Review of The Motion's debate on whether religion is a harm or good to society

I had the opportunity to attend a debate held by The Motion in New York on Wednesday, here's my commentary about the round. I am sorry the recording is not great quality, but I made it as good as I could! Next time I'll get closer to the speakers. 

The Motion is an amazing community organizaztion that is doing the hard and important work of providing a place and some space for people to practice the hard art of deliberation, argument, and oral persuasion. This is something that even universities have trouble providing. The Motion has done an excellent job of offering a great place in which to do this important work. I already look forward to the next one. 

Below is my overall audio commentary for the debate if you care to listen to that as well. Here are my thoughts:

First Speaker for Proposition

The speaker set up a comparative case, which is an interesting way to frame this debate. The metaphor that kept appearing throughout the debate – and in the meta-commentary of the moderator – was that this was like a “trial.” Was religion guilty or not-guilty of . . .something. But the first speaker’s comments indicate another path to evaluating the debate. He argues that religion has been used to justify the greatest evils perpetuated by people against people. The second half of his speech is used to argue that any good that religion accomplishes in the world is done better by secular organizations.

It’s a good strategy to indict and then try to head-off the argument, “Well yes but they do such good” with some alternative. The only thing missing here was the case-study. A case study helps the audience ground your argument with some specific story from the world. For example, the speaker could make the argument that secular organizations to it better, then provide a story about a secular organization that came in and served a community better than the religious organization that had been there. Also, the power of narrative can play into things here: A story about someone who was failed by a religious organization that tried to help and one about a secular organization would have gone a long way.


First Speaker for Opposition

After the set up we get from the previous speaker, this speaker oddly chose to ignore nearly everything that was said and discuss a very specific and detailed rubric for the audience to determine a winner in the debate. He narrowed the entire decision to the question of whether or not religion is beneficial to the oppressed, and warned the audience not to decide based on an atrocity scorecard. I do think this second point is quite good, but should have been the opening line of this speech. Instead, the speaker quickly departed from this line of reasoning into a very detailed list of instructions to the audience of what to do and what not to do when deciding the debate.

In debating, one of the most important tasks you have as a speaker is what I call disruption. You need to create some static in the clarity of the picture of the world provided by the other side. They are trying to tell a story about how things are, and you need to raise doubt about that story’s coherence or realism. Better yet is if you can simply provide opportunities for the audience to raise those issues on their own. In the first case, it depends on your credibility as a speaker; in the second case it does not – the audience becomes a co-author in the story you are telling and is less likely to disagree with what they have come up with on their own.

There were several opportunities to disrupt the tale of the proposition. Most notably is the assumption that using religion as a justification for atrocity makes religion atrocious. This undermines the first half of what proposition offered. Secondly, it should be mentioned that if secular organizations do such a good job, where are the examples of them outshining religious ones?

Instead, the speaker makes only one response – that religion is a catalyst for secular aid work. This has the unfortunate effect of allowing the audience to read that religion, even at its best, is merely an aid or motive to the actual good done in the world by secular groups. The argument should be something along the lines that a world with flawed religion is a much better world than one with no religion at all. The argument of inspiration that is offered precludes this position from being established.

The speaker ends with some examples of times religion helped oppressed people. But the speaker has never explained why the debate should be limited to this very small realm. This is something I see quite a bit in debates where the speaker mistakes an example for a paradigm. The example is only an instance that needs to be placed into a larger narrative. In this case, the narrative was outshined by the possibilities of the example. Religion didn’t just help the oppressed people but became a symbol for who they were (identity) and what they could accomplish (agency).


Second Speaker – Proposition Side

The third speaker overall, second for the proposition, did a couple of stylistic things that at first glance don’t seem important, but when engaging in debate are incredibly powerful tools that help the audience move toward your point of view.

The first is a powerful introduction – the speaker started off with a quote that reoriented the debate like a breeze on a hot day. Always consider the start of a debate speech to be a chance to cleanse the intellectual palate so the audience can appreciate the flavors of what you are bringing to the debate.

Secondly he used the rhetorical form of repetition, noted for its power in influencing minds by some of the earliest Greek thinkers on rhetoric. His repetition of “think about” and the concern creates a buffet of reasons the audience can choose to align with for this side of the motion. Repetition has the power of a cadence – we get swept up in it as it dissolves our resistance to the ideas.

This speech had good information too – about the happiest countries in the world and the UN report on religious extremist violence – but this information was never slotted into a story, it was just handed to us, like a flyer as we walk by (and we all know how well that works).

There was a confusing (at least for me) argument at the end about how communism is an ideology while atheism is not. I think that both of these concepts (communism and atheism) are so vast that there’s plenty of room for both to be an ideology or not. What the argument needs to do is contextualize both in the terms of “good of society.” For example, I might say “There’s plenty of space for both atheism and communism to do good and harm, but let’s look at what happens when we incorporate both into society as ideology.” This story then can paint a picture for the audience of either one, and show that the harms of communism are not necessarily the harms of atheism.

