By Dan Barker
On Oct. 13, I participated in my 128th publicly moderated debate. It took place in the huge Calvary Church in Charlotte, N.C., where I had been invited by the Southern Evangelical Seminary (founded by Norman Geisler) to debate Richard Howe on the topic, "Is there a God who speaks?" It was part of the seminary's National Conference on Christian Apologetics. The event that evening, sponsored by the American Family Association, was intended to show attendees how to debate an atheist.
It was fun to be standing in a pulpit again. I told the large mainly evangelical Christian audience that I was feeling some of those old feelings wash over me. "I have an almost irresistible urge to take up a collection," I said. To their credit, they laughed heartily.
The most exhausting part of a debate is not the event itself. Nor is it the preparation. If you are prepared, the debate can be relaxing and fun, an "in the moment" adventure where you feel very much alive.
The most exhausting part is when it is over. Because it isn't really over. After Howe and I had finished debating for two hours, the moderator (Christian author Frank Turek) told the audience that we would be available to talk personally with anyone who still had questions. When we got out into that huge megachurch foyer, we were mobbed by people wanting to "have a go" at us. It was mostly friendly and polite — maybe because I had reminded them that their key apologetic verse (I Peter 3:15) commands Christians to do it with "gentleness and reverence" — but since it was very noisy and my voice was getting hoarse, I basically had to shout to be heard. This went on for more than an hour.
It was nice to meet some FFRF members and local freethinkers. But most of the crowd pressing around me were young Christians. A couple of them were argumentative and intense — one guy insisting loudly that "existence is a property!" — but most were genuinely polite and appreciative.
One pleasant young man who looked like a college student approached me with a concerned look. "How is your left knee feeling?" he asked.
"My left knee? That's a strange question. My knees are fine."
He looked confused. "Are you sure your left knee is OK? Are you feeling any pain?"
"No. My knees are just perfect." I did a little kick in the air to show him. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I was led by the spirit to pray for your left knee," he replied. He came closer, as if to perform faith healing. I did a little jig to show him that my legs were in good working order.
"Well, the spirit deceived you, didn't it?" I said.
He took a step backward. "No. I guess it was my sinful mistake."
"If my knees actually were hurting," I continued, "you would have counted that as evidence for a spiritual world, wouldn't you?"
"Then you should count this failure as evidence against your belief."
He just stared at me.
"If you would count all of your prayers, not just the few apparent successes, you will see that they add up to no more than random chance."
"I'm a broken sinner," he said quietly.
"No," I replied. "You are simply deluded." As he and his friends turned to leave, I almost had to yell to be heard in that noisy room. "But there's a cure for that! It's called reason."
Then another young man of high-school age came up to me with a nervous smile.
"Thank you for coming," he said excitedly. "I agree with everything you said."
"Thank you," I replied, shaking his hand.
"I've had those same thoughts for a long time," he continued, "and I have never heard anyone say them like you did." We talked for half a minute, and then he asked if he could take a picture with me.
"Sure!" I said. His friend held up a camera as he moved to stand beside me, but before the shot could be taken, a woman grabbed the boy's arm and rudely pulled him away from me. "No, you don't," she said. "We're leaving now." She dragged him out of the building before we could say goodbye.
That must have been a humiliating experience. But I'm sure he will never forget it. When he gets into college, I hope he emails me to tell me that freedom of thought is not so easily suppressed. Maybe I will give a talk to his secular group on campus someday, and we can finish taking that photo.
Dan Barker is co-president of FFRF.