A much-anticipated debate happened just a few days ago on the University of Missouri St. Louis campus. The debate between a thesis and an atheist brought in a very captive audience of over 100 people both through zoom and in-person. Students from both the campuses of the University of Missouri St. Louis and St. Louis University took part in both watching and asking questions in this debate presented by the Secular Student Alliance and the Philosophers’ Forum of UMSL.
Picture of the debaters: on the left, Fr. Theodore Vitali, on the right, Dr. James Croft
Photo by: Kyle Stallings
The speakers in this debate were Dr. James Croft, who argued in support of atheists, and Fr. Theodore Vitali who argued in favor of the theist side. They both gave very compelling cases for their sides in a very efficiently structured debate. The speakers both got 10 minutes for an opening statement, then they moved on to questions that were prepared. The speakers took turns being the first to give a three-minute answer and whoever answered first gave a one-minute rebuttal. After a brief intermission, the speakers moved on to answering questions that were asked by the audience. Then to wrap up the debate, both speakers gave some closing remarks.
With the win of a coin toss, Fr. Theodore Vitali gave his opening remarks first. His remarks went along the lines of, “I’m obviously a believer and I am one because I simply choose to.” He grew up in the faith. Religion and culture create the narrative he has and the narrative makes sense until you question it. Christianity came into question in the 60s after the second world war. Religion was seen as a cult so he began to question it. This lead to a crisis in his beliefs. So he chooses to believe in Christ, not in God, not in theory, just in Christ. He believes if he was not a Christian he would be an atheist like the opposing speaker, Dr. James Croft.
This lead to Dr. James Croft’s opening statement which clued the audience into his upbringing and how he viewed the world. Dr. Croft moved to St. Louis in 2014 and joined a group for radical justice after he completed his apprenticeship. He saw all the injustice in the world and thought that “no God would let this happen” therefore he concluded that there must be no God. He believes that a moral God does not exist and that moral ideas are shaped by upbringing and the culture that surrounds us. He believes that having no God holds human beings responsible for their actions. He says that “scripture is filled with moral code that most followers eventually give up. Many times the morally wrong goes unpunished and those who do right get punished in these scriptures.” Everything points to a world where there is no God. He finished his remarks with that insight and the debate moved into the question portion with the prepared questions.
The first question asked was probably an expected one and Dr. James Croft was the first one to answer this question.
Why do you believe the other speaker is wrong?
Dr. Croft’s response was very well thought out. He pointed out that both Fr. Vitali and himself have had different experiences and their faith or lack thereof is based upon that and how they have responded to those experiences. In response to his experiences, he feels to question that “If God wants a relationship why is he mysterious?” and he feels that we always have the option of accepting the simple evidence there is no God, but that is a much less accepted view.
Fr. Vitali then gave his response to the same question. He did not disagree with what Dr. Croft said, which tended to happen quite often in this debate, both of them agreeing with the other. Fr. Vitali believes that “Proper religion embraces the natural state of order.” While people feel religion is inconsistent in approaching the natural order, he thinks there is something more to it. “The elements of absurdity in life can not be attained without the help of God.” He also hopes there is a resolution and hopes there is a final justice.
Dr. Croft had a chance to give a rebuttal on this question. He agrees that we can not give people hope for final restitution without God, but he feels that is what all of life is. “We are not promised a happy ending. That is not a hopeless philosophy just a philosophy and we are responsible for making it so.”
Another question that was much anticipated, as it was a philosophical debate, was:
How has philosophy played a role in your beliefs?
Fr. Vitali had the first crack at an answer to this question. He answered that philosophy helped him be disciplined so that he can bring logic into religion. He made it a point of clarifying that “I do not believe because of philosophy, but philosophy helps with his beliefs.”
Dr. Croft then gave his response. He loves philosophy and thinks it is a good idea to challenge the beliefs you have or they will not evolve. He thinks that philosophy also helps you clarify and sharpen those ideas you have making you a more forceful thinker.
In a shocking turn of events, Fr. Vitali had no rebuttal and thought that Dr. Croft gave a compelling case.
After a brief intermission filled with snacks and drinks, the debate moved fairly quickly to the audience Q&A section. However, there were only a few questions asked as we were running out of time. One of the questions asked put almost everyone on the edge of their seats awaiting Dr. Croft’s response.
How do you respond to Pascal’s wager?
Pascal’s wager for those of you who are not students of philosophy is basically that human beings wager with their lives that God either exists or does not and that if gambling, why not take the safer option that God exists, because if they are right, they go to heaven, and if they are wrong, they are no better or worse off.
Dr. Croft’s answer was very simple and to the point. He believes that if there is a God, He is smarter than that. “If God truly exists he needs more than a belief through Pascal’s wager.”
After a few more questions from the audience Fr. Theodore Vitali and Dr. James Croft gave their closing statements. They both made them very brief.
Dr. Croft went first by saying, “What this discussion clarifies is a distinction between two versions of humanism, a catholic version, and a non-theist version. I don’t think there is life after this life. Humanism is what it is, leaves nothing to interpretation. I believe that one day we all will be nothing. That means that this life matters more than ever because this is all we have.”
Fr. Vitali then gave his closing statement saying, “I take nothing for granted and I have loved fully. I hope that time does not annihilate, and that hope is sustained. I hope the people in my life are not nothing and that I am not nothing.” He believes the final judge is how well you have loved, not what you have done.