Age-old questions about the universe’s origin and the concept of God were up for debate at Marvin Center last Wednesday.
Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative pundit for National Review, and Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, sparred over religion, values and morality in a debate sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation.
“Everyone knows nonreligious people who are moral and religious people who are immoral, and the religious people are not any better than the rest of us,” Shermer said.
D’Souza, a Roman Catholic, attacked atheism as “the opiate of the morally corrupt,” and provided a logical argument for the existence of God.
“Everything that has a beginning has a cause,” D’Souza said. “The universe has a beginning, therefore it has a cause, and the cause is God.”
Shermer disagreed, calling atheism “the default place to begin when you don’t believe in something,” and God “a linguistic place-filler, another word for ‘I don’t know.'” He also listed numerous problems he sees in religion, such as hypocrisy when choosing which passages of the Bible individuals choose to follow as doctrine.
“The Bible (discusses) how slaves need to be submissive to their masters,” he said. “You can pick and choose biblical passages to support whatever you want.”
Shermer later attacked organized religion, especially Christianity, for its attempts to get others to follow specific precepts.
“Christians will not mind their own business until every knee is bowed,” he said.
The two speakers also debated the interplay between science and religion. D’Souza claimed that the two are not incompatible with one another.
“Shermer said that science that shows us (the answers), but he never showed us science,” D’Souza said. He further likened his opponent’s arguments to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) underwear – “it’s a big stretch.”
“It’s an extraordinary claim to say that the world is just what you see,” he said, noting that history’s greatest scientists all believed in a higher power.
Shermer said that if God does exist, he is decidedly “egocentric.”
“Thanks a lot, God, for creating a universe where you can only live on Earth,” he said.
Even after the event’s conclusion, both participants continued to expand on their beliefs. Shermer insisted religion developed after morality.
“Religion came along after the start of civilization,” Shermer said in an interview. “There had to be some codified set of rules by which to live.”
D’Souza said atheism does not necessarily beget immorality but that it provides an excuse for not behaving morally.
“One of the incentives of atheism is that it allows people to escape moral codes like the 10 Commandments,” he said.
Sergio Gor, president of the GW Young America’s Foundation, said the event exposed a side of the debate on religion that “you generally don’t get to see in class.”
Simon Davis, an Arlington, Va. resident who attended the event, said he was glad to see people debating science and religion, although he said D’Souza espoused a lot of factually inaccurate statements.
“It’s a step forward that they’re talking about this,” he said.
In contrast, one attendee said the debate reflected a disappointing trend in American discourse.
Michael Weinart, a community member, said, “The audience’s reaction illustrates an unwillingness of atheists to take seriously the beliefs of others and listen with an open mind.”
Nathan Grossman contributed to this report.