Editor's Note: You can view the debate video at the bottom of this post.
I was excited to debate Dan Barker. Why? First, Barker’s story is very much like my own, but with a different conclusion. We had similar childhoods and followed a pathway into Christian ministry. Right about the time his first book came out, I was deciding whether to remain a Christian.
Reason and experience led us in different directions.
Second, Barker debates frequently and I do not! Richard Dawkins called him one of America’s leading atheists and nobody would call me one of Houston’s leading theists.
Finally, despite the notoriety I have not found his arguments persuasive. I wanted a chance to push back. Chiefly, my concern has been that he attacks theism as if theism (belief in God) just is Christianity. He often uses classical deists (belief in a non-interventionist Creator God) as examples of “skeptics” who have contributed to American history.
I wanted to recover the legacy of classical deism for theists. The great divide philosophically is between those who believe in a supernatural and those who do not. Deists are theists and are on the same side as this divide with Christians. Even the god of Aristotle, thinking about thought, gives me hope for external morality, meaning, purpose, and pattern to the cosmos.
This is a major gain which has a big impact on culture.
Debates can be “blood sport” if they focus on “winning and losing.” There is little use in that. I thought I did well in the Barker debate as a debate, but that was not my goal. Historically some atheists (not Barker!) have conspired with unethical local pastors into “road shows” where both sides yelled at each other and then split the take. Sparks can fly in a real debate, but the table pounding, shouting, tent-meeting “debate” does no good.
A debate can also be too wimpy if the people will not air their disagreements. Christians have a real problem with either being nasty (“God hates x”) or passive aggressive (“Bless his heart..."). If I think my opponent incompetent, and would say so in class, I ought to express that to his face and allow him to respond.
I think we avoided both problems. Barker said what be believes about theism and Christianity and I said what I thought of pop atheism versus academic atheism.
We both parted enjoying the dialogue and expressing strong agreement to continue civilly disagreeing!
The main purpose for a debate is to frame further questions for discussion. I intentionally stuck to the topic of the debate (“Does God exist?”), but Barker raised many other important topics. My hope is that people left thinking about those topics and doing further research on them.
You can see that debates lead to intellectual growth, because Barker’s own books have improved (as he acknowledges) over time. His case against theism is much better today than it was one hundred debates ago! Though I will not be doing one hundred debates, I am sure the process of doing them would improve my communication of big ideas.
I enjoyed the debate; sparring was great fun. I enjoyed talking to Barker about our mutual love of musical theater for a brief time after the debate. I had a good time interacting with people who disagreed with my approach, hated my arguments, or loved everything I did.
What would I do differently? I defined “God” early on and reiterated that definition, but refused to get into the definitional weeds with Barker. Thinking that you cannot know a thing without a definition is the Socratic fallacy and I did not want to commit it. However, I think that was confusing to some in the audience and I wish the time had been available to explain the problem further.
Second, at one point in the debate I was too harsh in a criticism and apologized. Clearly, I would not take on his Plato credentials in the same way a second time!
Interacting with committed atheists reminded me again of the difference between “pop atheism” (which is very evangelical) and “academic atheism.” It was illuminating to look for differences between “pop theism” and “academic theism” in the days after the debate.
I also learned that for many Christians the concept “God” just means the Christian God. This is a mistake and one I hope we can fix through a ministry like Wheatstone.
Mostly, I am reminded that any speech, debate, or presentation must be a forerunner to the dialectic. Examine everything!
Watch the Debate. Full video is 2:11:07 long. Debate begins at 10:08.