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How (Not) to Have a Debate

How (Not) to Have a Debate June 3, 2014

debatepic2This past Saturday night I had the pleasure of watching Matt Dillahunty debate Sye Ten Bruggencate after months (or was it years?) of exchanging online challenges to do just that.  It was a thoroughly entertaining evening for reasons which I will get into shortly, but I should first clarify that it’s not precisely accurate to say that a debate ever took place.  To be sure, arguments were made and barbs were exchanged, but in a way the debate itself never actually happened.

See, in a debate, each side is supposed to answer a key question.  In this case, the question was:  Is it reasonable to believe God exists?  Matt came to the event with a pre-prepared script explaining why he did not believe it was reasonable to believe God exists and he presented it exactly as planned.  But his opponent never actually presented a positive argument for why it is reasonable to believe in any deity, much less in one particular iteration out of the thousands available.  Instead of offering an affirmative case for his particular religion, he did the only thing which his peculiar variety of presuppositional apologetics can do:  He argued (quite poorly, I might add) that atheists lack certainty in their knowledge and he concluded without explanation that somehow this means his view wins by default.  It is, in effect, a choice not to present an argument but rather to attempt to dismantle the other guy’s ideas without ever making a positive case for your own.  This oddity follows from the natural limitations of the presuppositional approach itself, which I’ll attempt to explain in the second half of this post.  But first a word about the train wreck that was Sye’s behavior at the event:

There’s Just Somethin’ Wrong with That Fella

On a personal note, I found Bruggencate to be an insufferably rude man, impersonable and stand-offish to almost everyone I heard him address except, notably, me.  Perhaps he afforded me a modicum of respect because I studied both theology and apologetics at the same Reformed seminary where his hero, Greg Bahnsen, used to teach.  But this dubious honor was quickly nullified the moment I watched him attempt to steamroll and disrespect the woman who indefatigably spearheaded and organized this previously-thought-impossible event.  I found every single one of his interchanges with her tasteless and immature, like a petulant toddler correcting his mother for perceived injustices when in fact it is the child who is out of line.  His treatment of her was simply deplorable and speaks volumes about his personal character (as did her superhuman patience, yet firmness, toward him speak of hers).

Even the way he presented his non-case during the non-debate was at once odd, impersonal, superficial, and dishonest.  Rather than stating his positive argument for his own religious claims (remember, he has no positive arguments), he used up the majority of his time playing short clips and snippets of quotes mined from Matt’s previous broadcasts, ripping them entirely out of context (often cutting clips off mid-sentence) and then engaging those clips as if he were really having a conversation with Matt when in reality he was arguing with a digital straw man constructed out of random bits of real sentences made useless by their complete lack of proper context.  It felt a lot like this famous non-conversation which took place just a couple of years ago:

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“…and another thing, Mr. President…”

Except Saturday’s bizarre display was even weirder because unlike when Dirty Harry spoke, Sye’s interlocutor was sitting right there next to him, and yet he still chose to talk to an imaginary Matt as if the man he was addressing weren’t sitting right beside him.  I guess I can understand why Sye would prefer to argue with a stylized version of Matt which he carefully constructed out of sound bites divorced from their proper context.  A real person is much harder to engage.  In order to look less like a fool, Sye needed the conversation to follow a carefully scripted track.  But since real life doesn’t afford such predictability, he just concocted his own pre-scripted conversation (or nonversation, if you will) and spent the bulk of his allotted time arguing with a digital straw man version of a guy who was sitting right next to him.  Just bizarre.

