Science/Religion Debate Live-Streaming Today

By Sean Carroll | March 25, 2012 9:57 am

[Update added below. Further update: here’s the video.]

I’m participating this afternoon in an intriguing event here at Caltech:

The Great Debate: “Has Science Refuted Religion?”

Affirming the proposition will be Skeptics Society president Michael Shermer and myself, while negating it will be conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and MIT nuclear engineer Ian Hutchinson. We’ll go back and forth for about two hours, after which Sam Harris will give a talk about his most recent book, Free Will.

Festivities begin at 2pm Pacific time (5pm Eastern). I hadn’t previously mentioned the debate here on the blog, because tickets sold out pretty quickly, and it didn’t seem right to taunt people by mentioning an event they couldn’t come see. But the Skeptics folks have been working hard to set up live-streaming video of the event, and it looks like they’ve succeeded! So you should be able to watch all the fun live on YouTube — and feel free to leave comments here.

[Live-streaming didn’t work, but here’s the video.]

I’ll come back when it’s all over and add some post-debate thoughts.

Update after the debate: first off, very sorry that the live stream didn’t seem to work for many people. (Although the YouTube comments are occasionally funny.) That’s just what sometimes unfortunately happens when you try something new. Pretty sure that video will eventually be available, I’ll link when it appears.

Also I deleted a bunch of comments about string theory from people who don’t take instructions well.

As for the debate, it’s very hard to judge when up on the stage, but I hope there were some enlightening moments. I’m not sure it worked well as a “debate.” I tried to engage a bit with what Ian and Dinesh were saying, but I didn’t feel that they reciprocated — although they might make the same claim about our side. I’m thinking that four people is just too much to have in a debate; it could have been more direct confrontation if there had only been two, with twice as much time for each little speech.

I don’t think I did a very good job in the cross-examinations, but hopefully the actual speeches came across clearly.

The audience was pretty clearly biased toward us from the beginning. Which is great in some sense (go forces of reason!) but I’d actually like to do something similar before an audience that was tilted the other way, or (best of all) completely uncommitted at the start. Preaching to the choir is fun, but doesn’t really change the world.

We had a great crowd, and I very much appreciate everyone who braved the not-that-great-by-Southern-California-standards weather. Would love to hear reactions from people who were actually there.

  • Felix

    Has anybody else noticed the likeness between Dinesh D’Souza and Mr Bean

  • Karl Johanson

    Religion never produced any good arguments to refute in the first place…

  • Ian Liberman

    Really looking forward to the tag team of Shermer and Carroll to kick butt. The likeness is amazing.

  • Blake

    Isn’t this like art teachers debating evolution? Sean, your interests seem to have spilled over some into philosophy, so I suspect you’re by far the most read on these issues… but I still don’t think anyone in the group has done any real work in Phil. of Religion (that very busy but poorly named branch of philosophy which concerns itself with arguments for/against God’s existence.)

  • James

    Really missing the Hitch…

  • Phil

    What about string theory? Has science refuted string theory? Isn’t science the practice of formulated hypotheses that attempt to explain your observations, and the ability to test those hypotheses through experimentation? Something which string theory is incapable of? So if science has refuted religion, it has also refuted string theory. Correct?

  • Don

    Looking forward to this one. How can science NOT have refuted religion? But come on, Sean, “myself”? No, no, you mean “Affirming the proposition will be Skeptics Society president Michael Shermer and ME.” Go at ’em!

    • Sean Carroll

      Don– not sure what came over me there. I always write “me,” and make fun of people who write “myself.” That’s what I get for blogging pre-coffee. But I’ll leave it up there as self-punishment.

  • Richard Washington

    Why does Dinesh continue to be invited to these debates?

    Everything he says is total nonsense and easily seen as such.

  • ralph

    I already anticipate a winner…but let me also be frank the debate is a wonderful free will expression of noble of the intelligence community coming together. No one really loses…here both win the appreciation of the audience. and the respect both fields deserve, looking forward to the debate.

  • Steve

    Phil, no – you’re incorrect.

  • Joe

    ugh, anyone but Dinesh

  • Jeff

    @Phil – That’s not really true. I imagine the arguments against religion will involve evidence that directly contradicts religion, not just the lack of evidence for it. Also, from looking at the Wikipedia page, it looks like there are several proposed tests that would at least help the case for string theory, if not confirm it. I don’t think it’s accurate to say string theory is incapable of forming hypotheses at this point.

