Saturday, November 12, 2005

The God debate: some late night thoughts

I ought to be asleep right now but I couldn’t resist blogging about a debate I attended this evening between a fundamentalist preacher and George Smith, an old friend and the author of Atheism: The Case Against God. George debated born againer Eric Lounsbery of the Family Christian Fellowship. Lounsbery says he has debated “notable atheists” but the people he mentions are not people I know. That is not to say they aren’t notable to some people but not to me.

Now I thought Lounsbery was incredibly devious. I don’t mean he had good arguments but deceptive arguments and that is not the same thing.

He started out with a list of assertions. This assertions ranged all across the board when it came to their subject matter. Some were historical, some were biological, some were philosophical, etc. But he had a relatively large number. He said he had only 8 but it was more than that because he then made assertions based on his previous assertions. They accumulated quickly and I would guess he made about 25 such assertions in total.

Now debates in public might last an hour to two hours at the most. If you throw in enough points it is always impossible to address them all in that period of time. Lounsbery would then point to the points to which he felt no response was given and crow about it. He took that as evidence he won those points since his opponent “didn’t even try to address them.” That is was impossible to do int he allocated time period is ignored. Fundamentalists pick and chose evidence to support conclusions already drawn.

One problem becomes obviousl. False premises or erroneous assertions can often be done in seconds. But it can take far longer than that to explain why the assertion is wrong. So in any debate the fallacious side can have an advantage, when time is a factor, by simply making a large number of fallacious statements. They can do one false assertion every minute. Now if it took ten minutes to explain the error than the false side can in 20 minutes make assertions which would require 200 minutes in rebuttal.

In addition there was another issue at play. One doesn’t need to know what they are talking about to make false assertions. One does have to be knowledgeable in a field to repudiate them especially if the errors are subtle or not necessariloy obvious to the layman. So someone with a very shallow knowledge of numerous fields can make assertions in a dozen different specialties. To make a false statement does not require much knowledge. His opponent, if not a specialist in every one of those fields is thus unable to honestly debate those points. He would not be in a position to point out the errors.

Lounsbery thus had a dishonest advantage there. He could make a false claim about physics to a biologist and the biologist, as a scientist will admit he is not qualified to respond to the assertion. Which doesn’t mean a biologist couldn’t do so. On the other hand a philosopher might be able to pick about the philosophical assertions but a biologist wouldn’t. If you then make assertions across a range of fields you are pretty much guaranteed that no opponent can respond to them all. Once again you use this as proof that your assertions must be true because your opponent did not answer them.

Now what I would like to see is a series of debates. Let Lounsbery make his claims about biology only with a biologist and stick to that field. One whole debate on just one aspect of the issue. Then a week later he can debate the philosopher. I wonder why that kind of limited debate is never proposed. In this case Lounsbery should know that Smith is a philosophy not a specialist on physics.

Smith, like most honest academics, is quite happy to say when a field is outside his sphere. That’s integrity. Lounsbery uses such intergrity against his opponents. For instance Smith said that since he was a philosopher he wanted to concentrate ont hat area since that is what he knows about. In his time Lounsbery made a snide remark about how if he were Smith he’d avoid the science too because the science proves him wrong.

In addition Lounsbery kept referring to his collection of assertions as “evidence”. I think George should have pointed out to him the difference between a string of assertions and actual evidence.

At various points Lounsbery offered a theory as to why something happens in science. Of course his theory repeatedly pointed to one cause—God. Or in has case onlyt he Christian God, more specifically on the Christian God as believed by fundamentalists.

So he would say things like “George Smith has to give a explaination for X.” He would then assume that failure to offer an alternative theory proves the God theory. Here is a clear example of how that is wrong.

Nutter: “Space aliens are flying around the world in space ships and kidnapping people for anal probes.”

Skeptic: “I see no evidence for that.”

Nutter: “We saw lights in the sky last night. Now you must explain what those lights were to prove I am wrong.”

