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My Debate with Kyle Butt on the Problem of Suffering

On April 4, 2014 I had a lively and, well, rather rigorous and at times somewhat unpleasant debate (unpleasant for maybe both of us?) with a conservative Christian apologist named Kyle Butt at the campus of the University of North Alabama (UNA).  Gospel Broadcasting Network aired the event live on their television network, as well live streamed it on the Internet.  We were debating whether the problem of suffering can call into question the existence of God.

Kyle wrote previous of the event explaining that, “He [Bart] is a self-avowed agnostic who claims that the pain and suffering he sees in the world make it impossible for him to believe that the Christian God exists. Thus, the debate will be on the subject of suffering and the existence of God. Ehrman will be affirming: “The pain and suffering in the world indicate that the Christian God does not exist.” I will be denying that proposition.”

Kyle Butt, M.A. is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University, where he earned a B.A. with a double major in Bible and communications, and an M.A. in New Testament. He currently serves in the Bible department at Apologetics Press.

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  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 27, 2015

    Sorry – I bailed out after 15 minutes, because I couldn’t take any more of Kyle Butt!

    Personally, I don’t believe in starting out with an assumption that “God” exists, and asking whether there are reasons to doubt it. I start by assuming nothing, and arrive at the conclusion that while creation by a preexisting intelligent Being is one *possible* explanation for the existence of the Cosmos, it isn’t the *only* possible explanation, or even the most likely. My own hypothesis is that the Cosmos itself is a gigantic Being – the Uncaused Cause – and all things in it are *parts*, rather than inferior “creations,” of the ever-evolving One.

    But the topic of suffering makes me think about a TV news broadcast I saw a few days ago. I turned it on by chance. Upstate New York…they might have been reporting from Auriesville. They were talking to a boy of about 15 – with a somewhat scarred face – about a “miracle” he claimed to have experienced.

    He’d suffered a cut on his face when he was a small child; it seemed minor at first, but then they discovered he’d been infected with flesh-eating bacteria. He’d endured years of agony – a horrific ordeal for his family, as well. He’d been expected to die.

    But then, he’d made an amazing recovery…after they’d prayed to Kateri Tekakwitha (because they believed there was some similarity between those bacteria, and the smallpox that had scarred her). This was one of the “miracles” that supposedly justified her canonization. The boy also said he’d visited Heaven, and talked with Jesus.

    Point 1: I see nothing “saintly” about the life of Kateri Tekakwitha. As I understand it, priests – whose presence the Native Americans had been forced to accept – converted vulnerable young women, turned their families against them, and then got them to live together and practice deplorable kinds of sadomasochism. She was their star pupil…or more accurately, victim.

    Point 2: I don’t know whether doctors found the boy’s recovery hard to explain (though they probably did, for the Church to have accepted it as grounds for canonization).

    Here’s my own take on possible “miracles,” from an essay I posted online several years ago…

    Since I accept the possibility of Mind influencing Matter, I also accept the possibility of many types of paranormal phenomena. That doesn’t mean I gullibly accept everything! But I have an open mind.

    For example, let’s suppose a gravely ill individual prays to a candidate for “sainthood” for a miraculous cure…and he recovers, in a way that seems medically inexplicable. I could accept that a “miracle” had taken place, but I wouldn’t be convinced that either the candidate for “sainthood” or “God” deserved the credit. My assumption would be that the patient himself possessed the power to effect a cure; but since he was psychologically unable to acknowledge that, he’d only been able to cure himself by praying to someone else. In this case, being fervently eager to help the cause of the candidate for “sainthood.”

    An important point: Precisely because I’m open to the possibility of paranormal phenomena (in a world with or without theistic religion), no miracle or apparition could “convert” me.

