Video of the Collision Panel Discussion December 6, 2009

Video of the Collision Panel Discussion

A couple weeks ago, I participated in a two-person panel discussion on the movie Collision. The film documented a series of debates on the topic “Is Christianity Good for the World?” between Christopher Hitchens and evangelical theologian Doug Wilson.

The panel consisted of me and (Christian) Dr. Chad Meister. It was moderated by Pastor Mark Bergin of The Painted Door church. (There was a feature article about them in Friday’s Chicago Tribune)

Thanks to Mark and his staff, video of that discussion can be seen below.

It also includes the Q&A session at the end. As I said before, i didn’t enjoy that part because a lot of people (on my side of the issues!) used the question time to make long, drawn-out comments… it was annoying.

Feel free to criticize and comment. I always play Monday morning quarterback on these things, and I can think of several different answers I might have offered. Maybe you can suggest some more.

Oh… allow me to explain the freeze frame: I was in the middle of explaining how I catch runaway babies…

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  • muggle

    Well, I learned that I’m pronouncing your name wrong.

    You were very well spoken but I did keep waiting for these two phrases when Dr. Meister was going on about what the justification for being good is without “God”: “survival of the species” and “so we can function as a society”. Obvoiusly, his example of Ted Bundy goes against both. You kind of did cover the functioning as a society bit but he totally didn’t get what you were saying about it being good for everyone.

    I don’t like the Golden Rule. Yes, there’s a lot of cases where it seems apt but I find it at best egotistical. I’ve been annoyed more times at people thinking I’d want what they’d want when all I wished was to be left alone to sort things through and then they don’t understand why I’m not swooning with gratitude at their interfering.

    Yes, we should help each other out. It goes to those two phrases I use above but what works for you might not work for others. One I got a lot as a single mother was I should go to school. People just didn’t understand my and do what with my kid, stick her in my back pocket? I had to work to pay for the roof over our head and put food on the table. Loans and grants would cover that but not daycare. Daycare assistance (at least then and apparently now as it seems to apply to my daughter in another state) only is given to enable you to work (and I was earning over the limit to get any). When I’d point that out, people would say there must be someone you can leave her with and didn’t comprehend that no there wasn’t. My daughter is all too aware that she wouldn’t be able to go to school now if she didn’t have me. I didn’t have a mom like me.

    That’s one example as to how the Golden Rule doesn’t work. Everyone has unique circumstances and perspectives. I find the saying that what might be right for you may not be right for some more apt.

    “By what standard is religion good?” Excellent question, Hemant! Too bad he answered it inadequately.

    Charles Schultz gave us a prime example of what you were saying about the ludricousness of believing the unbelievable if it didn’t come from that popularly accepted book. Linus’ blind faith in the existence of the Great Pumpkin is exactly that.

    I liked the way you keep emphasizing let’s focus on what we have in common. That is something both sides need to do! Keep on emphasizing this. It needs to be. Good job on that.

    About the Q & A it started out okay until that third guy and it went downhill from there. He was really annoying. Came off first as advertisement for his organization then as a stern lecture (which I resent but then I’m not an anti-theist even though I’m a “hard” Atheist) as to how we should confront theists — which I resented but the following “questioners” seemed to take as a set of instructions to blindly follow.

    Dr. Meister was equally annoying because he took the opportunity of “answering” as an opportunity to preach instead of just answering succinctly and directly and that was disingenuous. Which makes him rather a jerk. His answers went on forever instead of just answering the question. And if he used the word justification once more, I was ready to smack him over the head. “God” isn’t really a justification, not a legitimate one anyway. But he refused to address that.

    Your example was interesting. Why in hell would you be freaked out because they were coming from a religious gathering?

    Pastor Bergin deserved a round of applause for that anti-bad comment. That was a great take on it.

    That last questioner was the best. He just asked his question and returned the ball to those he was asking it of and it made for a very apt ending note.

  • Karen

    I could be wrong but it appeared that the people who are speaking at the end were spending the time during your debate prepping their comment simply so they can make their own point. I’m with you as far as annoyance…I prefer listening to questions of the truly curious.