One other note I must throw in before attempting to unpack his decision not to present a positive argument of his own:  I’m no doctor, but I do believe that man has a narcissistic personality disorder.  My graduate degree was in Biblical Studies but my undergrad degree was in Psychology and I’m tellin’ ya, there’s somethin’ wrong with that fella.  Besides the despicable way he treated his hosts, he also threatened the audience with eternal damnation so many times that I lost count.  And yes, sadly, I know that even normal people are taught to do that by their parents, Sunday School teachers, and preachers, but this guy seemed to revert back to threats as if he requires intimidation more than any normal person should.  He accused his audience of the most sinister motives and dishonesty without the slightest hint of discomfort that what he was saying was offensive in any way to his listeners.  Or worse still, perhaps he revels in the offense, as if somehow feeding off of the negative attention it brought him.

Ultimately what I saw Saturday night was a man addicted to drawing attention to himself, unaffected by whether or not that attention is negative or positive.  There was an awful lot of self-conscious posing and posturing, and he seemed to me unnaturally fond of speaking in front of a camera.  Our hosts invited him to an informal lunch with some of the key players of the evening but he refused to show unless a camera crew could be there to film the meal.  Let that sink in for just a minute.  I also noted that while another guest, Eric Hovind, was happy to keep chatting with people even after the cameras and microphones powered down, Bruggencate disappeared as soon as the recording stopped.  Such was his style that evening.  And as a side note, if you listen to the broadcast of the Dogma Debate show which immediately followed the Dillahunty (non)debate, you’ll note that Sye wouldn’t even share a stage with the event’s organizer, and you’ll hear David Silverman give his diagnosis for why Bruggencate acted in such poor taste (hint:  Freud would likely have been proud).

Because Sye represents an excellent embodiment of the relationship between a person’s theology and his innate personality flaws, I want to write more about that but will have to save it for another post.  Given that narcissism is his particular disorder, it’s admittedly counterproductive to devote two entire posts to him, particularly since neither I nor the majority of those who have witnessed his style of debate feel that he has earned a place at the grown-up discussion table.  The internet is a funny “place”—an alternate reality, in a way—so that people can be “internet famous” without having really done anything worthy of acclaim.  Even agreeing to debate him assumes a certain amount of risk that you’ll only feed his need to be seen and heard despite his not having anything substantive to contribute to the discipline he pretends to represent (to my knowledge, most other apologists won’t claim him, if they even know who he is).  But I think it’s still necessary to put the guy in his place.  I think Matt did that handily Saturday night, and my appreciation for his ability to think on his feet while enduring obtuse word games has gone up several notches.  But after Matt rebutted each accusation Sye threw his way, a number of people scratched their heads and asked each other what exactly they just witnessed.  If you haven’t ever studied the presuppositionalist apologetic method, you may watch the video of the event (a big thank you to The Thinking Atheist for getting that posted so quickly) and come away as baffled as they were at what you just heard.  So here’s my attempt to unpack and explain what Sye was trying (and failing) to do:

Can Somebody Please Explain to Me What Just Happened Here?

First, a little bit of history is in order.  If I am right, the very notion of a Giant Invisible Man being behind everything in the universe originated from a need to understand why and how things happen.  The operations of the world have long been mysterious to us, and theology, philosophy, and science were each born out of an attempt to make sense of it all.  Over time, philosophy and later science began to come up with better answers (and increasingly convergent ones, particularly for science) than what theology and religion gave us.  The practitioners of the world’s religions have been sore about that ever since.  Initially they defended their beliefs from foreign invasion by appealing to rational argumentation and classical Aristotelian syllogisms, but this method of defending the faith has persuaded fewer and fewer people with each passing century.  By the early 20th century, it had become apparent to some theologians that a new approach was in order.  A Dutch Reformed professor at Westminster Seminary named Cornelius Van Til worked out a new approach which he felt both avoided entanglement in battles against science while also being more consistent with Calvinistic theology.  He called it the presuppositionalist method.  It goes something like this:

Because of “the fall” of Adam and Eve, mankind has been warped by sin such that his motives and his mind have been too greatly marred to appeal to them for our salvation.  Because only those chosen by God can gain the supernatural faith they need in order to be saved (remember Calvinists subscribe to predestination), it does no good to appeal to a man’s reasoning capabilities in order to persuade him to believe.  Faith comes from God, the Calvinists say, so the only rightful and God-honoring way to evangelize is to just preach the Bible.  People will either be “quickened” by the Holy Spirit to believe or else they will not be afforded such grace;  either way, the evangelist’s task is done.  Appealing to the lost person’s reasoning capabilities is idolatry, because doing so sends a signal that mankind is qualified to determine for himself what is “true” and what is not.  This is unacceptable.  Therefore the apologist must not lower himself to engage in presenting a rational case for the existence of God.

