugurated and encouraged by our great modern Pontiffs. Reminded by them or our duty and privilege, as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, to disseminate the inspired Word of God, the editors offer to both lay and clerical readers this improved New Edition of the Old and New Testaments.”

    So it appears that God’s word is being improved, but not by God but by the editors of this edition as official members of “Christ’s Mystical Body.” It is quite obvious that this book is a work of fiction constantly being modified by men for their own purposes.

  13. says

    I would like to link to a WEIT post here that I believe speaks directly to the respect that we automattically give to those who quite proudfully proclaim and tout their involvement in a PhD program and their advanced-level studies of the PhD kind. In this post Dr. Coyne examines Kent Hovind’s PhD credentials.

    What did his investigations reveal? Precisely what you almost certainly conclude, even without any evidence whatsoever to support your conclusions: Kent Hovind took his PhD from a totally unaccredited, discredited and bogus “school.” Kent’s Alma Mater? Patriot Bible University in Del Norte, CO. Click the link below to take a walking tour of the campus of this magnificent institution.

    I will admit: I am the first person to automatically grant another my deference and respect if I learn that they hold a PhD in anything. Why? Well, at lease for me, holding a PhD meant that you had achieved a level of understanding in your specialized area of study that has been achieved by only a small portion of people. For me, gaining a PhD meant that you studied and learned more than most and that a body of your learned peers also agree that your level of educational achievement is real and that your studies, your work and your understanding of the subject matter at hand for your PhD dissertation was examined and double-checked by a body of your peers.

    Well, everything I just said is the antitheses of Hovind’s “Phd.” This jackass, this felon, this convict, this despicable sample of a homo sapiens has a PhD that was indeed written on a used bubble gum wrapper.

    Coyne relates: “Patriot Bible University is a diploma mill, as it has unreasonably low graduation requirements, lack of sufficient faculty or educational standards, and a suspicious tuition scheme. The school’s current policies allow students to attain bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and Doctor of Ministry degrees in months, rather than years, for as little as $37 per credit.”

    Apparently, the honored tradition of PhD achievement is also going down the tubes in this country. We obviously cannot take seriously ANYONE’S claim about their PhD status (or even achievement) anymore. We must also ask for the details and examine for ourselves just how much of our honor and respect should be accorded them.

    Now, I think it’s time that I begin to do a little research myself about Puckett’s PhD efforts, I cannot wait to see what I find.

    The link also contains part of Hovin’s “PhD dissertation” and a link to all of it. Check it out my friends. It’s a doozey.

    Coyne finishes w/ a word channeling Hitchens on Falwell: “Hovind’s life shows that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to truth and to science if you can just get yourself called “doctor.” I couldn’t agree more. I was definitely suckered in!

    Dr. Singham: Prior to the debate, did you check to see if Puckett really was engaged in a PhD program and, furthermore, where his school was located?

  14. Mano Singham says


    No, I did not check. It is not really relevant. In these matters, one can usually evaluate a person’s arguments independent of their academic credentials. It is only when people are asserting things that are based on detailed knowledge that is not accessible to lay people that it becomes important to see if they have some knowledge of what they are talking about. So, for example,when it comes to detailed questions of the implications of cosmological theories, one looks to someone who has credentials in that area.

    But this debate was not about things like that.

  15. says

    Hi Dr. Singham,

    Yes, I understand. This debate was not about cosmological theories or the implications thereof so there was no need to check the man’s credentials in those areas. The debate centered entirely on logical and philosophical issues and their implications related to the existence of a supreme being, a being that Puckett maintained was responsible for the creation and direction of literally everything. Mr. Puckett touted his enrollment in a PhD program to support the legitimacy of his debate with you.

    I believe that this point is relevant, very relevant. Why do I believe that? Because bogus academics are constantly hammering legitimate scientists, philosophers, logicians, etc. to engage them in all manner of debate simply to gain greater legitimacy for their own CVs. Jerry Coyne often said that he would never consent to a debate with a creationist for one simple reason: “it looks great on their CV, not so much on mine.” Indeed, why would a Coyne, an E.O Wilson or a Miller, for example, ever consent to debating Ken Ham about anything?

    I extend the same logic here. What right, I ask myself, does Puckett have to expect you to say YES to his request for a debate? Does he believe that he has achieved a fairly equal status with you in his scientific, logical, philosophical, historical understanding of the issue(s) to be discussed? Obviously, he does. But, do the facts bear this out? The only way to really get some idea is to look at his educational achievement, his current school, and his alleged PhD program. I took a short cruise yesterday over at his Alma Mater’s website – Faulkner University. I wept.

    Puckett claimed that he’s enrolled in a PhD program at Faulkner in “humanities.” I can find no mention of a PhD offering in the humanities. And just look at the school, Dr. Singham. It’s hardly any different than what you’d expect to find if you visited the sites for Liberty U or Cederville U. I suspect that Faulkner and Puckett”s PhD claims are just as bogus as those grand institutions of anti-science jackassery

    Thus my belief that the debate was very poorly match. At one podium stood a very bright and highly educated person. On the other podium stood a very weak intellect, one that was invested in rigid dogma. Anyone who could ramble on and on about a “first cause” as articulated by Aquinas and Paley without the slightest hint that he has any knowledge of the debunking efforts of Hume and others to follow is a joke. And when he began to interject the bogus nonsense of apologists like CK Chesterton and CS Lewis into the debate, well, it was all over for me. I concluded that this man was simply too painfully embarrassing for me to continue listening.

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