My First Radio Debate: Christian & Humanist Morality, Part 1

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My First Radio Debate: Christian & Humanist Morality, Part 1
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I was recently invited to participate in a debate on a Christian radio/podcast called "Unbelievable", hosted by Justin Brierley.  I would strongly suggest that before reading this, you should listen to the debate, to get more context, and also to judge the fairness and accuracy of the claims and arguments that I am going to make here. First, I'd like to extend both gratitude and appreciation for Justin's ongoing efforts to present a platform for discussion and debate between people of different beliefs, and throughout the entire process I found his approach to be both sincere and honest.  I'd encourage people not only to check out my debate, but many of the other debates featured there. 

My opponent in the debate was David Marshall, a Christian apologist and author.  He and I were chosen because we both share something of a common background -- we both came to China as Christians, and both continue to work in China today.  But while I ultimately abandoned my faith, David continues to be committed to his.  The purpose of the debate was to discuss both the current religious situation in China, and whether Humanist or Christian morality would be better suited to China as it moves forward. 

Sadly, while I appreciate his willingness to participate in such a debate, I am afraid that I cannot extend the same commendations towards him that I have towards Justin.  I will state quite clearly that I was not at my best in this debate.  There were some issues on which I had failed to prepare adequately -- such as the history of Humanist activism -- which left me unable to adequately respond to some of David's challenges.  And, as is the nature of such debates, there was inadequate time to really cover all of the topics, and I think that had a deleterious effect on both myself and David.

However, David engaged in blatantly dishonest methods in presenting his arguments.  Nor is this just a matter of opinion; I believe that I can demonstrate, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this is a factual statement, regardless of one's particular opinions on the issues of morality. 

First, some background.  One of the most common tactics used by Christian apologists is to misrepresent the beliefs of their opponents.  They'll point to Communist atrocities, for example, and say "They were atheists, like you, and look at the terrible things that they did."  The reasons why such arguments are flawed are numerous, but not the point of this particular post.  In anticipation that David would resort to such tactics, I very clearly and explicitly contacted both he and Justin prior to the debate, and gave a very, very clear description of my own specific moral standards and beliefs.  I pointed specifically to the Amsterdam Declaration, and stated that my arguments regarding morality would be based on that specific statement of moral and ethical beliefs.  Justin can confirm this.

Amazingly (but sadly predictably), David ignored this entirely.  He jumped in head-first by defining Humanism according to what Chinese textbooks -- produced and published by a Communist government -- say about humanism.  Now, I need to clarify here that "humanism" (small "h") as defined by the Chinese government is quite drastically different from Secular Humanism (capital "H") as defined in the Amsterdam Declaration (which has been adopted and accepted by Humanists in more than 200 countries).  As I pointed out time and time and time again, my definition of Secular Humanism explicitly includes values such as human rights, equality, democracy, and many other such principles.  Principles that are quite drastically different from and opposed to those taught by the Chinese Communist government.

David tried to argue that the Chinese definition was somehow just as valid as my definition; in fact, he seemed to be arguing that it was more valid, in that according to statistics (for which he never provided any actual reference, and which neither myself nor any other Humanist I've talked to has ever heard of), the vast majority of "humanists" in the world used his definition of humanism, and not mine.

There are numerous problems with this argument.  First, it is blatantly hypocritical, because the Chinese government also prints textbooks which explicitly teach about religion and Christianity.  Yet if I were to argue that those textbooks somehow "represented Christian morality" or even an accurate representation of Christian belief, David would reject that entirely.  So somehow, he seems to think that the Communist definition of Humanism (a definition which runs entirely contrary to the moral/ethical system that I was arguing for) is somehow valid in criticizing me...but that the Communist definition of Christianity should have no bearing on the debate whatsoever.

In addition, David tried multiple times to argue that I "don't have the right to define Humanism for everyone".  Well of course I don't!  "Humanism" as a broad category actually covers quite a wide variety of beliefs  (just as Christianity encompasses a wide variety of beliefs).  There are Christian humanists.  There are Jewish humanists.  There are Communists who call themselves humanists.

However, I do have the fundamental right in a debate of this nature to define which specific moral and ethical system I am arguing for!  And I tried to do that, over and over.  Anyone listening to the debate can hear my rising frustration as David consistently and blatantly chooses to entirely ignore the position that I am arguing for, and instead try to claim that his definition of humanism is the valid one.

How ludicrous!
  Were I to turn around and try to define what his moral beliefs were based on people who actually held beliefs entirely different than his own, he'd condemn it immediately!  Yet somehow, it's okay for him to do this with me.

