That debate about merits of the Catholic Church was a setup from the get go, unfortunately no one realized that at the time. Yesterday I mentioned a couple of reasons why it couldn’t have worked and today I intend to continue exploring various ways why it really couldn’t have any other outcome but a sound defeat for the Church.
First of all, as I said yesterday, they framed it as a good vs bad issue, with atheists citing all the negative stuff. Psychologically, to counteract one negative impression one has to have seven good ones and the church had obviously no chance of providing that.
Secondly, they put a woman in charge of moderating. She was smart, intelligent, had good control of the proceedings, but it wasn’t enough because the fundamentals were all wrong. It looked like a debate but she didn’t realize it wasn’t one. She was doing something superficial and even if she was good at it but there was no substance there. At one point she did realize that comments from the audience were one sided and tried to correct it but it was too late. She should have thought of this first – the audience should have been more or less evenly divided so that both sides presented more or less the same number of arguments, never mind that negative ones need a bigger counterbalance anyway. By negative I mean emotionally charged stuff like child abuse, not the logical arguments against something.
Another way it was bound to fail was the cultural norms of the modern age. They might have called it a debate but it was actually more like public shaming. The only culturally acceptable reaction to accusations of bigotry, sexism, or racism is to admit one’s mistake and beg forgiveness. Trying to defend oneself will not work and arguing would only make it worse. The moment atheist speakers brought up child abuse the only course the church could have taken was unreserved public apology and begging for mercy. Then they should have joined the civilized society, wholeheartedly accepted their values, and never brought up the old stuff again – pretty much like Germany after WWII.
It didn’t happen, and I think it was actually a victory for the church rather than a defeat as the voting numbers would suggest. They stuck to their guns, they defended their values, they refused to admit guilt where they felt there was none, and they left with their heads held high.
What would have been the alternative? Cowering before the atheists and begging for their mercy would have been like being raped in prison – after the first time one would be doomed forever, his dignity completely gone and his reputation completely ruined. There’s no coming back from this, the relationships would be cast in stone and one would always be that rapist’s bitch, pardon my language.
If the Christians surrendered themselves to the atheists’ demands in hope of comfort and relief it would have made it even worse. They would have enjoyed the experience, they wouldn’t be considered victims but bitches in their own right, pardon me again. It would have been the biggest betrayal of their faith I could imagine and I don’t think there’s an easy comeback from this, their hearts would have been damaged forever.
I said I don’t want to go through this debate step by step but, in general, Hitchens and Fry, speaking for the atheists, brought up an uncountable number of charges. Hitchens was very detailed about it, and he specifically brought the number of apologies officially issued by the church for various wrongdoings on the eve of the millennium. He also cited other apologies issued at various times and always introduced them with “it was only in 1964 that the church admitted..” I’m sure he felt good about it and congratulated himself on being thorough but I don’t see this approach as acceptable.
The point of apology is that after it is accepted you can’t accuse the person of the stuff you have already forgiven. Even the most insufferable wives do not stoop so low and if they do bring up past transgressions they do not feel comfortable about it. Hitchens was worse than a vindictive woman in this case, but it’s a par for an atheist, I suppose, their civility is usually only skin deep.
In Hitchens defense, he cited all those old transgression as evidence of previous wrongdoing, not as evidence by which to judge the church now, but, if it was a real courtroom, most of it would have been objected by the opposing side and stricken out of the records. I suppose lawyers still go for this just to plant an impression in jury’s minds, the court clerk can’t strike it out from there, and Hitchens took full advantage of this opportunity. Debate rules were not broken, however, and it’s the fault of the organizers for not being prepared for this turn of the events.
The first speaker was also happen to be the Catholic, a priest from Africa. His English was okay but I don’t remember anything he said, except that he declared that the Church is a force for good because it is so, no doubt about it. I don’t remember the exact words but that was the gist of his presentation.
Next came Hitchens with all his facts about wrongdoings and apologies, then the woman MP, a well known Catholic Ann Widdecombe, who had her own speech prepared, meaning she had no chance to address Hitchens accusations in full, and then Stephen Fry ended the first round with even more anti-Church rhetoric. Then came questions and comments from the audience, they were mostly hostile, and Widdecombe got a chance to address them but the time given to her was clearly disproportionate to the amount of accusations she had to deal with. The African priest was basically a non-entity because no one in the audience asked him anything interesting.
This format was clearly not conducive to an illuminating debate. Was it fair? Yes, sort of, if it was a shouting match where time at the microphone was awarded proportionally to the number of representatives from each side. The speakers couldn’t address each other, too, so if Hitchens made some accusations Widdcombe wasn’t given a specific opportunity to answer them, she had to use her general time at the microphone. In the end she alone was debating Hitchens, Fry, and the audience.
It was all very civil and nice but the setup was just not conducive to a proper discussion, everybody was speaking to make himself heard, not to engage in a discourse, and the results reflected that. The more I think about it, it was the only possible outcome.
We should not fall into similar traps ourselves. I don’t see Catholics falling for this again either.