Friday, November 7, 2008

Does God Exist? - Friel-Barker Debate - Audience Q & A

The last segment of the debate was Question from the Audience. The moderator read questions that were written down by audience members earlier to both participants, alternating between Barker and Friel. This segment was very disappointing to me. I will admit that the format of the segment allowed for more informality, but I was disappointed that the moderator could not keep control, allowing both participants to engage in one-on-one arguments with an audience member and not answering the questions given but rebutting the other's previous answers. Also, I was disappointed in both Friel and Barker interrupting each other's alotted time with comebacks and rebuttals, Barker especially. Most of all, I was disappointed in both participant's answers to some of their questions.

Barker was asked, "How does morality exist without God?" Barker responded that morality is not a thing that can either exist or not exist, but a label for our actions in the world. He argued that moral people seek to minimize harm, which requires reason, not obedience to rules. When it comes to deciding what to do and when, humanists follow standards whereas religionists follow rules.

Friel was asked, "If evolution is untrue, why is there so much evidence for it?" Friel responded as expected by claiming there was no evidence because science can't reproduce the entirety of evolution in a lab. Of course, science can't reproduce the Genesis creation event in a lab either, so perhaps that never happened. Science can't reproduce a global flood in a lab so we can close the books on that one as well.

Friel then rebutted Barker's previous answer by claiming that morality is much more than just minimizing harm but by doing right vs. wrong. He deplored Barker's situational ethics by stating, "I hope a masochist and a sadomasochist don't become President and Vice-President or we're all in big trouble." This made zero sense to me.

At this point an audience member complained that Friel wasn't answering the question, and he shot back that he did answer the question but had more time left so he thought he'd rebut Barker's morality answer--an unfair move. Either the answers should stand as they are or Barker should have been given the opportunity to defend his answer.

Friel relented to audience complaints by re-addressing the evidence for evolution by excoriating the Fossil Record. "Quick, someone bring me a transitional fossil--they are all fully formed." This naturally raises the question of what Friel considers to be a transitional fossil. If a species exhibits both traits of lizards as well as birds, could that be a transitional species? If so, take a look at archaeopteryx. What about a species with traits of both fish and amphibians? If so, then consider tiktaalik. Traits of both non-human apes and modern humans? Here's homo rudolfensis.

But Friel later explained what he means by a transitional species: "Show me the one that has a half a wing on one side and a full wing on the other. They don't exist, they'd be on the cover of Time magazine." No evolutionary biologist has argued that a transitional species is anything like this. The very term "transitional species" is misleading in that since all species evolved from older, more primitive species, then all species are transitional. What's more, a species with half a wing would be at a severe disadvantage to it's two-winged brethren and thus would be far less likely to reproduce. If we showed Friel any modern-day examples of organisms with stunted limbs, he would probably write those off as freaks of nature (freaks of an intelligent designer?) and say they don't count.

Barker was asked, "Why do we exist?" Barker answered, "My mother and dad fell in love and had sex." While this might answer the question why Barker exists, the question was why do we exist, and given the context of the debate it's clear the questioner was referring to 'we' as 'the human race.' When an audience member complained that he didn't answer the question, Barker replied that he did and wouldn't clarify further. This was bad form on Barker's part, in my opinion.

Friel was asked, "Why would an all-loving, all-powerful god create human beings and allow them to suffer so that he could be worshiped and given credit for anything that goes right?" Friel responded that it was a false question. He claimed that what we call suffering is not really suffering. Saint Augustine argued that creation was created to be perfect but when God restores the world from evil it will be even better. This is a contradiction--how can something be better than perfect? Friel skirted the question by insisting that if we agree that something is evil it must require a moral law-giver. The question was not about where do we get morality, something Friel had already covered. It was why does God allow suffering--is it really just so that he can get praise when he fixes it? Friel downplayed what we consider to be suffering--it might be a test from God, or it could be the results of our own mistakes. How dare we puny humans call something suffering when God is doing it for a good reason. That's cold comfort for parents who bury a dead child, but that's Friel's answer. "This is His Story," Friel concluded. "That's where we get the word 'history'." This is flat-out incorrect. "History" is a derivative of the Greek word 'histor' which means one who knows or sees. It has nothing to do with God having his way with us in order to garner our lavish praise.

I was pleased to hear both Barker and Friel discount Pascal's Wager when asked about it. Pascal's Wager is, Barker said, Argument from Intimidation and leads to selfish morality--just pick the religion with the worst hell and subscribe to it in a effort to beat the odds.

Friel was asked, "Do you believe believers and non-believers have different standards when claiming to know something?" Friel claimed they do, because believers don't have faith, they have knowledge of God. While this may sound true, it can be countered by other believers. The Christian knows in his heart that Jesus is alive; the Muslim knows in his heart that Allah is the one true God; the atheist knows in his heart that God does not exist. How do we tell who's right? Personal experience is an experience for only one person and can not be objectively evaluated.

