Tonight, “new atheist” Christopher Hitchens and “new apologist” Dinesh D’Souza engaged in a debate on religion at the UCF arena. According to the moderator, it was the largest crowd for such a debate to date. (I would guess about 4000-5000 people were there.) On points, D’Souza out-debated Hitchens who appeared sweaty, frequently spoke so low and rapidly to be incomprehensible, and did not take advantage of many easy rebuttals of D’Souza’s arguments. D’Souza spoke clearly and with more conviction. While his arguments were mostly tired and not convincing of anything in particular, they enthralled the majority of the audience.

The questions the debaters were supposed to address were: “What about God?”, “What about Christianity and other religions?”, and “What about science and reason?” The best point D’Souza made, in my opinion, was that Christianity is qualitatively different than other religions because it involves the descent of God to the level of man in the form of Jesus, where other religions involve the aspiration of humans to ascend to the level of God. Hitchens ignored this, probably because it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Christianity makes any sense, and also does nothing to refute Hitchens’ argument that Christianity, like other religions, imposes odious rules on behavior (for example, we cannot choose who we love, but must love Jesus (and our neighbor) or face damnation). Another of Hitchens’ arguments on the evils of Christianity is that, like other religions, it is invoked as an excuse for a long litany of horrible deeds. I think my principle difference with Hitchens is that I think for the most part, people do evil because they are evil, not because they are religious. Frequently religion is a handy tool for evil-doers, but it is not a prerequisite.

D’Souza’s most dramatic proclamations were repeated claims that the universe, like the play Hamlet, has a plot and a design and therefore must have an author. Hitchens, in my view, failed to call him on this, going on a tangent about how one determines the identity of the author rather than refuting the ridiculous claim that the universe has a plot and a design. D’Souza also repeatedly stated that the universe is “fine-tuned” for the existence of humans, implying that there is not only a creator, but that the creator cares about our existence. Hitchens also let these easily rebutted claims go unchallenged. The fine-tuning D’Souza refers to is that if the fundamental constants of the universe are changed by small amounts, things like stars would not be possible. Any universe that ever existed or exists with those different constants therefore could not have any beings in it remarking that there must not be a creator because if there were it would not have made a universe with such lame fundamental constants. We only can exist in a universe like the one we do exist in. Astronomers have now detected hundreds of planets in our corner of the galaxy, beyond the handful in our only solar system. Of these, only one apparently is “fine-tuned” to allow life to exist. D’Souza would apparently conclude God must exist to create such a fine-tuned planet. But we can’t exist on any of the other planets. Out of hundreds (known so far), all planets but one are not fine-tuned for life. If a designer fine-tuned the universe for homo sapiens, it was a remarkably inefficient job: our little planet is a vanishingly small fraction of a universe that is, for the most part, completely inhospitable and also beyond our reach. Our primitive understanding of cosmology does not preclude (and in fact supports) an analogous situation for the universe: many may exist, and we inhabit one in which it is possible for life to exist.

But the most remarkable unchallenged argument of D’Souza was his supposed rebuttal of the “God of the gaps” argument (one not raised by Hitchens). To paraphrase D’Souza, atheists and scientists have unscientifically dismissed various discrepancies in the predictions of scientific theories, expecting them to be resolved by minor improvements in the theories. Two specific examples he gave were the failure of the Ptolemaic model of the motion of planets to accurately predict their positions, and the failure of Newtonian dynamics to explain the precession of Mercury’s orbit. In both cases, he stated with great import, a revolutionary change in the relevant scientific theories was needed to explain the discrepancies, not a small incremental change. So – the scientific method successfully explained theses discrepancies. New theories were developed that worked better than the previous ones. That’s how science is supposed to work. How exactly is a physics-based, scientific explanation for the universe and the triumph of the evidence-based scientific method supposed to be refuting a rational model of the world and supporting a faith-based one?

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JC

Planetary Scientist and Asst. Professor of Physics at University of Central Florida; Movie Buff; Trekkie; Jethro Tull fanatic; part-time actor, piano player, writer; and full-time husband and father.

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