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.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bomb-sniffing dowsers are junk

The Iraqi Interior Ministry inspector general finally admitted that the ADE-651 bomb-sniffing dowsing devices don't work.

The ADE-651 was sold as a hand-held wand that supposedly swiveled when in the presence of dynamite or other explosives.  But like water-dowsing the device is nothing but a scam.  ATSC, a British company that manufactured the ADE-651, won million-dollar contracts selling the device to the Iraqi Interior Ministry for as much as $60,000 apiece.  U.S. military officials called the device a scam for years, and the British government has jailed the ATSC Chief Jim McCormick for fraud and has banned the company from exporting more.

Initially, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani defended the wands, saying it had saved countless lives.  But people actually using the device knew better.  Iraqi policeman Mahammed Shaker said he knew they were a scam: ""They don't achieve anything. It's all a show for the public."  The Iraqi Ministry's inspector general, Aqeel Al Turaihi reported that "many lives have been lost due to the wands utter ineffectiveness."

However, despite the criticisms, the lack of results, and the tragedy of the situation, the ADE-651 units have not been pulled from checkpoints across Iraq, and the official who signed the $85 million no-bid contract has been granted immunity.

U.S. Lt. Col Dennis Yates was very critical of ATSC's McCormick and his worthless device: "
This piece of junk did, in fact, significantly contribute to an unknown -- and pathetically large -- loss of innocent lives. The guy who bought it should rot in one of the stinking jails that dot Baghdad."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

If Paul's Epistle to the Galatians was Published in Christianity Today

This is a funny article:
Dear CT:

I’ve seen other dubious articles by Paul Apostle in the past, and frankly I’m surprised you felt that his recurrent criticisms of the Church deserved to be printed in your magazine. Mr. Apostle for many years now has had a penchant for thinking he has a right to “mark” certain Christian teachers who don’t agree with his biblical position. Certainly I commend him for desiring to stay faithful to God’s word, but I think he errs in being so dogmatic about his views to the point where he feels free to openly attack his brethren. His attitude makes it difficult to fully unify the Church, and gives credence to the opposition’s view that Christians are judgmental, arrogant people who never show God’s love.

Ken Groener; San Diego, CA

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

New Jack Chick tract! Love that Money!

I'm always amused at Jack Chick tracts, and I'm embarrassed at how seriously I took them as a Christian youth.  The latest tract is called "Love That Money!" and it's as subtle as a monster movie attack on New York City.

From the top:

A guy who doesn't want to get involved actually says, out loud, "I don't want to get involved."

Demons need rest.

Joe's boss doesn't know smarm when it smacks him in the face.

Despite being told that Annie's prayer will be answered, Annie's prayer is not answered.

A stock market crash will make a wealthy executive penniless overnight.

Satan manipulates lotteries, so much that it's called 'overdone.'

Angels have power over demons, but only at particular times.

Aunt Louise is not very bright when it comes to her nephew Joe. He refuses to keep in contact with her, but she leaves him everything in her will.

At first the devil wants Joe rich and in power on Earth, but it turns out he just wants Joe in Hell.

Well done, Jack, you've managed to create your own parallel universe, one in which the rules we live by here in our world don't apply.