“G.K. [Chesterton] and the God Debate”


One of the organizers of the first debate in the Chesterton Debate Series: “Is There a God?” draws attention to Peter Stockland’s Catholic Register article on the debate by quoting from Stockland’s article and asking,

“Instead of drinking bottled water, [Trottier and Fr. Cleevely] should have had a welcoming table supplied with substantial beer.” Agree?

If that were all Stockland was asking in his article, “G.K. and the God debate,” it would be easy to agree. However, Stockland’s uses his article to praise Chesterton and the Catholic debater, Philip Cleevely and to criticize Justin Trottier.

Stockland’s report of the debate is predictable and wrong. Stockland’s report is predictable because Peter Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, an organization that argues “for the importance of religion to culture and culture to religion. His report is wrong because he claims the debate “attracted 500 souls on a frigid February Friday night.”  Give me a break: Souls? The existence of a soul is as difficult to prove as the existence of God and the debate attracted a lot of people not just Catholics and Christians and many of them were not in attendance for the good of their non-existent soul, but were there to hear Philip Cleevely prove the existence of God. Despite the fact that Stockland describes Cleevely as an “Oxbridge trained philosopher-theologian,” Cleevely did not convincingly argue for the existence of a God.

However, the topic of the debate, “God,” is not Stockland’s biggest concern. Stockland’s biggest concern is  that G. K. Chesterton, who died in 1936, didn’t show up:

God was abundant at the Toronto archdiocese’s recent inaugural Chesterton Debate. Dear old G.K., unfortunately, was in notably shorter supply.

God was not abundant; in fact, God wasn’t even in attendance, so He couldn’t have turned the bottled water into beer. Furthermore, of course Chesterton was not in attendance; he is dead and the dead don’t rise from their graves, much to Stockland’s disappointment:

Chesterton, of course, loved beer. It was among the things that made him so abundant. He loved beer as he loved God: in the cause of good company and glad hearts. Let us pray that particular goodness of G.K.’s spirit fills the debating hall the next time round.

Yes, Chesterton ” loved beer” and that’s one reason why he was so obese “abundant.”

It is a waste of time to dwell on Stockland’s lament, “there is no room for Chesterton” at the debate, and it’s a bigger waste of time to dwell on Stockland’s blatant criticism of “inquiring skeptic Justin Trottier” or on his praise for Philip Cleevely.  On the other hand, Stockland is correct. there should have been “a welcoming table supplied with substantial beer.”  A little bit of beer would have helped the bitter medicine (Cleevely’s convoluted and impenetrable argument for the existence of God) go down.

Stockland ends his article by saying,

Let us pray that particular goodness of G.K.’s spirit fills the debating hall the next time round.

Let’s not; let’s ask the organizers to provide beer, skepticism and two debaters with inquiring minds instead of just one.

6 thoughts on ““G.K. [Chesterton] and the God Debate”

  1. I think I already asked, but I’ll ask again. Is there any video or audio for this debate? Because all this discussion about a debate I’ve never heard or seen is sort of odd and makes me feel a little excluded. 🙂

  2. Pingback: “The Devil Himself Believes in God”! | Canadian Atheist

  3. I certainly came away admiring the voice and debating technique of Cleevely. He knows well how to use his tone and style, and I could probably listen to him talk about anything. I feel that he’s someone who can think in entire chapters. But peeling away the style and skill, his argument itself didn’t seem very deep or convincing.

    Compare Cleevely with Ham (vs Nye). Cleevely says that our universe’s existence (“THAT it is”) demands a creator outside of it (and/or somehow coincident with its entirety). But in any case, it’s not detectable through scientific means (but there are interactions, never described or explained by Cleevely). The point is, creator-gods are invisible to science. Ham, in comparison, says that we can’t really be sure about things past a certain arbitrary point in time, where science ceases being “observational” and becomes “historical”. Again the point is to try to neutralize science. And in both cases, where science has been forbidden to go, suddenly there is a god. Cleevely’s location for a god is superior, because it’s not arbitrary. Looking outside the universe isn’t possible (with accelerating expansion, even the interior is becoming less visible over time).

