Damn You, Harvard Humanists!

I’ve had a busy week. Monday was Boston Skeptics in the Pub with the famed and justly popular Marc Abrahams of the Annals of Improbable Research. A wrap-up of that event, plus video goodness, will come soon enough. I’ve also had podcasts to record Sunday and Wednesday and a few other events Tuesday and this Saturday, thanks to the Harvard Humanists.

This Saturday I’ll be on campus to see Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin receive the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism ($10 tickets are still available!). On Tuesday, those zany Ivy League heathens also organized a debate between Dan Barker and Dinesh D’Souza on the topic of atheism vs. Christianity. It’s the debate that I really want to whine about (not my packed schedule).

First of all, I found Barker to be intelligent and well-spoken, if not just a bit dry. Second of all, my feelings on D’Souza, bearing in mind my obvious bias: he is a vile person. I mean, seriously, ugh. During his introductory statement, I remember thinking, “Oh, he made a joke there. He seems to be nice enough.” But by the end I was thinking, “If I were a Christian, I would campaign to have his Bible taken away and his vocal cords forcibly removed.”

Perhaps it’s because I don’t attend many debates, but I found this to be the most pointless exercise of my month, and that includes last week when I turned a vacationing coworker’s cubicle into a gnome-themed magical wonderland complete with gnome-faced cupcakes with little strawberry cone hats. Seriously, this debate was more pointless than that.

I think it’s safe to say that by the end of the debate, there was no consensus on the whole “is there a god or not” question. I doubt anyone in the audience left with a new outlook, unless the original outlook was “Dinesh D’Souza seems nice enough.” Rather than torture you with a blow-by-blog account, I’ll just pick out one example that I hope illustrates the utter pointlessness of this exercise combined with the reason why D’Souza turned me off to such a severe degree.

I’ve seen online clips of D’Souza in debates, and a few times I’ve heard him say this very strange thing: that society makes “laws” to prevent people from behaving in a certain manner, and scientists make “laws” to vainly attempt to make the Universe behave in a certain manner.

I’ll give you a minute to roll that around your head.

Each time, D’Souza’s opponent corrects him, informing him that the word “law” has different meanings. Proscriptive laws are the ones society makes to enforce civility, and descriptive laws are the ones scientists use to describe the behaviors they observe in nature. Tuesday night, D’Souza used the exact same fallacious argument that had been repeatedly corrected for him in the past. This caused me to wonder: is D’Souza just not getting it? Is he unable to understand this simple distinction? Or is he purposely using underhanded tactics to argue his point?

To put it in blunter words, is Dinesh D’Souza stupid or dishonest?

I’d like to have had the change to ask him personally, but the line to ask a question was long and my patience was short. I only made it through the entire debate due to the calming effect of the drinks I had prior (thanks Joshua!), and I certainly have no desire to see D’Souza ever again. Nor any other debate, for that manner.

So tell me, Skepchick readers: do debates do it for you? Do they have a time and a place, or are they useless exercises?

And Harvard Humanists, I’m counting on you to save my brainmeats with a much more fun and interesting event on Saturday! Locals, post below to let me know if you’re going to be there. Maybe we can go for dinner or drinks beforehand!


Post-publishing edit:

Greg Epstein, chaplain of the Harvard Humanists, sent me a note highlighting the fact that the students were in charge of putting on the debate, and they did an excellent job. I’ll quote from his message with his permission:

So the best thing I take away from this event is that the students who ran it, who were mostly freshmen and other newbies, all smart and with raw talent– got involved, got to thinking, and got a charge of energy towards future Humanist/skeptic/atheist organizing. Now it’s up to us to guide them towards organizing better things in the future.

I can definitely get behind that. I’ll just clarify that I was annoyed because of D’Souza’s inability or unwillingness to listen to his opponent and answer the questions posed to him by the moderators and audience members. The debate itself ran smoothly and the students handled everything very professionally — I especially liked the guys who repeatedly clarified for D’Souza and audience members that a question is a short interrogative sentence.

Also, here’s the link to Joshua’s wrap-up of the event. Sorry I didn’t include it earlier!

Lack of sleep has made me forgetful, unable to communicate clearly, and ignorant of my friends’ blogs. Let that be a lesson to you kids.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Even just reading the post about the debate hurt my head, how did you just sit there while he prattled on about nonsense??

