The Stream Debates the Freedom from Religion Foundation

A fiery debate at ASU featured Jay Richards, one of the leading figures on the Catholic right, facing off against one of the best known atheists in the country.

By Rachel Alexander Published on April 10, 2015

Jay Richards, executive editor of The Stream, recently debated atheist Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) at an event hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute at Arizona State University. Barker is a former fundamentalist pastor who lost his faith and founded FFRF.

I don’t pretend to have been an unbiased observer, since I’m a Christian and a senior editor for The Stream. But I did attend and took good notes,. Here’s a summary of the event from my perspective, related as accurately as I am able.

Some elderly atheists and “skeptic” organizations arrived early and took up all the seats in the first few rows, clad mostly in the sort of t-shirts you might see at the local comic book store. Many  of the rest of the audience were students, teachers, professors and assorted adults.

Barker’s MO, which Richards called him out on repeatedly, was to cherry pick the worst atrocities in history that have been committed by Christians and religious people, and then claim the Bible inspired most of them. “Can you think of a single book that has caused more division than the Bible?” Barker asked. “The teachings of Jesus were morally inferior,” he declared at another point. “We wouldn’t want to live in the same neighborhood as Jesus. … Any one of us could have come up with a better moral system than the Bible.”

He also invoked atrocities committed by Muslims even though Richards said from the beginning he was not defending all religions, but the role of Christianity in America.

Richards argued, in contrast, that Christianity is good for society, and certainly better for society than the atheism and irreligion offered by Barker. In this case, he mentioned various good things Christians and Christianity have done for America and the West: the institution of the hospital is a Christian institution, and our current hospital system is a result of a system established by Catholic sisters. Even today, one out of every six patients is cared for in a Catholic hospital, and of course there alre also many other types of Christian hospitals in America. Similarly, virtually all of the colleges for the first two hundred years of the American Experiment were founded by Christians. Protestants started our primary schools, which were ultimately taken over by the states, and only recently became overwhelmingly secular.

Richards then turned to our culture’s Judeo-Christian assumptions that most atheists now take for granted, such as our commitment to key moral truths and human rights. Most cultures in history flat out denied human equality. It was only in a culture schooled in the biblical idea that we share a common origin and that all humans are made in the image of God that the idea of equal rights emerged. Though atheists may know as well as anyone that “it’s wrong to torture children for the fun of it,” their worldview cannot account for such moral truths. Many atheist intellectuals, he noted, have admitted as much. He then cited prominent atheists Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, who in a jointly written article argued that, on their worldview, “morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. … It has no objective reference.”

In both his initial statement and followup responses, Barker went for scattershot accusations rather than careful argument, apparently hoping some would stick. Unfortunately, some of Barker’s claims were deceptive, such as his attempt to give atheists credit for public institutions, such as state hospitals.

Other charges were simply false. He claimed that the Bible was “pro-slavery,” that Jesus endorsed owning and beating slaves, and that “humans are worms and sinners to be enslaved…. The only equality is for baptized Christians. … Christianity puts down humanity, it doesn’t elevate it.”

This ignores things like the entire letter of Philemon in the New Testament, where Paul urges a slave owner to treat his slave like a brother and to consider freeing him, and the fact that Christ commanded his followers to love their enemies and do good to them.

Barker also asserted that Christianity is patriarchal and fixated on sexual issues, with sexual overtones in the Old Testament and women devalued in the New Testament, because equality was a real threat to macho men who wanted to control and own them. Christianity, he said, “inherited the sexually insecure attitudes of Old Testament writers.”

It was of course impossible for Richards to address every such scatter-shot assertion, except in general terms. In his first response, he noted that “misuse doesn’t disprove proper use.” We all recognize that there are good and bad representatives of Christianity. An intellectually honest approach takes the best rather than worst representatives, the ones who act consistently with the ideals they profess. He asked the audience simply to ask themselves whether Barker was using “straw-man or iron-man arguments.”

Second, there is a crucial difference between events happening because of Christianity and events, like slavery, happening in spite of Christianity. “Slavery was universal for most of human history,” he observed. “In what culture was it abolished? One place, for specifically theological motivations.” Slavery was abolished in the West because Christians found it objectionable as Christians.

