Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

Following the Footsteps of the Early Christians in a Debate with Atheists

A couple of nights ago, my dear friend and colleague (and co-blogger) John-Mark Miravalle participated in his third debate in a year sponsored by SOMA (the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics) at the University of Kansas. The topic of the debate centered on whether or not one can tell the difference between right from wrong without the existence of God. For some reason, SOMA is quite interested in pursuing ongoing debates with Christians of whom they openly despise.  Praise God! They are willing to do what Christians too often lack the interest or courage to do–engage opponents on important points of divergence.

As in the past, folks at SOMA brought in another professional debater and invited John-Mark to debate him, a backhanded compliment to John-Mark if there ever was one (both previous debates are still on You Tube.) This time, John-Mark was joined by his dad, Mark Miravalle, one of my former professors when I was in graduate school at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH.

As in previous cases, the atmosphere prior to the debate was tense, as the crowd of some 500 people filled Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas University Student Union.  Although the Christians were well represented (I would say over half), there were enough folks from SOMA or fellow travelers of SOMA to create a sense of anxiety visible on all involved. The debate was video- taped yet again and will be posted on the School of Faith website once it is posted on You Tube, so I won’t recount the entire two hours here. Instead, I would like to offer some brief reflections on the night:

  • All presenters were logical and well prepared. They articulated their positions well, and it was often difficult to identify the weakness of their argument.
  • Both sides were passionate regarding their position.
  • Both atheist presenters seemed to assume that all theists, or at least Christians, believed that our morality rests on what is called the Divine Command Theory; meaning, given actions are good or bad because God says so, a weakness team Miravalle was able to exploit. As Catholics, we agree things are right or wrong because God says so, but also because they either respond or fail to respond to fulfilling our design. Actions that do are good, actions that do not are bad.
  • The atheist team scored highest on offering what I call ‘rousting’ points, or statements that rousted the audience to an energetic response: “When I see a picture of a starving child I want to feed that child. I don’t need God to tell me, and I don’t accept the answer that some day that child will receive his reward!  Anyone who could help should help, and a god that does not help only proves that Christian morality is vastly unjust, at least more so than a moral system that recognizes how reasonable it is to help that child now!” To which much of the crowd responded with hoots and hollers. Of course, this particular version of the problem of evil retort has been addressed in several excellent books, not the least of which is C.S. Lewis’ classic, ‘The Problem with Pain.’
  • Team Miravalle scored the highest on the ‘torpedo’ scale because they asked questions that, if not answered, would sink their opponents. When the Miravalle’s asked for the atheists to explain what the difference is between good and evil, the atheist answer was ‘whatever reasonably promotes well-being.’ John-Mark asked again, what is well-being, since well-being was simply a synonym for good? The opposition could offer no answer
  • The next Miravalle torpedo came when John-Mark challenged one of the atheist presenters—who argued that one can know right from wrong just from reason—to move from premises that don’t use moral language to a conclusion that does use moral language, through reason alone. Again, the atheist presenter admitted that he couldn’t do this.

 

What’s that metallic hissing missile sound I hear ripping through the water…Direct hit!! Direct hit!!

 

When the debate was over, one of my teen aged sons and I took to opportunity to discuss the event over a burger. Both of us felt wasted and emotionally drained, and we were only in the audience! I also felt a little sick. Being confronted with such hatred towards God in someone unnerves me a little. For one reason, I love God and can’t stomach hearing such blasphemy aimed at one who has been so generous to me. For another, I toyed with atheism myself at one point in my life. It was truly terrifying for me to seriously doubt God’s existence. I concluded that if there is no God then there is no real purpose to life. Purposes we give life are merely illusory. If life is without purpose, I figured, then there is no reason to live; in fact, there was no difference between living and dying, other than just how molecules organize themselves. The only reason why I chose to live was because I was afraid to die. In other words, I concluded that to live in a purposeless world was simply an act of cowardice, an act of fear.  To kill oneself was to at least go out bravely. It was then I began pondering suicide, even trying it once by ingesting a bottle of aspirin. Had I watched this debate back in the late 1980’s, the atheist presenters offered me no hard evidence to keep me from killing myself. They simply assumed that human life was good, a point on which I of course agree, but a matter of which they never proved but only assumed as a given. I didn’t assume it as a given when I toyed with atheism.

 

I take from this debate the sad reality that persons created by God out of love are filled with hate for Him, and are filled with hate for His followers. I sense that in these poor folks that there is pain in their life, perhaps pain caused by parents or other influential people in their life who claimed to be Christian, or, at least, claimed to be religious. I pray for their healing and a renewed confidence in the love and mercy of God.

