Monday, October 21, 2013

Adventures in Incivility, Zuckerman's Response

Note: Ironically, the biologist Jerry Coyne, who is not, shall we say, always entirely welcoming to Christians who intelligently dispute him on his own web site, is making use of this controversy to attack Christianity as anti-Democratic and cowardly.  He has linked to this post, and I have posted a response on his own site.  But in case it "gets lost in the shuffle," welcome to visitors from Why Evolution is True.  Let me preface the following with a message to Jerry and his disciples directly.  Those of you who want to see more of how tolerant and open-minded popular Secular Humanist bloggers can be, see my earlier expose of PZ Myers, the "Guru of Hate."  The original post will begin from the seventh paragraph, below. -- DM

"Jerry: How am I to take this post? Everyone knows that you often delete serious arguments from serious Christians. You've "censored" me yourself! (And other thoughtful Christians you can't stay on the matt with.)

"Phil was by no means "too nasty." I'm trying to understand the actions of Adventure: my perception is that he was thoroughly professional from beginning to end of the debate, as well as before and after -- apart from parts of that one post. But they obviously found some tangential points he made upsetting, judging by the videos they posted afterwards.

"Phil didn't win, though. I'm posting a transcript of the debate on my blog, and have nothing to be ashamed of in my arguments -- they are orthodox, reasonable, accurate, and telling.

"Phil is a class act, and I appreciated his coming, and the arguments that he made. I think the facts line up strongly on the side of Christianity, and Phil is humble enough to know he did not rebut my arguments. (As I did not fully rebut his, either.)

"The debate will go on. People like Phil Zuckerman will continue to make the best of the bad hand that they have, and I respect them for that. But we will also continue to give the other side of the argument, which I am convinced is the winning side. And I hope you will practice better the openness you implicitly preach."

Second postscript: Watching the debate myself, I now understand Adventure's action.  Parts of my presentation were, in fact, inarticulate and fumbling, and I failed to answer several challenges clearly.  I did in fact, lose the debate on style. 

I do think I won it on substance, however.  My arguments were strong, and Zuckerman inflicted little damage on them.  (Nor much pretend to, being an honest man; nor was he necessarily thinking in zero-sum terms, with which I in part agree.)  As for his own arguments, even on his own premises, and if his facts were correct (sometimes they are, sometimes they need a deal of tweaking), I am not sure they would establish his conclusion.  In short, a public debate can be an entertaining public spectacle -- but it should be the beginning, not the end, of intellectual inquiry. At best, it is a door into further discovery. 

So along with the transcript, which begins here, I will also provide further analysis of some of the most important points made in our debate, in future posts. 

A day or two ago, Phil Zuckerman posted an interesting account of our debate on a Huffington Post blog.  He didn't say a whole lot about the debate itself, certainly offered even less refutation of my arguments than in the debate.  He attempted, instead, to make the church's behavior in not releasing the tape of our debate itself a piece of (apparently he thinks strong) evidence for his position, that Christianity provides a poor basis for civil society. 

I think what he really does, is reveal the weakness of the epistemological foundation for his general argument for Secular Humanism, and against Christianity. 

So while we're waiting for the debate to show up (if it ever will) let me respond, point by point, to Phil Zuckerman's Huffington Post comments, beginning with the trivial, progressing to the personal, and then on to really important points. 

On a hill in Roseville, California, just outside of Sacramento, sits Adventure Christian Church.

Hill?  You call that a hill?  Maybe in California, that's what they call a hill.  I'd call it a gentle rise. ;- )

The people at this successful Evangelical congregation are nice, friendly and civil.

Well, not exactly. Nice? -- yes. Friendly? -- you bet. But civil? -- uh, that would be a definite no.

Here's what happened:

Last weekend, on October 12, I was invited by Adventure Christian Church to participate in a "Great Debate." My opponent was David Marshall, a Christian author, blogger and founder/director of the Kuai Mu Institute for Christianity and World Cultures.

I think "historian" or perhaps "theologian" might be preferred to "blogger," here.  I mean, I appreciate visits to this site (which set a record last month, still small), but I don't confuse this with a real job.  It's more like growing strawberries in the garden.

And let's not blame all the people in the church, for the actions of a few. 