This entire tactic was fundamentally dishonest -- and a good example of why what David does is called "apologetics", and not "logic".  The typical and consistent tactic of the Christian apologist is to define their opponent's beliefs in their own terms, and inevitably in the most negative terms, and then claim that this somehow represents the arguments of their opponents. 

The topic of our debate was the moral and ethical beliefs being championed by myself, and by David.  I very explicitly stated that while there were a great many people who call themselves Christians, but who do terrible things, I would not attempt to attribute their abuses to David's beliefs -- because David's beliefs are different than theirs.  Yet David, time and time again, even when explicitly called on it, refused to extend me the same basic courtesy, and in fact blatantly dismissed my own position as somehow irrelevant to the debate, while insisting on using other, entirely unrelated definitions.

As I've stated several times, I consider these tactics to be profoundly dishonest (yet all-too-common in Christian apologetics).  But I hesitate to call David himself dishonest.  From his perspective, I do think that he was presenting what he considers to be 'the truth'.  The problem here is that he is so invested in defending his own position, that he's entirely unable to see the terrible inconsistencies in his own arguments.  And, to be fair, I'm sure that there are probably some areas where I myself do this -- it is a weakness to which almost all humans are prone.  If anyone found somewhere in this debate where I was guilty of this, I encourage them to bring it to my attention.

The most disappointing aspect of this is that I ended up wasting so much time trying to get David to simply abide by the definition that I was using (and, ultimately, failing entirely to do so) that many other far more relevant topics and arguments ended up being overlooked because we didn't have time.

Nor was this the only way in which David's arguments were dishonest; in regards to the issue of Biblical morality, he also made arguments that were fundamentally dishonest (and so logically flawed that it really boggle my mind that he seems to think they are reasonable), but that is a topic for a separate post.

I hope that we will have people coming here from the debate, and I welcome your comments and responses. 
Re: My First Radio Debate: Christian & Humanist Morality, Pa
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David has kindly provided a response to my comments above, via email, which I will post here, with my responses:

Where you are right is that I don't think I explained my view of the Old Testament well in response to your question.   It seemed a little off-topic, but I should have had a quick go.
Both of us were limited both by time, and format, from fully explaining our positions.  I appreciate taking the time to clarify here, and hope that I will finally get a clear answer to my question.
I am not, as I said, an inerracist.  I do think, however, that the OT begins the trajectory of world-wide liberation that Jesus fulfilled and expanded in so many profound ways.   I wish I'd cited Dr. Donald Treadgold, former head of the History Department at the University of Washington (and my mentor), who wrote in Freedom, a History, "Hebrew society was unique in the anient Near East in managing to avoid the techniques, devices, and institutions of despotism."  I often cite the prophets on this -- including in my last book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test.  But in a wonderful book a few years ago, Israeli scholar Joshua Berman shows that the Pentateuch is already profoundly liberating, standing out from other religious cultures of the time, and pointing the way towards just the sorts of reforms that you say so often you advocate.
"Hebrew society was unique in the ancient Near East in managing to avoid the techniques, devices, and institutions of despotism."  Wow.  Just read the Bible verses that I quoted, not to mention numerous others.  Deliberate murder of one's enemies, even children, because your god commanded you to do so.  Buying and selling people as slaves, treating them as property.  Grossly abusive misogyny.

I guess that as a male, it's easier for you to make that claim; but my god, I would hate to have been a woman in that society.  A society where, if a man raped you, and you were not  already married or engaged, then you could be forced to marry your rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).  Or where if you are already engaged, then you should be taken out and whipped, while the man who raped you makes an offering at the temple.

A theocracy where failing to follow the commands of your invisible god frequently results in the death penalty -- by stoning, a terribly painful and barbaric method.

Yet the claim is that they "avoided the techniques, devices, and institutions of despotism"?  My god, I'd hate to see what this guy considers bad!  And as is always the case in such discussions, just quoting someone else doesn't take even the first step towards demonstrating the actual truth of their claim.

"pointing the way towards just the sorts of reforms that you say so often you advocate"  Really?  Again, read the verses I listed.  Where, in Hebrew society, were there reforms in the treatment of slaves?  In the treatment of women?  Where were the grossly abusive practices that the Bible clearly describes later overridden, or taught as being wrong?  Please quote for me specific Old Testament verses that advocate for these reforms?

The only way to make this argument is by cherry-picking verses...choosing those that happen to fit this claim, while entirely ignoring the much larger body of verses that describe despotic, abusive, immoral behavior -- all commanded by the god that they follow.