Well the Skeptic does not have to offer an alternative theory. If I am accussed of murder I don’t have to prove that I know who did it. I need only rebut the theory that I did it. A murder may have taken place and I may not know who did it. My lack of an alternative theory of causation is not proof that the Nutters theory is correct. In fact in some cases i don’t even need to rebut. I could be silent or merely point out that the lack of evidence for one theory is not proof for any particular alternative theory.

And Lounsbery was particularly insistent in demanding alternative theories in fields where he knows his opponent is not a specialist. He didn’t do that when it came to philosophy. In fact he pretty much avoided that field preferring to concentrate on fields where he knew any assertion could not be countered from personal knowledge. So Lounsbery wanted answers on evolution from someone who has no training in that field.

A couple of things irked me in particular because I thought they were just mean spiritied. Sure he had on his smiley Jesus face for the public but that smile is very thin indeed. The idea is to appear to be a nice guy and keep the fundamentalist bullshit as far off the burner as possible. But he made one point about atheists I though was particularly vicious.

It is not that atheists are wrong. He thinks they are but that didn’t bother him. He asserted that atheists in fact know that the proof for the fundamentalist Christian God is overwhelming and all around them. Thus he immediately asserts dishonesty on the part of anyone who disagrees with him. I know many atheists who, like myself, had to consider the arguments before becoming an atheist and did not do so lightly. Yet he asserts that I’m lying when I say I was convinced to the contrary. He says the proof is there.

So I asked him what evidence he has that I dismissed the god concept contrary to what I actually thought to be true and to do so without quoting Bible verses which are not proof. I only realized how dishonest his reply was shortly after. He asked me why I first believed in God. Well 99.99% of people “first” believe in some deity because they were taught it as children. Much the same way they believed in Santa. So I honestly answered that question. He went around the block a bit and then argued that it was clear I never rationally believed in God in the first place so I had not in fact considered the evidence.

What’s wrong with that? Well, it assumes that if one didn’t consider those arguments when one first encountered the God idea, which is usually in childhood, then one has never considered them. That’s a fallacy but by the time he got around to that claim I was heading to the back of room having asked my question.

I had a second question for him that I asked which he also found rather uncomfortable. I asked him if he a faithful Catholic, who is a staunch Catholic according to all Catholic teaching is or is not a Christian. Now the fundamentalist assumes that anyone who is not a fundamentalist is not really a Christian. But in a public debate he doesn’t want to tell the audience that he thinks most other Christians are in all practicality just another version of atheists since they believe in false gods. This was a bit difficult for him as a strong Catholic, who is also a friend of mine, had been helping Lounsbery prepare for the debate.

Lounsbery was stuck and was looking for a way to respond. And he actually seemed to have stalled rather badly. He knew his silence and inability to finish a sentence looked bad and said: “I’m trying to figure out how best to respond.”

My reply was, “A simply yes or no will do.”

That’s the problem of course. He really does think that Catholics are not much better than atheists but he’s not keen to lose the support of all the Catholics. He tried to streatch it out with all sorts of qualifiers but when he finished he had basically said that good Catholics are not Christians. So all atheists are dishonest. Catholics are barely better than atheists and maybe worse. He was not particularly found of Mormons either and clearly put them outside the Christian camp.

One area where opponents of the theocratic fundamentalist go wrong is that allow the fundies to build false coalitions. They form special interest groups on an issue in a united front. So they may fight for censorship with Mormons, Catholics and Orthodox Jews. Merely by asking them to be honest about what they think about their partners can splinter these alliances. Surely my Catholic friend felt a bit less happy when he learned that he is not a Christian after all. Mormons might form an allegiance with a Baptist but would they stay in it if the Bapitst told the public what he honestly thought about Mormons. Merely knowing what the fundamentalist believes about his friends and asking pointed question so he can’t avoid telling the truth splinters this alliance. It’s a tact I recommend strongly.

At some point I will watch the DVD of the debate and will have more detailed comments. But I can only speak about things I know something about. So no doubt Lounsbery will ignore what I do respond to and point to anything I neglected taking my neglect as proof he was right. But logic is not his strongpoint.

I’m really late for bed so I won’t proof read this first. If you find typos don’t bitch I’ll try to proof it in the next few days.


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