Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Catholics Debate Atheists

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As is widely reported on the Net, Intelligence Squared had a debate on the topic: "The Catholic church is a force for good in the world." Speaking for the motion were Archbishop John Onaiyekan (of Nigeria) and Ann Widdecombe MP, a convert. Speaking against the motion were the ubiquitous Christopher Hitchens and the gay actor Stephen Fry. Before the debate, 678 were 'for' the motion; 1102 Against; 346 Don’t know. After the debate: those who were 'for' went down to 268. 'Against' went up to 1,876, and 'Don’t know' down to 34. The consensus of both Catholics and non-Catholics seems to be that Hitchens and Fry thoroughly outperformed the Catholic team.

I watched the shorter, 40', version of the debate. It was a pity that the Catholic team put up an African Bishop, for whom English was a second language, and a woman whose voice was so squeaky that it took some time getting used to. The Catholic team addressed the issues reasonably well, but failed miserably as communicators or charmers of the audience, especially when pitted against the smooth-tongued media professionals Hitchens and Fry. Also they were no match for their opponents in shooting arrows or hurling mud, especially in rebuttals.

People have their freedom to engage in whatever debates they like, but it looks to me that Catholics debating atheists like Hitchens engage in not only a futile but also a counterproductive enterprise. Even if they are matched in wit and oratorical skills, the atheists will be at an advantage. The atheists have nothing to lose, no position to defend, no history to identify with, and no responsibility to anyone except to themselves. Hitchens and the whole 'against God/Religion/Catholics' gang have only to be against something; they don't have to be for anything whatever except themselves. That gives them great freedom to attack without getting hit. It is like an invisible man punching a hapless boxer. So the Atheist can say, 'I don't approve of people forgiving one another,' 'I hate my enemies and my friends too,' 'I don't see what the problem is with x sleeping with y, regardless of the mutual relationship, as long as they are consenting adults,' 'Yes, I'll kill if I can get away with it,' and so on. He can attack every position his/her opponent takes as restricting his freedom or as out-of-sync dogmas.

Above all, a religious person comes with a baggage, a history, a heritage, which has proud as well as embarrassing elements. That is simply the fate of every one who places himself with a group, for all institutions, religious as well as secular, are made up of fallible humans. So he cannot but leave himself open to attack. The theist cannot return the attacks of an atheist in kind even if he wanted to, for an atheist has no history, has no group membership, has no commitment. Hitchens, for example, can totally distance himself from all the evils that the other atheists had done before him, for the 'atheists' don't have a Church or a history or a group identity. There is no way a theist, who comes with a group identity and heritage, can ever match wits with an atheist, who has no accountability to anyone except to himself! At least if a Hindu and a Jew or a Christian and Moslem debate, there may be some sort of equivalence of 'historical baggage'; whereas a 'loner' like the atheist can always come one up against a theist.

Another major problem with these debates is that they are simply exercises in 'impressing' people rather than in delivering truth or in searching for truth. Recent debates have become a form of entertainment, so we need entertainers rather than scholars to debate. Truth? That can be dispensed with in the context of the debate. Whatever the atheist says or the theist says, there is no way to verify immediately or even later on since they are neither footnoted nor referenced! Even if statements were footnoted, we would only have a case of X quoting Y, and Y quoting Z, without being able to ascertain whether X, Y, and Z know what they are talking about. As anyone who has gone through the books Bad Science or Who Stole Feminism? or Scientific Blunders or How to Lie with Statistics would agree, it is hard to take at face value the statistics and so-called scientific statements. Winning a debate requires entertainment appeal and quick wittedness rather than veracity or knowledge.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Kandhamal Videos

Here are three video clips about the sad events that took place last year in Kandhamal, Orissa, India. Those unfamiliar with the events may explore this Wikipedia article to know what happened. Basically, it was a case of extreme violence, one religious group, the majority, attacking another, minority, religious group. It is unthinkable that such events take place in 21st century India, a country that can rightfully boast of religious tolerance and magnificent mainstream Hinduism. Several Jesuits were involved in assisting the affected Christians.

According to All India Christian Council, the 2008 violence affected in 14 districts out of 30 and 300 Villages, 4,400 Houses burnt, 50,000 Homeless, 59 People killed including at least 2 pastors, 10 Priests/Pastors/Nuns injured, 18,000 Men, women, children injured, 2 women gang-raped including a nun, 151 Churches destroyed and 13 Schools and colleges damaged. The violence targeted Christians in 310 villages, with 4,104 homes torched. More than 18,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced and homes continued to burn in many villages. Another report said that around 11,000 people are still living in relief camps. Some of the tribals even fled away to border districts in neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh and took shelter in churches of those districts.

On October 14, Cuttack archbishop Raphael Cheenath moved the Supreme Court seeking Rs 3 crore as compensation to rebuild the demolished and vandalized churches in the communal riot-hit areas. He also sought Rs 5.5 lakh for the kin of those killed in the riots and compensation of Rs 60,000 to those whose houses were damaged or torched by miscreants. [From Wikipedia]

Here are two more clips continuing the same video story:
Kandhamal Part 2

Kandhamal Part 3