  • Kevin

    I think I understand what you are trying to say but the “String Theory” began because properties of the strong nuclear force are perfectly described by the Euler beta-function, a formula devised for purely mathematical reasons two hundred years earlier by Leonhard Euler.
    Religious dogma insists that someone’s campfire story from the ancient past explains everything without any empirical evidence or mathematical formulation, only extraordinary claims. If one were to select an ancient theory or philosophy from the thousands available,, at least pick one with modern empirical evidence. Example: Darwin’s evidence supports Anaximander’s philosophy (over 5 centuries B.C.) that man evolved from water.

    • Sean Carroll

      This isn’t the place to debate string theory, folks.

  • michelle

    Wow, nothing like listening to a debate with an open mind. Does this mean that you all are familiar with all the philosophies of ALL the religions or are you relying on that course of Comparative Religions you took oh so long ago. Or just thinking about the major three and the guy with the long white beard?

  • michelle

    Not all religions believe in a creator god or any kind of god.

  • Fergus

    I’m assuming its going to be more of a debate over the existence of the supernatural, rather than cult specifics.

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  • Chris

    Apparently God doesn’t want us to watch this :-)

  • Chris Lindsay

    The link seems to be error-ing out, so I’m hoping that it will be posted up on youtube after the fact?

  • Kevin

    Sean Carroll: Since the video stream is broken/server overload, and you are the apparent moderator; care to chat about the direction of time instead of string theory that you object to?

  • Tom Key

    Agreed then, there is no God/Allah/Being, and no “afterlife”. And if there is…let’s agree to cause a lot of trouble when we get there. Every aspect, every part of this, has been rigged, unjust, and revolting. Except Life and Death — they were magnificent! The Living and Dying part has been great fun.

  • Al

    “What’s wrong with believing in some sort of afterlife? What’s wrong with believing that after death, you don’t “experience” pure nothingness associated with the lack of a living earthly body?”

    The best examples today of what is wrong with it come from the doctrine of martyrdom. Luckily Christianity grew out of its “kill people who don’t believe” phase, so Christianity is fairly innocuous these days, but the willingness to believe in nonsense because it makes you happy is the direct cause of a lot of misery in the world – “I will go to paradise, rather than ‘experience’ pure nothingness, so I should kill people to get there”.

    Believing things are true because we want them to be true rather than because we have reason to believe they are true is what is wrong with it, and that is what makes it worth rejecting as a basis for thinking we know something.

    BTW, your String Theory analogy is pretty dumb.

  • Jay

    Don and Sean, it really should be “I”—“Affirming the proposition will be Skeptics Society president Michael Shermer and *I*” (since “Michael Shermer and I” is the subject of the sentence).

    • Sean Carroll

      Arrgh, I think Jay is right about “I.” (Maybe that’s why my unconscious knew “me” didn’t sound right…) Myself resigns from grammar.

  • Jurgens

    >Why does Dinesh continue to be invited to these debates?
    Everything he says is total nonsense and easily seen as such.

    D’Souza’s pretty prestigious, as religious apologists go. That tells you … something.

  • Keith

    Even if science reaches its “Holy Grail” of its unified theory of all forces and possibly beyond, how do we know this theory is the reason for existence? We may have a theory that perfectly explains all we observe and even compels existence by its axiomatic laws but is that enough? No. The theory would need to be unique; only this theory would compel existence with no other possibility. Could we prove this is the case? Godel’s Theorm would suggest otherwise. Indeed, quantum theory allows for a particular universe in which we are all convinced we have this proof, even though in actuality the proof is invalid. Thus science cannot, with certainty, answer the ultimate question. Isn’t it interesting that science has a built in disdain for God as the ultimate cause, because it cannot prove or disprove his existence.

  • Peter

    Keith. Straw man.

  • Keith

    Peter, I think you missed something. Please explain, how my argument is a straw man?

  • julianpenrod

    When asked to prove there is no God, “science” always falls back on the wheeze, “You can’t prove a negative”. “It’s too boig a problem to prove”, they bleat, “You’d have to go everywhere inside and outside the universae, to see if God is there. It can’t be done.” That said, however, they then proceed to say that, even though they haven’t proved God doesn’t exist, it is still legitimate and fully within the “ethic” of “science” to insist, incontrovertibly, that there is no God. And, it should be mentioned, they don’t go anywhere near placing their own assertions to the test of whether, in conventional “science” you can prove a positive.

  • Peter

    Science has no built in disdain for god, it says it’s irrelevant because it’s untestable. Science is agnostic. It doesn’t care if god is there or not.

