My debate with Dan Barker was on the question “Is Christianity intellectually respectable?” I argued the affirmative. My method was simple: offer a definition of “intellectual respectability” and provide good evidence that Christianity has met the definition. To that end, I pointed out that “respectability” is a social concept referencing positive social status. The qualifier “intellectual” clarifies that the respectability in question is with reference to recognized intellectuals within society. With that in mind, I argued that we should define intellectual respectability as a quality that obtains when a position/belief is a live option that is seriously discussed, debated, and defended within the intelligentsia classes and formal institutions of a society (e.g. leading scholars in public universities, academic journals, and academic societies).
I then pointed out that Christianity easily meets that definition as it is indeed widely discussed, debated, and defended among those within the intelligentsia classes of (western) society.
Dan didn’t really critique that point. Instead, in the debate he appeared to tacitly concede it, thereby conceding that Christianity is intellectually respectable by the definition I provided. Given that he also did not critique my definition, I would submit that he thereby conceded the debate.
Dan’s approach, by contrast, was to argue that Christianity is not morally respectable (by which he meant, a moral position with which he agrees or admires) because some of the teachings of Jesus are offensive (at least by Dan’s interpretation). I pointed out that moral agreement/admiration is not the same thing as intellectual respectability. And I gave, as an example, the philosophy of nihilism: while I have no moral agreement/admiration for that philosophical position, I could nonetheless concede that it is an intellectually respectable position insofar as it is seriously discussed, debated, and defended within the intelligentsia classes.
To a degree, the debate devolved into two ships passing in the night, though I hope that the irenicism with which we interacted was itself a worthwhile take-away.
Beyond that, I’d like to conclude with a word for the importance of my thesis. I think it matters greatly that we are willing to recognize that positions we may disagree with strenuously can nonetheless be intellectually respectable. Once we recognize that a position is intellectually respectable, we cannot simply dismiss it with a contemptuous wave of the hand (as so many atheists are wont to do with Christianity). Instead, if we really want to have a meaningful critique of it, we must invest the time to engage those within the intelligentsia class who are discussing, debating, and defending it.
Alas, I suspect that lesson will not be heard by the vast majority of internet atheists who populate the Modern Day Debate crowd. And so, I do wonder at times about the value of these kinds of debates that are largely consumed by closed-minded ideologues who simply reconfirm their prejudices. But ultimately, I am not responsible for whether a mind is open to hearing a good argument. The best I can do is make sure that my arguments are argued in a clear, logical, and winsome fashion to those open to hearing them.