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Y’all might have noticed a little clip making the rounds on the net lately. It’s a debate between Jamie Kilstein and John Fugelsang over the existence of God. It occurs on Totally Biased with Kamau Bell, and frankly, the whole thing is a lot of fun.

Yes, I am going to take a stand against fun here. I mean, someone has to do it!

Seriously though, it’s hard to dislike this piece, because all three come across as funny and likable, and all three make interesting points, though I have to say the best point Kilstein makes is the one he attributes to his girlfriend. I’d have to give the edge to Fugelsang on this one though. His humor was the edgier of the bunch, and definitely the most thoughtful. If I had to pick a winner, …or even if I didn’t, I’d give it to the believers in this one.

Lest you think I have already give up the gripe and joined the fan-club though, let me get to the problem. Okay, I don’t really have a problem with anything in this video. I don’t literally agree with a lot of the points made by any of these guys, but I’m happy to have a laugh and take it as food for thought. What bothers me is the way some folks are touting this as a model of religious discussions and debate between different viewpoints. By some people, frankly I mean the folks at Upworthy.

…and I like Upworthy, but that’s not going to stop me from cappin’ on them.

…the bastards!

By ‘bastards’ in this case I mean Joseph Lamour, who has this to say about the segment:

If you’re religious, think about the last time you had a talk with an atheist about religion. If you’re an atheist, think about the last time you talked religion with someone who was devout.

Now think how you would have liked that to go.

Okay, Lamour isn’t really a bastard, but dammit, I’m trying to pick a fight here, so I’m calling him one anyway. Someone has to be the bad guy amidst all this goodwill and nice-ossity.


I should add that Upworthy puts this page under the following title: “A Debate Between An Atheist And A Christian Has Quite A Surprising Result.”

So what’s the problem?

Well first, I’m still looking for my surprise. Believe it or not, a polite and friendly conversation doesn’t count as a surprise ending for some of us. These happen all the time; ugly conversations too, but friendly and polite conversations about religious topics are not that rare. If that was supposed to be the surprise, then I’m a little disappointed. I feel like a kid who just got a Happy Meal without a toy. And no, I don’t want the damned cashier to give me one now; it’s too damn late dammit!

I do damn-say.

I do!

Okay, but what’s the real problem with this piece? It’s this. There are reasons this debate went so well, and those reasons should make it perfectly clear why this bit of comedy fun isn’t really a model for how these discussions are supposed to work. If this is a fun chapter in the story of interfaith discussion and debate, it is ultimately a unique chapter, and it isn’t going to set the tone for the rest of that story. Sorry, it just isn’t.

For one thing the Christian wasn’t very ‘Christian’, so to speak. That might actually be because he was too Christian for Christians, though I suspect many would respond that he wasn’t Christian enough, and of course he may well be right to say that Jesus wouldn’t be either, cause Christianity is a tough club and the Prince of Peace may well be barred entrance at this point, and well, …fun with identity-belief games. The point is that he wasn’t representative of Christianity as it is conventionally defined in the public eye. That may be a good thing in itself, but let’s be honest, it’s one of the reasons this debate went so well.

Fugelsang’s values, at least as he represented them in this discussion, don’t necessarily clash with those of Kilstein or any number of secularists such as, …well, myself. He may well have values to which we object, but he did not put those values front and center in the discussion above. Fogelsang may believe in something we don’t, but in this discussion he did not threaten many (or perhaps any) secular ideas about how to live and behave. Put a conservative Christian up there, standing up for conservative Christian values, and we would have a much deeper clash between all the parties involved. I suspect that both Kilstein and Bell would have had a much more difficult time relating with God’s man in this debate had he taken a different approach to the issues in question.

Is Fugelsang’s faith better, more accurate, or more true than that of the folks we normally associate with the label? Well that’s a battle between him and them (though I kinda hope he win’s it). For the present, the point is that he is for many of us in the just-say-no-to-God club the kinda Christian we can readily get along with.

So, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that the folks in this debate got along after all.

More to the point, look at the contours of the debate. These are comedians; they are playing for laughs. Each makes his points, but not one of them really scrutinizes the claims made by the others. In fact, each gets by with a lot of shaky reasoning and imprecise language because we don’t normally expect rigorous arguments from comedians. We expect to laugh. …and if a comedian also gives us something to think about, well hey, then that’s a plus. But we don’t sit in the front row and shout “red herring” at folks like this. And apparently they don’t do it to each other either.

…which is another reason why this turns out to be a friendly debate. The poison pens and trashy talk comes out on this issue when people actually begin to take apart each other’s reasoning on the subject. That’s when it starts to get personal, not necessarily because the other guy is calling you names, but because your own thinking is actually on the line in such a debate. …and okay, because people also call each other names. Discussions about religion get a lot more heated when people actually respond directly to the arguments of the other person, …when they say things like; “that’s not true!” or “that’s totally irrelevant.” It’s at such moments that people start to pepper the discussion with additional phrases like “…you stupid git” or “you miserable cur!” It is much easier to keep it calm when folks just outline their basic point of view and move-on. It’s counter-arguments that turn up the heat on iterfaith conversations, and those really didn’t happen here.

Which means none of these guys got called-out on their cheap shots, their wonky reasoning, or their not-literally-true claims. None of these guys even had to make up his mind as to just how serious he was about the claims he made on the topic, much less answer a direct challenge to the truth of those claims. The tougher arguments don’t necessarily happen because people are trying to be mean, but because there are genuine questions about whether or not some points of view are just wrong, and once you put those questions on the table, the pulse rates start to go up. Counter-arguments are where the shit gets real, and counter-arguments didn’t really happen here.

Counter-arguments didn’t happen, because of course this wasn’t really a debate; it was a venue providing each party with a chance to highlight aspects of their comedy routine, and each did so with remarkable skill. In short, this was comedians doing what comedians do.

The debate wasn’t ugly, because they never really got to the ugly questions.

Won’t someone please think of the ugly questions?