Second Speaker for the opposition

What a great command of great thinkers and quotes this speaker had. The style he chose to present his arguments really helped their side a lot. This speaker, much more than any other, used the enthymeme, an argument type described by Aristotle as one that leaves the completion of the thought up to the audience. For example, when directly responding to the arguments about slavery, the speaker spoke about John Brown and the Third Great Awakening. He never said, “So therefore, we see two historical examples of religion adjusting society toward the good.” This doesn’t need to be said; it’s better if the audience makes the conclusion themselves. Some think of the enthymeme as an argument that unwittingly recruits the audience as a co-conspirator, making it very unlikely they will disagree with arguments that they have unwittingly helped construct.

The speaker pointed out the only error in his argument himself – he quoted Hayek, that without theory, facts are silent. I think that the speaker needed a grand narrative of the history of religion in social justice radicalism, particularly in the United States (as that was where most of his powerful examples originated). A narrative frame can be a theory – an approach to understanding why facts matter. Facts are not reasons on their own. Without a frame, they spin like tops, going wherever their own energy takes them and falling when we least expect it. This lack of narrative framing is a small issue to pick on due to the compelling delivery of the speaker, which was appreciated by everyone in the audience, no matter their opinion on the motion.

The Crossfire

The crossfire was not as informative as I expected it to be as both sides played a very cautious game with the questions and answers. There are a couple of good opportunities that came up in the crossfire that were missed because of the cautious game that everyone played.

First for proposition – in the struggle to distance atheism from communism, a lot is lost that is beneficial for atheism if you admit that it has a lot of flaws. Anything can become a dangerous tool of oppression. The difference is that secularism has built-in critical tools to check back this overzealous use of it as a weapon. Religion encourages this use. If this had been capitalized upon, it would sway the debate toward their side pretty easily. But I think that these debaters were interested in a defensive game. The problem is that you cannot debate to “not lose.” If you do, you won’t win. Persuasion must be high energy and it must be assertive. People don’t get energized to endorse you if there’s nothing wrong with what you are saying. They get energized when you provide vision and articulate reasons why you are right.

For opposition – The continual return to the strange rubric of “only in cases of oppression” was a waste of time. This is irrelevant to how the audience is thinking about the debate. They are interested in a large judgement. You can win that religion is helpful to the oppressed and still have the audience vote against you. They probably agree with this statement, but it doesn’t help them find reasons to support the side of the motion you are representing. There was a mention of Nietzsche during crossfire, which has the potential to be another winning approach. Religion helps us deal with uncertainty by forcing us to continuously struggle with faith. Nietzsche believed that God was dead, but this meant that values have to be derived from our own selves. The struggle with faith is one of these places. Values dictated from on high are no longer going to do it. Religion provides practice in faith which allows people to wrangle with uncertainty in life in better ways than secularism can provide.

More robust questioning would be good, ways to get the other side to explain their position a bit more would help the audience.

The Final Statements  

Proposition –

Great to speak to the idea of a God who is with us in all situations. Unfortunately, this wasn’t laid out against all the claims of the other side because of the strange obsession with proving to us the uncontroversial point that religion helps those who are oppressed improve their life.

If a point does not seem controversial, it probably isn’t a good thing to talk about in a debate.


Oppositionn First Closing Speaker

This speech started off with some strange claims about how legally people had to be religious which explains why religion stimulated many discoveries. This strange point was contrasted with a better point near the end which was the metric of taking action – we must have a perspective that allows us to act in the face of oppression. Now the speaker should add the reasons why religion discourages this sort of action.


Opposition Second Closing Speaker

I think this speech tried to do too much. As a closing speech it should be a birds-eye view of the issues. There was some of that closer to the end of the speech where the speaker discussed the “cosmopolitan context” of secularism along with materiality. Bringing this forward as the thesis of the last speech, the speaker could have provided a nice rubic to judge the role of religion in society. If a cosmopolitan context cannot exist with religion then a choice must be made. But if they can coexist, the discussion is whether one dilutes the other. Might be best to assume a cosmopolitan order and speak as if that was a given. The final point should be that religion adds necessary value to cosmopolitanism that it cannot do without.

Proposition Second Closing Speaker

This speech was quite scattershot and had a lot of powerful personal narratives that should have been in the first speech he delivered. These stories feel like extra information when they are provided at the end. I think they are very powerful framing devices to help ask a central question that proposition wants the audience to think about: Would such violent incidents happen if people had no access to a supernatural order of things? If they were not the instruments of enforcement of a higher spiritual law?

As I said above, I think the idea that atheism is not an ideology is a less powerful argument than saying atheism is an ideology just like religion except for the fact that it as ethical and reasonable checks to it becoming a hegemonic force like religion. Rationality and reason can be just as terrible as Christianity in the wrong hands, but at least secularist thinking has some ways to make sure this doesn’t happen. Religion encourages this result.