I don’t go to public debates nearly as much as I should.
This is just one of the many things I learned from attending the The Veritas Forum last night, sponsored by the InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship (IMECF). The debaters were Professor Julien Musolino (who you all remember from his two A.S posts and the interview I did with him) and Professor Mark Baker, a linguist here at Rutgers. Despite the IMECF’s repeated assurance of respectfulness and understanding, I could definitely sense some tensions among the 300-something attendees of the event. In fact, when the debaters first took the stage I could almost hear Professor Dean Zimmerman (the moderator) boom into the mic: “…and in this corner, representing the secularist side, it’s the one, the only, the soul-crusher himself, Professor Julien Mussolino!”
Okay, maybe not. But it still got pretty intense at times—more about that later on.
I won’t give you a complete play-by-play of the event, but I will sum up as best as I can the two opposing viewpoints. Professor Baker essentially had four main arguments for why he believes Christianity to be true.
- The “historical veracity” of Christianity. Biblical events are likely true because there were many independent eye-witnesses which reported essentially the same events.
- The “internal consistency” of Christian philosophy.
- The argument from contingency–the idea that there must be an initial something which brought the universe into existence.
- The inability of science to explain certain things. Professor Baker argued that science cannot analyze human behavior or emotion, which he took as a hint of God’s participation in human life. This includes the ‘discontuity’ of cognitive abilities between humans and animals. (To these claims Julien, a psychologist, quipped “Welp, I guess I’m out of my day job”.)
Julien’s central argument was that many theological claims are actually scientific in nature (such as the existence of the soul and the efficacy of prayer) and can therefore be examined via the traditional tools of science (experiment, data gathering, and analysis). And when one examines these claims closely, they turn out to be–putting it nicely–insubstantial. This, for a scientist, is reason to be deeply suspicious of the theory generating these predictions.
During an intermission, the attendees were encouraged to debate amongst themselves. Besides myself and my girlfriend, there were two other people at our table. One of them, as I quickly found out, was an atheist-turned-Christian philosophy major named Sid. The first thing Sid said to me besides Hi I’m Sid, Nice to Meet You, was “the secular guy is winning”. I asked him why he thought that. He responded (paraphrasing here) that Professor Baker was badly misrepresenting Christian philosophy, and that if you wanted to really understand the religion, you needed to a) Talk to a Jesuit or b) Talk to a bishop or a priest. I asked Sid if he could go into more detail about what he meant, which he kindly did.
As I was learning about the epistemologically finer points of Fundamentalism vs. Infinitism, Julien dropped by our table to say hello. The first thing Sid said besides Hi I’m Sid, Nice to Meet You was: “I just have to say, you’re winning”, to which Professor Mussolino reminded him that there are no winners or losers—it’s just a discussion. That was the second time in my life I found myself disagreeing with Professor Julien Musolino (the first was about labor politics). There was a clear victor, and everyone seemed to know who it was.
Here’s my humble opinion why:
Professor Mark Baker didn’t have many (or any, as far as my memory serves) arguments from evidence. Rather, he argued from lack of evidence. That is, he expounded the familiar “God of the Gaps” view. And when he wasn’t arguing from ignorance, he was arguing from personal experience. He shared a story, no doubt touching, about the time he prayed for the health of a friend’s unborn child. Happily, she gave birth to a healthy baby a few months later (on Prof. Baker’s birthday, no less!). From a sample size of exactly one, he concluded that God must have answered his prayer.
When Julien presented him with data from scientific studies showing plainly the ineffectiveness of prayer across several religions and socio-economic backgrounds, Professor Baker replied that the study was flawed because the efficacy of prayer, by definition, is not something that can be verified by science. If I can be frank, this is why Professor Baker lost: Julien debated from evidence, Professor Baker from speculation.
Still, I recommend all of you attend the next Veritas Forum. I was genuinely shocked to see that big of a turnout – people were standing up in the back, craning their necks to see the stage. And now I understand why: some topics will always be interesting. People will always wonder about the True Nature Of Things, about the existence of God, about the role and reach of science, and about what it means to be alive during our teensy little pocket in Time. I think both speakers, despite my obvious personal bias, did a great job of stimulating everyone’s mind. I’m definitely excited for the next run.
Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Leo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. Inside of science, he is interested in statistical physics; outside of science, he is interested in literature and education reform. He enjoys writing, making music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books. His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law and to write many books.