    I think some, possibly all, humans possess some paranormal abilities. They may vary, as eyesight and hearing can vary, while being in the “modest” range. Or they may be more comparable to a talent for playing the piano. If some humans possess powers beyond the norm, it may be a healthy impulse that leads them to suppress them: the realization that if someone could, for example, give a blind person sight, he might also be capable of making a sighted person blind. Better not to start down that road at all…

    It’s also possible that the possessors of paranormal powers could be family members or friends of the beneficiary of a miracle. Or that the combined efforts of a group could be required.

    But here’s the main point I want to make: one “believers” never seem to think of. Let’s assume they’re correct in this case, and God did perform a miracle due to the intercession of Kateri Tekakwitha.

    *What does that say about the morality of their “God”?* A supposedly omniscient, omnipotent Being, who permits (causes?) a boy and his family to endure years of suffering, for the sake of *providing grounds to have Kateri Tekakwitha canonized*?

    Appalling.

  2. Avatar
    Lawyerskeptic  September 28, 2015

    If I had not already been an atheist before college, my class on medical entomology would’ve pushed me in that direction. Malaria is only one example. It was not the horrendous statistics on malaria that impressed me, but the appearance of design.
    The lifecycle of malaria is so complex and interrelated that it boggles the mind how it could have evolved, and what really impressed me is that it kills the mosquitoes. I knew malaria kills people, but I learned how it neatly manages to kill both its host (people) and mosquitoes, its vector/transportation. The microorganism blocks the mosquito’s throat so that it tries to suck blood, but cannot get the blood past the blockage and ends up rejecting it back into the host. The mosquito goes from person to person infecting with the disease and slowly starving to death. Malaria slowly and painfully kills on both sides of its lifecycle, and yet the protozoan goes on.
    Amazing and yet somehow proponents of intelligent design never mention this devious scheme. Not a mosquito falls without knowing of it. Maybe should’ve asked Mr. Butt about animal suffering. No doubt they suffer, but to what good purpose? Doggy heaven?

  3. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  September 28, 2015

    That definitely had some uncomfortable moments lol. If there’s no spirit world, why do people still have spiritual experiences? The evolutionary process keeps what it needs and wants: food, sex, God, etc… We could go without sex considering babies can be made in a lab, but will people stop having sex? Highly unlikely! People can live without a God, but will they? Also, highly unlikely. We need them both because we want them, and because we want them, we indulge in them.
    Supposedly, all life began asexually, so why did evolution “decide,” especially when it comes to humans, that we’ll reproduce sexually? At some point in time, something decided we’re having sex and we’re keeping it. Something also decided there’s a God or gods because an experience happened a long time ago that none of us knows about, and many have kept that concept out of desire and preference.
    Babies can be made artificially, but we’ll still have sexual desire; therefore, sex. God isn’t necessary to live, but humans have an innate desire for a creator and have spritual encounters continually; therefore, God. God exists the same way sex exists; we or some-Thing made it that way. To say that a spiritual encounter isn’t real or the result of a hallucination is unfair and not accurate.
    Just because ancient cultures clumsily attempted to explain God in wildly different ways does not mean there is no God. Our concept of who or what God is/should be is wrong; therefore, suffering. The end result? Sex isn’t going anywhere. Neither is God.

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 29, 2015

      People don’t change. We have certain basic emotional and psychological needs, and one of them is to believe in higher forces. That doesn’t have to take the form of an old white man in the sky. But it’s going to take some form or other, and it’s best if we recognize this need, rather than try to suppress it. And by recognizing it, we can hopefully avoid its more serious consequences.

  4. Avatar
    Triassicman  September 28, 2015

    Ha! I just watched this last week and thought it too old to comment on. I found Mr Butt to be well rehearsed in this debate but not able to focus on the facts as you presented them. He typified the arrogance of those religious fundamentalists who cannot listen to reason and therefore never adequately address (debate) the subject at hand. Would it have been rude and against the rules of the debate to have insisted he supply you an adequate answer to your question “would you allow your children to suffer hunger till they die”? He also skipped over a couple of your other pertinent questions and I found him annoying and devious in the end. Being brought up in fundamentalism, and experiencing the chaos it brings particularly to children, my heart goes out to Butt’s children and any others he has anything to do with.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  September 28, 2015

    To be honest, I’ve never bought that argument myself. The bible is full of suffering. Jesus himself suffers. Suffering proves nothing, in either direction. God never promised anybody a life free of suffering. Religion is itself a reaction to human suffering, not a denial of it.