While I wish I'd addressed this larger issue, I can't apologize for not answering a question about a verse that is not in front of me, and that you neither quoted nor referenced, and frankly that I did not recognize in the shape you referenced it, on the spur of the moment on-air.  This would have been especially problematic because you seem to be assuming a view of Scripture that I do not hold.  The position I lean towards is what philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff described as "appropriated discourse."  People who hold to that view (including my hero, C. S. Lewis), need not feel panicky about hard verses in the Old Testament, neither need they have an answer to every such attempt to force a believer into a choice between bad answers.
If you listen again to the broadcast, I did make the very clear offer to read for you the specific verses to which I was referring, and give you the opportunity to respond.  My interpretation of your response was that you did not want me to do so.
Indeed, notice that Jesus himself was subject to the same sort of trick question.  Jesus himself was asked if it was right to stone a woman who was caught in adultery.  This is very much like the question you challenged me with about beating women.  Jesus neither say "no," and appear to deny the Scriptures, nor "yes," and get the woman killed.  He answered with a "trick answer" that freed him from the conundrum, and the woman from danger. But it wasn't just a trick, because it went to deeper issues and the real heart of the matter: God's command to love and forgive.
But there's an important difference here.  Yes, Jesus gave a great answer.  But Jesus' teaching was that he was replacing the Old Testament teachings, not  that those teachings were wrong, or immoral.  Quite the opposite, Jesus entire basis for his authority is the authority of the Old Testament scriptures.  He doesn't teach that what the Old Testament said was wrong or immoral.  He teaches that the Old Testament commands were proper and lawful, under the Old Covenant, but that he has now fulfilled that covenant, and now introduces a new foundation for morality.  That of love and forgiveness.

I will not dispute Jesus' New Testament teachings (although there's plenty there that I find objectionable, also).  But Jesus very plainly believed that the Old Testament teachings were not wrong or immoral in the context of the Old Covenant.  And, given your lack of a clear response, and the fact that you refer consistently to Jesus as the foundation of your beliefs, I must assume that your position is similar.

Which, ultimately, simply confirms the claim that I made during our debate.  That the Humanist moral/ethical system permits us to condemn all such instances of blatantly immoral behavior -- slavery, misogyny, murder of children, etc.  But that the Christian moral/ethical system, by merit of the fact that its own scriptures command such behaviors, cannot do so.  And I think that your repeated prevarications and obvious avoidance of providing a clear answer indicate that this is your position, also.
As a follower of Jesus, I make no apology for refusing to be tricked into such a choice.  I am sorry I could not think up so brilliant a reply as Jesus did on the spur of the moment.  But like him, I consider the question somewhat missing the deeper point.
Sorry, but you're comparing apples and oranges.  The question that Jesus was facing was, "What is the moral thing for us to do now?"  And I have no problem whatsoever in stipulating that for both Jesus and for you, the moral thing to do in that situation is to not stone the woman.  However, Jesus also very obviously believed that, under the Old Covenant, those teachings were proper and moral.  Not only did he never say that "The things god commanded you to do in the Old Testament were immoral", but he very clearly upholds the authority and morality of those teachings, within the context of the Old Covenant.

If I "heard a little voice" telling me to attack some innocent woman, would I obey it?  I hope not.  I hope I would obey the example of Jesus instead, and then maybe go see a shrink.   Not because God can't speak, but because He already has, and clearly through Jesus, I think.  I did say that.  
That's great, it's nice to know that you wouldn't do that.  But again, that's a complete red herring, and entirely irrelevant to my question.  Let me emphasize again.  My question is not about what is or is not immoral based on New Testament teachings.  The question is, when god commanded such actions in the Old Testament, and people obeyed them, were the actions of those people, at that time, in that context, moral or immoral?

And again, I think it is not quite blatantly obvious that you consider them moral.  You pretty much are obliged to do so.  You may make excuses and justifications for them, but in the end, I'm quite prepared to bet that you will not state that they were immoral.

And thus, the claim that I made in the debate is demonstrated to be fully accurate.  I'll give you yet another chance to demonstrate that I am wrong.

My claim -- "Christians are unable to categorically and universally state that all instances of slavery, misogyny, murder of children, and many other such abuses are immoral.  They can claim that they are immoral today.  But they cannot claim that they always are and always have been immoral, and must argue that those instances described in the Old Testament were moral, because God told them to do it."

Is this claim true?  Or false?  Are you able to categorically state that the specific behaviors I quoted from the scriptures are immoral, in the context of the time that they were committed?

As a Humanist, I can state without fear of self-contradiction or hypocrisy that such things are always wrong and immoral.  It matters not who did it, when they did it, or who told them to do it.

Christians cannot.  You cannot.

And to me, again, that demonstrates one of the most fundamental proofs of the superiority of Humanism over Christianity as a foundation for morality.  We don't need to engage in the elaborate mental gymnastics that Christian apologists like yourself have to go through to try to either avoid or justify what are, by pretty much any reasonable definition, grossly immoral and evil teachings.

