Reply to Butler, Ventrella, and Fields (1996)

Michael Martin



On the evening of October 26, 1994 a debate on the existence of God was scheduled between the late Greg Bahnsen and me at Rhodes College. This debate was canceled when SCCCS and I could not agree on whether the debate was to be taped and the tapes sold commercially. In place of the debate Bahnsen gave a lecture at Rhodes College that night. In order to explain my position I asked Marty Fields, the debate organizer, to read the following prepared statement to audience before Bahnsen spoke.

To Be Read Before Dr. Bahnsen Speaks on Oct. 26, 1994

I will not be participating in the debate at Rhodes College that was scheduled for this evening. I want you, the audience, to know the reason why I am not here.

Last spring Mr. Marty Fields arranged for a debate on the existence of God between Dr. Bahnsen and me to be held on October 26. In May I received a letter from Mr. Fields confirming the details. From May to early October I looked forward to the opportunity of appearing on the platform with Dr. Bahnsen and prepared long and hard for this debate. During this period I talked to Mr. Fields on the telephone several times about the debate format. At no time was anything ever said or implied, either in writing or in our telephone conversations, about the debate being recorded in any way. It was only in early October, when I telephoned Mr. Field about my travel arrangements to Memphis, that I was informed that the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, Dr. Bahnsen's sponsoring organization, had placed a condition on Dr. Bahnsen's own appearance. The condition was that Dr. Bahnsen would only participate in the debate if I signed a release form giving permission to tape the debate for later sale. After due consideration I informed Mr. Fields that this condition was unacceptable to me. My reason was clear and principled: As an atheist I did not want my participation in any debate to contribute to the financial support of a religious organization. Soon after I was contacted by a representative of the Southern California Center for Christian Studies who proposed that this organization and I would both have rights to tape the debate and sell it. Although this would have made it possible for an atheist group as well as Dr. Bahnsen's Center to profit from the debate, I rejected the proposal: my participation in the debate would still financially support a religious organization.

On October 13 I received a FAX from a representative of the Southern California Center for Christian Studies delivering an ultimatum: for the debate to proceed I must sign a release form no later than noon of October 14. A reply was Faxed back to the Center saying that although I would not sign their form I would be happy to participate in the debate so long as it was not taped and requesting that an agreement be signed to this effect.

The Southern California Center for Christian Studies and I seemed to have reached an impasse, but matters did not stop there. The response of the Southern California Center for Christian Studies to my principled objection to its profiting from my participation in the debate was to issue a press release on October 17 accusing me of cowardliness. To a former Marine, the suggestion that his conduct is cowardly is insulting in any context. But in the present context, where I have repeatedly expressed my willingness to debate, the accusation is outrageous and the press release itself defamatory.

The reason why I was interested in debating Dr. Bahnsen in the first place is that I take his position on God very seriously. I am quite willing to come to Rhodes College to give my views about the problems involved in Dr. Bahnsen's defense of Christianity. Of course, my offer to debate Dr. Bahnsen still stands. I was willing, am willing and will continue to be willing to debate Dr. Bahnsen so long as the debate is not taped.

I hope this statement lays to rest once and for all any lingering suspicions that I am afraid to engage in serious public debate with Dr. Bahnsen.

Michael Martin

I have only recently learned that Mr. Fields chose not to honor my request to read my prepared statement. That is regrettable for despite the clear and principled reasons for declining to debate that I expressed to SCCCS, confusions, distortions, and misinformation concerning my motives continue to be circulated. In particular, Michael Butler, Jeffrey Ventrella, and Marty Fields have commented on these matters on the Internet. I hope in this note to clear up some of the issues.

General Comments

The first thing to stress is that what happened regarding the cancellation of the debate should be described correctly. This has often not been done. In fact, the debate was canceled by mutual consent because of a disagreement that could not be reconciled. However, as the situation is usually described, I pulled out of the debate because I refused to participate if it was taped and I therefore am made the guilty party and put on the defense. But what is forgotten --although it should be clear from the above statement-- is that I was quite willing to debate provided the debate was not taped and that Bahnsen is the one who would not proceed under these conditions. It is interesting that no one representing SCCCS or the sponsoring organization describes the situation as Bahnsen pulling out of the debate although this account is just as accurate as the description of my pulling out. Is this apparent asymmetry because Bahnsen "showed up" at the scheduled time? But he showed up to give a lecture--not to debate. I was also willing to give a lecture at the scheduled time but I was not invited to do so.

