In 2013, a Christian apologist named David Marshall debated historian Richard Carrier on the topic “Is the Christian Faith Reasonable?” The debate was hosted by both an atheist and a Christian student group at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Today we’ll be talking about it–and about debates generally. Here is the video of the one in question, in case you want to follow along or haven’t seen it already:
I’d be the first to admit that I’m still catching up on these debates. Generally I find them difficult to endure, generally because the Christians who participate in them are so uniformly willfully ignorant of their own arguments’ failures. There are some really good debates to see, though, notably the one where Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry took on some Catholic apologists in examining whether or not the Catholic Church is, generally, a force for good, and of course the the recent Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate about whether or not Creationism can be “a valid model of origins,” but mostly debates seem more like opportunities for religious nutjobs to parade around in front of the unwashed heathens and try to shut down dissenters’ concerns with fancy doublespeak arguments.
That said, I can’t watch most debates for the same reason that I can’t watch sitcoms: I really, really, really don’t like cringe humor, and in debates Christians parade around their willful ignorance so proudly that my spine just about leaps out of my back from the force of my cringing on their behalf. But there are good things to be learned from the points made in them, and I’ve come to see debates as useful. Whether it’s seeing what science-y-sounding terms Christians are appropriating lately or what logical fallacy they’re reworking and trotting out like prize ponies, these debates can serve as a gauge of Christians’ current favorite (and erroneous, but c’mon, you already knew that) talking points.
That’s how I’m looking at this Carrier/Marshall debate. In this debate, we can see the mindset and thought processes of history-illiterate Christians.
The debate format followed what I understand to be a fairly common format: each speaker got a period of time to make his first case; then there was a 10-minute rebuttal offered to each speaker; then each speaker got a second chunk of time; then another rebuttal period; and then they each got to give a closing argument. The debate itself took about an hour, with a question-and-answer session that lasted another hour afterward during which both speakers were allowed to answer each question if they wished.
I took pages and pages of notes, but one can condense the whole thing down to the following points:
1. David Marshall was painfully out of his league.
I know we’ve talked about this before–Hector Avalos, a Biblical historian, has criticized him thusly in a nutshell:
David Marshall does not know any of the biblical languages needed to evaluate the primary sources independently. On that basis alone, David Marshall cannot be regarded as a scholar of the Gospels or of any part of the Bible. In addition, Marshall uses theological arguments that are not verifiable to those who don’t accept his theological suppositions. He shows very little or no familiarity with the technical and scholarly literature of biblical studies.
And that, by the by, was Dr. Avalos being nice.*
David Marshall makes some very elementary mistakes in this debate. The primary problem is that he’s very obviously not familiar with a lot of ancient literature. He’s read some Chinese literature at a dilettante level, not critically (I’m not sure if he’s done so even in its original language), and he makes some really high-school level mistakes with regard to interpreting these works. He doesn’t appear to even be conscious of basic fallacies and commonly-debunked Christian tactics like the various Arguments from X. Richard Carrier buried him by making constant references to such works.
Nor is he aware of how little he really knows about history or Classical-era literature.
He reminds me of my first few days learning to play the viola when I was 10. I got the instrument from school and eagerly futzed around with it. I noticed that the bow made different noises depending on whether I drew it this way or that way across the instrument’s strings, and declared to my dubious mother that obviously that was how one made different pitches of notes–that a high pitch was obviously done by dragging the tip of the bow to the right across the higher section of the strings, while a low pitch was made by dragging the lower part of the bow across to the left lower down on the strings. I wasn’t making a bad observation, only a bad interpretation of that observation. The kinds of assertions David Marshall is making remind me of the ones I made about my viola in that first week of my possession of it. He’s not making bad observations, but he’s totally wrong about the conclusions he’s drawn about those observations.
Thankfully, I wasn’t learning to play viola on my own. I was taking classes in school. Within a week, I’d figured out I was wrong. Because David Marshall is very clearly self-taught rather than professionally educated and credentialed, though, he’s in the same situation I was in the week before school began–and he’s making the same exact mistake I did, for the same reason. When someone’s ignorant of a subject, then the conclusions that person draws are highly suspect.
2. David Marshall kept mistaking arguments for evidence.
Arguments are not, in and of themselves, evidence for a claim. Without reference to real, observable, testable facts, arguments are little more than the first gauntlet that a claim must run through. Many Christians treat arguments like they are all the proof anybody could ever need to believe in Christianity’s claims–but nothing could be further from the truth. Most apologetics involves cloaking the religion’s lack of evidence for its claims with an increasingly-dizzying array of fallacies, pseudoscience, and other forms of flim-flammery.
Alas, David Marshall is one of those Christians who is in love with “arguments from X” fallacies.
An “argument from X” is a logical fallacy in which someone tries to make a case using a totally unrelated assertion to prove a point. “Everyone knows koalas are blue, so therefore koalas must be blue” would be “an argument from numbers,” for example, saying that because “everyone” believes something, that thing must be true. We encounter these arguments constantly in Christianity, and David Marshall has shown a distinct preference for the technique, as shown here:
* The argument from numbers.
Lots and lots and lots of people have, through history, claimed very sincerely that they’ve had experiences that they think are proof of Christianity’s claims–especially miracles of various kinds. Therefore, Christianity must be true–because all these people can’t possibly be wrong, deluded, or lying. In truth, subjective feelings and experiences aren’t terribly persuasive; lots of people in every religion (and no religion) find themselves facing That One Weird Thing That Happened Once. Even if these claims weren’t dishonest or deluded, there’s no reason to think that the claimants really experienced something supernatural–or that their particular experience is proof of their particular religious ideology’s validity. David Marshall, as we’ll see, has an equivocation that he thinks hand-waves away this problem, but we don’t have to buy that idea just because it’d really help him out if we did.
* The argument from authority.
(Some famous person) thinks this assertion is true. Therefore, this assertion must be true. I literally facepalmed when David Marshall trotted this one out, and he relied on it all through the debate. Not only did the attempt clearly show that he really has no idea how to history, but it fails on its own merits because people can believe all kinds of weird shit and still be admired for their accomplishments. To use Mr. Marshall’s own example: like a lot of educated people of his time, Isaac Newton was a Christian of some kind–and also like a lot of educated people of his time, he dabbled in alchemy. Does that mean Christianity or alchemy are true? Certainly not.
David Marshall has some fascinating rationalizations around why his examples prove Christianity is “reasonable” while examples identical to his but involving different religions don’t prove other religions true or disprove his own, but ultimately he fails to make his case to anyone who understands Arguments from X attempts.
3. Here are his three big reasons for thinking that it’s perfectly reasonable to have faith in Christianity, and why those reasons are
blitheringly idiotic not compelling.
A. He was super-broke once as a missionary in an Asian country and met a woman whose wallet he’d returned some time ago. He implies that she gave him food money in the nick of time. Other Christians report similar miracles and early Christians did as well. Therefore, Jesus must be real.
We don’t know this woman’s name or have any evidence that this rather minor incident occurs the way he says it does, but we do know that Christians distort miracle claims all the damned time as part of their sales pitches. We know that people’s memories aren’t very good anyway even if they’re trying to be scrupulously honest, and that we tend to rearrange events so that they fit narratives we’ve constructed in our heads around them. One cannot imagine that the Gospels–written anonymously decades after their supposed events had occurred–would be any better at retelling events as they really happened, when modern humans can’t manage to accurately remember an event seconds after it has occurred. And that’s if we even see everything that happened before our very eyes.
So without corroboration, we have no reason to believe that these ancient accounts actually outline real live supernatural miracles. We have to go on what’s likely, not what we wish was true. And unfortunately, it’s unlikely that any miracles occurred in any of the texts (Christian and otherwise) that we have from that time. Also, we have never once actually verified a miracle, for various reasons. But we have seen people be wrong about religious claims–or dishonest about what really happened. One could debunk Christian miracle claims every single day and twice on Sundays and never get through them all.
