A God Debate

Ken AshfordGodstuffLeave a Comment

It’s too long to republish here, but this email debate between atheist Sam Harris and evangelical Dennis Prager is an interesting (if not demanding) read.  The topic is the Existence of A Judeo-Christian God (or lack thereof).

It’s hard to be objective, but the flaws in Prager’s arguments stand out. 

Prager first does the strawman bit, telling Harris what atheists think and believe.  Harris smacks that down rather quickly.  The easiest mistake in debating any subject is trying to speak about your opponent’s position (rather than your own), because you never can, and you’re almost always wrong.  (Harris, I think, does this a little bit too, although it is not as glaring as when Prager does it).

Prager also commits the appeal to authority fallacy, pointing to an eminent genome scientist who became a born again Christian.  Harris dismisses this as he should: this scientist did not come to believe in God through science, but through an epiphany while watching a waterfall.  There is, in Harris’ view, no inconsistency between being a scientist and being a believer, but the fact that some people are both does not mean that God exists.

Prager also makes an argument about the usefulness of believing in God — for society.  Harris sidesteps that issue (saying it would be an interesting debate in a different context), but points out that while society might benefit from believing in God, that does not mean that God exists.  Harris writes:

The fact that certain religious beliefs might be useful in no way suggests their legitimacy. I can guarantee, for instance, that the following religion, invented by me in the last ten seconds, would be extraordinarily useful. It is called "Scientismo." Here is its creed: Be kind to others; do not lie, steal, or murder; and oblige your children to master mathematics and science to the best of their abilities or 17 demons will torture you with hot tongs for eternity after death. If I could spread this faith to billions, I have little doubt that we would live in a better world than we do at present. Would this suggest that the 17 demons of Scientismo exist? Useful delusions are not the same thing as true beliefs.

In a brief discussion about burden-shifting, Harris brings in Bertrand Russell’s teapot example, which I had never heard:

This defense of religion is one that Bertrand Russell demolished a century ago with his famous "teapot argument." As I can’t improve on it, and you clearly have forgotten it amid the many challenges to piety you successfully parried "in high school," here it is again:

"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."

If a valid retort to Russell has ever seen the light of day, I’m not aware of it.

The faithful do resist the bogus certainties of religion—when they come from any religion but their own. Every Christian knows what it is like to find the claims of Muslims to be deeply suspect. Everyone who is not a Mormon knows at a glance that Mormonism is an obscenely stupid system of beliefs. Everyone has rejected an infinite number of spurious claims about God. The atheist simply rejects one more.

I thought that was interesting.

Prager ultimately admits that nothing can prove God’s existence (which I should think, is glaringly obvious to believers and non-believers alike), but fails to respond to the implicit follow-up question: then why does he believe in his God rather than the deities worshipped by other cultures, past and present? 

Anyway, both participants clearly went into the civil debate knowing full well that they wouldn’t change anyone’s mind.  But it made for interesting reading.