The following is an autobiographical account of my experience at a debate at Cal State Fullerton University, Fullerton, California, USA. The subject of the debate was the question 'Does God Exist?'.
Arguing for his existence was Michael Butler, representing the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, a theological school who sponsored the debate. His sparring partner was Dan Barker, representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit organization which acts as a legal watchdog to correct government violations of the Constitutional separation of church and state.
Before we go any further, it is necessary for me to tell you that I bring to this subject my own set of presuppositions. I'm an atheist myself, and I'm familiar with Dan Barker's work. I've read his book Losing Faith in Faith, and I was even hoping to get it signed, but my girlfriend was borrowing it at the time, and it was not available. My companion for the evening was a female friend who had also read his book, and was likewise a freethinker. It was her correspondence with Dan through the FFRF webpage that alerted us to the opportunity to hear him speak.
Due to traffic and misdirection1, we arrived a bit late. As we got to the door, we were handed programmes. There was quite a bit of literature on the tables, but we didn't want to miss anything more, so we blazed past, with the idea that we could browse the tables later.
There is probably some sort of copyright on the transcripts of the debate, and I couldn't remember a word-for-word account if I tried, so I will summarize. Mr. Butler's arguments fell well short for me, but with my set of presuppositions, that was probably going to happen anyway. The disappointing thing is that he never once engaged in a positive argument. He had the positive end of the original question 'Does God exist?', but his whole argument skirted that issue. Rather than giving evidence of why God does exist, he engaged in a philosophical discussion about the failure of atheism to account for certain things like inductive reasoning that his cosmology provides ready answers for. It fails to do this, he argues, because it is not true. If atheism is untrue, then his cosmology wins by default.
Aside from doing nothing to prove God's existence, his whole argument was fallacious. His religion provides him with a mechanism for understanding the origin of human concepts like morality, logic, and so forth. Does that make it the correct one? Islam and Judaism have the same mechanism: those things were given to us by God. Why is his cosmology more valid than theirs? That argument is my own, and not Dan Barker's. Dan chose to keep the argument in the either-or frame that Michael had chosen, in order to avoid skirting the issue. Besides, the question of the existence of God does not necessarily have to be restricted to the existence of the Christian one.
Michael asked for an explanation for the phenomenon of inductive reasoning, and Dan provided one. In spite of this, throughout his rebuttals and speeches, Michael repeated the charge that atheism cannot account for induction. But even if atheism doesn't have an answer, 'I don't know' is still a better answer than God. Admitting ignorance is a positive step that leads to inquiry, which leads to greater knowledge. Michael tried to have it both ways, and Dan didn't catch him at it. Dan cross-examined Michael on the origin of evil, saying that the Bible says that God created evil. Michael turned to semantics at this point, saying that God ordained evil. Dan caught him on that point, citing that the same Hebrew word used to describe his creation of evil was applied to the Genesis accounts of creation. He therefore created evil in the same way he created man. When pressed on how he could account for evil, Michael admitted ignorance; his god has not told him why it exists.
The atheist can account for evil. It is a product of the human mind, a concept that has no physical reality. That which causes unnecessary harm is labelled 'evil,' while those things that bring healing or happiness are labelled 'good.' These are relative terms, altered by the situation. That which has been historically considered 'good' has now been re-evaluated as 'evil,' things like gay bashing, suppression of women, racism, etc. The atheist cosmology has a good explanation for evil. The Christian one does not. By the framework of Michael's own argument, his cosmology must be false.
The room was about evenly divided on the issue, and so applause was meted out rather evenly to the two participants. At the conclusion of one of his turns, Dan received a particularly loud ovation. Michael rather arrogantly stepped to the podium as the din subsided and announced that he would:
'Assume that that applause is for what I am about to say.'
In the first cross-examination phase, he came across as a petulant teenager, asking for definitions to various key words, then telling Dan he was wrong without further elucidation (although he did elucidate a bit on them later, and I couldn't find a significant difference between the two definitions). If people were going to evaluate the two cosmologies based solely on the behavior of their proponents, the entire room would have deconverted that night. And as a further display of childishness on the part of the theists, my friend and I ventured back out to the tables during the intermission to check out the literature. There were no signs of the atheist literature I had seen in the hands of others in the audience, but the theistic brochures were still available.