Michael Butler

The bulk of Mr. Butler's discussion published on the Internet has to do with important philosophical matters which I will comment upon in a separate paper. However, he has also chosen to comment on my motives, and other matters unrelated to the substantive philosophical issues of the scheduled debate.

Mr. Bulter says: "According to Mr. Lowder, Dr. Martin describes his experience with SCCCS as 'one of the most unpleasant in his life.' What would he have thought had he shown up for the debate? In any case, if this experience was indeed one of the most unpleasant of his life we must conclude that life must be good at his tax-payer-supported post at Boston University." What are we make of these comments?

1. Butler's comment about Boston University suggests that he believes it is public institution. However, it is a private university.

2. The relevance of Bulter's comments about my having a good life at Boston University is unclear. What is relevant is that despite over thirty years of rigorous intellectual challenges, lively exchanges, and spirited controversies at Boston University and elsewhere in the secular world of academia--all of which I enjoyed and relished-- my life has been free of defamation and character assassination. It is significant that the only time in those years that I made contact with the world of Christian intellectuals my character was defamed.

3. Does Butler assume that I did not show up for the debate whereas Bahnsen did? As I have already mentioned, the debate was canceled by mutual consent. To repeat: Bahnsen showed up to give a lecture at the time of the scheduled debate-- not to debate. I was not invited to give a lecture at that time.

4. Butler assumes by his rhetorical question that had I participated in the debate I would have had an even more unpleasant experience. Presumably this is because he is sure of the outcome. (How can he be so sure given my recent debate on the Internet with John Frame?) But the outcome of the debate is really irrelevant to my complaint. Having one's views harshly criticized is standard practice in academia. My intellectual views are no exception. Thus, I am quite used to harsh critics and tough rebuttals. Butler does not seem to understand the difference between having one's view harshly evaluated in print or in a debate and having one's character defamed.

Butler also writes: "Dr. Martin has also stated that the event organizer, Marty Fields, was 'mortified by SCCCS's action and expressed amazement that Christians could act in such an un-Christian way.' (The action being referred to is a press release that SCCCS sent out after the debate was aborted charging Dr. Martin with having inconsistent and dubious reasons for pulling out.) Skeptical that Rev. Fields made such a remark, I spoke with him shortly after I read this charge and he promptly assured me that he never made such a remark to Dr. Martin or anybody else. He did think the press release was 'harsh at points,' but this is a far cry from describing it as un-Christian."

In the sequel I will comment on Mr. Fields' memory which I believe is far from accurate. However, it is important to notice what is distorted and what is assumed by Mr. Butler's comments.

1. My claim was that Mr. Field's expressed mortification over the unChristian behavior of SCCCS in accusing me of cowardliness without adequate grounds. It surely is one thing to accuse someone of dubious reasons and being inconsistent and quite another thing to cast aspersion on someone's character. It is significant that Mr. Butler neglects this crucial point in the text.

2. It is also important to note that Mr. Butler apparently accepts completely and uncritically what Mr. Fields says and rejects my statement on this basis. Is this because Fields is a minister and I am an atheist? Does he suppose that Fields could not be mistaken in his memory claims and that I must be lying? Whatever the reason the biases of Mr. Butler are plain.

Butler also writes: "Before turning to more substantive issues let me reiterate that SCCCS's intention in defending ourselves and Dr. Bahnsen's reputation against these personal charges is not to embarrass these three men [Stein, Tabash, Martin]. We would have been happy to have addressed these matters in private and thereby obviate the need to air these matters publicly." Again what are we to make of this statement?

1. SCCCS chose to accuse me of cowardliness in a public press release. I have made no public personal charges against Bahnsen's reputation. Yet ironically I am rebuked for not choosing to keep things private.

2. Unfortunately, the public accusation of my cowardliness continues even as Butler claims no desire to embarrass me and to keep things private. In a footnote Butler writes: "Dr. Martin is a man who publishes books attacking the existence of God and the Christian faith and yet refuses to defend his views in a recorded verbal exchange. This is cowardly and should be labeled so." Am I "embarrassed" by this footnote? Of course not. I am outraged as anyone would be whose character is assassinated. It is an interesting question why this statement was relegated to a footnote. Is Butler ashamed to put this in the text so as to call attention to it? Does he worry that the charge of being unChristian in making this claim will be perceived as accurate?