    As an atheist, I’m grateful to see you speak as a spokesman on our behalf.

    But, Chad Meister, it seems to me, still wants to convince you that you’re wrong and bring you to the light of his truth. This is the problem when trying to coalesce into a ‘people who are finding our commonalities’ when dealing with Evangelical Christians. It’s not enough to be friendly, they still want you on their side. In my mind, I think in the extremes here: If this was a witch hunt, he would be one of the guys who would have you burned. It’s hard for me to reconcile that with the idea that we can all be friends (which I do heartily support, btw, with fingers and toes crossed..).

  • Well! It didn’t take him long to get to the Hitler/Pol Pot/Stalin comparisons, did it? And Ted Bundy? I’m sorry, but the minute he started talking about Bundy, he lost all credibility with me. You want xtian serial killers? Ok, how about Dennis Rader (very active in his church), John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway, Jeff Dahmer (was “born again” just before he was killed in prison; ah, the people you meet in heaven!)? He started to sound like one of those angry xtians. I didn’t like how he cut off the lady at the end, who was a psychologist working with people like this. I’m sure she knows more about abnormal psychology than he does, even if he is delusional to begin with. You really can’t compare how serial killers think with the rest of the more or less normal population. If god didn’t tell them to kill, then frequently they thought they WERE god.

    On the whole, it was a pretty good discussion. I’ll agree with you, some of the Q&A at the end was more diatribe than question. But Meister was really irritating.

  • Matt

    That frame is just begging for a caption contest: LOL Hemant.

  • “Well, I learned that I’m pronouncing your name wrong.” me too!

    and peggyb, what he did was interesting: he clumsily brought up every other murderous dictator, but he carefully avoided hitler. even so, i didn’t get the impression that the audience bought it, and that made me happy. it’s just a pathetic and cynical apologetic based upon an incompetent interpretation of history.

    frame caption: “rawr, babies! nom nom nom!”

  • Hemant,

    I really enjoyed watching the discussion. It was well worth the hour.

    I was struck by Meister trying to put everybody in the frame of mind that there is just one theism out there and it is an argument between the one theism and atheism. Pascal’s wager also does this. I guess in Meister’s mind, his particular theism is the right one and all others might as well be thrown in with atheism. A couple of people tried to bring up that people would need some kind of independent standard to decide which theism to believe in which undermines the concept of morality coming from or being justifiable by God. This whole “justification” question seems to get a lot of traction with theists and many people seem to hang their faith on it.

    I was also struck how Meister used the “fine tuning” Deist argument to then leapfrog all the way to his one particular version of theism.

    Most of Meister’s anecdotes and Ted Bundy references really only play well to a congregation of believers that look for their weekly pep-talk to re-enforce their faith.

    I think these discussions with theists that you do are a good thing. The theists like it because they get to evangelize a bit to unbelievers. Its good for atheists because it breaks down negative stereotypes of atheists in the larger society. A little something for both “camps”. And I don’t think Meister is at all effective in evangelizing to non-believers. He is only good at pep-talks to believers.

  • Guest Pest

    at 65:12 –

    “… and it was through that exploration that I came to see that there is in fact, an, unbelievable, um, evidence for my Christian faith…”

    So often, theists will say something like this and then cannot produce a single shred of this “evidence”. Here is no exception.

  • Easy answer to the thing about Ted Bundy – he went to prison for how long? Did he get executed (I genuinely don’t know)? Looks like raping these women wasn’t in his own best interests.

  • Karen

    Nice job as always, Hemant. You are indeed a wonderful representative!

    I do wish there was a cogent, easy-to-understand way to express that morality and altruism evolved from the ground up, as humans began to live in social groups, rather than being bequeathed to us from on high (literally) like with the 10 Commandments being handed down from heaven itself.

    This is a huge sticking point with religious people, who want a supernatural justification for morality and cannot accept that it evolved naturally. It’s almost a parallel with biological evolution vs special creation.

