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Who Was The Master Debater?

Last night I attended a debate between American Atheist president, Dave Silverman and Ann Coulter’s ex-fiancée and hack, Dinesh D’Souza. The question on the table was, “Is Christianity good for the world?”

While the debate was held at the University of Pennsylvania, I noticed that the crowd was heavily religious. When I left, I saw many of the people getting on a bus. So I am guessing that they were bussed in probably from D’Souza’s Kings College in New York. It is also interesting to note that the moderator identified himself as a Conservative Christian and often times when Silverman was speaking; D’Souza appeared to be conferring with the moderator.

Silverman started out strong. He focused on the three S’s, “Society, Science, and Sex.” He cited specific studies showing that religion was indeed not good for society. The main study he cited was on societal health of various nations. One statistic he quoted I found particularly interesting was that 95% of Christians have pre-marital sex. He also mentioned that Christians have a higher divorce rate and that they actively push to prohibit others from marrying (i.e. gays). There were several other statistics cited on a range of issues. On the issue of Creationism, he had a great quote that I will try to paraphrase, “Christianity dumbs down society so Christians don’t have to admit they are wrong.”

D’Souza started out with his usual opening that he will rely on facts and reason and that he will make no appeal to the Bible. This is great for him because no one really wants to defend the Bible. In fact, later in the debate D’Souza actually distanced himself from the Bible and claimed that “atheists view the Bible as fundamentalists” and that the Bible isn’t a science book or a book about politics. This is interesting considering that much of his later argument was geared toward showing that Christianity is responsible for our government.

He pointed out that the charges Silverman made (Stem Cell Research, gay rights, abortion, and Creationism) only relate to America currently. He actually said, “Christianity is only bad recently.” This to me was a pretty surprising confession that went largely unnoticed by the audience and even by Dave Silverman.

A large amount of time was spent talking about how Jefferson used the word “Creator” in the Declaration and that humanity is all a bunch of evil sinners. Dinesh then talked about how Christianity opposed slavery and MLK Jr. was a Christian. Then he practically called moral philosopher Peter Singer a Nazi and claimed that only about 5% of Christians really believe in Creationism.

Silverman correctly pointed out that none of the positive attributes D’Souza credited Christianity with are actually in the Bible. I thought he should have mentioned that slavery was in the Bible, but it came up later in the debate anyway. Dave tried to refocus the debate on how Christianity is bad for America…Today!

When D’souza touted out a handful of scientists who were Christian like Newton and Kepler, Silverman pointed out the difference between Christians and Christianity saying, that there are good people who are Christians, but the belief system of Christianity is not good for the world.

There was a cross examination part of the debate where each opponent grilled the other. This got pretty heated and I think it worked against Silverman because D’souza kept throwing more stuff out there in his answers and Silverman didn’t really get a chance to respond to those things. I was surprised when Dave actually wanted to have a second round of this when there wasn’t really supposed to be a second round.

In this cross examination, Silverman asked the main question of the debate, “Why is Christianity good for America?” Dinesh responded by saying that the Constitution was created on the mountain of Christian principles. I have heard this type of reasoning before and I will have to write an Examiner article on that down the road. It is a theme that Dinesh used quite a bit during the debate.

Silverman also asked which D’souza had more loyalty towards, the Constitution or the Bible? This really backfired on Silverman. Dinesh used it to transition into a conversation on morality which Dave really couldn’t address in a short amount of time. Even if he had, it would have been too much of a distraction from the actual debate. This is a real problem that atheists have to deal with. We really need to be able to explain the entire field of ethics in a short sentence or two. I’m not really sure how to do that yet.

In any case, the debate started to spiral out of control at this point. One interesting thing that D’souza said that again got left unnoticed was when he compared morality to taste. This is normally not something Christians do and I am sure Dinesh didn’t mean to do it. That might be why it was ignored by Dave and even the audience.

Within the morality debate, D’souza also made an interesting point that morality doesn’t come from the Bible. He said that morality comes from our conscience and that the Bible ratifies our conscience. To me, this is Ivory Tower Christianity. It is an interesting idea, but it isn’t the belief that the vast number of Christians in America today hold. In fact, it reminded me of Dinesh’s earlier statement that only about 5% of Christians actually believe in Creationism. According to the Harris Interactive poll, that number is actually closer to 45%.

Silverman asked which Christianity does D’souza believe is good for America, pointing out that there are 33,000 different denominations. Here D’souza climbed back up to his Ivory Tower and tried to distance Christianity from Waco… you know, those people who picket funerals. I think he meant the Westboro Baptists, but they both have start with “W” at least. He insisted the the core of Christianity was the same and that “mainstream” Christianity had the monopoly.