Moreover, why is a refusal to engage in recorded debate a sure sign of being a coward when I stated principled reasons for my refusal, when I offered to debate in front of hundreds of people so long as it was not taped, when I debated John Frame on the Internet which has a potential readership of thousands, when I answered Bulter's critique of TANG and defense of TAG on the Internet, when I published replies to my critics who have challenged me in print, and when I defended by views in front of hostile audiences? For example, I have answered Doug Jones, a Bahnsen supporter, in the pages of Antithesis. (See Michael Martin, "Is A Non-Christian Worldview Futile?" Antithesis, Vol. II, July/August, 1991, pp. 44 -46.) I have answered Stephen Parrish's review of my book The Case Against Christianity in Christian Research Journal. (See Michael Martin "The Case Against Christianity Revisited," Christian Research Journal, 17, Fall, 1994, 49 -50.) I have answered Martin Bell's long review of Atheism in Religious Studies (See Michael Martin, "Response to Bell," Religious Studies, 29, 1993, pp. 555-558.) I reply to David John Hillary's critique of TANG in a forthcoming issue of The New Zealand Rationalist and Humanist (See Michael Martin, "TANG Defended", The New Zealand Rationalist and Humanist, forthcoming, 1996." I defended my view that the concept of God is inconsistent at a meeting of The Society of Christian Philosophers. I have upheld my thesis that the Resurrection did not occur at The St. Socrates Society, a discussion group connected with the Catholic institution of Boston College. On another occasion I defend my thesis that the free will defense to the problem of evil is problematic to the St. Socrates Society. One can only wonder what Butler's definition of being a coward is.

Jeffrey Ventrella

The letter from Ventrella was published on the Internet by SCCCS without much comment except to point out that I never answered it. Before I do answer it readers should be aware of its background. Soon after Oct. 26, 1994 I received a phone call from a person I did not know asking me how the debate had gone. (I do not recall the point of origin of the call or if the caller gave his name. ) Thinking this was someone genuinely interested in the facts I explained my decision not to debate. It soon became clear that this was not a neutral caller but someone who wanted to challenge my motives. When it became apparent to me from his manner and attitude that the caller knew perfectly well that the debate had been canceled and was simply pretending to be ignorant of the cancellation, I terminated the conversation as quickly as I could.

Several days later I received a letter from Mr. Ventrella. This letter bore the letterhead of the law firm of Elam and Burk, Key Financial Center of Boise. I suspected it was from the caller previously mentioned since the arguments and manner of the writer were very similar to those of the caller. However, the letter puzzled me. Why was it written on official legal stationary? Did the firm of Elam and Burk know that Mr. Ventrella was using its official stationary in this way? Did it approve of this use? Was the use of the official stationary of a law firm a subtle way of attempting to intimidate me? What was the connection between Mr. Ventrella and SCCCS? Was he one of its agents or simply an individual acting on his own behest? When I read his letter carefully I was not impressed by its arguments and dismissed it from my mind. I am surprised to see that this letter has now appeared on the Internet and apparently constitutes part of the official reply of SCCCS. Its appearance here again raises some of the questions previously mentioned.

The general thrust of Ventrella's letter is to question my sincerity by arguing: (1) my publishing a reply in Christian Research Journal is inconsistent with my reasons for not participating in the debate with Bahnsen; (2) mutual distribution rights of the taped debate should have satisfied my scruples against financially aiding SCCCS; (3) given the way society is structured financially aiding religious organizations is unavoidable; (4) a winning performance in the debate by me would have induced SCCCS not to sell the taped debate.

1. As far as I can see, my publication in the Christian Research Journal does not financially aid any religious organization. Surely this journal would have been sold whether I had replied in it or not. Of course, the situation is completely different in the case of the taped debate. But for my participation there would not be a debate and no tapes could be made or sold.

2. Mutual distribution rights to the tape would still have financially aided the Southern California Center for Christian Studies since SCCCS could still have sold the tape. This is what I wanted to avoid.

3. Of course, it may well be the case that I unwittingly aid religious organizations financially in my commercial dealings. However, insofar as I found this to be the case I would try to change my practice. This might be difficult to do given the widespread Christian influence in the society. However, there is an obvious difference in not giving financial aid to SCCCS--aid that is clear, direct and that could be easily avoided--and, say, not purchasing my groceries at stores that might indirectly support religious causes. I do have to buy groceries and do not have to support SCCCS.

