Idol Chatter

It was no Andrew Sullivan vs. Sam Harris, nor Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson, but last night’s “Nightline” debate (the first in an unpromising new series called “Face Off”) between Christians Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron and atheists Brian Sapient and “Kelly” did manage to prove something definitively: When it comes to debate forums, television is no match for the Internet.

In the taped debate, the evangelist tag-team of Comfort and Cameron (“As long as we’ve got each other…”) tried to make good on their promise of scientifically proving the existence of God–without referring to the Bible or faith–to Sapient and “Kelly,” members of the Rational Response Squad who are infamous for the Blasphemy Challenge.

But even before the debate aired, each side declared victory via their websites/e-newsletters, with the Rational Response Squad admitting that they made mistakes but adding that “even our worst points still seemed to be too much for them.” On the Christian side, Comfort said that RRS ignored everything he and Cameron had to say, and that the atheists who attended the taping were very rude, while “the Christians were very quiet and polite.” (Comfort was right on that score.)

There wasn’t much substance to the thing, or at least to “Nightline’s” delivery of it, which had more quick-cuts than a Michael Bay film. But what could be expected? Substance was doomed from the get-go, not only because the RRS and their ilk seem constitutionally incapable of thinking squarely about religious faith, but because Comfort-Cameron believed they could gain ground with non-believers by “proving” God’s existence without recourse to faith.

In last night’s opening moments, Comfort told the camera he had “great confidence that we can prove God’s existence absolutely, scientifically, without even mentioning faith.” An off-camera voice suggests, “That’s a tall order.” Comfort replied: “Yeah but it’s easy.”

There’s your problem in a nutshell. Both Sapient-Kelly and Comfort-Cameron are working from the exact same–but thoroughly unexamined–presupposition: that faith equals weak, knowledge equals strong, and foolproof logic leads to ultimate truth. All four people have implicit trust in logic as the one thing necessary for truth. Neither appreciate the profundity of faith; neither understand the myriad ways humans attain knowledge.

Visit the Way of the Master website and then the Blasphemy Challenge website, and then ask yourself if ever the twain shall meet. Dialogue between atheists and Christians or other religious believers can be useful and helpful, but only if each party actually believes there is something to learn. One recent example is the book “Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?”, where Christian history professor Preston Jones has a prolonged, honest email exchange with Greg Graffin, the brilliant singer-songwriter from the band Bad Religion.

Not that respect is the goal. Truth is the goal, and when the goal is something so high and lofty, we can expect conflict. But the best exchanges about ideas happen in a context of epistemological modesty, and with an understanding that what is being critiqued above all is the nature of truth itself.

As a Christian, I believe that some truths are to be ascertained through study, and some truths are revealed. Those latter truths can be studied to some extent, too, but they also require faith. I imagine that sounds like foolishness to the RRS crowd, but why should Christians like Comfort and Cameron act like it’s foolishness, too?

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