Smackdown: Debating Debate

So a couple of weeks ago there was a big debate between noted atheist debater and public-access TV host Matt Dillahunty (TGIA listeners will remember him as our guest on episode 128) and somebody that I had never heard of before, but whose real name actually seems to be Sye Ten Bruggencate. I watched (listened to, actually) most of the debate, and have given it some real thought. Here’s what I’ve come up with: I still think these debates are of limited or negative value to our movement.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t have to see it. I largely knew what they were going to say. So did they! So much so that, as a stunt, Matt read a pre-written REBUTTAL! That’s how confident he was that Sye wouldn’t come up with anything new or interesting to say. And Sye, in what was meant to be a similar stunt (though it was much less effective), played a bunch of video clips of Matt, as if to say “I know all of your arguments ahead of time, too!” Both came totally prepared to talk right past each other, and that’s exactly what they did.

Mr. Dillahunty pointed out there there is no universally accessible or verifiable evidence to support Mr. Bruggencate’s theological claims, and Mr. Bagglecaken claimed that the bible is true because God says so (he’s a so-called presuppositionalist), and that Mr. Dilettantey and everybody else in the world knows that, and any claim to the contrary is just lying out of a desire to sin. Oh, and we can’t know anything if we don’t start with the assumption that God (yes, HIS god) is real, and the final word on all questions.

And thus it went. Each man passionately saying things. Neither conceding any of the other’s points, because they can’t. The problem isn’t that they won’t listen to each other, nor is it that they don’t speak each other’s language (though even that came into question a little when Matt pointed out that words don’t have inherent meaning…). The problem is that they’re coming from entirely different ways of thinking, each of which precludes giving any credence to pretty much anything the other guy has to say. They’re in different kinds of cars, racing on entirely different tracks.

Of course, as Matt pointed out on our show, the point of a debate for him is not to convince the person he’s debating, but rather to convince folks in the audience. His exact words were “I view it as a way of getting out information.” To reach the woman in the third row who has been on the fence, and now can see how rational the skeptic position is, and how ridiculous the religious people sound. And that’s great by me. I want her to be reached!

The thing is, a debate like this has a much larger scope than the one or two fence-sitters in the room. What debates– all debates– do is set up an adversarial dynamic. That is, my proposition against your proposition. That’s fine for most topics, but this is not most topics. The fact is that religious believers don’t see their beliefs as just a series of propositions. They see their beliefs as intrinsic parts of their identities. Therefore, someone debating those beliefs isn’t just exploring the logical validity of the claims, they’re launching repeated. personal. attacks.

It is my belief that most people– and I include non-believers in this– don’t walk away from these debates feeling like a good, healthy examination of thought has just occurred. I’m guessing that most people walk away from these debates feeling like they’ve identified an enemy. “A ha!” we all think, “I am part of x in-group, and now I know that y in-group is against us and we must fight them!”

I have two major problems with this. First, I don’t think it helps ANYBODY to think of someone who thinks differently than you do as your enemy. It doesn’t lead to empathy, it doesn’t lead to understanding, it just leads to more and deeper antipathy. Second, if my in-group is atheists, and our enemy is religious believers, we are going to LOSE! In the U.S. anyway. They have us wildly outnumbered, and they control every channel of power. All this enemy stuff just makes us WAY easier to marginalize without the least bit of sympathy.

Think of the recent Supreme Court decision Greece v. Galloway. That, to my non-legally-trained mind, should’ve been an easy slam-dunk for our side. Giving constant Christian prayers (or any prayers, for that matter) in town council meetings clearly favors the religious over the non-religious. It is an obvious first amendment violation. But when that question is put before a panel of nine judges, six of whom are Catholic and three Jewish, suddenly questions of tradition come up. As does a shoulder-shrugging “what’s the harm?” attitude.

To my mind, the Greece v. Galloway decision was a failure of empathy. The justices just had no compelling reason to even attempt to see the non-believer perspective. That’s because we’re not people or citizens, we’re the enemy. I mean come on- it was less than a year ago that justice Scalia did an interview where he ACTUALLY SAID that atheism “certainly favors the devil’s desires.” He had no trouble saying that.

As long as we let the Christian majority (and the Jews and Muslims, etc) see us as the enemy, rather than fellow citizens who want to be treated fairly, we’re going to lose battles like this. And every victory that we manage to get is going to be viewed as a loss to their side. THAT DOES NOT HELP OUR CAUSE.

Our goal as a movement, at least for the near future, needs to be to break down the walls that separate us from the religious, not build them higher. And whether it’s inadvertent or not, I believe that wall-building is the main thing accomplished by debates. Matt Dillahunty said it himself on our show:

It’s sad that we live in a world where it may not matter who makes the best case or who has the best arguments or who has the facts on their side; that there’s an element of theater to this.

