01 May 2008


I'm not crazy about public debates; they seem to me to give too much power and import to rhetorical tricks rather than honest academic pursuit.

And any regular readers (and maybe a few passing readers) of this blog probably suspect that I loathe Dinesh D'Souza, not least of all because of the bad name he gives my beloved alma mater.

So it was with great trepidation that I attended the debate at Harvard last week between Dan Barker (author, former preacher, and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation) and Dinesh D'Souza (contemptible ghoul). But boy, was I happily surprised. Sure, I had to sit through Dinesh's speaking, and I can now confidently say that he is as much of a condescending, pseudo-intellectual twerp (I'm trying to be polite, really) in person as he is in print. But it was worth it to see him make a fool of himself standing next to Barker.

From where I was sitting, Dan Barker mopped the floor with D'Souza. (D'Souza obviously thought differently... I refuse to link to his blog, especially to a post so trivial, but apparently that was "Atheist Bashing Week," which he compared to Black History Month.) I don't merely mean in terms of the arguments made; D'Souza is trying to defend Christianity, and is thus doomed to failure. Dan Barker was well-spoken, humble yet confident, intelligent, professional. D'Souza was arrogant and incompetent. He regularly and repeatedly equivocated and dodged questions. As Rebecca Watson notes, he made a lot of the same crap points he always makes, despite having now been corrected publicly numerous times. He joked a couple times about how he was going to thrash Barker in the debate. He made numerous comments about Barker that bordered on the ad hominem, mostly trying to paint him as a fool or hypocrite for having given up being a preacher. Maybe he was trying to appear confident, but he came across as an asshole. And Barker was there to answer him at every opportunity with calm poise, making D'Souza look even more ridiculous.

One of the most asinine offenses was when D'Souza, in "answering" a question about morality, invented a hypothetical example in which Dan Barker stomped a puppy to death. Here's a tip for would-be debaters: You might be tempted, during a debate, to try building an unfavorable subconscious image of your opponent with a subtly incriminating hypothetical. But if your audience catches on to what you're trying to pull (which is more likely with increasing education of your audience and decreasing subtlety of your example), then chances are it'll backfire and you'll just look like a dishonest dick. (And crying "just kidding," if it comes to that, won't help.)

Oh, and don't forget his crack about how Richard Dawkins is an example of "why biologists shouldn't be let out of the lab" (paraphrased). I really appreciated that. Also, Dinesh apparently doesn't know how to pronounce "agape" (usually ah-GAH-pay, not AG-uh-pee) or "slough"* (sluff, not slŏw (rhymed with "cow")). And he says "if you will" WAY too often. (You know what? No, I won't.) And in case you were wondering: yes, D'Souza plugged his book during the debate.

But it wasn't just his demeanor that sucked. Just about everything out of his mouth was utter swill.

As noted, some questions he just didn't answer. For instance, both Barker and D'Souza were asked what it would take to change their stance on the existence of God. Barker answered the question easily, listing a number of different possible evidences that, if demonstrated, would support the God hypothesis. D'Souza, on the other hand, talked about how he gave up his faith initially (apparently he gave up what he called "Crayon Christianity" in college, but later discovered "Adult Christianity"), but never gave any indication as to what it would take to make him change his current beliefs.

Occasionally, the debaters were allowed to pose questions to each other. During the "morality" portion of the debate, Barker asked D'Souza (paraphrased), "If God told you, personally, to kill me, kill the unbeliever, would you do it?" D'Souza essentially replied by saying that God wouldn't tell him to do that, so if he heard a voice telling him to kill Barker then he would assume it was the Devil trying to trick him. This, of course, invites the question of how Dinesh chooses any trustworthy source for his inspiration or information about God.

At least a few of his points were of the "whenever you think of something good, Christianity will be there to take credit" variety. For example, as part of his opening statement he trundled out the old canard about how Christians invented science because without God there's no reason to assume a deterministic universe that operates according to rational laws. Never mind the fact that we observe a deterministic universe. (For more, see Rebecca's review above.)

He stuck by the ol' First Cause argument, equivocating around Barker's clear and correct rebuttal that the laws of causality as we know them don't apply to the origin of the universe, since causality depends upon space and time, neither of which existed "before" the universe.

He claimed Albert Einstein as an example of a religious scientist, despite the fact that Einstein stated very plainly that he did not believe in a personal God.

He continued the trend of calling the "New Atheists" intellectual weaklings, instead longing for the good ol' days of Bertrand Russell. Which is funny, because Dinesh seems awfully enthusiastic about debating the "New Atheists" anyway.

He remarked on how the godless atheists are trying to push religion out of the public square, trying to compare a statue of David Hume to a statue of Jesus. Because everyone knows it's safe to, say, name streets after famous atheists, but not religious figures.

On a related note, he accused academics and professors of abusing their roles as a sort of new clergy and arbiters of information to impose secularism upon their students. PZ tackled this "professor as authority" point recently, so I'll defer to him.

He made repeated references to "Darwinian primates," as if human beings were the ONLY creatures EVER to have social rules. This, of all his comments that night, probably made me the angriest. It shows such utter ignorance of and disrespect for humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, I really don't know how to approach it.

I actually got to meet Dinesh personally after the debate. Well, sort of. Several times when I tried to join the post-debate conversation, Dinesh literally threw his hand in my face. And long before I could ask him any sort of question, he was gearing up to bolt for the door. He did get one jaw-dropping comment in before he ditched us: Apparently, he considers himself a proud advocate for science. Oh, is that why he's allowed to dismiss entire fields of science based on his flawed understanding of one experiment, as he did recently with the Miller-Urey experiment? Is that why he repeatedly rebukes scientists for daring to take a stand against creationism? Is that why science denialist William Dembski has such a hard-on for Dinesh lately (again, no linky for the stupid)?

Anyway, as he was taking off, I shook his hand, refrained from spitting in his eye, introduced myself as a fellow Dartmouth alumnus, and expressed my disappointment that we couldn't discuss some science since they so seldom let me out of the lab.

Overall, the experience was somewhat cathartic. D'Souza has been weighed, he has been measured, and he has been found wanting.

I still can't believe he's more than twenty years my senior. It doesn't look like he's developed a day past his freshman orientation at college.

PS - The debate was hosted by the Harvard Secular Society and others. It was student-moderated, and the students did a fantastic job of keeping things flowing. I'll say, though, that after a year I still think Greg Epstein (the Harvard Humanist Chaplain) seems like a great guy but is clearly not the world's most capable public speaker.

*Best use of the word "slough" I've ever encountered: page 106 of Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone"


Sara said...

My favorite (re: most infuriating) part was when he asked a questioner for an example of why raising children with the belief that people who believe differently from them are going to hell is a dangerous and detrimental idea, as though he honestly couldn't think of any on his own. He's wiped the wars of human history clear out of his mind, apparently...

B H said...

but never gave any indication as to what it would take to make him change his current beliefs.

I'm finding this is my new litmus test for whether I listen to anyone on any side of a discussion. If you haven't seriously attempted to falsify your own beliefs, then you couldn't possibly have developed your position enough to sufficiently to speak in front of people.