A Call for Serious Religious Debaters

bsr005As many people might know, I’ve been hunting high and low for a rational theist to debate for quite some time now.  I’ve been actively looking on forums, blogs, Twitter (a waste of time, I know), IRC and other places for anyone who is intelligent, educated and can defend their beliefs credibly. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about a rational person who is also a theist, I want a theist who is rational in their theism.  I want rational debaters who can address their religion in a factual, evidence-based manner.

I’ve come up completely dry so far.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I’m too nice about it.  Yes, that’s right, I know it’s hard to believe because I don’t usually pull punches or take names, I demand the very best and don’t give quarter, but in this case, I really am.  See, when I go to debate sites, particularly religious debate sites, I restrict myself to only the public, non-specific-religion areas.  If there’s a forum for debating religion, I’m in.  If there’s a forum for discussion Christianity among the faithful, I respect their right to have a “safe zone” and don’t bother them.  I don’t go barging in and demand they debate me, that’s a dick move and I don’t like it when they do it to atheist discussion forums, I’m not going to do it to them.

That doesn’t mean I might not go in and watch for a while silently, I can lurk and see if any of them have any good arguments or seem to be handling their religious beliefs rationally.  Unfortunately, this is extremely rare and most of the people to whom rationality means anything tend to be the most liberal of theists, who understand that their beliefs are intensely personal and emotional and they have no actual reason to believe any of it outside of their own personal desire for it to be true.  I’m not looking for personal desires though, I’m looking for actual evidence and nobody seems to have that.  The most reasonable people simply admit they have nothing that would convince anyone else and refuse to debate the point.  There seems to be a very sharp divide between the crazy fundamentalists who scream that their own personal experiences with a god are inviolable and they cannot possibly be wrong and those who know their arguments are empty and don’t push it on others.  Where are the people in the middle who hold strong beliefs, yet think that their beliefs are demonstrable and actually understand what logical fallacies are and try not to use them?  Those are the people I want and those are the people that apparently don’t exist.

SayWhaSo I’ve looked at 8 religious forums, multiple channels on 4 IRC networks, at least 2 dozen religious blogs that claim they have a rational reason to believe and none of them have come even close to what I’m looking for.  I’ve even extended some offers to debate with a couple of them that I thought were most reasonable and while most have simply ignored me, the few that have bothered to respond have turned me down because, I think, they recognize that I’m asking for something they are not capable of providing.

The thing is, what I’m asking shouldn’t be that difficult for any credible belief.  What we see among most theists is equivalent to what we see among conspiracy theorist crackpots.  Mike and I examined that in some detail on The Bitchspot Report Podcast a couple of weeks ago and the more you look at both, the more you realize just how similar the two belief systems are.  This is really something that needs to be spread around, that there really is nothing functionally different between believing in God and believing in Bigfoot or UFO abductions or aliens running the government.  As a society, we generally roll our eyes when someone starts saying we didn’t go to the moon, why don’t we do the same thing when someone believes in miracles or angels or the like?

I’ve really run out of places to look.  Therefore, I’d like to put a call out to my readers and see if they have any ideas or if they think I ought to give up entirely.  Are there any rational, intelligent theists in the world that can actually defend their beliefs with critical thinking and evidence?  Or am I just wasting my time?

I’d really like to know.

28 thoughts on “A Call for Serious Religious Debaters

  1. What's a serious religious debater? Is it someone who really knows their religion and the arguments backing it up? Do you prefer evidentialists over presuppositionalists? Or vice versa? Or does it not matter? There's this presuppositionalist who I occasionally butt heads with. He's a biblical scholar so he knows his religion, but debating him is all about epistemology since he doesn't care much for the "evidence." But he is fierce debater. You could check out debate.org. I've had a few religious debates on that site. There are some skilled debaters there, but also a lot of amateurs.
    My recent post Nobody's Right, If Everybody's Wrong

    1. Definitely not a presuppositionalist, I find those people entirely irrational, they just presuppose their own victory by declaring themselves the winner before they even start. We just did a segment on presuppositional apologetics on the podcast. The unfortunate part about Biblical scholars is that they rarely know anything outside of the Bible and most of them I've debated only discuss the Bible from the position that it's absolutely correct, without being able to demonstrate that it's correct. I want to find people who have a grasp on logic and reason and evidence and came to their faith through something other than emotional comfort and who can argue for the actual validity of Christianity (or any other religion) beyond "I want to believe!" Someone just suggested OnlineDebate.net, I looked over it briefly and it seems to be the same old "I believe!" nonsense you find everywhere.

