The Debate Continues By Dan Barker (April 1999)

In February I participated in two “Does God Exist?” debates.
On February 18 I debated Tom Rode, President of Ohio Campus Crusade For Christ (CCC), at Ohio State Uni versity, Columbus. The event was sponsored by Students For Free thought, CCC, and the Ohio Union Board. Although the audience of 200 was primarily religious, a healthy contingent of student and community atheists and humanists expressed support for the freethought side.

Since this was Rode’s first public debate, he was not as prepared or conversant as other debaters. His arguments were standard–cosmological, design, morality, and the putative resurrection of Jesus–but during cross examination and questions from the audience, his unfamiliarity with scientific concepts and with the critical scholarship of the resurrection was obvious.

Rode claimed that without a God, there is no basis for moral values. I pointed out that there are no such things as “objective moral values,” and even if there were, there is no single moral issue on which Christians agree. For example, a state execution was scheduled for the next day (Ohio’s first in 35 years) and devout, Bible-believing Christians were taking positions on both sides of the issue.

If the Bible is a clear moral guide, why do believers disagree on such crucial issues as capital punishment, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, gay rights, birth control, women’s rights, and war?

After the debate, a local minister came up to me and said, “What you are saying frightens me.”

“Why should it frighten you?” I asked.

“Because, if you are right, then everything I have been preaching and living is wrong.”

“But why should that frighten you?” I continued. “If atheism is right, then wouldn’t you be excited to learn it? Wouldn’t you be happy to know the truth about reality, to be rid of false ideas?”

“I suppose I would, if it were true. But it would change everything.”

To this man’s credit, he appears willing to entertain the possibility that he might be wrong. He is not afraid of truth: it is change that frightens him.

I want to thank the student organizers August Brunsman, David Frison, and Robert Nekervis (moderator) for putting on such a successful event. And special appreciation to Foundation member Joe Sommer, a Columbus attorney, who staffed (and policed) the FFRF literature table.

On February 23, I debated Michael Horner of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Shoreline Community College in Seattle, Washington. The debate was moderated by Ken Schramm, popular host of Seattle’s KOMO-TV talk show “Town Meeting.”

This was the third debate that I have had with Horner, but unlike the previous two encounters, this time the audience was not in his favor. For the first time in my experience, the audience of 300+ students and community members (including many Foundation members) was divided at least 50/50, maybe even slightly more toward freethought. There were no religious or student sponsors; the event was organized by Shore line College’s lecture series.

At one point I mentioned that the Pacific North west, especially Seattle, contains the highest ratio of unbelievers in the nation. When I said, “You should be proud of that fact,” spontaneous, heart felt applause erupted from all parts of the room. That was a refreshing experience.

Horner is one of the better debaters, conversant with all the issues. But he made the mistake of insisting that I should go first. (He erroneously claims atheists share an equal burden of proof. I think he was hoping I would only be prepared with rebuttals, offering nothing positive in favor of atheism.) Having the opening statement, I took the opportunity to set the tone. Not only did I underscore the lack of evidence for theism (“god of the gaps”), but I presented many evidences leaning toward the likelihood of a godless universe, plus positive “coherency” arguments outlining mutually contradictory aspects in the traditional definition of a god.

Horner came back swinging, and we got into a lively 10-minute cross examination that kept us both on our toes. When I asked him to describe what God is made of, he replied “spirit.” When I asked for the definition of “spirit,” he had none, and charged that I was begging the question by refusing to consider the possibility of a being without a body. When he asked me for the source of “objective moral values,” I replied that there are no such things, only that there is an “objective basis in nature” for making ethical choices.

Horner’s main arguments were cosmological, design, and morality. Unlike our first two debates, he omitted the resurrection of Jesus, perhaps for time reasons, but perhaps because he knew, from our previous debate, that I was prepared with the results of current liberal Christian scholarship showing that the bodily resurrection is legendary, not historical.

Like the Ohio debate, the questions from the Seattle audience were quite strong. Many freethinkers posed tough problems to Horner, making excellent points that I hadn’t thought of or hadn’t had time to address.

After the debate, I was pleasantly surrounded mainly by freethinkers, which was unusual. And so was Horner! Possibly for the first time in his life, he was the mission field.

During our drive back to the hotel, Horner told me, “Well, we got some people thinking tonight.”

“We sure did,” I replied.

Special thanks to Foundation members Beth and Scott for hospitality, and to Beth for organizing an informal dinner of more than 20 Seattle-area freethinkers at the Wild Ginger Restaurant the evening before the debate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation