Several years ago, we had a speaker named Loring Prest for one of our monthly lecture meetings. During the Q&A at the end of his presentation, he posited that the only worthwhile dialog that non-believers can have with believers is on the subject of epistemology. The more that I see Christian apologists in action or watch debates between believers and non-believers, the more firmly convinced I become that this position is absolutely true. The dialogue/debate at Pitt this past Friday evening, which featured CMU’s Andy Norman facing off against a professional Christian apologist named Stuart McAllister, was a superb illustration of just that point.
The event was part of an intermittent series called The Bridge Forum that is sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Campus Crusade for Christ. Civility and congeniality are the watchwords of the event, so when one of the participants is being disingenuous, the other party can’t really call them on it. And that puts any participant dealing in rational and critical thinking and evidence based positions at a distinct disadvantage. But, if you’re going to play in their game, you need to play by their rules.
McAllister, who seemed very personable, essentially gave a testimonial (often called “witnessing” among evangelical-type Christians) as a large part of his opening remarks, talking about his dissolute former lifestyle and how empty it was – and then he found Jesus. He made reference to this numerous times during the event and it was clear that he was making the mistake that so many religionists make – making the assumption that unless you have God, and specifically the Christian god, you must necessarily be an amoral lowlife; that you cannot be moral without religion.
Any rational person knows that this is just hogwash. I would submit that a code of ethics or morality derived from reason and based on the guiding principle of respecting the dignity of our fellow humans is infinitely superior to any Bronze Age worldview enforced by extortion. In a reason-based morality, there is always an underlying empathy to provide a point of reference in an unfamiliar situation. And while a person may not always act in a way consistent with ethical behavior, they will always know what is/is not ethical, or at least have a very good idea.
In the extortion enforced morality, if the guiding fear starts to slip, whether from doubts or vagueness or abstractness, then there is no leash preventing someone from acting in a negative way. And when that erosion of fear is compounded by examples of the very paragon of virtue, their perfect god, promoting genocide, infanticide, slavery, subjugation and rape of women, murder of children, and other wonderful actions, it makes for a very murky ethical landscape. And that benefits nobody. (I had planned to ask just such a question before I even walked in, but I was the first questioner immediately after the moderator specified that all questions were to be non-confrontational,etc., so I wimped out.)
Andy tried to make the case about faith being detrimental and dangerous using Abraham’s willingness to kill his son to satisfy as an example. McAllister responded saying that since God never really intended for Abraham go through with it, that it was okay, basically saying “no harm, no foul”. But that is a failure of logic. In Abraham’s mind, the command was very real and he fully intended to carry the despicable demand. And what about the psychological damage to Isaac (Abraham’s son)? Would you not consider that harm? I guess that was just collateral damage and therefore acceptable.
Andy also brought up the example of the 9/11 terrorists flying airplanes into buildings for their faith. McAllister’s response? Well, that’s one of those toxic religions (a term that he used numerous times), a thinly veiled implication that Islam is evil but Christianity is great. WTF? They’re both Abrahamic religions and both demand true believers to have unquestioning faith – which is the root of the problem of blind obedience causing people to do unspeakable things in the name of their religion. I just love the quote by Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg that: “with or without religion, you will have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But to get good people to do evil things? That takes religion.” It sums up precisely the point that Andy tried to make and that McAllister danced around but never really addressed.
McAllister also played the old canard about all of the atrocities committed in the name of atheism, specifically naming Hitler and the Nazis, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and North Korea. All of which are bullshit. Hitler was Catholic and the Nazi uniform belt buckle had the word “Gott mit Uns”, German for “God is with us.” While it is true that Stalin became an atheist after attending the seminary, the Soviet Union was essentially a religion unto itself – statism – with the “State” replacing the supernatural deity. But the principles of blind obedience and unquestionable authority that are hallmarks of religion still ruled. And of course North Korea, and Maoist China were essentially cults of personality. So to say that the atrocities committed by these regimes were done in the name of atheism is quite false. (But then, when did truth or accuracy ever matter to religionists?)
McAllister several times brought up the importance of religion in the public square. After I wimped out on my original question, I asked how far we should allow the influence of religion in matters of public policy, citing the recent budget negotiations in the area of sex education where all of the funding for abstinence-only programs (which studies have shown to be totally worthless) were restored, while only half of the funding for comprehensive sex education was restored. His response was essentially “majority rules”. I’m sure he would be just fine with having the Sharia law of his favorite toxic religion imposed by majority vote. Oh wait – Christianity is the dominant religion here in the US and has a stranglehold on the political establishment, so it’s OK.
Several times, he made reference to how much he supports reason and rational thinking. But if he doesn’t support evidence-driven public policy and believes in nonsense as credible evidence and unproven hypotheses with no credible support as fact, just where does he think reason should be used?
He made reference at least twice to the notion that there are different ways of viewing the world and that they are all valid. He made it a point to derogate scientism (a pejorative coined by religionists to try to demonize science) and take the post modernist stance that a supernatural worldview with no supporting evidence has just as much validity as a naturalistic understanding of the world with data and peer reviewed evidence to bolster its claims. But with verifiable evidence, we can all have a standardized frame of reference so that when we talk about issues that affect us all, we can all be on the same page. But with various competing delusions, there is no such standard point of reference just nonsense.
Back to my original point – that talking to delusionals about anything other than epistemology is totally futile. As long as they insist on giving delusions and nonsense equal weight to verifiable data, and insisting that “other religions may be like that but MY religion is the true religion”, rstional conversation ain’t goin’ nowhere.
BUT – and this is a big but – we still need to try. We owe it to the survival of our species to try to steer, however gradually, our fellow humans toward a path of rational thinking and an evidence based worldview. And I know it’s a steep uphill battle. So I have to thank Andy and the others like him who have accepted this hard slog. I know that I couldn’t do it without going off on some smarmy delusional who refused to address the issues with real evidence.