That Nightline Debate About God

If you have any interest, clips from the big Nightline God debate are now online at the ABC News website. Mostly what you’d expect, though I think things went a bit better for the atheists than I had anticipated.

Representing the forces of darkness and ignorance were Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort. Having seen their staggeringly dopey infomercials on television, I was not optimistic that they would have anything intelligent to say here. They are, however, very polished in their presentation, which made me worry they might come off as persuasive. As it happens I needn’t have worried.

The subject of the debate was whether the existence of God could be proved scientifically. Comfort claimed he could provide such proof without making any reference to the Bible. The surprising thing is that very little of his presentation even attempted to make such an argument. Instead he spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the ten commandments, and about how we all need God’s grace to save us from our wrteched, sinful existence. Not exactly what they were there to discuss, as the atheists subsequently pointed out.

Comfort began with an especially simplistic version of the argument from design. A painting requires a painter, a building requires a builder, the universe requires a universe maker. QED! You don’t need theology, just eyes that see and a brain that works! (That was his frequent refrain). From there it was just a lot of nonsense about the absurdity of thinking that Coke cans are the products of evolution or that the human body is a far more impressive machine than any car. Then he was off on the Ten Commandments stuff.

When Kirk Cameron got up to speak, he merely told the story of his own conversion. Moving, but totally irrelevant to the subject of the debate.

Representing sunshine and puppies were Brain Sapient and a woman who identifies herself simply as “Kelly.” They are the founders of The Blasphemy Challenge, in which people make You Tube videos of themselves dissing God. In their presentation they pointed out that the idea that a building needs a builder and so on runs afoul of the question of who designed God. They also spent some time discussing the nature of science, some places where the analogy between buildings and people breaks down, and on the fact that the nature of one’s religious beliefs seem inextricably linked to the society in which one is raised. Overall I’d say their presentation could have been a bit more polished, but their arguments were solid and to the point.

The most interesting exchange in the clips included online came when the moderator challenged Comfort and Cameron to explain who created God. Comfort gave the familiar answer that God is eternal and therefore does not need a creator. Sapient then responded that this proves that Comfort does not believe his own argument. He says that buildings require builders and paintings require painters and so on, but then makes an exception to this rule for God Himself. The moderator went back to Comfort and Cameron. They had no answer. Literally! They sat there in awkward silence. Finally Cameron muttered that you have to accept that something is eternal, since you can’r keep asking “And who made that?” Kelly replied simply that if God could be eternal why couldn’t the universe be eternal? They had no answer.

So, overall, I’d say the atheists acquitted themselves well, and Comfort and Cameron basically made fools of themselves by relying on evangelization rather than argumentation. The audience seemed decidedly on the side of the atheists, despite the fact that the debate was held in a church.

Comments

  1. #1 Roy
    May 9, 2007

    Good news. Thanks.

  2. #2 realpc
    May 9, 2007

    No one knows. No one can understand eternity or infinity. No one knows the meaning of the word “god.”

    Most things are beyond our knowledge. We feel smart because our species knows more now than it used to know. But we can’t possibly imagine how much more there is. We can’t possibly estimate the extent of our ignorance.

    I don’t understand why atheists are anxious to promote their personal beliefs. Well actually maybe I do understand. You have become convinced that religion is a major cause of misery and destruction. And you thnk that religion and science are at odds.

    You think that religion causes problems and science solves problems. So you are committed to saving science, and the world, from the irrational force of relgion.

    But you are very wrong. You can eradicate religion and our problems won’t go away. And science and technology won’t solve our problems. They create more miseries than they cure.

    Your simple formula — “religion is bad, science is good, religion and science are enemies” — is just not true.

    It would be nice, I guess, if it were that simple.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    May 9, 2007

    No one knows. No one can understand eternity or infinity. No one knows the meaning of the word “god.”

    Presumably if you believe in X you at least have a concept of X. To resort to this kind of vague, quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo is just evasive nonsense.

    And as a student of mathematics, I would object to the proclamation that “no one” can grasp infinity. Open up an introductory Calculus textbook and you’ll find the concept used quite frequently, which is far more than you’d expect from something “no one can understand.”

