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My Debate with Dinesh D’Souza on the Problem of Suffering

A prominent figure in the news lately has been Dinesh D’Souza. Dinesh is best known as a hyper-conservative political commentator. His most recent book is America, and this week it is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction. It has a companion documentary film. If you’re politically very-right-wing conservative and despise Barack Obama and everything he stands for — this is the book for you! Dinesh was a policy analyst in the Reagan White House as a 20-something Wunderkind; he has served as John M. Olin Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The New York Times Magazine named him as one of America’s most influential conservative thinkers. Newsweek listed him as one of the country’s most prominent Asian Americans.

Dinesh has also been in the news for several other things in the past two years, in connection with his (former) presidency of Kings college — a conservative evangelical institutions that trains conservative Christians in business and finance so that they can get high level places at Goldman Sachs– and more recently because of issues involving campaign financing for senatorial candidates that he supports. He has had some high peaks and deep valleys in recent years, the best of times and the worst of times. I mention this only because he is very much a public and prominent figure, unlike most of the other people that I have debated over the years, and that — for me at least — adds a bit of interest to my public disagreements with him. (Though his political views and the news items connected to him have no relevance to the quality of his arguments in the public debate that I attach here.)

I have known Dinesh for maybe five years now. On three occasions we have had public debates — not on public policy and the relative merits of Obama but on another topic of interest to him and certainly to me: the Problem of Suffering. Our second debate was on November 11, 2010 at the conservative evangelical Gordon College. (The first debate was on my turf at Chapel Hill; the third was on neutral territory in NYC). Dinesh is obviously an unusually smart fellow, and he is fantastically quick on his feet — a real challenge for anyone who wants to disagree with him. He strongly thinks that the existence of suffering in the world should have no effect on a person’s faith in God. My view is the opposite. And so we have debated.

Here is the debate at Gordon College, for your viewing pleasure.

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Follow-up Apologies for the Post on Dinesh D’Souza
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  1. Avatar
    Matilda  August 2, 2014

    Why is there suffering? Because it has nothing to do with God, whoever God is or whatever form it takes or if it exists at all. God as described in the bible is a delusion and the bible is just a bunch of crap. The bible needs to be replaced with science. All this Biblical rationalization about suffering is just horse shit. I can’t stand it. The bible is the farthest thing from anything rational or sensible I have ever read. Why it has become the mainstay of religion in the 21st century is beyond me.

  2. Avatar
    Matilda  August 2, 2014

    Bart, you are so much smarter and more enlightened than this fool. He needs to go back to school and take biology for one psychology next. His definition of God is just stupid. Also, compassion is the key not “platitudes” as you say. Christians are really mean hearted people as evidenced by their dogma.

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    Matt7  August 2, 2014

    I’ve heard it argued that since pain is experienced only by individuals, not by groups, there is no more pain being experienced by a million people suffering than by one person suffering. So it doesn’t make sense to say that there is “a lot of ” suffering in the world. One problem I see with this argument is that it ultimately means that individual earthly lives don’t matter, but I haven’t seen any formal refutations. Has this one been refuted?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 5, 2014

      A “lot” of suffering can mean that a lot of people are suffering. No question about that. A child starves to death every twelve seconds. End of argument as far as I’m concerned! That’s a lot of people. (Plus, the people who make this kind of argument are never suffering SEVERELY. Of course not.)

      • Avatar
        prestonp  August 8, 2014

        It cost more to store it than to give it away. If each of us would do our part, no one would starve to death.

      • Avatar
        ndcoley1983  August 27, 2014

        Bart:.This is admittedly a side issue, but does the reality of starvation ever make you sick of how the press latches onto a single tragic story for weeks, if not months? In the time it takes the talking heads on Fox and CNN to year at each other, dozens of children will have starved to death.

