So I attended the Loftus / Rauser debate last night in Calgary. Here are a few reflections on the evening and the performance of each of the speakers.
The evening was divided into three segments. In the first segment the two speakers had 20 minutes each to share their thoughts. In the second segment they spent 40 minutes discussing the issues with each other in a relatively free dialogue across the table. The remainder of the evening was dedicated to audience questions.
Both speakers came with prepared notes and simply read from their papers, which is not a bad idea. The Church where it was held, Renfrew Baptist, was relatively full and the audience seemed slightly tipped in Loftus’ favour if the Q&A time was any indication. I guess since Loftus was in town the Center for Inquiry put on a separate event (I couldn’t find the link to the event page) prior to the debate and many people from that event graced the debate with their presence.
The question that many people seem to look for in debate summaries is “who won?” That would be notoriously difficult to answer for this event because it would depend very much on what was meant by “win.” If the winner is the person who presented arguments that gave even a hint of philosophical validity, Rauser won, hands down. At Loftus’ website you can find him describe how his lack of formal PhD credentials really isn’t that big of a deal because he still knows his stuff. Well, I hate to say it, finishing up his PhD might have been a good idea. Broadly speaking Loftus hung the majority of his arguments on his unwavering faith in Scientism, on the objection that we would not believe a person today who claimed to have given virgin-birth to God therefore we should not believe the claim from 2000 years ago, and finally the “argument” (he kept coming back to this one in particular) that because the Jews rejected Jesus so should we. These arguments will almost certainly sound convincing to your average Atheist on the street, but the arguments fail to measure up to the standard of being real arguments in the first place.
Scientism is not an argument, it is a faith stance as Rauser masterfully explained. With respect to rejecting the virgin birth of God story, Loftus is perfectly correct that most people would (rightly!) reject such stories. Indeed, even in the New Testament Mary’s fiancé had trouble accepting it, Jesus’ own siblings had trouble accepting it, the other Jews had trouble accepting it, and so on. The only reason to accept it would be if the one making the claim could back it up. Jesus did that in spades with his miracles and capped it all off with his own resurrection from the dead. That was kind of the point of all those miracles as the Gospels make clear. If somebody made that claim without backing it up then I have to agree with Loftus, ignore them!
With respect to the Jews rejecting Jesus by and large, the challenge is not to explain why most Jews rejected him, but why any Jew accepted him! As William Lane Craig has explained, “Jews had no belief in a dying, much less rising, Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to throw off Israel’s enemies (= Rome) and re-establish a Davidic reign—not suffer the ignominious death of criminal.” Even in the New Testament Jesus’ followers did precisely what we should expect them to do once their “savior” was executed; cower in fear and then try to go back to their old lives. It was over. Done. But no, something happened. Something changed their minds. That not all Jews believed is no surprise, that any Jew believed demands an explanation. Loftus has the argument exactly backwards.
The truth of the matter is that the New Testament does not portray the early Church as a bunch of gullible pre-scientific buffoons who would believe anything so long as it was said to “come from God,” but as reasonable people who responded in a reasonable way (how Loftus claims we ought to respond!) to the claims being made. In so many cases in the New Testament it is said – even of the eventual leaders of the Church! – that they did not believe. Their default response is precisely what our default response would be in our “scientific” age; they were not stupid. However, their initial and perfectly reasonable skepticism was completely overturned. Something extraordinary caused them to change their minds.
I hate to admit it, but I forget most of Rauser’s arguments. The coin toss had Loftus go first and after his barrage of disrespectful (more in a moment) non-sequitors I was left pondering, “where does one even begin sifting through all of that?” Unfortunately that made it difficult to focus on Rauser’s arguments. However, the one argument that I do recall, because it inspired some good discussion during the second phase of the night, was the argument from Mathematical objects. I enjoyed this largely because one of the members of our group did a presentation on this exact subject earlier this year. If you would like to take in a one-hour version of Randall’s argument (more or less the same line of reasoning) see here. I have come to believe that the nature of Mathematics virtually completely undermines Naturalism and Loftus’ response to the subject was woefully insufficient.
In fact, Loftus’ hatchet-job of the subject matter involved was so bad that at one point he objected, “You have to let me use whatever definition of words I want.” I kid you not; he was serious! He was not being rhetorical or something. Then, ironically, he commented on multiple occasions that he is consistently misunderstood! The man who references his own custom-made dictionary has no grounds to turn around and complain that he is being misunderstood.
If the winner is the person who treated not only his opponent, but also the entire category of those who think differently than themselves, with respect and civility, that award absolutely cannot go to Loftus. I don’t recall all the labels he applied to Rauser and believers everywhere, but I do recall that “delusional” came up several times. [UPDATE: An article in the Edmonton Journal reminded me of another of Loftus’ claims, that all of Rauser’s arguments are “worthless.” Professional courtesy be damned!] It reminded me that so many Atheists will go on at length about how a lack of belief in God does not mean that an Atheist cannot be as good as a religious person. My question, then, is why so many Atheists, like Loftus, fail to actualize that potential? In theory it may be possible for Atheists to treat their religious “opponents” with civility, behaving honourably as they disagree, but so many of them utterly fail to. Loftus follows in the tradition of Dawkins, Hitchens and so many others who think there is no argument so persuasive as schoolyard bullying. Rauser, on the other hand, demonstrated the utmost honour as he engaged his opponent’s arguments and views, not his mental health.
If the winner is the person who most effectively engaged a popular-level audience (which I presume this was) Loftus takes that one. Rauser’s arguments were clearly coherent, well-reasoned (even one of the Atheists explicitly and emphatically pointed this out during the Q&A!!) rooted in a long philosophical heritage, therefore “tried and true” and generally superior to Loftus’ in virtually every way. But, unfortunately, he suffered from one shortcoming; his arguments were sometimes abstract and always involved big words. Having some familiarity with this subject matter myself it was clear to see that his arguments were valid and that he was using the terminology correctly, but I recognized that the average person on the street was probably not going to “get it.” Loftus, on the other hand, is like a mini-Dawkins in that his reasoning is embarrassing (even Atheists agree) but he is accessible at the level of the man on the street and his arguments have “punch.” Rauser is doing culture a service by not dumbing down these complex issues in ways Atheists are notorious for doing, but it would serve him well to raise the intellectual bar gradually without expecting his audience to leap it in a single bound. In other words, keep the intellectual rigor, but find some way to make the content more readily accessible to an audience whose first exposure to these issues may just be the debate Rauser is speaking at.
All-in-all the evening was an excellent introduction to reasons people reject Christianity and religion in general. I say excellent because those in attendance not only got a chance to see what kinds of arguments both sides appeal to, but also what kinds of tactics both sides use. Loftus played the role of “angry Atheist” like a veteran actor and Christians need to get used to seeing those kinds of people in action; there are plenty of them out there! They also need to get used to seeing half-baked arguments wrapped up in pseudo-philosophical jargon and passed off as the very pinnacle of human reasoning. They need to get used to seeing past the fast-talking used-car salesman and learn how to determine whether the car is a lemon. Loftus provides an absolutely fabulous example of a salesman trying to sell you a Pinto by slapping some racing stripes on it and calling it a Porsche.
I have no comments on the Q&A section because I got to ask a question so commenting would seem to entail some kind of conflict of interest.