  4. #4 mmurphy21
    May 9, 2007

    realpc says:
    No one knows. No one can understand eternity or infinity. No one knows the meaning of the word “god.”

    Most things are beyond our knowledge. We feel smart because our species knows more now than it used to know. But we can’t possibly imagine how much more there is. We can’t possibly estimate the extent of our ignorance.

    I don’t understand why atheists are anxious to promote their personal beliefs. Well actually maybe I do understand. You have become convinced that religion is a major cause of misery and destruction. And you thnk that religion and science are at odds.

    You think that religion causes problems and science solves problems. So you are committed to saving science, and the world, from the irrational force of relgion.

    But you are very wrong. You can eradicate religion and our problems won’t go away. And science and technology won’t solve our problems. They create more miseries than they cure.

    Your simple formula — “religion is bad, science is good, religion and science are enemies” — is just not true.

    It would be nice, I guess, if it were that simple.

    This is how many others feel:
    No one knows. No one can understand eternity or infinity. No one knows the meaning of the word “god.”

    Most things are beyond our knowledge. We feel smart because our species knows more now than it used to know. But we can’t possibly imagine how much more there is. We can’t possibly estimate the extent of our ignorance.

    I don’t understand why christians are anxious to promote their personal beliefs. Well actually maybe I do understand. You have become convinced that atheism is a major cause of misery and destruction. And you thnk that religion and science are at odds.

    You think that atheism causes problems and religion solves problems. So you are committed to saving religion, and the world, from the irrational force of atheism.

    But you are very wrong. You can eradicate atheism and our problems won’t go away. And religions won’t solve our problems. They create more miseries than they cure.

    Your simple formula — “atheism is bad, religion is good, religion and science are enemies” — is just not true.

    It would be nice, I guess, if it were that simple.

  5. #5 Kevin
    May 9, 2007

    “and about how we all need God’s grace to save us from our wrteched, sinful existence. ”

    oh I hate when that happens. like you’re on a date…or at a party, or riding the bus and someone starts gong on about how you are dammed to hell.

    what can you say? really?

  6. One of most interesting conceptualizations of infinity in my opinion was presented during a 24/7 lecture at the 2005 IgNobel Prizes.

    To paraphrase: understanding infinity is understanding that the number of even numbers is equal to the number of even and odd numbers combined.

    realpc: Don’t be so quick to generalize the thoughts of others. Science and religion do sometimes clash. Religion is sometimes a cause of misery or suffering. Of course, science can be a source of misery and suffering as well. (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) But while scientists may have a responsibility to establish a certain ethical consensus to reduce the risk of misery from science, science itself is neutral and simply is a search for reliable understanding through methodological inquiry. Philosophies and ethics stem from the people who practice science- people with authority usually derived from consensus. Religion in its most common form is intended to provide understanding and simultaneously deliver an ethical code and moral philosophy. It is usually static and its inability to adapt, philosophically or in the nature of its “truth”, often makes it at worst authoritarian and dangerous (or potentially so) and at best requires a suspension of critical thinking that may encourage vulnerabilities. It is to oppose the traits that I think most atheists want their voices heard, and also to legitimize their philosophical stance which has been dismissed and/or persecuted to the point where even in “tolerant” societies, the word atheist is purjorative.

  7. #7 Science Avenger
    May 9, 2007

    The Troll gratuitously asserted thusly: No one knows the meaning of the word “god.”

    Oh but I do.

    God – a powerfl non-material, somewhat inconsistent, self-obsessive, petty being which is a major character in a quaint book of fictional often grotesquely violent tales written by ignorant desert tribesman prior to mankind’s discovery that the world wasn’t flat. For mature audiences and entertainment purposes only.

  8. #8 The Other PC
    May 9, 2007

    It is interesting to note that in cross cultural “After Life Experience” studies it is established the Judeo-Christian societies have very pleasureable experiences while other cultures and religions are not, to put it lightly, pleasurable experiences. There is an excellent study by Van Lommel that establishes these experiences as valid and happening while the brain is devoid of activity.
    There is plenty of solid phd level evidence of life after that should give any skeptic room for pause.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    May 9, 2007

    “It is interesting to note that in cross cultural “After Life Experience” studies it is established the Judeo-Christian societies have very pleasureable experiences while other cultures and religions are not, to put it lightly, pleasurable experiences.”