  2. I think its a waste of time, as even the most rational theist will revert to quoting their holy book at some point. This is where everything that was rational up to that point devolves into stupid arguments that mean nothing. Even in some debates where it started with the Bible and I have gotten away from the bible and both sides were getting to a rational conclusion, then the bible gets quoted again and I eventually have to walk away.
    My recent post The god gaps just became a whole lot smaller

    1. I took a look at the link you provided and frankly, I'm not at all impressed. It seems to be the same old tired apologetics and same old absurd philosophical masturbation that is commonplace and entirely refuted. If he wants to come and debate me, he can come and debate me, I'm fine with that. Unfortunately, so many of the things he seems to be claiming, at least from my very cursory look, are things that would never fly here, like the standard claims that atheists have to disprove theist claims. Nope, sorry, theists make the claims, they are 100% responsible for backing them up. No evidence = no belief.

  3. Huh. So you won't accept burden of proof? Mmm. So declaring there is no deity is not a position which requires proof? Really? You're serious? And you fill a blog, day after day, from a position that has no burden of proof. Well, I gotta say, that's a new height.

    And you sprinkle words and phrases like "same old tired", "same old absurd philosophical masturbation", "commonplace", "entirely refuted", "never fly here", "atheists have to disprove theist claims". Are these things true? Where is your proof, beyond "Because I said so"?

    Cephus, most of what you just wrote can be equally applied to the content you are putting in your blog and your podcast. "Exposing Stupidity wherever it lies"? Why is it stupid? Because *you* said so?

    Hey, it's your blog, dude. Just don't expect anyone but your fellow dreamers to take you seriously.

    1. And where have I ever said there is no deity? Anywhere? Produce a quote. Let me know when you do. I'm very careful to say that there is no evidence for the existence of any gods, not that there are no gods at all. Of course, I'm sure you can't tell the difference between those two claims, many theists are supremely convinced that all atheists are taking a positive position that all gods are non-existent but that's not true, it's more a matter of most atheists rejecting theist claims because of a total lack of objective evidence to support them. If you had any objective evidence, if you could prove that your beliefs were true, if you could demonstrate that any gods were actually real, I know that I would certainly believe you and believe in gods. I probably wouldn't worship them, but I'd have to accept that they were real because there was evidence to support it. Unfortunately, you have nothing and therefore, I have no more reason to believe in gods than I do to believe in leprechauns. I have no burden of proof because I make no positive claims that require me to prove them. You do.

      It's a shame that you seem so utterly unable to evaluate your own beliefs critically and rationally, if you could, then you'd realize that what I write here is right on the money.

  4. Serious religious debaters don't hang out on the Internet. They are too busy writing academic papers and engaging with serious issues in philosophy departments. They generally think Internet forums are cesspools, and I'm inclined to agree. The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory is in full effect. Why punish oneself like that?

    In lieu of that, although I'm not religious, I'll pick up the reigns best I can. Although I can only get as far as God and soul. I don't know nuthin about the Bible, Quran, Jesus, Christology, Trinity, or anything specific like that.

    God:

    The pre-Socratics were trying to figure out how to resolve change and permanence. Some things seem to stay the same (people stay people, rocks stay rocks) and other things seem to change (rivers flow, birds fly). Is one of these more basic than the other?

    Representing the two extremes: Parmenides said: change never occurs; it's all an illusion. Heraclitus said: everything always changes; nothing is permanent.

    Aristotle resolved the problem with the concept of actuality and potentiality. "Actuality" means the way something is right now (the coffee cup on your desk). "Potentiality" means the capacity something has for future change (the coffee cup spilled on the floor). Parmenides only had the concept of actuality; he was missing potentiality in his argument.

    So we have the concepts of actuality and potentiality. In modern English: stuff is one way now, but can change to a different way in the future.

    Si?

    1. To some degree, you're right, but I've read the papers and books of some of the big names and they don't impress me either. None of them are willing to discuss knowledge vs. belief, it's really all little more than spouting Zen Buddhist koans and acting smug. All I am really interested in is settling the God question. Is God real? Does God actually exist? If you can't settle that question, nothing else matters, yet that's the question that apologists outrightly ignore. There are tons of debates between apologists pretending to be intellectual on whether God exists, yet they actually have nothing to say about whether God exists, it's all philosophical masturbation and they fail to recognize that they're just question begging and making blind assertions that they cannot demonstrate or justify. That's not actually answering the question and if all they have is an emotionally comforting delusion and they're trying to rationalize it, that's not something worth believing in and we go back to square one. There is only one constant and that is change, but these people haven't significantly changed in centuries, they've just added different words to their arsenal.

