Dishonest debating

A small New Zealand Christian sect (“TSCF and a few churches” whatever that means) is attempting to organise a debate between a “top Christian Scholar” and a “first-class” New Zealand atheist (see Calling all atheists… we need a debate opponent). “An interesting debate” you might think. But that depends on the subjects debated, the audience and the motives behind it all.

The anonymous author of this post (“admin”) claims that the debate would be about science and reflect “Darwinist versus Christian” views. That’s the give away, isn’t it. The dishonest attempt to present evolutionary science as atheist. No doubt the audience will be Christians, members of “TSCF and a few churches.” The debate format creates a “them and us” situation and clearly conveys the message that evolutionary science (and probably science in general) is on the atheist side and opposed to Chrsitianity. And, of course, that is the message the organisers and “admin” wish to convey. In effect, they want to protect their “flock” from the truth.

And what is the truth they wish to avoid? Most Christians have no problem with science and evolutionary science. They can easily accommodate scientific knowledge with their religious beliefs. In fact, many US Christians are actively campaigning against creationist “intelligent design” and in support of evolutionary science and its teaching in science classes (see Religious opposition to “intelligent design”). This attitude is expressed by a Christian blogger in We Need a New Approach where he admits “intelligent design” has failed as a science and says: “Look, we gave the intelligent design thing a gentleman’s try, lets move on to something else.”

Debate with a Christian opponent

True, some Christians are still uncomfortable with aspects of evolutionary theory – particularly those with little or no knowledge of this science. In New Zealand approximately 40% of Christians prefer a creationist explanation (see New Zealand supports evolution). Clearly the real conflict over evolutionary science is within Christianity – that’s where the big divisions are. That’s where these debates should take place.

I say to the organisers of this New Zealand debate – why not be honest about it? Recognise the differences are within your own religion. Forget about atheists – organise a debate between Christians. They would have no problems finding Christians with expertise in science, and in evolutionary science, capable of providing a worthy debate opponent for their “top Christian scholar.”

Framing science

The tactic behind this particular debate is a specific example of “framing” – posing a question in a format similar to “When are you going to stop beating your wife.” Scientists are becoming more aware of this tactic as a result of the “intelligent design” and climate change controversies. For more about this issue for science have a look at (or listen to) the following sites:

Chris Mooney & Mathew Nisbet – Framing science podcast
Matthew C. Nisbet – Communicating about Science and Religion
Matthew C. Nisbet – Selling Science to the Public
Tom Flynn – The Science vs. Religion Warfare Thesis
The Scientist Delusion? Nature Column on AAAS Panel

27 responses to “Dishonest debating

  1. I’ve watched too many debates and am beginning to form the opinion that we shouldn’t even be lowering ourselves to debate topics on the level of creationism vs evolution; I don’t think they ever actually achieve anything except lend some scientific credibility to their inane arguments because people will look at it and say that there must be a very real issue here because genuine scientists are discussing the topic.

    Yes, this type of discussion needs to be held these days within Christianity itself but one of the things I believe stops this from happening is that the urge for solidarity usually trumps the urge for truth and educated Christian moderates will let this type of issue slide.

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  2. Agreed, it’s a pity it comes across as a ‘them and us’ scenerio. It would be best to have all perspectives covered. You know, theists of both the evolutionary and non-evolutionary pursuasion debating amoung (not necessary against) non-theists of similar persuasions.
    I think it’s necessary to keep all gates of interaction open. Closing down any such debate would appear to be counter-indicative of what you espoused as being open-parachuted.
    If you are so sure of the issues involved why not answer the call?
    By the way, is there any non-theists who don’t believe in evolution?

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  3. I think it’s necessary to keep all gates of interaction open.

    I’m afraid I don’t agree because I really don’t think that creationism or ID is a valid (or even remotely interesting) argument. Similarly, I wouldn’t become involved in debates with UFO conspiracy folk even though I believe that, in theory at least, there could well be other alien species out there. There comes a point in belief where a person or group distance themselves so far from evidence that entering into a conversation with them is just a waste of my limited time here in this life.

    I’m sure you can think of some people who have beliefs that are so far removed from reality that you wouldn’t waste your breath on them. Well, that’s how I feel about young earth creationists.

    By the way, is there any non-theists who don’t believe in evolution?

    I’m aware of many non-theists who avidly debate aspects within evolution but I’m not aware of anyone who dissents from the general modern understanding of evolutionary theory who isn’t in some way tied up in a belief in a god or gods. That’s a good question though… do you know of anyone? I’d be interested to hear their take on it.

