Monday, 25 August 2008

Does God Exist? A debate review

It's national science week in Australia (that's right, we have a whole week dedicated to science!) and the Australian government brought out Dr Michael Shermer. As a huge fan of his work, I organised a trip at short notice to Sydney to see him debate Dr John Lennox on the topic of "Does God Exist?". I would have preferred a 90 minute lecture on one of the many topics he's written books on, but a debate is better than nothing. I finished reading Why People Believe Weird Things on the bus on the way up, excited about what was to come.

The debate
the debate was divided into three sections, a 20 minute talk from each professor, then 45 minutes of Q&A and finally a 5 minute closing statement each at the end. Shermer went first and presented his case. For me there was nothing new in what he said, being somewhat familiar with the arguments against God's existence it was simply an exercise in debating technique rather than a vessel of learning. Though isn't that what debates are all about? It's not about being right, it's about winning. Anyway, Shermer did well. What I found most interesting about his talk was that it pre-empted so much of what Lennox said.

Dr. Lennox really disappointed me. For someone who has gone up against the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, I expected some form of coherence and insight into the theist worldview. Instead it was a constant stream of logical fallacies: circular reasoning, constant appeals to authority, strawmen and selective history; it was an exercise in frustration to listen to it. Even Shermer looked agitated having to listen to such poor arguments. Some of the more contentious points for me where his link between a "historical" Jesus and a "magic" Jesus, that he appealed to the authority of the Nobel Prize to back up an argument from a laureate, and that the bible was the birthplace of science. The funny thing is that so many of the problems with religion Shermer talked about Lennox validated. Perhaps if it weren't for that irony, it would have been far less tolerable.

The question time brought the most interesting discussion and argument between the two, and provided the most enlightening moments between the contrasting worldviews. It was here I was able to get an appreciation for Dr Lennox's worldview as well as see Dr Shermer display his critical thinking skills. As the questioning went on, Lennox moved more and more towards emotive reasons for his belief and away from the evidence he professed to so much. But his views on Christianity are by no means medieval (even if they were defended as such) and a modern form of theism is quite refreshing to hear. Somehow I doubt the YECs in the audience were interested in the scientific worldview of Dr Lennox, only his spiritual arguments. And that's a shame, it was national science week and having a scientist who professes his literal belief in the resurrection without it conflicting with his religious beliefs should have helped. I only hope that at least a few came away with a bit more of a positive outlook on the role of science. That to me is far more important than the debate topic itself.

I missed out on asking a question because of time constraints, I was slightly disappointed. One loud theist who was in line behind me said to the organiser "God wants me to ask a question", I really hope he was joking. Though given his responses all night (even Shermer noticed him), maybe he genuinely felt that he had the God given right to ask. Who knows? As for the closing remarks, the most telling question of the night was "what would make you change your minds about the existence of God?". Shermer answered "$10 million in a Swiss bank account", Lennox answered "proof that Jesus didn't resurrect". $10 million appearing in an account has an earthly means and it can never be disproved that Jesus didn't resurrect. Possibly insight into the unwilling nature of either to change their worldview? I don't know. Overall, it was worth the trip up the Hume and I'm glad I made the endeavour. I got to thank Dr. Shermer and had a photo taken, but I cursed the fact I left 3 of his books back in my hotel room that I would have loved to get signed.

The pilgrimage
Afterwards, I met up with the Sydney atheists / sceptics, and along with Dr Shermer we went out for drinks. It seemed quite funny that the theists of the audience went off to pray with Dr Lennox while we went out for drinks, like we both have our drug to obfuscate reality. Though the key difference between the two is in the morning we'd all be sober. After what took a seeming eternity to find an open pub that could accommodate all 37 of us (Sydney, I'm very disappointed with you for a Saturday night), we finally got some booze and a chance to converse with the great man himself.

Any disappointment about the nature of the debate went away here, Shermer is a very knowledgeable and well-spoken man. His ability to talk comprehensively on a wide range of issues made the conversation like a Q&A session. This is more what National Science Week should have been about. I got to ask many questions on a wide range of topics, he even asked my opinion about why I thought that Richard Dawkins was being put on a pedestal by atheists and theists alike (though I'm not sure if it was just out of courtesy or he genuinely wanted to hear what I had to say). Even if he thought I was a complete moron, he answered my questions and was more than willing to engage in conversation.

So in the end, we as a group got to talk to Dr. Shermer for a good 90 minutes. It was a really enlightening experience. It was good to see them bring him out for national science week, not quite comparable to the $150 million that world youth day received, but a start nevertheless. Maybe next year they'll bring out Dawkins and PZ Myers in honour of the 150th anniversary of the release of The Origin Of Species. I guess I'll have to wait 12 months to find out. It was an interesting week and it's good to see the government encourage scientific learning for people of all ages and scientific literacy. There were plenty of events for school children, for the general public, and for those looking to supplement their knowledge. Hopefully it encourages more people to explore the discipline, it's something we really need for the future!


Michael said...

Found out about this too late and it was booked out! Flabbergasted that I missed Shermer who until a few days ago I didn't even know was going to be in Sydney. Is there any mailing list you know of for atheist/skeptical events I can get on to prevent this in the future?

Aaron Alderman said...

You can watch it online at

Can you believe the SMH decided to censor Richard Ackland when he spoke about "The Jewel of Medina". They blocked the audio but let the video run.

Aaron Alderman said...

Whoops. Wrong debate.
The one I posted was a 3 on 3 debate about "Would we be better without religion?"

Worth watching - Lennox is on the opposition.

Kel said...

There's some video of it here

Theality Bites said...

Hi Kel,

Interesting review. I was just recently put onto this debate by a work colleague, and found it quite entertaining.

As a Christian (Bias revealed!) I disagree with the extent to which you detracted from the arguments put forward by Lennox. I didn't see as many straw man arguments, and found very little in the way of circular reasoning. This could be in no small part due to my studying (informally) Christian apologetics over the last few years, and my mind could well have filled in the blanks using more coherent arguments from other philosophers.

Having said all of that, I still found Lennox to be a little disappointing. As a scientist, I was hoping for a more well developed argument, similar perhaps to the five point approach often employed by Dr William Lane Craig.

I also have to say how much I enjoyed hearing Michael Shermer speak. Having focussed a lot of my attentions on atheist such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and even Frank Zindler, I found the style and approach employed by Shermer to be quite refreshing. He was warm, friendly, and while he wouldn't accept anything he saw to be a logical fallacy, he was firm but kind in pointing out where he thought his opponent to have gone wrong.

All in all, I would like to see more of both parties.

Thanks for the review by the way. The post debate discussion with Shermer would have been great! My only qualm would be that I could not have gone and spent time with both men.