Debate Aftermath

Debate Aftermath November 17, 2014

Atheist Christian debateWe had a good turnout, with about 100 people showing up. I’ll share some observations that will give you a feel for how things went at the debate two days ago.

Christian opponent. The organizer of the event and my opponent was Rand Wagner, who has master’s degrees in Exegetical Theology (Western Seminary) and Christian Apologetics (Biola).

Christian argument. Rand opened with three arguments:

1. Cosmological argument: specifically, God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe. Rand spent a lot of time arguing the Big Bang. This was unnecessary since I’m happy to accept the Big Bang origin of the universe. Show me something that’s the scientific consensus, and I’m there.

That doesn’t mean that the universe came from nothing, of course, which is where Rand went next. Science has ideas about what happened “before” the beginning, but there is no consensus yet.

Ironically, we know about the Big Bang from science, the only discipline that ever tells us new things about reality. That Christianity doesn’t offer anything here should be embarrassing.

Rand argued that something can’t come from nothing … but concluded that God made the universe from nothing. Ironic.

He mentioned Antony Flew’s conversion to deism. That might be relevant if Flew, a philosopher, had any scholarly credibility in the domains of the arguments that he said convinced him. He doesn’t. (More here.)

Rand’s arguments often devolved into, “Science has unanswered questions; therefore, God.” I should’ve asked if this really was, at root, where he was coming from.

I made clear that the Copenhagen model of quantum mechanics says that some events have no cause (for example, the electron that comes out of a decaying nucleus had no cause and can be described only probabilistically). Admittedly, physics has other possibilities, but this means that Rand’s starting point is “everything that begins to exist might have a cause,” which doesn’t do him much good. His response was to explicitly dismiss my point and double down on common sense with “everything has a cause.”

2. Transcendental Argument for God + Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Rand argued that the atheist must use Christian reason to attack Christianity. This is ironic since earlier he had used Christianity-free science to attack atheism.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll point to my earlier posts on TAG and Plantinga’s EAAN.

3. Argument from Design. He focused on information (that is, DNA) and gave quotes from Antony Flew (not a biologist) and Stephen Meyer (also not a biologist). No more irrelevant quotes from people outside their domain of expertise, please!

I responded that the Design Argument fails when applied to DNA. The Design Argument says that DNA looks like it was created by a designer. The only designers we know about are human ones, and they have a small number of goals they try to balance: cost, strength, beauty, and so on. Human designers never put junk into their designs. And yet, when you look at DNA, you see junk all over the place.

  • DNA is not proportional to complexity, and there are salamanders, fish, beetles, ticks, snails, and even plants that have much more DNA than humans do—as much as 200 times more. The excess DNA is apparently unnecessary.
  • Human DNA has 20,000 pseudogenes—genes that are broken versions of working genes we see in other animals, like the nonfunctional vitamin C gene that every cell in your body has.
  • Endogenous retrovirus DNA composes 8% of human DNA, a record of millions of years of viral infections.
  • Finally, we see vestigial structures (such as nonfunctioning eyes in cave fish and a pelvis in whales) and atavisms (such as legs on snakes and teeth in chickens). More here.

My argument. I wanted arguments that would be short, easy to understand, and surprising. I used these eight arguments:

I’ve seen atheist debaters start with rebuttals to Christian arguments (here’s why evolution explains morality, here’s why the multiverse is a plausible response to the fine-tuning argument, and so on). That’s a bad move. More effective is to start with an opening salvo of your own positive arguments that the Christian opponent must respond to.

If I were to do another debate, I might deliberately change my opening arguments just to surprise my opponent. I’ve got plenty. (In fact, I’m mulling the idea of another book titled 25 Arguments for Atheism that would focus on positive arguments for atheism rather than the more typical arguments against Christianity. What do you think?)

How the debate progressed. In a formal debate, arguments are numbered so that everyone keeping score can see whether arguments are addressed or ignored. Rand sort of touched on only the first two arguments. For 1, he argued that there are plenty of Christian historians. (I’m focused on the historical consensus, which universally scrubs the supernatural out of history.)

