I went to a debate between Dan Barker (whom I wrote about briefly a couple days ago) and Dinesh D’Souza last night, in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis campus). The topic was “Can We Be Good Without God”, which I’m a little surprised is still a subject of debate at all.
My simple answer to that question? Of course; we do it every day. It’s just that many of us don’t realize it. What that question is really asking is, can we be good without a belief in a god. Specifically, the Christian version of God, although the debate wasn’t limited only to that. Dan took the affirmative position (yes we can be good), and Dinesh took the contrary position (no, we can’t).
Dan started out by trying to show why the Bible isn’t a reliable source of morality, and how most people ignore its immoral passages, proving that morality exists outside and independent of religion. However, I think he glossed over a few too many things, and may have made some assumptions he shouldn’t have. For one, I think too often he assumed that his audience was more familiar with the Bible than they actually were. Ironically, it seemed like the atheists in the audience knew exactly what he was talking about and which passages he was referring to, because many of us actually read the Bible and not just follow the current feel-good pop version of Christianity that basically ignores the Bible and focuses on Jesus as the ultimate invisible friend.
It’s telling that of the two debaters, it was the atheist who actually brought a Bible. Dinesh wasn’t debating from the Bible at all. He was focusing on the ideas of pop Christianity, not scripture. This seems to be the version of the religion that most young people follow, which gives them cheerful bands and megachurches with coffee bars in them, with books of philosophy made Christian only by selectively inserting choice Bible quotes, with t-shirts with clever slogans to stick it to the unbelievers, and a likable main character to follow. This is Disney-style religion, but with Jesus instead of Mickey Mouse. Please ignore that dusty old book in the corner; you don’t need to read that.
Dinesh is a pretty smart guy. He knew he couldn’t beat Dan at scripture-slinging, so he stuck with feel-good pop religion. Over and over, he made Dan’s point for him, yet he was also very skilled at keeping his audience from seeing that. At one point in the debate, Dan condemned the passage “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” (Psalm 137:9) and Dinesh mocked him, saying something along the lines of “yea, we sure see a lot of THAT happening”. Which is exactly the point: that doesn’t happen because we have our own morals independent of religion, which tell us that killing children is bad.
Despite the fact that I was firmly against what Dinesh was arguing, I found him to be quite interesting, and he actually had a lot of good jokes. It’s a shame he’s not on “our” side, although I can’t help but wonder. Most of his arguments proved his point only by his assertions, and nearly nothing he argued was supported in scripture. He clearly has his own concepts of morality, yet he kept pointing to religion as the cause. It was like when you see a football player thank God when he wins the Super Bowl (which I’m sure we’ll see again on Sunday) when really it was the hard work and dedication of him and his team that made it happen. Like many religious people, he’s making a false attribution.
Dinesh is also very skilled at wiggling out of things he doesn’t want to admit (he’d have to be, being a Republican). At one point, Dan asked him if he believed that a famous musician (I forget who) who was both an atheist and a homosexual, was in Hell right now. Dinesh naturally didn’t want to say one way or the other, yet he somehow wiggled his way out of it.
Dan, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t able to push his point well enough to counter the nebulous claims of his opponent. Too often, he relied on his audience’s knowledge of scripture, and when he referred to God in tyrannical terms, he no doubt came off as angry and God-hating to the believers. He also wasn’t able to properly convey the evolutionary origins of morality and altruism, which is a HUGE topic on its own.
In the end, I think Dinesh won the debate. He wasn’t right, but he argued his case better. Dinesh seemed more interested in winning the debate, while Dan seemed more interested in proving his point. Dinesh was an insubstantial, slippery fish, wiggling as Dan tried to catch him with logic.
The whole process was incredibly entertaining, but I wonder if a debate is really the right forum to discuss this sort of topic. A debate is really all about sound-bites and who can nail their opponent the most times. It’s like a boxing match, in a way. Dan has written a book (“Godless”, which I still intend to write a review of) that I think addresses the morality question much better than any debate could, and there are many other books out there that do the same thing: Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” or “The Ancestor’s Tale”, Guy P. Harrison’s “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God”, Michael Shermer’s “How We Believe”, to name a few that I’ve actually read.
Tags: atheism, Christianity, debunking, life, out & about, religion, skepticism, society
UPDATE: The video of this debate is now online, and here it is. (I hate when they stretch the video.) Also, if you feel like seeing Dinesh eviscerated, try this debate he did with Christopher Hitchens.
This post was written by Bevans