I Debated a Christian Apologist and This Was the Result
By David G. McAfee, author and Religious Studies Graduate
Thousands of people (Christians, Muslims, ghost believers, conspiracy theorists, etc.) have invited me to debate them, but most of the time these “invitations” came from people who are angry and simply looking to lash out. They were never credible, friendly requests for a real discussion… until I got an e-mail from Luuk van de Weghe of Windmill Ministries.
Luuk contacted me last year, and he was never confrontational. He told me about Windmill Ministries, led by his father Rob van de Weghe, and asked if I’d be interested in debating him. We ultimately decided on a topic – “Which is more reasonable: atheism or Christianity?” – and a venue – the Town Hall in Seattle. Luuk’s team worked with Seattle Atheists to promote the event, which was filmed and is now available on YouTube here:
Friendly Atheist pointed out some highlights of the video, including 56:57 and the exchange that occurs after 1:22:00. Some other memorable lines are at 39:05, 54:37, and 58:02. If there are any clips you want to recommend, or if you’d like to volunteer to edit a video of the best responses, feel free to e-mail me at David@DavidGMcAfee.com.
Overall, I think the debate went incredibly well. There were a lot of people in attendance, including some atheists and a large number of Christians (Luuk’s home court advantage, I suppose), and the discussion was friendly and centered on facts and history. There was no name-calling or insults – and each of us got the opportunity to present our side of the argument. As far as who “won,” I’ll only say I sold more books after the debate. 😉
David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of The Book of Gods, The Belief Book, Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer, and Disproving Christianity and other Secular Writings. He is also a frequent contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee, who writes about science, skepticism, and faith, attended University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.
In case you prefer reading, here is the transcript from my introduction speech. I varied from it slightly:
The question in this debate is simple: which is a more reasonable position, atheism or Christianity? There are plenty of reasonable people on each side, including many in this very room, but that’s not what we are talking about. We need to know which position makes the most sense objectively – which hypothesis best accounts for the world we see around us.
As a scientific skeptic, someone who looks for reproducible data before forming their beliefs, the answer is an easy one: atheism, which is the null hypothesis until deities have been shown to exist, is most reasonable.
Let’s look at some of the supernatural claims made by each side. Christianity is a complex belief system encompassing thousands or millions of supernatural miracles, each one without established scientific evidence or support. From the resurrection and water-to-wine trick to the virgin birth and Jonah’s journey inside the great fish, the Bible includes countless descriptions of alleged miracles that are purportedly beyond natural laws and/or human understanding. Has science, our best known method for determining what’s real, proven any of this? To the contrary, in every instance, supernatural claims of all sorts have failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Atheism, on the other hand, makes zero supernatural (and therefore unsubstantiated) claims. Atheists share only one commonality: we don’t believe in deities. We don’t believe in any gods, whether it’s Yahweh, Zeus, or Vishnu. Unlike Hypothesis 1, atheism doesn’t put forth any claims as to the origin of the universe or the earth. The only claim atheism makes is that theism is wrong.
Am I saying all Christians are crazy or gullible? Of course not. There are an infinite number of reasons believers believe, regardless of what tradition we are discussing, and many have nothing to do with evidence or facts. If you want to know which hypothesis is better for family development or ethical instruction, I might have a different answer. But that’s not the question here. So, I put it to you: which position is more reasonable, the position founded upon numerous supernatural stories that by their very nature can never be verified, or the one that rejects those claims based on what has been demonstrated in the real world?
Some Christians are probably looking at me funny right now, thinking, “We can’t test God!” Well, that’s my point. To be considered the most reasonable position, it should be able to be supported by our best method for establishing facts – science. If you discount science, you lose all measure for determining what is most reasonable. If you embrace science, you will likely reach the correct answer, regardless of your feelings. Let’s look at some ways we can test claims made by Christianity:
The first testable claim is petitionary prayer: A common practice in the Christian religion and a number of other faiths, petitionary prayer is just one example of a superstitious principle that many religions share. The individual saying the prayer (no matter to which deity or supernatural force it is directed) sees the positive results (or hits) as divine intervention, and ignores those prayers that remain unanswered (misses), much like a gambler would. According to Matthew 21:20-22 and other Christian teachings, those who pray are supposed to be able to achieve real, earthly results. However, scientific inquiries into medical trials have repeatedly shown that prayer doesn’t affect outcomes any more than the placebo effect.
The second example I want to look at is the resurrection: The resurrection story is a fun one, but it is also a common motif present in myths that existed long before Christianity. There is absolutely no evidence for such an event in history, but some believers continue to claim it is supported by the available data. For example, noted philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig has argued that an “empty tomb” constitutes clear evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and into Heaven. He is, of course, ignoring a number of answers that don’t rely on magic: a stolen body, a mismarked grave, a planned removal, faulty reports, creative storytelling, edited scriptures, and much, much more.
If you’re not convinced by the scientific method, let’s look at this question from a philosophical standpoint. In order to do that, we will employ Occam’s razor, a classic philosophical problem-solving tool. The razor states that, among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Let’s take a look:
To accept Christianity as a correct interpretation of reality, you have to assume a specific god exists and has always existed. You have to assume this super-being came from nothing and is all-powerful, despite the fact that there is no verifiable evidence for its existence. This deity constantly intervenes in earthly affairs, yet is completely untestable through earthly means. The entire belief system is built on unproven (and in many cases unprovable) claims, which is why faith is so important to Christianity and to all religions.