For 2, he said that apparently nothing will satisfy atheists. They’re determined to turn up their noses at whatever evidence Christians give. (Surely I can’t be faulted for wanted more than we have now.) He also said that signs and wonders wouldn’t be signs and wonders if they happened all the time. (Do you want signs and wonders, or do you want undeniable evidence of God? I’ll go with the latter.)

Debates are more performance art than actual debate. If this had been just the two of us with an impartial judge, I would’ve hammered on the fact that he did next to nothing to respond to my arguments. But since it was public, that would’ve been poor form. I repeated the titles of the arguments in my closing comments. Technically, I should’ve at least mentioned that we heard little besides crickets in response, though I think I avoided even that.

The result was that the debate was fought almost exclusively on his turf, discussing his arguments. There simply was very little to say to bolster my arguments since they’d barely been touched. Again, in a proper debate, that would’ve been a strategic mistake for me. And maybe it was here, but decorum seemed to forbid it.

Quotes. What is it with Christian arguments and quotes? I didn’t keep track, but it sounded like he quoted a dozen scholars. I use quotes myself, but almost never to establish a fact. Maybe I’m simply not drawn to arguments where there are polarized opinions. I’ll have to think about that.

Preparation. I had printed out notes on a number of topics, just in case. That came in handy when Rand quoted from Alexander Vilenkin about the power of the BGV theorem in denying the possibility of a past-eternal universe. Luckily, I was able to quote Vilenkin from the very next page in his book: “The theorem that I proved with my colleagues does not give much of an advantage to the theologian over the scientist.”

Friendly faces. I met Darrell Barker, brother of Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Darrell is active in local freethought activities. Also there were Sam Mulvey and Becky Friedman from the Ask an Atheist radio show and podcast, and lots of other supportive friends.

Final thoughts. A debate like this, with mostly Christians in the audience, is tricky because they’re eager to put the atheists into the negative bin they’ve prepared for them. I tried to be polite, but you can’t be nonconfrontational in a debate. If my audience had simply been only the atheists in the audience or at this blog, I would’ve been far more forceful. Instead, I tried to appeal to the Christians.

The video of the debate is here.

Hemant Mehta recently argued that arguments about God’s existence are pointless. I argue much better through writing than speaking, and Hemant is right that it’s just a show and neither participant will budge. He raises good points, though Rand provided me with a lot of attentive Christians to whom I could provide new ideas. Maybe these will germinate months in the future.

And I guess I just like to argue.

If you want to go to an event where anything gets settled,
I recommend a hockey game.
commenter on the futility of debates

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  • MNb

    “And maybe it was here, but decorum seemed to forbid it.”
    I think in a public debate you can get mean in your closing statement. The public tends to remember the last words you say. So in this debate you could have finished with a summary like this:

    1. “We have extensively discussed Mr. Wagner’s arguments for god. I think I have shown that they all are unconvincing.”
    2. “In my opening statements I have mentioned several positive arguments for atheism. I’d like to draw the attention of the public to the fact that Mr. Wagner hasn’t addressed any of them”. Then you mention one example, so that even if Mr. Wagner has the last word he hardly will be capable to contradict them in his last words.

    “And I guess I just like to argue.”
    Frankly I think this the best motivation to do debates. It seems to me that you have done a good job. See it as a sports match; then you will analyse which points can be improved. If you have shown any christian in the audience that atheism is a reasonable position it’s already a big bonus.

    I have one complaint. It took you long to write down your first impressions. First impressions generally are better when written down immediately.

    • Thanks for the feedback.

    • Greg K.

      “And I guess I just like to argue.”

      Bob, probably likes to argue because he is good at.

      “… See it as a sports match:…”

      I have found when I argue for the truth, not to win, is when the logical questions pop into my head to ask the person I disagree with. It is hard sometimes to argue for the truth if I don’t like the truth, but I think the truth is more important than winning, or is more persuasive, or the logical questions tend to be easier to see. I know some debates don’t allow the debaters to directly question each other, which to me scuttles the who point of an honest and civil debate. I know some people that when I argue, and they assert, if I ask logical questions they get mad because it is a simple way to point out the flaw or flaws in their assertion or assertions. One of their classic lines, if I question them logically, is “Go check it out.” They don’t have to prove their assertions are true, I do. Or they have watched Fox news, read the Bible, and that is all they need to know. Or I can’t be right, and them wrong, or I am wrong because they think they are smarter than me. If they lose they aren’t smarter than me, so they have to win. Or they will just flat out change the subject by insulting me, attacking me. Or all of the above.