D’souza questioned Silverman on the afterlife. Silverman claimed that when we die we don’t go anywhere. This Dinesh claimed was dogmatic. He says he doesn’t know but later claimed that Heaven and Hell could be other universes outside our own universe with their own separate laws of physics. At the end of the debate he even talked about how much he was frightened of Hell. It seems like he was being dishonest when he said that he doesn’t know what happens when we die. I think he does claim to know… just not when he wants to make Silverman look like the dogmatic one.

Silverman re-traced his steps to say that he knows it as much as he can know anything. He pointed out that every creature dies and that there is no reason to believe that we are any different. D’souza claimed that caterpillars don’t die, they turn into butterflies, but that seems like a poor analogy to me.

The audience Q&A was pretty boring and D’souza actually altered the rules so that he got to respond to every question even the ones directed toward Silverman. One interesting thing was that all the Christians who got up to ask a question started out with a long sermon and their questions weren’t really all that clear. In fact, Dave had to ask one person which question he should answer. The atheist questioners on the other hand asked one pointed question and then gave up the mic.

During this period, Dinesh attacked Richard Dawkins as a scientist, while crediting Christianity for most of the scientific discoveries in history. He even stated that there was plenty of reason for a flat Earth. I found that surprising and no one really bat an eye at it. He also tried to distance himself from the Bible’s support of slavery to which Silverman accused him of cafeteria style Christianity.

Then the Hitler/Stalin card was played by a questioner. D’souza jumped on this and claimed that communism was a result of atheism. He then continued by conflating evolution with eugenics. If that wasn’t enough, he stated that this was  “admitted by Dawkins.” I really don’t know where these Christians come up with this nonsense.

Silverman then summarized D’souza’s position as “everything good is from Christianity and everything bad is from atheism.” Christianity takes the credit for everything.

One Christian audience member thought he had a point no one has ever considered before and brought up the Argument by Design… after he gave some sermon about a variety of other topics. Another audience member delivered some rambling sermon which eventually ended with a question about the Shroud of Turin proving Christianity. The conservative Christian moderator was so embarrassed by this question he just skipped that guy completely and went on to the next question.

The final question was for Dinesh dealing with the 9/11 Cross case that American Atheists is fighting. He went into a tirade about the evil establishment clause and then called it, “religious bigotry.”
The moderator then wanted Dave to give his closing statement, but Dave pushed to address that 9/11 Cross case before he began his closing remarks. Three quotes stood out to me in his closing:

1.    “Ignorance of facts is not evidence for fiction.”
2.    “I dare and beg you to research your religion.”
3.    “Christianity is not just bad for America, it’s bad.”

For Dinesh’s closing he talked about how Christian missionaries exploited the people of India to convert to Christianity because the caste system was so bad. I don’t think that helped his case, but maybe I missed the point there. Then he accused atheism of the before mentioned dogmatism in saying that when we die we are dead. He concluded by talking about his fear of eternal Hell.

There was a lot of stuff covered in this debate and I surely left a lot out. Overall, I think Dave Silverman did okay, but I think he could have done better at some points. I wish he could have talked about the various civil rights fights and name dropped prominent atheists in those fights. By ignoring that, he conceded that Christianity was responsible for those fights and that just isn’t true. I wrote an article on this for Examiner: Human Rights: Religion vs. secularism.

Also, I wish Dave could have really gotten into the morality debate, but I don’t think that would have been possible. The sad fact is that ethics is a pretty complex subject matter and I really don’t know how to boil it down to a sound-byte. I think that Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape is the best book on the subject matter. At one point during the morality back and forth, I thought about John Rawls and the idea of the original position also.

My view is that when you can’t give a good sound-byte, you should direct people to a good source so that they could do their own research. I was glad that Dave really pushed people to go to the internet and research their religion but I think he should have recommended particular websites and books. But overall, I don’t think any of the Christians there were particularly swayed. Still, the debate might lead to some interesting conversations on their bus ride back to King’s College in New York.

My friend and fellow Examiner, ShaunPhilly also wrote up his analysis of the debate.

Here is an additional thought about formal debates with the religious in general: Formal debates are a win for atheists.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1102861229 Hamby Dammit

    Not that you shouldn’t write an article about Christianity and American government, but I’ve already written one…


    As for the debate, it sounds fairly typical of a Dinesh debate. He’s really quite a skilled speaker, and plays the game of rhetoric well. You mentioned the “shotgun approach” which is common to so many atheist/theist debates. We silly humans have a tendency to believe that a non-answer is an admission of guilt or ignorance, but we frame debates such that there is not even enough time to properly explain one scientific principle, let alone the half dozen that a good apologist can toss out in a two minute rebuttal.

    • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

      I have written quite a bit on Christianity and America. Most notably is my America not being a Christian Nation: http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-national/atheism-101-is-america-a-christian-nation

      I have also written quite a few articles here on DangerousTalk (search the categories on the sidebar) and have written but haven’t published yet a more indepth analysis of the Declaration. But I am saving that for the book. ;-)

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