This is a guest post by Richard Wilson. Rich is a human being who tries and feels he mostly succeeds in living a moral life without help from any gods.
Last Saturday, October 12, I attended “The Great Debate,” an event hosted by Adventure Christian Church (a mega-church in Roseville, California) and sponsored by William Jessup University. The question at hand was: “What provides a better foundation for civil society: Christianity or Secular Humanism?”
Arguing for Christianity was Dr. David Marshall, founder of the Kuai Mu Institute for Christianity and World Cultures. Arguing for Secular Humanism was Dr. Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College and author of numerous books on secularism.
Since the debate was being professionally recorded, I assumed it would be made available online (or at least for purchase), and I intended to simply add a few comments of my own if Hemant blogged about it. So I kept watching the church’s Vimeo site for the upload… and it never went up. Instead, three “rebuttal” videos were posted, responding to arguments made during the course of the debate, but the full debate is still nowhere to be found. Furthermore, those three videos featured pastors from the church, not even Marshall himself.
Zuckerman himself commented on all three videos, asking when the entire debate would be posted… only to see the comments turned off and his questions deleted from the individual videos. (Though the church’s Vimeo page still shows the comments under “Recent Activity“)
I asked Zuckerman about it in an email and he told me that although the Church had promised him, both in person and via email, that the debate would be put online, the church apparently refuses to honor that promise. Their explanation is just incredible, as Zuckerman wrote in a Huffington Post piece:
When I called pastor Bryan [Hardwick], and asked him why they are refusing to post the video — even after repeated promises of doing so — he replied, “It just didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. We were not represented well.”
I’ll say! And refusing to post the debate, while hiding behind some rebuttals that don’t even address Zuckerman’s main points, doesn’t help.
But since the debate isn’t going to be online, let me refer back to my notes and tell you as best I can what happened. (All quotations below are to the best of my memory. I would love to verify them… but, as mentioned above, I can’t right now.)
In short, Zuckerman won. Handily.
I hesitated to say that since I know people will called me biased, but the truth is it was pretty one-sided. At the end of the debate, I even heard other members of the overwhelmingly Christian audience say, “That secularist was actually a better speaker, more interesting.”
To expand a bit, the theme of the night was: “Take the high road.” Marshall mostly steered clear of “Stalinist Russia” and Zuckerman mostly steered clear of the horrors of the Old Testament. Since I say “mostly,” I should cover the exceptions. Zuckerman made a point of saying, “I prefer to point out the best in my opponent, and say why my way is better.”
Marshall stated in his opening remarks that he believed in the empirical approach, looking at all the data and coming to the best possible conclusion. He said the Gospel had changed the world for the better and would continue to do so in the future, adding that Secular Humanism had no “clear record” and showed “trouble signs.” He mentioned that Communism “may be seen as” a form of Secular Humanism, but he didn’t press the point.
Then, he listed seven “gifts” of the Gospel:
- Feminism (Jesus was the first feminist)
- Human rights
- Healer (Jesus was the first healer and the Red Cross symbol is a cross)
He finished his opening remarks by saying that “God makes sense of reality” and that the teaching of Jesus are the foundations of society. The Gospel has done it before and can do it again.
Zuckerman began his opening statement with, “I agree.” At that point, I must admit I was worried that this was going to turn into a painful evening of accommodationism. He pointed out three things he believes Christianity represents: Love, Peace, and Forgiveness. He also stated that Christians give more to charity than Secular Humanists, but added that it didn’t have to be one or the other: “Why not the best of each?”
Zuckerman then used both the lack of religious reference in the Constitution and the Treaty of Tripoli to argue that the United States was a secular nation, not a Christian one, no matter what our heritage may have been. He argued in favor of democracy, something that wasn’t taught in scripture.
The Church asked people to tweet questions using the hashtag #TheGreatDebate and they eventually addressed some of those questions. I’m only going to cover the highlights, but a general theme was that Marshall, several times, presented anecdotes of Christianity as a force for good, which didn’t seem very empirical to me. And if there was any concern over my bias in leaving some of the questions out, it’s only because I had trouble taking notes because Marshall wasn’t very clear or organized in his responses.
There was one question worth mentioning: “Do we need a common moral code, or can we have a plurality?” In other words, were there morals we all had to live by or could people define “moral” in different ways? Marshall answered first with “Yes” (a confusing answer given the question, but clearly referring to a plurality), but warned against Sharia or Communism, saying that Zuckerman’s remarks reminded him of “Communist Slogans.” He did say, though, that they agreed on Democracy and a plurality of moral views being acceptable.
Zuckerman responded by saying that while Marshall believed we could have a plurality of views, Christianity would have to be the basis, and “What does that say to non-Christians? Some people can’t sit at the table?” He then suggested that a good common moral code would be the Bill of Rights.
Zuckerman then made what I thought was one of the best points of the night:
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
While Colossians 3:22 states:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything
And he asked, “Which is more likely to be corrupted?” He did note that there are apologetics for slavery in the Bible — and that his point wasn’t the meaning behind the biblical text, only that we should ask which passage, the secular one or the biblical one, was less ambiguous.
Several times, Marshall tried to separate government from society, agreeing with Zuckerman that government should be neutral, but suggesting that society should be Christian.
Another question, “What is bad about your opponent’s position?” led to, I think, each side’s major point.
Zuckerman’s position was that many Christian societies, whether American states or other nations, are not doing well. And many of the most secular nations in the world are doing very well. He acknowledged that many secular nations owe a lot of their heritage to Christianity, but the question is “what is best for today?”
Marshall’s position, reiterated several times in the debate, was that Humanism was a “squishy” word (which I took to mean can be good or bad, but he didn’t clarify). He also said that “Leaving God, it can take a while for a weakening in the foundation of society, for example, not having many kids.”
Asked “If you admit Christianity has done the most good, why change?” Zuckerman said that Christianity divides the world. Secular Humanism allows for no such division. Also, although Christians are more charitable than Secular Humanists, Muslims and Mormons are the most charitable of all. “Hobby Lobby doesn’t want to sell Menorahs. Says something.”
I started off the night worrying about Zuckerman, but he picked up energy every minute and ended with what I’d have to call a caffeine-powered Gish Gallop. He rattled off a long list of positions where Christianity and Secular Humanism differed, from the death penalty to LGBT rights to everything in between. I suspect the Conservative audience may have been less impressed with some of the items than I was, but it was a tour de force.
Marshall ended with one last anecdote, that of Ruby Bridges going to William Frantz Elementary school in 1960. And how, as she entered school, she turned to pray for the white men yelling abuse at her, “Because they need it.” Marshall reminded us that it was the Gospel behind Ruby’s strength and forgiveness, though I couldn’t help but wonder if the white men yelling at her were Secular Humanists or Christians.
Since the Church’s “rebuttals” are online, I’m not going to dissect them in detail. I wonder, however, how they can refer to the Treaty of Tripoli as “a footnote in history” but say that “In the Year of our Lord” is proof that the Founding Fathers intended this to be a Christian Nation. It also occurred to me that Adventure Christian doesn’t seem to share Marshall’s view that society, but not government, should be Christian in nature.
Does “We were not represented well” also mean “We don’t even agree with the position represented”?
You could argue that I’m wrong. Marshall delivered a guest sermon for the church last weekend and spoke on the topic “Be Courageous & Defend the Bible,” so surely the church agrees with his positions, right? At least that video was posted on Vimeo:
Now, however, it appears the church has taken that down, too:
***Update (10/22/13)***: The video has now been posted online.