If David Marshall wants to make a case for miracles proving the Bible’s validity and the reasonableness of Christianity’s claims, he has a long road ahead of him. (Otherwise he’s making another logical fallacy he clearly favors quite a bit: the argument from ignorance, meaning that if something happened that he can’t explain, then his assertion must be true. We can put it on the shelf beside his last favorite fallacy, the argument from beauty; he actually claims that he and other Christians think that the Gospels are very beautifully written–in translation, obviously, because he can’t read them for himself–so therefore they must be true.)
Moreover, people in ancient times wrote down all kinds of shit about all kinds of religions, and lots of people from all religions today including and beyond Christianity say they’ve seen and experienced supernatural things like miracles. One cannot use the supernatural as unique proof of Christianity. Now, here is where David Marshall hand-waves away other religions’ miracles as “magic,” while insisting that Christianity’s miracles are the really truly real live miracles. In reality, there’s no difference whatsoever, regardless of his insistence to the contrary. People in other religions are healed of questionable illnesses, experience wacky coincidences that benefit them over others, and find great parking spots. Calling the miracles of Islam and Wicca “magic” but Christians’ claims “miracles” is special pleading at best and intellectual dishonesty at worst.
B. “God” is not culturally-specific but universal across cultures, which means that the Christian faith is perfectly reasonable.
Aside from the fact that he’s simply wrong here, Richard Carrier’s one-sentence evisceration serves very well: Even if Christianity transcended specific cultures, which it didn’t and doesn’t, that doesn’t make it true any more than geocentrism is true simply because this idea transcended human culture for a long time. Nuff said here. I understand that he’s very interested in proving that other religions are secretly totally Christian but just don’t realize it, but the hints he drops about that idea make him sound pretty, um, tinfoil-hatted.
C. “The person of Jesus,” as described by anonymous Gospel authors decades after the fact to deliberately create a Jewish/pagan fusion mystery religion and sell their new religion to the ignorant masses, is very unique and totally said all kinds of things that nobody else at the time had ever said, ever. Also he was super-nice to women and totally transformed humanity in a “eureka” moment.
No, really. And yes, Richard Carrier put paid to this wacky idea. This is where a little experience in other texts and a formal education in textual criticism might have done David Marshall a world of good. Dr. Carrier mentions a long list of other contemporary-ish sources that list very kind, loving protagonists with way more appreciation for the welfare of animals and marginalized groups than the Gospels display, including The Golden Ass.
Possibly the most disturbing thing I’ve seen yet in a debate.
During David Marshall’s closing argument, he actually said that he’d rather shoot himself in the head than live in a world where disease, sickness, and pain don’t exist–except, he said, the gun would probably just turn into flowers or something.
Richard Carrier had talked at length about how, if a modern person like ourselves traveled back through time to Jesus’ day, the first thing we’d do is teach the savages there about washing our goddamned hands. We’d tell them about germs and the stuff we knew about increasing crop yields and performing first aid, and anything else we knew about how to make the world a better place. This simple thought experiment, he thought, demonstrated why modern humans are much more compassionate and loving than the Christian god, who despite knowing absolutely everything allowed himself to incarnate and go through a human lifespan without mentioning these important details to the people of that era and place. So David Marshall decided–utterly without explaining why, of course–that such a world would actually be a terrible, horrible, no-good place and he’d sooner die than be subjected to it.
Yes, he actually said that.
