Last night at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York, I carpooled over with a couple of friends from the Capital Region Atheists & Agnostics meetup to attend a debate between Matt Dillahunty, president of the Atheist Community of Austin and regular host/co-host of The Non-Prophets and The Atheist Experience, and Jay Lucas, an evangelical Christian apologist and director of The Isaac Backus Project, which is described as “an apologetics ministry dedicated to equipping and encouraging Christians to declare and defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
We had a blast, and the two hours to Binghamton flew by as we talked about our religious upbringings, how we became atheists, what our families believe and how they reacted to us giving up our faiths, where we grew up, vacations we went on, and more.
Before the debate, which was hosted in cooperation by the Campus Bible Fellowship and the Binghamton Secular Student Alliance, we met up for drinks and dinner with the fine folks from the Binghamton Skeptical Society, the Binghamton Secular Student Alliance, the Cortland Secular Student Alliance, and the Atheists of Binghamton. Matt came along for a few hours, chatting and being generally congenial and cordial, then ducked out to go make some last preparations before the debate – but not before I snagged a photo with him:
He is… not as tall as I expected.
The subject of the debate was “Does God Exist.” Oddly enough, however, Jay didn’t actually defend his claim at all. Jay’s a presuppositionalist, which means that he presupposes that God is necessary for us to be able to reason about anything at all. This means that Jay’s argument was, in a nutshell, “God exists, therefore God.” I don’t think this is an unfair representation at all; he went out of his way to tell us that the debate wasn’t actually between a theist and an atheist, but between two theists, one of whom was just suppressing his belief in God. (Leave it to a Christian apologist to think that the Christian god is more important or interesting to an atheist than any other.)
Having begun the debate with his (totally unsupported and intellectually insulting) conclusion, Jay proceeded to argue against atheism, using a fast and furious collection of “appeal to consequences” fallacies. Basically, he argued that if there is no god, then there can be no ultimate, absolute, objective way to determine right and wrong, and therefore any action can be justified and no one can actually be correct to say that they’ve been wronged. Even if we were to cede Jay’s point, it doesn’t matter. It brings us no closer to demonstrating that a god exists just because bad stuff might be true if one doesn’t.
About 30 seconds before the closing of his second set of opening remarks – that is, after 27.5 minutes out of 28 – Jay went on to insist that he wasn’t saying that atheists were wrong just because all this bad stuff might be true. (Riiiiiight.) He concluded by saying that atheists have to borrow from Christian morality to be able to reason out answers to moral questions. The vast majority of his arguments had to do with morality, rather than the existence of a god, so it’d be hard to say he won this debate. He did make a point of telling people to recall the worst thing that was ever done to them or their family members, and then say that if atheists are right, then there’s no way they could really to be right to say that what was done was immoral.
It was an interesting method of slandering atheists: say that if there is no god, then we can’t make correct moral justifications, but word it such that it sounds like you’re saying only atheists couldn’t justify their moral claims. For example, he said something along the lines of “in an atheistic universe, without an absolute source of moral truth, atheists could rationalize any action at all.” Never mind that, in an atheistic universe, atheists and theists are on the same playing field; Jay was playing on a fear of atheists to the Christians in the audience. When he cross-examined Matt to ask him if he thought humans had intrinsic rights, like an intrinsic right to life, it became clear that Jay’s arguments were really nothing more than an attempt to appeal to his audience’s emotions. “Atheists don’t believe we have a God-given right to life? How horrible! They must be wrong!” I can imagine them thinking. Never mind that Matt’s responses to that question were utterly irrelevant to whether or not there is a god; if Jay could shame his atheist opponent in the eyes of his Christian audience, that was all he had to do to convince them.
Matt was in fine form, essentially ignoring Jay’s non-arguments and instead talking about how secular moral systems work, how human moral understanding has progressed, how simply saying “I have an absolute source of morality” doesn’t mean you really do, and so on. In his cross-examination of Jay, he asked if Jay believed the Bible was a perfect moral guide, then asked why it endorsed slavery. Jay’s response was that it didn’t endorse it; it regulates it. Matt pointed out how the Ten Commandments ban things like worshipping other gods, killing, and stealing, but somehow in the top 10 rules – the only part of the Bible that God supposedly physically wrote himself and handed down to humanity – things like “thou shalt not own other people,” “thou shalt not rape,” and “thou shalt not molest children” didn’t even merit a passing mention. Jay rather lamely replied that eventually, God will rid the world of sin, but for now, God is patient and merciful. This doesn’t paint God in a very good light, considering that it means his own arbitrary timing is more important than the suffering of his creatures.
All in all, the debate was bizarre, but entertaining nonetheless. Jay refused to even touch the subject of the debate, other than to base all his arguments on the assumption that the answer is “yes.” Matt was good at responding to the things that Jay said, but since they weren’t on the subject in the first place, I’m sure he was as frustrated about it as I was.
Afterward, Matt and Jay stuck around a while to talk to audience members. For the most part, it was split down “party” lines: the atheists talked to Matt and the Christians talked to Jay. I made a point of thanking Jay for making the trek from Ohio to come talk to us; regardless of his position, I respected that he’d sacrificed his time to come to speak. A Christian student asked Matt what it was that made him lose his faith, and Matt gave her the short version (which is really similar to my own journey, except that he was actually raised as a fundamentalist and I just became one in college).
It was a nice chance to reach out and meet some like-minded people from around the state. We met a lot of great people and had some good discussions. On the ride back, I and one of my friends talked about what we thought of the debate, while Hank Fox (our other partner in crime) snoozed in the back seat. (You can read about his own impressions over at his blog, Blue Collar Atheist.)
I’m pretty sure the debate will be posted online eventually. If so, I’ll post the video here.