      • Yes, the truth is more important than winning. Truth is my goal. I prune away arguments or points of evidence all the time as people point out flaws.

        I like the idea of a questioning phase in a debate, though the other guy always gets the last word. I could ask for clarification of an anti-evolution stance, say, and the other guy goes into a summary of Creationism. I’m unable then to critique that.

      • RichardSRussell

        I’ve done several such debates, and — as I always point out to my fellow atheists afterward — you don’t have to win! Most of the audience will not have heard serious pro-atheism arguments before (only insults and caricatures), so you’re establishing yourself as a reasonable person with a serious point of view, not a horned demon out to steal their souls. Besides, you’re planting seeds that may take awhile to germinate and sprout, but without you your audience might never have encountered them at all.

        • I see the concern about a biologist debating a Creationist. It’s a big condescension for the biologist. But an atheist and a Christian don’t have that problem.

          As you say, the Christian is putting many Christian minds in front of the atheist debater. A polite and thoughtful atheist could do a lot of good there (or damage, as seen from the Christian position).

        • MNb

          “I see the concern about a biologist debating a Creationist.”
          Biologists and scientists in general shouldn’t do that, except when they enjoy it themselves for one reason or another. Jason Rosenhouse has done it and of course Bill Nye.

        • Greg K.

          “Most of the audience will not have heard serious pro-atheism arguments”

          Yes, I definitely agree with this.

          On the flip side, most atheists have heard pro-theism assertions since age 3, and read some or of all of the Bible. We have definitely considered them and analyzed them from logic, assumptions, biases, critical thinking errors. I went to an atheist vs Christian debate, and I noticed how the Christian debater slipped in quotes from the Bible, preaching, when not relevant. Sneaky.

        • WLC always has an altar call as his last argument. I don’t begrudge him that–it’s his time to waste as he chooses–but it does take up precious time.

          (didn’t you used to be a wizard?)

        • Greg K.

          Yes, I do agree that the Christian debaters’ closing statements can be what they want.

          I do want to say that in a previous post, I said I know you (Bob), which I shouldn’t have said. I should have said, I have met you. I should have said, all the times I have been around Bob, despite being as smart as he is, he never acted superior around me.

        • Oh, that Greg! Sorry–I was thinking of Greg G as the wizard. My bad.

        • Greg K.

          Oh, I see why you asked me if I used to be a wizard. I see there is a Greg G. with a wizard profile pic. Now it makes sense…lol.

      • MNb

        Regarding these subject truth doesn’t mean much to me, so I have quite a hard time to follow you.
        Not always is the most important goal of a sports match to beat the opponent. There are friendlies for instance, where trying out ideas is the first priority.

  • RoverSerton

    I wish I could have been there. Anxious to see the video. Please let us know when it is available.

  • Ryan Langford

    I was planning on showing up for this, but didn’t realize it conflicted with other plans until the day of the debate. I’d love to see the video/audio of this, so please keep us updated on that. Thanks!

    • Greg K.

      I would too.

  • Greg K.

    “In fact, I’m mulling the idea of another book titled 25 Arguments for Atheism that would focus on positive arguments for atheism rather than the more typical arguments against Christianity. What do you think?”

    I think that is a great idea.

    • Thanks for the input. I’ve had some fun with fiction for the last 2 books, so perhaps nonfiction is the way to go next time.

      • Pofarmer

        Also think ot would be a great idea. It could start as a series of blog posts……..

      • Greg G.

        Is this the right subthread to express positive enthusiasm for the book idea?

        • You bet. I’m looking for feedback for what would be interesting and effective, both for atheists and Christians.

        • Greg K.


    • RichardSRussell

      Now that Vic Stenger’s gone, we need a worthy successor to step up to the plate.

  • Rudy R

    To make an argument that something can’t come from nothing, the advocate for the cosmological argument would first have to make an argument that “nothing” is the default, and not “something.”

  • curtcameron

    What is it about Christian arguments and quotes? I’ve noticed that people who tend to refer to authority are also the people who tend to be religious. I think there’s a cause-and-effect there, with the reverence for authority as the underlying starting point for some people. So they use quotes of perceived authorities as something substantive.

