Saturday, February 18, 2012

Michael Nugent Vs Hamza Tzortzis: Would The World Be A Better Place Without Religion?

On February seventh I attended a debate between Michael Nugent (Atheist Ireland) and Hamza Tzortzis (Islamic Education and Research Academy), organised by the DIT Debate Society and the DIT Islamic Society. The subject was "Is The World A Better Place Without Religion?". You've likely guessed which speaker defended the proposition.

The date also marked my entry to twitter. I'm Geoff's Shorts, do say hi. I tweeted my way through the debate and will flesh out the thoughts below.

@HATzortzis missed his flight. TCD debate postponed, DIT still on. Unconfirmed rumours that Ryanair checkin staff are militant atheists :)
It turns out that the snow was the cause of Hamza missing his flight. This does not preclude Ryanair's checkin staff from all being militant atheists; we may have to wait for further evidence. I'll try the secret handshake when I next fly.
Pre debate debate by audience members in DIT. Just endured a long and meandering rant about Obama.
The format of the debate was a little different to others I'd seen, and the DIT Debate Society put considerable focus on developing their members - from what I can tell most stood up and said a few words. With hindsight I see their motivation but at the time it felt I was enduring a two page unbridled outpouring of strong feelings on American military action, which was a little unexpected. Still, I was wrong to be critical of those who are trying to improve their craft.
Just enjoyed a mini debate with Bashir. My motion: Focus on scientific miracles in the Qur'an is the wrong way to promote Islam.
This was interesting. I proposed the above motion, grateful for the help of a Debate Soc member who suggested the initial wording was a little vague. In brief I said that reading the Qur'an and learning a little about Islam in history corrected some faulty impressions on my part and left me with a positive impression of the faith. I contrasted this with efforts to shoehorn scientific miracles into the Qur'an, and gave as an example a half hour conversation I'd had with someone who tried to convince me that salt and fresh water don't mix. I don't really feel anyone argued against my proposal, which was heartening. As a point of information one chap said that the verse in question referred to the parting of the Red Sea. I gave my best recollection of the verse and politely disagreed.

Then Bashir took to the stage. To my mind he spoke a little longer than suited the format of a mini debate, but he spoke with conviction and said (as I recall it) how he felt there was too much focus on division, separation and infighting. Again, as I recall it, he made a point on how none of us should say we have the absolute truth as a method of shutting down the conversation.

At this point he was interrupted by a fellow Muslim who asked "are you absolutely sure the's no absolute truth?". Interrupting an interruption would be getting a little recursive, so I refrained from observing that the chap was quoting from the Christian site, perhaps an odd source for a man of his faith.

I don't quite recall Bashir's response, but the interrupter continued "Well Hamza's going to come here tonight and prove logically that God exists". This struck me as a little outside the topic of debate, but again, I stayed quiet. I took to the stage once more and congratulated Bashir on a heartfelt speech on his beliefs, and said such an approach was the best way to talk about one's faith. We shook hands.
Hamza recognised me. I'm touched. Disappointed by the two atheist hecklers up front.
Hamza and I spoke last year, and I occasionally comment on his Facebook page. In his opening speech he stopped, waved, and said it was nice to see some familiar atheist faces. I waved back but only after checking behind me - it seemed quite strange that I'd stick in the memory so. The hecklers I mentioned were from the One Law For All campaign. On paper, it's a campaign I back, but were I to judge it by its members I would not. They interrupted a very brief Arabic greeting at the start of Hamza's speech with loud cries of "English!", deliberately walked in front of Muslim cameramen, interrupted, and read newspapers. From my vantage point they seemed especially interested in articles on weight loss.
@HATzortzis, admitting religion can be a negative force, lists secular wars for contrast, shows studies on positive benefits. Might review.
I'm interested in how studies on the benefits of religion control for the benefits of belonging to a community.
Hamza's opening statement is worth a watch, though I'm a little disappointed that the initial heckling and Hamza's opening greeting were edited out. He handled the interruption with grace and removing it seems unfair.

