Daily Atheist Quote

Monday, April 21, 2008

Does God Exist: The Debate - Part two of two

I believe that there is no supreme being with human attributes - no God in the Biblical sense - but that all life is the result of timeless evolutionary forces, having reached its present transient state over millions of years.
-Charles Templeton, preacher turned agnostic.

In my previous entry I gave a brief outline of the debate between Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Peter Youngren of the Niagara Celebration Church.

What I want to do here is examine a couple of the arguments presented by Peter, by way of my own personal analysis.

Through the debate, Peter made a repeated asseration regarding believing big brain types: Albert Einstein and Anthony Flew. Both deists - which to Peter's credit he acknowledged. But Peter's point, was clear: Here are two men of extraordinary intelligence an insight, and they are convinced at the very least convinced there must be some kind of ultimate force behind the universe. It doesn't interact with us in the biblical sense of God coming down with a burning bush or genocidal flood, but they nevertheless believed there must, logically, be some kind of universe force that got everything in motion.

The connection Peter was trying to make was, if they can accept a god, deist though they were, they surely we of lesser minds cannot argue with them. As Peter said "Anthony Flew says he is convinced by the evidence. Well, that is good enough for me."

This is not a particularly new argument, and one that is often used by believers, albeit often by those lacking Peter's capacity for public discourse. It fails for two reasons. First, the deist view is not the Christian view. Although Peter was, by way of an unspoken inference, trying to link the god of Einstein and Flew to his own Christian god, no such link can be made. Even if one concedes that that there must be a "first cause" behind the universe, that is not evidence for the Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu or whatever) version of god. This is because, as I have noted before, the Christian god has very particular attributes. He has a definite personality - a temper, a willingness to heap favors on those he likes, and destroy those he hates. He describes himself as jealous. And he defiantly has an ego: Just check out the number of times god describes himself in the Old Testament. When he isn't threating to blast someone out of existence, he heaps upon himself all manner of praise. The Greeks would have instantly recognized the hubris in him. Or to put this another way, Dr. Phil would have a field day with God.

Anyway, I digress. The point is one simply cannot look to the deist mode of belief as evidence the Christian god is real - as Peter was doing often during the debate - because the god of Einstein and Spinoza and Flew doesn't have a personality. It doesn't even have a consciousness really. Or if it does, it has never expressed to our species. It NEVER performs miracles or hears prayers. It is really only a kind of universal force that gave order to the whole ball of wax. But that's it.

I think Peter understands this, but tried to make the connection anyway almost as if to say, "Well, if one can accept this deist notion, then its only a small jump to get to Jesus." That just doesn't follow.

Still, Peter Youngren would not be Peter Youngren if he didn't possess the gift of gab. Frankly, Peter is the most talented and convinced preacher I have ever met. And I've met many. He is able to make things seem to fit together - even if in the cold light of logic they do not.

It's worth noting as an aside that Peter is not a fire and brimstone preacher. He isn't threatening anyone with hell fire (although he certainly does believe hell is a real place) and that was demonstrated in a moment at the end of the evening. The last question of the night was asked by a fairly hostile woman who attacked Dan Barker with both guns. She was a health profession, she claimed, and said she sees miracles all the time. She even went so far as to claim that she healed a cancer patient of a tumor!! Well, at this point I was forced to step up, as moderator, and ask her to ask a question. Her reply was as strange as it was shocking:

"Ok my question is to Mr. Youngren, can you be gay and be Christian?" she said before hurriedly sitting down in the nearest seat.

The bait and switch had left the audience shocked for a moment. Dan replied to her by saying that if she had evidence of such things she ought to present it to experts who can examine it. When Peter spoke, he said he was not into, what he called "a ministry of behavior modification." Anyone is welcome at his church, he said, and its not up to him to judge them. Gay people are as good and decent as anyone else he said. It was a moment that had even non believers such as myself nodding our heads in agreement. It was a brilliant bit of preaching and politics, frankly, that spoke both to human solidarity and need to treat everyone with respect.

I bring it up because of what came next in the closing remarks for the evening. Peter closed by saying it was fascinated by Dan Barker: an ex-evangelical turned atheist. In some ways, Dan's story is similar to that of Canadian preacher and former peer of Billy Graham Charles Templeton. In fact for a time, Templeton was the evangelical star and Graham the opening act. But Templeton lost his faith, as Dan did, and began to speak out against what he saw as the cruelty of the Christian doctrine and unlikelihood of a god existing at all. He did not become an atheist as Dan did, but an agnostic.

