Why the Atheists Triumphed in Last Night’s Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate on the Merits of Religion

Live debates about fascinating and contentious topics.
Nov. 16 2011 3:40 PM

Let’s Abolish Religion!

How two British atheists convinced a crowd of New Yorkers that the world would be better off without faith at last night’s Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate.

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God in heaven.
Would the world be better off without religion?

Photo illustration by Bruce Rolff/Hemera.

D’Souza asserted that atheists often turn away from God because they feel wounded, not because they want evidence for transcendent belief. He claimed that Darwin, Chapman’s great-great-grandfather, only became an atheist after his daughter, Annie, died, not because he discovered evolution. Then, things got even more personal for Chapman.

“You, Matthew, in your article in Slate magazine talked about nuns or teachers who beat you on the ankles and people who stuck their hands down your pants,” D’Souza said, referring to Chapman’s account of his days at a religious school. “My point is, in many cases, we're not dealing with facts. We're dealing with wounded theism. Many times when we hear the word ‘atheism,’ we're dealing with a person who is angry with God or angry maybe with the representative, the self-appointed representative of God.”

“Matthew Chapman, are you angry with God?” asked debate moderator John Donvan, a correspondent at ABC News.

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“How can you be angry with somebody that doesn't exist?” Chapman fired back. “I'm angry with Dinesh because he's making these preposterous statements about my—”

“Well, I didn't put my hand down your pants,” interrupted D’Souza.

“—Great-great-grandfather,” finished Chapman. “His atheism didn't come solely from the fact that his daughter died. It was a very slow process of seeing how the theory of evolution was in conflict with the Bible.”

The “for” side invoked the Bible several times during the evening, inspiring Wolpe to say, at one point, “It’s so interesting that the side that’s quoting the Bible is that side, and the side that has actually provided evidence of any kind is this side.” The other side, Wolpe said, seemed to miss the point of the debate. “We're asking not would the world be better off if you rewrote the Bible, but would the world be better off without the influence that religion has on religious people.”

If you believe people are fundamentally good and don’t need behavioral guidance, you’ve never visited a playground, Wolpe said to laughter. “My experience is when a new kid comes to the playground, the other kids don't go, ‘Oh, look, a new child. Let us embrace him and share our toys.’ ”

Wolpe took offense at Chapman’s argument that religion encourages credulity—breeding generations of unquestioning, naive believers. The idea that atheists denounce religion because they’re intelligent and religious people believe because of some psychological deficit, “not only slights the idea that religious people are capable of thought, but also tries to railroad into this belief that you should condemn it without actually looking at all the statistics, the ideas, the history that we cited.”

And why, he said, would he be there that evening if religious people were unthinking, credulous automatons?

Wolpe earned more points when he criticized one of Grayling’s Tom Friedman-esque anecdotes about a London cabdriver. (Grayling was apparently trying to prove that Judaism wasn’t responsible for Western morality, but didn’t have a chance to finish his story.) Grayling asked the cabdriver if he had read the Old Testament. He hadn’t, but recalled a bit of it. Grayling then asked if he remembered the story about God destroying Sodom because he hated its homosexual residents. He continued on with the story of Sodom until Wolpe cut in.

“Sodom was not destroyed because of homosexuality,” he retorted. “Read the book of Ezekiel. It was destroyed because of the cruelty of the people of Sodom, their immorality. And with all due respect, I think that to cite London cabdrivers, pithy though they may be, as the demonstration that Judaism didn’t actually create the morality of the West, may be a little thin.”

Even if Judaism did construct the moral code of the West, those ethics haven’t stuck, Chapman said. “If religion made people behave better, markers of social dysfunction, drug addiction, ignorance, teen pregnancies, violent crime would be much lower in highly religious societies,” Chapman said. “In fact, the opposite is true.” Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God, he claimed. “But we have by far the largest prison population on earth. Drug addiction is widespread. Gun violence is grotesque. Our education system produces kids whose math and science skills are far lower than in secular countries while our rate of teen pregnancy is far higher. And in a country so rich and Christian, it's amazing how many people live in abject poverty.”

Science, on the other hand, has cured the sick, reduced infant mortality, and increased life expectancies. “All this progress, all this beautiful knowledge, all this alleviation of human suffering in 100 years,” said Chapman. "Religion has had thousands of years to prove its supernatural effectiveness. It hasn't.”

At the end of the debate, neither side seemed to have a clear advantage over the other—which was reflected in the “for” side’s narrow win. Both D’Souza and Chapman agreed on reason for the debate outcome: “It’s New York!” laughed D’Souza. “[Wolpe and I] talked before and said if we can hold our own in New York City, we’ll be doing pretty well. But hey, this was a bit of a hostile crowd!”

Chapman, too, told me they won because of the liberal crowd. “I think the other side would’ve won in more primitive areas,” he said. “We had a more forward-looking, progressive argument.”

Moderator John Donvan dismissed the idea of a biased audience. He believes they’re open-minded, and that they listen closely to the quality of each argument. Still, he was somewhat surprised by the results. “I thought Wolpe and D’Souza’s arguments had more blood, sweat and sinew in them,” he said. “They were arguing that it would be a bleaker world [without religion], and to some degree, I did feel like I was hearing about a bleaker world from the side that won.”

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