#GodDebate: Mahlatse Winston Mashua, Eusebius and I talk God

I took part in a very interesting radio debate this morning, on the topic of whether or not God exists. As I said in one of my first remarks, the first question we’d need to resolve is “which God?”, because that question is perhaps one that separates many heathens and believers.

By which I mean simply this: the debate around the existence of god(s) allows for vast amounts of embedded assumptions, implied premises, special pleading, confirmation bias and the like. I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins’ approach to the religion debate at all, but he had it completely right in saying (paraphrased) that everyone knows what it’s like to be an atheist – I just go one god further than you.

If you take a look at the Twitter hashtag #GodDebate, you’ll see plenty of people simply reciting verses, or versions of extensively debated and largely debunked arguments (the Ontological, the Cosmological, the Teleological Argument, etc.). Basically, you’ll see many assertions presented as if they were argument, but that really just indicate that little critical reflection on the warrant for religious belief has taken place.

And then you’ll also see something I’m equally bothered by, which are crass insults towards religion and the religious, delivered by atheists, often accompanied by a smug certainty regarding the fact that we are right, and they are wrong.

I’ve said it many times, but I feel like I have a lot more in common with a thoughtful and compassionate believer than with many atheists. As I remarked on the show, I care far less for what people believe than for what they do, regardless of their motivations (not that these don’t matter at all).

Anyway – the discussion was, I think, civil and productive – even though this is a question that cannot be answered in a one-hour conversation.  My friend Eusebius McKaiser moderated it very well, giving both myself and Mahlatse plenty of time to speak, as well as including many contributions from listeners.

We’ll likely have another one soon, on religion and morality. I’ve debated with Christian apologists before, and unfortunately, they can sometimes lean towards deploying simple rhetorical tricks, or misrepresenting your position, in an attempt to secure “victory” – I’m pleased to say that Mahlatse was a fair and generous sparring partner, and I look forward to talking to him again.

Those who want to listen to the podcast of the conversation can find it on Radio702’s archive. And just in case you’re tempted to sermonise me in comments as some are doing on Twitter, please don’t waste your and my time doing so, as I won’t be approving comments of that nature.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

3 replies on “#GodDebate: Mahlatse Winston Mashua, Eusebius and I talk God”

I thought the debate was more of an introductory dialogue rather than a debate in the full sense. However I think it was still extremely valuable in showing us how its possible to have a civil and engaging dialogue on religion without it turning into a fight. I would have loved to hear your responses on specific arguments such as the cosmological argument and why you think it has been debunked.

“GodDebate” was what started trending on Twitter, so I used it here also, but it was never intended to be a real debate – more a panel discussion sort of thing. The link above gives some of the reasons to find the Cosmological argument unpersuasive, and here are some more –

(For anyone who happens to read this but who wants something less technical, the Simon Blackburn book called “Think” has a very good chapter on this.)

Yes it was more of a panel discussion but still valuable in my opinion.
I think the reasons given for debunking the argument are unpersuasive themselves, specifically on the Kalam Cosmological argument version. I find problematic the reasons given to deny the premise – 1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
The claim is that quantum mechanics shows that events can occur without causes. But this is simply not true. What you have in QM is a particle spontaneously coming into existence from fluctuations of the energy contained in sub-atomic vacuums. The sub-atomic vacuum by its nature has the potential to bring about particles. We might not be able to offer a deterministic account of the event however the sub-atomic vacuum properties are necessary for such a particle to exist. The particles don’t come into exist out of nothing. So appealing to QM as the stanford entry does to refute premise 1 does not work.
2) The universe began to exist- I think the scientific evidence strongly supports this claim. Particularly the Borde Vilenkin Guth (BVG) theorem or more technically the kinematic incompleteness theorem which shows that any universe which is on average in a state of expansion cannot be eternal in the past and must have a beginning. Their theorem is quite general and makes no assumptions about descriptions of gravity. Even if there was a quantum gravity model (which was used to say you cannot extrapolate the big bang up to a point because then Einstein’s relativity brakes down and you need quantum mechanics to explain gravity) it would still apply. The BVG theorem does not assume that relativity describes gravity, as long the universe is on average expanding – it must have a beginning. This would apply to inflationary, and multiverse models of the universe – so even if we live in a multiverse it would still have began to exist.

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