Friel was asked, "If God created something out of nothing, where did God come from? If God always existed, why couldn't the universe have always existed?" Friel asked back incredulously, "You believe the universe always existed?! Everything has to have a start." Apparently Friel didn't hear the question: If everything has to have a start, then who or what started God? Why not skip a step and claim that the universe has always existed? Yes, this might make the question, "Where did the universe come from" an unanswerable one, but an unanswerable question is better than an unsupportable answer. Appealing to God as the origin of the universe is answering one mystery with another bigger mystery.

Friel immediately changed the subject (again) and questioned Barker's activities with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which works to keep church and state separate, sometimes by bringing lawsuits against government agencies using tax dollars to engage in sectarian activities. Friel simply stated, "They sue to get God and prayer out of public schools." This is, of course, an outright lie. How a small non-profit organization can keep an omnipresent deity out of a school building is hard to understand, and public school students are not denied the right to pray, read scriptures, or discuss their religion provided they don't interrupt classroom instruction. The FFRF and other secular advocacy groups have worked to prevent teachers and administrators, acting on behalf of the government, from promoting and endorsing religious doctrine. I daresay that if Friel had a child in public school, and that child's mathematics teacher said, "Class, before we begin, lets roll out your prayer mats and bow to Mecca five times while praising the one God Allah and his most favored prophet, Mohammed," then Friel would be first in line to "get God out of public schools." Friel wants public schools to be drenched in religion--so long as it's his religion.

Friel then rattled out an obviously memorized blizzard of statistics that can be laid at the feet of a United States Supreme Court decision to end public school's sectarian prayers in the early 1960s: "The population of the United States has gone up 42%, but violent crime is up 560%, teen violence up 400%, illegitimacy up 400%, STD's are up, there have been 28 million abortions, 28 million wounded, 28 million dead, teen suicide is up 200% . . . Congratulations!"

While it is true that the United States has grown more violent in the recent decades, Friel failed to prove that the rise in violence is due to public school teachers leading their classes in Christian prayers every day. This is a fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc or, 'after this, therefore because of this.' The rise in violence also followed the Civil Rights movement, the beginning of the Beatles' legendary music careers, and the launching of the first American weather satellite in orbit, but I don't think that Friel would associate the rise in violence with those events.

What's more, what are we to make of the 28 million abortions cited, given that only a small percentage of abortions are performed on school students? What does he mean by 28 million wounded? Are we blaming household and workplace accidents on the lack of public school prayer? What about the 28 million dead? Are senior citizens dying in nursing homes at a skyrocketing rate because the Supreme Court ruled public-school-endorsed sectarian prayers as unconstitutional? And is it just a coincidence that all three items are the same number?

That violence has risen in the United States throughout the entire twentieth century--not just since the 1960s--is beyond question, but the reason likely stems from many factors. In addition, violent crime has been actually decreasing since the early 1990's and it isn't because prayer was restored in public schools.

Blaming atheism for violence is a common tactic by religious believers and is not supported by evidence. Non-believers comprise anywhere from 5% to 15% of U.S. population, depending on how surveys are conducted, yet they comprise a disproportionate percentage of the prison population (0.21%). The United States, the most Christian nation in the G-8, also has the highest murder rate, whereas Japan, the most atheistic nation in the G-8, has the lowest murder rate. Louisiana has America's highest church attendance rate and also twice the national average murder rate. Atheism is not the cause of violence.

Amusingly, at this point the moderator finally interjects Friel's sermon to reiterate that he didn't answer the question as given. "If God created something out of nothing, where did God come from? If God has always existed, why couldn't the universe have always existed?"

Friel attempted to use two laws of Thermodynamics to explain his case. The first law--matter is neither created nor destroyed--and the second law--disorder increases over time. Friel attempted to forstall objections by saying that he understands the difference between an open system and a closed system but, he says, "it makes no difference." Of course he doesn't want it to make a difference--if it did, it would undercut his argument. "There must be something above the universe to put it in order," Friel asserts. Which of course raises the obvious follow-up question, "What was above God to put him in order?" If you say something else, then you have infinite regress. If you say 'nothing,' then your statement that everything must be ordered by something else is incorrect. If you make an exception for God, then you are guilty of special pleading. Friel is backed in a corner in every way.

For some reason, the moderator asked three different questions of Barker to explain his background of moving from a Christian to an atheist, which was two questions too many. Each time Barker had to explain that not only was he a Christian, he was a super-Christian, engaging in numerous Christian acts. This was no doubt to overcome Friel's ad hominem attack against Barker for being a false convert. I also speculate that some in the audience wanted to know Barker's religous background in order to dispel it. It's far too common for Christians to dismiss the beliefs of other Christians on the grounds that they aren't biblically correct. So if Dan had said he was raised a Catholic, the Protestants would have concluded he wasn't a real Christian, but if he said he was raised a Protestant, the Catholics would have reached the same conclusion. That's just speculation, of course, but that was the way I thought of deconverted Christians when I was a believer. "Oh, you didn't belong to my narrow doctrinal denomination? Well, no wonder you don't believe in God anymore." Again, that's just my speculation.

