Thursday, January 29, 2009

Barker vs. D'Souza in Minneapolis, MN

Dan Barker and Dinesh D’Souza are both articulate, fun, and easy on the ears, which is a big plus.  For the most part, they lack (or avoid) the supercilious tones and lofty language which unfortunately all too endemic to these sort of debates. 

Barker leads with his secular conception of ethics, that is, avoidance of harm.  He points out that ethics are necessarily rational (requires some thought) and situational (i.e. relative rather than absolute) and must be more than blindly following a list of rules handed down by an authority, a position he derisively refers to as “toddler morality.”  He also points out the exceeding virtue of various skeptics and unbelievers, both classical and modern.  He ultimately fails, however, to make a solid argument in favor of a secular conception of morality as opposed to a sacred morality, though he does perhaps make the case that neither version of morality results in a uniform and consistent set of moral principles.

D’Souza makes a fascinating and relatively unusual argument that the ethics of Christianity lead to the cultural superiority of Christendom, which points to the truth and superiority of Christian belief.  He claims that when atheists behave virtuously, it may be because they grew up in a culture inundated with traditional Christian values.  Here is a representative sample, “These are the virtues of our civilization, and the question I want to ask is, ‘What is the source of these virtues?’ in other words if you make a list of these virtues, and take a look at the list I think you’ll realize if you have any historical sense whatsoever that these virtues came into the West (and in some cases into the world) because of Christianity.”  Remarkably, D’Souza includes the following virtues in this part of his argument:

  • Sanctity of human life
  • Scientific progress
  • Individualism
  • Abolitionism
  • Compassion
  • Feminism

Now, one can easily make a case that each and every one of these virtues get some treatment in the Bible (e.g. Jesus elevated women well beyond what one expects of a first century Jewish rabbi) but it is equally true that all branches of the Christian church have opposed each of these virtues on any number of quite significant occasions, at least as often as they moved these values forward.  Barker points this out, although not nearly in the level of detail which one might hope. 

D’Souza also makes the argument that only societies founded on Marxism truly represent the ethics of godlessness, because these societies incorporated godlessness as a core tenet of their political culture.  This is a very difficult argument to meet, because it is undoubtedly true that blind faith in the prophet Marx and his prophecies have caused at least as much human suffering as any (other) religious system.  About the best one can do here is to point out that the post-enlightenment western philosophies of rationalism and freethought bear as little resemblance to the irrational faith of Marxism as Christianity does. 

The rebuttal periods are really quite fun, both debaters do a fine job of more or less directly addressing each other’s arguments without too much in the way of misconstrual or prevarication.  Indeed, this debate is relatively free of such things, at least until near the end of the Q&A, in which D’Souza attributes to Barker an impulse to believe and practice Dostoyevsky’s claim that, “If God is not, everything is permitted.”  The implicit premise in any argument claiming that metaphysical naturalism implies moral nihilism must be that the only possible reason to be moral is the fear of divine retribution.  I had thought that “toddler morality” is perhaps too strong a phrase for the theistic position on the nature of ethics, but it would seem that D’Souza has chosen to flesh out this strawman on his own.

All told, I’d give each of these guys four stars, and I look forward to hearing more of them.  

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