Thoughts on a live debate over the existence of God…

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.32.16 PM I attended a debate on Friday put on by the Secular Student Alliance at Boise State entitled “Does God Exist?” To my surprise, the room was packed, with about three hundred people in attendance. The debaters were Dan Barker, a former evangelical pastor and founder of Freedom from Religion, and Bill Pubols, a director of Athletes in Action, a “community striving to see Christ-followers on every team, every sport, every nation.” I’ve never attended a debate like this before, but I’ve heard about Dan Barker for some time and wanted to see the type of arguments each side trotted out.

I will say up front that Pubols (who valiantly came in as a last minute replacement for Matt Slick) was inexperienced and outmatched by the veteran Barker. However, the arguments he brought forth were similar to those of more experienced debaters, albeit not deployed as skillfully or confidently. For his part, Barker was not as charitable as I would have liked in his characterization of Christians, though I agreed with nearly all of his points.

While the constructing and dismantling of arguments was interesting, I noticed a distinct change in tactics on Pubols’ part over the course of the debate. He began with the Kalam cosmological argument, made arguments from universal moral principles, and contended for the validity of the New Testament based on its historical accuracy. Barker in turn dismissed the cosmological argument for making a category error (assuming that the universe itself obeys the same laws of things within the universe), denied that morality had to be universal to be valuable, and suggested a number of irreconcilable contradictions in the Biblical text.

As the debate continued though, Barker retained the same approach while Pubols shifted from making arguments to using anecdotal evidence and making emotional appeals. I recognized both the rhetoric and the tone of his altered argument from time spent listening to innumerable sermons on Sunday mornings.

I sensed that Pubols was more comfortable with anecdotes and emotional appeals than philosophical arguments, and rightly so. Christianity situates the individual within a narrative that spans both time and eternity. Seen from within, this narrative creates purpose and meaning, but as Jean-Francois Lyotard notes in The Postmodern Condition, this grand narrative is incompatible with scientific knowledge. Lyotard concludes that “it is…impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge or vice versa: the relevant criteria are different” (26). The two epistemologies speak a different language, and this became apparent during the debate.

(One might argue then, as many have, that religion and science just occupy mutually exclusive registers of reality. But Lyotard’s point is that narratival justification is no longer possible in the postmodern world, and the best we can do is little narratives that make no claim at universality. In a sense we know too much for the grand narratives to continue to function. And if it were true that religious or scientific beliefs were held in a vacuum, their potential conflict would be inconsequential. In our world, though, they vie for position in politics and culture. This is one reason I can’t buy the argument that freethinkers should just leave believers alone if their belief gives them comfort. It’s not that simple.)

Both men made appeals to scientific knowledge, and I’m curious to know whether a scientific argument is appealing to other folks when arguing over religion. Pubols told of the unimaginable improbability of the universe being constructed so as to support life–which for him points to a knowing creator–but Barker was well-versed in scientific jargon to support other examples in the universe of order coming from chaos. Those arguments did little to convince me on either side. It may be because my deconversion was initiated from a more practical and social standpoint. I was more convinced by the arguments from morality and the problem of evil.

The case of morality is particularly interesting because the believer is sincerely convinced that life is not meaningful without ultimate purpose (think Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Life here), and the freethinker is just as sincerely convinced that life can (and must) be meaningful without ultimate purpose because there is none. This suggests that understanding how individuals pass from one paradigm to another is critically important to understand.

The problem of evil is much more straightforward, and it remains difficult to understand how one can employ notions of the goodness of God, or divine love, in the face of the human condition. As Barker noted, if God is whimsical or bad, he would be more convinced of his existence, but the insistence that God is good in the face of good and bad acts in the world requires a redefinition of linguistic terms that is only possible when one starts with the answer. To use a crude but applicable example, if a friend or partner beats you and then tells you he loves you, others would recognize it as manipulation or abuse. On the global scale and when talking about the divine, many religious folk are comfortable with calling it love.

In the end, although the arguments Pubols first employed were attempts to justify his belief on the basis of philosophy or science, they weren’t the foundation for his belief, nor are they (I think) for most Christians. They certainly weren’t for me as a believer. Christianity was true because I was part of a narrative, one that plotted me in the course of human history and guaranteed my righteousness for eternity. Thus, when his attempts at reasonable justification were thwarted, Pubols resorted to the familiar tactic of narrative, the means by which he and others have been sincerely convinced. He referred to, among other things, the “knowledge” of the heart, the “Truth” of Jesus’ statements such as “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the felt “need” we all have for ultimate meaning.

According to the anonymous entrance poll, the majority of audience members were Christian, and there was about a four percent shift toward the nonexistence of God by the exit poll. I came away entertained but wondering if the debate format was worth the effort if the aim is to sway the opposition. Changing the question from the existence of God to the validity of faith would likely have improved the discussion, but lessened the draw to the debate. Overall, it seemed akin to the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Hamm (which I didn’t see). One commenter summed it up by saying that the only thing that would change Nye’s mind is evidence, and the only thing that would change Hamm’s mind is…nothing. But people do change, somehow. If I could only figure out how…