Debate Triggers A Lot of Thinking by Beth Taylor (April 2000)

They strode confidently into the lecture room, smiling supportively at the eager young men passing out leaflets at the Campus Crusade for Christ tables. After all, they had every reason to be gleeful–they were about to watch the out-of-town atheist get chewed up and spit out by the local fundamentalist preacher. Only it didn’t happen that way.

The Christians who attended the Feb. 29 debate at Bellevue Community College between Dan Barker of FFRF and the Rev. Phil Fernandes must have been sorely disappointed. As evening wore on, many of their faces seemed to fall, and they grew quieter and quieter. They hadn’t been expecting much of a debate.

And in fact, they didn’t get one–though it was their side that was lacking in substance. Dr. Fernandes, who seemed a nice enough fellow but no scholar, kept tripping up on his own circuitous reasoning. For instance, he said at one point that all things are finite after having argued that god is infinite.

At another, when cornered by Dan into acknowledging that no evidence could ever possibly convince him that his god did not exist, Fernandes admitted–in his own words–that he would consider someone with such a viewpoint “close-minded.” This drew startled and prolonged laughter from the audience, even in the high-tech town of Bellevue, located next to polite-to-a-fault Seattle, Washington. Dan did not say a word at that point nor did he need to. Judging by the audience response and applause during the debate, the great majority seemed to agree with or, at the very least, appreciate the logic of Dan’s nontheistic point of view.

The audience was won over early on. Dr. Fernandes’ rambling opening speech about laws of causality and the much-maligned Second Law of Thermodynamics sounded convoluted and dry. Dan’s opening, in sharp contrast, seemed impassioned and reasoned. He was neither the wild-haired, fire-breathing devil-worshiper nor the amoral academician that Fernandes’ fans must have been expecting. They weren’t quite sure what to do about a personable, unassuming guy who appeared to have no agenda other than enlightening the minds of others to the possibilities of intellectual freedom through nontheism. It was hard not to catch Dan’s enthusiasm as he described his rejection of religion: “It’s like a wonderful light was turned on in my head.”

Even nontheists felt sorry for Fernandes when he was reduced to stammering by a question from the audience about the age of the Earth. Fernandes noted that science seems to support the “old Earth” theory, but admitted he has trouble reconciling that with the biblical “data.” That question was followed by quite a few others challenging Fernandes’ beliefs. Dan received his share of questions, though some were hard to follow. One woman, apparently unable to come up with a substantive argument, tried a trick of semantics. Dan had made a point earlier that, if god had the ability to prevent the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and did not do so, then Dan and Phil Fernandes were “nicer than god.”

The woman said that, since Dan had called himself “nicer than god,” he must therefore believe in god. Quick on the draw, Dan responded that just because someone says they are nicer than The Big Bad Wolf doesn’t mean they actually believe in the fictional character. To his credit, Fernandes acknowledged that he did not think Dan’s statement had meant he believed in god. The woman, who appeared somewhat shaken, came up to Dan after the debate and asked what had caused him to turn away from religion.

He responded: “just reading and doing a lot of thinking.” She backed quietly away. Perhaps she had hoped to hear that some trauma had triggered Dan’s decision; something that would help her to justify his rejection of god within her own belief system.

It is my personal hope that she, and many other Christians in the audience that night, went home and did something strongly discouraged in the bible. A lot of thinking. Foundation member Beth Taylor is a freelance columnist in the Seattle area. Beth and Foundation member Coral Powers organized an informal lunch with Dan and area freethinkers at a local restaurant. Dan was a guest on the KIRO “Mike Webb” radio talkshow that weekend (following an interview with presidential hopeful Bill Bradley, who was in town for the primaries), and on the national gay and lesbian GAYBC radio talkshow that is broadcast from that area. Many thanks to Beth and Scott (and Molly) Taylor, and to Coral and Rich Powers, for hospitality and transportation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation