Friday, October 26, 2007

Debate: Christianity and Atheism

Dinesh D'Souza (author of What's So Great About Christianity) and Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great) recently debated at King's College. I will not give a point by point commentary, but limit myself to three comments, the first of which is the most important.

1. At 1.26 D'Souza completely sells the farm epistemologically and apologetically--despite the many fine points he made throughout the debate. He claims that his religious belief is not knowledge. He does not know it to be true; he only believes it. In so doing, he seems to restrict knowledge to what is empirically verifiable. But there is no reason to do. We know many things apart from empirical evidence (such as basic moral claims). Moreover, we can infer the existence the supernatural from the natural (the project of natural theology; see In Defense of Natural Theology, which I co-edited and to which I contributed a chapter.) D'Souza goes on to say that while he leaps toward God, Hitchens leaps toward atheism. I groaned loudly to myself when I heard it (although my wife probably heard me). Many in the crowd applauded.

This is tragic. We must enter the public square making knowledge claims, not mere faith claims that are allowable, just as allowable as theism or some other worldview. We need to try to out argue the opposition by marshalling the strongest possible arguments for Christianity and against atheism. In fact, D'Souza gave some strong arguments not adequately rebutted by Hitchens by the time he sold the farm. There was no need to do so; and in so doing, he sets a terrible example for Christian persuasion in the public realm (despite the virtues he exhibited in the debate).

2. The form of the debate was poor. Neither speaker has enough time for opening comments or for rebuttal. The supposed "cross examination" devolved into haranguing at time, with the moderator (Marvin O'laski) failing to intervene to keep order. Serious debates should have strict rules.

3. Both speakers issued cheap shots by insulting the other speaker in ways not required by their arguments. This may get applause, but makes no logical point.

Apparently, D'Souza has come to a more mature Christian conviction recently. He is not known as a philosopher, but as a social critic and political writer. I never detected an overt Christian worldview in the several books I've read by him over the years. At that crucial time of 1:26 this weakness showed. I have not yet finished his book, however. Perhaps I'll say more then.


Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

I am not sure we should try to dialog with atheism at all. I they have shut down any reasonable sort of dialog and really don't understand the meaning of the term. I guess we have to debate them or they would make a big fuss of it. But I really think most atheists are in it to pat themselves on the back for being so much smarter than Christians, so they think. I think that if we did not argue with them it wouldn't be fun for them anymore.

I agree that we need to be making arguments, just not trying to argue with them. I see atheism as a hate group. Martin Luther King did not try to have a debate with George Wallace. I applaud your statement about making knowledge claims.

On the other hand, I may be too shell shocked from message boards. hopefully the kind of atheists who write these books are less like thugs than the one's on message boards.

Shawn White said...

Correct me if I am mistaken, but I do not believe the object of the debate with an Atheist is to necessarily dialog with them - although that does occur. The more important objective of the debate has more to do with the audience than it does the opponent. You want to sway those listening who maybe have not made up their minds about the matter or who think they have made up their minds about it, but have not had a chance to hear strong arguments from the opposition that can change their thinking.

Unknown said...

Here's the deal. Religion delivers us a wealth of survival information that we are yet to be blessed with rational prowess sufficient to deconstruct their value. Such value is usually found to be in service of asserting our species' interests over our personal survival interests (morals).

Since our powers of reason are far easier to assert with respect to the individual organism's survival, we see Darwinism only in terms of the individual. Collectively natural selection becomes so complicated that we are nowhere near being able to sort it all out.

The human belief in God however, has been broadly selected because it does exactly that. Our belief in God is what makes us behave in ways that are flat irrational (selfless) from a personal survival perspective, but indispensable from a species survival perspective, without it, we would have probably competed so hard with one another that we would still be tribes drinking each other's blood on a regular basis.

God is our instinctive understanding of the universe where it transcends our reason. The knowledge of God is not rationally "knowable," no. But it will be one day, and it is instinctively plain as the nose on my face to 86% of the world population.