  2. i think real debates, where people make honest and intelligent arguments (the one i attended with pz and loyal rue comes to mind) are great.
    the problem is, these seem to be getting rarer and rarer, and what we’re getting instead are pundits talking at each other without really considering what is being argued…they too often regurgitate talking points that may or may not even remotely relate to the conversation.
    and that is just no fun to listen to…mainly it’s annoying and tedious. i want to hear smart people make arguments that will make me think about things in a different way, not two guys calling each other dummies and making disingenuous arguments to try to “win”.

  3. Alas, the usefulness of true debate has been diminished of late with the advent of the widening left/right, heathen/pious dichotomies present in our society. In fact I doubt true useful public debates have existed for a long time, if ever. Too few people witness to such a debate as you describe can be swayed by any argument, no matter how well it is presented and how strongly it is factually bolstered. That is not to say Mr. D’Souza did either of those, mind you, but if anyone in the audience was a supporter of his ideas nothing Mr. Barker could say would change their minds. It’s become a pointless exercise.

  4. “i think real debates, where people make honest and intelligent arguments are great.”

    I completely agree with this point and also the follow up that they are getting rarer. It seems most debates are just sound bite athons. Some times you can see the participants finish their scripted thought and actually wait for the intended reaction.

    Reminds me of when Strom Thurman started to loose touch with reality and used to read the stage direction that was written on his speech. “hold for laugh” “aknowledge audience”

  5. I hate debates. I never watch or read them. I find them to be a total waste of my time. As I’ve mentioned in posts before, I much prefer discussions where the people actually listen and respond to one another and are actually interested in hearing what the other person has to say.

  6. society makes “laws” to prevent people from behaving in a certain manner, and scientists make “laws” to vainly attempt to make the Universe behave in a certain manner.

    Yeah. Best case scenario, he just doesn’t know what words mean.

    I’ve never actually attended a debate, but your experience sounds pretty annoying. What argument can a theist really make that doesn’t involve shoddy, parroted attempts to discredit or misrepresent science? Really, I want to know.

  7. I think, based on your blog, that DeSouza is likely on the ‘not as smart as he thinks hyperbolically impaired’ side of things.

    It’s an interesting notion that there should or needs to be a debate between an atheist and a Christian simply based on their belief or philosophy. Debating a proposition and using ones world view as support is more likely to be productive. If the spectacle is about Atheists bludgeoning Christians and Christians demeaning Atheists… well I don’t have a horse in that race and I’d much rather go out and have drinks and enjoyable discussion with friends.

  8. society makes “laws” to prevent people from behaving in a certain manner

    Actually, I tend to think that laws are passed not to prevent behavior, but to allow punishment for what the current majority believe is unacceptable behavior. I’ve never seen a law passed that truely prevented a lowlife from commiting a crime.

    This kind of debate is, I agree, a waste of time and life-energy. The people who are articulate enough to stand on a stage and debate specific issues have also practiced and ingrained their arguements to the point where they are robotically spewing the stuff out. I seriously doubt they even hear the counter-points. They already know what they are going to be. I assume these people are paid some fee to appear at these events? I suggest that the motive for these debates is no longer to educate the public but to grease a bank account. Am I wrong?

  9. I’m pretty glad, on the whole, that I got tickets for a Sox game on the night of the debate and did that instead of suffering through the intolerable rantings of D’Souza.

    As for the Graffin event…still not sure if I’m going, but please do post if you all are doing something before/after and I’ll show if I’m around.

  10. I suggest that the motive for these debates is no longer to educate the public but to grease a bank account. Am I wrong?

    I think that’s one motive, but I think the major draw is to get a stage and an audience, regardless of whether or not anyone will actually be listening.

  11. To put it in blunter words, is Dinesh D’Souza stupid or dishonest?

    Remember, it could be a both/and situation. No need to introduce false dichotomies where simultaneity will do.

  12. Jeff: That’s certainly what I was saying afterwards. He’s clearly both stupid and dishonest. Hence the title of my blog post on the debate. (Which Rebecca didn’t link to in her post. *cough, cough* [/shameless self-promotion])

    Seriously, this thing was so bad that I pretty much had a nervous breakdown at work just describing it to some of my coworkers. They’re fellow non-believers, but much… let’s call it mellower about it than I am. But even still, they were both shocked when I told them about D’Souza’s stupid “obeying laws” analogy. Even my mom, who is a Christian, if a mostly-lapsed one, couldn’t believe it when I told her.