    Certain rmodern conceptions of the Judeo-Christian God are rendered dubious by the world we see around us, no question. But not the original conceptions.

  6. Avatar
    Forrest  September 28, 2015

    In a previous life when I was a young minister in a conservative denomination the pastor I worked under had been a Church of Christ minister and trained at their seminary. He had left the Church of Christ over doctrinal issues. He warned me never ever get into a debate with a Church of Christ theologian. They will twist your words in every way they can. I think Mr Butt demonstrated that well in this debate. He was not interested in listening but rather to trap Bart. He clearly and spent considerable time parsing Bart’s materials not to learn, but to obfuscate. Bart, you stood up well. I could sense your frustration.

    Hey would somebody buy Mr Butt a nice ball point pen?

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 28, 2015

      There are very bad arguments made on both sides, no question. The fact is, the God most Christians talk about today doesn’t make any sense. But that’s because modern Christianity is hopelessly compromised by the deeply conflicting precepts it’s adopted.

      It’s hard to have an argument with a Christian when there are so few of them out there.

  7. Avatar
    zrxmoto  September 28, 2015

    Did you know that he was going to go on and on and on and on right off the bat before you even get to say anything?

  8. Avatar
    Brian  September 28, 2015

    What frustrated me was his tendency to depart from the topic and throw every cheesy bit of cheap, fallacious apologetics at his disposal at you. He throws in the moral argument, the cosmological argument and everything up to and including the kitchen sink. I probably would have risen to the bait, but you calmly stayed on topic. It also seemed to me that you showed a much greater concern and interest in the Bible than he did. And, as in all debates on the problem of evil that I’ve seen, the apologist just never really seems to take suffering seriously. It’s like it’s all just theoretical to them.

  9. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  September 28, 2015

    “Okay, okay, watch this…”
    The “Pen Tuke?”
    “Didyagetthat?”
    Butt’s speaking style reminded me of Chevy Chase in “Fletch Lives”. “We have no need for wisdom, we have no need for anything, but the creature comforts and plenty of them, AAAAMEN!”
    Was Kyle Butt the best they could come up with for this debate? His effort was laughable. Why am I thirsty for some snake oil?

  10. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  September 28, 2015

    Hi Bart,

    Do you ever dabate liberal Christians? I enjoyed listening to you talk (as always), and I would have loved to listen to the arguments your opponent if he wasn’t such an arrogant bigot.

  11. Avatar
    TomSmith  September 29, 2015

    Wow. You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. That guy reminded me of too many cocky fundamentalists who have crossed my path over the years. There’s no real debating them, just enduring them. Back in my early career when I taught the survey of the early history of Christianity, about once a year I’d encounter an 18-year-old incipient Kyle Butt. They’re energy vampires, and immune to reasoned argument.

  12. Avatar
    Tom  September 30, 2015

    You raised some very good and powerful points in your debate with Kyle Butt.
    However I got the impression that all Kyle did was attempt to discredit your scholarly status.

    I’m rather curious if this will be your last and final debate with a fundamentalist?
    While you did present a compelling argument on the argument of suffering, I felt the overall debate (mostly from Kyle Butt) left me with an ice cream headache.

    Many thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2015

      I’ll keep debating as long as they keep paying my fee, since it all goes to charity.

  13. Avatar
    davemontalvo  October 1, 2015

    Butts could not agree that it is immoral for governments to starve someone to death as punishment. I find it strange and very disturbing to witness an intelligent person taking a stance like this in order to justify what is written on the bible.

