I mentioned Friday night that I would be going to a debate. And overall, I have to say it was a bit disappointing.
Bart Ehrman (UNC Chapel Hill, Agnostic) suggested that the pain and suffering in the world indicates a Christian God does not exist. Kyle Butt (Apologetics Press, Christian) argued that the idea of suffering does not indicate nonexistence of a Christian God. At times, both argued around each other, talked over each other, and missed each other’s point. I thought they both looked a bit stupid when they quoted Ecclesiastes at each other. Both often attempted to argue the existence of God from other areas other than suffering – like whether the fact we believe in justice (or any kind of moral or ethical absolute) proves there is a God.
And both used the straw man fallacy. (You know, where you make up a “straw man” argument that the other person didn’t really say, and strike it down easily.) I think I heard Ehrman use it once or twice. But that’s pretty much the crux of all of Butt’s arguments. He spent most of the debate rebutting random quotes from Ehrman that he got from books, blogs, and other people. His whole side of the debate was really a great example of the straw man fallacy. Whenever Ehrman would state something to which Butt couldn’t respond, he’d pull a quote out of the past and respond to that. Sadly, the audience ate it up.
I didn’t think Ehrman was very well-spoken, or very good at stating his position. Of course, he did say, “This is too important of a topic for me to try to win a debate over.” But I thought he could have been a bit more prepared to discuss things more eloquently. I don’t know if he’s a nervous speaker, but it came across like he wasn’t prepared to speak. That being said, I did think his overall approach was far superior.
The biggest problem in this whole thing was Butt’s whole approach to the debate. Whenever Butt’s snarky comments won him a round of applause from all the “Christians” in the audience, I wanted to cringe. You say you are here to win a debate to stand up for God, and you stoop to mere jokes at the expense of your opponent? Shame on you, Kyle Butt.
And his whole approach to the Bible left a lot to be desired. “It is demonstrable that the Bible is inerrant and inspired.” That’s a giant loaf of crap that evangelicals take down easily. Most Christians, and most Christian Bible scholars don’t believe that’s true. But that’s something that this crowd full of Church of Christ attenders will think is an actual logical thing to say that has already been proven so strongly, it’s not even up for debate.
A lot of Ehrman’s scholarship is study of where the Bible came from – so he knows his stuff about how many manuscripts there are, when they were probably written, and which ones scholars believe are preserved with integrity. Butt refutes this by saying that all we need to know that the Bible comes from God are 3 things: that the Bible shows prophetic foreknowledge, scientific accuracy, and factual information. Understanding that there can be a whole debate on that, this is another case where Butt throws out wild statements that only fundamentalists believe with any widespread consistency. But then, this is the group he’s preaching to.
In the end, his basic assertions were so flawed that I don’t know why Ehrman didn’t jump on them.
He suggested that if someone like Ehrman suggests “life isn’t fair”, that indicates there are moral absolutes and that proves there is a God. I appreciate and understand C.S. Lewis’s argument that the idea that mankind has always had some sort of moral compass indicates there is a God. But the point of the debate wasn’t about the existence of God – it was about what suffering has to say about the existence of God. So Butt’s argument falls flat there.
Butt did say some specific things about suffering and God’s existence, though. He stated that suffering only makes sense if everything is made right at the end. To Butt, suffering proves there is a God, because suffering only makes sense if we have a greater reward of heaven after all this suffering. The irony here is that Butt comes from a fundamentalist tradition that believes that the only way you can go to heaven is if you believe a very specific set of doctrines, and follow them in a very specific way, making the percent of people going to heaven extremely small (even among people who say they are Christians). So most of the people that suffer are going to hell, which makes this argument a really poor one.
He also said that suffering prepares us for an afterlife – for an eternity in heaven (and that is the primary purpose of this life – prepping for eternity). This whole argument is extremely problematic, though. First of all, it assumes a heaven that is not in the Bible and is a fictional construct of a small set of Christians in the last 100 years or so. The whole idea of heaven as angel, and harps, and paradise is not something that the Bible even consistently teaches. Butt’s whole idea of heaven is baseless. The Bible doesn’t teach clearly the specific type of reward Butt suggests. Second, the idea that the main purpose of this life is to get us ready for heaven? That’s not Biblical at all, and makes no sense. The Bible is full of how we are supposed to live here; the idea that the only point of this life is afterlife is a new concept.
Then he suggested some really, really crazy stuff. For example, that we will have free will in heaven, but we won’t sin because God will only put the people in heaven that will choose not to sin for all eternity. Wow. Butt says stuff that I don’t know any Christian (thinking or not) would agree to.
He also stated that God only intervenes in our life when he needs to build our character – or to cause suffering, I guess. Then what is the point of prayer? Most Christians think the opposite is true – that God intervenes only to give us good stuff, not that He only intervenes to give us bad stuff. I think sometimes Butt talks so fast his mouth gets in front of his brain.
Butt’s “appeal to emotion” fallacy contention is flawed. He suggests that Ehrman is simply appealing to emotion with his statements of how many people die in different ways all the time. But I don’t think this is accurate. All Ehrmann is saying that “you say God is loving; there is a shitload of pain and suffering; a loving God wouldn’t allow all of that”. And Butt’s ironic answer to all suffering is simply that “Jesus died on the cross”. Butt says that Ehrman is flawed when he drops logic and appeals to emotion, but in his closing argument he does exactly that – he says the answer to suffering isn’t logical and spouts a bunch of evangelical stuff about Jesus causing the fundamentalists in the audience to yell “AMEN!”
Appeal to emotion indeed.
The whole audience wanted to applaud Butt’s snide comments – no one cared that Butt doesn’t give a shit about what the real message of the Gospel is. They just want to “win” at being right. That’s so far off the Gospel message, I don’t know how to even respond.
Ehrman wasn’t there to try to get you to be converted to a point. Butt was. For Butt, the Great Commission is to go around trying to make unbelievers look stupid and prove that there is a God. Ironically, it is Ehrmann that is living out the Great Commission. His stance was that, regardless of what you believe, let’s confront suffering. In this, which one preached the Gospel?