Thursday, August 27, 2009

Style Over Substance

For those who watched the debate video I posted on my last entry, I want to offer an honest critique: When it comes to the substance of the debate, Frank Turek destroyed Hitchens by offering ample, strong, positive evidence for his case. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, was his usual dry, witty, sarcastic self. He offered little, if any, actual evidence for his case and most of what he did offer was either weak or irrelevant.

That said, and with the audience reaction and cultural conditioning of those who witnessed it in mind, my assessment is as follows:

Hitchens wins.

It pains me to type those words but I will do my best to explain ...

Remember that the topic being debated was "What Best Explains Reality: Theism or Atheism?" If you listened to the debate, you know that Frank Turek, talking in his "150 mph Jersey" delivery, was hard pressed to cram all the supporting facts and evidence into his opening presentation. Because of that delivery, his argument seemed rushed, and several of his points were swamped in the process. A little too much unfamiliar jargon found its way into the presentation and he was forced to skip or skim over some very important points.

Frank Turek offered an outline of his argument in the acronym C. O. S. M. O. S. that he said leads us to the conclusion that there must be a "spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, moral, personal, intelligent Creator." Turek's evidence ...
  • Cosmological Argument: states that, if the universe had a beginning, it must also have a beginner. Events cannot cause themselves to occur. There is ample evidence from: the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the expansion of the universe (discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929), the radiation afterglow from the Big Bang event (discovered by Penzias and Wilson in 1978), the seeds of galactic formation in that radiation signature (discovered by COBE in 1992 and verified to 1 part in 100,000), and the unprecedented confirmation of Einstein's General Relativity Theory that has been produced over the last 80 years. Each of these confirms the fact that the universe (all matter, energy, space and time) came into existence at a single instant in the finite past -- and must therefore have been the effect of some powerful cause the resides outside the physical universe.
  • Order: The enormous fine-tuning we find in the laws of physics, chemistry etc. demonstrate a level of design that is unfathomable to consider and without which life would not be possible anywhere within the universe.
  • Specified Complexity is the aspect of the information content in DNA that makes it correspond exactly to what we know about messages and the work of intelligent agents.
  • Moral reality is not an explanation for why we think things are right or wrong, but the recognition that the existence of such a thing as good or evil, right or wrong, cannot be explained apart from the existence of a moral lawgiver who grounds that reality.
  • Objectivity in the laws of logic, mathematics and science. These are not things that can be avoided or bypassed. These are immaterial realities that we all recognize and are beholden to.
  • Solitary Life of Jesus of Nazareth and the worldwide impact that he had on generations of people defies explanation apart from the truth of his claims and the historicity of actions -- most notably his self-resurrection.
Each of these serves to undergird the case for theism -- which was the question up for debate. Note that Turek's greatest shortcoming was that the vast amount of information he had to support his case could not be crammed into his 20 minute opening remarks. In short, Turek suffered from an inability to shoehorn all the evidence he had into his allotted time, even though he greatly accelerated the speed of his delivery to do so.

Hitchens, on the other hand, felt no similar sense of urgency to prove his point -- probably because he didn't have one beyond the usual "religion and religious people are evil and do bad things; therefore, God does not exist." He rambled through a few notes, made a few sexual references (he is known for this) and generally treated his disdain for religion and religious people as an argument against the existence of God. He began his opening statement by declaring what he does not believe and what he could not know -- but failed to offer the least bit of evidence for what he did claim to know or believe. He spent most of his time explaining why he did not accept Turek's argument and why we "pattern seeking mammals" felt the need to believe in such a thing as 'god'.

In short, Hitchens repeatedly offered different critiques of Turek's case. He refused to give direct answers to direct questions during the Q&A section and he provided absolutely no evidence to support the idea that atheism was a better explanation of reality. None.

But ... Hitchens was funny. He had quick, hard hitting, one-liners in reply to Turek's comments during the back-and-forth portion of the debate. He had witty (but substance-free) answers to questions from the audience. Many of Turek's attempts at humor fell flat. One of the most telling and uncomfortable moments came (at 74:00 minutes) when Hitchens asked Turek, regarding the spread of Christianity, if it was due to the truth of Christianity itself or the fact that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. "Which, in your view, contributed more to the spread of the faith?"

Turek (after an uncomfortable pause): "Uh ... The Holy Spirit."

Hitchens: "I rest my case."

While Turek's response was theologically correct, the impression it left was that his answer rested on a baseless appeal to a superstitious religion. The audience chuckled. Unfortunately, this is the kind of unsubstantial "argumentation" that works well in a culture that bases its beliefs in sound bites and video clips while, in many cases, refusing to follow a logical line of reasoning or offering positive evidence to support the ideas it claims to embrace. We love emotional appeals. We despise moral culpability. We like to laugh.

I believe Frank Turek offered not only the best explanation for reality, he was the only one who offered any such explanation in this debate. That said, you could tell by the audience reaction in several places that Hitchens won the crowd. This might be because of the nature of the audience (more hostile to theism than warm) but it is also because of the nature of the culture this audience represents. On that standard, Hitchens won.

But I, like Frank Turek, would rather be a winsome, respectable defender of justifiably truthful evidence than merely the guy who won the debate. If we can't have both, I would prefer the former.


  1. Good summary and evaluation. I agree.

  2. I agree with the perceived victory of Hitchens but strongly disagree with the point that there is no substance to his argument. A major proponent to his argument is the degree to which one can claim they have knowledge of "reality". Turek makes extremely strong claims to know what scientific evidence proves to be true, while Hitchens does not. Hitchens clearly states he believes in Atheism but this is not provable through scientific evidence. Turek believes in Christian theism and that the scientific evidence undoubtedly proves this.

  3. Hitchens clearly states he believes in Atheism but this is not provable through scientific evidence. Turek believes in Christian theism and that the scientific evidence undoubtedly proves this." -- Precisely the resson why Frank said in the debate that it takes more "faith" to be an Atheist.


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