4. That a win by me in the debate would somehow induce SCCCS not to sell the tape of the debate is by no means certain. Who is considered to have "won" a debate is to a large extent a matter of opinion and is subject to conflicting interpretations. It is difficult even for a professional philosopher, let alone the average theist or atheist (a person with no philosophical training) who buys tapes of debates to separate effective rhetoric from philosophical substance. Thus, one cannot rule out the possibility that even if X objectively wins a debate over Y the followers of Y will not recognize the fact and a tape of the debate will still sell well among Y's supporters. For example, in my judgment, in the Smith-Bahnsen radio debate the atheist George Smith had the edge over Bahnsen if one takes into account only philosophical substance. Yet this tape is still sold by Christian organizations.

The problem of not separating rhetoric from philosophical substance is illustrated in a footnote in Ventrella's letter. He assumes that atheism is committed to materialism and that in an atheistic worldview a human being is "a mere bag of chemicals." Although Ventrella's statement may be good rhetoric it is bad philosophy since atheism does not presuppose materialism. Yet Ventrella seems to be under the impression that he has made a decisive philosophical point.

Marty Fields

In some respects Fields' account of the events preceding the cancellation of the debate is accurate and in some respects it is not. I hasten to add that I do not believe that Fields is lying, only that his memory is faulty and selective. Before I comment on these inaccuracies I want to say a few words about the decisions of the sponsoring organization not to read my prepared statement and to have Bahnsen lecture on the day of the scheduled debate.

I believe that the decision not to read my statement before Bahnsen's lecture was a serious breach of trust. Fields gave me every reason to suppose that it would be read and even requested that I fax him a signed copy of my statement. At the very least, Fields should have explained this decision to me and not let me find out twenty months later on the Internet. Regrettably, Fields did not do what simple courtesy required.

In my last conversation with Fields I expressed dismay that Bahnsen was going to give a lecture on Oct. 26, 1994 at Rhodes College. I predicted that it would be perceived as the sponsoring organization condoning the defamatory claims of the SCCCS press release and that Bahnsen would be credited for "showing up" for the debate whereas I would be seen as having pulled out. Fields discounted my predictions but they seem to have been correct. To his credit, Field did offer to invite me to give a lecture at Rhodes College at some unspecified future date. I agreed to come but I never heard from Fields again. However, even if I had lectured there on another occasion, the damage would have already been done.

The important discrepancies in Fields' account, as I see them, are as follows:

I. Fields says that he really does not understand why I did not participate in the debate. (Does he understand why Bahnsen would not participate unless the debate was taped?) But my reason was clearly expressed in the statement that I requested to be read but was not. He says that my reasons shifted. No, they crystallized. I started off considering the possibility of humanistic organizations sharing the profits obtained by selling the taped debate. Realizing that this policy would still make money for a Christian organization, I decided against it. The possibility of distributing the tapes free of charge was briefly broached but it was never considered as seriously as Fields seems to suggest. Fields and I were both convinced that SCCCS wanted to make money from the sale of the tape and would not agree to a debate under conditions of free distribution. Fields has suggested that I gave another reason. He has claimed that I argued that taping would "undermine the academic sensibilities of such an event" and rejected taping on these grounds. Where Fields is getting this idea from I cannot imagine. I don't even understand what this reason amounts to and would certainly not have said anything like this. (A similar reason is mistakenly attributed to me in the SCCCS press release. Perhaps Fields got this idea from the press release and inadvertently attributed it to me.)

2. Fields makes it seem that he was assuming all along that SCCCS would require the debate to be taped and that I would know about this requirement. Of course, I knew that some of Bahnsen's debates were on tape but I had no reason to think that being taped was a requirement for participation in a debate. When Fields informed me of this requirement three weeks before the scheduled debate he seemed as surprised as I was and implied that he had just been informed about this requirement.

3. Fields now denies that he ever stated that SCCCS's attribution of cowardliness to me was unChristian. He now claims that the SCCCS was just being very harsh. This denial astonishes me. It was such a remarkable statement that it is vividly etched in my memory. I respectfully suggest that Mr. Fields has forgotten making this statement. He seemed extremely upset at the time and perhaps was not fully aware of everything he was saying.


I hope that the above statement finally clears up the confusions and misinformation.

"Reply to Butler, Ventrella, and Fields" is copyright © 1996 by Michael Martin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael Martin. All rights reserved.