This past week, a bunch of the Beltway Atheists and I went George Washington Univeristy to see Dinesh D’Souza debate Michael Shermer on either the existence of god, or the goodness of religion, depending on who you asked. I probably wouldn’t have been as interested in going if I weren’t currently reading D’Souza’s book, because there’s no question which side of the debate I would start and end on. Plus, it was free, and that can’t hurt. I tried to take notes along the way, but I really only bothered to write down the parts that were particularly agreeable or reviling.

D’Souza began with a twenty-minute opening statement that mostly rehashed his book (I’m sure Shermer was doing the same thing, but I haven’t read his book, so I can’t say). First, let me say that following D’Souza’s arguments is only easy if you’re willing to suffer amnesia every time he finishes talking. His points frequently counter arguments he’s already made, and a lot of times, you have to wonder if he’s given them any thought at all, because he rarely backs any of it up.

He criticized atheists again for spending so much time fighting something they don’t believe in, and likened it to writing books like The Unicorn Delusion, or Unicorns Are Not Great. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the people who believe in unicorns don’t generally have much effect on the lives of those that don’t, while the people who believe in god have tremendous effect on those of us who don’t. That would be like telling something with a nut allergy, “I don’t like mangos, but you don’t hear me complaining. Now quit whining and eat your peanut butter sandwich.” He argued that the universe had to have a beginning, and that it was prompted by god at the Big Bang (Shermer later pointed out that the Big Bang may well have been one in a series of bangs and compressions, and not necessarily the beginning of everything). He also said the universe must have a cause and a reason, which is god. I suppose he can’t imagine things without a reason, but some of us can, and maybe we’ll find a better cause one of these days.

D’Souza went on to argue that god must exist because of the balance of the universe. This argument will be familiar to many people; basically, a number of constants in the universe - gravity, nuclear attraction, and so on (I can’t remember any more, but it’s not important) - are perfectly tuned such that life can exist. If they were any different, we would not be here. In D’Souza’s mind, this is proof that a god must have tuned them. In some peoples’ minds, we just got lucky. D’Souza has been happy to attack one theory that says infinite universes exist, with every possible combination of these factors, and we’re in one of them. I’m not convinced that many people think this theory is anything more than a proposed possibility, but D’Souza seems to think all of us atheists believe it, and argues that it’s more ridiculous than a god. He accuses atheists of using “atheism of the gaps” - a new take on the “god of the gaps” explanation, wherein one might say, “We can’t explain it, so god did it.” D’Souza says scientists use the same thing with atheism - we can’t explain it, so we put forth seemingly ridiculous possibilities (such as infinite universes) to try to fill these gaps. He argued that Occam’s Razor dictates that the simplest answer is probably true, and the simplest answer is god. I have no idea how he came to determine that the simplest answer is an unimaginably intelligent and powerful beast in the sky, but I suppose that’s simpler than looking for a better answer. Certainly, infinite universes isn’t much simpler, but I don’t think many people actually thing that’s the way things work.

D’Souza finished up with a quick discussion of morality. He spent a few minutes refuting the number of deaths generally attributed to the Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials to show that they weren’t as bad as we’ve been making them out to be, and proclaims that those who killed in the name of atheism - such as Pol Pot and Castro - have done a lot more damage. I didn’t pay much attention in high school history classes and haven’t had a chance to do the requisite reading, so I really can’t speak to that.

After D’Souza, Shermer took the podium for his opening statement. I don’t have many notes from him, probably because I mostly agreed with him. Shermer is a much more laid-back debater than D’Souza - he said a few times, “It’s OK to not know the answers,” a stark contrast to D’Souza’s continued insistence that god is the answer to questions science hasn’t answered yet. He did go on to cite a few studies that looked at religiosity of doctors involved in charity work and things like that. The numbers between religious and non-religious participants were not striking - maybe 5% better for the non-religious - which D’Souza immediately attacked in his rebuttal. Unfortunately, Shermer did not make his point well in this case. He was arguing that religious people are NOT better people than atheists (“So stop claiming you are!”), but it was poorly worded, and D’Souza had no trouble dismissing it as statistically insignificant.

In addition to the points I mentioned above, D’Souza used his rebuttal time to attack a number of Shermer’s weaker points. And it’s true, they were weaker points, but D’Souza’s entire position in the debate (and indeed, his whole book) was made up of poorly-supported points. He makes a lot of big, loud arguments that sound pretty good and got the Republicans in the room cheering, but he doesn’t really offer anything to back it up; he just moves on to his next point quickly, and the atheists are left in stunned disbelief. For example, he argued that atheists would try to find a naturalistic explanation if planets arranged themselves to say, “Yahweh made this.” To hear him make this point, the planets have already arranged themselves as such, and we have all dismissed it as mere natural oddity. How can he say what we would believe it such a thing were to happen? Another argument he made (in his book, too) was that science has advanced significantly in many fields, but in some areas, it hasn’t progressed “since the time of the Babylonians.” Care to guess what area of science is that far behind? I couldn’t tell you, because he never bothered to specify.

One of the points Shermer made was that the Christian churches tend to go along with things until everyone agrees that they’re immoral, and then they act like they disapproved all along - the example he gave was slavery. D’Souza was quick to counter that the abolitionist movement in Europe was pretty much founded by a priest. I can’t remember how he worded this, but he made it sound like the Church fought to end slavery, and that atheism is trying to take credit for it. Shermer never claimed that atheists were the pillars of morality that finally ended the scourge of slavery; the point was that the Church was largely complacent with it, even if a member of the clergy did fight to end it. There are good and bad people on both sides - Shermer’s point was that the institution of the Church was not so moral as they claim to be.

In the end, D’Souza was the better debater, but only because he was a more rousing speaker. His arguments were largely unfounded and his rebuttals picked the low hanging fruit. Shermer isn’t a very good debater, at least partly because he’s so laid back, but it was pretty clear from the beginning that D’Souza was just going to rile the crowd with his invocations of the Jesus, and everyone left thinking pretty much the same thing they did when they went in.