    Citation, please? The study by Pim van Lommel, et al. doesn’t control for the subjects’ religious affiliation, so what is your research justifying this claim?

    “There is an excellent study by Van Lommel that establishes these experiences as valid and happening while the brain is devoid of activity.”

    The “excellent study” has been widely criticized for it’s control flaws (e.g., many of those who claimed NDE’s did so as much as years after the experience) and reasoning like this:

    “These induced experiences can consist of unconsciousness, out-of-body experiences, and perception of light or flashes of recollection from the past. These recollections, however, consist of fragmented and random memories unlike the panoramic life-review that can occur in NDE. Further, transformational processes with changing life-insight and disappearance of fear of death are rarely reported after induced experiences.”

    (.pdf file, on page 6)

    Which is just unwarranted assumption, as they cite no evidence for the claim that induced experiences do not produce the effects they point out. And needless to say, the study was done all the way back in 2001, with no recent replication AFAIK.

  10. #10 Anne-Marie
    May 9, 2007

    When Cameron pulled out those ignorant illustrations of “transitional species” I was dumbstruck, how could someone go into a debate and pull a stunt like that and have any hopes of holding on to any shred of credibility?

  11. #11 kamimushinronsha
    May 10, 2007

    I don’t understand why atheists are anxious to promote their personal beliefs. Well actually maybe I do understand. You have become convinced that religion is a major cause of misery and destruction. And you thnk(sic) that religion and science are at odds.

    Yep, thats pretty much it. Religion wants to teach kids the concept that evolution is evil, Darwinism = Hitler WTF? This is ignorant fear mongering, you are purposely distorting the facts to promote your point of view. So yes we are anxious to push our beliefs, just like you push your beliefs by lying. How can you possibly point fingers at us for trying to push our beliefs, when your institution is the undisputed master of bullshit?

  12. #12 Callandor
    May 10, 2007

    I too loved when they were absolutely stunned. They had nothing to say, just sat there. Was terrific.

    But Kirk pulling out those pictures… my goodness, I can’t describe the amount of conflicting laughter and embarrassment I felt for him without devolving into cliches.

    I mean, seriously, what — the — fuck?

  13. #13 windy
    May 10, 2007

    There is plenty of solid phd level evidence of life after that should give any skeptic room for pause.

    There’s life after a PhD? Your message brings me great hope, brother.

  14. #14 Jake
    May 11, 2007

    Unfortunately, I was very disappointed with the results of the debate. However, simply because Comfort and Cameron did not win the argument does not necessarily mean that God does not exist. We all must admit that they were not the ideal candidates for such a debate. Someone like Chuck Missler would have faired much better.

  15. #15 Robert O'Brien
    May 12, 2007

    So, overall, I’d say the atheists acquitted themselves well…

    Jason, please. The Rational [sic] Responders advanced several false claims, such as conservation of mass-energy being the 3rd law of thermodynamics (it is related to the 1st law) and that it implies matter is eternal; quite to the contrary, it is likely that at the big bang the gravitational field and its fluctuations introduced more energy into the system (ex nihilo).

    Apparently, you truly are a “pure” mathematician divorced from applications.

  16. #16 Robert O'Brien
    May 12, 2007

    God – a powerfl non-material, somewhat inconsistent, self-obsessive, petty being which is a major character in a quaint book of fictional often grotesquely violent tales written by ignorant desert tribesman prior to mankind’s discovery that the world wasn’t flat. For mature audiences and entertainment purposes only.

    Sorry, Gomer, but no. The following, while not exhaustive, is a good start:

    * God has no material parts.
    * God is not distinct from his essential attributes.
    * God’s essential attributes are not distinct from one another.
    * God is not distinct from His existence.

    By the way, what “science” are you avenging, phlogiston theory?