What then can the apologist do, other than quote Bible verses?  Van Til suggested that a consistently Reformed apologetic will focus on performing an internal critique of the other guy’s thinking, attempting to demonstrate holes in the listener’s worldview.  If the apologist can show the limitations of the other guy’s belief system, it is assumed that the only viable alternative must be Trinitarian Christian theism.  If you’re listening as close as I think you are, you probably noticed that required a tremendous leap of logic.  I mean, exactly how many competing religions does one have to jump over to arrive at one particular subset of one world religion?  It boggles the mind.  But that’s precisely the level of egocentrism inherent in the presuppositional apologetic method.

TL;DR – “Your worldview has holes in it; therefore mine is the only right one.”

Sye spent the bulk of his time splicing together sound clips divorced from their context in order to paint a caricature of Matt’s worldview as one utterly incapable of demonstrating that we can “know” anything with certainty (that’s crucially important for theists of Bruggencate’s stripe).  His aim was to attempt an internal critique of atheism, presenting it as fundamentally solipsistic.  He does his best to prove his negative case from sound bites of Matt’s show, although it should be pretty obvious to most viewers that there’s something fishy about going at it this way.  Why not just ask the guy what he thinks about this?  He’s sitting right there next to you!  The disingenuousness of presenting his case this way was as obvious as it was comical.

True to form, he never did give positive reasons to believe his God exists (other than the Bible says it).  He only tried to demonstrate what he perceived to be the limitations of not believing in his particular God under the naïve presumption that the only alternative to the view he’s challenging must be his own.  This, as I said, is an inherent weakness in the presuppositional method.  It is primarily a negative approach, and it relies on a tremendous logical leap across thousands of alternatives, known and unknown, in a search for answers to questions which likely aren’t even worded in ways that are fair.

Take the word “knowledge” for example.  Because Sye’s theology dictates that all true knowledge begins with God, anything you say you “know” apart from God is automatically invalid, regardless of how thoroughly you can demonstrate its veracity.  I recall enduring an hour-long discussion one day during seminary in which the professor argued that a non-Christian cannot even properly “know” that 2+2=4.  Not even his students could get on board with that ridiculous claim, but that was a standard presuppositonalist canard, and it demonstrates the absurdity of its position.  When you watch or listen to the debate, you’ll notice that Sye insisted he could know things for certain, but that Matt could not know anything.  That’s why he feels justified in having such a double standard.  In Sye’s view, all knowledge is proprietary, the rightful property of only people on his team.  It’s not so much that Sye genuinely deduced this from Matt’s show.  He came to this performance trying to validate his own tradition’s theory of knowledge, and ripping Matt’s words out of context suited that aim just fine.

Having a Nonversation

What I hope you are seeing is that in fact Sye didn’t come to have a debate in any normal sense of the word.  Argumentation happened, to be sure.  But neither Sye’s theology nor his natural skills as a communicator empowered him to put forth a positive case for the existence of God.  To do so would be anathema, frankly, because from Sye’s theological perspective it would put the listener in the position of arbiter of truth, which of course cannot be done.  “The Truth” can only be asserted, via the infallible Bible of course, and you can either accept it and be saved or else reject it and be condemned to eternal torture.  You’re either with God or you’re against him, Sye argued.  There is no middle ground on which to agree on terms, definitions, philosophical ideas, or even empirically observable facts.  For the presupper, there are no such things as neutral facts.

