This event definitely had the good, the bad, and the ugly. According to a news article, there were over 800 people in attendance! I was very encouraged by the variety of people who showed up as well, and hopefully this event will spark several important and edifying conversations with people of differing viewpoints.
The evening was set up as a “debate” between David Silverman and Alex McFarland, on the topics of Creation v. Evolution and Christian v. Secular morality. Those familiar with debate may already have picked up on one of the issues, but before getting into that, I’ll speculate on why the format was set up as it was. Debates are generally looked down on by people not already interested in them; and what I mean by that is that there is a sort of negative connotation where people just expect angry bickering, and that can’t really be beneficial to anyone. In fairness, this assumption doesn’t come from nowhere, as debates can certainly turn into that, and even this event wasn’t without its moments of that. I think this may have been one reason why it was billed as a forum, with the other being that the intention from the beginning was to simply have two sides of an issue presented without really interacting. Essentially, have two people who know their stuff present the information and let the audience do with it what they will.
All that said, I feel the format hindered the debate in a number of ways. First, in terms of topics, it’s generally a good idea to present an issue with a very clear means of taking a positive and negative stance (i.e. the existence of God) so that it’s very clear what is to be talked about, and the debaters can focus on very specific things without having to worry about covering too much in such a short period of time. The creation and evolution topic worked well this way, but the other topic was too amorphous, so that you ended up getting a very shotgun-like effect during each presentation. One speaker would throw out a dozen or so things which may or may not be arguments but are related to the topic somehow, and then the other would throw out a dozen of his own and maybe respond to one or two things the other person said. Keeping in terms of format, there was no cross examination period, which I felt was unfortunate because those give the opportunity for direct interaction with the speakers and brings out several things that don’t tend to get addressed during the actual debate section. Finally, the Q&A section was…unhelpful, at best. There are a couple ways you can do things like that with one being a random sampling of audience questions via microphones passed around, which is what happened, and the other being questions written down and being fed through the moderator. The latter has the advantage of the moderator being able to filter questions that aren’t questions and present the ones which best promote discussion.
Due to the shotgun nature of the presentations as a whole from both the speakers, there was a lot of material that was irrelevant to the discussion (2nd topic didn’t help) so I will leave that out. I think it’s important to make a couple observations about the speakers, as that will help give some backdrop as to perhaps why certain things were done or not done during the debate. Silverman and McFarland are friends and have debated several times in the past, so that element did help when they addressed each other since it wasn’t just two talking heads with no real interest in one another. However, I think this may have made McFarland a bit more tentative at times when he should not have been. David Silverman is definitely of the new atheist stripe, which unfortunately means he’s not above the unnecessary aggression or attempting to belittle the opponent or make arrogant statements in place of arguments. Perhaps McFarland knew how Silverman would respond to certain things in unhelpful ways, and that may be why he didn’t go on the offensive in areas where others might have. It did seem that Silverman was more concerned with making his case louder and playing to the home crowd, and in fairness it did seem like he was the better debater. McFarland seemed less concerned about Silverman as he did with giving the audience things to think about. I appreciate that, but this wasn’t a lecture, and as such I think there should’ve been more direct interaction with Silverman, especially where several opportunities presented themselves to easy refutations. I was impressed with how broadly learned McFarland was, and appreciated his calm demeanor but he did seem a bit too polite for debating someone as over the top as Silverman.
Beginning the discussion on creation, McFarland started with the existence of God by referring to some of the classical arguments as well as grounding our intrinsic value as humans in the fact that we are made in the image of God. He laid out the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the first cause/unmoved mover argument, as well as listed a dozen or so things the atheist would have to prove (this to show the burden of proof was on both). One disappointing thing was that in listing all those things, he could’ve pressed several of them into good arguments instead of just throwing them out there (the existence of logic and the mathematical nature of reality, for example). In terms of design, he discussed DNA and several of the Anthropic principles in relation to the fine tuning of our universe. He also questioned how evolution could produce interdependency (the brain and heart functioning together necessarily), order, specificity and intelligibility. He also argued that evolution is not the same as adaptation, and that you do not see species changing into different species.
Silverman started by stating that evolution is a fact (something he did ad nauseam throughout the evening) and that it had been observed, proved, done in labs, and that no evidence contradicted it. The issue I have with this is that he did not provide any specific examples. He did mention the chrysanthemum in an audience question but didn’t explain it. I’m fine with stating something is a fact, but then you should also back it up with specific examples. He mentioned lab experiments, but never gave examples; he mentioned fossil records, but never gave examples. McFarland did sort of the same thing on the flip side by saying that evolution was not a fact and not proved. I appreciate the opinions and statements, but you can’t just say things like that without backing them up. Silverman did list medicine as an example of evolution being fact, and explained that the reason doctors tell you to take all the medicine is so that the virus/bacteria doesn’t evolve and you need different medicine. However, it was unclear as to if this was a change in species or a different strain of the same species. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really discussed between them for clarification (one of the reasons cross examination is helpful). Silverman discussed how we are genetically similar to plants and 98% similar to chimps and other apes. He also said in passing that evolution was real science. That commits the no true scotsman fallacy, but it wasn’t a huge part of his argument. Another main theme of his presentations on both topics was that the issue with Christianity is that Christians assume the Bible is perfect. Evolution, he correctly argued, cuts to the heart of Christianity, and that theistic evolution goes against the Bible as well. One of his favorite examples was that Genesis tells of the earth being older than the sun (light), and we know this to be false.
