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.