The question at hand: "What provides a better foundation for civil society, Christianity or Secular Humanism?" David Marshall took the Christian position, and I took the secular humanist position.

Preparation for this debate had been underway for several months. It was a very professional deal. The associate pastors as Adventure Church know what they are doing; there was a lot of paperwork filled out, waivers signed and lots of pre-debate planning in terms of the format, rules, the moderator's role, etc.

Yes, I agree. 

The folks at Adventure were generous hosts: they paid for my travel expenses, asked me what kind of water I liked to drink, provided nice snacks in the green room, and paid me an appreciated honorarium. And the church itself was most impressive: state-of-the-art big screens, big lights, big cameras, big audio systems, etc.

I was repeatedly told -- via e-mail, as well as in person -- that not only would the debate be video'ed by their expert video team, but the video of the debate would be posted on vimeo soon after the debate.

I was told that, as well. 

And so we had the debate. And I won. Now, that's not my opinion -- its the opinion of Adventure Christian church, because they now refuse to post the video on-line.

First, I'm not sure that's the correct explanation for their peculiar actions.  It may be that they didn't feel I supported their theological views as well as they expected.  It may also be that while both sides offered some good arguments -- as both sides did, though I think I had the better ones -- the pastors felt that something Phil said might somehow undercut the faith of some listening.  Which seems kind of lame to me, especially since the next morning I preached on boldly and fearlessly engaging with the world.  ("Step out of the boat!") 

But even if the senior pastor thought Phil had the better of the argument, of course it would not make it so.  There are people who always see their own side as winning, and even vote for, say, Alex Rosenberg over William Lane Craig, or think Romney did well in his second debate.  But there are also people in whose eyes opposing arguments loom large, and there are lots of other people who just aren't qualified to judge.   

Honestly, I don't think anyone who believed Phil wiped up the floor with me in terms of arguments, understood what was going on.  Phil didn't even attempt to answer most of my main arguments.  And they weren't exercises in trivia. 

Instead, what they've done is post a series of rebuttals to the debate -- refutations and criticisms. But they won't post the actual debate. And they've disabled my ability to even comment on their posted refutations.

The one refutation I watched had to do with what even a Zuckerman supporter admitted was a highly tangential argument -- Phil's claim that the Treaty of Tripoli somehow proved that the US was founded as a non-Christian nation (he confused government with nation, and I corrected him on that point in the debate).  Pastor Stedman's response properly went into much more detail. 

When I called pastor Bryan, and asked him why they are refusing to post the video -- even after repeated promises of doing so -- he replied, "It just didn't go the way we wanted it to go. We were not represented well."

Which prompted me to write Bryan and the Senior Pastor, Rick Stedman:

Let me be clear.  I am not ashamed of anything I said in that debate.  My arguments were orthodox, on topic, courteous, and historically accurate.  And I think they constitute an overwhelming case that the Gospel has proven the strongest foundation for productive and happy human society, which Zuckerman did very little even to dispute. 

If something I said failed to meet any of these four criteria, let the pastors, or anyone else present, explain what that was. 

But from this supposed victory, Zuckerman attempts a larger argument, which actually reflects the general weakness of the case he and likeminded sociologists attempt to make against Christianity:

There is a real irony here: the debate was about civil society -- and here we see an Evangelical church acting quite uncivil.

One of my points during the debate was that if "Christianity" is the foundation of civil society, then all non-Christians in such a society will essentially be second-class citizens. They will be ignored, disrespected, or blown off (at best), or actually censored, oppressed, and persecuted (at worst). Adventure Christian Church couldn't have proven my point any better: they have censored me -- air-brushed me out -- because my truths are just too, well, true.

This, let me gently suggest, reveals the weakness of Zuckerman's whole approach to argumentation.  It's too narrow in its evidential base, and wildly sweeping in its conclusions, at once. 

Christians have engaged in robust debate for 2,000 years.  Jesus debated the Pharisees.  The authors of the gospels honestly recorded the charges the latter made against the former: he is a commoner, a sinner, a "Samaritan and a demon," he breaks Jewish law, fails to pay taxes, lacks education, is guilty of blasphemy, insanity, and black magic. 