He was sure that a world where women didn’t stand a good chance of dying in childbirth, children didn’t regularly perish in infancy due to hunger and diseases, and the simplest infections didn’t constantly kill people in their prime, would be a horrible world in which to live compared to a world where simple precautions about hygiene were divinely granted to humanity by a benevolent god. Later he walked this rather bizarre and disturbing assertion back a little–by explaining that he totally wasn’t suicidal, which didn’t help much because I don’t see any way that anybody could have walked out of the debate thinking that he was. It was a childish, petty, puerile, and thoroughly awful assertion on his part, said purely because he knows that this is not an ideal world and wants to pretend that our world full of pain is really a perfect one because his god clearly wanted it to be that way.
Someone get this man a Congressional seat–he’s got obstructionism down pat.
The debate’s funniest moments.
1. During David Marshall’s closing argument I began noticing that he pronounces the word “science” the same way that Star Trek Ferengi and Nice Guys™ alike pronounce the word “feeeeemales.” I’m betting there’s a reason for it. I award a few brownie points to him for stating publicly that he wasn’t a Young-Earth Creationist, but the admission produced a very uncomfortable moment for everyone when we all, including David Marshall himself, had to privately reflect on how rare it is to find an apologist who isn’t YEC.
2. David Marshall’s assertions were so juvenile, ignorant, uninformed, simplistic, and easily refuted that Richard Carrier kept finishing his rebuttal periods with several minutes to spare. He actually looked a bit nonplussed about it the second time around and said he’d go sit down now because he literally couldn’t think of anything more to add to the evisceration he’d already done of Mr. Marshall’s efforts.
3. At one point David Marshall also admitted that he has no real idea what Bayes’ Theorem is or why it’s starting to be important to historians. He saw nothing wrong with this glaring bit of ignorance. Considering he was debating the guy who was in the middle of writing the book about why Bayes’ Theorem should be important to historians, that’s an especially problematic oversight on his part. If I was going up against someone in a debate like this, I’d at least brush up on what they were doing right then writing-wise.
4. He really had no answer at all for why his perfect god allowed pain to exist, and it’s nice that he admitted it–but one must ask why he presented his faith as reasonable when it couldn’t answer such a basic concern as that. It’s very confusing.
A fanatic in the audience proved quite disruptive. First she tried to Just Ask A Question early on and the moderator had to prod her repeatedly to actually please ask a question instead of preaching, but apparently he had forgotten this experience by the end and allowed her to ask a question when there was only 1 minute left to the Q&A. Her “question” on her second go-round was an even longer and more rambling evangelistic sermon; the moderator kept asking her to get to her actual question–but she deliberately and rather insultingly talked over him and rambled on and on.
She seemed to be upset with Richard Carrier for being an atheist, but she was also upset with David Marshall for believing that Jesus Christ was an incarnated son of “God.” (She wore a hijab and talked up Islam, so I think she was a Muslim.) She kept yelling at them, HOW COULD YOU? HOW COULD YOU? and threatening them with Hell.
Finally the debate’s sound guy just turned off the mic remotely.
Her face when she realized she’d been effectively silenced was absolutely priceless–and she ended up simply storming out, stony-faced.
I’m bringing this incident up for a reason.
Everyone in the audience–Christians included–was uncomfortable with her behavior, like she’d pulled a religious penis out of her clothes and was waving it around and pissing on everyone. Her showboating was very obviously out of place and not appropriate; her rudeness and incredible contempt for the hosts was palpable.
But you and I both know one thing, right? She left that meeting convinced that her god was happy with the disruption she’d caused. How other people felt didn’t matter; what mattered is that she got her piece said. She didn’t mind trampling on others if it meant getting her way.
I’m hoping that the folks who see this debate reflect on the religious privilege she put on display in front of them, and think about why she was so convinced that her religious delusions were right but others were wrong–and why Christians would have said the same thing in reverse about them!
We’re talking about stupidity next, a propos of nothing, and I hope to see you then.
* If you’re wondering what not-so-nice looks like, here he is summing up his reaction to the debate to David Marshall: “I’ve seen your debate with Carrier, in which you were clearly outmatched intellectually, theologicaly [sic], historically, and scientifically.” There’s less profanity involved than I’d have used, but still, ouch.