Monday, December 19, 2016

Debating Skeptics (part 1 of 5)

On November 27, 2016, I debated a local atheist leader, retired podiatrist Dr. Gil Shapiro, the spokesperson of Freethought Arizona (video here). I've blogged on general post-debate thoughts here but now will cover a series of five consecutive blog posts covering each of the four arguments that the atheist couldn't answer. This is no credit to my debating skills or subject knowledge which are nothing special, but it does show how classic arguments for the Christian worldview can be powerful if we keep it simple. My hope is that this will serve as a good outline to keep in mind when you engage with skeptics in your own community, the water cooler, or the next family dinner table.

By far, the most difficult part of debate prep was planning my general approach. Knowing my opponent helped. In a story by the local paper leading up to the event, the AZ Daily Star quoted Dr. Shapiro saying, "There is the religious view and the secular point of view, and there will be some things we can't move on our position, but there will be some things that we can." In this spirit, I researched claims from renowned atheists and non-Christians and arrived at four aspects of reality we can all agree on even though we may come to different conclusions. They are:

1) the arrival of the universe from nothing
2) the arrival of biological information from dead matter, 
3) the arrival of evil, and 
4) the arrival of Jesus. 

This was a community event between two amateurs so I had to stick to the basics. As a full time detective, I’m not a biblical scholar, scientist, or philosopher so I wasn't going to get fancy. That's why I proffered four facts that enjoy the vast consensus of scholars regardless of religious or non-religious bias. I was also intentional on my topic selection. After all, what could be more pressing for the Christian worldview than creation, sin (evil), and the resurrection? I framed the debate using only commonly accepted facts both Dr. Shapiro and I could, in principle, agree on, and provided an explanation that best fit the facts. If my logic was valid and the facts true, the conclusions I offered would remain standing as the most reasonable. At the end of each of the four separate arguments, I told the audience I would wait to see what my opponent would offer as a better explanation of these facts. In his rebuttals, he gave a lot of criticisms but never answered my challenges directly. Not only was my opponent silent in presenting an alternative explanation for any of these four facts, he didn't offer any explanation at all.  So, if the challenges I presented demand an explanation, the Christian explanation won by default. 

Christianity won because the evidence was better and the reasoning clearer than what my atheist friend offered. We all know that debates are won or lost by much more than the content. If I came across condescending or frustrated, all the evidence and logic in the world wouldn't have helped me. Good manners and graciousness are critical. My goal was to be bold and nice at the same time. While his arguments were lacking, I owe thanks to Dr. Shapiro for keeping things cordial as well. He's a gentleman. 

A quick note about scholarly consensus is important. Few of us have the time or training to master all the arguments so it helps to stand on the shoulders of scholars who do. I'm not suggesting an appeal to authority or majority can replace sound reasoning. Surely, scholarly consensus alone isn't an argument. It would be fallacious to appeal to the majority since the majority can be wrong and the number of noses is irrelevant to the truth of a proposition. What this shows is that each fact has been defended in published work and debated among experts on all sides of the issue. When scholars committed to a worldview contrary to Christianity concede these facts, they do so in spite of their desires because of the weight of evidence and because intellectual honesty compels them. That's what we want it to do for our unbelieving friends as well. We just need to point this out. 

To show how this works, I'll release four short blog posts to unpack each of these facts over each of the next four weeks. When combined together, these four facts make a cumulative, or "minimal facts," case we can use to show our skeptical friends to infer important conclusions that point us to God based on facts even atheists grant. Inspired by what Gary Habermas has done for the historical case for the resurrection, these facts can be extended into an overall case for Christianity. The compelling force of Habermas' work is showing the mass concession by scholars from non-Christian, even hostile, worldviews on relevant facts surrounding the death of Jesus. It's easy to point out Christian scholars in support of our views, and there's nothing wrong with that, but citing a skeptic who is an authority on the topic blunts the bias objection from the start. 

It's not only skeptics who need to hear this. When I speak at various Christian groups, I'm constantly surprised by how many intelligent and faithful Christians don't know how widely accepted these facts are either. Without the facts, they risk being forced into defending ideas already settled among the experts. To suggest that Jesus died by crucifixion, for example, might sound like a religious claim, not a historical one. Once we learn that the most skeptical scholars accept Jesus' crucifixion, however, it should cause our skeptical friend to question her own reasons for denying it. 

Many of the scholars I'll cite are the same ones our skeptical friends are learning from. So if our friends are persuaded by atheist writings of Dawkins, Shermer, Hitchens, Krauss, Erhman, Carrier, and others, get ready to hear what they have to say now!  