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  4. I’ve been looking at the dissent from Darwinism signatories. So far in all but one case I have seen there is plenty of internet evidence for the signatory being motivated by their religious beliefs – they are often religious activists.

    I am sure that there will be non-theists (even non-theist scientists) who would declare opposition to evolutionary theory, just as there will be some who “believe” in astrology or unicorns. Probably most of them would not be signing this list though.

    There are occasional claims by the Wedge people of individuals who are non-theists. This may be the case, although one often suspects these are “fellow travellers” who judge that they should not publicise their religious beliefs in such arguments.

    Geoffrey Simmons is one example (he recently debated with PZ Myers and displayed an amazing ignorance, for example, about fossils even though he has written a book about “billions of missing fossils.” Go to radio debate to hear the debate). Stephen Fuller, an “expert” in philosophy of science (who appeared as an expert witness for the defendants in the Dover ID trial) effectively supports ID (and slanders science) but doesn’t declare a religious belief. He seems more motivated by some sort of post-modernist philosophy. I recently bought and read his book on Kuhn/Popper and found it a complete waste of time and money. With his approach I felt there was nothing he said that I could trust (and most of what he said I found confused or just couldn’t understand). David Berlinski is another Wedge fellow claimed to be a secular jew whoese latest book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions is being promoted by the Discovery institute and it NZ representatives (The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Considering this though it’s hard to see him as a non-theist.

    So I think, yes – there are non-theists who don’t accept evolutionary science. But very few of them would probably be activist enough to campaign on that particular belief.

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  5. BC – there is no issue of me personally “answering the call.” I haven’t been asked.

    I don’t know that anyone has been asked – this particular website seems to represent a very minor group. It claims to be “Sponsored by the Elusive Brethren & Right Wing American Fundamentalists” which gives you some idea. I think they are just doing their usual thing of attacking science, non-theism and most other Christians and possibly have nothing to do with any organisation of this “top Christian Scholar’s” visit.

    I personally am quite happy to discuss issues like science and human rights with theists and non-theists alike. I personally think there is a strong commonality of interests and beliefs on these issues. This can be, and should be, done in a non-confrontational way.

    I agree that we need to keep “all gates of interaction open.” This is why I have been so critical of the “interfaith” groups, and the National Statement on Religious Diversity exercise which effectively close those gates to people like me.

    However, I think there are big theological differences within Christianity which influences attitudes towards scientific knowledge. I just wish these issues would be discussed within Christianity. I think Damian has a good point in his suggestion that Christian solidarity is preventing this discussion. I doubt that a hostilely-labelled atheist can really contribute to such a discussion for a purely Christian audience – in fact they would just provide a red herring.

    These issues are really not about evolutionary science or about Christianity vs atheism. They are about differences within Christianity.

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  6. That is sad. If your analysis is correct, then such a debate is extremely problematic as it enforces a false conflict.

    Time and time again on my talkback show I hear young Christians say things like “I don’t believe evolution, I believe the Bible.” It’s a false conflict that shouldn’t exist and these sort of debates only reinforce that false conflict and as you’ve pointed out, wrongfully creates an “us vs them” mentality that shouldn’t exist.

    It’s sad.

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  7. I just wish these issues would be discussed within Christianity.

    They are, such conversations just aren’t latched onto by the media… and let’s face it, the creationist argument is highly political and predominantly voiced in the U.S where lots of money is being put into political campaigning. Those of us who would side with the likes of yourself just aren’t as motivated in the debate because we don’t feel like we’re being wronged and attacked by ‘the world’. We don’t have a political barrel to push. We’re not as sensational as the other side.

    The same goes for the likes of Benny Hinn. It’s often said we don’t speak out enough against such people. We do, it’s just that we’re not as interesting as the likes of Hinn himself, so we don’t get as many people listening to us.

    Also, the likes of yourself spend more time pointing to those you disagree with and giving them more airtime, rather than pointing out the voices of people more moderate in their approach.

    You might not realise it, but you’re actually part of the problem as well 🙂

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  8. Ken, if anything is sponsored by the Elusive Brethren etc, then it is an extremely small group. In fact, it’s probably the Density Church – watch out for them, they”ll suck you in, make you look silly, and in the end you’ll realise it is a spoof. 😉

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  9. I don’t know… I’ve had a good look through their website with my spoof-filters firmly in place and have come to the conclusion that they are genuine. Of course, the more fundamentalist you get the harder it is to distinguish from parody but I really can’t see anything on that website that gives it away as comedy.

    What do you think Ken?

