The above question was the topic posed at a debate in Tennessee at the Marriott Memphis East on Saturday, May 31st, between opponents Sye Ten Bruggencate & Matt Dillahunty.
“My name is Sye Ten Bruggencate. I live in Ontario, Canada. I was born in Toronto, grew up in a loving Christian home, and am the 5th eldest of 7 children. My parents immigrated from Holland, (My Dad was originally from a Dutch colony in Indonesia) and I can speak Dutch fluently. I am a member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Canada. I have had no formal training in apologetics (defense of the faith), but have studied presuppositional apologetics from many resources, most notably, lectures by the late Greg Bahnsen. By God’s grace alone, I am a Christian.” – http://www.proofthatgodexists.org/about-me.php
“I was raised in a loving, Southern Baptist home and was a fundamentalist Christian for over 20 years. After 8 years in the Navy and several years in the hi-tech game, I set out to re-affirm my faith with designs on attending seminary and continuing with a life in the ministry. What began as an attempt to bolster my faith became a continuing investigation into more topics than I ever suspected I’d enjoy. After the first couple of years, reason forced me to acknowledge that my faith had not only been weakened by my studies – it had been utterly destroyed. The thoughts, writings and wisdom of people like; Robert Ingersoll, Voltaire, Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, Farrell Till and many others, helped free my mind from the shackles of religion without a single moment of despair. I continue to study philosophy, religion, science, history and the many other topics which have helped me to understand reality and enjoy my life. Having spent the majority of my life compartmentalizing my religious beliefs to keep them safe from skepticism, it’s thrilling to leave the critical, investigative, hungry portion of my brain turned “on”. While my own pursuit of knowledge is a powerful driving force in my life, I’d also like to prevent others from wasting another day on irrational beliefs. Education is the key …and if my work manages to educate even one person, I’m satisfied. Anyone interested in reading further is encouraged to visit the counter-apologetics encyclopedia, Iron Chariots (wiki.ironchariots.org). Russell Glasser and I started the wiki and we encourage others to help us build it into a great resource for anyone interested in apologetics and theological debate.” – http://www.atheist-experience.com/people/matt_dillahunty/
Billed as a “Refining Reason” debate, this event was sponsored by Recovering From Religion, and was also attended by such special guests as American Atheists President David Silverman (http://www.atheists.org/about-us/board-of-directors) and Creation Today President Eric Hovind (http://www.creationtoday.org/about/eric-hovind/). (Other news and interesting development from the debate event include an announcement from American Atheists President David Silverman that their 2015 national convention is to be held at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN on Easter weekend, April 3-5). A VIP dinner and post-debate reception were also on the agenda and many booths were present representing everyone from Apostacon to “The God Virus” author, Dr. Darrel W. Ray. Host of the show, Dogma Debate, David Smalley was in attendance giving both a pre-debate presentation entitled “Learning To Love Your Enemy,” and serving as moderator of the debate between Bruggencate and Dillahunty. Smalley also recorded a live broadcast of Dogma Debate on stage in the debate hall as a bonus session after the debate – for which Silverman, Hovind, Bruggencate, and Recovering From Religion’s Sarah Morehead engaged post-debate discussions with Smalley and members of the audience. That broadcast can be heard at this link:
As an attendee of this event, I didn’t purchase a ticket for the VIP dinner, but I was present for the rest of the evenings’ activities. Being a former licensed minister who has now become a skeptic and agnostic atheist, it was worth the 3 to 4 hour drive each way to plug in to the cutting edge of the contemporary debate between theism and skepticism. Not to be disappointed, I soaked it all in the best I could, and even got to ask the debate opponents a question in the Q&A portion at the end of the debate as well as being afforded the opportunity to interject a thought during the live broadcast of Dogma Debate. As I’m sure the debate footage will eventually become available from one of the sources involved in the event and mentioned here and will most certainly be worth the watch, I’ll not re-hash everything that was said in the debate here or try to use too many direct quotes (when the video becomes available, please watch for yourself). Rather, what I will do is simply tell the short, maybe even somewhat ‘gonzo,’ version of one guy going to this debate while not really knowing what to expect – but with my interest firmly piqued.
The hotel was nice, the beer was cold and not watered down, the merchant booths were busy, anticipatory conversations about the debate could be overheard all around, the auditorium filled quickly, and the make-shift stage was set – complete with sound, video, lights, props, an overhead projector, and debate opponents poised to reason and retort. Both opponents were afforded ten minutes of opening statements, ten each of rebuttal, followed by several segments of back-and-forth, then 35 minutes of Q&A, and finalizing with 2 to 5 minute closing remarks. Bruggancate started first, giving Dillahunty the final remarks. Bruggencate made several classic presuppositional points and (what this observer would call) circular arguments full of logical fallacies. He used many video clips of Dillahunty from various media over the years, and seemed to be attempting to shift the burden of proof from the position of the supernatural claimer to requiring skepticism to prove the logic of the universal negative. Dillahunty offered what also might be considered classic atheist arguments and already anticipated his opponent’s arguments so well as to have relevant and applicable rebuttal written beforehand, and giving the crowd a brilliant demonstration of the principle of Occam’s razor.
