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“This house does not believe in God”

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DanOxford “This house does not believe in God”


FFRF members Steve Aldred (left) and Daniel Saiz (right) joined
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker (center) for a post-debate reception.

I have done more than 100 debates as an atheist, but this was one I was really looking forward to — my first visit to Oxford, England. “This House Believes in God” was the proposition put forth by the members of the prestigious Oxford Society for a formal debate on Nov. 8. The Society had invited me, Michael Shermer and Peter Millican (Philosophy, Hertford College) to team up against theists John Lennox (well-known Oxford professor of Mathematics and Philosophy), Peter Hitchens (journalist, author and former atheist) and Anglican priest Joanna Collicut (co-author of The Dawkins Delusion). Although I was quite jet-lagged, having traveled overnight from the U.S., the fatigue was erased by the adrenaline rush of being able to take part in such an exciting event.

It was a formal black-tie evening, so I brought my nice tuxedo that I use for playing jazz gigs and country clubs. I am sure I was the only person in the room with piano keyboard suspenders.

The Oxford Union is “the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford.” Founded in 1823 as a forum for debate among students, it welcomes and encourages controversy. “The Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.” Many of the protocols of modern-day British Parliament stem from Oxford Union customs. Eleven British Prime Ministers, starting with W.E. Gladstone, had been officers or members of the society, and dozens of other members have gone on to become nationally and internationally prominent figures. Famous speakers at the Union include Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Robert Kennedy, Churchill, Thatcher, John Major, actors (including Judy Dench and Johnny Depp), musicians (including Ashkenazi, Yoko Ono, Michael Jackson), sports figures, authors, journalists, the Dalai Lama, Malcolm X, Salman Rushdie, Mother Teresa, Philip Pullman, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.

It was quite sobering to be standing where all those dignitaries had stood. For our event, the formality was enhanced by the fact that Richard Dawkins was in the audience. Michael, Peter and I thought he should have been one of the speakers, but, of course, Richard has already spoken there, confronting creationist AE Wilder-Smith during the Huxley Memorial Debate. Two members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation were also in the room: Steve Aldred, born in the U.K., now of Tennessee and Daniel Saiz of Florida. Steve had very generously provided transportation for me that day, driving me from Heathrow Airport to Oxford.

After the preliminaries conducted by the current President, John Lee, and other officers of the society (identified by white bow ties), including a memorial for past members who had died in military service, the main event began.

We spoke with no microphones in the formal Debate Chamber with hardwood floor and busts of famous people around the red walls, standing on respective sides of a practical table on the floor (no lofty pulpits), with most of the audience at the same level, and many in the balconies above us. The secretary of the society, Helen Elmer, handled the timekeeping by placing within our view index cards with remaining time of “5 minutes,” “2 minutes,” and so on, followed by a bell at the end. Oxford Union debates normally involve four speakers on each side, with 10 minutes each, but that evening, with only three on a side, we were allowed 15 minutes. The format included the ability for any member of the audience to interrupt our statements with a brief “point of information,” which we were free to decline, though we were advised that it is customary to accept and reply to at least one of those.

John Lennox went first, speaking for the proposition. As it turns out, he was our most formidable and articulate opponent, which is not the same as saying he was completely coherent. John has a likable relaxed personality, a warm avuncular style with an Irish twinkle in his eyes. He spoke with confidence and was easy to understand. Previously, Lennox has debated Richard Dawkins (twice), Christopher Hitchens (twice), and Michael Shermer.

Atheism is illogical, Lennox asserted, because “nothing comes from nothing.” There is no contradiction between science and faith. An immaterial God is free to show himself to us in a material way using revelation, and the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus is a clear evidence for the existence and power of such a being.

An audience member interrupted Lennox, asking about problems with miracles in the resurrection stories, and Lennox replied, “I actually wrote a book about that,” and criticized David Hume.

He ended with the argument from fine tuning: the constants (forces or parameters) of the cosmos are so exquisitely balanced that if one of them were off by the tiniest fraction, we would not be living in a universe hospitable to life. A fine tuner is the best explanation. Besides, without a belief in the Christian God, there is no hope.

Then I spoke next, for the opposition. During the weeks leading up to the debate, Michael, Peter and I had discussed strategy, apportioning the work load with minimal overlap, allowing for some flexibility (or “agility,” as Peter put it) to respond to the arguments raised. It was my job to introduce the main ideas in opposition to theistic belief, putting as much as possible on the table for our opponents to rebut and setting the stage for Michael and Peter to drive the points home using their considerable areas of expertise. I had deliberately prepared a 10-minute opening, anticipating that I might appreciate the extra five-minute elbow room for “agility” to insert specific rebuttals or allow interruptions from the floor.

I started off with a simple evidence against the proposition, noting that during the formal and delicious dinner we had been served before the event, the president had made three toasts: one to the Queen, one to the society, and one to the speakers. There was no prayer. Nobody thought of acknowledging the Sovereign that “this house believes in.”

Then I turned to Lennox and said, “If nothing comes from nothing, God cannot exist.” A god, if such a being exists, is not nothing. He would certainly be something. To exclude the desired conclusion from the premise is to beg the question. It is illogical. Smuggling God into the reasoning that is supposed to prove his existence also results in an incoherency, a married bachelor, a something that comes from the nothing from which something cannot come.