      1. OK, so I've offered the seed of an argument here: the distinction between actuality and potentiality. Do you have any questions, concerns?

        1. The problem is, that's not really an argument when it comes to gods. Theists don't believe gods are possible, they believe gods are actually real. They don't go to church and pray to gods they think might possibly be there, they pray to gods they assert are factually existent. Therefore, I'm interested in that actuality, not the possibility. Nobody is claiming the possibility.

          1. Oh I know. I'm getting there.

            So you have this distinction between potentiality and actuality. A potential cannot make itself actual because then it would have to exist before it exists, which is contradictory. So a potential can only be made actual by further states of affairs that are themselves actual.

            Example: liquid water is potentially ice, but to be made ice requires actual cold air.

            In other words, all changeable things depend on further states of affairs, which if they are themselves changeable require further states of affairs, and so on.

            Example: the frozen lake (a changeable state of affairs) depends on cold air (another changeable state of affairs) which depends on the current configuration of the jet stream, which depends on the Coriolis and the heat from the Sun, which depends on nuclear reactions, which depend on gravity, which depends on mass, and so on.

            That concludes part one.

          2. The problem is, assuming I'm reading you right, when translating this to the question of gods, you're taking things that we already know there is a potential for and will attribute that to a god, which we just don't know if one is possible or not. We just don't know anything whatsoever about the probability of the existence of a god. These are all things that we understand very well. Pure water, if it gets below a certain temperature, will freeze into ice. All of the things that you are mentioning are natural effects and you can go back millions and millions of causes if you want to result in an ice cube. None of this, however, has anything to do with the actual existence of gods though. But by all means, continue.

  5. Honestly, I think it best to forget the word "god" for now.

    The dependency chains of which I'm speaking of must bottom out in something not dependent upon any further conditions, and so in something unchangeable or, in Aristotle's terminology, pure actuality. Something devoid of potentials. This is because each of these changeable things is "receiving" its actuality, its realness, existence, etc, from another state of affairs, which is receiving its actuality from yet another state of affairs, and so on, which must bottom out in a source or transmitter: something that can give actuality (existence) without needing to get it from anything further. Same reason that if your lamp is receiving electricity, that electricity must come from something that can give electricity without needing to get it from anywhere: the power plant. The outlet and power lines don't count since they are themselves receivers. just passing the electricity along.

    Here is a slightly different way of seeing the same point. The most fundamental principle in the universe cannot consist of multiple principles, because if it were, then it just wouldn't be the most fundamental principle in the first place. This means it cannot consist of the principles of actuality and potentiality, since the principle of actuality by itself is more fundamental, and the principle of potentiality is by itself more fundamental, than something consisting of both actuality and potentiality.

    In English: all changeable things are dependent upon further conditions, which bottoms out in something not changeable and so not dependent on further conditions.

    In Aristotle's terminology: we bottom out in something that is pure actuality, devoid of any potentials.

    1. The problem is that it doesn't. Certainly, in our universe, it goes back farther than we can determine at this point, we are unable to see things beyond a certain point, that doesn't mean that causality necessarily stops at that point, we just can't examine it. For all we know, it goes on forever and ever. Or, causality may simply not extend beyond the physical laws of our particular universe. There comes a point where we just don't know what lies beyond, but this is not a license to just make things up because we're not comfortable not knowing. "I don't know" is a perfectly valid statement to make. Inventing something out of whole cloth and emotional comfort is not.

      See, there's this memory game where one stops their internal monologue and starts tracing backwards where each thought came from. "I was thinking about A, where did A come from? It came from thinking about B, but thinking about B came from thinking about C…" and so on and so on until you can't do it anymore. It's a great training tool for short-term memory. However, just because you reach a roadblock, where you can't trace back thoughts any further doesn't mean that there were no thoughts before that, it just means that you don't know what came before your farthest back memory. You can't just make something up and continue the game because you want it to go on.

      There's no way to rationally argue that anything is "pure actuality, devoid of any potentials" because you don't know what, if anything, came before it. You're arguing that the whole of reality is within whatever room you're locked inside of and cannot imagine that it can, and indeed must go beyond that room and you know nothing whatsoever about what lies beyond.

  6. But in this case, we aren't just making something up or inventing something whole cloth. We know that a receiver entails a giver, because if there is no giver, then there is nothing to receive. And if the chain is infinitely long, then that is in effect removing the giver, and hence by extension whatever is being received.

    A chain of dependent members depends for its activity on the source. A chain of gears, each turned by the next one in the chain, depends upon a motorized gear, otherwise none would be moving in the first place. Otherwise, this is like saying that a train of boxcars can move all by itself if there were just enough boxcars. Since each boxcar depends for its movement on the engine, then removing the engine removes the source of motion and hence the boxcars won't be moving, because they themselves are all power less.

