Tuesday, April 27, 2010

McCormick vs. DiSilvestro at Bridgeway Christian Church

This is a debate between two personal friends and professional academics, and much like the Miller / George debate back in 2003 it has an unusually cordial feel to it. No cheap shots or personal jabs here, which is refreshing after listening to a few too many D'Souza debates.

Opening Statements
DiSilvestro leads with WLC's four facts supposedly established by NT sources (i.e. Paul and Mark):

1) Jesus was buried honorably in the Arimathean’s tomb
2) On the following Sunday this very same tomb was found empty
3) Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Jesus after his death and burial
4) The original disciples believed that Jesus arose from the dead

He goes on to infer that the best explanation for these "facts" lifted from NT sources is the explanation given in the NT itself, that is, "Jesus is risen -- Halleujah!" It is somehow taken to be an excercise in logic that when one omits the resurrection from the gospels, one finds a resurrection shaped hole in the narrative. Essentially, DiSilvestro's argument is that the NT writers were documenting history rather than making myths. This strikes me as more than a bit question begging, especially since he fails to address the key problem which is how one can determine which bits of ancient writings are history and which are mythical. All told, however, he runs the so-called minimal facts argument fairly well.

McCormick leads with a general approach to determining historical veracity, with a timeline chart showing the relevant historical documents, the events they purport to depict, and the gradual process of NT canonization. He goes on to make a fairly straightforward point about signal degradation over time, using cell phone towers as an illustration, and then goes on to take a decent stab at the probability of any given miracle report being accurate. Finally, he makes a few arguments from higher Biblical scholarship as to the reliability of the gospel accounts, and then runs out of time.

Follow On Arguments
DiSilvestro runs a few typical defenses of the reliability of Christian Scripture, for example, he defends the process of canonization by discussing a few of the criteria used to select which books were included in the New Testament. He also waves away gospel inconsistencies as invariably minor and thus compatible with the discrepancies common to eyewitness accounts of the same event.

McCormick doesn’t rebut DiSilvestro but talks again of historical methodology. He does bring up a very trenchant and persuasive comparison between the testimonials of Salem witchcraft and the testimonials of Jesus’ resurrection - in both cases one might attempt to use historical resources to evaluate the truth of a supernatural claim. This particular line of debate will be pursued further at a later date.

Closing Arguments
Both debaters manage to close well and recap their arguments, though they also bring up some new points. McCormick closes on a excellent question, which was essentially whether the historical evidence is so strong as to suggest that an all-powerful deity could not have made it far more convincing.

Overall, this was a fine debate, with both sides summarizing the usual arguments. I'd love to see these guys do a few more debates.

See also:
Luke Muelhauser's review
John Loftus review

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ehrman vs. Brown in Columbus, OH

Michael Brown and Bart Ehrman debated the problem of evil at the Ohio State University in April of 2010. The audio is available from Brian Auten as an mp3.

One of the best features of this debate is that it is narrowly focused on a particular topic, which prevents a certain degree of vagueness and Gish-galloping.

Brown basically makes the case that suffering is not a problem because any given instance of suffering is instrumental to some greater good, whether that would be human free will, personal repentance, or else some unknown and unknowable divine purpose. He also defends a traditional approach to Christian scripture (e.g. he takes the Book of Job as a single narrative contra the conclusions of textual analyses) and makes the case that human sin is really the ultimate problem on Earth, leading to privation, starvation, and natural disasters and epidemics as well. He makes about as strong a case as possible, given the material that he has to work from.

Ehrman leads with the idea that the Bible is not unified in its treatment of major theological issues, including the problem of evil. He starts with the view found in Amos (and the prophets generally) that collective suffering is the result of a collective failure to follow God's commands, and exposes the collegiate audience to a few choice verses which they probably never endured in their Sunday School lessons. He goes on the outline the view of suffering found in the Book of Job, which is essentially that suffering is a test of character, and that one should never question "acts of God" understood here in the sense the phrase is usually used in insurance policies. He also points out the view of the apocalyptic books that suffering is the direct result of evil spiritual forces acting in the world. He finally makes the point that God sometimes directly intervenes to prevent human suffering, according to the Biblical accounts.

On rebuttal, both speakers go at each other with an unusual degree of unaffected passion, which makes for interesting listening. At times, this part gets painfully personal.