Templeton wrote a book called "Farewell to God: My reasons for rejecting the Christian faith." It is a deeply personal book, although not the best written, and it was one of the books that got me thinking seriously about the unsoundness of the entire Christian thing. It is, therefore a book I know well and my ears perked up when Youngren invoked Templeton's name.

Peter related a story about Templeton in his final remarks. He read from part of Lee Strobel's book The Case For Faith. Strobel is an apologist who claims to have been a former journalist and atheist. He has a whole series of "Case for..." books purported to "objectively" investigate the claims of Christianity. Generally speaking, these books have all the substance of flash paper. They are not objective at all, and Strobel almost never speaks to experts in their fields or to skeptics. He interviews other believers and accepts their conclusions with a monolithic credulity that no journalist worth his salt should ever display. They are basically apologist tracks thinly dressed up as journalism in the same way Intelligent Design is creationism dressed up in drag.

Still, Strobel occasionally presents an interesting interview or two, and his interview with Templeton is one. Peter read in it part to the audience, and I have to say, his reading was both powerful and moving. Like I said, Peter isn't an excellent preacher by accident. He knows his craft.

In the interview, Strobel asks Templeton what the thinks about Jesus and God. Templeton, now suffering from the slow brain rot of Alzheimer's, sickly and near death, dismissed with the entire idea of a loving god. But for Jesus, he appeared to show some genuine emotion. Strobel, shockingly displaying real journalistic instincts, pressed the issue and asked directly what did Templeton think about Jesus:

"Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes...yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don't think of him that way, but they don't read the Bible. He had a righteous anger, and He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There's no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus."

Peter now had the audience in rapt silent attention. He lowered his voice a bit and read the final lines from Strobel's interview.:

"And if I may put it this way," (Templeton) said as his voice began to crack, "I...miss...him!"

Peter then noted that Templeton waved Strobel away saying "Well, enough of that," and then he ended the story. He went on to say that even Templeton knew Jesus in the end and hoped that Barker would come know the true faith soon.

Being the moderator, I couldn't say anything. My job was not to inject my own thoughts to the debate, but rather to keep it moving in an orderly and fair manner. My own views were not relevant. But I knew something that perhaps Dan Barker, and probably Peter Youngren, did not. The interview with Templeton might be as Strobel reports it. But it is certainly not any evidence that Templeton was near to some kind of death bed conversion.

And this is why I often say "Fact matter!". Because knowingly or not, Peter was not presenting Mr. Templeton's views fairly or accurately. Let this be a lesson to anyone willing to rely on Lee Strobel for information. As a preacher, the guy makes a lousy reporter.

The fact is that yes, Templeton DID miss Jesus. He missed Christianity. He missed the whole religious thing. But this was not shocking or even new. In Farewell to God, Templeton writes about how he missed the certainty religion provides, the easy comfort of believing Jesus and a god that loved him and had a plan for him. And while he could not longer bring himself to believe it anymore, he missed being a believer and could not ignore the impact the figure of Jesus had on his life in a positive sense. No one every said learning was easy or that enligthenment came cheaply. Change is always painful and often filled with regret. Templeton wrote:

"You find yourself rethinking the story of Jesus of Nazareth and, for all its intrinsic fascination, it is not the same. You almost feel that someone you love has died and that you are bereft. And little wonder: no one in Western history has so laid claim to the hearts of men and woman as has Jesus of Nazareth. How memorable his brief life. How fascinating his personality. How insightful his teaching. How inspiring his courage. How shattering the horror of his death. How - perhaps more than any other's in Western history - his life has stimulated the potential for goodness in those who take him seriously.

I miss all that, and more. But, analyzed, the feeling is not unlike the occasional yearning to return to one's earlier years when life was simpler. In the end, one must follow the truth as one perceives it. Not to do so is to live a lie.

Growing up isn't easy, but is there any valid option?"

This is what Peter Youngren and Lee Strobel fail to mention. That Templeton's missing is former faith had nothing to do with believing Jesus was the son of god, sent to save his soul. But it was a a regret at losing something that once gave him such powerful purpose in life.

Templeton, like Einstein, like Flew, ended up as a kind of deist. He believed there might have been some kind of force that got everything going, but it never interfered with human life. His missing his former faith didn't change that.