For another married bachelor, I pointed out that if “God” is defined as an omniscient being with free will, then he cannot exist. If you know the future, you cannot have free will. Foreknowledge of your own decisions rules out any ability to change your mind. You are a robot, not a personal being. (This would also limit your power: you might be omnipotent or omniscient, but you cannot be both.) I also questioned how an immaterial mind can be defined with a material property like power, which is work over time, which is material.

I heard at least three interruptions from the floor during my talk, all of which I allowed. Someone asked why these problems do not disappear when we consider that God lives outside of time. I replied that such a concept is meaningless because time is not a “thing” that you can live “outside of.” Time is a dimension, and dimensions are unmeasurable concepts (how high is height?) that we use to measure with, to determine if one thing is outside of another.

I briefly sketched the cumulative case that belief in a god suffers from serious deficiencies: lack of coherent definition, lack of evidence, lack of good argument (many theistic arguments are merely “god-of-the-gaps” explanations), lack of moral and theological agreement among believers, lack of good response to the problem of evil, and the lack of reliability of so-called holy books. I turned to Lennox to counter that the resurrection of Jesus is the worst example anyone could offer as evidence for a god, and explained why. I ended with the fact that there is no need for a god: tens of millions of good people have lives of purpose, morality, love, meaning, happiness, beauty and hope without such a belief.

As I was returning to my seat next to Michael Shermer, he said “Bravo! You nailed it!” and we did high fives.

Then it was Joanna Collicut’s turn to argue for the proposition. I listened carefully, ready to take notes, but her monotone remarks were so vague, so Sunday morning sermonish, I really don’t remember what she said. She offered no evidence or argument for God, preferring to talk about (I am groping to remember) “what kind of a God should we like to believe in,” and so on. I looked over at Peter’s notepad and saw that he had jotted many things down during Lennox’s speech, but nothing at all for Collicut. Same with me. I wrote down nothing to criticize, nothing to praise. It was like trying to nail jello to a tree. The audience applauded politely.

Then Michael Shermer virtually leaped to the table to take up for the opposition. He made the case that god beliefs are neurological, psychological, sociological, anthropological, and historical. Turning to Lennox, he challenged the audacity of pretending that out of the thousands of gods and religions, you just happen to possess the correct one. “I simply believe in one less god than you do,” he said, eliciting much laughter and applause. He talked about pattern recognition and agency detection, Type 1 versus Type 2 errors (thinking the noise in the grass is the wind rather than a predator), showing that god belief is a Type 1 error (false positive) that was useful to our prescientific ancestors for survival reasons.

An audience member interrupted with a question about the brain, and Michael, pivoting to Lennox with a grin, said, “I actually wrote a book about that.” More laughter. He was in great form, and when he sat down, more high fives.

Before the final two speakers was a time when any member of the audience could step to the front to make a brief statement, alternating for and against the proposition. A number of students spoke eloquently, although one of them lost his train of thought and walked away embarrassed. The final moving remarks were by a brave young woman who announced that she has rejected the faith of her family.

Then came Peter Hitchens, the believing Anglican brother of Christopher Hitchens. (If anyone doubts the fact of evolutionary variation, just look at those two brothers.) Quoting a lengthy passage from the book of Job, Peter asked, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast understanding.” Nobody knows the answer to that question, he asserted, and it is arrogant of atheists to pretend they do.

Hitchens is articulate, but unlike Lennox’s pleasing demeanor, his was combative and unfriendly, consisting mainly of ad hominem assaults. “I decided that I would abandon any pretense at being Mr. Nice Guy,” he wrote the next day. Referring to me and Shermer, he said, “They remind me of the most obnoxious, irritating, person I have ever met – namely my own adolescent self.” Insisting that the debate was about belief, not knowledge, he offered no evidence or argument for the existence of a god, preferring instead to attack the motivations of nonbelievers. Without God there is no meaning, he insisted. Atheists are people who prefer to live in a universe with no justice, and no hope. “Why would anyone want the universe to be a pointless chaos, where our actions could be judged only by their immediate observable effects, a universe utterly without the hope of justice, where death was the end and the deaths of those we loved extinguished them irrevocably?” he wrote of the debate the next day. “Well, the question, once asked, rather answers itself, doesn’t it?” Hitchens apparently does believe all questions answer themselves because he brusquely declined interruptions from the audience.

The final speaker of the night was Peter Millican, on our side. He was brilliant. He deftly handled the theistic arguments raised by Lennox (since there was little to rebut from the other two theists), responding with philosophical rebuttals to the “fine tuning” argument, and the problem of evil. He presented a nice analogy of a person entering a restaurant for a 5-course meal who finds the first course utterly disgusting, asking, “Should I keep eating? If any of the rest of the meal is edible, would that make up for the horrible first course?” If there actually were an afterlife, how would future “justice” make our current suffering any less harmful? He was calm and friendly, but forceful. After hearing him talk, one wonders how anyone could continue to believe in god. When he sat down, I said to both him and Michael, “Strike three! They’re out.”

And I was right. At the end of the event, President John Lee announced to the audience that they were to “vote with your feet.” Those in favor of the proposition were to exit the room from one door, and those opposed from the opposite door. At the reception after the debate, he announced the results: “143 for the proposition, and 168 for the opposition.” The atheists won! That 54% – 46% result is greater than Obama’s popular vote in the U.S. election the same week. (See the story about the debate that ran in The Oxford Student Online newspaper.)

So although the exact proposition was indeed about belief and not knowledge, I think it is fair to say that it has been decided, by an Oxford vote no less, that there is no god.

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