    As a Catholic, in a Catholic setting, Cleevely oddly wasn’t arguing for God, the Catholic, Christian god, who parts seas, floods planets, torches cities, and so forth. He limited himself to a god who (in ways never specified) creates and (in ways never specified) interacts with the world. His argument boils down to “something exists, and the cause of that existence does not necessarily come from within itself, or be detectable from within itself, therefore god”.

    But he was very clear and deliberate (I thought) in his words. One point he scored was that if there is no free will, and that we are all automatons driven by physics, how can we say that something we conclude is actually true?

    First off, we can’t. We’ve all made mistakes. We have no choice.

    This is a huge topic, and has nothing to do with gods. But my answer would be that there is no objective truth. There are only things which we perceive, some of which appear to always be followed by other things we perceive. Our brains evolved a rudimentary pattern-recognition capacity, and it was naturally selected for because it helped us evade enemies, find food, or impress potential mates. The more generalized it became, the more self-sufficient and capable we became. There is a threshold (abstraction) beyond which the world of math and logic and symbols opens up. (Debates about god are an interesting side-effect.) Through the work of thousands, perhaps millions, we now have a closer approximation to what we call “the truth”, but which is really a generalization of observations. (There is a creative hypothesis-generating aspect as well, which evolved alongside our pattern-recognizing ability). And we’re able to codify this knowledge into inanimate machines, and ask them questions that we by ourselves cannot solve. The machines’ answers are as true as ours. (I disagree with Justin than a contradiction found in the lab is evidence of a god or miracle… it COULD be, but it’s more likely evidence that will be used to improve our test design or assumptions).

    While Cleevely made the error that atheism is the disbelief in gods plus the affirmative belief in no gods, Justin made the error that atheism is disbelief in gods plus the use of science (or as someone put it, skepticism). While Justin did briefly mention atheist religion, I wish he had noted more clearly that a scientific atheism isn’t universally accepted, so terms like “atheistic universe” don’t mean the same thing to all atheists. I think he meant “materialistic”.

    While I applaud Justin for stepping up, I think he should replay the debate to refine his technique. He (just like Tyson) went too quickly sometimes to be followed (even by someone familiar with the arguments). And it’s very hard to know all of science, so I would try to avoid making sweeping scientific claims like all the energy in the universe sums to zero, when there are concepts like dark energy (which might well be described as “the error term in the sum”). That doesn’t add to the debate, and sets us up for failure if challenged (or worse yet, proven wrong).

    I do take issue with Cleevely’s claim that from within the world, we can’t explain its existence (yet he does by calling it “god” without any further detail). I think Justin already pointed out that Cleevely made the assumption that the universe came out of nothing. That can be a good assumption. But it’s not the only assumption. And it may not even be well-defined. What is “nothing”? What does it mean to have “no space” and “no time” there? From within the world, we are able to discern the way it works, and run it backward. As it turns out, we can even confirm evidence of inflation. There is a point beyond which there can be no evidence. And there’s a point further beyond which even the physics ceases to make sense. What do we do with that? As Justin said, there are hypotheses that are consistent with known science that say that the state of “nothing” is not a stable state, or that every possible universe exists, or that universes are born within parent universes’ black holes. There is no rush to pick any of these. Nor is there a rush to pick “god”. We can be content with “I don’t know”.

    Cleevely really seemed to want to avoid off-topic Christianity, to instead have an off-topic debate about science as a way of knowing, at the end. Science’s record blows away any other way of knowing, even if you exclude all the evidence. The philosophy of science is simply the same set of tools we use to get out of bed each morning: assuming we exist, in a world that exists, and that the rules haven’t changed overnight.

  4. I usually don’t watch debates but maybe I will give this one a look.

    Debates are about presentation and not about intelligently
    working through the data.

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