Friday, December 9, 2016

My Debate with Freethought Arizona

Once you get the apologetics bug there's no turning back. If you're reading this blog, you know what I mean. I spent years jogging the sidewalks of Orange County and driving long LA commutes to the debates of Christians and athiests. I even ran a 10K Turkey Trot to the sounds of Frank Turek and Christopher Hitchens battling out big ideas in my ear buds. But when you take the stage yourself in front of hundreds of people things are a little different. 

That's how it was for me a little over a week ago when I debated the spokesperson for Freethought Arizona, which describes itself as "a community of freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists based on reason, science, and critical thinking" working together to "maintain separation of church and state, advance education and science."

In August, I invited Dr. Gil Shapiro, a local podiatrist and spokesperson for the group, to present his worldview to a packed Reason Why event at Catalina Foothills Church in Tucson, AZ. Dr. Shapiro has enjoyed the attention of southern Arizona through his many public speeches and dozens of op-ed articles in the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. When it came time for our church to study atheism, I figured there was no better way than to hear from the man who best represents that position. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Last week's debate was a favor returned. I was honored and immediately welcomed the invitation to come speak for their group when asked this summer. Dr. Shapiro told me his board would prefer to have the secular humanist response immediately after my presentation and offered a debate in lieu of a one-sided presentation by a Christian. That sounded fair so a debate was born. 

The debate was what you'd expect. I gave four points that supported Christianity as the best explanation of reality and Dr. Shapiro gave his case why it wasn't. I plan to blog a detailed analysis of the ideas exchanged but want just to give my overall feel for how it went and what I learned from it. After all, the question I continue to get by those who want to know is, "How'd it go?"

My knee-jerk reaction is to smile and say "It went great!" Dr. Shapiro probably does the same. For me, that's only partially true. It would only be truly great if people responded by digesting the information and telling me how it changed them. Afterwards, I was approached by a line of attendees, both believer and skeptic alike lauding their praises on a job well done. The organizers treated me well, the reception was nice, but the question remained, "Did anyone really listen?" 

To their credit, Freethought Arizona expressed their interest in continuing the dialogue on more specific questions of public interest like abortion, same sex marriage, religious freedom, education, and other controversial policy matters. While we disagree in big ways, they seem to really want to engage in the marketplace of ideas. I can't tell you how refreshing this was. This is what Christian apologists live for! I've worked on projects like this with other atheist groups but haven't had the olive branch extended quite like this. This may lead to other public conversations on radio or other live event which is very exciting. 

I could be wrong, but they seem genuine in this effort. From the very start of our conversation, everyone on the FAZ board treated me with respect and fairness. It was as if they were shocked a Christian actually contacted them at all. In fact, when Dr. Shapiro came to Catalina Foothills Church, he said it was the first time in over 20 years anyone invited him to church. That was a compliment with a simultaneous punch to the gut. I'm honored to be the one, but where have the Christians been the last 20 years? 

I don't know about your city, but Christians, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews work together in Tucson every day striving to make this a better place. Religious views don't need to get in the way. And if they don't get in the way in everyday life when we pretend they don't exist, why do they have to get in the way when they're right there in front of us? I don't know about you, but I never ask someone what they think about Jesus before I decide to work their mail theft case or not. I don't care the religious perspective of the offender I'm going to arrest. We work together in our jobs, whatever we do, regardless of whether or not we agree on the big things of life. This doesn't mean that those conversations shouldn't come up. Religion and politics are so important, they BETTER come up!

Since when did our culture get so sensitive that the thing we base everything on, our worldview, must stay hidden? The answer is obvious, of course. People's feelings are going to get hurt. Well too bad! I'm sorry to be crass, but my feelings are hurt that Dr. Shapiro encountered cowardly Christians over the last 20 years who decided not to offend him by steering clear of religious conversations or even a church invite. We need to man up and get real. If we think the issues that really matter don't need to be discussed, we're in big trouble. We're obsessed with the Titanic's deck chairs. 

I'll leave you with one illustration before I close out this offensively long blog post. When in the course of human events, do we set aside the most important issues because someone might be offended? Should doctors stop recommending diets, should bosses stop doing reviews, should athletes all be awarded trophies...? I think you get my point. Real love is truth. Maybe Rick Astley was right: "What is love? Baby don't hurt me. Don't hurt me no more."

We don't have to be rude. In fact, it's the exact opposite. It may take a little courage to start asking our friends, family, and even strangers the kinds of questions we're all thinking about but nobody is asking. Let's start now. It may be hard, but let's start digging into the big issues of life in every meaningful conversation we have with people. Life is short, people matter, and we've got to start now.

Gil Shapiro has become my friend. He didn't change his mind and neither did I..yet.