Religion on Trial: The Video

At long last, I have video of the “Religion on Trial” debate between me and Dinesh D’Souza, held at FreedomFest 2010:

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(Go here if you’d rather watch this on a bigger screen.)

I was warned in advance that the audience would be hostile and that I had no hope of winning the final vote. This prediction proved entirely accurate.

Overall, I think we provided good entertainment without pretending that this was any kind of serious intellectual exercise. There are, of course, a few things I’d do differently given the chance, but I won’t indulge the temptation to enumerate them here. Enjoy the show.

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15 Responses to “Religion on Trial: The Video”

  1. 1 1 rapscallion

    Did they ever apologize about cutting your opening statement off?
    The timer was clearly in error. You got 3 minutes max, even though they said you had 5.

  2. 2 2 Harold

    To be fair Dinesh was also cut short. He started at 10:50 and got told to wrap up at about 14:00. The chair seemed to be exercising his authority for comic effect, or he thought you each had 3 minutes.

  3. 3 3 Destin

    The “Click here to comment or read others’ comments.” button wasn’t working. I had to click the “comments” button under the title.

    Sheesh, Steve, you and your peers sure got interrupted a lot. What an annoying way to run a debate. And they never answered the question about all religions being right. They made the case for the benefits, but they seemed to be focusing on Christianity and its benefit to the West.

    But I think that’s where they really made a point. The combined forces of Thomas Aquinas (it pleases God for man to explore and figure out his creation) and that of the Cosmic Cop (every action you make is significant; it is wrong to waste your time, with eternal consequences) are extremely beneficial to society. I don’t think there is a force as nearly as powerful in the Atheistic realm.

    I would really enjoy hearing your answer to that, since you didn’t get a chance at the debate.

  4. 4 4 Doctor Memory

    I don’t think there is a force as nearly as powerful in the Atheistic realm.

    We call it ‘mortality.’

  5. 5 5 Harold

    How about the scientific method

  6. 6 6 Destin

    Mortality means nothing, except if you are going the “search for eternal life” route. Even then, to the common man, that is such an unattainable goal unless you have a superb intellect. Those doctrines of Christianity make it readily available to all.

    Mortality is a much stronger force in Christianity, because death isn’t the end. Mortality either leads to a much more wonderful existence or a much worse existence. It is, paradoxically, that mortals are not mortal. Death is a gateway.

    With mortality as ceasing to exist, it doesn’t matter what you do- you’ll always end up in the same place. Or, to sum it up better, the entire movie of Fight Club ^_^.

  7. 7 7 Nick

    It is a shame that the cornball trial theme was such a distraction. A serious intellectual exercise on this topic would be so relevant to the state of the freedom movement.

    I would have much preferred a back and forth between Landsburg and D’Souza in which each had the time to throughly make his best case and continue down the relevant lines of argument.

  8. 8 8 Bennett Haselton

    Ironically I think Dinesh D’Souza did better in his cross-examinations (in which he supposedly had to think on his feet) than in his opening prepared remarks, which he should have thought through more carefully.

    “Imagine you found a town where 95% of people said they had personal experiences of Bill, but 5% said they didn’t. Would you believe the 95% or the 5%?” Most skeptically-minded middle schoolers could punch holes in this, starting with: What if you ventured into the next town and found that 95% of people there believed in Bob, not Bill, even though if Bill or Bob existed, they should be present in both towns?

    And do people in either town actually act as if they really do believe in Bob or Bill and their stated supernatural powers — for example, relying on Bob or Bill to heal their sick children? (There are parents who rely on God to heal their children, to the exclusion of doctors, but those parents are rightly regarded by the rest of society as nut jobs.)

  9. 9 9 Steve Landsburg


    I would have much preferred a back and forth between Landsburg and D’Souza in which each had the time to throughly make his best case and continue down the relevant lines of argument.

    Me too.

  10. 10 10 Fake Name

    Prof. Landsburg,

    Hindus believe that Judaism is false? Objection!! Where did you get that from?

  11. 11 11 Jonathan Campbell

    The “judge” almost ruined it with his interventions and his clear bias. A simple timer that buzzed at the appropriate times would have been much better.

    I think it is probably too early to say whether religion has done more harm than good. The number of man-hours spent on earth by atheist people has been extremely small so far. As Christopher Hitchens will remind you (although he probably overstates the case), the destructive and authoritarian regimes of the 20th century were not really atheistic. In fact I doubt that there has ever been a society that has been primarily made up of people who do not have any religious or superstitious worldviews.

  12. 12 12 john

    When that guy started talking about the correlations I knew what your response would be, that correlation does not imply causation. The best way to explain this to the audience would have been to introduce some third factor(s) that could be at work. Have you thought of any?

  13. 13 13 Steve Landsburg

    John: The best way to explain this to the audience would have been to introduce some third factor(s) that could be at work. Have you thought of any?

    Sure. The kind of parents who make sure their kids go to church are likely to be the sort of parents who make sure their kids go to school. I agree that it would have been better to ahve said this.

  14. 14 14 Swimmy

    Yeah, when it got to that point, I was kind of stunned–”Landsburg just DEVASTATED this guy, if you know anything about statistics. Made an absolute fool of him. And for everyone else, Landsburg looked like a nitpicker.”

    I imagine that’s what it’s like for most biologists or paleontologists to watch a creation/evolution debate. Must be frustrating.

    Weakest point: stumbling after “Shakespeare hasn’t improved anyone’s lives?” It’s difficult to bring it to what could have been had so many people not died, the unseen. Maybe you could have brought it back to gargoyles–much of the art from this period is now either destroyed or forgotten.

    Overall, though, you presented nonstandard, surprising arguments, and that’s the best kind of argument in these debates. Good job.

  15. 15 15 vivek

    I liked the part of the Prof’s summation where he appealed to the authority of Lord Jesus Christ against the idiocy of religion.
    One might say that the Western tradition is founded upon ‘parrhesia’- free speech/ public debate- rather than ‘individualism’. However, parrhesia also derives from ‘saying everything (pan)’ and Christ, when asked to speak plainly (with parrhesia) appeals to the Psalm ‘ye are Gods…’
    The problem is that the very possibility of public speech as something other than chatter, its privileged position, so to speak, arises out of a belief that everything really can be said and, what’s more, can be made to cohere by some process of defeasible reasoning.
    All religious traditions maintain the opposite- truth is apophatic- but, within Western Christianity (beginning when Barlaam of Calabria, Petrarch’s tutor, rejects hesychasm) for purely sociological reasons the pretense was kept up that this was not the case- a felix culpa as it turned out.
    Where those sociological reasons failed to operate- for e.g. the vast, deeply Christian, Portuguese empire from which Dinesh D’Souza originates- Western Christianity proved no social panacea but a formula for stagnation. The Utilitarian, Benthamite, British administrators- who kept their own religion in the background- created Bombay, which is where D’Souza’s family emigrated to get ahead.
    Now it could be argued that the limited monarchies of Western Europe developed from the three ringed contest between King, Church and Commons each of which had different systems of laws, even different languages (Norman French and Equity, Latin and Canon Law, English and Common Law- in the case of England) and different aims and objectives. But, here, the crucial point is that the Church, to promote good outcomes, commands at best a countervailing power. Where Secular and Spiritual merged, the result was a stagnation as bad as anything in India under the Mughals or China under the Manchus.
    The paradox here is that Religion is bad because it is methodologically true- it tells us that parrhesia is mischievous sophism- while Science is good because it is methodologically false- it pretends that parrhesia isn’t a silly game.

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