    I don’t think science is looking for a reason for existence either, It’s just looking at how stuff works. It’s looking for the how, not the why.

  • Peter

    Julian, the ethic of science doesn’t insist there is no god. Guess what logical fallacy your argument it?

  • Keith

    Peter, the built in disdain science has for God is not the argument, it is my personal observation. My argument still stands. So what did you mean by “straw man”? Seeing no answer, you force me to conclude you have missed the main point of my argument.

  • Peter

    I meant by straw man the two things I just said.

    If I have missed a bigger point. Can you help me understand it?

  • Peter

    And the burden is on the proof of the people saying god does exist, your shifting the burden to the wrong side.

  • Peter

    Wait. I think i just replied about Julian’s arguement.

    Nope. It was yours Keith.

    If you think I havn’t answered your main point, then I may have missed it cause I think I addressed your arguments.
    One thing, is there may be no reason for existence, you may be assuming there has to be a reason for existence?

    And the personal disdain for science comment, whether it is your observation or not, it is still an argument that I think is incorrect.

  • Dan

    I’m sorry but D’Souza should not be invited to a debate like this. I mean, we have three people from the sciences, and then him? He has no qualifications to debate this topic as he is not a scientist and isn’t even considered to be much of a religious scholar (he’s a neo-con author-slash-apologist whose arguments are 100% recycled from the books of other, more respected religious philosophers). He’s also a deeply, deeply intellectually dishonest person and his debates have demonstrated that in spades. Every debate I have ever seen him in involving religion, he uses the tried and true theist tactic of making strawman arguments and attempting to get the other side to defend claims they never made and are never part of the core debate. Apart from his presence, I look forward to the conversation.

  • Keith

    Peter, my argument is based on Godel’s theorem. The question becomes how can science prove it own validity? If not, then can we prove its theory of existence, as opposed to any other i.e. God, is valid? This is the debate. The refutation of religion implies God does not exist. If I have correctly applied this theorem, it seems impossible to refute the existence of God.

  • Keith

    To be clear, this is not to say it is proof he exists, only that science cannot prove otherwise.

  • Peter

    Keith. Science never refutes the existence of god or anything. It just builds evidence either way. Is that argument still not a straw man?

    So you’re going down the post modernist route? Post modernists look left, then right before they cross the road.

    Science can not prove it’s own validity, again it can just build evidence for it, or against it. The evidence keeps building up for it, that’s why we can talk right now even though we are in different parts of the world.

  • MKS

    yeah, one is an art (where we create meaning) and the other is science (where we discover/uncover ‘facts’) — where the problems occur is when arguments in one are confused for arguments in another, which creates such things as Young Earth Creationism and adding Creationism as an alternate theory to Evolution in science classes…

    i like to joke that Physicists are modern theologians who have already discovered Deity, they just don’t call it that :3

  • Georg

    “”Preaching to the choir is fun, but doesn’t really change the world.””

    Changing the world is done by the dying off of the “adherers to old opinion”.
    That is easily demonstrated in science, re. religion etc its similar.
    Basic thinking is “made” by parents, nothing else.
    This is done before age of 10, this is called education,
    whereas the anglosaxon use of “education” is nonsense (lacking latin knowledge)

  • Doug

    Please, Keith, just say you like god because of bibles, or whatever else happens to appeal to you. Leave Godel out of this. What did he ever do to you, to be abused like this? He doesn’t deserve this. I think the closest your argument comes to Godel’s work is that you use the word “incomplete” in a sentence.

  • Brandon

    Sean, I thought you did pretty good. I agree with you that 4 people is too much. I think debates should be a full format cross-examination because that is the best way to have debaters directly engage with opposing arguments.

    I actually got worried in the beginning of your cross-examination. I was thinking, “Oh brother. Where is he going with this?” But then I did see the point you were trying to make.

    In my opinion, the only problem you and Shermer had was the affirmation you were trying to defend! I’m an atheist, but I think “Has Science Refuted Religion?” is yet another ridiculous debate topic much like, “Does God exist?” It’s too broad, too vague. Science isn’t about 100% proof, so metaphysically, D’Souza and Hutchinson had it in the bag before the debate even began.

    Now, if the topic was “Has Science rendered the specific Christian belief of D’Souza and Hutchinson unlikely?” then the answer is hell yeah.

  • cormac

    Interesting debate, but I find the title a bit peculiar. Religion exists, just like music, so in a sense it clearly has not been refuted.
    Perhaps what was meant was:
    “Does science refute the existence of God?”
    ‘Will science eventually refute religion i.e. eventually remove belief in God?”

