Sunday, March 28, 2010

Great God Debates: Part II

Generalizations and labels are tricksy for me. While I can see the value in generalized scientific claims like “an alkyl halide reacts with an alcohol in an Sn2 reaction” or “copper is an efficient conductor of electricity,” claims like “tomatoes are good” are markedly more problematic. Are all tomatoes good? What exactly does “good” even mean? Isn’t context important, especially in matters of taste?

I should have known that my attention to nuance and definitions would have caused problems in a debate over whether God exists or not, or whether religion is good for the world and its followers or not. All too frequently, the actual theme of the debate wouldn’t come up until the third or fourth speech. The debates were interesting, but they fundamentally fail when no specific questions can be asked or answered, since no position or thesis has to be defended.

The atheists did a horrible job of pinning down Dinesh D’Souza to a particular belief and then hammering him on it. When they mocked Jehovah as a bronze-age genocidal tyrant, D’Souza smoothly told them to talk to a rabbi about it, not him, since the Old Testament is a Jewish, not a Christian holy book. When they criticized the Catholic conception of the pope, D’Souza calmly explained that he, along with most Catholics, does not really believe in papal infallibility. Time after time, the atheists would criticize a common belief and put it to scorn, only to find that D’Souza was unwilling to stand by that belief himself.

While I was listening to the debates on God, I was endlessly impressed with Dinesh D’Souza’s style, skill, and charm. His debate tactics were first-rate; he had a way of convincing you he was answering the charges against him, even when he was utterly ignoring them. After every speech he gave, I felt like he was under control and would have my vote, even when I disagreed with some of his points.

The drawback of such a style, however, is that it leaves me cold once the charisma is forgotten. While I felt at the time that D’Souza won all but one of his debates hands down (the exception being Peter Singer’s), his message has none of the staying power that the atheist’s did because he never clearly staked his ground and defended it. I know what brands of Christianity D’Souza doesn’t believe in, but not which ones he does. He is agnostic about whether a resurrection will take place (and rightly demands that the atheists take the same position), he admits that a belief in Christ is not absolutely necessary for salvation, and he acknowledges that liberal humanism can serve as a basis for pro-social behavior (though he doubts it will ultimately last, and asserts that it owes its origins to religion). This moderate world view has the advantage of being, in all likelihood, true. It also avoids the polemic absurdities of his opponents who claimed that religion has always done far more bad than it has good. What it does not do, however, is justify or defend the type of religion that most religious people actually follow. I mentally voted for D’Souza after almost every debate. In so doing, however, I was silently agreeing that religion really should occupy only a peripheral place in daily and societal life. In refusing to argue with the often justified barbs of his adversaries, D’Souza retreated to an amorphous position where God, even if He or She does exist, is essentially worthless. He may have won the battles, but Dinesh D’Souza definitely lost the war.

1 comment:

Jon Ogden said...

I agree that D'Souza's version of Christianity is certainly ecumenical (among Christians), and that he does remain in the abstract. I don't know how he could avoid this and still have a chance of winning an argument, though. If he offends Evangelicals, Mormons, and Jews in favor of the Catholics then he makes his case even less appealing to what seems to be a religious minority in the college crowds.

I think D'Souza gives several flawed arguments amidst his smart ones, and I agree that he probably doesn't really believe some of the things he says, but I don't see how he could argue about God in any other way, since D'Souza is relying almost solely on external evidence (from history, philosophy, sociology, etc) and religion relies on internal evidence (faith). He says at the outset that he won't bank on faith in his speeches. Without resorting to the stance of faith how specific can he get?

I'm glad you liked the debates; they're pretty good, some of the best I've seen. I'd like to see debate at that level happening regularly on campuses all the time about a myriad of subjects. It'd be good for democracy.