A Debate on the Source of Human Morality November 27, 2010

A Debate on the Source of Human Morality

Matt Dillahunty, president of the Atheist Community of Austin and host of The Atheist Experience, took part in a debate on the source of human morality. It took place at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and his opponent was Father Hans Jacobse, a priest who heads the American Orthodox Institute.

The whole debate is now online (in several parts) here:

The audio quality isn’t great, but you can definitely hear everything.

How do you think he did?


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  • ACN

    I thought the wheels sort of fell off of the Orthodox Christian guy’s train when he went nutty on the holocaust.

    As Sam Harris has pointed out, this “Atheists are the great evil of the 20th century” meme is sort of tired and annoying.

  • gwen

    I’m glad you put it up. The christian school that put it up on You Tube, made sure the comments were closed!!

  • asonge

    ACN: I’d say his wheels started falling off when he started railing against porn out of nowhere. I mean, it was just completely random.

    The pattern lately at debates is wait until the last possible second to mention the hitler/stalin/mao “atheism does evil things in the past century” meme. It happened to Hitchens at his debate with Dembski…though somehow Hitchens manipulated a final statement in out-of-order (after Dembski).

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    Father Hans Jacobse would have lost the debate the first time he opened his mouth even if Matt never showed up – he was that bad. I was embarrassed for the Xtains in the audience who suddenly realized they had this guy for a champion.
    However, listen to it for Matt – he is great, as always, and I hope he gets asked to more debates. (Plus, he cleans up real nice.)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I only watched the first segment. I thought Dillahunty did fine, but it was a bit dry. I think he could have held the audience’s attention better if he started out by biting the head off a bat.

  • Matt did well. He’s good for our side.

  • Richard L

    I live in Sweden. We dislike religion in Sweden (look at the poll made for the Hitchens-Blair debate and take it as an indicator) and we’re quite secular. We are also quite well off in the world*.

    By what f*****g logic can anyone say that the secular/atheistic experience during the 20th century is bad when secular countries thrive so much? When he brought up the second world war as an example of the harm of secularism, he showed his true color as a bigoted scumbag of indescribable stupidity. The rest was just painful to watch.

    *for reference (CIA’s economy site is usually a good – the rest can be shady): https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sw.html

  • “I would argue that as a historian, that atheism cannot exist except in a Christian society”

    lulz, looks like someone doesn’t realize that when you are born, you have no belief in a higher power, and are therefore, atheist. So atheism is the natural mental default, and can exist entirely without Christianity or any other belief.

    Even the Father Hans himself is an atheist in the sense that he does not believe in the gods of other religions.

    The statement should be that Christianity could only have come into existence in an atheist society.

  • Jos

    Man, at some point I just tuned out every time Jacobse opened his mouth. Not because his arguments, if such they can be called, were confusing, incoherent and dishonest, but because he ended every sentence with ‘OK?’. It drove me nuts. I wanted to yell at the screen that, no, it’s not OK, explain your position and stop rambling!

  • Unable to watch the debate, but assuming the other dude comes with some sort of “all morality comes from god” blather. If so, how come our morality has shifted from the “eye-for-an-eye” stuff that was in the Hebrew Bible and, miraculously, matched the morality of various other legal codes that predated it? Could it be that morality actually exists as a social equilibrium between indivual self-interest and a set of societal norms that allow individuals to pursue that self-interest? Maybe I want to kill somebody, but if that’s allowed, I have to worry about somebody killing me, so we all agree that killing is bad. No need for a deity to muddy the waters.

  • Will

    Matt was clear and coherent. I liked the way he handled the debate. The priest was incoherent and tended to ramble although I liked his open mindedness. He seemed to worry more about not offending people than making a point though which made the debate frustrating to me.

  • Gwen, the comments were initially open but very quickly closed. This was either because they could not cope with the volume of comments generated, or the numbers disagreeing with their position. I’ll let the good readers decide the matter.

    Rather than repeat my commentary on the debate (and hoping Hemant does not mind), I humbly submit my blog post on the event.

  • Matt did fine. His tone seemed right for the audience. My only objection: this was not an Interfaith debate.

  • Sheridan

    I wish that at one of these debates the question would be asked: Why has the Bible never been amended? The Constitution has been amended 27 times in 200 years and the Bible has not been amended once in 2,000 years.

    The part about slavery would be a good place to start since Christians no longer believe in slavery. However, slavery is still in their Holy Book with all kinds of rules on how to treat your slaves.

  • Sheridan, I think I made a similar point during the debate, or at least I’d written a similar point.

    I’ll point out that I’m very grateful for the feedback I’ve been getting, especially the constructive criticism. It was a rather unusual position to be in.

    The Father and I had agreed to avoid polemics and knowing that I had limited time, I chose to focus on the errors that were easily addressed without lengthy philosophical answers or protracted back-and-forth arguments. Some things fell through the cracks and I regret that, but when you’re going for clarity under time-pressure, it takes some getting used to.