Humanist teachings -- as defined by the Amsterdam Declaration -- are quite clear and simple, easy to understand, easy to put into action.  Christian teachings are based on scriptures that teach terrible, abusive, evil, misogynist beliefs -- and worse, that these things were commanded by the very same god that you follow.  It's fine to say, "I follow Jesus"...but Jesus (according to your beliefs) is god, and god commanded those things.  Jesus commanded those things.  The fact that he turned around and created a bunch of new commands later on doesn't mitigate or excuse or justify the previous teachings.

Unless you're prepared to say that Jesus is not actually god.  Or that god did not actually command those things.  Or that those commands, as stated in the Old Testament, were actually immoral.

And at this point, I'm quite confident that you're not going to make any of those claims.
Re: My First Radio Debate: Christian & Humanist Morality, Pa

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In addition, David tried multiple times to argue that I "don't have the right to define Humanism for everyone".
I found this argument particularly... well, let´s say "rich", for lack of a better civil and polite term. Isn´t "defining Humanism for everyone" EXACTLY what he tried to do - telling you what you "really" mean when you say "Humanism"?

Also, the whole idea of taking Communism and/or Nazism and presenting them as the true face of atheism is of course an old stand-by of those people who wish to portray atheism as inherently immoral - as I´m sure you´re aware.

(On a side note: The claim that Hitler was an atheist is proven false - he was, for his entire life, a member in good standing of the Catholic Church, he had even paid his "membership dues" up to May ´45; and even if he had not, a notary working for the archbishopric of Mainz confirmed to me that, once someone is baptized as a Catholic, the Church considers them to be Catholic from that point on, even if they left the church, which Hitler never did. Even being excommunicated (I jokingly asked if desecrating a church would do the trick) does not make one an ex-Catholic, it merely revokes the membership priviledges temporarily.)

Anyway, I think one could make a very good case that both Communism and Nazism are belief systems in their own right, completely separate from atheism - certainly the more "messianic" kinds that have taken over countries like Germany, Russia and China in the 20th century. Certainly, they both have higher authorities that their leader call on to justify their commands - "the working class", "the Revolution", "the people", "the Aryan race", what have you. Even if you considered atheist Humanism to have a higher authority of its own (which is a weak assumption to begin with) - the well-being of humanity, or the greatest good for the greatest number of people, for example - you would have to admit that their higher authority is entirely separate, and very different, from that of either Communism or Nazism, and thus have little or nothing to do with either.

One might also point out that it would be exceedingly difficult to find a definition of "religion" that excludes both Nazism (including its attitude, bordering towards worship, regarding the Führer himself) and Communism in its many messianic flavors, to say nothing of the North Korean "Juche" cult, without ending up with a definition that also exclude a lot of other religions which do not share some traits generally associated (in the West at least) with religion.
Re: My First Radio Debate: Christian & Humanist Morality, Pa

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More thought on the difference in authority between atheist Humanism and most religions...

We might say that atheist Humanism has an authority, in the sense that it has an answer to the question "Why do we adopt these views?" that goes beyond "Because we want to". But that is, I think, a far cry from actually having a "higher authority", like God or a number of gods or a "natural order of things".

If we look at religion, every single follower is an ordinary mortal human. Every single person bound by the morality the religion establishes, as well as everyone affected be the fall-out of actions along the lines of this morality, is a mortal human. And yet, the authority for this morality, such as the God of the Bible, is outside (and far above) the body of followers and basically unaffected by it. Why do the Ten Commandment say "Thou shalt not kill"? Because God (supposedly) does not want us to kill (unless we´re talking about defeated enemies; then, he commands us to kill them all). Why is there a prohibition against wearing mixed fibers in the Bible? Because God (supposedly) does not want us to wear mixed fibers. "Why? Because God!" - that is the common thread here.

This is in great contrast to atheist Humanism. We´re still all ordinary mortal humans, everyone who should follow the morality and everyone affected by it. The big difference is that atheist humanism makes no pretense at deriving its morality from outside those affected by it, or that following its morality or failing to follow it will have any effects on any outside agency which might somehow reward or punish actors among the mortal humans. We choose the rules for ourselves, we enforce them ourselves, and we ourselves alone are affected by the consequences of moral or immoral actions. Why do we not declare murder to be moral? Because none of us would like to be murdered, and very few of us would like to see those we care about murdered. Why is there no rule against wearing mixed fibers in atheist Humanism? Because not even the most fertile imagination among atheist Humanists (and there are some VERY fertile imaginations out there) can imagine a good reason for prohibiting the wearing of mixed fibers. One might shorten it to "Why not? Well, why should we?", perhaps.
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