What was the topic again?
I've been writing a bit lately about the recent trend in Christian apologetics' strategies of trying to style Christianity as more rational, perhaps even more evidence-based - than atheism. I've also scoffed a bit at John Derbyshire for overreacting to "Intelligent Design." But I do agree with Derbyshire on one point: there is something decidedly smarmy about the way Christians are arguing these days.
Dnesh D'Souza published a case in point today. Apparently he's just come off of a debate with renowned philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer entitled "God: Yes or No?." D'Souza is gracious enough at the beginning of his column to note that it was brave of Singer to come debate him in front of a 3,000-strong Christian audience at a Christian college. In light of what D'Souza goes on to say, I think that admission was, in fact, revealing - for it is clear by the end of the column that the debate was a setup.
D'Souza invited Singer to debate on whether or not God exists - but he admits that:
In my opening statement I showed the profound connection between Singer's Darwinian atheism and his advocacy of infanticide and euthanasia.
Which isn't, one is at pains to point out, the advertised topic of the debate. But of course, Singer doesn't need defending and had no trouble responding to this:
Remarkably Singer responded by saying he didn't come to debate his bioethical views! Rather, he wanted the debate to focus exclusively on the question of whether God exists or not. I didn't want this to be a debate in which Singer and I ended up talking on completely different subjects, so I engaged him on his chosen ground.
Actually, there's nothing "remarkable" about it. Sticking to the topic is the custom in an honest debate. It's true enough that politicians don't typically do this, but they don't get their reputation for deceit from nowhere. The final flourish about engaging Singer "on his chosen ground" is what's really galling, though. Presumably, both parties agreed on the topic beforehand, making it D'Souza's "chosen ground" as much as Singer's. If D'Souza had intended to debate bioethics instead, he should have invited Singer to a debate on that topic.
Even so, I was disappointed that Singer wouldn't stand up for the opinions that have made him famous, or infamous. Our topic resolution was broad enough to permit a discussion both of the existence of God and also of the social implications of the theist and the atheist positions.
First of all, Singer is more than willing to "stand up for the opinions that have made him 'infamous.'" Even a cursory glance at his biography confirms this: he has, for example, repeatedly lectured in Germany despite deliberate disruptions of his talks and a denounciation of his ethical positions from German academics so near-universal there that he was, for several years, unable to find a university willing to give him a podium there (this owes to his pro-euthanasia views, which are taboo in Germany due to associations with Hitler). If D'Souza had wanted to debate Singer on biomedical ethics, there is little doubt that Singer would have accepted. Second of all, there are no certain "social implications of the theist and the atheist positions." What "the" social implications of each "position" are depend rather a lot on which brand of religion you subscribe to in the case of theism, and which brand of secular ethics you subscribe to in the case of atheism. I myself am, for example, a confirmed atheist, and I've read Singers Practical Ethics from cover-to-cover and agree with almost none of it. Atheism didn't lead me to the same ethical place (in fact, I don't believe Singer's conclusions can even properly be called "ethical") as Singer any more than Christianity leads D'Souza to the same place that Islam would have.
D'Souza knows all of this, of course. He is simply being deceptive. He's pitching a version of events that he knows to be false for the purpose of misleading his audience. And for this reason I've little doubt that blindsiding Singer with the change of topic at the debate was also an intentional setup. What's interesting to me is how acceptable this kind of bait-and-switch tactic has apparently become even among intellectually respectable Christians these days. There was a time when a Christian apologist would hardly have felt the need to bait an atheist into debating him on a Christian campus and then switch topics on him after the event was underway. A lot of people tell me that religion is in our genes. If so, it is evidently being bred out. The manic street preachers and snake-oil salesmen of religion have, of course, always been con men, but there was an age when Christian intellectuals were not. No longer, apparently. The signs are unmistakeable: slowly but surely, religion is dying.
Appropriately perhaps, D'Souza finishes off his column thus:
Is Singer showing us where the road to complete secularism actually leads?
AH, yes, the dangled implication - oldest tool in the set of someone wishing to leave an impression he is incapable of arguing for directly. As it happens, as an atheist myself with a degree in Philosophy, I can answer that question with an emphatic "no." But D'Souza doesn't need to take my word for it. The bookshelves in Philosophy libraries are full of accounts of the reasoning of atheists who don't reach Singer's ethical conclusions at all - most notable among them, perhaps, the writings of one Immanuel Kant (Singer's favorite philosophical punching bag).