After the Debate
Now I've mentioned that I'm familiar with Dan's work, and I have a lot of respect for him. I wouldn't call myself a fan or anything, but I did think that it would be nice to have a few words with him face-to-face before I left. So I migrated my way to the front of the room. As I did so, I took in a bit of the atmosphere. What I expected was that everyone would file out quickly, discussing what they may have learned with the people they came with. That was not what occurred. Impromptu debates raged all around me, in groups from 2-6 participants. I smiled at the result, but chose not to indulge. I simply wanted to meet the man, exchange a few pleasantries, and head for home.
While I made my way there, I spoke to a middle-aged atheist named Michael. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and discussed our backgrounds a little bit. I even told him a little about my own debates carried on within and without the Freedom From Faith Foundation. When he asked me if I occasionally taunt Christians into arguments on this site, I had to reply with a sheepish affirmative. As a third-generation atheist, he didn't understand the frustration with religion that many of us born-again skeptics exhibit. My friend and I are both recovered Catholics, and we briefly discussed what it was like to grow up in that environment. That conversation was opened in a rather humorous way:
Michael:'Are your parents atheists?'
Me:'No, they're disappointed.'
He recommended us to a freethought organization based in Irvine, which gathers together every Sunday for a really nice brunch. Irvine is a goodly way out of my way, and I work on Sundays, so I'm out of luck. He did take my email address, and so I expect I'll be receiving newsletters from the group shortly.
I wasn't trying to be pushy with Dan, pretty much letting him do whatever he was doing, and a lot of people were trying to speak to him at once. So I just hung out in his neighborhood, awaiting my chance. I found myself incorporated into his conversation circle as one woman was praising him for explaining things in detail that her 15 year-old daughter could follow easily. He responded with modesty that he had to throw out words like 'espistemological' (such an advanced word that I can't even spell it), but she complimented him for explaining it before running away with it. I managed to get in a word or two about his opponent, noting that Dan allowed his adversary to get away with repeated offenses of the appeal to authority fallacy when he kept repeating the charge 'I don't know any philosophers who think that. There are no philosophers that believe that.', as if to say that a soft science like philosophy has the sum of knowledge about the origins of morality and logic. It's not exactly what I meant to say. On reflection, it probably made me sound like an ass.
I didn't want that to be the only thing he heard from me, so I tried again when he was trapped nearby me a few minutes later... trapped by theists, who had decided to carry on the debate with him in person. I was excited by the prospect... could I, a self-educated nontheist, hold my own in a discussion between young seminary students and one of the most prominent freethinkers in America*?
The Colonel In The Christians' Den
I would never find out. At one point, shortly into the discussion, I offered a counter-argument to the claim of one of the theists. At that moment, two of them literally rounded on me. They interposed their bodies between Dan and I, as if to divide and conquer. One in particular seemed very aggressive. He was a stocky individual, blonde-haired and, although it may sound like I'm just picking on him, I swear he had a unibrow*. His stance, his approach, and his look all conveyed a threat. My female friend noticed it for me, whereas I simply reacted unconsciously. There was a lot of male posturing going on in the first few minutes of the discussion, if you could call it that. Unibrow would ask me a question, then cut me off before I could respond. Then someone else would ask me a question, I would try to respond, only to have him throw another one at me while I was trying to answer the first one. I started to insist that he allow me to respond, and he grudgingly did, at least so much as to stop interrupting me so much. When I did ask Unibrow to elucidate an argument he kept repeating, he did a pretty poor job. It had something to do with a 'Law of Non-contradiction.' I've never heard of it, so he tried to elaborate, but it came out all garbled. It was obviously something he had been told or read once, and didn't quite understand it. As far as I could tell, he was starting with the presupposition that God existed, and therefore, anything that contradicted that presupposition violated the mysterious law, and therefore had to be false. I hope I have that wrong, because it's a horribly weak and ignorant argument. If anyone reading this can shed some light on this elusive law, I'd be grateful.
