Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Conradi vs. Paget in Sydney, Austrailia

This debate may not be the most substantive or best argued one on the internets, but it is certainly a worthy listen. At least three things set it apart from the others:

1) Not the same old voices making the same exact arguments you've heard so many times before.
2) Not the usual audience, but rather a rowdy group of Aussie sceptics who laugh out loud.
3) Not the usual debate framing of vague proposition vs. its negation, but rather a head-to-head between two very different worldviews

(Bonus: Aussie accents!)

Paget promotes universal fine-tuning and makes an argument from Christian Scripture, basically saying that the texts make more sense in terms of historiography rather than mythmaking. Conradi does a fairly good job of picking apart Paget's arguments, and makes the case for withholding assent to any of Paget's generally theistic or specifically Christian claims.

Around 27 minutes in, Conradi spins out a parody of the major points of Christian dogma which is both spot-on and hilarious. That bit alone was worth the price of admission. Towards the end, though, he overplays the parallels between Jesus and the other dying-and-rising gods of the contemporary mystery cults, without so much as referencing original sources. That part was a bit embarrassing. Overall, though, it was a good performance from both sides.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rutherford vs. Hitchens on the radio (UK)

Adam Rutherford and Peter Hitchens discussed various matter on the radio show Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio.

They don't actually get into the God question right off, but instead discuss the respective values of Anglicanism and Secularism. This is a cordial but not particularly interesting discussion, especially for listeners outside of the UK.

About 18 minutes in, Peter Hitchens makes some remarkably broad claims on behalf of all of the world's Christians. For example:

Atheists constantly assume things about Christians . . . they think Christians think there can be no morality of any kind without God, which we don't think.
Really? Evidently, Peter Hitchens is unfamiliar with any number of Christian apologists (many of whom far more generally well known than himself) who say precisely such things. No matter how cultured your voice and how Oxford your intonation, you sound like an idiot when you say something this badly wrong.

There is so much diversity within Christianity that it is foolish to make blanket claims of any sort about what Christians do and believe, but in this particular case it is doubly so, because the argument that morality is contingent upon God is quite common in Christian apologetics (from Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Bill Craig) and indeed the whole of divine command theory rests upon the assumption that moral commands exist not as propositional truths about the world, but rather as imperatives handed down from another realm altogether. Rutherford sort of gets around to making this point, but not particularly well. A bit later, Hitchens implies that the source of moral authority for British society is (and should remain) rooted in Biblical doctrine, thus hinting at divine command theory himself.

They go on about abortion for awhile, and this segment proves wholly unenlightening, because the speakers pretty much talk past each other and Hitchens gets all sanctimonious and huffy. Also, this is the bit where the show runs afoul of Godwin's law. Annoying.

They then go on for a bit about the proper role of Christianity in public policy and in defining the British character. Here, Hitchens manages to sound more convincing than his opponent, even though they are both avoiding bringing up any sort of relevant evidence.

Overall, this debate generated more heat than light, as one might well expect for a radio talk show. Skip this one unless you've nothing else to do.

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hitchens vs. Haldane at Oxford University

Christopher Hitchens debated John Haldane on the topic of "Secularism and Faith in the Public Square" at Oxford (link). The debate was originally supposed to address whether it would be better to choose a secularist or faith-based approach to public policy.

Staying closely on topic, Hitchens describes and acclaims the exceptional American experiment of strictly separating church and state, and goes on to make the case that the most secular nations are (not coincidentally) the most free and prosperous. Naturally, he also takes a bit of time to recite a few of the abuses to which the priestly classes are prone when they are provided political power.

Haldane, for his part, lays out a 'structural map' in the vaguest possible terms, and manages somehow to say very little of consequence a rather learned way. He separates procedural values from substantive values, and notes that we as a society must have a conception of the good, but we cannot get there because many disagree on significant ethical issues. He also claims that fundamental moral notions cannot be grounded in secular moral philosophy but may easily be grounded in the idea that humans are created in the image of a god, but fails to make any argument to show why one approach is superior to another.