Which brings us full circle. Youngren's argument was to say "look at these smart guys, they believe in a god, so should you!" But no only is the deist god nothing like the Christian one, not only was Peter not presenting the whole truth about Mr. Templeton, but it makes a final, fatal error in logic. He appeals to authority - a view that certainly Einstein and probably Templeton would have regarded as unwise an an abdication of our own ability to examine evidence and make up our own minds.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Does God Exist: The Debate - Part one of two

"On the subject of the nature of the gods, the first question is ‘Do the gods exist or do they not?’ It is difficult, you may say, to deny that the gods exist. I would agree if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly, but in a private discussion of this kind, it is perfectly easy to do so."
On the Nature of the Gods, book one

On Wednesday, April 9, I had the pleasure of moderating a debate between one of Canada's best known evangelists and one of America's more prominent atheists. Hosted by the Niagara Secular Humanist Society at the Canadian Auto-Workers Hall in St. Catharines, the event saw Peter Youngren of the Celebration Church and Dan Barker of the Freedom of Religion Foundation square off over the question asked by Cicero all those years ago: Does god exist or not.

Being the moderator, my job was not to debate - in as much as I wanted to - but rather to play the role of referee in a boxing match - make sure the fighters understood the rules, fought according to them, and protected themselves at all times.

It was a lively and sometimes heated debate, but before I present my own views on the night I wanted to say thank you to both Peter and Dan, who were both gracious and made my job as moderator very easy. They are both very likable men, and had the audience of about 300 people.(That might not sound like any great shakes, but for this town it is nothing short of a miracle....if you will excuse the phrase.)

I opened by reading the above passage from Cicero's "On the Nature of the Gods" because when it comes to theology, his question is the first and most important to be answered. Indeed, this is why Cicero includes it early in his book.

The theology of the world's three great monotheism - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - all rest on a single proposition, that God exists. Yes, yes, they each have a different view of what god is, or isn't, but this is the first fundamental assumption each faith makes. Well, they have to, don't they? If there isn't a god then all the theological gobbledygook and fretting about what said god will do to you if you say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or get up to something with your lover the cosmic voyeur doesn't like isn't worth a bother. It all becomes counting angels on the heads of pins, doesn't it?

I chose Cicero because he expressed something else important about the debate to come - that it was a debate about the existence of god. In public. With no threat of retribution for anyone. The reason Cicero said he would only agree that it is difficult to deny that god exists in pubic, but can easily do so in private, is because for most of western history - and indeed still in many parts of the world - this not believing god stuff would get you locked up, killed or tortured. Or all of the above. Or, if this was a communist country, defending a religious belief in public would be rather like saying "well, I have the noose around my neck anyway, so I might as well just kick the horse." It's important to recognize that we enjoy a historical rarity - the freedom to believe, or not, and to debate those views in public without fear.

For those who do not know, Peter
Youngren is one of Canada's best known Christian preachers. He's been in his ministry for over 30 years, regularly travels around the world preaching and appears on TV frequently. I've interviewed him several times over the years as a journalist and while I've never agreed with his religious views, I've always found him to be a likable and sincere person. One of the things that did impress me about him was something he did right after the 9-11 attacks. Many Muslims in St. Catharines, like those around the world, felt they were going to blamed for what happened. In fact, there was a botched fire bombing at the local mosque. Peter was, I believe, the first Christian leader in the community to go to the mosque and tell them not to fear, that they were still part of the community and while he and they believed different things about god, they agreed on many things as well. So while I don't subscribe to Peter's beliefs, I certainly respect what he did to help defuse some community tensions during that time.

Dan Barker's story is really a real life reversal of Paul on the road to Damascus. For decades, Dan was just like Peter
Youngren. He traveled and preached as an evangelical preacher. He even wrote several popular Christian musicals for kids. But over time Dan's faith crumbled away. He reached a point where, like Charles Templeton (who we will hear more about later), he felt he had to make a choice between "God and truth", and truth won out. He's since become the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the United States - and turned his musical talents to music for non-believers. Like his better known counter parts like Christopher Hitchens, Dan spends a lot of his time traveling debating with people on issues of religion.

What I'm going to do in part one is provide a quick summary of the arguments and then in part two discuss my analysis of those arguments.

The debate kicked off with opening remarks, with Barker going first and asking Peter to present evidence for the existence of god. Not declarations or statements like "Well it's all so complex here must be a god," but actual evidence. Then he asked
Youngren to do something I found very interesting: he asked Peter to provide an example of something that would, in his mind, falsify the god hypothesis. The reason is simple. Science spends most of its time trying to disprove its own ideas, looking for the evidence that "disproves" or falsify a hypothesis or theory. In doing so, science is constantly modifying what it knows by tossing out ideas that don't work. And most know what it would take to undermine a scientific theory. I mean, if a fossil rabbit was ever found in the pre-Cambrian, well, that would just about do it for the theory of evolution. Theories, even the most powerful and well-supported, can be toppled by a single bit of evidence. So Barker asked Youngren, to produce that kind of thing for the notion of god.

