Monday, November 22, 2010

Debate: William Dembski vs. Christopher Hitchens - "Does a good God exist?"

Last week I attended a debate between William Dembski and Christopher Hitchens, hosted by the Biblical Worldview Institute, a conference held by Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas. The subject of the debate was "Does a Good God exist?"

William Dembski is a Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and has authored several books on Intelligent Design.

Christopher Hitchens is an English-American author and journalist, a public intellectual who has written several books in politics and religious criticism.

The audience was primarily the middle-school and high-school members of the private Christian school, and by itself it is impressive that the administrators would invite a well-known atheist to speak to the students. They certainly wouldn't have allowed the same at the private school I attended as a teenager. The debate was also open to the public for those interested. The comment was made that given the younger audience, the debaters agreed to shorten their statements, although the entire debate was still nearly three hours long.

There are two aspects to the debate I'll address: content and delivery. Debates are unlike essays or speeches, in that they invoke a sense of theater. A debater can have a rock-solid message, but if his performance is lackluster the message falls flat. Conversely, a natural showman can whip a crowd into a frenzy with mere platitudes and buzzwords.

Hitchens had the opening statement, whose content did not address the topic, does a good god exist, but was instead more of a justification for disbelief. He correctly explained that an expanding universe is evidence that this universe was not created for humanity's benefit, and he recommended Francis Collins' book The Language of God as a Christian's embrace of the Theory of Evolution. Hitchens shared that he disbelieves in God because he's opposed to the notion a permanent authority, "a king who cannot be opposed, a judge who can not be appealed." He encouraged the students to shed the ideas that we are the purpose of the universe and that we should be in thrall to a dictator.

Dembski's opening statement was almost entirely an argument against evolution by natural selection. His remarks made it clear that evolution leads to atheism, so his method of proving that God exists is to discount evolution. Dembski mentioned several well-worn statements about Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution, such as the complexity of the cell and the patterns in nature.

Hitchens' rebuttal noted that atheism is nearly as old as humanity and has thus long preceded evolution. Hitchens wondered out loud why religious organizations are so hostile to scientific discoveries, and he also reminded the audience that millions of Christians around the world accept evolution as God's method of creation.

For Dembski's rebuttal, he agreed that atheism may predate evolution, but it doesn't predate naturalism, which is the larger threat to religion. Finally, Dembski began addressing the topic, the existence of a good God. First he claimed there are two problems we humans confront: a Problem of Evil, in which evil exists in a world managed by a good God, and the Problem of Good, the notion that good exists at all. Dembski asserted that the Problem of Good outweighs the Problem of Evil, but didn't spend much time defining the Problem of Good or why it is a problem at all. He also employed the time-worn argument that for us to declare God evil must mean that God violated a standard, but since God *is* the standard, the charge is incoherent. He also cautioned that our desire for evil to be eradicated *now* doesn't apply to a timeless God. Too bad for us time-bound humans, I suppose.

The debate moved to the Q and A section, where audience members submitted questions for the two speakers. Curiously, the Q and A devolved into a back-and-forth such that only a couple of questions were asked, but the moderator said that several of the questions were addressed during their repartee. However, the questions that the moderator asked also weren't related to the debate, but were questions about evolution or the Big Bang.

All in all, I was a little disappointed in Hitchen's content, although he certainly addressed the debate topic far more than Dembski. While Hitchens may have shortened his statements, I'm not sure he simplified his content for the young teenagers in the room. I've read several of his books and articles and while I can't fault his intelligence and sparkling vocabulary, given his British accent and obscure subject matter, I'm afraid most of his message went right over the heads of the Twitter-texting crowd.

However, Hitchens' performance made up for the obscurity of his message. Looking at him, you couldn't tell he was suffering from Stage 4 esophogus cancer with the exception of his fashionably hairless skull. He seemed strong and alert, and I was glad to see him strong and vigorous. Initially his performance was reserved, but grew more comfortable as the debate wore on, and his closing arguments were worth the price of admission. Dembski made the mistake of extolling the virtues of Mother Teresa (of whom Hitchens has a low opinion of) and by claiming the Nazis were secularists. These seemed to draw the ire of Hitchens, understandably not as comfortable arguing the ins and outs of evolution. Instead, he closed by encouraging the young people in the room to think for themselves and that any offer from God that you can't reject is not an offer but a threat.

However, all of my criticisms of Hitchen's content and performance are swept away in the lackluster display put on by Dembski. For starters, Dembski's comments were read directly from notes, and were about as interesting as you would expect when someone reads a speech at you. Furthermore, the notes appear to have been written for another opponent, namely Richard Dawkins. When arguing against evolution, Dembski quoted Dawkins several times, and even referred to Christopher Hitchens as "Richard . . . Hitchens" more than once. Dembski complained that once he started working with Intelligent Design his career began to suffer because, "Ideology rules the debate." Actually, Dr. Dembski, the reason your scientific career has suffered since you hitched your wagon to ID is because ID is bad science, not because you are a Christian. There are few countries in the world where it is more acceptable to be a Christian, so your martyr's plea falls on deaf ears.

In short, while both debaters' performance could have been more tailor-made for the audience, Hitchens won this debate handily. Dembski's performance was dull, barely addressed the topic, and was riddled with fallacies.


deus ex machina said...
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deus ex machina said...

Thanks for the review.

Hahaha... "Dembski complained that once he started working with Intelligent Design his career began to suffer"

What fool would bring up Mother Theresa in the presence of Hitchens!? I think that you're right in your suggestion that Dembski didn't prepare specifically for a debate with Hitches.