 

I see that the atheists do with reason what fundamentalists do with the Bible: fundamentalists restrict Divine Revelation to solely what’s found in the sacred text instead of what’s contained in the whole of Sacred Tradition, and expect you to debate them on their terms, even though the Bible clearly teaches otherwise. Atheists similarly reduce knowledge to only what’s materially verifiable, what’s empirically established, and expect you to debate them on their terms, even though reason clearly demonstrates otherwise (how many of us have personally demonstrated that the world is round, or proved it through logical syllogism or mathematical formula, versus simply accepted it based on visual or oral testimony?) As Catholics, we realize that knowledge comes to us in various ways that are certain and sure, in addition to material verification (like the certainty derived from visual or oral testimony.)

 

Finally, the readings in the Easter season take us through the Acts of the Apostles. This book is filled with the stories of the persecutions of the followers of Jesus Christ, as well as their steadfast witness. Peter, Phillip, Paul, Barnabas, etc. had similar encounters with the pagans. Like them, the Miravalle tandem offered a beautiful witness to me of fidelity and steadfastness. I know for a fact that comments from atheists in the YouTube comments box on John-Mark’s previous debates are filled with the vilest and most disgusting vitriol, aimed at hurting and belittling him, and yet he entered the debate anyway! May God bless him and his father as noble witnesses to their love of Christ and His Catholic Church, following in the footsteps of the early Christians!

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12 Responses to “Following the Footsteps of the Early Christians in a Debate with Atheists”

  1. I love this post !! totally kewl!!! Well done! I’m coming back to this one …

  2. Devin Lowler says:

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  3. Not a bad summary from a Christian. You may be expecting too much for a debate, however. A debate is entertainment and exposition; it is not a particularly good forum for a dialectical investigation of truth.

    As an atheist myself, I actually agree with you (objective) morality, and per your report, the atheists were a little naive. There is no rational grounding for objective moral statements. The philosophy of subjective relativism is more complicated than I can explain in a comment, but it should be noted that introducing a deity does not rationally ground an objective morality.

    If it saddens you to be without the illusion of an extrinsic purpose or objective morality, that says more about your own psychology than about objective reality.

    Be careful about taking your philosophy from C. S. Lewis. He was a popular enough writer (I still find his Narnia books interesting), but he was a superficial philosopher who took much for granted, even by the limited standards of philosophy.

    • Troy Hinkel says:

      First, define ‘psychology’ for me.
      Second, explain the difference between good versus bad psychology, especially since you admit that there is no such thing as objective morality, thus there is no good or bad psychological states, whatever those are. In other words, my response to kill myself in a meaningless world is just as valid as someone’s psychological response to live in and say, ‘yea’ to a meaningless world…unless there is objective morality, which you say there isn’t.
      Third, I will pray for you that you find some shoes and a job!

  4. Something that has always struck me with atheists is that they always seem to be attacking a straw man. Like their assumption that Christians base their morality on Divine Command. They are never really attacking God, they are attacking their mistaken idea of God.

  5. Dennis says:

    I find it interesting how many atheists assume there is a right and wrong when they cannot provide any objective basis for it. For example, in a statement from one of the atheists:

    “…Anyone who could help should help, and a god that does not help only proves that Christian morality is vastly unjust…”

    how can they claim that one SHOULD help the child and that we should be JUST? What response would they have to one who believes that the child should be left to die because they are simply a sack of flesh and that being just and fair is for weaklings who are not able to take what they want? The only basis this atheist has for his response are personal feelings and perhaps an appeal to a majority opinion, but neither of these is objective and gives a foundation for saying we SHOULD do anything.

    Atheism: using irrationality in the name of reason.

    • BelieveWhat says:

      “What response would they have to one who believes that the child should be left to die because they are simply a sack of flesh and that being just and fair is for weaklings who are not able to take what they want?”
      Like what is common in China today?

  6. profling says:

    I don’t see atheists denying the existence of “mind” or “information,” both immaterial entities. Why is “God” so hard for them then? Read George Gilder on the materialist superstition in ICS.

  7. Matt says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ll certainly check out the videos when they become available.

  8. Fr SB says:

    Troy, you have offered an excellent review of the debate and an excellent summary of the arguments. My favorite part of the debate is what I call “the reverse Scooby Doo.” For 1 hour and 25 minutes they referred to themselves as “atheists” and then with five minutes to go, recognizing that their arguments were torpedoed, they metaphorically whipped off their masks and said, “Ha, ha, you weren’t debating atheists, you were really debating secular humanists. Therefore all your attacks failed!” I suppose they were hoping Team Miravalle was going to respond, “Well if it wasn’t for those meddling secular humanists we could have gotten away with it!”

  9. David Naas says:

    “SOMA”! You didn’t make that up, did you?

    SOMA, as in, the drug given (enforced, rather) to the general population in Brave New World to ensure their docile obedience?
    Have these people no sense of irony? (Foolish question, in order to have a sense of irony, they must have a sense of humor and hence a sense of perspective.)

    SOMA, the “opiate of the (sophisticated) masses”.

    Sounds like this gang of underachievers would be enough to re-convert Nietzsche.

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