    There has to be a way to say it that encompasses the idea of reciprocal altruism rooted in our biology and culture, and then encoded in our laws and covenants as human communities, but I don’t know what it is.

    Maybe the idea is too complicated and subtle to be put into a sound bite, or even a paragraph, like you can say: God gives us a basis for morality in the bible.

    But I see this point as the weak link in our argument, because people know how depraved individuals can be (sadists like Bundy, for example) and it’s tough for them to imagine that there’s a morality that comes from within us via culture vs something divinely imposed.

  • JD

    “There has to be a way to say it that encompasses the idea of reciprocal altruism rooted in our biology and culture, and then encoded in our laws and covenants as human communities, but I don’t know what it is.”

    There are some good books on this subject. I like “The Science of Good & Evil” by Michael Shermer.

  • Wim

    Great performance! I like the overall message of trying to find common ground to improve things on the ground (Could be a good slogan: “Finding Common Ground to Improve Things on the Ground”).

    Regarding the morality thing and examples like Ted Bundy. Bundy is the exception. Most people, theist or atheist, want to live in a social group and want to get along. It seems to me the golden rule is important, but it is somewhat lacking, cos it doesn’t really express that being human also means you *want* to be loved and you *want* to love other people, otherwise you wouldn’t be happy. I’m not just in a social group following rules of ethics for the sake of not being beaten or killed, I’m in a social group because as a social being I want to be social!

    Meister’s argument regarding “God” providing a grounding for morality because morality is somehow baked into “God” (I don’t remember his exact wording) just begs the question: Well, how come this “God” character just happens to have a morality baked into him? How did that come about? “God” as an explanation for morality is equivalent to “God” as an explanation for the universe: it has zero explanatory power. That’s why I call myself a “fundamentalist mechanist”: explain to me the mechanism by which a supposed god happens to have morality rather than not baked into it, how this god speaks stuff out of nothing, by which means it self-sustains itself, etc. Otherwise it’s just an empty three-letter word with “Well, because” or “Magic” as the only answers to the above questions.

  • @codemenkey: OK, maybe not Hitler. But I remember him mentioning Nazis. Still, he got all the other big ones…

    @Mike: Yeah, Bundy was executed in Florida, in 1989. People like Bundy really don’t think they’ll get caught.

  • ckitching

    Too many speech-questions… I wish the “moderator” had a cut-the-mic button for that one person (Mr. Anti-theist).

    As for the Ted Bundy, thing, I suspect he was trying for a “gotcha” where he either wanted to get you to say that there was indeed a divine source for morality, or to have you say that morality is entirely arbitrary. A false dichotomy, to be sure, but this seems to be a fairly common fallacy for certain proselytizers. The truth of the matter is that morality is an active source of research, and I believe we’ve found some really fascinating things about it by researching other animals and their social structures.

    There was a study that indicated dogs have an innate sense of fairness (but not equality). A similar study on monkeys found they understand both fairness and equality. Now, unless there’s a doggy (and monkey) messiah that we don’t know about, it seems that there is more to morality than just a dusty centuries old book.

  • I feel like when I’m listening to theists talk about their faith I just can’t respect what they’re saying at all. It sounds like a bunch of word vomit to me and it’s all irrational, made up drivel. Is it just me?

    I’m sure Meister is a smart and charming guy, but hearing anyone talk about their faith is just so blah…nails on a chalkboard, I can’t enjoy it.

  • JD

    It seems like the debaters should be able to set the ground rules of the moderation.

    Faith or not, there are a lot of people that are egotistical about what they believe or don’t believe, and as such, think other people need to hear their malformed drivel. That’s why these debates need to be strict about audience questions. Maybe give a thirty second allotment and if they don’t appear to be getting to a clear question by then, the moderator should cut them off.

  • 33:10. it’s mr. fail quote! aauuugh, and mr. center-for-inanity! just hearing those guys’ voices again makes my skin crawl.