The word “faith” can be used in a number of different ways, and I think it’s important to differentiate them because one usage—religious or spiritual faith—acts as an excuse to believe despite a lack of evidence. In researching the word, I was able to draw a clear line between this blind faith and what might be considered faith supported by evidence.
I began by analyzing the first two definitions of faith provided by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:
Number one: Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing. That seems reasonable.
Number two: Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. That’s not as appealing as the first, right?
Well, my argument is that everyone, including scientists, use the first version of faith. We’re all confident, for instance, that the sun will set tonight and rise again tomorrow. The second description of faith, while perhaps equally widespread, can be dangerous when used to justify worldly actions.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of religions, historically and in modern times, are based on blind trust in unverifiable texts—and not expectations held based on lifetimes of testing and observation. In this way, religious faith is inherently unscientific: it is based on ancient and unsupported reports. Having faith in humanity or in an idea—like honesty or love—is great, but if a concept needs your faith to exist, then that should make you think twice about holding onto it so tightly.
Atheism, however, is a different story. This stance only assumes that theism, the belief that one or more deities exist, is incorrect. In my case, this position was reached after a thorough and skeptical evaluation of all the major deities postulated by cultures throughout history. As a religious studies major at UC Santa Barbara, I became intimately familiar with many deities, including those that preceded Christianity and even Judaism. These were gods who existed in the minds of believers long before the first Hebrew text was ever written—before God created the world, according to Biblical literalists.
One of the most convincing pieces of evidence for atheism as the more reasonable position is not scientific or philosophical, but historical. At UCSB, I studied religions side-by-side, learning about ancient Native American creation myths alongside the Genesis narrative. I soon realized that, if you study comparative and historical religion, it’s difficult to come to the conclusion that one is the “True” religion because they are all very similar at the elementary level. Each organization has similar cult beginnings and “prophets.” They each began as local myths before being applied to a global context and were spread through a mixture of violence and proselytization. In fact, I could give this exact same debate against any religion just by changing out some of the verses and stories.
The fact that other religions exist isn’t evidence that Christianity isn’t reasonable, but the fact that the stories are so similar and are accepted with equal or rivaled passion certainly is. When it comes to supernatural religious claims, the so-called evidence put forth by the Bible is equal to that put forth by the Qur’an, which is equal to that put forth by the Bhagavad Gita: zero. Realistically, what separates a Christian’s faith from the faith of a Muslim, a Scientologist, a Mormon, or the member of some obscure cult? If the criteria for faith is believing what you can’t see, there are many organizations and groups who fit the bill. So, why is this considered a good thing?
That’s not to mention the fact that most Christians believe Jesus is the only way to salvation. If they are right, that means 31 percent of the world’s population would be saved while the remaining 69 percent would burn for eternity simply for being unconvinced or being born into a culture that worships a “false God.” If Christianity is true, and we look at the statistics regarding the rates at which Muslims grew up in Muslim cultures and Christians were raised in the West, we can conclude that an all-powerful and supposedly all-loving deity has forsaken the vast majority of His creations because of their geographical upbringing. What kind of a success rate is that for a god?
For this next section, I’d like to take Christianity, the most popular supernatural belief system in the world, and apply the rules of a courtroom to review spiritual claims. If the Christian religion were to stand trial today and use biblical scripture as evidence for its validity, not only would it fail to meet the burden of proof necessary for a decision in its favor, it wouldn’t even come close. Christians themselves don’t agree on which biblical statements are “real” and which are to be considered figurative, so how would they present a coherent argument to an objective judge? This lack of consistency and hard evidence is where religious faith comes in, but “faith” isn’t a compelling argument in court. Christianity’s case might look something like this:
EXHIBIT A: A BOOK I VIEW AS SACRED IN ORIGIN SAYS PEOPLE THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO CLAIMED THEY SAW MIRACLES (ALTHOUGH WE NOW KNOW THAT THESE ACCOUNTS WERE WRITTEN DECADES AFTER THE SUPPOSED MIRACLES WOULD HAVE OCCURRED).
EXHIBIT B: DESPITE THE FACT THAT OUR SIDE CAN’T AGREE ON WHICH MIRACLES REALLY HAPPENED AND WHICH ARE METAPHORS, YOU CAN’T PROVE THEY DIDN’T HAPPEN, SO WE DESERVE VICTORY.
Even if we examine a specific supernatural claim that most Christians do agree really occurred, such as the resurrection of Jesus, the case for the religion looks bleak. The fact is that the Synoptic Gospels were written 35 to 65 years after the supposed death and resurrection of Jesus by people who could not have been eye-witnesses. These are considered, by the vast majority of secular and religious experts in the field, to be anonymous texts because the authors never divulge their names. According to New Testament Scholar Bart D. Ehrman, these stories “circulated anonymously, for years and decades.”
It’s fine if ancient and unverifiable testimonies written down in the form of scripture are sufficient for you to believe in the reported supernatural events that form the basis of Christianity, but that means you don’t have a very high standard for evidentiary support. And if that’s the case, you should be consistent in your approach. You should open up the hadith literature to Sahih alBukhari, Volume 5, Book 58, and see that there are numerous eye-witnesses who saw Muhammad ascend to heaven on a winged steed. If we are to assume this is true, should we infer that Muhammad was indeed a prophet? What’s the verdict?