    Or a series of moons, each reflecting light from its neighbor. An infinite string of non-luminous bodies cannot be a source of light. If they are reflecting light, then there must be a source of light somewhere.

    1. But that's not necessarily the case. We can track everything back to the Big Bang, but before the Big Bang, we just have no means whatsoever of determining what might have caused it. However, that may not even be a valid question to ask because the physical laws of our universe were created in the Big Bang and may not apply anywhere else. Outside of our universe, causality may be meaningless. If there are an endless number of independent universes floating around in the cosmic foam like so many soap bubbles, nothing says they all have to have the same physical laws. They could have no gravity, they could have no weak nuclear force, heck, they could be made of chocolate pudding, I don't know. The point is, you're making an assumption, based on our experience, that may or may not apply to anyone else anywhere else. What you're essentially doing is taking the traffic laws from your particular town and declaring that they must apply everywhere because that's your experience. We both know that's not necessarily the case.

  7. I never said a word about the Big Bang. In fact, Aristotle and Aquinas both assumed for the sake of argument that the universe is infinitely old. The argument in question concerns a sustaining cause, not the thing that triggered the Big Bang. And I've never said anything about anything "outside" the universe. The frozen lake is sustained in existence by cold air, which is sustained in existence by the jet stream, which is sustained in existence by the Sun, which is sustained in existence by gravity, and so on. We are moving DOWN to the fundamental level, not BACKWARDS to the Big Bang.

    In addition, the philosophy we are talking about here is the philosophy of changeable things. Science is concerned with finding out what changeable things happen to exist, but the philosophy of changeable things is concerned with analyzing the concept of change regardless of what specific changeable things exist. As you say, perhaps some universe have no weak force, or different physical laws. Nonetheless, those things are still changeable, and the philosophy of changeable stuff still applies.

    So a receiver entails a giver. Lake sustained by cold air sustained by jet stream sustained by sun sustained by gravity sustained by mass sustained by Higgs….and we hit the bottom of the hierarchy at something that does not need to be sustained by anything further.

    1. No, but if you follow the trail back far enough, that's the only place it can possibly lead. The thing is, you're just asserting that there has to be one thing that started everything else, yet was not started and you cannot demonstrate that. It may very well not be true at all. You keep moving down toward the "fundamental level", but at the most fundamental in our universe are the physical laws themselves and those were generated by the Big Bang. You've yet to suggest anything at the "bottom" that you can demonstrate does not need to be sustained by anything further. What is this thing and where is it so we can objectively examine it?

  8. But there is a difference between what brought a frozen lake into existence (drainage from a river, the movement of air) and what is sustaining it in existence once it exists. The latter is what we are asking.

    OK, consider an analogy. You see a rock moving across your kitchen table. You know that rocks can't move themselves, so it must be being pushed or pulled by something else. You step back and see a stick pushing the rock. Now do you know what is pushing the rock? Not really, because sticks are not capable of moving themselves either, so a third thing must be pushing the stick. And so on until you find something, like an animal or something, that can push without itself needing to be pushed by anything further.

    It would be a strange objection if I then said, "No, the stick came from a tree, which grew in a forest, which evolved slowly over time, and so on." You would be puzzled that I answered your question "What is moving the rock across my kitchen table?" with "A primeval forest." A forest is not what is moving the rock across my kitchen table. Rather, some kind of pusher with its own locomotion is moving the rock across my table.

    You see, Aquinas famously rejected the Kalam cosmological argument (that the universe had a beginning and something must have triggered it) because he thought it was weak.

    1. Often the same thing that created the lake sustains it and if those things change, the lake ceases to exist. It relies on a depression in the ground, if there is a tectonic upheaval, there will be no lake. It relies on continued drainage from the river (or whatever). If the river changes it's course, no more lake. These are all completely natural phenomenon and if any of them change, no more lake. Your example is no different. We can continue to trace the causes back and back and back, to the gravity that causes the water to flow downhill into the lake, etc. It all still flows back to the Big Bang, where it all bottlenecks because that was the beginning of our universe. That doesn't mean it was the beginning of everything and it seems that's what you're looking for, the beginning of all things and there very well may not be any such thing, certainly there's no way to examine it if there is because we're limited to this particular universe.

      And I agree that Kalam is absurd, I took it on quite some time ago: http://bitchspot.jadedragononline.com/2013/01/28/

  9. RIght. It's not just the cold air, but the state of the dirt (a depression), the drainage, etc. All this must be in place to sustain the lake in existence. But each of these further states of affairs themselves depend upon further states of affairs.