    I didn’t see the movie God’s Not Dead, but in the trailer and the reviews I heard, it was conspicuous that they portrayed the atheist professor relying on quotes from his authority figures, like Dawkins, which really seems confusing, because atheists never do this. But it was the Christian film makers projecting. They think arguments should be made by quoting authority figures, so they have their antagonist make arguments this way.

    • Interesting point about the movie. I noticed that but hadn’t made that connection–thanks.

  • 90Lew90

    Congratulations and well done for giving it a shot. I’m sure you probably have but did you picked up any books on public speaking? I got some when I more purposefully aiming at law, anticipating inevitable court appearances. I don’t mean to hit you with a reading list but I did find the following helpful. First, and brilliant as far as I’m concerned, is ‘You Talkin’ to Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’ by Sam Leith. It’s witty, easy to read and rich with technical advice that would otherwise be very dull indeed. ‘The Lost Art of Great Speech: How to Write One, How to Deliver It’ by Richard Dowis is an American publication I paid heavily for but which you should be able to get pretty cheap.

    With those at my side I also got ‘The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches’, ed. Brian MacArthur so as to tease out methods and tactics at work in full speeches. It’s interesting in its own right. You could do a lot worse than to get a volume of Cicero with commentary. I have ‘Orations’. It seems the “rules” of public speaking almost always derive from him at some point. The last one is obvious and you’ve clearly done plenty of homework but a sophisticated argument from the other side, as it were, is Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’. I think if you gave that a good going over you’d find yourself well-armed for the best the theist can throw at you. Chin up! Onward!

    • Whew–that’s a long list. I appreciate that.

      • 90Lew90

        You could cut it in half and just check out Leith and Dowis. I’m just a bit of a book glutton and pulled those from my want-to-be-a-lawyer shelf…

  • Craig Reynolds

    Is it a surety that there was “nothing” before the Big Bang? In the fanciful world of metaphysics, it’s as easy to contemplate a subatomic eternity alive with vibrating strings as it is a lonely god or two.

    Do let’s have your book of 25 Arguments For Atheism.

    • Thanks for the feedback.

      Cosmology has no consensus about what was “before” or what “caused” the Big Bang.

      • Giauz Ragnarock

        Thought I have been toying with: could the “big” bang just be a matter of scale? I mean a molecule up really close is a lot of emtu space. From really far out perhaps all the matter in the completely emty space of the universe still looks like a small solid sphere. In an infinite space where time and size are completely relative perhaps the big bang of another univer has not “happened, yet”.

        • Did you see the end of Men in Black where our universe is just the insides of a marble being played with by some alien children?

          I have heard of such things, but I don’t know where a hierarchy of universes (our universe is some other guy’s black hole or dust speck or quark) fits with current cosmology.

          MNb might have a more informed reaction.

        • Giauz Ragnarock

          Yes, I love that movie. I was thinking more like all matter in the universe might not spread out for infinite distance in infinite space, so fare enough out in the universe looking back it would look as if the big bang hasn’t happened. I’m really not informed (even after rewatching Carol vs Craig!), just posting a bit of amateur questioning.

        • I liked the movie too, but I am not going to wager on that movie being how the universe fits together. I’ll take the Bible. Try it out, you might like it. and, Happy Thanksgiving!

        • Giauz Ragnarock

          I did try it out. Absolutely horrible book. No citations or convincing arguments (all of which just amounted to just trust me, you love me like I love you right?, and … or else I’ll hurt you).

        • No citations?! Good observation–I like that!

        • MNb

          I have tried it out – and continue to do so. The more I read into it, the more christianity seems to suck. But indeed I liked Revelation. Excellent absurd humour – an ancient version of Monty Python on LSD, so to say.
          But the Bible telling how the Universe fits together? Not any better than that movie.

        • You’re going to take the Bible … because it has a good track record of teaching us new things about nature and reality?

          Show me the evidence of that.