Third, he argued that atheism in the US is parasitic, and shouldn’t get credit for institutions founded by Christians and later taken over by secularists. Colleges and hospitals are prime examples. State hospitals are not the same thing as atheist hospitals, especially since such hospitals were founded by states that were predominantly Christian.

Richards later addressed the accusations of sexism in the Bible. He said that the “metaphysical equality” of men and women came from the very first page of the Bible (Gen. 1) when God created Adam and Eve. As for the New Testament, “That same Paul you criticize tells both husband and wife to submit to each other. It was a radical statement to make at that time.” This contradicted Barker’s claims that the Christian church opposes progress. He also addressed Barker’s bizarre claim that the Bible describes humans as worms. “Human beings aren’t worms,” Richards said. “We are the greatest things in God’s physical universe. We are fallen, but made in God’s image.”

Barker frequently asserted that atheists don’t need religion to know morality. Richards agreed, to a point. Everyone has some access to the natural moral law, he said. The problem, he argued, is that atheists don’t have a worldview that accounts for moral truth, nor does it provide any reinforcement for it. “Virtue is hard,” he noted, “vice is easy.” Vague awareness of natural law alone isn’t enough to instill virtue in a culture. For that, you need families and religious institutions. American atheists benefit from living in a culture that has been tutored for centuries by Christianity. Ideas and institutions rooted in Christian categories have since become secularized even as they have become the moral intuitions of nonreligious people as well.

During the Q and A, moderator Don Crichlow asked Barker and Richards about the American Founders’ view of religion. Both basically agreed that the Founders were a diverse lot who generally believed in God and had positive views of religion. Barker claimed that they nevertheless wrote a “Godless Constitution.” Richards  countered that even one of the least religious of them, Thomas Jefferson, framed individual human rights in theological terms in the Declaration of Independence, asserting as self-evident truth “that all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Then they fielded questions from the audience. A few assertions by Barker stood out: God, he claimed, told the Jews to eat the Amalekites. Jesus told husbands to beat their wives. Mother Theresa was a fraud who “did very little real charity” and let people die rather than helping them (perhaps the vilest claim by the late Christopher Hitchens, since picked up by certain village atheists.)

One hopes curious attendees bothered to check out such vicious howlers on the Internet after the debate. If Barker was willing to attack a humble nun who spent her life caring for the desperately poor and dying in India, and who has inspired thousands of similar vocations, what would he not be willing to say? Without the atheist cheering section I’m confident that there would have been audible gasps at several points.

Finally, Barker and Richards each had a three minute conclusion.

Barker concluded by saying that we are the result of a random process but that doesn’t mean we can’t create our own meaning. There is no purpose to life that transcends us, he insisted, contrary to the title of the book written by pastor Rick Warren.

In his closing, Richards began by arguing that we live in a society where everyone’s moral intuitions have been tutored by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Where atheism has been applied systematically, it has had atrocious results: Cambodia, the former Soviet Union, North Korea, China under Mao, East Germany.

He then finished, not with an argument, but with a thought experiment:

Imagine your car breaking down in a scary, high-crime neighborhood. Your cell phone has died, and you don’t know where you are, so you start walking down the one street that looks promising. It’s dark and no one else is around. Suddenly, down the street, you see ten tattooed and rough looking teenagers exit a building and start to walk toward you.

They’re making some sort of noise that you can’t make out, and it’s getting louder as they grow closer. Is it a chant? You can almost make out the sign on the building they came from. Is it a bar? A night club? You’re not sure. Just as it comes into focus, you realize the group of rough-looking teenagers are singing a modern rendition of a song you recognize: Amazing Grace. And you see that the sign on the building says: “First Baptist Church: Bible Study tonight.”

How do you feel? Do you wish they’d been coming from a nightclub?

Or maybe you wish they were leaving an event held by the local atheists, where the speaker told them that they don’t need God, that morality is an illusion fobbed off on them by their genes, that they are the product of a blind and purposeless process?

Are you offended by such a display of religion in a public space?

Or are you relieved?

You know the answer.

After the debate ended, I was left wondering: where are the atheist hospitals?

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