Who's Counting: Distrusting Atheists

Liberty University Debate Champions?

A tenuously related story also near the crossroads of religion and politics is the No. 1 ranking of the debate team at Liberty University.

Founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Christian fundamentalist and political conservative, the university has in recent years fielded a team that has attracted much media attention.

The March 19 New York Times Magazine devoted a long story to the team, which also received extensive recent coverage in Newsweek, on CBS, and in various other venues.

The only problem with the No. 1 ranking and Liberty's "national title" is that it's somewhere between artificial and bogus.

As bloggers Jim Hanas, Ed Brayton and others have observed (and as is briefly and unobtrusively buried in the Times article itself), the ranking is based on the performance of the team in all tournaments, including novice and junior varsity contests.

The way rankings are determined in the "overall" category, winning at any of these second-tier tournaments adds to the team's point total. Liberty, which has a broad-based program, enters many of them and racks up many of its points by doing so.

The schools with the top individual teams, however, often don't have novice or JV teams and usually don't enter many of the lesser tournaments.

Even with such extensive, but light opposition, and the points resulting from it, the Liberty varsity team seldom reaches the semifinals and has yet to win a single varsity tournament.

In fact, in the varsity rankings Liberty is 20th, not first, and, when the quality of its opponents is taken into account, it ranks even lower than that.

As Hasan remarks, referring to Liberty as the No. 1 team and one of the nation's great collegiate debate programs is a bit "like calling the best Division III basketball team the NCAA champion."

Another analogy is to the brief 1992 presidential campaign of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. He was way behind in the primaries, but some of his staffers jokingly suggested that their man was leading. In winning Minnesota, Iowa and Montana, they argued that he had captured the largest land mass of any of the contenders.

Unlike atheism, hyping one's performance is well within the American mainstream, and that's not debatable.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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