    > It all still flows back to the Big Bang

    But we're not asking "where did the lake come from", we are asking "what keeps the lake in existence right now".

    Again, your objection is like saying "a primeval forest is moving the rock across your kitchen table, because the stick that is moving the rock came from the forest and so on". A primeval forest may have caused the stick to exist, but it is not what currently sustains the motion of the rock. What is doing that is an unpushed pusher: something that can push without needing to be pushed by anything else.

    I am not looking for the beginning of everything. Again, Aquinas and Aristotle both argued that the universe is infinitely old, for the sake of argument. To quote Aquinas himself: "By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the universe did not always exist."

    What I'm looking for is what sustains the frozen lake in existence as we speak. For the sake of argument, assume it's gravity, because gravity is sustaining the Sun's nuclear reactions in existence which sustains the jet stream in existence which sustains the cold air which sustains the frozen lake. So gravity would be what I'm looking for. Perhaps there was no Big Bang. Perhaps the universe is infinitely old. Nonetheless, here and now gravity is sustaining the nuclear reactions which is sustaining etc —> frozen lake.

    1. But it isn't an ancient forest that moved the rock, you can go back further than that. Ultimately, you reach the fundamental physical laws of the universe and that leads inexorably to the Big Bang. The problem is, you're looking for some kind of fundamental first cause, but you can't actually get to one. There may not even be one. When we can show such obvious faulty assumptions and faulty conclusions in the theist argument, we have no reason whatsoever to take it seriously. You cannot reason your way to God. You can only demonstrate God. If you cannot demonstrate God, then you have no argument. That's the problem.

  10. >it isn't an ancient forest that moved the rock

    Yes, that's right. It isn't moving the rock because the primeval forest and everything that came before that is no longer even around.

    Again, let's assume for the sake of argument that our unsustained sustainer is gravity. Gravity sustains in existence the nuclear reactions etc and so on to the frozen lake. Gravity does not depend for its CURRENT existence on the Big Bang, because the Big Bang is no longer even around and perhaps the universe is really infinitely old. We are asking what currently sustains the frozen lake, which (in my for-the-sake-of-argument) is gravity, so gravity is the bottom-most level responsible for the current existence of the frozen lake.

    To take the parallel argument, the current existence of the frozen lake is dependent upon the current state of the water molecules and air molecules, which are in turn dependent upon the weak force and so forth, bottoming out in, let's say just for the hell of it, whatever principle wraps together gravity+weak+strong+electro. And so that theory is at the bottomost level, sustaining the frozen lake in existence. The Big Bang is no longer around or perhaps never even existed, and so it is not currently sustaining the frozen lake in existence.

    1. Whether or not something still exists is really irrelevant, we're tracing back where things came from. Even if it was demonstrated that some deity created everything, that doesn't mean it still exists and it can still be the ultimate cause of everything. Gravity's current ongoing existence doesn't rely on the Big Bang, but it does rely on the existence of the physical laws of the universe which were generated in the Big Bang. All of the things that you mention all rely on the physical laws being what they happen to be. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Big Bang happened so you can stop trying to wiggle around that.

      You're still not getting your argument any closer to this fundamental base event or cause for which there is no cause.

  11. >we're tracing back where things came from

    In this case, we're not. The argument is concerned with what is currently sustaining something in existence. In the same way that the question in the analogy was "What is moving the rock across my table?", we are not interested in where the stick and rock came from, and so the answer is not "A primeval forest" or "a volcano". The answer is "something that can push without needing to be pushed by anything further."

    >it does rely on the existence of the physical laws of the universe which were generated in the Big Bang.

    Right, and the motion of the rock across your table relies on the stick which was created by a primeval forest, but that is not what we're asking. We are asking "what is pushing the rock?", and we are asking "what sustains the lake in existence?"

  12. To briefly recap: a changeable state of affairs is dependent upon another state of affairs; and if that second state of affairs is also changeable then it too depends on yet another state of affairs and so on, all of which must be actualized by something non-changeable and hence purely actual.

    The question is not "Where did this clock come from?", which would be answered with "a factory or clockmaker" but rather "What keeps this clock's hands turning right now, regardless of where the clock came from?"

    Interestingly, I have found many atheists, even one particularly hostile one, who agree with this chain of reasoning; that there is and must be some "ground of existence".

    OK, so there is some state of affairs that is purely actual, devoid of any potentials. Something unchangeable, even in principle.

    Something purely actual, devoid of potentials, has the following attributes: http://rocketphilosophy.blogspot.com/2013/05/attr

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