  17. #17 Tyler DiPietro
    May 12, 2007

    If you’re going to slop all over threads here with gratuitous insults, Bobby, you can at least try to think of something more hard hitting than “Gomer”.

  18. #18 Robert O'Brien
    May 12, 2007

    If you’re going to slop all over threads here with gratuitous insults, Bobby, you can at least try to think of something more hard hitting than “Gomer”.

    Nah, it works.

  19. #19 Tyler DiPietro
    May 12, 2007

    “Nah, it works.”

    Alas, from someone with a similar opinion of theism, thinking “Gomer” insults anyone born after 1950 is not unexpected.

  20. #20 windy
    May 12, 2007

    Sorry, Gomer, but no. The following, while not exhaustive, is a good start:

    Where does the “sorry, no” part come in – your list does not contradict SA’s definition at all?

  21. #21 Arnosium Upinarum
    May 13, 2007

    Dear Mr. O’brian:

    “God has no material parts.”

    How do you know this? Is this an observation or a speculation? Oddly enough, many would agree with this statement, since it is consistent with the fact that the only physical manifestation of the subject appears to be an ‘object’ of the human imagination…which indeed has no material parts.

    “God is not distinct from his essential attributes.”

    You mean “essential attributes” such as omniscience and omnipotency? Again, how do you know this? Oddly enough, these attributes are the very same as those which many human imaginations well-greased with religion often aspire to.

    “God’s essential attributes are not distinct from one another.”

    “Attributes.” (sic). In the plural. If there are more than one, your concept of God must forthwith diminish God’s putative Perfection and Wholeness. And if the plural designation is a typo from a fallible human being, and God has but a singular attribute as you insist (i.e., there are no distinctions that can be made), which one do you suppose it is? As opposed to what else? “His” gender perhaps? How whole can God possibly be if God’s (possessive) “essential ATTRIBUTES are not DISTINCT from one ANOTHER?”

    “God is not distinct from His existence”.

    What Reference does God have for “His” existence? Everything else which we know to exist has other things to serve as a basis of reference for said existence. The very definition of existence requires a reference for support. If God exists (as a Something) there must be an “Other” to give meaning to God’s existence. And the appearance of the possessive once again automatically implies partness and other, which is consistent for all things that exist: a DISTINCTION is implicit in the attribute of EXISTENCE. But ‘Wholeness’ is tantamount to ‘Nothingness’. (‘Nothingness’ as a concept is a thing, but the word here is meant to designate the condition of thinglessness, which is the absence of anything, including condition). If God exists, “He” must only be a Part (the God-part) as opposed to at least one other Part (a non-God part). Again, the popular CONCEPT of God diminishes the putative Perfection and Wholeness of God, by attributing the flaw of existence to “Him”.

    Therefore, either God does not exist as you and so many others conceive it, or your statements must be self-contradictory. Oddly enough, both of these conclusions are mutually consistent and can be true.

  22. #22 cxhax
    May 13, 2007

    If Someone out there is creating you (has always been creating you?), Someone who has always lived in a universe which is infinite in time & space, and He hasn’t as yet given you the ability to “know” He is creating you, how would you know He is creating you?

    What do you do when you live forever?

    We’ve probably got a ways to go.

  23. #23 Kevin
    May 13, 2007

    “written by ignorant desert tribesman prior to mankind’s discovery that the world wasn’t flat.”

    That is so untrue. It was written by written by ignorant desert tribesman AFTER mankind’s discovery that the world wasn’t flat.

    “Eratosthenes (Greek ???????????; 276 BC – 194 BC) was a Greek mathematician, geographer and astronomer. His contemporaries nicknamed him “beta” (Greek for “number two”) because he supposedly proved himself to be the second in the ancient mediterranean region in many fields. He is noted for devising a system of latitude and longitude, and for being the first known to have calculated the circumference of the Earth. ”

  24. #24 Robert O'Brien
    May 15, 2007

    “Therefore, either God does not exist as you and so many others conceive it, or your statements must be self-contradictory.”
    Or you are wrong. I’ll go with that one.

    God is not distinct from his essential attributes.

    This is in accordance with the “Identity Thesis.”

    God is not distinct from His existence.

    God is a necessary being.

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