We ignore this so-called "unknowable" knowledge of God at the risk our physical salvation, our survival as a species, and our personal detriment as it exists beyond or rational understanding.

-Mike Harmon

jcubsdad said...

D'Souza only accepted Christ a few years ago. It was not to long after he wrote What is so Great about America. I am not sure of the circumstances, but it was not to long after teaching here at New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

evagrius said...

If by "knowledge", D'Souza means the knowledge attained by sense perception and rational reflection on that sense perception, he is correct.
If he meant any knowledge whatsoever, he is not.
The early Church Fathers laid great store on the existence of "gnosis", knowledge, by which they meant the facts, the truth of the Incarnation, Life, Death and Ressurection of Jesus Christ as recounted by the Gospels and as verified by their accordance with the Old Testament, ( which points to Christ, indeed, have Christ as their guiding principle).
A lot of what "atheists" argue has already been stated in better arguments.
I refer interested people to the "Contra Celsum" by Origen, an early Church Father who answered the objections point by point in that treatise.
It is an entirely Scriptural response, full of insights. It may not be "evangelical" according to modern views but is one of the major texts of early Christianity.

Sam Harper said...

I got the impression that D'Souza was using the word "knowledge" in the sense of "having absolute certainty with no possibility of being wrong." Now, of course, that isn't how people ordinarily use the word; however, given his usage, I don't think he "sold the farm" by saying he doesn't know Christianity to be true, but that he only believes it to be true.

Paul D. Adams said...

Historically, faith involves elements.

1. Faith begins with knowledge (notitia). Cognition (mental processes) is the primary faculty involved with notitia. Faith is not an empty container but is filled with content. Faith necessarily entails "faith in" something or someone. Simply because faith involves religious knowledge does not require us to be less certain about the content of our faith. When our religious convictions are logically sound and fit the facts, then we are justified in holding our beliefs with certainty.

2. Knowledge leads to mental assent (assensus). Assent moves us from cognition to conviction. When we assent to a belief we are admitting the truth of a claim or we are agreeing with the facts of a claim. Assent to facts is what makes belief possible. There is an emotional element involved with assensus wherein a personal element of assurance is present, but we must not confuse our subjective assurance with the objective facts of a belief. Mental assent is necessary in all our beliefs. Assent includes knowledge of (notitia) and acceptance that (assensus). One must not only know the truth but also accept it as fact before belief obtains. Mental assent, though necessary, is not sufficient. Mere acceptance of truth falls short of genuine faith.

3. Faith comes to completion with trust (fiducia). From cognition (= awareness), to conviction (= acceptance), to commitment (= appropriation). Whereas notitia is primarily intellectual, assensus emotional, fiducia is volitional. Faith is a trust that surrenders the soul to the facts. The seat of faith lies not in the intellect alone, nor in the emotions alone, or in the will alone. Rather, the seat of genuine faith lies in all three, which the Bible calls the human heart (Rom. 10:9-10).

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Jeremy Pierce said...

I managed to catch the bit about faith and knowledge, although I didn't see the whole debate. I also thought he was referring to Cartesian certainty, but he should have made it clear that he thinks there's something between knowledge and wishful thinking if he thinks that's where faith lies. He didn't. He put it in the same category as the atheistic leap.

The thing that caught my attention the most was just how rude Hitchens was. D'Souza was polite enough, although he put his foot down in a couple places when Hitchens just wouldn't play fair. But I'd never want to debate someone who behaves the way Hitchens does. D'Souza gets huge kudos just for putting up with such a complete jerk.

joyeaux said...

Misuse of the word "knowledge",with all the subsequent misunderstanding that flows from that misuse, may be the greatest enemy of meaningful religious expression through history. And today is history soon enough. Man operates upon his faith, his hypotheses as to truth, which extend and transcend his factual understanding. The yearning after truth is universal among us; common to D'Souza and to Hitchens. We are not a pile of facts.