Unibrow and his friend, a thin white man with a scruffy neck, continued to press me, and I was beginning to get in some responses. I was also gaining attention, as another pair of theists wandered over to join the discussion, thus making it 4 on 1 (my friend is too shy and non-confrontational to come to my aid, so she was a passive supporter and observer). At one point the scruffy guy asked me to account for the existence of morality, as a sort of continuation of the debate we had seen between the pros. I gave an excellent account of the origin of morality as a necessity to human civilization, and the enjoyment of the benefits thereof. I think I was starting to make some sense to them just then. Right about then Unibrow told me I was going to Hell. I asked him why his god was so nice if he wanted to send me to Hell, and Scruffy picked up the thread to say I carried myself there. I asked him how I get there, and he told me I was heading there already. It was a dogmatic answer. I wanted to know how I was physically transported there. I was not there now, and I would have to get there, but I can't get there on my own. I was trying to make him realize that his god would *have* to send me there.
That was when one of the newcomers spoke. He said that Hell doesn't necessarily have to be a place. I agreed. I described to them a widespread belief among Christians of different sects that says you move on to the Heaven or Hell of your own creation. It exists in the mind. I could see that the newcomers and Scruffy were with me while I described the process. That's when I lowered the boom: an atheist has no Hell, and therefore, nothing to fear.
That saw the last of Unibrow. I'd won my first significant point, so he spewed some scripture at me that he probably didn't understand, and stalked off. Scruffy continued to question me on various other issues, but it was clear that I was gaining the upper hand in the discussion. He threw a few scriptures at me at random, too, but eventually he departed for calmer waters. That left me with the pair of newcomers.
Both of the newcomers were young men, probably more seminary students, with olive skin. One of them was of indeterminate race, as he had no obvious features or accent to betray him. In Southern California, you can safely assume that someone with that color skin who shows no other signs of ethnicity is most likely to be Hispanic. The other carried a slight accent that revealed a Middle-Eastern heritage. They continued to question me in turn, but with the aggressive dogmatists gone, the conversation became one of mutual respect. They continued to question me about specific beliefs. When one said that there are no contradictions in the Bible, I threw out my favorite challenge, which is a comparative study of the four gospels regarding the accounts beginning after Jesus is taken from the cross. I argued with them to show how four accounts of the same story would have to resemble each other in some fashion. I illustrated it by comparing how the Arab and I would both record the events of the night. We would both bring different messages from the experience, but as to location, a description of the environment, the people who spoke, etc. we would agree, with some degree of error. Most importantly, he would record that he spoke to the same people that I would remember, and that our descriptions of each other would be coherent. When the gospels say that Mary Magdalene found the tomb by herself, or with Salome and Mary Jesus' mom, or that she spoke to a man in white, or two men, or the disciples, or to a voice out of Heaven, or to two angels, or to Jesus himself outside of the sepulchre, then we have to face the fact that the gospels are unreliable, and that they read like fiction.
That was the last hard question I faced. After that, it was a barrage of questions asking me what I believed. I told them about the lack of historical data about Jesus. When the Hispanic countered with Josephus, I was ready to tell him exactly how it is a forgery. I think my use of the names Clement, Origen, and Eusebius overwhelmed him. They asked me what I believed happened to Jesus, so I told them about the theory (no less substantiated than theirs) that Jesus didn't die on the cross at all, but was drugged into insensibility, carried from the cross by his friend Joseph of Arimathea, and set free.
I could see their eyes opening a bit. They were beginning to challenge what they had learned. They were not asking these questions in the spirit of debate anymore. I was a teacher, and they were my students. I'd like to hope that they will re-examine everything they've learned. Maybe they don't come around to my point of view, but maybe they'll come away with a healthy respect for the beliefs of others, and a healthier outlook on the most unfairly maligned minority in America: atheists. That's all I've ever really wanted to teach people.
We shook hands and exchanged thanks for the discussion, and parted ways. We were among the last people to leave. It was now about 11:30pm. I had been standing still arguing for a few hours, and my legs were feeling weak, and I was ravenously hungry. I hadn't noticed any of that while we talked, as I was caught up in the discussion. My friend, the silent supporter, did complain that she was hungry, but she remained silent to let me carry on. She graded my performance pretty well, although I took the conversation in directions she wouldn't have taken. We drove home with my head still on fire, and I continued to carry the debate into my dreams.
The original article can be found at Into the Christians Den