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  10. Having spent time with the sort of people that would run that website, I would categorically say it is not parody. 🙂

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  11. Ken, any idea how long it takes for a comment to be moderated and allowed on that site? I put in a comment at midday yesterday and it still hasn’t been allowed.

    Here’s what I said… I don’t why it wouldn’t have been allowed yet, especially since a comment has been placed by ‘admin’ since I put it there, which means they have been there:

    Who is the ‘Christian Scholar’ and is the debate about whether there is a God or not, or Young Earth Creationism vs Evolution? The two are very different.

    As others have pointed out, the latter doesn’t necessarily need to include an atheist and Ken’s right, Darwinism vs Christianity is a false conflict for a lot of Christians.

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  12. … which is interesting since the following comment from ‘admin’ states that:

    very few Christians that I know accept evolution as our means of getting here.

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  13. Yes, I have seen and replied to the last ‘admin’ comment. I am not surprised that she/he knows few Christians who disagree with her/his attitude (we all select our own community for comfort) but I would think a healthy community would want to air this sort of conflict “in-house” rather than bringing in a “hostile” outsider. I personally think it would be a fascinating and useful discussion – one I would love to hear but consider inappropriate to participate in.

    With their declared sponsors and erratic responses I sometimes wonder if they are a spoof, (or even a site run from Seattle) but agree they probably aren’t and they seem to be connected with the Christian Apologetics groups and Forum. However, they are certainly low maintenance (basically links or copies of stuff from Seattle) so probably don’t want to invest too much time in responding to comments.

    Strange, though, that the site is accepting my comments but not yours, Servant. Actually, that’s a bit scary!

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  14. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt over my comment since I can’t, for the life of me, work out why it wouldn’t be allowed. It’s fairly small and inconsequential.

    But if I were going to over-analyse it they I would say that they may feel that a Christian agreeing with an atheist on their site in a manner that disagrees with them, undermines whatever they’re trying to achieve.

    If that’s the case, it’s a little sad.

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  15. Oh I don’t think it’s a conspiracy; I’ve posted a couple of times on there and never had them approved. Perhaps I shouldn’t be offering free Viagra? (Let’s see if that gets blocked!)

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  16. Maybe they think you’re an easy beat, Ken 😉 😀

    …. I joke.

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  17. This article has, by the way, been spotted by ASA in the US, on their science-faith blog. Just thought I’d drop the note – ol’ NZ creating some littel waves again 😉

    http://www.asa3.org/users/jackhaas/blog/

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  18. I’d like to go back to Damian’s point

    I’ve watched too many debates and am beginning to form the opinion that we shouldn’t even be lowering ourselves to debate topics on the level of creationism vs evolution.

    I would agree: why do we, as atheists/skeptics, participate in these debates? I think debates are a good idea but these specific debates seem to be set up to proof a point rather than be true debates. In fact, they seem to imply that there really is a scientific conflict between ID and evolution – there’s not. ID is not science, so there’s no conflict (see the judgment in the Dover trial). Also, debates should follow certain ground rules and not allow an escape clause, such is “god did it” or “god’s ways are mysterious.” Those are debate-stoppers. So, why spend our time and energy on these debates?

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  19. Hi all,

    I agree with what most people have said here, engaging in a one on one way with kooks like these guys lends them undue credibility and in the case of creationists reinforces the false dichotomy of science or religion – if you are a religious person then science and scientists are out to get you.

    But that raises a much more fundamental question. What are those of us that are on the side of reason meant to do in the face of irrational beliefs. One of the reasons I keep an eye on a couple of creationist blogs is it’s a chance to engage with those that listen in to the conversations but don’t have a strong position (or just take creationism as the default position because their ministers have lead them to believe evolution is out to get them…) but are perfectly reasonable people and when presented with the facts are likely to see their is no problem with accepting the science and getting on with their lives.

    Similarly if a church group wanted to discuss evolution I’d be very happy to put together a little talk on why it’s so well supported and how it’s fundamental to the way we do biology(I’m a PhD student doing an evolutionary topic). I’m sure this particular group wouldn’t be interested in such a talk because they wouldn’t be able to say “to christian scholar skewers arch athiest in culture war debate’ on their blog but I’d like to know how other people feel about this sort of approach. Is it possible to engage kooky ideas without giving them the veneer of something that is a legitimate academic ‘threat’ to rationalism?

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  20. I know what you are saying David. Scientist do love to talk about their work and I think the popularisation of science is a very important task these days. And I am sure there are a lot of Church groups who could approach this subject more objectively, or at least in a respectful manner.

    The question of framing, though, is I think very important. In many issues like this the layman doesn’t have the same interest (or background) in the science that we have – and we have to recognise this. While for some audiences it is just a matter of communicating technical issues better (I find most NZ scientists actually do this well) – for some it’s a matter of recognising what the real concerns of the audience are.