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    mark  August 3, 2014

    First off, I find D’Souza annoying but his family-life issues are private and are 100% irrelevant to the debate topic, and bringing them up was a cheap shot on your part. I know it was in the news at the time, but it is still completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. I’m also not sure what relevance private citizen and mother of a special needs child Sarah Palin has and why you’d drag her into this- it’s mid 2014 not 2008. You seem to be very resentful and possibly hateful of people who don’t share your political views, as your hysterical, overblown and poorly researched criticisms of Bill O’Reilly and his book some months ago showed. If you had bothered to do your research, you would have known that O’Reilly isn’t actually all that conservative and is certainly not considered in general as a major conserative voice or thinker. His books are also known to be more in the “good reads, history-lite” category, no matter how much he bloviates about them or hypes them (it seems to have worked on you though). That’s his job cause he wants to sell them, duh. Also people out there (including Evangelicals) aren’t as naive and gullible as you portray them to be. There aren’t hordes of Evangelicals buying his book at Costco who are somehow confirmed in their faith by what a Catholic like O’Reilly has to say about Jesus. Many Evangelicals couldn’t care less about what any Catholic has to say and don’t particularly like the Catholic Church, to put it mildly. I was surprised at the time about how clueless you are about all these things, but I guess a more reasonable and nuanced approach towards him stood in the way of the narrative you were pushing. Go out and actually talk to some Evangelicals and conservatives next time.
    Btw, your new Great Courses DVD is really very well done, I’m streaming it right now and am on chapter 7 and find it very educational and informative. I’m very happy I got it, so thanks for creating it!

    • Avatar
      BrianWoolsey  June 28, 2015

      Are you the same “Mark” that used to troll The Atheist Experience television show?

  5. Avatar
    JudithW.Coyle  August 3, 2014

    This was an interesting debate. Your heartier laugh after the mouse example was the perfect response, I thought. Then your reading verses from the third chapter of Amos in response to how evil is to be measured without God’s character as a basis for good was unforgettable.

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    mary  August 3, 2014

    Bart, it seems as though debating (?) with Mr. D’Souza was an excersize in futility. He did not have a single well thought out point to make. His stories and examples did not hang together and what he said was confusing and contradictory. You were very patient with him, for his lack of understanding or failure to care about true suffering.

  7. Avatar
    gavriel  August 3, 2014

    This reminds me of your debate with Swinburne, and the conclusion is the same: They have good ideas about *God* and suffering, but they are hard to bring in line with the God of the Old Testament or with early apocalyptic Christianity. On the amusing side: It is interesting to see how he improves his arguments with the behaviour of a professional communicator with a well-modulated voice devoid of screaming.

  8. Avatar
    magpie  August 4, 2014

    I listened to the whole debate and at the end my impression is that D’Souza does some sophisticated “linguistification” around two points. First, we can never know the mind of God because his mind is so much superior to ours, and secondly that whatever he does is for our own good so we should just have faith that if we just believe strongly enough all will be well. And if we clap our hands hard enough, Tinkerbell will not die.

  9. David
    David  August 4, 2014

    Dinesh may learn a little about suffering as he now faces up to 2 years in prison on fraud charges, to which he pleaded guilty.

    • Avatar
      bonnie43uk  October 22, 2014

      I saw a clip of him recently on, would you believe Fox News, almost bragging about how he didn’t go to prison, his arrogance is stunning.

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    shakespeare66  August 4, 2014

    I found it ironic that, when speaking about morality in this debate, he referred to the “sin” that are a part of his troubles in the last two years. What gets me sometimes about those who have such a “handle” on morality can’t actually “handle” it in real life. I had a minister at the congregation I attended give a series of sermons on the fallout of adultery, and wouldn’t you know it, he did not take his own advice! Furthermore, the minister that followed him committed the same error after a long search for someone with integrity. As Shakespeare hath said, ” None knows well that leads men to this Hell.” I found D’Souza to be the best opponent that you have faced in all of your debates ( and I have watched a lot of them). I know you have a lot of respect for his cogent thinking, but I know there were chinks in the armor as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this debate and felt that you, Bart, gave a terrific concluding speech. It says a lot about who you are. I am so glad to be a part of this blog.

