There’s life after debates but not death

dan windsor

FFRF Co-President debated March 7 with Rev. Joe Boot at the University of Windsor. Here, Dan gathered with members of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society. Back (from left) are Chris, Pat, Kristen, Jamie, Currie, Derek, Shawna Scott (society president), Dr. Gordon Drake, Dan Barker, Doug, (front) Andrew, Satpreet, Jordan, Hamid, Joshua, Rob and Joe.


On March 7, at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, I debated the question “Is There Life After Death?” It was sponsored by the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. More than 400 people attended, including FFRF members who drove many miles.

The event started 90 minutes late because Joe Boot, my opponent, had a car accident on the way. His car was badly damaged but he wasn’t hurt. (He did not have a “near death” experience.)

He does believe that “all things work together for good,” and for some reason his God, who controls everything, thought it was important to inconvenience hundreds of people, some of whom had traveled a long distance. Boot, a native of England, is senior pastor at Westminster Chapel in Toronto and founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

We managed to fill up the hour and a half with some impromptu speeches. Shawna Scott, who represented the atheist group, gave a brief talk about her organization’s activities. Shawna is the student who successfully stopped graduation prayers at the university and received an FFRF scholarship award for her activism.

An Intervarsity organizer then spoke about its efforts to publicize the message of Jesus on campus. The moderator of the debate, Dr. Gordon Drake, a theistic physics professor, spoke about the complete compatibility (he thinks) of science and religion.

Still stalling for time, I got up and described FFRF’s history and legal activities, mentioning that, at that very moment, Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor was in Champaign, Ill., to take part in the 65th anniversary celebration of the McCollum Supreme Court victory, a legal precedent that removes religious instruction from U.S. public schools. I deliberately steered clear of the debate topic so as not to prejudice the audience.

But I did offer one proof of the truth of atheism. I held up a red paper coffee cup from Tim Hortons. Little did I realize how powerful that symbol was before that audience. I learned from some of the locals that the restaurant chain is one of the closest things to national pride the Canadians celebrate these days and is tied in with Horton’s 24-year National Hockey League career. He founded the chain, Canada’s largest, before dying in 1974 at age 44 in an automobile accident.

Before the debate, while the room was being set up, some of us had gone to the Hortons on campus for coffee and snacks. I ordered a medium regular coffee, which they handed to me in that red paper cup. At the table I noticed that one of the students had taken the lid off his own coffee cup and was rolling up the curved top rim. “Darn, I didn’t win anything,” he said.

Tim Hortons has a contest where some of the cups are printed with prize announcements to lucky winners. When I finished my coffee, I did the same thing, after Currie, one of the atheist students, showed me the arrow on the cup pointing to where the prize might be. When I rolled up the rim, surprise! I won a free caffe latte.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I held that cup up to the audience, they were impressed. “This is proof of the power of nonprayer,” I announced. “I did not pray to win, and I won!”

Joe did finally show up, around 8:30, surprisingly composed after his long day, and gave his opening statement. When it was my turn to speak, I walked over and handed the cup to Joe, as a gift. Not having heard my story, he was a bit perplexed, but quickly asked “Did I win?” The crowd loved it!

Paucity of evidence

The debate was a good show, as these things go. Joe Boot was articulate, attractive and feisty, which makes for a much better event than some other debates I have done where the opponent mainly lectures, or worse, where we agree on too many issues. A debate should be a contest.

But intellectually, it was extremely disappointing. I had prepared carefully, and my notebook was stuffed with information to rebut attempts to provide evidence for the afterlife, including near-death experiences and the supposed resurrection of Jesus. But Joe only mentioned these in passing, and said they were not the real issues. He offered no evidence at all for life after death, admitting “the paucity of empirical evidence.”

Instead, he based his whole case on the supposed philosophical weaknesses of naturalism and atheism and simply asserted that the God of Christian scripture is the best explanation for “a universe of meaning,” and since God exists, then his promise of eternal life must be true.

He thinks we have to choose between one of two worldviews: 1) naturalism, where all reality is one, and 2) dualism, where reality is split between that which is created and that which is not. (Are you a one-ist or a two-ist?)

He admitted that his worldview has assumptions and biases, but claimed that they are no worse than the atheist’s assumptions and biases. Without God, the universe is an “absurdity,” a cosmos with no meaning. But with God, we can entertain the existence of soul, spirit, immaterial objects such as mind and consciousness that can exist apart from the body.

“We are more than the sum of our parts,” he insisted, “and more than mere matter in motion.”

And that was it! A debate on one topic was morphed by sleight of hand into something else: “Is there life after death?” became “Is atheism absurd?”

Burden of proof unmet

When it was my turn, I quickly pointed out that this was not an either-or contest between two exclusive worldviews, a kind of cosmic multiple choice test. He was making a truth claim — “There is life after death” — and in any debate, the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the one making the claim.

Joe and I both believe in the existence of the natural universe, but he believes in something extra — that there is a supernatural realm populated by immaterial personalities. We both admit that human beings are biological organisms in a natural environment, but he believes that we are also something more than that — souls, spirits, immaterial entities.

We both start from naturalism, where we agree, and argue from there. My skepticism about his additional claims about the universe is not based on an opposite worldview, but on the default view that we both share, which he is trying to enlarge.

If I claim I’ve invented a perpetual motion machine, and you ask me for proof, it would be me like saying “Prove that I didn’t.”

Not only did Joe fail to meet the burden of proof, he did not even step up to the plate. He did not accept any burden of proof at all. He even admitted, “we don’t have a debate here.”

Apparently, the way to show that there is life after death is to simply beat up on atheists. Quoting Christopher Hitchens, I replied, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

The debate was much more than that, of course — broader if not deeper. We dove into epistemology and definitions. I accused him of equivocation, and he replied by claiming that my simplistic, old-fashioned, worn-out and biased naturalistic diatribe was nothing more than “cereal box atheism.”

I was sorely tempted to reply that I would rather be a cereal box than a flake, but you can see from the video that I bit my tongue in mid-sentence. I think it looks better if the mud slings from only one side.

During cross-examination, I asked Joe to define “spirit.” He sidestepped the question by claiming that my materialistic biases automatically exclude a nonmaterial definition, and anyway, we naturalists don’t know how to define “energy.”

He claimed that consciousness is an immaterial object, while I insisted that it is not a thing at all: Consciousness and mind are labels for functions of an organ that cease to have meaning when the organ stops operating, just like software stops running when you unplug the computer.

Science has shown us the complete dependence of consciousness on the brain. I pointed out that asking if there is life after death is like asking if digestion continues to exist after the stomach disappears.

Questions from the audience were astute, directed at both of us. Up to that point I would say that Joe had been keeping his head up, speaking articulately (if not coherently), but when a question was asked about evolution, that’s when he lost the debate, as I heard from many members of the audience.

He asserted that humans are a special creation, that all species were created as separate kinds by God, and that there are serious problems with natural selection. “Darwin himself wondered where all the transitional fossils were,” he exulted, apparently not realizing that much work has been done since Darwin first announced his ideas.

After the debate, about 20 of us went to an Ethiopian restaurant and talked until way after midnight. Shawna handed me a gift from the group — not a Tim Hortons cup, but an elegant personalized pen that I can use to autograph books and sign FFRF legal letters.

This event was their first large public meeting, and because it was so successful, they are energized to do more activities on campus promoting reason, science and real human morality. There may not be life after death, but with so many smart, concerned activist students like the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society, there is certainly life after debates!

Freedom From Religion Foundation