Barker also suggested that the morals of the bible, and of the character of god in particular isn't anything to write home about.
Referring to the old testament god as a "war god" and listed several of Yahweh's more ghastly episodes of blood-letting, he asked a question of the audience: who believed in this desert war god Yahweh. (Youngren piped up at this point to say he believed in Yahweh, but Yahweh was not a war god). The point, Barker said, is that most people are nicer, kinder and more compassionate than the god of the Bible. He then pointed to the fact that most of the gods once believed in are now regarded as myth and that everyone in the audience is an atheist with respect to Zeus, or Odin or Thor. The only difference between them and the atheist, he said, is that the atheist goes "one god further."

Youngren, who said growing up in Sweden he lived in a community that was largely atheist, took a different tact, attacking what is sometimes called "New Atheism". In particular he said the works of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, and especially Richard Dawkins, showed a great deal of "rage." Rather then embracing science, Youngren suggested atheists ignore the evidence for the existence of god - including, he said, why many cultures have developed a notion of god. His suggestion was that human beings have an innate sense of morality and knowledge of god. Finally, he said that many scientists are believers in a god, and they point to evidence to support that belief.

This followed about an hour of back and forth debate (interrupted for about 10 minutes by problems with the CAW hall's sound system). They covered a fairly wide variety of subjects, but the heart of the debate turned on two questions: the evidence for god, and the morality of god as presented in the bible (which was a repeat of the above arguments.)

On the first question, Barker noted there was no evidence to support the claims made by believers - who incidentally cannot even agree on a definition of what god is. He further noted that if such evidence existed, as many believers claim, why has it never been presented in a scientific paper? Why not win the Nobel prize?

Youngren didn't really meet these questions head on. Instead he pointed out the number of scientific titans who professed a belief in god - including Albert Einstein. On this point, Barker gave Youngren credit because the pastor didn't make the error of saying Einstein believed in a personal god. Einstein was a kind of deist, rather than a theist and Youngren made a point of making sure that was clear. However, he did note the reasons why Einstein believed what he did, and said, in essence, if it was good enough for him why not for the rest of us?

The Q & A that followed the hour long back and forth covered much of the ground already discussed by the speakers. There were a few stand outs however. Most of the questions were directed at Barker, and were from believers. Many got up to make declarations of faith (which meant I had to tell them to ask a question or give up the mic) but generally wanted to know why Barker did not believe when, as far as they knew, the bible was completely true. Some claimed to have seen miracles and one even asked if Barker, when he was a preacher, ever saw something he could not explain. Barker's primary response was to say that, in effect, declarations of faith were not evidence that god exists. He said he also understood that people think they see
healings in churches like Youngren's all the time. He certainly did he believed. However, he admitted that at the time, he made no effort to critically examine what he saw and assumed, because of his belief, that the healings were real. Today he doubts they were, and suggests that most of the time it was merely a case of mind over matter. He said there may have been things that happened that he cannot explain, but his inability to explain them is not evidence of god.

The questions that were directed at
Youngren were largely from his own flock and some gave him an easy time, such as the young lady who asked Youngren to explain a statement he made that he could not read through Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. (Yougren said he found the book angry and spiteful and felt Dawkins simply made no sense whatsoever, so he gave up reading.) But the preacher did face a couple of critical questions. One came from Horst Klaus of the Niagara Secular Humanist society. He asked if god was loving, why create animals that ate others? Why create viruses and bacteria that destroy other creatures from the inside out? Youngren replied that man created the harsh world we live through Adam and Eve's rebellion in Genesis. He also countered that God, even it appears he is doing something violent or bad, he still approached people with love.

The debate was, overall, well-mannered and was very well attended for the first time such an event has been held in St.
Catharines. I want to think both Mr. Barker and Mr. Youngren for their time and willingness to debate such an important subject.

This is a very brief sketch of the debate that night, and I will be extending an invitation to both Dan and Peter, along with Mr. Klaus to post their impressions of the debate.

From Left: Dan Barker - Freedom from Religion Foundation, Peter Youngren - Niagara Celebration Church, Grant LaFleche - Gadfly, Horst Klaus- Niagara Secular Humanists.