@HATzortzis making some big claims about benefits of Islam to civilization. Thing is, they're right.
It would require unfathomable depths of superstition and irrationality to believe that Islam has existed for centuries, spreading across the globe, and never achieved anything noble. Hamza rightly highlighted some of the significant positive influences Islam has had on humanity.
Cordoba - fantastic example of an Islamic state where all Abrahamic faiths were respected. But founded by someone fleeing an Islamic state.
If I had to live in an enforced theocracy, Cordoba would likely be the one. It was a time of innovation, respect and discovery. The few restrictions placed on non-Muslims were not onerous or unreasonable. BBC 4 did a good documentary that's worth tracking down. It's maybe not entirely accurate to say that Abd al-Rahman I founded Cordoba, though he did gain control of it and prompt its flourishing, starting a dynasty that ruled for nearly three centuries. This was not something I could fully express in 140 characters. He fled a revolt in Damascus in 750 CE and travelled in exile for several years.
Moral argument now, not his strongest point. The moral argument is not affected by the presence or absence of religion.
This is an area where I feel Hamza dipped from an otherwise solid opening statement. For those unfamiliar there are two flavours of moral argument. The first says that atheists have no moral restraint. It's a farcical argument, crushed easily by any cursory examination of crime rates or societies with high populations of atheists. To Hamza's credit he has never to my knowledge made such an argument and he has acknowledged moral atheists.

The second flavour, the one Hamza employed, is that we all have an innate sense of right and wrong. He then says that this absolute moral law must come from a moral law giver, that being God. I've heard this before, and while it's not an argument I agree with he delivered it well. My problem is that I don't see how it meshes with the subject of debate - God and religion are two separate topics. In the absence of gods, religion could still be thought of as a positive force. Atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists would certainly agree. (Side note: given his recent popularity I was disappointed he didn't feature in the discussion.)

On the flip side religion could be a terrible idea and the moral argument's premises would not be affected. Useful when debating the existence of God, but rather hampers a discussion of the benefits of religion. I don't think this was a strong or relevant point and don't really see why it was included.

@micknugent central argument: religion inherently at fault for encouraging beliefs beyond reasonable evidence, not peculiar to religion.
Good summary of The Moral Landscape from @micknugent. Hecklers gone quiet, reading weight loss articles.
@micknugent with some good stats on higher murder, drug and abortion rates in the Bible belt.
Rather than summarising further I'll just link to his opening statement.

@micknugent: it is possible to be charitable without religion. Agreed. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Mr Facebook all great philanthropists.
Yes, I'll admit it, I can't spell Mark Zuckerberg without spell check. While it's important to say that it is possible to be charitable without religion, given a little more time I'd like to have heard how tithing to one's church (or Dawah organisation) is often unfairly included in charitable statistics. It's also worth noting how hard it is to gather statistics on atheist charitable giving. My last donation went to the Cappuccin Day Centre, a religious order run charity. There were no questions on my faith position; they'll happily take money from anyone.
@micknugent listing distasteful quotes from the Qur'an. Not a murmur from the audience. I'm still embarrassed by the atheist hecklers.
Most statistics are made up and wildly inaccurate. In this spirit, I'll put the split of the audience as 50% Muslim, 25% Debate Soc, 10% unknown and 15% atheist. Don't hold me to those figures, they're just a vague impression. As I mentioned earlier there were two disruptive members of the One Law For All campaign seated up front who could not restrain their vocal objections longer than thirty seconds into Hamza's speech. It's perfectly reasonable in such a debate for Michael to list some negative elements from the Qur'an, but I would like to highlight that there was not a murmur of dissent or objection from the audience. They won on good manners.
The problem with opening statements up to the floor is that sometimes the speakers make you wish the floor would open up.
Always a worry when someone stands up with two sheets of closely written text. #terror
This chap's essay on religion is stirring up some deep-seated feelings inside me. Mainly emanating from my bladder. Bit on the long side.
Occasionally I'll say something where my main intention is to get a laugh. I'll then look back on it and regret causing offence. Taken in the spirit of a debate society attempting to get their members more experience talking to a large audience this section made sense, though limiting the participants to a single sheet might have helped keep focus. They have some good, confident speakers, but part of me would have preferred if the time was used for questioning the speakers as opposed to allowing the audience to express general thoughts.
Quranic inheritance law: I need a calculator.
@micknugent may have won 2,000 from @HATzortzis. I encourage him to collect soon; Hamza doesn't do interest :)
I'll express this in as few words as possible because as a diversion it went on perhaps a little too long on the night. Michael said that the Qur'an mandates women receiving half the inheritance given to men. Hamza said it did not say this, and bet a thousand pounds that Michael could not find those words. This went up to two thousand Euro. I don't recall the Surah Michael offered, but it was likely 4:11: "Allah chargeth you concerning (the provision for) your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females..."