        • Kevin Osborne

          Let’s say the universe appears as you choose to see it. That it is both a nearly infinite appearing gigantic universe, and a microscopic chunk of matter, and everything in between, that comes into and out of existence every microsecond. That there is a “basic” universe with matter uniformly distributed that bends and shapes as it is observed, The easiest way to make all this work is a co-creation with an overall awareness or God or whatever you want to call it. However it does not matter a bit what anyone chooses to believe and accept, because existence in this place is a constant and because the setup is designed to demand change. So, damn the torpedoes!

        • Universe should mean Universe. Not one of an aggregate of mini universes.

          Why is it so hard for people to approach Singularity? Or, it’s stand-in Entirety.

          It is the same problem we have with God. We insist he has a beard. So all the beardless ones must be false.

          Or because some gods have beards and some don’t, there is no God.

          There is Infinity as Singularity, and there is the infinity/finity dyad resulting from the potentiality of the first.

          The former can NOT be comprehended in the usual way. But, most certainly has not gone away.

          I find this well worth looking into.

        • Pofarmer

          Because perhaps singularity and infinity aren’t the correct way to think about the issue at hand.

        • All other paths lead to endless “big-endian/little-endian” squabbles.

          The very essence of issues in general.

        • Giauz Ragnarock

          Thanks for the reply (by the way, fellow (?) atheist/naturalist here, so some of your comment was a bit puzzling).

        • Perhaps because I wasn’t arguing. Sorry for the confusion.

          Though I do not like to linger long on the theist/non-theist aspects of this. (Beards or not, etc.)

          Yes, nature is a good starting point. All speculation of “supernatural” is just silly. The real thing already extends to the horizon and beyond.

          Another good starting point is “Here and Now”. What is THAT!?

          Or, who am I? Who is asking the question? Who entertains the various answers as they arise?

  • Gerry

    I think you should do the book. The idea of arguments FOR, rather than AGAINST, always has merit.

    • Thanks for that. There’s a lot of nutty Christian arguments to respond to, but I like to push them off balance with positive atheist arguments. Perhaps that’ll be my 2015 project.

  • TheNuszAbides

    “(In fact, I’m mulling the idea of another book titled 25 Arguments for Atheism that would focus on positive arguments for atheism rather than the more typical arguments against Christianity. What do you think?)”

    i think i’m unlikely to help with sales, but always happy to kibbitz from this cozy remove! 🙂

    • TheNuszAbides

      also, i’m in Seattle, so happy to chat over coffee or somesuch if we happen to have coinciding free time in some nebulous future.

  • TheNuszAbides

    “What is it with Christian arguments and quotes?”

    after most similar-ish debates i often think “what is it with Christian arguments and anecdotes?” and usually assume it’s related to the right-wing affinity – down-home, relatable, emotional manipulation mojo.
    as for quotes, i have to assume he expects the audience to prefer what passes for resonant simplicity/elegance. y’know, rather than directly relevant logical construction.

    • I prefer to say, “The scientific consensus says that …” but they don’t seem to get the opportunity that much.

      • TheNuszAbides

        that reminds me of the first time I heard Turek and was (for the first and last time, as far as he goes) thrown for a loop–an opening salvo v. Hitchens in which Frank rattled off astounding scientific discoveries. of course they were ultimately alleged to concur with scripture or whatever, but the number of consecutive minutes that he simply reported science without invoking “‘cuz the bible” actually had me wondering whether the video had been mislabeled ‘debate’…

  • TheNuszAbides

    “Debates are more performance art than actual debate.”

    true enough… though i’m stumped for ideas as to how we convert expectations on a societal level…

  • TheNuszAbides

    “And I guess I just like to argue.”

    thank golly somebody “on our side” does! 😉

  • TheNuszAbides

    “Hemant Mehta recently argued
    that arguments about God’s existence are pointless. I argue much better
    through writing than speaking, and Hemant is right that it’s just a
    show and neither participant will budge. He raises good points, though
    Rand provided me with a lot of attentive Christians to whom I could
    provide new ideas.”

    i don’t buy that line of reasoning wholesale. i think i get the point, but the fact remains that people have been known to change their minds on just about every thing under the proverbial sun, and there is no singular criterion/catalyst for such change. granted, nobody should go up against a Craig or a Dawkins actually imagining the opponent’s mind will be affected in any way other than (at best) improving their arguments. but it seems far too easy to discount entire audiences (or at least misidentify exceptions within them) in this vein.