Friel was asked, "What about a third option--polytheism?" He started off by naming other religions, most of them monotheistic, and embarassed himself with his lack of fundamental knowledge of all of them. "If you live in China, you probably believe in Buddha." (An audience member complained that Buddha was not a god, to which Friel replied, "Whatever.") "If you live in India, you can carve out one of 280 million pieces of wood and worship it." (Never mind that Hindus do not worship pieces of wood.) "Or you can worship some Native American deity. (Many Native Americans worshipped the monotheistic Great Spirit.) "Or if you're in Saudi Arabia you can be told that Jesus doesn't exist and that he was just a prophet, not God." (A contradiction in one sentence, unless Friel believes that prophets don't exist.) "If all of these religions were true," Friel continued, "then God would have to be schizophrenic in order to accomodate all the different worshippers."

But again, the question was not, "Aren't all religions true?" The question was, "What about polytheism?" There are good arguments against polytheism which can be made by a montheist like Friel or an atheist like Barker. Why Friel didn't answer the question as asked is puzzling.

"Either all the other gods are right," Friel concluded, "or Jesus is right, or they are all wrong, but they can't be all right. Jesus won't allow for it."

Classic question-begging. First Friel dismisses the possibility of polytheism and just starts comparing different religions, so he ignored the question entirely. Next he listed the options in his fallacious trilemma: A) All the other gods are right (even though they are mutually exclusive and by definition can't be all right.) B) Jesus is right (Friel's obvious choice.) C) They are all wrong (which would be Barker's and the atheist's position.) "But they (the three options) can't be all right, because Jesus won't allow for it."

So according to Friel, since option A is logically incoherent, we have to choose option B--Jesus is right--because that's the only one that Jesus will allow. (But what about option C?) Yes, the Gospel of John has Jesus saying that he is the only way to God. But did John quote Jesus accurately? Difficult to say. And how did Jesus know that he was the only way to God? Who told him that? Again, difficult to say. Most importantly, is Jesus really the only way to God. The answer depends on whether you've already accepted Jesus, which begs the question. Mohammed said that he was the only way to God as well--does that mean the Christian is wrong and the Muslim is right?

The final question was offered to both participants: "Do you really think you can change someone's mind tonight?" Barker answered first and fell into a classic trap that I saw coming right away. He answered Yes, because in his experience of debating and advocating atheism people have later contacted him and thanked him for pointing out problems with their beliefs. Whether they fully deconverted to atheism or just eliminated bad thinking from their faith, they improved their minds.

The more he went on, however, the more Barker assumed an arrogant and dismissive tone, accusing hostile audience members of being ignorant of their bible and lying to themselves if they haven't had doubts in their "heart of hearts." Any gains he might have made advocating freethought and skepticism that night were possibly snuffed by this cold-hearted and insulting position.

Friel, however, finished with a win, saying that No, he can't change anyone's mind. He had been advocating all evening that God has to have the credit for everything--even the evil and suffering in our lives that God himself creates for us--so naturally he would claim that only God can change a person.


All in all, I ranked the quality of this debate a 5 out of 10. While I generally agree with Barker's position on the question, "Does God exist?" I was disappointed in some of his performance, and I outright winced hearing some of his responses. However, Barker did raise the standard objections to the claim that God exists, such as the problem of evil.

Friel, however, as the theist, had the burden of providing evidence for the existence of God. As such, he brought two pieces of evidence to the debate, which he repeated several times. First, God created the universe. (And who created God? "Nobody, because then that wouldn't make sense.") Second, we have a conscience. (And what about other religion's adherent's consciences? "They don't count because they aren't worshipping Jesus.") The rest of Friel's content consisted of sermonettes describing God. "He loves you and He died for you and He will send you to Hell if you don't believe all this and He has to have the credit for everything or He gets really peeved." This is as pointless as attempting to prove the existence of Santa Claus by describing his red suit, his magical sleigh and the names of his reindeer. A description of something is not evidence of something.

Friel also resorted to numerous threats in order to sway the audience to his view, and his
double-standard was obvious. The everlasting torture chamber called Hell is reasonable justice for victimless crimes such as blasphemy and disbelief, according to Friel, but if Barker complained about Hell's injustice, then Friel countered he wasn't trying to threaten anyone--and then later he would do exactly that by pleading with the audience that God won't always be patient with us. Either Hell is something to be saved from or it isn't; you can't have it both ways. If we are upset that people who, say, jaywalk should receive the death penalty, then we ought to be equally upset with whoever decided that jaywalkers deserve the death penalty. Friel wants people to be repulsed by Hell, but he doesn't want people to be repulsed by the very God who sends them there. It's irrelevant that God provides an escape clause from his justice--particularly since it involves the bloody torture and death of an innocent man--since if it wasn't for God's primitive and barbaric sense of justice in the first place there would be no need for redemption.

As a result, I have to conclude that Friel lost the debate. There may be a god--the question certainly wasn't settled during this debate--but Friel did not bring a sufficient case.


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