On cross, Haldane goes from vague to incoherent, while Hitchens gets sharper and more cutting. At this point, one is tempted to look away from the spectacle of a clearly learned philosopher failing to stake out a position which might substantively separate him from his interlocutor. They both agree that theocracy is a terrible idea, and Haldane does not point out any specific ways in which he would like to see faith become more useful and pervasive in the public square. Nativity displays? Faith schools? Church tithes from tax dollars? For the love of your Papist God, Haldane, please make a stand somewhere and defend your side of the argument! Had he chosen to do so, they might have had an interesting back and forth.
  • Unbeliever rating: 4.5
  • Believer rating: 3.0
  • Overall rating: 3.5

Friday, May 7, 2010

Robert Price vs James White in Innisbrook, FL

I had to actually purchase this one. If you don’t want to do so, e-mail me and I’ll have you over to watch it in my living room, free of charge.

Price leads off by noting a few common apologetic arguments and take a few pokes at them. Memorably, he questions whether the early disciples were really akin a first-century Snopes, assiduously tracking down and debunking any Jesus myths which went beyond their actual experiences. He also outlines some of the processes by which pious fictions are transformed into holy writ and giving examples from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

White leads off with an argument against the principle of analogy in favor of internal consistency rather than a Bayesian approach to the a priori likelihood of seemingly miraculous events. He then has a go at Price's view of the authorship and transmission of the Biblical texts. Basically, he is saying that extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence. White goes on to argue, in effect, that it is implausible and unlikely that NT authors would borrow from contemporary Greek religions, whereas it is not implausible and unlikely that actual miracles took place. He makes this argument by stealthily incorporating the principle of analogy as to the former phenomenon, while attacking the principle of analogy as to the latter. He makes a few other arguments, none of which are particularly original, and most of which are directed at tearing down Price's work rather than building an affirmative case for Biblical exceptionalism.

Overall, it was a fine debate. Both men presented some of the best available arguments for his side. I was not, however, such an amazing debate that it was worth spending actual money to watch on mp4 video. I'd advise watching the free Price and Ehrman debates online, which cover pretty much the same ground.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Law vs. Alexander on the radio (UK)

Stephen Law is a philosopher and children's author who advocates for critical thinking. Denis (rhymes with “menace”) Alexander is a brilliant professional pseudo-scientist, working within prestigious centres of academia to merge the ideas of methodological naturalism with those of theological supernaturalism. In this episode of Unbelievable, they discuss whether science has made theology superfluous by now. Or rather, they were supposed to do so. In reality, they mostly talk about philosophy of religion rather than the ongoing border disputes between the realms of science and faith.

Alexander ( claims that Paul of Tarsus was a first century Popperian, who made falsifiable claims about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that Christianity is generally an evidence-based faith. He goes on to make a few allusions to the fine-tuning argument, but he won’t go so far as to call it a proof. He also argues, oddly enough, that perhaps only evolution via natural selection can possibly create minds having morally significant free will.

Law ( runs his trademark Evil God Hypothesis argument, a twist upon classical theodicy which I always enjoy and admire. He also brings up a few philosophical problems with fine-tuning arguments and conceptual problems with the idea of od typically defined, “It's just conceptual gibberish as far as I can tell.”

As usual, the young host jumps in on the side of theism, making this one-on-one into a two-on-one, which is evidently how the producers of Premier Christian Radio prefer to wage intellectual battle. Next week, it will be three to one against Philip Pullman, so I suppose Stephen Law has it relatively easy by comparison.

Overall, this was a fun discussion, covering a vast range of religious philosophical issues, but alas the discussion never focused on any particular set of arguments for long enough to get past the initial stages of argument and counter-argument, and thereby dig down and expose the underlying premises upon which the interlocutors really disagree.