  14. Avatar
    Jana  October 7, 2015

    43 minutes was all I could watch with Mr. Butts. He was out of his league. However, the questions you posed about suffering and beseeching our own reflections and investigations have given me a lot more homework especially given the epidemic gripping my community.

    • Avatar
      Jana  October 8, 2015

      I have answered your insightful questions posed to the audience however and have arrived at my own conclusions about suffering and also personally the limited role of what one might call “God” or “Gods” … I will return to the debate (passing over Mr. Butts posturing) to glean others. Of course I’ve come to realize how little I know about Christianity although it was the religion of my youth and also frankly how simplistic and passive it now seems. It also seems to lack a mystic tradition unlike both Buddhism or Hinduism.

  15. Avatar
    Robert  October 14, 2015

    I know this is late but I must comment. A) You’ve reaffirmed why you are my favorite biblical scholar: uncompromising intellectual integrity. In other words, you’re words are trustworthy. B) You’re opponent was appropriately named. What an a$$. Embarrassed me as a Christian. C) Do me a favor: please debate a Jesuit next time. I practice their spirituality and I promise you’ll have a real, spirited and most importantly PLEASANT debate on an issue.

    Finally let me say that as a believer I view fundamentalism as idolatry. And Jesuits define idolatry thusly: “the process of turning God into something more manageable.”

    Peace, brother.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2015

      Ha! I’ve never been invited to debate a Jesuit. Not sure what we’d debate!

  16. Avatar
    ahamagi  October 17, 2015

    Perhaps the real issue lies in the concept of bringing the idea of God down from the clouds. And seeing God as With Us rather than Above Us, God as Subject rather than Object. Isn’t the God of Jesus that still small voice within us rather than the whirlwind, the fire or the earthquake? Perhaps the real debate should be; is a God of humility, one who has made himself subject to his own creation, really a God at all? Jesus seems to suggest that God is the very nature of Being or Existence and that we are created as mirrors of that existence for good or evil and that judgment belongs to us and that we will face God as a mirror answering to the face of our own mercy or our wrath. The question then lies With Us and isn’t why would God allow suffering but rather why would we? To Jesus we are the hands, the feet and the face of God for good or evil. And in his mind or way of thinking he had reconciled mankind and God as being One. Perhaps it was this radical upside down view of God that led to those early charges of atheism more so than a simple rejection of the Pagan Gods? I think much of our problem in understanding stems from the modern prevalence of a starkly dualistic way of thinking that simply was not a part of the ancient mindset that encapsulated Jesus’ teaching.

  17. Avatar
    JR  April 4, 2016

    It is curious that Mr Butt didn’t refer to Genesis 3 in his argument as this gives a *biblical* reason as to why there is death (and therefore suffering) in the world. I assume this is because he realizes that to do so raises more questions than answers. Such as the question from the audience member: if there is free will and lack of sin/suffering in heaven why couldn’t God have created a world like this originally?

    I think he came at this debate the wrong way and didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the issue. His comments sound mechanical and lack humanity (until maybe the very end). He knew the audience was on his side already and he was out to sound intellectual and logical rather than answer the genuine questions Dr Erhman raised.

    As an aside I find it incredibly ironic that Mr Butt keeps emphasizing logic and proof but a quick look at the website he writes for reveals that he believes that we earth is only thousands of years old and that dinosaurs lived with human beings.

  18. Avatar
    Lance  July 2, 2016

    In this debate you brought up how moral values and how they differ in different cultural societies as shown by cultural anthropologists. Can you recommend any good books on the topic?.. Kyle Butt is a piece of work and seemed pretty close minded and cold. How many times did he say “wait for it” in response to what you said 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2016

      Off hand I don’t know of a good introduction to cultural anthropology for layfolk. Maybe someone else on the blog can suggest something? I believe there are some anthropologists here!

    • Avatar
      mrsamisme  February 5, 2017

      Michael Shermer covers this well in his excellent book “The Science of Good and Evil”

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