That’s the truth. Do we have the best arguments on our side? Of course we do. Do the facts all point to our conclusions? Absolutely. So the fuck what? The debate was never about the facts or arguments. The debate was about drawing lines in the sand. And those lines can only hurt our movement. The second we start debating, we’ve already lost.

Please support my newest project

I’m running a Kickstarter fundraiser that ends this Saturday for “Pam and Gay Ghost.” If you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, it’s a crowdfunding website that lets the fundraisers (in this case me) offer rewards to their supporters (hopefully you) in exchange for their support. It’s also an all or nothing model, meaning if we don’t hit our goal, we don’t get the money (and supporters don’t get charged).

I set a goal of $4,500 that would help finish the film and pay the actors. Please visit the campaign page to learn more and to pledge your support. The campaign is running behind and needs your help. Please visit our Kickstarter page.

View the trailer for “Pam and Gay Ghost” here:

A Mother’s Warning

Last Friday morning my Mormon mother called me with a warning, “be careful this weekend.” I was a little taken aback so I asked for clarification. “I was painting out back and had an impression. You were involved.” I acknowledged hearing her warning and–annoyed–ended the call abruptly.

This was not the first bit of “personal revelation” my mother has directed toward me, but it was the first in a very long time. I had almost forgotten that this was a habit of hers. Growing up, mom had impressions from the “still small voice” all the time. In fact, to a casual observer the voice probably seemed large and loud.

Mom had a bumpy road toward family prophetess though. When I was around eight years old, she scraped her leg really bad on the concrete decking surrounding the swimming pool. The “Holy Ghost” had whispered to her not to go outside, and she heeded the warning until she noticed that a planter on the other side of the pool was turned the wrong way. She slipped out the back door, corrected the planter, and while backing up to admire her work, fell backwards into the pool dragging one of her legs across the sharp little rocks embedded into the concrete.

Later that day, she commented that when you fail to listen to “His” promptings the Lord steps aside letting you face the consequences of your actions. I was mesmerized, and over the next decade, I would witness her sharing premonitions about black ice, ladders, river trips, and anything else that would be of mild concern for a typical mother.

Her prophesying probably seems fairly innocent, and my rudely getting off the phone probably seems, well… rude. But her phone call on Friday stirred up old emotions, and I feel like it was violation of the unspoken terms of our almost fifteen-year truce on the topics of faith and religion. I let her tell me about the goings-on at church, and she never ever asks me when I’m going to return to the gospel (or any other crap like that). I keep details about my life to a minimum. Everything works great!

I don’t know if I have any answers about how to deal with this. In fact, I don’t even think I’m asking any questions. My f’ed up relationship with my mother (and father for that matter) is what it is. I guess what intrigues me the most about her warning and the overall effect it had on my weekend is that I did change my behavior. I was more careful. It clearly wasn’t for the reason she had hoped——that I would start trusting her faith.

I just didn’t want to die in a car accident and leave her feeling like she was right.

9/11: A Time For Directionless Musing

Today is September 11. The anniversary of an attack. A national tragedy. A victory for those eager to instill fear in the American psyche. A work day. A deepening and widening of the U.S. political chasm. It's the anniversary of a really rough day.

My Facebook feed is alive today with different takes on what today means. For some of my friends, it is a day to praise God for the freedoms our Country still affords us, even in the face of those who would deprive us of those freedoms. For others, it's a time to remind the world that those who committed the acts of 9/11 did so in the name of God, and to warn of the dangers of religion. For some it's a time for introspection, for others a time for open discussion.

I don't know what to do with today. Days like today ignite a war between the cynic in me and the sentimentalist. I'm annoyed at pretty much everything I read, no matter what side of any argument the author takes. Talk of God's blessings on some level deny some fundamental problems with religious belief vis-à-vis tragedy. Anti-theists, however, tend to get awfully strident, cocky, and condescending when they see a chance to hit religion where it hurts. Neither side seems to care that this tragedy belongs to all of us, and that maybe the actual anniversary might be a good day for a moratorium on divisive talk.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. It's been over a decade since the towers of the World Trade Center came down. Maybe there's been enough time since then to open this day up. After all, we all-too-easily forget to consider important ideas. Without markers like the anniversaries of tragedies, when would we actually remember to delve into some of these ideas? Maybe I should be totally pro-debate on days like today! That sounds good too.

Dammit. Now I'm annoyed at my own whining blog post. How did that happen?

Well, ok. I guess rather than just blather about how everybody else is doing today wrong, I'll just write what's going on with me. That is, what 9/11 is meaning to me today. Yeah. Make it personal. That sounds better.

First, I'm apparently easily annoyed. That probably indicates that I'm a little emotional. It's an emotional day.

Second, I guess I have to admit that I do hold religion partially culpable for 9/11 attack. It's just far too easy to rally people to do horrific things when you can martial them to your cause using God's clarion call. It's also WAY easier to create an us-against-them tribalism thing through religion. If your holy book says it's ok to kill, how much easier is it to ignore the fact that you're clearly doing something very very wrong?

