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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Debate Post Mortem


Like most humanists, I struggle to temper my antitheism with compassion for believers. I enjoy being challenged by viewpoints that help me to calibrate that balance, but accommodationist arguments too often strike me as intellectually dishonest. After the debate, the only change I think I'd  make to my opening statement would be to add some statistics on the preponderance of religious fundamentalism.

My opening statement holds up because I'd already considered the arguments my opponent raised. My opponent read of a list of authors who presumably would disagree with my point of view and asked me to stop him when I recognized one. He got no further than the first name. I knew three others and could have expanded his list.

My opponent and I have similar religious backgrounds. Both of us converted to Judaism as atheists, having been influenced by a metaphorical understanding of the supernatural. It really shouldn't surprise anyone that we'd read many of the same books. He knew the works of the four horsemen, but took a postmodernist stance against the hegemony of reason and science.

My opponent charged me with ignoring the diversity of religion, even though I’d addressed everything from religious fundamentalism to vague spiritual determinism. My opponent ignored rthe diversity of religion in characterizing my case against supernaturalism as a case against fundamentalism. As one member of my humanist contingent commented, "That doesn't make sense."

It’s hard to say how productive last night’s debate was. I was privy only to the reactions of my posse and to the show of hands that declared my opponent the winner. I'd predicted in my opening statement that my argument wouldn't resonate with believers. I had advocated for gauging agreement with the resolution before and after the debate, but a last-minute schedule change cost us our moderator. Another member of my humanist posse had this to say about the outcome: “I think many in the audience forgot what the goal of the debate was before considering who won the debate.”

My opponent's opening statement gave the impression that it was an improvised rebuttal of my own. His straw-man arguments made me wonder—out loud—whether he’d actually been paying attention. He took my critique of faith to mean that we must never take anything on faith—such as the structural integrity of the Interfaith Center. An astute audience member—also from my humanist posse—took him to task on his use of the word “faith.” That same audience member called my opponent's answer to his question "nonsense," and we on to say that my opponent "said a lot of words but with very little content."

My opponent and I were clearly working with very different definitions of religion. An audience member looked up a definition of religion on his mobile phone and asked us both how our respective arguments related to it. It was the same definition I'd used in my opening statement. My opponent’s definition, that religion is the means we have developed to cope with “radical interdependence,” didn't square at all.

I took the opportunity to stress the importance of using words in the way that they are most commonly understood. Another member of my humanist contingent had this to say about our divergent definitions: “This debate demonstrated a problem that occurs in most conversations about religion: that terms like faith and religion are slippery in their definitions, and it becomes too easy to talk past each other.”

Which definition is right? Plato's "noble lie" was an origin myth designed to make citizens more compliant. Myth and solidarity are both essential elements. As Seneca (4-65 CE) said, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." The noble lie insults the intelligence of the public and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In the U.S. 46%  believe that that Jesus will return in their lifetime and 41% believe that God created humans in our present form.

In his opening statement, my opponent stated that neither he nor I had the right to instruct anyone in how to cope with their own radical interdependence. I couldn't agree more, but I don't think either of us was that presumptuous. In defining religion this way, he did precisely what I had implored religious moderates not to do. He appropriated for religion what is universally human.

It would have been absurd to argue that religion should be abandoned abruptly because that contingency is not in the realm of possibility. Even Hitchens said that he wouldn't eradicate religion by fiat. He argued that people need to reason it out for themselves. I reminded the audience that I had not asked anyone to do anything contrary to their beliefs or before they are ready.

IThe problem with my opponent's definition of religion is that it is contrived, sentimental, esoteric and self-serving. Liberal supernaturalists might claim to agree with it for the sake of identifying common ground with nonbelievers, but such a concession amounts to putting lipstick on a god. Fundamentalists are unlikely to agree with the definition at all, and they have the same right to define religion for themselves. Being more faithful to the fundamentals of their respective religions, fundamentalists are arguably more authentically religious.

t seems reasonable to question what our response to radical interdependence gains from the belief that we are at the mercy of a cosmic intelligence. If turning to each other is the solution, who needs gods? A response to radical interdependence without supernaturalism is distinct enough from the common understanding of religion to be called by another name. Such a response already exists. It's known as humanism.

My opponent's arguments reminded me why I’d left a highly secularized form of religion behind. Identifying as religious just didn't feel intellectually honest. I've come to see antitheism as a call for intellectual honesty. That’s why I’m especially gratified by the following take-away from the humanist contingent.
I think the only thing that enhances well-being is truth. Tony argued for truth while revealing evidence that religion often uses methods that cannot achieve this. [My opponent] argued citing subjective ideals that cannot be known to find truth and can be found to facilitate delusion. 
Determining whether the debate led anyone to change from one position to another is more meaningful than asking who won. People will tend to leave sympathetic to the same position they had when they arrived—especially in questions of religion. The few who are swayed one way or the other are the best measure of success.

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