Atheism Vs. Apologetics by George Tipton (April 1997)

Readers of Freethought Todayoften mention that they read it from cover to cover the day they receive it. It just so happened that if I hadn’t read the January/February issue all the way through–if I had given up on the world during “You Won’t Believe You’re Reading This”–I would have missed the announcement on the back page about Dan Barker’s debate with evangelical Douglas Wilson at the University of Delaware on March 11. And the poorer I would have been for it.

It was well worth the three-hour drive to Newark from “False” Church, Virginia. The debate–“Resolved: The Triune God of Scripture Lives”–was the feature attraction of a three-day conference sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Christian Apologetics Conference, called “Defending the Faith – 101.” It was a fascinating event to watch, and I encourage all Foundation members to make a special effort to see Dan whenever he travels to their region of the country. Having been a preacher himself for some 20 years, and with a broad knowledge of the bible and its many translations, Atheist Dan is surely The Devil to whomever has the misfortune to tangle with him–especially if they’re preaching the inerrancy of the bible. Even if he’s not really The Devil, he sure was on fire that night!

But before Dan could come out smokin’, the rules allowed Wilson to speak first. Smokin’ he wasn’t. It’s hard to generate much heat in a debate that you set out to make a mockery of. Exhibiting an arrogant disdain for the obligation to produce evidence and a reasoned argument, he expounded a repugnant new theory called the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG). Briefly, TAG asserts that people can only make sense of the world by subscribing to the Christian worldview. Morality is contingent on the Christian god, the absolute lawgiver who reveals his will to us. Atheists are incapable of making moral judgments because their materialistic viewpoint can only acknowledge “atoms banging around.” (This is a very brief synopsis of TAG. For recent rebuttals by Michael Martin, author of Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, visit the web site at ““) Does this religious pap sound like debate material to you? A debate was advertised, but we got a sermon instead.

Is this the best (or only?) way the evangelicals can debate? To presuppose God’s existence, offer no evidence other than scripture, and claim the moral high ground? Is TAG the sad culmination of centuries of stimulating, thought-provoking arguments (nonetheless flawed, of course) by other religious thinkers–to embrace pomposity and publicly flaunt it in front of an audience geared for an actual debate?

In essence, Wilson said, “An atheist and a theist can’t have a debate because to have the ability to debate is to concede there’s a God.” An end to debating–and hence to all religious criticism–is what evangelicals are really hoping for. “Case closed, we win by default because we alone have God.” Never mind making an honest attempt to back up presuppositions with facts.

“Our ability to use logic comes from God,” Wilson proclaims, but he doesn’t state how. I find this attitude insulting–not only to atheists, but to the whole history of god-existence philosophy. The only quality TAG has is that it’s an acronym–easier to remember than “teleological” or “ontological.” It’s quite fitting that “logical” is not found in its name.

Wilson wasted no time in delivering a bombastic rendering of his inane presuppositions. Seconds after the moderator informed the crowd that “he who asserts the positive” had accepted the burden of proof, Wilson claimed victory. Why? Because, as a premise to the debate, Dan had acknowledged that Wilson carried the burden of proof! (“Huh?,” you say?) Yes, Wilson shirked his primary responsibility–to make a logical case to back up his position–by asserting the ridiculous notion that Dan was “standing on the Christian platform” simply by acknowledging that there was a burden of proof to be carried.

Dan, whom I had seen turn in marvelous appearances on TV talk shows, appeared to be even more in his element at the podium. On his first chance to speak, Dan calmly pointed out Wilson’s lack of evidence and total reliance on presupposition. Dan rightly claimed victory by default–not that he wouldn’t have decimated Wilson anyway. Quoting scripture in Greek, citing the most horrible of biblical passages, evoking vivid images of Christianity’s bloody history, and scoring with the observation that scripture is interpreted differently by each person who reads it, Dan made Wilson’s defense of an inerrant bible, a just and good God, and a superior Christian morality appear infantile at best.

Perhaps sensing that his partisan audience was less than enthusiastic about his performance, the overmatched Wilson desperately tried to force the abortion issue into the debate! This occurred in the second round, when Dan had Wilson on the ropes by quoting many commands of the biblical god to inflict horrible, unfathomable violence. In desperation, Wilson made an obvious reference to abortion (something sarcastic, like “so you say it’s OK to inflict pain if the person is an unborn infant?”). It was then where Dan’s mastery at debating became most evident. Just when it seemed that Wilson was ready to appeal to the emotions of the strongly biased crowd, Dan stuck with his well-reasoned attack and soon had Wilson noticeably shaky and disoriented. Wilson stepped back from the microphone, his confidence diminished, his voice no longer booming with bravado.

In vain, Wilson attempted what appeared to be trap-setting questions. Dan responded to them all in the most rational of tones, with no hesitation. His tools? Reason, logic, and verbatim recitals of the bible’s own words, such as God’s command to take the sword to every inhabitant of a whole city, except for the young female virgins who were to be kept alive as spoils of war. Instead of stepping into Wilson’s traps, Dan skillfully maneuvered him into publicly defending all of the bible’s barbaric episodes as examples of exemplary morals.

Dan wrapped up this non-debate so early and easily that he even had time to present some TAG counter-theories. One is called TANG (Transcendental Argument for the Non-existence of God), developed by Martin. While admitting that he was as yet uncertain of its validity–an invalid TANG would not validate TAG, however–Dan presented TANG’s reasoning that logic, science, and morality presuppose the falsehood of the Christian worldview. Dan also presented arguments that Wilson’s beloved God not only does not exist, but can not exist.

During closing arguments, Wilson did finally manage to prove something: evangelicals can’t take a compliment! This is shown by the following paraphrase:

Dan: “God could have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing, but chose not to. If you, Doug, had had the power, I know you would have prevented it. Therefore, you are nicer than God!”

Wilson: (indignantly) “That’s blasphemy!”

By the way, the crowd never became belligerent. An occasional brief shout could be heard, but mostly they appeared to be very attentive, even polite. Many children were present, and I didn’t spot any Christian parents covering their ears when Dan spoke. Dan delivered a straightforward, clearly stated message that probably got through to many of those kids–which we all know is one of the best things that could have come from the debate. As for the adult evangelicals, that night they were exposed to enough rationality for a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance to be implanted in their minds.

(If you wonder how atheism fares in a formal intellectual debate against a theist, or how Dan in particular handles being “thrown to the Christians,” there is no substitute for witnessing the actual event, but you can have the next best thing by visiting the web site “Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?” You’ll find a complete transcript of Dan’s April 1996 debate on the resurrection of Jesus against Michael Horner of the Campus Crusade for Christ. It’s long and quite fascinating.)

George Tipton, a Foundation member from Virginia, is a “recovered Catholic” who is now a technical writer in the DC area.

Freedom From Religion Foundation