Thinking Out Loud

January 31, 2010

The Christian Vs. The Athiest: A Debate

Last night our town’s largest Baptist church, in association with the local Humanist Association presented a debate in which Joe Boot, a pastor and Christian apologist and former staff member with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries debated Dr. Clare Rowson, a lecturer, psychiatrist and medical columnist.      The event was well attended, the moderator kept things orderly and the mixed crowd — I’d guess something like 65% Christian and 35% atheist — was polite toward both guests.

I’m not sure if an event like this can be discussed in terms of winners and losers.    People arrive with their feet firmly planted in one camp or the other, and while I’m not saying it’s impossible, I doubt there are many people converting to the opposite opinion before nights like this are over.    There are two remarkably different perspectives, and not a lot of common ground, although quotations from writers with the opposing view flew back and forth over the evening, just to make things more interesting.

I think the winners are the audience members who get some exposure to people and viewpoints they may be somewhat isolated from.    I know many Christians who simply don’t get into philosophical or religious discussions with anyone other than members of their own tribe.   I think it’s a good thing for them to hear from an intelligent, articulate and logical atheist, and then to see a representative of their own team respond appropriately.

I am also sure that some atheists might find themselves similarly isolated, although given the topic — Does God Exist? — they didn’t exactly hear what Christians would call “The Gospel,” but rather a sort of pre-evangelistic discussion that only a handful of times mentioned the name of Jesus.   (In a Church service the next day, Joe Boot addressed this as he lectured on the topic, “Is Jesus the Only Way?”)

Boot indicated at one point that he was using a “reverse apologetic,” in other words, trying to show the futility of atheism.    Rowson indicated early on that since you can’t prove a negative hypothesis — “God Does Not Exist” — this placed the burden of proof on the Christian side.   As stated,  Boot, for whatever tactical reason, was not setting out to do this, so I am sure there were people in both camps who walked away disappointed.

The event also suffered from the use of the standard debate format.   The initial presentation from each debater was 20 minutes, followed by a four minute rebuttal and two minute rebuttal response.   The rebuttals seemed very short by comparison.

The second half was two-minute responses to questions that had been preselected from e-mails received during the week.   That was also unfortunate, since there were things said in the first half that begged clarification, and also, it meant that the two hour evening had no interactive component.    It would have been ideal to find a somewhat neutral journalist who could engage audience questions in a less formal “talk show” kind of situation.   (Yes, I’m available in future, but I’m not exactly neutral.)

Should your town or city consider an event like this?   I’m not sure.  The church that helped promote this event is very “program and event driven,” so it fit their church culture well.    But there was also a lot of energy that went into this for very little initial evidence of what the Christian side would call fruit.

It did however bring the word “apologetics” into discussion.   As Boot said this morning,  “Some people think you need an IQ of 120 or more to do apologetics and everybody with an IQ under 120 should do evangelism.  That’s not true.  Everybody should be ready and able to give a defense of their faith.”

For more information about Joe Boot’s new Church plant in Toronto, Canada, Westminster Chapel, click here.   For information on another of his projects, the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity, click here.    You can also check the sidebar of this blog periodically for links beginning with the keyword, Apologetics.

Today’s Quotation:  Does This Mean Spurgeon Wasn’t Arminian?
“It always seems inexplicable to me that those who claim free will so very boldly for man should not also allow some free will to God. Why should not Jesus Christ have the right to choose his own bride?”–Spurgeon

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