  • Kai

    The Golden Rule is flawed in many ways. Just one example: One person might like a coach that spouts orders, while another might like a coach that is critical, or another that just rewards positive behavior. If any of them became coaches, it would not be productive to follow the Golden rule and stick to one way to coach people. They just wouldn’t get the best out of each individual they are coaching.

    Also I would encourage folks to take a look at research around the “prisoner’s dilemma”, a.k.a “tit for tat”, a.k.a “an eye for an eye”. It’s been scientifically shown that it’s one of the best game strategies to follow. So rather than just say, “it feels right”, let’s all start quoting the scientific studies that show what kinds of behaviors benefit society as a whole. Until then, religious people will continue to be successful in saying that atheists don’t know where morality comes from and therefore it comes from God.

  • This is the first time I have seen you in video. Well done. Now I see why people think you are so likable.

  • Meister tried, but failed to really address the question from the woman toward the end. She talks of it in terms of “benevolence,” but I think it can be framed as “good.” The question of by what moral standards God is supposed to be considered “good,” is an important question that tends to be overlooked. Meister talks about God doing good things for us, but these good things are good because he says they are, right? So is the “moral law” that God has put in our hearts something above God or an arbitrary assigning of “this shall be good and this shall be bad?” Is he himself “good” or does he appear good (questionable) because he made us in such a way so as to make us regard certain things as “good?” The Christian that I’ve seen to be most consistent on this issue is the odious Vox Day, who basically says that God is outside the morals that he has assigned us and if he said that eating babies was moral, then it would be moral (wouldn’t Hemant love that reality.) He sort of looks at God as the grand game designer, with us as the AI characters.

    I’ve been frustrated when I’ve seen where it appears that Hitchens argues for some sort of objective morals, but side steps the source or authority of those morals. Maybe, as Joshua Greene argues in The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What To Do About It, we should abandon the idea that there is objective morality, and re-frame the way we address the subject.

    I am also in agreement that the lecturing by the audience members was annoying.

  • I want to thank you, Hemant, for the opportunity to dialogue before and after the Collision documentary. I respect you very much as a person and as a representative of the atheist community. It would be wonderful if there were more atheists AND THEISTS! who engaged in such dialogues as you do.

    In terms of the morality issue that came up time and time again in the documentary (and then in our dialogue, and now on the posts here), I think it’s important for me to clarify something. Many theists, including me, do not believe that atheists are necessarily intrinsically evil or immoral or “Ted Bundy-like”—any more than anyone else is. So if that was the impression that anyone picked up from my example, I want to make clear that this wasn’t my point.

    My point was more of a philosophical one; namely, that if morality is not just relative to an individual or culture, or not merely an evolutionary adaptation (illusion) to get us to cooperate, but rather is objective and universal (such that rape and torture, for example, are always wrong and will always be wrong even if someone believes otherwise), then the question arises: What makes it so? What makes it more than just someone’s opinion? Either morality is invented by humans or discovered by humans. If the latter, what makes it objective, irrespective of time and place and opinion? The theist answers that it is God—a wholly good, perfect being who transcends time and place and in whom morality is grounded. That’s what I was attempting to get at. For theists like me, that makes more sense than that, say, the big bang spewed forth objective moral platitudes. As one of the posts notes, I think it makes more sense on the atheistic worldview to move away from an objective, universal morality.

    Also, I should note that, contrary to one of the posts, I am certainly not a theist who would like to see atheists (or anyone else!) burn. Disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean you want to see them burn. The central question of the dialogue was this: Is Christianity good for the world? I don’t see anything wrong with atheists and theists who disagree on this issue attempting to “persuade” the other side of their point of view. Dialogue, even lively debate, need not degrade into hatred; it can indeed be rooted in love and respect.

    Chad Meister

  • Baconsbud

    Munjaros why should objective morality be abandoned? I think to many people are worried about a source, when the source of our morals is looking at us every time we look in the mirror. There is no outside source other then those we grow up around and live around that helps us to decide what are the best morals for ourselves. I think trying to assign some being or evolution as the source is just ignoring the truth.

  • Sibs

    were the people asking questions part of the debate? man, they just kept going!