    That said, the most frustrating thing about the debate was that it had the potential to be really interesting. The questions prepared by the SSA and even a few of the ones from the audience were quite good, not really formulated to score points for either side and offered opportunities for productive discussion of the differences and similarities between the Christian and atheist perspectives on the world. If the guy holding up the Christian side of the debate hadn’t been such a stupid, lying asshole, I could have really enjoyed myself.

    I know non-stupid and non-lying Christians actually exist. I’ve met a few, and I read the blogs of others. Unfortunately, they’re not the most visible spokespeople for their beliefs. Instead, they get to be represented by folks like D’Souza and Kent Hovind. If I were Christian, I’d be fucking upset about that.

  13. He’s dated Ann Coulter(geist). That’s reason enough not to give him the time of day in my book.

  14. I went to that debate, and honestly my favorite part was when the audience got to ask questions..I wish they allowed more time for audience questions.

  15. “If I were Christian, I’d be fucking upset about that.”


    The truth of the matter is that a lot of us are upset. Oh.. and before anyone gets confused; yes, I am a skeptic and yes, I am also a Christian. The short version of this is that I am persuaded by the evidence on this matter and no, I’m not planning to pick a fight with people who are not persuaded.

    That all said, the big problem with Christianity is that it became popular about 1400 years ago, (Don’t hold me to that number. I’m an engineer not a historian, and I haven’t checked the actual date of the adoption of Christianity as the State religion by Rome for a very long time). When that happened, people stopped being/becoming Christians because they were seriously committed to following the Christ and they started becoming christians because it was: politically expedient, their parents were, everyone else was, the State forced them to (any other option leading to death or torture), and so on and etc… Along with this, the developing organizations associated with Christianity became strongly politicized as people realized that the ‘Church’ represented not only a path to power but also was already a growing source to power.

    Making a long story as short as possible though, what all this means is that modern Christianity is actually in a surprisingly similar state to that of Islam: both have fractured around various interpretations applied to their founding text; both have developed strong, internal, ‘fundamentalist’ traditions, (I am not going into the origins of these traditions or why they are generally in conflict with their own founding text here), and the Institutions associated with each have drifted entirely into the realm of political/power jockeying as their primary concern.

    Thanks to all of this, when the non-christian world thinks of ‘Christians’ now days, very few people think of us as rational, educated, thoughtful, considerate, or as possessing as our primary character any other positive trait. Instead the world thinks of President Bush, ‘charismatic’ evangelical preachers, and people like D’Souza and Ben Stein.

    So yes…. you are entirely correct. There are plenty of us who are very upset. Unfortunately, nobody I know has any idea what to do about it.

  16. I was shocked and horrified beyond words today, when I found flyers for a talk that D’Souza is giving at my school, UC Berkeley. Ironically, the talk is being held in the life science’s building, it’s called “What’s So Great About Christianity.” The flyers had quotes from D’Souza which said something along the lines of,

    “Atheism is the cause of all of the mass murders of the world, not religion.”


    “American slaves were treated as property, which is to say, pretty well.”

    Those aren’t direct quotes, but their pretty darn close. I’m pretty sure I got the last one verbatim because it upset me so much.

    I had never heard of D’Souza before this post, and whoever he is he is a horrible human. I just can’t believe the amount of lies and propaganda packed into those quotes. Who on earth believes with this guy? I’ve been in a tizzy all day over this.

  17. Heh!

    He didn’t lay that one about the slaves on us, although he did insist that Christianity could take full credit for abolition.

  18. It might just be me, but D’Souza’s laws quote might have been a particularly poor attempt at humour.

    I mean, if it was humour, it was obviously humour with a big pointy stick attached, and completely idiotic at that, seeing’s he’s been pulled up on that before.

    I’m glad I reread your last post… I thought you’d typed “although he did insist that Christianity could take full credit for abortion.” Which made me think, “WOW, In your face right-wing pro-lifers.” How disappointing that I just read it wrong

  19. He did crack a few jokes early on, so maybe. However, given that he really, truly, seriously brought up the Darwin->Hitler and Atheism->Stalin things (at least in passing, rather than as a core argument of his…), I’m gonna call Poe’s Law on him and just assume anything he says, no matter how ridiculous, is 100% serious until proven otherwise.

    Also, in context, it was part of a long string of reasons he presented in favour of belief in God, the rest of which were clearly not jokes. So, I’m pretty sure he was serious even apart from what Poe’s Law tells us.

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