[From Editor, 2010-04-02:
*Comments are filtered for Spam! Your legitimate comments will appear!
**Sorry, the video clips of the debate are currently unavailable!
End from Editor]
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.