  • Baconsbud, when you say that we are the source of our own morals, it sounds like you are in fact arguing for relative morality that may not be the same for each person, rather than an objective morality that is independent and the same for everyone, regardless of how they feel about it.

  • The justification question is actually a good one. The answer of “God” is not a good answer, of course, since what any particular god considers moral changes about as frequently as my newborn’s diapers. What I would say is that the justification for any set of ethics is the issue of well-being, balanced between relevant domains, such as individual, family, tribe, country, species, all life, and so on. In other words, a system of morality is justified if it effectively promotes well-being in a balanced way within all domains.

    Some morals are more “sticky” than others, especially those dealing with the fundamentals of survival and reproduction (e.g. it isn’t ok to kill babies). Some morals are grounded in social rules (especially the issue of social cheating), and those are pretty sticky too because they help promote social stability.

    On the other hand, things get really dicey when it comes to competing interests, especially between different “tribes”, when even “basic” morals get over-written (think Nazis or Abu Ghraib). This is where religion does the most damage, because it is easy to justify the most horrendous behavior in the name of God, when in fact the issue at hand is nearly always about competing groups (even when there is no real competition: consider the fight over gay marriage. As one gay writer recently said, the real issue isn’t god, it’s the “ick factor” that many straight people still have towards homosexuals).

    Most people, including Christians, are still stuck at tribe-level morality. This is where atheistic systems (notably Humanism) can be so advantageous—they can step beyond cultural groups and craft morals that apply regardless of tribe (or even species when we introduce ecological issues).

    Sorry for the long-winded comment, but I have a lot of interest in this topic.

  • TXatheist

    Love the guy at the 51:30 mark where he says since he violates the bible he’s wanting to know why the good xians don’t follow the bible and kill him? I’ve done that and gotten just as ignorant responses. If the xians are in a new covenant do we throw out the 10 C or is it time for another excuse why they don’t follow the bible again?

  • Karen

    There are some good books on this subject. I like “The Science of Good & Evil” by Michael Shermer.

    Yes, it has been addressed in book length. I guess what I’m wishing for is a short, persuasive paragraph or statement that we could use consistently in conversations and debates to counter the morality argument of religious people.

    To them, it’s very, very persuasive to imagine that if you have objective morality (and they loathe and fear relativism) it must come from a higher plain than mere base human existence, which is so demonstrably flawed (or evil ala the Bundy example).

    I’ve been frustrated when I’ve seen where it appears that Hitchens argues for some sort of objective morals, but side steps the source or authority of those morals.

    Exactly what Meister says at the beginning of his panel with Hemant. Religious people really pick up on that kind of side-stepping and use it as “proof” that atheists can’t answer the question about morality (of course, they sidestep and obfuscate all the time too, but …)

  • Hemant, as people who have thought about morality know there is no simple answer. As said many times in atheist forums, ‘Would you tell the SS that you have Jews hiding in your basement or lie to them?’ Yet, that’s a crass way to address a complex question let alone one that can lead to someone invoking Godwin’s law.

    I understand that the goal of the discussion was to have a discussion, but Chad Meister abused that noble goal and for quite a bit of time kept asking a legitimate question — where do morals come from — while he answered it for you and others in the crowd by giving examples that distort the issue.

    In short, where do morals come from? Morality isn’t a bottle of elixir thrown down from on high.

    The only answer to his question as rude and presumptious as it is is simple; ‘My morals come from the same place you get your morals from.’

    Yet, expanded on, not let him preach at us in the guise of a discussion that that source is seated in an ethereal realm and forged the stars for the sole purpose of making a terrarium for hominids.

    The moral response is often filled with quandaries and puzzles not clean cut perfect answers. We humans can go for decades and centuries making bad moral choices — till one day it turns and we collectively put our feet down and work against those immoral acts.

    Yet, Chad Meister should know this. Slavery was OK or even expected … now it’s not. Raiding your neighbors and slaughtering them or raping them or forcing abortions was required by holy edict … now it’s not (though not in all religious circles including Christian ones). Even abortions were not a bad thing, and polygamy and having concubines was a sign of strength and leadership. He even ignores those moral failings and derides those societies around ancient Israel of brutality as if two wrongs make a right. (That said, often the brutality was one sided and quite arbitrary and seemingly selfish.)