Paul debated the Stoics and Epicureans.  Justin Martyr debated a Jew on the beach.  Eusebius and Tertullian and Augustine cited their opponents extensively and (having found Nag Hammadi) it appears pretty accurately.  Mateo Ricci debated Confucians and Buddhists in Beijing.  Christians founded the world's greatest universities, at one of which -- Oxford -- I attended debates still raging, a thousand years later. 

But Dr. Zuckerman thinks Adventure "proved his (sweeping) point," mind you not "illustrated" it, by failing to release the tapes from our little debate?  Proves censorship, oppression, and "worse" than persecution?  (Thumb screws?  Racks?  Auto da fes?)  As much as I would like to exaggerate my significance in the world, that seems a bit much.  And I tried to explain to Phil that I was not, in fact, arguing for theocracy, and of course nothing in the title of our debated suggested that I should. 

It's not like Secular Humanists never sin, in this regard.  It's not like the unwritten rule of popular skeptical blogs like those of PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne seems to be, "Let Christians post, until they start making too much sense." 

This is not just a "gotcha" argument.  I like Dr. Zuckerman's writings.  They're colloquial and interesting -- see my recent review of his book on Scandinavia. 

But what they fail to do, is provide the basis for the kind of sweeping argument Zuckerman often avoids, but sometimes indulges in, even in those considered writings, and that his followers do often seem to engage in -- the argument from pointalistic correlation to broad-brushed causation, that he is also making here. 

A real argument demands a far deeper empirical basis, and not just a casual hand wave about correlation, but a serious demonstration that the effect did indeed flow from that cause. 

Christians and Humanists alike have often sinned against civility.  One more instance on our side, will not make Zuckerman's case.  Especially since the Bible predicts human sin, and demands separation of powers for just that reason, a tradition I cited in the debate.  James Madison may have learned from David Hume on that score, but it is hard to believe he didn't also learn from the whole Christian tradition, including his Presbyterian teacher and mentor, John Witherspoon.  And that was part of the spiritual evolution of the West.  "Power corrupts" -- an aphorism from a Christian historian.

I was actually quite stunned by Adventure Church's not keeping their word and being so cowardly.

So was I! 

And I shared my dismay with my friends, family and students. But then, yesterday, one of my students came up to me and said, "I'm stunned that you're so stunned."

"What do you mean?" I replied. "They were such nice people. And they repeatedly assured me that the debate would be put up on vimeo. Now they won't do it."

"Clearly you don't know a lot of Evangelicals," she replied.  "Sure, they're very nice.  But if you say anything that goes against their party line, you're out.  They can't handle debate, they can't handle real dialogue.  It doesn't surprise me at all that they won't show the video."

This allegation cuts, and it is proper that we Christians consider its possible truth.  The day after our debate, I preached a sermon entitled "Step out of the Boat!"  My goal was to encourage the Adventure congregation to be bold and full of faith in engaging challenges around us in the unbelieving world. 

Apparently my sermon backfired.  Not for the first time.  God seems to have a sense of humor about these things.  Even Jesus sometimes had a hard time getting through, so who am I to complain? 

There is, however, a difference between a church and a college, and it is proper to recognize that difference.  Lots of debates have been held in churches too, and Baker Books, an evangelical publisher, published a book of debates between Randal Rauser and John Loftus earlier this year, which I was asked to blurb.  And as pointed out earlier, Christians have engaged in robust debate for millennia.  One might add that in the process, they have burned fewer opponents at the stake, than Secular Humanists have sent to the Gulag.  (I see that thought emerging in the heads of some skeptics -- indeed, Zuckerman already alluded to it.)

I think my student may have gone a bit far. I don't think all Evangelicals are like those at Adventure. I am sure that there are many, many evangelical Christians who keep their word, are open to debate and dialogue, and have the courage of their convictions.

But, unfortunately, that wasn't my experience at Adventure Christian Church. They are indeed afraid to air the underling truth of my position: that no civil society can thrive if it does not exist upon a bedrock of democracy, and democracy is not a Christian value -- it is not articulated anywhere in the Gospels, nor is it promulgated, in any way, by Jesus or Paul. Rather, democracy is a secular humanist ideal -- something dreamed up and established by and for people.

Well, here it is.  Here is your position being aired, on a blog by a cultural evangelical.  (Though I generally think of myself simply as a Christian.)

Of course you're wrong, Phil. 