  • Brendan Bane

    Dr. Carroll,

    I, along with all who sat in my row, felt that you were the strongest speaker. You did wonderfully. Thank you for defending reason.


  • Robert Hagedorn

    Discover? Google First Scandal.

  • Jim Bandstra

    The brief video with “science rules” and “reason rules” reminds me of Al Plantinga’s comment re. the (absolutely irrational) belief that all knowledge can be found by science: “like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys under the streetlight, on the grounds that the light was better there. (In fact it would go the drunk one better: it would be to insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.)”

  • Peter Ozzie Jones

    Plantinga should change that to a comment on theology.
    The drunk had sold his car to fuel the drink habit.
    So, there were no keys to lose or find!
    At least science has something to look for?

  • Jim Bandstra

    Peter, it seems you want to make a point about theology which is fine, but it is certainly no refutation of Plantinga’s statement re. the basis of knowledge. You are assuming (irrationally) exactly what Plantinga is refuting, that there is no truth or knowledge except that found by science. Hence, you are a ideological naturalist and would find no sense in searching for truth/knowledge except that observed by our senses (enhanced by technology). You obviously are going to keep looking under that streetlight. I do not think you will find much that is truly meaningful under said light. Useful, yes; meaningful, no.

  • Nick B


    I was at the debate and thought you were, by far, the best of the four. I only knew of Shermer and D’Souza coming into the debate, and semi knew what to expect from them. I really enjoyed your largely scientific approach, even though I am also a fan of the more anti-theist rhetoric from Dawkins and Hitchens.

    Ian seemed to be unwilling to be intellectually honest in the cross examination. You came off as open to whatever was coming at you, and I promise this didn’t come off as weak or giving in to their point. D’Souza was annoying and rude as ever, and used pretty language to cover up logical fallacies. Ethnicity aside, I’ve always found him to be the Christian Deepak Chopra in his debate tactics.

    Again, great job. You’ve got a new fan and I plan to check out your books sometime this year.

    – Nick

  • Peter Ozzie Jones

    Jim at #51, thanks for explaining where I am going wrong.
    But I think H.L. Mencken sums it up for me:
    “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.”

    I’d like to read where that “other way of knowing” has led to anything useful though.

    Oh well, back to living with all the useful stuff and using my brain to define the meaningful.

  • Sean Carroll

    Glad to hear that people enjoyed it, thanks for the kind comments. I do think events like this are worth doing, but we can always work to find ways to improve them.

  • Nicholas

    I was there. My guess is that the video isn’t up because D’souza and Hutchinson are embarrassed by their performance – mostly just Hutchinson’s though. I mean that in all seriousness.

    Shermer and Carrolll did pretty well with what they were given. There were some very good moments, but mostly the debate sort of lagged and danced around the topic without ever penetrating too far. Damn Hutchinson looked out of place. He stated that his favorite reason for believing Christianity is the historical account of Jesus. Carroll asked him why this is so convincing and Hutchinson stated “I’m not a historian.”


  • Charles Ames

    By now we have to admit that scientists have displaced clergy as observers of the universe and teachers about how it works. A more interesting question would be “What is the proper role for Religion now that Science is working pretty well?”

  • Nick B


    The proper role for religion is for it to fall into obscurity with other intellectually dishonest practices, so that people who care more about purely subjective claims than the world around them don’t have a major platform or power.

  • Bob F.

    Four people in a debate should be fine. Several years ago, Christopher Hitchens — in some of the finest work I ever saw him do — was half of a debating duo that trounced the opposition in a debate in Britain. The topic was “Is the Catholic church a force for good?” Before the debate, the majority of the audience thought Yes, and when it was over, an even greater majority switched to No. I’m pretty sure the debate is still on YouTube.

    As to my general thoughts of D’Souza……..they are better left unsaid.

  • Charles Ames


    That may be true of the church, but spiritual contemplation is a legitimate thing — provided you don’t go around trying to convince everyone else that what you thought up is “right”. There is a role to be filled when people confront questions for which there is no final answer. e.g. “why am I here?” is a tough one for many. A guide would be nice to have around. I know a lot of people who are tragically cut off from the exhilirating sense of wonder that some of us can get from contemplating cosmology. To me, that’s the tragedy of this “science vs. religion” debate. It isn’t a fair fight. I would rather just see the clergy reinvent themselves to find other ways to nurture lost souls. No shortage of those.


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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