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    rrogers  August 4, 2014

    I’m not sure why Dinesh claimed that the notion of “forgiveness,” as found in Christianity, “does not appear in any other religion” (at 1:29:26). Forgiveness, as a concept and as almost any student of comparative religion could inform him, is promoted widely and dynamically throughout the history of most world religions and cultures. Perhaps he was given this line and hoped he could skate by rhetorically without doing any homework or without anyone noticing. But many religions and language communities have multiple words for a variety of ways of understanding forgiveness. (Minimal homework is easy these days, Dinesh, just check a wiki and drop that line: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgiveness.)

  12. Avatar
    Scott F  August 5, 2014

    When you accuse Mr D’Souza in the debate of intellectualizing suffering I had no idea how spot on you were. I later found out that he was one of those who excused the un-American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib.

    It occurred to me while researching mister D’Souza, that he was a useful “intellectual” to the Right Wing when they held power in the White House. Are there lessons here when we read another “intellectual” like Josephus?

  13. Avatar
    EricBrown  August 6, 2014

    I did not catch the actual proposition being debated (I heard a “topic”). I even went back and tried to discern a clear proposition at the beginning but could not find one.

    However, if Dinesh’s articulation of what he claims is the proposition under debate (such as around 1:05:30) is the actual matter under debate, then I believe he made the stronger case. I think he well defended the notion that Christian belief was not inconsistent with a God who allows suffering to exist. Perhaps you won if the Christian belief under examination is confined to a narrow straw man of fundamentalism, I don’t know.

    To be clear, I hold with your view of reality, not his. I just don’t think you successfully used arguments from theodicy to demonstrate material fallacies in (non-fundamentalist) Christian belief. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean I think you debated poorly; I have always found the theodicy argument weak (so maybe I brought a bias of my own in, not of belief but against the argument). I completely adopt your closing charge, by the way.

    I would point out to some of my fellow blog readers that any moral failings in Dinesh’s life are irrelevant to the debate and are ad hominem in this setting. Unless Dinesh is a famous scold and persecutor of “sinners” (I don’t know much about him or his work, but I gather he is more of an apologist than a firebrand), his personal failings do not even amount to hypocrisy. I think the more mature and “thorough” Christians in the world would agree that Christians are not — in fact cannot be — any less sinful than any other person.

  14. Avatar
    EBHinNC  August 10, 2014

    Thank you and Dinesh D’Souza for attempting — as James Weldon Johnson reported of the old country preacher: “On one particular Sunday, after taking a rather cryptic text, he took off his spectacles and laid them on the pulpit, closed [it] with a bang; and said, ‘Brothers and sisters, this morning I intend to explain the unexplainable, to find out the indefinable, to ponder over the imponderable, and to unscrew the inscrutable.’ ” http://www.blackpast.org/1923-james-weldon-johnson-our-democracy-and-ballot

    I agree with your complaint that Mr. D’Souza was intellectualizing the problem. You strongly remind me of Ivan’s powerful argument in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” the “Rebellion” chapter.

    I am an agnostic, too, staying inside the Christian religion because I think many of the teachings and scriptures are true at the mythic level, the figure of Jesus is compelling, and I hope also that there is truth in the mystical experiences people have. Your work and writings are invaluable in trying to sort out what is likely more factual in this tradition, and I send my very deep gratitude for your work, your gifts of communication, and your dedication to actually helping diminish the world’s suffering.

    Deep thanks,
    E.B. Hale

  15. Avatar
    dragonfly  August 10, 2014

    I thought this was a good debate with ideas on both sides that should make people think more about the problem of suffering. Having said that, I was disappointed that Dinesh tried to pass off some opinions as scientific facts. He seems to think that evolution can’t explain our idea of morality (not true), he seems to think evolution can’t explain people doing “evil” (wrong), or that no other species shows these kinds of traits (wrong again). He’s clearly not an evolutionary biologist. And what’s with minimizing the torment the mouse is going through? He seems to think the mouse doesn’t mind. Maybe he should watch a mouse being tortured by a cat one day. And maybe he should spend time with people who are really suffering.