Civil societies do sometimes thrive without democracy.  Take Singapore or Hong Kong, or South Korea or Taiwan before they became democratic.  Indeed, one cannot fairly describe Europe in general as simply a "failure" before democracy dawned, or China in the early Tang or Qing, or Japan in the Meiji, while many failed states began as democracies.  (Aristotle recognized this fact -- hasn't the Arab Spring shown again that he was right?)

So it is wrong to idolize "democracy," though that form of freedom can no doubt also be a good thing, as again Aristotle seemed to concede. 

And in our debate, I cited sociologist Robert Woodberry, who showed that Protestant missions was the single greatest predictor of whether a society would develop the institutions that lead to free civil society and democracy.   You ignored that citation, and argument, along with the many citations of leading historians who traced the development of free and democratic states to biblical as well as "Greek" influences.

Not, of course, that Locke, Witherspoon, Adams, or even Thomas Jefferson, were "Secular Humanists."   That's crude and anachronistic history, indeed.  And if all we mean when we say "democracy is a secular humanist ideal," is that it was "dreamed up by and for people," then by the same token, we must also say "pizza is a secular humanist food," and "dog sleds are a secular humanist means of conveyance" and, yes, "the atomic bomb is a Secular Humanist gift to posterity!"

Perhaps Dr. Zuckerman is letting his alleged "victory" go to his head, with such a sloppy association of thoughts.

Secular Humanists have sometimes embraced democracy, and often rejected it: but they certainly did not invent it.

But the good pastors at Adventure Christian church would you prefer not to know that!

While I prefer to debunk bad historical arguments: a more satisfying solution. 


domics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crude said...

And if all we mean when we say "democracy is a secular humanist ideal," is that it was "dreamed up by and for people," then by the same token, we must also say "pizza is a secular humanist food," and "dog sleds are a secular humanist means of conveyance" and, yes, "the atomic bomb is a Secular Humanist gift to posterity!"

It's a nice, pointlessly malleable word.

Everyone talks about the slaveowners who justified owning slaves on religious grounds. What about the secular grounds? What about the secular "humanist" grounds - 'we're civilizing these people', 'we're giving them a better life than they had', 'we're taking care of them'?

If a pastor or priest molests a child, this becomes a 'religious act' - even if it was clandestine, was not justified on religious grounds, if the religion itself opposed the act, etc. But when a teacher or a businessman or anyone else molests a child, it's never a 'secular act'.

Anyway, did Zuckerman mention that you yourself were calling for the release of this tape from the start? Or was that omitted?

David B Marshall said...

I think he was too pissed at the church, and too eager to draw the appropriate doctrinal moral from the episode, to be fair to me, as he has otherwise always been.

Crude said...

I'm not sure 'he's civil and fair with me, unless the opportunity is just too juicy' is much of a defense of him.

His entire article's thrust would be deflated instantaneously if he mentioned that you yourself were urging the release of these tapes. To knowingly leave it out is severe dishonesty - and also impugns you, because it is very easy to silently infer that you are behind this too. And how many of his readers will see your blog post?

David B Marshall said...

Thus the word "otherwise." I agree that this post was unfair to those not in authority at that church. A little more careful wording would have improved that. But people do get angry, and one should sometimes make allowances.

Phil has since privately apologized.

Crude said...

At the risk of sounding like, well... Me, I humbly suggest you ask for a public clarification. This was a public oversight, and the entire thrust of his attack changes based in this singular fact.

But, your debate, your call. I just wanted to say the above, and think the wrong calls for public correction. That is the last out of me on this.

Crude said...

Just to briefly expand on what I mean...

Phil presented this as a case of, 'They're censoring the video because I won!' But when the very person he argued against is A) standing by his views, and B) calling for the release of the tape as well, that damages his rendition of the situation immensely and immediately.

Sure, people get angry, they make allowances. They also become opportunist. This is a situation that can be easily, quickly corrected with a public acknowledgment. Maybe it's already been done so. But if not? I question the value of a private apology for a public wrong.

David B Marshall said...

Domics: I hate to see you removing posts, here. I much appreciated those citations you gave before. I began reading one of the Finnish scholar's papers, and so far it looks really interesting.

Crude: Well, now it's all academic. They've reposted the debate. I've written out a transcript of my opening argument, for this morning's post. More should follow; someone on Phil's side will apparently be helping with the transcription.