Debate Review: Seidensticker & Tarico v Markuly & Raschco
Recently, there was a debate on the topic “Does God Exist?” at Western Washington University (WWU). The participants for the negative were Dr. Valerie Tarico and Bob Seidensticker (of the Cross Examined blog). The participants for the positive were two professors from Seattle University. Dr. Mark Markuly, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, and Rev. Mike Raschko Ph.D, professor of Catholic Systematic Theology. My evaluation of the debate will be broken into three parts. First, a quick summary of the main arguments and counter arguments. Second, a few technical comments on the debate. Third, my analysis of the arguments presented.
The video of the debate can be found on YouTube
The debate was structured as follows.
- 10 min opening for each speaker alternating Affirmative then Negative
- 3 min rebuttal from each speaker in same speaking order
- Open Q&A
Affirmative Opening – Raschko
- “Proofs” for and against God don’t work. If they did, everyone would be convinced.
- “God” ill defined. Two questions that are important to define God: (1) How does this God want me to live my life? (2) What kind of ethics does this God endorse?
- If you want to explore if God exists, let go of the idea of a “being” because that reduces God. Search to see if you feel something deeper behind it all.
- The most appropriate word when talking about God is “mystery”. All language fails. Problems happen when people have God all nailed down.
Negative Opening – Seidensticker
Intro: Don’t use circular reasoning like “let’s presuppose God” or “here’s how the facts fit the God hypothesis”. I’m sure tonight that you will hear some new and thought-provoking ideas.
- Historians reject the Bible Story – The Bible is not in the history section of the library because historians consistently reject miracles (e.g. Caesar, Alexander the Great, etc). Christians often argue that we should treat the Gospels like period biographies. Agree, but they won’t like where it takes them.
- Mormonism beats Christianity – Christians often compare the number of manuscripts to other ancient manuscripts but this is too easy. The gold standard is Mormonism: Broader record, higher quality of writings (no long gap between originals and copies; no worry about scribes changing text), no oral history gap, guaranteed eyewitness, rebuts Naysayer hypothesis.
- There’s a Map of World Religions – No scientific theory map. People come to the same scientific conclusions irrespective of their religious background. But religion doesn’t do that.
- God has no impact on reality – what part of reality cannot be explained without God? He is functionally non-existent.
Affirmative Opening – Markuly
I have come to believe in God because
- Experience of something beyond myself mediated through various ways of knowing (e.g. pictures from the Hubble as charged with divine reality). Faith is something I live more than believe.
- Humanitarian work done in the name of God. Ghandi, MLK, etc.
- Belief in God is a natural thing to do (cites many studies describing the “hard wiring” for God-belief in human behavior. These studies do not argue for or against the existence of God.
Negative Opening – Tarico
Intro: God needs to be defined; some definitions are unfalsifiable. I will address the God of the Bible. The probability that the Bible God exists depends on the answer to four questions. All of which I answer “no” but I will defend two in the interest of time:
- Do claims about this God pass the tests of not contradicting each other and not contradicting external evidence? No, because the problem of suffering disproves God. Why is our desire to believe in God so strong that no amount of suffering children or deer could overwhelm it?
- Is the Bible’s God the best and most likely explanation for humanity’s long and enduring quest for God or our profound experience of His presence in our lives? No, people are really after happiness, affluence, etc. Religious devotion is primarily motivated by what we can get in return. “Without the hope that our devotion can change our lives and afterlives for the better by winning God’s favor, then the question of whether God exists simply isn’t interesting to most people.”
Rebuttal – Raschko
- Mormonism beats Christianity
- Printing press – lots easier to keep track of things
- Enlightenment – human thinking reduced to facts with no room for nuance
- Huge Cultural Gap – modern world in America vs. Ancient Near East
- Differences in perspective of God
- God-language is metaphorical and mystery
- How does God work in the world?
- God is not an efficient cause.
- God works through human freedom.
Rebuttal – Seidensticker
- Proofs of God don’t work
- Agree. Why believe in God?
- Who is God?
- Agree. Many Gods, but which God are we defending? Westboro’s God?
- Much diversity in early Christianity. Marcionites, etc. Solution: Bible is the blog of an ancient, pre-scientific people
- Miracle of life, Hubble, etc
- Get that; view it through the lens of science.
- God is mystery
- This is just a stopgap that avoids the difficulty that Christianity has.
Rebuttal – Markuly
- God of the Bible
- Many Gods of the Bible – religious evolution through time and political changes
- Human Suffering
- Religion has done slightly more good than evil.
- No solution – I live in faith and draw inspiration from people rising above the pain
Rebuttal – Tarico
- Humans latch onto things that they want to believe and do a lot of fancy footwork to hang on to those beliefs. This should give us pause.
I do not like this style of debate. Four speakers is way too many; it would be much clearer to have two debaters and an extra round of rebuttals. All of the speakers were articulate and polite, so, no complaint there. The biggest problem that I think made this categorically a bad debate is that no-one actually addressed the question “Does God Exist?”.
Raschko – did not even attempt to defend the affirmative and said God is found in the sense of wonder of the universe. His rebuttal did address Seidensticker’s arguments although nowhere near enough depth, partially for the brevity of the rebuttal period.
Seidensticker – by far gave the best performance but his arguments were almost exclusively focused on Christianity and not the existence of God. I can cut him some slack since this was in a debate against Catholics, still, not exactly on topic. His rebuttals were the best and directly addressed Raschko’s arguments. I would pick him as the “winner” on technique; however, his arguments are profoundly weak. More on this in the next section.
Markuly – did not effectively defend the affirmative. The focus of his arguments was on belief in God, not in the actual existence of God.