  16. Avatar
    nichael  August 12, 2014

    I though this was a very good debate. D’Souza is a *very* smart guy and, while I disagree with virtually everything he said, it’s nice to see Dr Ehrman debate someone worthy of him.

    But I have to ask: Why do folks like this always seem to feel almost *obligated* to wander outside of their field of expertise? Virtually everything D’Souza had to say about scientific topics –plate tectonics, planetary geology, even the Anthropic Principle, etc– was nonsense that any competent upper-level undergrad in the relevant field could have ripped to shreds.

    Now, many times people who do this are simply charlatans, throwing Big Smart-sounding Words at a bewildered audience (e.g. the “Bayes’s Theorem and Jesus’ Resurrection” cranks). I have enough trust in D’Souza to believe that wasn’t what he was up to here. But still, you have to ask, what was he thinking?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 13, 2014

      My sense is that some really smart people read a few books about this that or the other thing and then think they have a handle on it sufficient to endorse the views publicly, without really understanding them. It works well, so long as they are not speaking to a crowd of experts.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  August 21, 2014

        I’m not sure how appropriate it is to even bring science into a debate like this. If God intervened with the plagues, the parting of the sea, making the sun stand still, and even raising Jesus from the dead, what has science to do with that?

  17. Avatar
    bradseggie  August 24, 2014

    One thing I’ve always wondered is this: “http://boingboing.net/2014/08/19/the-worst-sofa-in-the-history.htmlIf God is too intelligent and foreign for us to judge Him as evil, isn’t He also too intelligent and foreign to be regarded as good?”

    Transforming God into something unfathomable prevents us from judging Him negatively, but it also prevents us from being able to judge Him positively or to love Him.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  February 11, 2015

      Yes, I always found it illogical to credit God with all good things, and to credit Satan with all bad things. I mean, allowing Satan to do bad things in itself is not very nice thing to do. I feel like Satan is something Christians had to invent in order to explain why bad things happen to good people, but it really doesn’t work for me at a gut level.

  18. Avatar
    trueandreasonable  November 23, 2014

    I think the the problem of evil and suffering provides some evidence against Christianity. But I think there are pretty good philosophical responses as well.

    But with respect to how the bible explains suffering I think were you and I disagree on this is that I believe there can be different reasons for suffering in different scenarios. Sometimes God may allow/cause the suffering sometimes demons do. Sometimes people will suffer because they go against God sometimes they will suffer even though they are good.

    Nothing I say above leads to any logical impossibility. A mother can be a bad parent and lead to her child suffering by being too strict. A mother can also be a bad parent and lead to her child suffering, if they are too lax. I don’t think there is any reason to try to force a claim that holding both of these views is contradictory. It seems you disagree. You seem to say claim that if I say a mother can lead to a child’s suffering because they are too strict then I can’t also claim a mother can be lead to a child’s suffering by being too lax.

    Perhaps the students at Rutgers didn’t think there was a problem of suffering in the bible – not because they didn’t believe there was suffering, but because they didn’t think it caused a problem for the bible.

  19. Avatar
    webattorney  February 11, 2015

    I heard just the closing remarks section. Your closing remark was effective, but the other speaker’s remarks that the Christianity’s concept of forgiveness is unique, and that New Testament is concealed in the Old Testament are tangential issues and do not directly address the issue. I mean if you have a good voice, you can get away with saying almost anything.

  20. Avatar
    Vidar  May 17, 2015

    I don’t think cats torture. Cats need to weaken their prey for their own safety as cats Birds have sharp beaks, rats have sharp teeth. The “playing” with the prey is to weaken the prey until risk is minimized. To the extent “fun” has anything to do with it, nature has selected for it so the cat will survive.

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