    Since Christian morality has changed (a fact he can not deny nor should he if he is at all honest), then …

    * Why should non-Christians hold the current Christian ideas of morality any higher than those of society at large, those of learned specialists, and our own careful insights?

    [ Example: I’m for the death penalty for brutal crimes, though I realize that can be debated separately as a moral stance in itself. Yet, I’m also informed by those in society that have found that there are quite a few people who were scheduled to die that were innocent. As such, I can not support the death penalty because reality shows me that it can not be applied properly. Also, it tells me that my society and possibly other societies and nations have likely not spent enough effort on making sure law enforcement and the judicial system works fairly when investigating serious crimes even if they don’t involve brutality. These are the real moral issues. ]

    Not posing that kind of question was a lost opportunity. Meister took the high road without justification, and then abused his position. That was not friendly at all. It was not a dialog. It was cheap apologetics and it’s cheap if not immoral itself.

  • Apologies for the previous post. It was sloppy and unfocused. I should have waited till there were fewer distractions and I could proof read it properly.

  • Karen, the religious *are* relativistic IRT morality. They just don’t admit it as it’s the elephant in the room, like issues of sexuality in thought and practice. They should not be allowed to say otherwise.

  • Hermes, thank you for your well-written take on a complex issue. Very enjoyable reading.

  • [ tips hat towards TGM in modest gratitude; thanks for my own sloppy work is still appreciated and encourages me to not make as many mistakes later ]

  • Chad,
    you say:

    The theist answers that it is God—a wholly good, perfect being who transcends time and place and in whom morality is grounded.

    But this doesn’t address why these qualities should be attributed to him, because he says so? He is good because he has defined good to be what he is? It seems like you’re simply designating God as the declarer of these arbitrary values. If God had made lying and murder to be good things, would he still be good?

  • muggle

    What makes it so? What makes it more than just someone’s opinion?

    Common sense? Your example of Ted Bundy was a strawman and you must know it was. No one honestly considering morals is going to use a mentally-unbalanced individual incapable of perceiving the consequences of his actions for himself and others seriously as an example.

    It doesn’t take much intelligence to think what benefits the society I must live in benefits me and what harms it, harms me. Yes, there are gray areas we, as a society, argue endlessly over. That’s always going to be the case simply because one rule doesn’t fit every person or every situation.

    Hence, the flaw in the “God” as justification argument. It is very much a bunch of rules written thousands of years ago in a different society fits all. It doesn’t. Even you don’t think it does. Or do you support stoning adulterers and sassy children? Or assaulting lawyers and pharisees because you don’t like their business practices?

    But society necessarily sets up a government which creates laws for the society to live by. Best case scenario really is what we have — or at least ideally have — here in the United States, where everyone has some input and say into what these laws are. We will always have the discussion and encoding laws is where deciding what morals are is where it gets trickier but it really does boil down to the common good.

    Living for just yourself winds up setting yourself against everybody else. You against the world. Only someone as mentally ill as Ted Bundy would like those odds.

    So I hold, in the end, that what I said above are the two justifications for morals: to function as a society (in other words in harmony with those around us as best we can) and survival of the species (murder does not further that end obviously; neither does something as psychologically damaging as rape). “God” is not needed.

  • Lukas

    The strange thing about this whole discussion is that while he constantly brings up the origin of morals, Meister’s own morals are also not based on the bible. He has modern morals (quite unlike the kinds of morals proposed by the bible) and selectively uses the bible to justify them; his morals are not at all grounded in the bible. He takes his morals from the same place atheists get them, he just pretends that he got it from the bible. Which proves one thing: It doesn’t really matter where our morals are coming from, it only matters that we have them.

    Also, his own magic example is weirdly ironic. Obviously, he’s not doing real magic. So how can he compare magic to religion when he believes that religion is real?

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