Another fantastic source for good debates, and that is far more exhaustive than here, although I believe it is no longer being updated, is the website: http://worldviewnaturalism.com/debates/
This is a highly amusing debate that features the question, Is the Catholic church a force for good? The whole debate is filled with deep and insightful moments, but Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry decisively prove their worth, and indeed Ann Widdecombe and John Onaiyekan are severely out-matched.
However, of particular note here is that Fry is easily the mvp of the evening. His immeasurable wit and brutal honesty completely catch both his opponents and the audience off-guard, and that's very much to his credit.
Onaiyekan spends the first half of his first speech detailing how widespread and long-lasting Catholocism is, and goes on to demonstrate how the church and its followers do good in the world.
Unfortunately, one of the examples he chooses to elaborate on is the Church's involvement in supporting health institutions across the world, in particular for treating HIV and AIDS. According to a study he cites, apparently 26% of the health institutions in the world that are directly involved in the treatment of HIV and AIDS are run by the Catholic church.
Sadly, he neglects to mention how much the church – and indeed, these very institutions – actually exacerbate the problem of HIV and AIDS around the world, particularly in Africa by teaching that condoms are not only evil, but even going so far as to say that using condoms will increase a person's chances of getting HIV -- which is an egregious lie of the worst sort.
Hitchens, not missing a beat, remarks that one day the church will be forced to apologize for being flat-out wrong on this issue:
[One day the church will have to admit that] it might have been an error to say that AIDS is bad as a disease, but not quite as bad as condoms are bad, or not as immoral in the same way.... The preachings of [Onaiyekan's] church are responsible for the death and suffering and misery of millions of his brother and sister Africans and he should apologize for it. He should show some shame.Unfortunately, Widdecombe comes to the stage next and makes the mistake of complaining, against Hitchens' charges that the Catholic church has committed unforgivable offenses against humanity, that Hitchens “seems to think that the Catholic church should have had some unique insight which demonstrably was lacking in society as a whole.”
Fry, rightfully so, cannot let this one go. And in a moment of sheer brilliance, he exclaims with perfect and comedic timing, “The truth is complicated, it's hard. And what is the point of the Catholic church if it says 'Oh, well we couldn't know better, because nobody else did.' Then what are you for?!
But that wasn't even Fry's most brilliant moment of the evening. It's a long debate, and if you don't end up watching it — though you certainly should! — you must at least hear Fry's analogy of the church as a whole, because it's one of the most profound, spot-on statements I've ever heard:
It's the strange thing about this church, it is obsessed with sex. Absolutely obsessed. Now they will say, they will say, 'we with our permissive society and rude jokes are obsessed.' No, we have a healthy attitude. We like it, it's fun, it's jolly. Because it's a primary impulse, it can be dark and difficult. It's a bit like food in that respect, except it's even more exciting. The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese. And that, in erotic terms, is the Catholic church in a nutshell.This is an incredible, poignant debate that definitely comes highly recommended. It's just a shame that Widdecombe and Onaiyekan – especially Widdecombe (in fact, I felt a little bad for Onaiyekan, who seemed like a very genuine, sincere individual who wanted a real discussion) – were so severely out-classed.
Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig are two powerful heavyweights in their respective areas of discourse. In this particular match-up, it is fairly obvious that Craig is, by far, the better debater as far as actual debate structure goes – though Hitchens can certainly handle himself in his own way.
While the topic being debated is “Does God exist?” Craig does not attempt to prove definitively that there is a god, only that god is the most logical explanation given the evidence that we have, namely:
- The empty tomb of Jesus
- The separate individuals and groups who experienced Jesus after his death
- The level of conviction Jesus' disciples had, that they were willing to die for the belief that Jesus died and rose again.
These theistic arguments have been countered at length by other authors – for example, see Lawrence Krauss' A Universe from Nothing for some analysis of the cosmological argument, or many of Bart Ehrman's books on the textual reliability and accounts of scripture.
Regarding fine-tuning, refer to nearly any physicist on the topic to find out just how finely-tuned our universe really is. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, among others, offers a rather interesting perspective on this argument.
Hitchens didn't particularly counter or challenge many of Craig's arguments, which is unfortunate. However, his points were still poignant. He largely relied on the premise that atheism is not a positive argument that necessarily requires positive evidence to support it, any more than one needs evidence to prove the tooth fairy does not exist.
Thus the burden of proof lies with the theist, who must provide sufficient reason to believe the positive claim that God does exist. Carl Sagan's popular phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” comes to mind, here.
Furthermore, significant facts of life and our universe seem particularly absent of design – or at least intelligent design.
For example, the fact that 99% of all species have gone extinct over the few billion years that life has existed on earth, only for God to come down in the form of a single man at some arbitrary time in history to be crucified on a stake, to save anyone that comes to accept him as their lord and saviour, seems unsatisfactory.
In Hitchens' mind, this requires a certain arrogance. That all of the development since the big bang until now could be culminated in an event 2,000 years ago, followed by a relative 2,000 year lull, and all of this was done *just for us,* is tough to absorb. The waste of it all seems simply absurd.