Overall, both speakers to a fine job of making their respective cases, but do not expect an in-depth presentation or rebuttal of the various philsophical theodicies, such as Hick's soul-making theodicy or Plantinga's assertion that it may be logically impossible to actualize a world with moral good but without moral evil. Instead, the speakers focus on real-world problems and scriptural (rather than theological) answers to those problems.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Barr vs Behe at Wheaton College

This debate between two Christian biologists is nothing worth writing home about. Behe makes the argument of the creationists cdesign proponentsists that if something is complex and functional and difficult to explain naturally that it is time to stop trying to find a natural explanation and start looking for a supernatural one. Barr, to his small credit, points out that this is a terrible idea and would have prevented all manner of scientific breakthroughs. No one, however, makes the case that methodological naturalism is a useful approach because metaphysical naturalism happens to be true, and thus the debate fails to get off the ground as a true clash of worldviews. Instead, what we have here is a debate between one Christian who argues that we should make the leap of faith to supernatural explanations as soon as we get stuck on something complex and functional, and another Christian (not even a biologist) who argues that we should make the leap of faith to supernatural explanations after doing a bit of science first. My advice is to take a pass on this giant mug of lukewarm weak tea.

Hitchens vs. D'Souza in South Bend, IN

The motion for this one was "Religion is the Problem," which somehow seems to me a bit overbroad. Doesn't really matter, though, because the interlocutors weren't too concerned with staying on topic.

Main Arguments
As one might expect, Hitchens leads with the abuses of the Catholic Church, by way of rebutting remarks made in Rome comparing the publication of atheist books to the waging of a pogrom. He notes that pogroms are not usually lead by deaf and dumb children, a somewhat unsubtle reference to the worst sexual abuses ever covered up by a major world religion. I wonder how long it took Hitch to come up with the most offensive subject he could think to bring up at a bastion of Catholic learning. Hitch goes on to run his usual arguments about the primitive origins of religion and the seemingly haphazard and chaotic nature of the universe (e.g. galaxies colliding, stars collapsing, species going extinct, etc.) and calls into question the idea that everything is created for our benefit.

D'Souza notes upfront that Hitchens' arguments don't directly address the central topic of the debate, whether religion does more good than harm. This is true, and a bit disappointing, because Hitch spent a decent portion of God is Not Great making a detailed case about how religion causes harm to societies and individuals. He then goes on to attack evolutionary biology for not yet understanding how life arose on Earth, and runs his usual knob-twiddling universal fine-tuning argument. He also runs an argument that individual acts of altruism (towards non-kin) cannot possibly have evolved, thereby implicitly assuming that every human action is genetically determined and that altruism towards non-kin cannot possibly be adaptive, and throws in the moral lawgiver argument and an appeal to popular consensus (which sounds a bit like a nod to reformed epistemology) to boot. At this point, he is pretty much Gish-galloping, raising as many arguments as possible in just a few minutes.

Rebuttal (5-mins each)
Hitchens leads with the problem of falsifiability, and hammers on that topic for a bit. D'Souza retorts that the Hebrew theory of creation was indeed falsifiable, but later scientifically verified, and that the Hebrew prophecy of a reconstituted Jewish nation-state was also fulfilled.

Overall, this was a fairly weak debate on both sides. Hitch rambles too much and D'Souza was too busy galloping to really make any detailed arguments worthy of explication and analysis. I'd skip this one and listen to other events featuring either or both of these speakers.

  • Unbeliever rating: 2.5 stars
  • Believer rating: 2.0 stars
  • Overall rating: 2.5 stars

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ehrman vs. Evans in Kansas City, MO

In this debate (video, audio) Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans debated the question "Does the New Testament Misquote Jesus" using a somewhat unusual format by which the interlocutors on both sides are asked to reply to a series of seven distinct and focused questions:

Q1. Are the gospels reliable?
Q2. Do the gospels accurately preserve the teaching of Jesus?
Q3. Do the gospels accurately preserve the activities of Jesus?
Q4. Do the gospels contain eyewitness tradition?
Q5. Do arch├Žologists and historians use the gospels as sources?
Q6. Have the gospels been accurately preserved down through the centuries?
Q7. Do manuscript variants of the gospels effect significant Christian doctrines?

Ehrman repeatedly encourages the audience to go back and reread the gospels, carefully and in parallel, comparing the passages describing a particular story (e.g. the empty tomb narrative) across all of the available sources. He also poses a number of interesting questions for personal study, such as: If Jesus went around openly claiming to be God incarnate (as in the gospel of John) then why did the authors of the synoptics miss this important theological detail, and why was he never stoned for blasphemy? Ehrman points our various other significant discrepancies in the gospel narratives, e.g. Jesus was silent throughout the passion narrative in gMark (up until the outburst on the cross) but he behaved very differently throughout the same events as depicted in gLuke and gJohn.

Evans, for his part, essentially maintains that the gospels are essentially accurate histories, citing various Christian biblical scholars for support. He also makes a couple interesting arguments from the internal evidence of the gospels relative to the live issues in the church around the close of the first century.

I would have preferred a bit more direct cross-examination between the speakers, but the question by question format has its virtues, for example, it was refeshing that the speakers stayed closely on topic. This was overall a scholarly and polite debate, and both men fairly effectively made the strongest points available to their side. I heartily commend this one for your viewing/listening pleasure.