One of the most interesting aspects, I thought, to Silverman’s presentation was his discussion on the word species. He explained that species is a soft word, so that the line between one species and another isn’t exactly as easy to draw as it is often thought. He explained that when two members of a species are no longer able to breed without producing infertile offspring, then they are no longer part of the same species. He explained the difficulty in drawing the species line by imagining being able to go forward and backward in time during a generation line so that you could see a thousand generations and how certain points in the timeline could breed with other points, but not with others. I found this very interesting, and also very convenient. One question I would have liked asked was how many members of a “species” would it take to become a new one. What I mean is, let’s say two people produced a child that was sterile; would that child not be considered human? Or would there need to be several sterile children from the same parents? Or would that simply mean that one of the parents wasn’t human? This is where the convenience of a relative “species” definition comes into play, because whenever there arises a problem, you can simply say that it’s not necessarily a different species because species is relative.
In addressing the Cosmological/first cause argument, Silverman said this was a God of the gaps argument and that it left you with the problem of where did God come from. He pointed out that he didn’t know what happened before the big bang or where all the “stuff” came form prior to, but that that was an acceptable answer because at least he doesn’t throw up his hands and say that God must’ve done it. There are a couple problems with this; it ignores the issue of a necessary being while also basically hinting at a naturalism of the gaps to counter. That is, we don’t know, but God couldn’t have done it and there must be some sort of natural explanation that we haven’t figured out yet. The “where did God come from?” question is vintage Richard Dawkins and has been thoroughly responded to. In terms of the design argument, he explained that the universe is 99% dead, that earth has 15% habitable land and 1% good drinking water. This, he suggests, is bad design and that perfection would not make such bad designs. He also finds is rather absurd that all of existence would be designed with humans in mind, when they are such latecomers to the party. He never discusses why God wouldn’t create things this way, but rather just asserts that a perfect Being wouldn’t. It also doesn’t take into account the fall, described in Genesis that not only effected man, but the world as well. Naturally, he wouldn’t place any truth in such an event, but if you’re going to criticize God/creation/Genesis, then you have to take it’s answer too and deal with it. I have no idea whether McFarland is an old or young earth creationist, but if he were the latter, the argument that we came on to the scene far too late for there to be everything designed for us would be simply one he could disagree with. Unfortunately, McFarland didn’t respond to any of this, and he easily could have. It could’ve been that that was in the final segment of the first topic and McFarland didn’t have a chance to respond, in which case it would be another example of the need for cross examination time. Silverman also threw out a few supposed contradictions in the Bible at the end, which I guess was just to reinforce his point that the Bible isn’t perfect.
To start the morality section, McFarland explained the moral argument and explained how atheism can’t explain moral imperatives and the universal sense of right and wrong. He discussed that there are four things that we can use to know the existence of God and the truth of the Christian worldview: creation, conscience, Scripture, and Savior, with the first two belonging to general revelation and the latter two to special revelation.
Silverman contended that objective morality was illusory, and that only subjective morality existed. He pointed out that if the Bible wasn’t perfect, as he had been contending, then it was also not objective or a source for objective morality. That somewhat misunderstands the moral argument, as it is grounded in God instead of the Bible, but McFarland went with it. Silverman stated that Christians only pretend to have objective morality, and that really they already have a set of subjective morals and then go to the Bible to find things that agree with their morality and then ascribe perfection to it and that it comes from God. He then said there were terrible things in the Bible like slavery and the killing of “gays and witches and blasphemers”, citing Leviticus 20:13 (he cited that one a lot). Everyone knows these things are wrong, and yet Christians say the Bible is a source of perfect morality. He said later that the 10 Commandments were not objectively moral, and that the only ones that were even objective were the ones saying not to kill or steal. I found it interesting that he would say things like “everyone knows that some of things in the Bile are wrong,” because that sounds very much like a sort of objective moral awareness.
McFarland made a great point in that Silverman can’t really make objective moral judgments on the Bible without believing in objective morality. I think another question on top of that would be the “why should anyone care?” question in relation to someone’s subjective moral judgment on something/someone else. McFarland sort of responded to certain passages in the Bible that seem to be morally objectionable to us by saying that there are some things that are equally true, but not equally understandable. That meaning that some of those things take some work to wrestle through. He said there was a difference between the moral code and the ceremonial code, and how certain things applied to Israel as a nation, whereas others applied to both Israel and the Christian church (which Silverman denied.) He also said that the levitical laws were to reveal our need for a savior. In terms of the command to kill the Canaanites in Deuteronomy, he posed the question of whether it would be better for the Canaanites to be killed and Israel saved, or for Israel to be destroyed, and thereby destroying the possibility of a Savior being born into the world and having the whole world ultimately destroyed. I think these arguments were decent, but it would’ve been helpful if they would’ve been explained more (cross examination) and some exegesis/original language work would’ve been done to bolster it.
Silverman contended that Christian morality has always lagged behind what he called common morality. I’m not sure what he means by common morality, but in the context of this debate topic, one would have to assume he means secular/atheist morality. However, I’m not sure if he would be able to make that argument with the force he wants to without phrasing it in terms of objective morality. Otherwise, all he’s really saying is “I personally think Christian morality is lagging behind my own,” which doesn’t really mean much.
Overall, I think there were a lot of missed opportunities which could legitimately be traced back to the format. I think in terms of arguments which were answered, Silverman did the better job. I think his arguments were weak and his answers were full of holes, but unfortunately, McFarland did not take advantage of that so the audience was probably left thinking that there simply were no answers. Many of the issues that were not addressed during the actual presentations could’ve been fleshed out or answered in a cross examination period, but unfortunately that never happened. I think some of the main goals of the event were to promote discussion between believers and nonbelievers, and to get people to think about some of the things discussed, and hopefully that will happen. I know that it has already sparked some interesting conversations, and at the end of the day, that’s the really important part about debates. So in terms of the lasting impact of the event, I think it was probably a success. Here’s hoping this was the first of many forums, and that they will only get better.