    I think we need to recognise that for many religious people the science is not the issue – what concerns them is what they see as a threat to their values or morals. For some it is also a threat to their literalist beliefs. Unfortunately many then go on to select or reject the science (or lies told about it) to fit in with their preconceived prejudices.

    I guess we just have to judge every case as it comes. There’s no point in attempting to communicate to a fundamentalist audience who are clearly not going to show the respect of listening. But perhaps we have to learn to deal with the concerns about values/morals/literalism as well as communicate the reality of the science.

    There is a good argument for scientists who are also Christians doing this work, rather than non-Christians. Ken Miller is far more effective in these situations, for example, than Richard Dawkins. (A fact that Dawkins willingly acknowledges).

    However, wouldn’t it be nice if we could only discuss these issues with religious groups without the religious beliefs of the presenter being an issue.

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  21. So the bottom line, for a debate about origins from evolutionary processes, would be proper science based, with the participants making no reference to god or gods or mysteries or such like.
    Ideally, the Christian scientist that would be acceptable in such a debate, then, would have to be one who was NOT some kook belonging to a mind-manipulating church, that believes in a literal God, Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as Saviour of a sin-pocked universe, who did miracles, raised the dead and rose from the dead etc etc. In other words, they would be a Christian atheist.
    However, if a scientist did believe in orthodox christian teaching about God etc, wouldn’t they still be regarded with some suspicion, even if they agreed with scientific ideas on evolution, knowing there is no justification for their belief in a god for which no scientific evidence exists?
    Does such a Christian scientist exist?
    Or would such beliefs be ignored, and ‘that side’ of the christian scientist be evaluated as a psychological or sociological quirk?
    And the point of the debate would be . . . ?

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  22. BC, if the debate topic is ‘evolution’ – and I’m not sure that is after a re-read – and the debate is raised by a Christian who doesn’t believe in it then the best person to fill the role of the opponent would be a Christian who does believe. That way you manage to keep to the core issue in the debate.

    And, yes, there are plenty of Christians who fit the bill.

    If the debate is really about belief in the Christian religion vs Atheism in general then that’s a different matter. Ken, I looked at the original post but couldn’t find any mention of ‘evolution’ or ‘Darwinism’ – has the topic of this proposed debate been misconstrued along the way?

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  23. BC, I think the example of Ken Miller shows this sort of debate is realistic. After all, he was one of the main expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in the Dover case and he did an excellent job there.

    I don’t think most people have problems with a discussion participant having a belief in a god (or other belief) for which there is no scientific justification. We all have beliefs like that. The problem is when those beliefs are introduced to “prove” an argument, or inhibit an investigation.

    In science we deal with evidence, speculations, hypotheses and theories. There is always the requirement of (eventual) experiential verification. One just doesn’t bring in religious, political, mythical, etc., beliefs – not be cause we can label them as such, but because they are by their nature beliefs which no one wishes to test scientifically, or claim to be “truth” which are not open to experiential verification.

    My experience has always been in scientific research that the religious beliefs of colleagues has never been an issue (and they varied widely). The practice of science really do make these beliefs irrelevant (except of course in the personal mind and actions of the holder of the belief). That I think, is an aspect that makes the scientific method such a powerful way of understanding reality.

    “And the point of the debate would be . . . ?” I can’t see any real point in an abstract Christian vs atheist debate (Does God exist?). But one could discuss all sorts of issue without bringing that red herring into it. One can declare a religious/ethical stance – but this shouldn’t count as proof, one way or the other.

    Yes, Damian, the original posting is vague and I suspect ‘admin’ really has no role in organising this guy’s visit. The “Darwinist versus Christian” explanation was advance by ‘admin’ and I am reacting to that. However, its clear from looking at the debates that this “scholar” promotes that he is using such arguments.

    But I agree, a formal and authoritative description of the intention behind the debate and the arguments being proposed would help us judge it more realistically.

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  24. ‘admin’ confirms that he is only “loosely” involved but believes (or hopes) the debate will be on “Science and ID.”

    I think these are topics which could usefully be discussed between Christians – atheism does introduce a red-herring.

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  25. Well at least the topic suggests that someone recognises that there is a difference between science and ID 😉

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  26. You should probably check your science, Evolution doesn’t make sense at all. It is frankly impossible for a single-celled organism to turn itself into a 2-celled organism, especially without any DNA to do so. Even if the organism could, at the rate Earth’s magnetic field is deteriorating, it wouldn’t have time.

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