Can you see how disinterested this would make a man in whether or not his method is actually persuading anyone?  At one point between recordings I asked him if anyone ever “gets saved” through his apologetic method.  He quickly dismissed the question and assured me that wasn’t his problem.  “It’s not my job to persuade,” he asserted.  “That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.”  Indeed, I believe him that he does not take any personal responsibility for the ineffectiveness of his methods.  As with most fundamentalists, “faithfulness” always trumps effectiveness.  That means that they will not (and cannot) change what they are doing or even how they are communicating because they are convinced that the right course has already been revealed to them.  Any deviation from that would constitute a departure from God’s command to “do it this way.”  Put that mentality together with an already pre-existing narcissistic personality disorder and voila!  You’ve got Sye Ten Bruggencate.

The Real Stars of the Evening

So many people invested time, energy, and money into putting on this debate and they all deserve high praise for the work they did.  But in my opinion three people in particular demonstrated superior character and intelligence at the most challenging moments of the evening.

First of all, there was Sarah Morehead.  Sarah serves as the executive director of Recovering from Religion and she put this event together despite a number of formidable obstacles and hiccups along the way.  More than anyone else, she had to endure Sye’s juvenile bullying and instead of kicking him to the curb, she graciously worked with him and his friends to make this meeting happen at last.  It came together quite nicely, in my opinion, and it also served a dual function of providing David Silverman an opportunity to settle on a venue for next year’s big national American Atheists convention.  In case you haven’t heard, it will be at the famous Peabody Hotel in Memphis on Easter weekend.  I’m thrilled that they chose a southern city to host this one, because it will provide southern groups a rallying point for connecting with each other as they promote this big event.

Second of all, Matt Dillahunty totally carried the whole evening with his thorough preparation and lightning quick thinking ability.  For the formal portions of the debate he pre-prepared extensive statements which touched on every issue which he knew Sye would bring up.  And frankly, he nailed it.  By the time he got to his rebuttal portion and read it aloud, it was humorous how on-the-money it was.  It was almost as if Matt had read Sye’s outline ahead of time, and the only thing he didn’t know was that Sye would spend half his time just playing clips of Matt’s show.  In the end, Sye spoke relatively little (because how long does it really take to say, “Just accept the Bible,” amirite?).  When the back-and-forth question and answer portion came around, Sye whipped out his usual arsenal of curt epistemological queries (How do you know that?  Are you certain?  Could you be wrong?), and I thought Matt’s answers were amazingly precise and parsimonious.  He really did a fantastic job of answering those rapid fire questions.  That’s a skill I simply don’t have.  I need time to think.  Matt seems to have already thought through just about all of those challenges and has already worked out a solid bank of answers.

Third, I must give a shout out to David Smalley for his presentation entitled “Loving Your Enemy” before the debate began.  He started the night off on a high note, and I would love to have every religious and non-religious person listen to it and take it to heart.  He spoke of respecting people who think differently from you enough to listen to them and not talk down to them, as if always looking to “win” an argument.  He spoke of learning to connect with people on a deeper level so that a real conversation can take place rather than a war of words which you’re trying to win.  His message was wasted on someone like Bruggencate (who spoke to the non-theists in the room as if we were swine beneath his elect Dutch Reformed feet), but maybe most psychologically healthy people could benefit from being exposed to what he had to say.  He did a great job, and I thought in his later broadcast that he was very patient and respectful with the two-on-one talk he had with both Bruggencate and Hovind.

Overall it was a really entertaining night.  I met lots of folks whom I’m looking forward to getting to know better in the future, and I was thoroughly amused by the quirky neuroses and pompous theological certainties of Bruggencate, who is a real card.  I was deeply impressed with the sharp intellects, good senses of humor, and laudable patience of the key players of this event.  If you’d like to see the video that Seth Andrews made of the debate you can find that here.


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