Scholars debate Christianity at forum

By NATHANAEL JOHNS/Montana State News

Christianity was up for debate Tuesday night as MSU philosophy professor David Maxfield and MIT nuclear science and engineering professor Ian Hutchinson discussed arguments both for and against Christianity during the Veritas Forum event entitled “Our Place in the Universe.”

Maxfield argued the case for secular humanism, and Hutchinson gave reasons why he thought there was legitimate evidence to support Christianity. Greg Valeriano, who is also an MSU professor in philosophy, moderated the discussion.

The audience was asked at the event to fill out surveys inquiring whether they were students at the university and what their beliefs were. Hedge said that 800 attendees were involved in some way at MSU, and 70 percent identified as Christian and 30 percent had other religious beliefs. According to the PEW Research Center, this reflects the general religious demography of the U.S.

According to the Veritas Forum website, it is a national organization that hosts “university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.”

Hedge said that he got involved with the forum through his observation that many students were grappling with these questions, but felt that they weren’t being addressed by the professors. He said that although he works with the Christian student ministry CRU, it was important for him to “not make it [the forum] just a pitch for Christianity.”

The Forum was held in the MSU SUB Ballroom and included around 1,300 attendees, according to coordinator Seth Hedge.

At the beginning of the forum, it was made clear that this would not be a debate with winners and losers, but rather a way for people of various religious beliefs to see things from a different perspective.

Each presenter was given 15 minutes at the beginning to state their position and present a few questions for the other. Hutchinson began, first posing the question, “What perspective shapes your view of the world?”

He argued that individuals find fulfillment though a loving relationship with God. He also discussed the relationship between critical traditional education, empirical knowledge, and faith.

Hutchinson said that some of the main reasons for his beliefs were historical evidence and his own personal experience that support them. He also pointed out that the original institutions of education were Christian, and while science can help us understand many things, it can’t answer all questions (such as questions of ethics).

Maxfield began with a quote from a professor he had as a student in college, “If you don’t change your mind about something big in college, you’ve wasted your time.”

He then gave a few things to ponder.  He said that humans have always been storytellers and have continued to change religious stories throughout history. This and the idea that monotheism places man at the center of the universe are a few arguments against it.

He described the vastness and incomparable age of the universe, and said that monotheism’s explanation for this is too simplistic. He said that the argument for the supernatural is fundamentally incoherent, because it is “beyond space and time and can’t be proven.”

The closing arguments mostly revolved around the inability to prove or disprove the supernatural, and what to do with other issues that are not falsifiable, such as morality (Maxfield argued morality should be determined by human communities). When asked what it would take to change their minds, Hutchinson said that the resurrection would need to be disproven, and Maxfield said that he would need to have a personal divine revelation himself.

At the end, the moderator opened up the discussion to address questions. Dario Scotto, a physics major at MSU who says he is still in the process of shaping his philosophical beliefs, asked, “…do the ontologies of agnosticism, or even atheism, and Christianity allow for moral facts?”

When asked later what he thought of the forum overall and whether he felt his question was adequately answered, Scotto said that that he was disappointed Maxfield “wouldn’t go into the nature of the moral truths and only said that his philosophy allows for them without explaining how.”

Dan Balyeat, a previous student of MSU in biotechnology and self-described Christian, seemed to hold similar sentiments, especially about how the presenters argued morality.

“The thing that I would object to is the subject of morality … religion is what holds society together. If I wanted to murder someone, for example, I wouldn’t care about what society thought…” He did say however that he liked the casual manner in which the discussion was held.

Balyeat also mentioned some topics he wished had been presented in the forum, drawing on an interview he had done with Christian physicist Frank Tipler, such as the Many-worlds interpretation and also the implications of artificial intelligence and human consciousness.

Students were surveyed about whether or not the forum had changed their perspective and if they would recommend the event to others. 75 percent said it did change their perspective, and 90 percent said they would d recommend it, according to Hedge.

After the forum, Gregg Valeriano was also said, “I thought that the forums went very well.  The presenters were articulate and winsome in presenting their own worldview. They engaged each other with honest but pointed critiques and did so in a respectful way.”

He also said that the philosophy department was supportive of the Veritas Forum and that it was a “boon for the philosophy department. as well as for the campus as a whole.”

-edited by Mikal Overturf

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