Third, 9/11 for me was not as simple as "terrorists attacked America". It was that, of course, but it was also a lot of equally ugly things. It was the day assholes got an excuse to practice racial hatred with a degree of impunity. It was the day George "W." Bush found the most dickish means imaginable of distracting the Country from how shitty a president he was. It was the launch of a particularly despicable jingoism in the U.S. of A. where any dissent (or even honest discussion) was immediately branded "unamerican", and could therefore be written off.

Maybe that's the real sticking point for me. That last thing I wrote. Maybe in my mind 9/11 has become the day that discourse died in America. The day that politicians learned how to lock in their base voters by sticking red white and blue earplugs in their ears, and eagle-emblazoned blinders over their eyes. It's the day that America forgot that listening to each other makes us stronger, not weaker.

Yep. That's it. That, for me, is the true and lasting tragedy of September 11, 2001.

You see what happens when you let jingoism flourish? SARAH FUCKING PALIN!

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

Not Sinclair Lewis


Bible Belt or BUST!

Ok, so… Remember our last post, where we went through and told you EXACTLY where we were going to be, and when? Well… we lied. Sorry- I mean we have since revised. Based on a number of factors including listener/reader comments, events we didn't want to miss and things we wanted to see, we now have a NEW AND IMPROVED itinerary!


 Woah. That suddenly looks like a lot of driving...
 That's right, upper-left corner! It IS in the Unites States!

This is where we're really going. Like, for sure. For total sure. 

Unless something else comes up.

And here's what the timing pretty much looks like:

Monday, May 13– Texas panhandle: Amarillo and Groom. Spend the night in Groom (I checked this place out on Google. Small town Texas. Wow.)

Tuesday, May 14– Lunch in Wichita Falls, TX on our way to Dallas. Spend the night in Dallas.

Wednesday, May 15– Lunch in Waco, on our way to Houston. Sleep in Houston.

Thursday, May 16– Stay in Houston (we get to not drive for a day!). FUN MEETUP at night at the Fox & Hound Pub (11470 Westheimer Road)- Houstonites, be there or be square!

Friday, May 17– Drive to Shreveport, Louisiana. Have some fun (TBA). Sleep.

Saturday, May 18– Head to Jackson, Mississippi. Sing "I'm going to Jackson" in the style of Johnny Cash the entire way.

Sunday, May 19– AM church in Jackson, lord help us (yep- that means a church review), then press on to Montgomery, Alabama

Monday, May 20– A long and rather circuitous route through 'Bama will eventually land us in Murfreesboro, TN.

Tuesday, May 21– We leave early, 'cause we gotta make it to Memphis before Graceland closes (though we'll pass through another town called Jackson, so we'll be singing Cash again before we start singing Elvis).

Wednesday, May 22– Wave at Little Rock (maybe have lunch there- any Little Rockers out there wanna join us?) on our way to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Why Hot Springs? Who knows.

Thursday, May 23– Drive through the beautiful (one supposes) Ouachita National Forest to Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Frank's old stomping grounds! I get to see where Frank practiced his trombone for marching band! I'm not making that up!

Friday, May 24- Frank Family stuff. You're not invited.

Saturday, May 25 Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas! EVERYBODY SHOULD COME TO THIS WITH US! Seriously, if you live anywhere even remotely close to Eureka Springs (and remember, compared to, say, Poland, most American locations are pretty close), you need to join us for this event! Then, we'll go find a place nearby that serves alcohol. Lot's of alcohol. So help me if Eureka Springs turns out to be in a "dry County", I'll know FOR SURE that there's no god.

Sunday, May 26– Party in Bonner Springs, Kansas! We'll send you a full report.

Monday, May 27– Stop in Topeka (home of those nice Westboro Baptists), do some stuff, have lunch, and then put the pedal to the metal, and get our asses home!


So that's it. That's where we'll be and a lot of what we'll be doing! If you want to be a part of it, hit us up! If you're in one of these fine towns, let us know, and we'll try to announce where we'll be, so y'all can join in the festivities. See you soon!

Travel Itinerary for our Bible Belt Tour

Frank and Dan are hitting the road starting May 13 through May 27, and we’d love to meet as many of you along the way as possible. Please let us know if you’d like to meet up.

Mon, May 13 – en route to Dallas from Salt Lake

Tue, May 14 – DALLAS

Wed, May 15 – AUSTIN

Thu, May 16 – HOUSTON

Fri, May 17 – NEW ORLEANS

Sat, May 18 – MONTGOMERY

Sun, May 19 – ATLANTA


Tue, May 21 – MEMPHIS

Wed, May 22 – CLARKSDALE, MS


Fri, May 24 & Sat, May 25 – MUSKOGEE COUNTY, OK

Sun, May 26 – TULSA

Mon, May 27 – TOPEKA


It is unlikely that these dates and stops will change, but please let us know if you think they should!