Tarico – gave the strongest single argument by repeating the Epicurian trilemma. The rest of her argument was on the motivation for belief but not the actual existence of God. Her rebuttal was much more of a continuation of her opening speech rather than a response to the affirmative.
One big thing: almost everyone mentioned the importance of defining “God”, but no one actually provided a definition. Raschko and Markuly completely gave up. Seidensticker came close by presupposing the Christian God. Tarico did best by specifying she was arguing against “the Bible God”.
Raschko made very few serious contentions. When he said that we must give up this idea of God as a “being”, he immediately lost the debate. “Being” literally is “a thing that exists”. If God is not a being, then, He, by definition, cannot exist. I understand that Raschko was not speaking in a precise way, but, that only reinforces the point that he had no business discussing this question. Some good parts: He pointed out Mormonism and Christianity emerged under completely different circumstances, worlds and millennia apart. God’s action in the world is mediated through human freedom – I know he meant this in the social justice sense; however, he was on to a nugget of truth in responding to Seidensticker’s fourth argument (specifically, the nuance in the doctrine of providence).
Seidensticker made the best arguments and I will spend more time in the future addressing them, but here are my brief comments. First, he introduced his arguments by saying that the audience will hear some new and thought provoking ideas. It may be true that some in the audience did hear something they had never been exposed to; however, all of Seidensticker’s arguments can be traced back at least 250 years.
- Historians reject the Bible story – Even if sound, this argument does not defend the negative thesis; lack of miracles does not address existence of God, only activity of God. The chief problem is Seidensticker did not expound why historians categorically reject miracle claims. The main reason is because, methodologically, historians only appeal to natural explanations. To appeal to miracles requires expanding the explanatory resources to include the supernatural, but, if one starts out excluding the supernatural, why would it be surprising if one never appeals to the supernatural? History: 250+ years, David Hume challenged epistemology of miracles in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) and Gottfried Less rebutted Hume in Wahrheit der christlichen Religion (1758).
- Mormonism beats Christianity – Even if sound, this argument does not defend the negative thesis; God’s existence is not dependent on the textual history of either religion. At most, this is an epistemic argument that only addresses the comparative warrant for Mormonism vs Christianity. The biggest issue here is that it is not an independent argument; this is a rebuttal to a bad argument. Some Christians misconstrue the results of New Testament textual criticism and argue something like “The New Testament is the single most attested collection of documents from antiquity; therefore, Christianity is true”. This is clearly a bad argument and Seidensticker’s rebuttal is relevant. The correctly articulated form of this argument is “The New Testament is the single most attested collection of documents from antiquity; therefore, you cannot claim the content of the text is uncertain without also saying the text of many other ancient books is uncertain”. Note: this is talking about the content of the text, not the historical reliability or truth of that content. This more accurate claim is immune to Seidensticker’s argument.
- There’s a map of world religions – Even if sound, this argument does not defend the negative thesis; the fact that many people all over the globe disagree about what God is like does not entail that God does not exist. At most, this entails that there is difficulty in knowing God. Moreover, I don’t think the Seidensticker has considered the ramifications of accepting this kind of thinking. If one can map the prevalence of certain beliefs, does that mean those beliefs can be dismissed? If this is the case, then, no-one can make any kind of political claims since political views are also tightly linked with geography. Yet, people who make political claims make those claims as if they are true! Consider a political belief that you yourself think is important. Seidensticker would have you believe that your justification for that belief is irrelevant because political views are based on geography. Of course, Seidensticker doesn’t actually believe this; however, a consistent application of his reasoning outside of religion easily demonstrates just how shallow this argument is. A claim simply can’t be circumvented by appealing to geography; the reasons for that belief must be addressed. History: 260+ years, This argument from geography can be traced back to Voltaire’s Zaïre (1732)
- God has no impact on reality – This argument is essentially a repeat of the first one, accenting the difficulty of epistemology of miracles. It also doesn’t deal with the existence of God, merely the activity of God. Historically, the Deist controversy was built on the idea that while God exists, it is impossible for God to interact with creation, thus, miracles are impossible. This argument could be countered through Leibnizian style arguments from contingency which posit a necessarily existing, personal entity as the ground of existence. This style of argument is the reverse of Seidensticker’s, positing that God is the explanation of everything. Seidensticker didn’t interact with this perspective and his opponents didn’t raise it, so, I won’t pursue it further. History: Deist controversy (c. 1720 – 1850), Leibniz’s first formulation of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1697).
Markuly only talked about the belief in God, not the actual existence of God. All of his arguments were non sequiturs. The Hubble photos make you feel wonder? MLK did social work in the name of religion? Great, but none of those lead to ontological commitments, so, irrelevant. He responded to Tarico’s argument from evil with (1) religion has done slightly more good than bad and (2) I don’t have an answer, I just have faith. (1) is a non-sequitur, (2) is an immature cop-out that fails to interact with the problem of evil.
Tarico started off strong with the Epicurian trilemma (God is all-good or all-powerful or all-knowing, but not all three and therefore does not exist). However, she ignored the past (at least) 40 years of contemporary philosophy of religion, bluntly asserted there’s no solution, and moved on to discuss the psychological background for belief in God. This second part boils down to a genetic fallacy. Even if humans believe God exists for terrible reasons, that doesn’t make the conclusion false, just unwarranted*. So, again, failure to interact with the topic.
*My favorite example of this is a person who believes that the Earth is round because his feet are curved. Clearly, that’s terrible reasoning, but, it doesn’t prove the Earth is flat.
Seidensticker’s organization and Tarico’s use of a directly relevant argument carried the negative side. The affirmative neither defined the terms nor defended the proposition.
This is the first debate review that I have ever done. Let me know how I can improve in the comments!