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

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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.

A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy & Master, New College of the Humanities
A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy & Master, New College of the Humanities

© 2011 Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates.

According to Chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, if you’re in a fight and your wife attempts to help you by grabbing your adversary’s testicles, you should chop her hand off. That’s just one piece of evidence that religion does not make us better people, joked Charles Darwin descendent Matthew Chapman at last night’s Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate. “I know it’s kind of cheap to poke fun at the Bible because it’s so easy,” Chapman said to laughter during his opening remarks for the debate motion “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion.” “But there is a serious point here. Far from making us behave better, religion often complicates and distorts morality. By any reasonable standards, hacking bits off your wife is far worse than her squeezing your enemy's nuts.”

The packed audience at NYU’s Skirball Center agreed—or at least thought Chapman’s side, the one against religion and for the motion, offered the better argument. Chapman, originally from England, and philosopher A.C. Grayling battled for the debate motion with dry British humor and digs at archaic religious texts. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and president of King’s College Dinesh D’Souza argued against the motion and for religion, by highlighting evidence of religious goodness, and appealing to the audience’s less cynical side with stories of faith.

The audience voted electronically either for the motion, against it, or undecided, before the debate and afterward. In the end, Chapman and Grayling’s side won because they attracted the most new supporters post-debate. Before the debate, 52 percent voted for the motion, 26 percent were against, and 22 percent were undecided. Afterwards, 59 percent voted for the motion, 31 percent against, and 10 percent undecided.

Chapman and Grayling argued that anything good religion does—encouraging ethical behavior, providing comfort and community, promoting charity—nonreligious groups do, too. But along with the good stuff, religion also consigns women to a second-class status, foments division and conflict, oppresses gay people, encourages credulity, and stunts scientific progress. Of course, not all religious people share the same insular perspectives, but most extremists do, Grayling argued. “The extremists are the most honest of the people who have a religious view because they commit themselves to what their tradition tells them, and they stay closest to the text,” he said, explaining that moderate believers often “cherry-pick” the best parts of their religion, ignoring the rest. “Now, if that’s real religion, that’s honest religion, the world is very much better off without it.”

Wolpe and D’Souza maintained that religion does a vast amount of unrecognized good in the world—unrecognized because media outlets won’t run an article with the headline “Religious Man Feeds Hungry Man.” Religious wrongdoings, on the other hand, are exaggerated and overhyped in the news. Wolpe rattled off study after study showing that religious people are more likely to volunteer and participate in civic life, and less likely to do drugs or get divorced. Apparently, believers are even healthier and live longer. Oh, and if you think religious fundamentalists are evil, they’re nothing compared to the atheists. “The crimes of religion, even of Bin Laden, are infinitesimal compared to the nightmare of atheist regimes,” said D’Souza, naming Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Chernenko, Ceaușescu, Kim Jong-il, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot as a few examples. “[They] have killed far more people, in far shorter of a time, and are still doing it right now.”  The world without religion, the men said, would be a bleak and impoverished place.

The question, Chapman said in his opening statement, is not whether religion does good in the world. “Of course it can and it has,” he conceded. “The question is: Can we come up with something better that does not depend on dangerous and childish faith and thousands of competing gods? Can we persuade people that it's possible to live a good, peaceful and happy life guided only by human conscience and modern knowledge?”

And about that peaceful and happy life: Why, Grayling wondered, pointing to one of Wolpe’s cited studies, does it matter if religious people live longer lives? “If you're religious, you live longer, that puzzles me,” he said. “I mean, isn't heaven meant to be a nice place?”