Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thoughts on the Loftus/D'Souza Debate

Hey John. I listened to your debate with Dinesh D'Souza and I'd like to share my thoughts.

First of all unfortunately I do have to score it as a victory for D'Souza. Not so much on substance as on his skillful misdirection and dodging.

I would summarize your opening statement as follows. Several facts about the world make better sense as natural phenomenon. The fact that cultural and geographic factors seem to be the primary drivers of religious belief. The fact that God's revelation comes via history, which is notoriously unreliable and prone to falsehood and silliness. The fact that the Christian god story is wedded to stories that sound very fictive. The fact that evil natural disasters are present and could be non-existent if an all powerful, all good God, like the Christian God, existed. These things would be expected if there were no Christian God, but are unexpected if there were a Christian God.

Dinesh's immediate response is somewhat baffling. He dismisses all these factors as irrelevant. How are they irrelevant. "The fact that geography plays a role in religious affiliation is not proof that a particular religion is wrong." No it isn't. It's also nothing like the claim that you made. Did you say that Christianity can't be true because of geographic factors? No. That's not the argument. The argument is we would expect geography to play a prominent role in religious affiliation if there were no God, however if there were a God we would expect him to shower his grace on people equally, whether they lived in Mexico or the Congo. So Dinesh mischaracterized your argument. That's to be expected. Your mistake, John, is that you did not pounce on this misrepresentation, and the impression left with the listener is that he had responded to your point.

Dinesh would have us believe that your argument is that because the Christian God supposedly revealed himself via the imperfect medium of history this means Christianity IS FALSE. That's an easy straw man to knock down. Your real argument is that this shows that Christianity IS IMPROBABLE. That's a more reasonable and difficult to defeat claim, so Dinesh wants nothing to do with it. You allowed him to avoid this question and spin your argument into something that sounds absurd. The listener walks away thinking you adhere to an absurd argument.

It would not be the last time this would happen. At the start of your questions to him you asked the following, which I'll paraphrase:

John-Today you wouldn't believe a person if they said their donkey talked without seeing it for yourself. Why believe the Bible when it says the same thing?

Dinesh-If someone said certain people had 10 eyes I wouldn't believe because I have no experience with that. However if they tell me something about a place for which I have no experience (they eat cockroaches in Singapore, there is life after death) I'm not going to dismiss it because I have no evidence to the contrary. I haven't been to the afterlife, so I can't dismiss claims about the afterlife.

Let me just point out the obvious. THAT'S NOT AN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION. You didn't ask about belief in the afterlife. You asked about belief in talking animals. His logic is sound. If he has experience with a thing and the claim contradicts his experience he rejects it. OK. Does he have experience with whether or not animals talk? I would assume he does. Based upon his own logic he should reject the biblical story. He doesn't. John, your mistake is that you allowed him to change the subject and dodge your question.

In addition it seemed that rather than respond to his off topic reply you likewise moved into a different subject. You said "Once you allow supernatural explanations, any explanation will do". He challenged that and you responded that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which I didn't see exactly how that was a response to what he had said. Finally he's the one who seems to be bringing things back on point. He pulls the discussion back to "Is there life after death", which is the very subject he brought up to distract from your initial question. You responded to this by saying you accept critiques religious people offer of other religions. Again, this doesn't appear to be a response to what he's saying. It looks like you are the one that is trying to distract. You needed to bring the discussion back to your actual question, never answered by Dinesh. Why believe in talking donkeys when you don't do this in normal experience? Unfortunately he is the one that appears to be sticking to the point. You appear to be switching topics. And yet he is the one that is in fact dodging your question.

Your closing statement contained no rebuttal to what we had heard. You encouraged people to read books. You asserted that agnosticisim is a good position. You talked about how other Christians critique people like Dinesh. This is an opportunity lost to rebut the statements we heard from Dinesh. Notice Dinesh's closing statement. He takes time to rebut the assertion that various critiques cancel the truth of Christianity. He's using his time to reject your arguments and you aren't using your time in the same way. He's scoring points with this.

Let me tell you something I've learned in debating Christians on the radio. A key element of their response is to simply not answer your question. It's to switch topics. When I first began calling Christian apologists this was what they did, and my mistake was that I allowed it. Since then I try to be more rigorous. In fact I've actually in some cases jotted down notes before calling so that I keep track of what I want to say and in CAPS I write to myself DID HE ANSWER THE QUESTION. On the radio I get overpowered by the host's microphone, so the best I can sometimes do is simply point out that he's not answering my question, but in a debate you have enough microphone time to make this clear. You have to call him out on that.

Don't be discouraged. You have the tools to be good at this. It will require practice.


Anonymous said...

YES! I have asked a Christian questions-they restate the question-CHANGING IT-then answer THAT question. I always call them on it.

DagoodS said...

The tactic of not answering a question is common in litigation as well. One can be extremely effective pointing it out during cross-examination. Unfortunately that does not cross over to debates nor radio call-ins.

Michael Servetus said...

The bible and the rational idea of God, and Christianity, none of these things are predicated on the idea of talking animals or one talking animal. The issue is not decisive.
One could say thatthe bible does not describe this as commom place, rather it is an exception whcih would conform to experience, it being such an exception to the rules, so rare that it is more likely that no one would ever experience it, simialr to evolution and abiogenesis.
Now it also fits in with the rational idea od a deity creator who would have extra power and exercise of will over things, beyond what man can expect so it violates no rule in that sense.