In fact, almost all of what we know of the universe, history, and so on would appear to suggest that there are far more materialistic origins for the universe and everything in it, and further that the whole notion of God himself is a human creation.
People are very good at fooling themselves, and religion itself might well be the severest and most widespread expression of this phenomenon.
In all, this is a good debate between the sharp mind of Hitchens and the logical formulations of Craig.
Bart Ehrman is at his strongest when he can engage with an opponent in a conversational tone rather than a highly confrontational one. He's a peacemaker, not a warmonger. In this debate, he and his opponent Richard Swinburne challenge one another on the topic of evil, and how suffering can or cannot be justified in this world.
For Swinburne, evil is a significant problem, but not an insurmountable one, primarily because suffering – when taken in its full context and weighed out over time – is balanced against the good in the world, especially the good that arises from evil. He does not appear to believe in the existence of gratuitous suffering, or suffering without meaning.
For example, if you imagine a surgeon removing another man's limb, it would appear that the surgeon is inflicting a rather significant amount of suffering on the poor guy. However, the suffering he is causing is balanced against the fact that he may well be saving the man's life, or at least preventing further harm down the road. Thus, the surgeon is not causing gratuitous suffering.
However, Ehrman counters by arguing that, in fact, this is not a satisfactory response to the problem of suffering in the world. People suffer and die, often without any sense of real meaning. And even in cases where a greater good might arise out of a catastrophe – the bringing together of people to help one another after a natural disaster, let's say – this is insufficient to explain the suffering of those individuals who must endure torment so that others might bring about greater good at the end of the day.
I'll let Ehrman's words speak for themselves, because they echo my own views so wholeheartedly that I cannot express it any better than he:
“...to think that [children] are starving to death [around the world] so that I can have a better character is, in my view, an egocentric view that it's really all about me. Someone else is suffering so that I can be a saint. I simply don't believe that.”
This is an excellent debate where Ehrman really demonstrates why he's one of my intellectual heroes.
It's a great listen. Enjoy!
Conversations, lectures and talks
Is there a conflict between science and religion?
Well, yes and no. First, I’d like to say that there’s no question a person can be both scientifically literate and religious at the same time. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be tensions occasionally. Primarily, tension will occur when religion attempts to make factual statements about the world in which we live, and when science reaches a point that it can provide adequate corrections to these statements.
If it comes down to a disagreement between science and theology, theology will always back down. If it doesn’t, people will move on to the next religion that proved itself to be more adaptive – or they'll leave religion altogether.
This process will not be without its casualties. The war raging in American classrooms (and classrooms across the globe) over Evolution vs. Creationism is a very good example of this. Here we have a situation where, at one time, theology taught humans were the apex of creation. But when the theory of evolution entered the ring and informed us that, actually, we’re really not as special as we thought, theology had to concede the ground.
Creationism was a bit of a sore loser in this regard and responded with a powerful reactionary response. However, it’s also doomed to failure. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once quipped, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Creationists may not be happy with science, but they can’t change reality.
As science continues to gain ground in nearly all areas of human knowledge, virtually unimpeded by religious protestations against its advance, theology loses ground in areas of knowledge it once held a monopoly.
This does not mean that science will necessarily ever dispense with religion outright – it almost certainly will not. But it does mean that scientific discoveries dictate what kinds of theology will be allowed to thrive. It’s not that science is itself concerned with theology, it’s just that if theology makes the unfortunate decision to pick a fight with science, theology will lose.
The only way religion will survive is if it allows science relative dominion over knowledge – at least in areas where science can reasonably present legitimate theories, which is a territory that is rapidly growing – and hope that its own rendition of knowledge can keep pace.
The sad truth about this state of affair, however, is that religion will find itself in a state of constant retreat. While humans will almost always have more questions to ask, the answers are coming far less frequently from priests.
The inevitable result appears to suggest that the end-state for religion is something similar to deism, where God is incited purely as a first-cause, but has no further involvement in its creation. It’s perfectly fair to understand why some religious individuals might be threatened by this thought.
But like the Honeybadger, science simply doesn’t care. As Lawrence Krauss argues in the video above,
If you want to have a sensible theology, it has to be consistent with what we know to be true about the Universe. But what we learn about the Universe is independent of our theology.… What’s really important about science is that it works, and that’s really all that’s important about it.So what I will conclude with is this: science can coexist with religion. But religion must make concessions to science, and not the other way around. This means the future of religious thought is not an optimistic one, at least insofar as it presumes itself to be a source of knowledge.
When I was in university, perhaps in my second or third year, and just really beginning to come into my atheism, I stumbled upon this conversation between four of the biggest heavyweights in the atheistic movement – Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
I might have by that point peripherally heard their names, but didn't yet know much about them. This talk was an incredible opportunity to be introduced to these giants and get a real sense of their arguments in a friendly, informal fashion.
Over the years, these four individuals have had a profound impact on my thinking, particularly Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation was a masterpiece on so many different levels) and Christopher Hitchens (he's best known for God is Not Great, but his editorial selections for The Portable Atheist are fundamental readings for all atheists, and I highly encourage you to pick up this anthology right now).