How to win a religious debate: A step by step guide

On October 27th, dozens of students and academics filed into Sanders theatre at Harvard to hear psychologist Steven Pinker and law professor David Skeel. The event promised to be a moderated discussion between a secular humanist (Pinker) and Christian (Skeel) on violence, human nature and the possibility of peace. In reality they fought with equal vigor and wit. Two hours later, Pinker, commanding a Game-of-Thrones like chair on stage in cowboy boots, was hailed the victor, upholding the secular worldview as the paragon of university life.

Here’s how I think he won:

1. Separate religious sentiment from behavior. One common theistic argument is to point to the Pew surveys – the ones that state the overwhelming religiosity of the American public. If so many people claim to be religion – how can they all be wrong? Skeel went a step further and argued that evidence from evolutionary psychology lends credence to a Biblical worldview – that we are primed for good and evil. In religious terms, we are born broken. Pinker broke this apart quite elegantly by asking how the science of human nature could support a particular religious view. Does the fact that we are programmed for reciprocal altruism lend credence to Jesus’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself?” For Pinker, what counts is behavior, and he documents in grave detail the abuses and killings over history committed in the name of religion.

Are religious sentiments and feelings bad? No. But, according to Pinker, an uncritical belief in certain religious ideas is a huge problem. Pinker is no theologian and his arguments reflect this. He opines that if Christians believed that non-believers would burn in eternal hell, why not force them to convert to save them? Skeel took down the Pascal’s wager argument, but remained on the defensive, forced into the corner of explaining the violence of the Old Testament God or of the Crusades. Pinker’s view is simple: religions have historically spurred violent behavior, in large part due to an undervaluing of life on earth in favor of the afterlife. To be a theist today does not commit someone to violence. But religious sentiment does not commit someone to peaceful action, either. On a larger scale, neither the science of human nature nor religion provides a justification for moral behavior. What we need, argues Pinker, is a secular morality that values universal rights and human flourishing.

2. Downplay the role of religion in human progress. The arch of history for Pinker is a transition from the valuation of the soul to the valuation of individuals. As a species, we have nearly abolished slavery, created treatises to mitigate cruel and unusual punishment, and the number of people killed in warfare has been declining sharply in the past few decades. Similar to arguments by Francis Fukuyama, he cites the strength of governments and institutions as central to less violent society. The other variables at play in promoting equality include commerce and trade, the increasing rights of women, and an increase in rationality. Religion only fits into this paradigm in a negative sense – as a countervailing force to rationality or even a force oppressing women. Yes, religion may have played a central role in pre-industrial society, but contemporary life does not need it. Skeel, of course, took huge issue with this portrayal of religion, and in particular, Christianity. The narrative was set. Could he justify Christianity as a positive force for peace over human history? Alas, this task was too large to tackle in a two-hour moderated discussion.

3. Ask empirical, not theological questions. During Q&A, both presenters were asked to explain their position on the Black Lives Matter movement. More concretely, how might we understand the role of structural violence in the context of declining physical violence? Pinker took great time to separate the physical violence from the metaphorical notion of structural violence. He noted that it is difficult to study a concept such as structural violence as it is tough to measure it. That said, he did call for a more empirical analysis of police violence against minorities, citing that we have limited data on the context and extent of police violence in America. I could imagine an activist, minister, or theologian responding in a moral or theological lens, to ask what is required of individuals and communities to support racial justice. The response of secular humanist scientists may not be generalizable to church congregations, college campuses, or the police force.

As a participant more primed for the secular humanist perspective, I left more solidified in my beliefs. Pinker’s view of religion, as allegorical and elastic, felt more encompassing and explanatory than Skeel’s, which was one of personal revelation and historical questioning. Pinker, in cowboy boots and cool composure, won the day by demurring conversation on the theological. What is the role of religious community in working for peace? How do scientists and non-scientists operate within uncertainty? We’ll have to wait until round two for the answers.

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