In the interest of intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and objectivity; I made my best attempt to go into the entire evening with disregard for any preconceived notions and genuinely ready to hear everyone out. To whatever extent I achieved my goal, it ultimately only confirmed many of the most current perspectives I have on god and the supernatural. While I actually had walked into the event with a certain amount of respect for Bruggacante for putting himself in a position of defense in an audience clearly heavily favoring his opponent, I still found that his positions left me frustrated at what I perceive to be his confusion, and disgusted with some of the finer points of his stated beliefs. I hardly even knew of the name Sye Ten Bruggacante before this debate, and after, think I probably know all I care to at this point. While I objectively feel that Dillahunty could have had a better debate in which he didn’t allow himself to get so bogged down in tangent topics used by Bruggacante to distract from the most axiomatic points, my respect only grew for Matt upon seeing his restraint and patience with Bruggacante’s refusal to speak and answer on topic.
As I think about the different points made by each side in the debate, one of the most scathing Bruggacante arguments with which I take issue is his position that EVERYONE KNOWS that god is real and thus there are no such things as atheists. Again, hopefully forthcoming video will allow the speakers to be seen speaking with their own words; but the message was pretty clear. While I get the impression that Bruggacante may be an honest and consistent fundamentalist, I still find it extremely presumptuous, arrogant, and intellectually insulting that he claims to know what is going on in any given atheist’s head better than that person (who could be a total stranger) knows what’s going on in our own head. Again, one only need look no further than the archaic holy book Bruggacante considers inspired and infallible to find from whence such an asinine claim proceeds. It was this that I mentioned and rebuked when I was graciously afforded the opportunity to address the crowd during the live broadcast of Dogma Debate. But, that wasn’t all of the jack-assery demonstrated by Bruggacante. It was also revealed by his own admission that Bruggucante is a young earth creationist (with the qualification of appeal to the authority of “whatever the bible says”) who believes the best way to organize society is in the form of a “christian theocracy,” and believes in the doctrine of predestination (although somehow claiming to be able to reconcile that belief with a simultaneous belief in ‘free will’). Watch the video for his own wording, but this is no perversion of his incoherent stated positions as those of us in attendance heard from his own mouth.
It was also my good fortune to ask a question in which I solicited the response of both debate opponents. I quickly explained that I used to be a licensed minister and have become a skeptic and agnostic atheist after a long journey through a personal crises of worldview. I explained that although it was tough in its’ own way, I ultimately feel the experience of having to go all the way back to the most basic questions and start all over trying to figure out what I actually believe is probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me, but I wanted both debate participants to offer their perspective on what they think about that situation in anyone’s life – regardless of their background, journey, or conclusion. Dillahunty answered first, and gave close enough of an answer to my own perspective of how important it is to be open to new information and continuing the investigative process that I was satisfied he understood well enough. Although I had no idea what to expect from Bruggucante and hoped he might at least possibly respect the thirst for knowledge and hunger for truth my question represented, I was disappointed that he devolved into a sermonette about the ‘sin of unbelief.’ Again, one only need to consult the book of myths and fairytales to which Bruggucante has relinquished his freedom of thought to understand how anyone can believe something so patently asinine. Although this may be a biased or unfair conjecture, by the end of the night, what I thought I saw sitting in front of me when I gazed upon the man who thought to debate for his unfounded belief in his invisible magical unicorn, was an insecure and pathetic little man who has so invested himself in the fantasy of god at this point that even if the cognitive dissonance could be successfully negotiated back to a logical and reason-based worldview, it just may be too much crow for any weathered and aging relic of religious patriarchy to eat. If I didn’t know better, I might even have to pray for the miserable old sourpuss. Of course, who’s to know what Bruggucante’s god would think or do anyway, considering Bruggucante’s revealing statement about his perspective on the nature of his god (directly quoted from the Dogma Debate broadcast above): “God is not all-loving. God hates some. It would make no sense to send somebody to Hell for an eternity if god loved them. That would be a weird way to show love, don’t you think? God hates some. He hates some.”
One interesting footnote possibly hinting at things to come was a challenge from Bruggacante to David Silverman for participation in a polygraph asking about the sincerity of belief in regards to the question of the existence or non-existence of god. While many of us in the crowd were more than a little amused by the prospect of such a carnival attraction as testing whether or not avowed atheists and christians can pass a lie detector as to their respective professed faith or lack thereof (a challenge the author of this piece of writing and former christian minister turned agnostic atheist would confidently accept), I don’t know how realistic it may be that anything will ultimately come of it. Ah, life – what a grand circus!
* The video of the debate is supposed to be available at this link sometime by July 1st, 2014: http://recoveringfromreligion.org/refiningreason/
A.G. “Brick” House is an Afghanistan war veteran and former licensed minister (UPCI), who has become an outspoken skeptic, peace advocate, and involved himself in many other issues which he believes affect the individual freedoms of the people whose constitutional rights he took an oath to defend. He currently resides in the heart of Tennessee with his companion dog ‘Liberty,’ where he is recovering from PTSD, enjoys the therapeutic hobbies of gardening, creative writing https://chaossection.com/, playing drums in the metal band Outlaw Serenade http://www.outlawserenade.com/, and other forms of artistic expression \m/