Director, Ohio Division, American Atheists
Upon being asked by the producer of “Talk From The Heart” to debate John Koster on a “Christian radio station” in Detroit, I accepted the offer with considerable trepidation. I and other Atheist-activist friends have had some terrible experiences with such stations, and it is generally of questionable wisdom for an Atheist to accept such an invitation. The problem usually derives from the fact that a hostile host can completely hamstring even the best Atheist debaters by the simple tactic of asking a why-haven’t-you-stopped-beating-your-dog? question, breaking for a commercial, then coming back with a totally different question given to their opponents! It can often be physically impossible to answer any charges or develop any coherent arguments whatsoever. The present show, however, was a notable exception to the rule. Mr. Kresta was quite fair – so much so that he annoyed some of the Christians.
Although I had heard of Mr. Koster’s book when I was asked to debate him, I had never seen a copy of it. So I accepted the invitation with the proviso that I would be sent a copy before-hand. The Atheist Syndrome arrived at suppertime only one night before the debate! Since I had to work at my office during the morning of the program, I had only enough time to read Koster’s introductory material and his chapters assassinating Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley. The thesis of Koster’s dreadful book is that these and other founders of modern Atheism were mentally ill: having rejected their fathers because of unhappy childhoods, they then went on to reject their “heavenly father” as well! The book is a lengthy extension of the ad hominem fallacy. Unable to refute the arguments and evidence of these giants of intellectual history, Koster attacks the men themselves. In a number of my explanatory notes I criticize particular parts of the book. Unfortunately, a full explanation of what is wrong with the book would require a tome two to three times the length of the book: it takes little time to drop manure on the carpet; it takes quite a bit longer to haul it away, and removing the stain can take much longer! About the nicest thing I can say about Koster as an author is that his scholarship is sloppy.
When the phone rang on November 14 and it was time to debate, I fully expected to be discuss a question based on Koster’s book – something like “Are Atheists mentally ill?” I was most astonished to hear that the actual topic would be “Does god exist?” All the strategy I had planned for the debate was suddenly useless, and it was necessary to develop a plan during commercial breaks!
The obvious thing to keep in mind when debating supernaturalists is to make them come up with evidence (rather, make them try to come up with evidence) to support their particular delusion. Usually they will try to make the unbeliever prove the negative: “Can you prove to me my god does not exist?” It is often difficult to make it clear why the burden of proof is on the person who alleges the existence of something. A moment’s reflection, however, makes it clear why this must be true.
A virtual infinitude of existence claims is possible, and we could not even attempt to disprove them all. If Atheists were required to disprove the existence of Jehovah, then by the same “logic” Christians would have to disprove the existence of Jupiter, Wotan, Isis, Aphrodite, Old Man Coyote, etc. Life would rapidly become gridlocked for anyone trying to refute the endless stream of delusional claims emanating from the tumid brains of the credulous and the foolish. And so it is that the burden of proof falls on the person who alleges the existence of something. If you believe in the Easter Bunny, you have to produce the evidence.
Throughout the debate, I tried to keep Koster on the problem of proving his god. In fact, however, I couldn’t even get him to define his god. On several occasions he succeeded in luring me out onto obscure topics of no obvious relevance to the question “Does god exist?” Fortunately, it was not too difficult to keep listeners aware of the fact that Koster was not proving his god, and that these sallies into somewhat surreal subjects were acts of desperation. All-in-all, I feel the debate was very successful. It was obvious even to Christian callers that Koster had been ineffectual and that the existence of the Christian god remained unproved.
I wish to express my gratitude to John Sikos, the Director of the Michigan Division of American Atheists, for the many hours he spent in transcribing the debate from a less-than-pleasant-sounding cassette tape recording. There are a few places where the hubbub on the tape is so great that it is impossible to reconstruct what was said. In all cases, however, these lapses involve only several seconds at a time, and we feel that the following transcript contains all the really important words spoken, and is a faithful representation of what actually was said. I must acknowledge also that John’s suggestions for footnotes were often right on the mark, and a number of notes represent only slightly altered versions of notes written by him. Responsibility for the content of all notes, of course, resides with me alone.