    I was shocked at his closing remarks, though. It was like someone else stepped up on stage and I realized that unless an audience member asked about it, I wouldn’t be able to address it.

    Fortunately, I got my chance.

    After the debate, I was cornered by a few of the OCF folks and one of them was so apoplectic he was physically shaking and he just kept ranting about porn. He followed me into the panel discussion and tried to preach about it, but I shut him down.

    I’m looking forward to more of these and I hope to eventually find a fundamentalist. The non-literalist, non-creationist, non-Biblical Orthodox folks just seem to agree with me and then try to add on their god, like a sparkling bit of flair on a waiter’s smock…while pretending that this flair adds something substantive.

    It’s more than a little annoying to show up to talk about the source of morality and have your opponents opening statement claim that we’re here to talk about x, y and z…

  • Except the Bible has been amended. It was edited and conflated over the course of centuries in the kingdoms of Israel/Judah in the first millenium BCE, and the early Catholic church also spent centuries determining which gospels and letters were fit to be included in the Christian testament. Then, at the time of the Reformation, the various Protestant sects rejected a number of books from the Catholic version of the Bible. I know choosing what books are to be used isn’t exactly the same as striking the outdated laws of Levitucs, but to claim the Bible has only been edited once is simply inaccurate.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    Kevin S.

    If so, how come our morality has shifted from the “eye-for-an-eye” stuff that was in the Hebrew Bible and, miraculously, matched the morality of various other legal codes that predated it?

    You really should watch the debate. Father J. is “liberal” enough to say that the ancient Hebrews picked up the idea of slavery from pagan neighbors; and improved their moral codes over time (Much like my view that morality comes man and it’s ‘humans all they way down’). Yet, he still claims god is the source of morality! It was very baffling precisely how he thought god fit into this scheme.
    Except, in the end, it all came down to “experiencing god personally.” Why do these guys waste everyone’s time debating if that is the only argument they have left when all is said & done?

  • Laura Lou

    Jos-
    I hated that too! I noticed he did that and repeat himself a lot. People tend to do those things when they’re not confident in what they’re saying.

  • Matt is great, but I think the most shocking part of the debate is part 5.
    The good father changes from being an avuncular if ineffective rival to “WATCH OUT FOR THE ATHEIST HORDE (not you Matt)! ATHEISM LEADS TO HITLER (not you Matt)! ATHEISTS ARE AMORAL (not you Matt)!”

    Good grief.

  • 1stCainite

    After the statements about gulags and concentration camps, I was half expecting Jeff Dee to come up and make him explain his statements, yelling into his face “Excuse ME?!? Would you explain THAT?!”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I wish that at one of these debates the question would be asked: Why has the Bible never been amended? The Constitution has been amended 27 times in 200 years and the Bible has not been amended once in 2,000 years.

    Some more Biblical amendments:

    The story of the adulterous woman, (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” John 7:53-8:11) was added later. link

    The ‘Comma Johanneum,’ the most straightforward reference to the Trinity in the entire Bible, (1 John 5:7-8) was added many centuries later. link

    Read Bart Ehrman for other examples.

  • Loueelouah

    I have not watched this debate but wanted to let everyone know that this week sometime ABC News with Diane Sawyer will have a scientist on who says it has been shown that morality is instinctual not derived from religion. I paraphrased. Shows weeknights at 6:30p.m. Eastern Time Zone for 30 minutes. Catch it if you can. (As an aside, this program must be where I saw the interview with 2 Atheist priests.)

  • gwen

    Did I REALLY hear him referring to Jews as Pagans??…several times???

  • Matt did some very good stuff, and I write this after having only watched 4 segments… I cannot believe he allowed Jacobse to sneak in the assertion that Christianity has an internal, self-correcting mechanism.

    REALLY?? What is it? Who decides it? How do you know? Bollocks!

    Further, I can’t believe Jacobse continued to argue about TRUTH as a separate category, when the debate is “From whence do humans derive MORALITY” Off topic.

    More later perhaps.

  • Peter Mahoney

    The priest also used the slimy technique of “condemn with praise”. For example, he tries to seem magnanimous by saying something like “I would argue [to the audience] that it IS possible for an atheist to be moral. I would argue that it is POSSIBLE to be moral even without a belief in God. But…”

    In this construct, he SAYS he is on the side of atheists being moral (possibly), but just bringing it up in this way is offensive in that it IMPLIES that any (few) atheists who are moral would be the exception to the rule.

    Try it out the other way…. what if Matt said “I would argue that it IS possible that this priest is NOT raping little children. I want to tell all of you that we should not assume that he IS raping little children. It is indeed possible that he is NOT doing that.” Matt could act gracious (“I’m not condemning this priest, I am talking in SUPPORT of him”).

    Do you see how offensive that would be? Think about it. But when such techniques are used to slur atheists it often goes unchallenged.

    He tries to seem magnanimous in advocating the possibility that an atheist could be moral, when really this seems disingenuous and he seems to be showing bigotry and arrogance.

  • Korinthian

    Good job, Matt. I’d love to see you do this again, perhaps in a more open form.