A Brief Report on the Ehrman-D’Souza Debate

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Two nights ago, I attended a beatdown debate between Bart Ehrman and Dinesh D’Souza on the problem of suffering and the existence of God that was held here at UNC. I was disappointed in how poorly prepared D’Souza was for Ehrman’s case—it appeared that he was simply going off his notes for debating an atheist such as Hitchens and was entirely unfamiliar with the perspective Ehrman would present.
After an adequate opening, D’Souza struggled mightily in the Q&A, where he was resoundingly thumped by a much-quicker-on-his-feet Ehrman, who never had to depart from his own script in the debate, while D’Souza seemed off balance for the entire second half of the debate. I was afraid this sort of one-sided result might happen when I first saw the matchup—D’Souza, though obviously a very intelligent man, simply isn’t a good pick for a discussion on the problem of suffering.

A few brief notes:

  • Ehrman says he’s talking about suffering, but his focus is more often on death than suffering itself; the refrain “where was God when X happened and Y [number of people] died?” is a rhetorically powerful section of his opening argument. D’Souza never pushed against this line of argument by asking how such a matter is relevant—since everyone is going to die eventually, what difference to the question of suffering or the existence of God does it make if they die today in a mudslide or of old age in forty years?
  • Ehrman won a lot of points in the discussion of the Holocaust when D’Souza badly misstepped by declaring that an absolute evil like the Holocaust couldn’t be adequately explained from the perspective of atheist evolutionary theory since such a thing was certainly not advantageous for human survival. Ehrman rightly responded that the Holocaust was “all about the genes,” pointing out that ethnic cleansing such as the Holocaust is consciously about improving survival for the “fitter” members of humanity (as decided by the perpetrators, of course).
  • Ehrman was able to score more points by taking advantage of his being an agnostic as opposed to an atheist, which meant that some of D’Souza’s jabs about “blaming God” (“I’m not blaming God, I don’t think he exists”) and claiming God doesn’t exist (“I’m not claiming that, I’m an agnostic, not an atheist.”) were easily dismissed. D’Souza missed a very easy jab in response to the “blaming God” parry—”Then why is your book called, God’s Problem?” (Bart’s response would of course have been that he didn’t name the book, and he is in fact not thrilled with the title himself, but the point would still have been adequate in a debate context.)
  • D’Souza badly misrepresented the essential Gospel message in his closing statement (and undermined his own earlier less-than-satisfying argument about suffering existing to allow or develop virtue) by stating that the Gospel declared that anyone would be judged righteous simply by admitting his/her own guilt. He actually cited Bono in the effort to make the point that the Gospel “offers something for nothing,” an unconscionable misrepresentation of the New Testament conception(s) of the Gospel message. In essence, D’Souza’s logic, if followed to its reasonable end, declares that human beings can be utterly cruel to one another and cause all the suffering they choose, but as long as they recognize how guilty they are in the process, everything is okay.

Frankly, I’d prefer Ehrman’s view, which at least has a place for good deeds (though no absolute standard by which to measure good) over D’Souza’s brand of “Christianity” as presented in this debate. What of the New Testament notion of redemption, transformation, the exchange of a life for a life? How does one get from the “if you give up your life you’ll get Christ’s life” message in the New Testament—effectively getting everything in exchange for giving up everything—to the “something for nothing” Christianity D’Souza presents? I left the debate wondering whether Ehrman’s view was actually closer to the view(s) presented in the New Testament than D’Souza’s; I think in some ways it might be.

*Note: video of the debate was taken, so I’m sure it will eventually be available online.*

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Jason Staples Icon
Great post on Evangelical polarization between social action and evangelism
Jason Staples Icon
Liberals Aren’t the Only Ones Who Tweak the Text