Hamza went on to give some background information - men were considered responsible for looking after their wives, unmarried sisters and widowed mothers. In the absence of a male relative, it was the government's duty to look after women. In that context Hamza said the division of inheritance was fair, and I'm inclined to agree. Still, under the terms of the bet, I think Michael fulfilled the requirement. (I don't think the bet was made or accepted in earnest and am not suggesting the transfer of funds.) There was some back and forth on this.
@HATzortzis: I'm not a Sheich, I'm more of a milkshake. Both speakers cracked some good jokes, this is the only one that'll fit in a tweet.
The 2,000 bet: @HATzortzis "It's like talking to my four year old. @micknugent: he must be very wealthy
There were some good jokes from both speakers.
Gah, heckler's talking. If you're going to bash @HATzortzis on Arabic, at least do the research: he's not fluent. 
The #onelawforall hecklers were a bit of a disgrace.
This is not a blog about me bashing religion. It's a blog about me trying to understand religion. On those occasions when I do bash I tend to have a good reason to do so and have put in a little research. Not so the one law for all chap, who had a go at Hamza because the Qur'an was not accessible to those who don't speak fluent classical Arabic.

By his own admission, Hamza does not speak fluent classical Arabic. He's open about this and doesn't attempt to disguise it. If you're going to be an ass and disrupt a man's speech, at least put some effort into research.
On @HATzortzis rape and porn stats and claims:
This was a little irritating. Hamza claimed that Diana Russell's studies showed that 66% of rapists implicate pornography in their crimes. Not quite - Russell cited a study by Einsiedel. More significantly the figure from that study was 33%, not 66%. I've brought this up before, and Hamza's commented on the article (on his Facebook page), so it was disappointing to see the incorrect statistic mentioned again. That said I accept that he may have just skimmed my post and missed that line.
Can the moral argument be rebutted in 140 characters?
Let me try: Sociopaths and sympathetic simians suggest supernatural source is superfluous. 

To elaborate: we have humans who have no moral sense. We have lab monkeys willing to starve themselves rather than shock other monkeys. This to my mind suggests the thesis that humans have had a unique moral law implanted by a divine being is lacking.
@HATzortzis gave me a hug and described me as the friendliest atheist on his Facebook page. Great guy, enjoyed our chat. Warm entourage.
He is a friendly, personable guy. Talk to him if you get the chance. I had a nice chat with a chap called Mahmood too, we discussed scientific miracles some more.
Went to thank @micknugent for the evening's diversion but he was mid conversation as DIT closed.
I had the unexpected pleasure of talking to Michael on a bus ride once. He seemed a mite surprised to be recognised. He's very witty, has a good memory for facts and has done great work for atheists in Ireland.
Well done to @ditdebatesoc for organising and chairing the debate. I'll be keeping an eye on your calendar.
Met James who I mentioned in We shook hands, he liked the piece.

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