Friday, December 11, 2009

The not so great debate

the audiance

I attended the Orange County Freethought Alliance debate on “Does the God of the Bible Exist” at the Costa Mesa Community Center last Wednesday. The event was well attended, but it was a surreal experience and a huge disappointment. Let me explain why.

The venue was large. My guess is that it could seat 500 and was about three quarters full, which surprised me. I had expected a small audience. An ad hoc poll showed the audience was evenly split between Christians and Atheists. I arrived 10 minutes before the start and found myself sitting near the back in a group of well mannered Christian children.

The panel

My first impression was that the event was professionally planned. There were three screens. Two showed PowerPoint presentations and one showed a live video feed. There were at least four high-end video cameras setup to capture the debate. The stage was setup in a classic debate style with the Christians at stage right and atheists at stage left. The moderator occupied a small desk in the middle.

My first impression quickly changed to dismay as the debate started and things started to go wrong. The PowerPoint displays had a mind of their own. The screens changed from showing  written versions of the debate questions to showing atheist propaganda. It was random and rude. I found it disturbing that while Christians were trying to make their points, atheist counter arguments were shown to the audience. It was unprofessional and unfair.

Don’t get me started on the camera’s. I cannot recall an event where a 10-foot-tall camera rig sat in the middle of the seating area blocking the view for a third of those present. When you add a cameraman balancing on a flimsy chair to the mix, it soon become an annoying circus. The cameras should have been positioned to the left or right of the seating area with one covering the whole stage from the back or some other unobtrusive place. It lead me to wonder why the camera’s were there in the first place. Was the intent to have a debate, or was the intent to create a product that could be resold? I’m betting on the latter since the advertised price for a recording of the event was $20.

The debate started with a short introduction by Bruce Gleason. As usual, I was confused by his choice of words. He seems to become confused when speaking in front of large groups. He certainly demonstrated this again later when he started the second part of the debate with the question, how many agnostics are there are in the audience. A few hands went up. I wanted to ask, agnostic atheist or agnostic Christian? It’s not an either/or question. I am an Atheist and an agnostic. Why is that so hard to understand?

The debate moved quickly to opening statements. The atheist team bored me with its excessive detail and trite superficial theology. The Christians did no better. Their opening statement was incomprehensible pseudoscience. Opening statements took 20 minutes, by the end of which I was already thinking about leaving.

The debate format was six questions followed by a 10 minute break, and then six more questions, followed by user submitted questions. I threw in the towel before the user submitted questions. Listening to Christians talk about pseudoscience and atheists talk about theology almost made my head explode. Neither side did well.

I found myself asking why we (atheists) bother to debate the existence of God in the first place. It is pointless to do so. There is no way to win the hearts and minds of the Christians, their proof is faith. Using a logical argument wins us nothing, they simply retreat farther into faith. On the other hand, Christians arguing science yields little more than a patronizing snort from Atheists.

Atheists arguing that the God of the bible does not exist feels too much like trying to convert believers into atheists. In case you are wondering where I stand on this, I think it is wrong. I don’t understand why we care about what they believe. My concerns have always been focused on protecting my right to live and believe as I please, and not on trying to convince others what they believe is wrong.

Hugh Ross The Christian panelists were an odd mix. Dr. Hugh Ross was an incomprehensible speaker who uses pseudoscience and his own theories as a bludgeon. His arguments simply take up time. I grew tired of listening to his rhetoric.  Anyone with a modicum of scientific knowledge knows that he speaks gibberish. He never answered a question without invoking his cosmology arguments. Frankly, I found him a bore. By the end I wanted to know why he was included on the panel if his sole purpose was to espouse his personal scientific theories. From what I can tell, they are not even peer reviewed.

DanGrossenbach I liked Dan Grossesnbach. He was reasonable, polite and articulate, yet overpowered by his co-panelists. I cannot recall him making a significant point during the debate, but his attempts at steering the discussion back towards the actual questions were appreciated. Plus, he seemed genuinely interested in trying to help us (atheists) understand his position without unnecessary rhetoric.

clay_jonesClay Jones on the other hand, he simply pissed me off. His rants often evoked applause from the Christian members of the audience while as the same time evoking dismay from the Atheists. If Ross was the intellectual, Jones was the unapologetic firebrand. Jones is the kind of Christian who scares me. At one point, Jones admitted that if God told him to kill every man woman and child in America, he would do it. I have poor quality video from the event to prove it (starts at 2:00).

Please excuse the quality, I was 100 feet from the stage with a flip video camera. The message comes through loud and clear. If Jones thinks God gave him the order, he would strap the vest on and walk into a crowd of sinners, a large explosion would soon follow. And yes, that’s me on the video saying, “That is why I own a gun.” in the background.

The atheist panelists were an odd bunch. Mark Smith is a former Christian turned atheist who runs and would qualify as the “angry atheist’ on the godless team. I found his rhetoric disturbing in the same way I found Clay Jones scary. Smith tried to paint Christians with the same brush as the angry and vengeful God of the old testament.  In it’s simplest form, it is much like sticking ones finger in the eye of your opponent in an attempt to get a pain response. In the Christian crowd sitting around me, I heard scoffs of disapproval and comments about Smith being mean spirited and anti-Christian. For my part, I found his focus on the logical fallacies and inconsistencies surrounding the existence of God on target, but poorly executed given the structure of the debate.

Bruce Flamm was the star of the show, at least in my eyes. His masterful defense of science was impressive. Yet, almost every word he spoke was off topic. I kept wondering why the debate kept moving from theology to science. Or why anyone would give the inane theories postulated by Dr. Ross a moment in the spotlight. My guess is that Flamm was the counterbalance to Ross. He was needed.

Alex Uzdavines was an interesting selection to round out the debate squad for the Atheists. He has no academic credentials and little claim to fame besides his involvement in atheist organizations. However, I would go to see him debate again. He speaks well for atheists and has a good stage presence.


As to who won, well… I have proof the Atheists won a round of roshambo with paper covering rock. As for the debate? There was no way to judge. I certainly don’t think the Atheist carried the day, and with the Christians steadfastly refusing to discuss the debate topic, they did no better. I felt like I was watching a political debate. It was essentially pointless.

I sat in the crowd alone. I did not know any atheists who attended nor do I know any Christians. I watched both groups from the anonymity of my position near the back. To be honest, I did not connect with either group. I have no desire to debate the existence of God or challenge the beliefs of those who do. I just want to be left alone to do as I please without the morality police looking over my shoulder. What I took away from the event is that we must fight people like Dr. Hugh Ross who desires to push his screed on our children under the guise of science. And, we must fight against the likes of Clay Jones who would push his moral agenda via any means possible. But I’d be happy to have a beer and good conversation with with likes of Dan Grossesnbach.

I tweeted a few comments during the event. One stands out:

If you hate you are a murderer. If you lust you are an adulterer. (link)

dotlizard responds with

@mojoey so ... if i think about helping people, i'm a philanthropist? and if i think about work, i'll get paid? heck, that'd be cool :) (link)

I live in the real world where what I think should not be used to judge me. I am a murderer if I murder someone. I am an adulterer if I cheat on my wife. Actions are what we measure ourselves by, not words. Reality is what counts, not some future where Christians think I will burn in hell for the simple act of not worshiping their God. Reality is what counts. Everything else is a hypothetical discussion, and pointless.

I’d like to see a debate on the essence of morality, or on the concept of moral beauty. I’d like to see a debate on theocracy and religion in politics. I like to see a debate on abortion rights, gay rights, or the ability of religious sects to live and worship freely in America. But please… no more does God exist. It’s pointless.

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