"On the subject of the nature of the gods, the first question is ‘Do the gods exist or do they not?’ It is difficult, you may say, to deny that the gods exist. I would agree if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly, but in a private discussion of this kind, it is perfectly easy to do so."
-Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, book one
On Wednesday, April 9, I had the pleasure of moderating a debate between one of Canada's best known evangelists and one of America's more prominent atheists. Hosted by the Niagara Secular Humanist Society at the Canadian Auto-Workers Hall in St. Catharines, the event saw Peter Youngren of the Celebration Church and Dan Barker of the Freedom of Religion Foundation square off over the question asked by Cicero all those years ago: Does god exist or not.
Being the moderator, my job was not to debate - in as much as I wanted to - but rather to play the role of referee in a boxing match - make sure the fighters understood the rules, fought according to them, and protected themselves at all times.
It was a lively and sometimes heated debate, but before I present my own views on the night I wanted to say thank you to both Peter and Dan, who were both gracious and made my job as moderator very easy. They are both very likable men, and had the audience of about 300 people.(That might not sound like any great shakes, but for this town it is nothing short of a miracle....if you will excuse the phrase.)
I opened by reading the above passage from Cicero's "On the Nature of the Gods" because when it comes to theology, his question is the first and most important to be answered. Indeed, this is why Cicero includes it early in his book.
The theology of the world's three great monotheism - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - all rest on a single proposition, that God exists. Yes, yes, they each have a different view of what god is, or isn't, but this is the first fundamental assumption each faith makes. Well, they have to, don't they? If there isn't a god then all the theological gobbledygook and fretting about what said god will do to you if you say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or get up to something with your lover the cosmic voyeur doesn't like isn't worth a bother. It all becomes counting angels on the heads of pins, doesn't it?
I chose Cicero because he expressed something else important about the debate to come - that it was a debate about the existence of god. In public. With no threat of retribution for anyone. The reason Cicero said he would only agree that it is difficult to deny that god exists in pubic, but can easily do so in private, is because for most of western history - and indeed still in many parts of the world - this not believing god stuff would get you locked up, killed or tortured. Or all of the above. Or, if this was a communist country, defending a religious belief in public would be rather like saying "well, I have the noose around my neck anyway, so I might as well just kick the horse." It's important to recognize that we enjoy a historical rarity - the freedom to believe, or not, and to debate those views in public without fear.
For those who do not know, Peter Youngren is one of Canada's best known Christian preachers. He's been in his ministry for over 30 years, regularly travels around the world preaching and appears on TV frequently. I've interviewed him several times over the years as a journalist and while I've never agreed with his religious views, I've always found him to be a likable and sincere person. One of the things that did impress me about him was something he did right after the 9-11 attacks. Many Muslims in St. Catharines, like those around the world, felt they were going to blamed for what happened. In fact, there was a botched fire bombing at the local mosque. Peter was, I believe, the first Christian leader in the community to go to the mosque and tell them not to fear, that they were still part of the community and while he and they believed different things about god, they agreed on many things as well. So while I don't subscribe to Peter's beliefs, I certainly respect what he did to help defuse some community tensions during that time.
Dan Barker's story is really a real life reversal of Paul on the road to Damascus. For decades, Dan was just like Peter Youngren. He traveled and preached as an evangelical preacher. He even wrote several popular Christian musicals for kids. But over time Dan's faith crumbled away. He reached a point where, like Charles Templeton (who we will hear more about later), he felt he had to make a choice between "God and truth", and truth won out. He's since become the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the United States - and turned his musical talents to music for non-believers. Like his better known counter parts like Christopher Hitchens, Dan spends a lot of his time traveling debating with people on issues of religion.
What I'm going to do in part one is provide a quick summary of the arguments and then in part two discuss my analysis of those arguments.
The debate kicked off with opening remarks, with Barker going first and asking Peter to present evidence for the existence of god. Not declarations or statements like "Well it's all so complex here must be a god," but actual evidence. Then he asked Youngren to do something I found very interesting: he asked Peter to provide an example of something that would, in his mind, falsify the god hypothesis. The reason is simple. Science spends most of its time trying to disprove its own ideas, looking for the evidence that "disproves" or falsify a hypothesis or theory. In doing so, science is constantly modifying what it knows by tossing out ideas that don't work. And most know what it would take to undermine a scientific theory. I mean, if a fossil rabbit was ever found in the pre-Cambrian, well, that would just about do it for the theory of evolution. Theories, even the most powerful and well-supported, can be toppled by a single bit of evidence. So Barker asked Youngren, to produce that kind of thing for the notion of god.
Barker also suggested that the morals of the bible, and of the character of god in particular isn't anything to write home about. Referring to the old testament god as a "war god" and listed several of Yahweh's more ghastly episodes of blood-letting, he asked a question of the audience: who believed in this desert war god Yahweh. (Youngren piped up at this point to say he believed in Yahweh, but Yahweh was not a war god). The point, Barker said, is that most people are nicer, kinder and more compassionate than the god of the Bible. He then pointed to the fact that most of the gods once believed in are now regarded as myth and that everyone in the audience is an atheist with respect to Zeus, or Odin or Thor. The only difference between them and the atheist, he said, is that the atheist goes "one god further."
Youngren, who said growing up in Sweden he lived in a community that was largely atheist, took a different tact, attacking what is sometimes called "New Atheism". In particular he said the works of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, and especially Richard Dawkins, showed a great deal of "rage." Rather then embracing science, Youngren suggested atheists ignore the evidence for the existence of god - including, he said, why many cultures have developed a notion of god. His suggestion was that human beings have an innate sense of morality and knowledge of god. Finally, he said that many scientists are believers in a god, and they point to evidence to support that belief.
This followed about an hour of back and forth debate (interrupted for about 10 minutes by problems with the CAW hall's sound system). They covered a fairly wide variety of subjects, but the heart of the debate turned on two questions: the evidence for god, and the morality of god as presented in the bible (which was a repeat of the above arguments.)
On the first question, Barker noted there was no evidence to support the claims made by believers - who incidentally cannot even agree on a definition of what god is. He further noted that if such evidence existed, as many believers claim, why has it never been presented in a scientific paper? Why not win the Nobel prize?
Youngren didn't really meet these questions head on. Instead he pointed out the number of scientific titans who professed a belief in god - including Albert Einstein. On this point, Barker gave Youngren credit because the pastor didn't make the error of saying Einstein believed in a personal god. Einstein was a kind of deist, rather than a theist and Youngren made a point of making sure that was clear. However, he did note the reasons why Einstein believed what he did, and said, in essence, if it was good enough for him why not for the rest of us?
The Q & A that followed the hour long back and forth covered much of the ground already discussed by the speakers. There were a few stand outs however. Most of the questions were directed at Barker, and were from believers. Many got up to make declarations of faith (which meant I had to tell them to ask a question or give up the mic) but generally wanted to know why Barker did not believe when, as far as they knew, the bible was completely true. Some claimed to have seen miracles and one even asked if Barker, when he was a preacher, ever saw something he could not explain. Barker's primary response was to say that, in effect, declarations of faith were not evidence that god exists. He said he also understood that people think they see healings in churches like Youngren's all the time. He certainly did he believed. However, he admitted that at the time, he made no effort to critically examine what he saw and assumed, because of his belief, that the healings were real. Today he doubts they were, and suggests that most of the time it was merely a case of mind over matter. He said there may have been things that happened that he cannot explain, but his inability to explain them is not evidence of god.
The questions that were directed at Youngren were largely from his own flock and some gave him an easy time, such as the young lady who asked Youngren to explain a statement he made that he could not read through Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. (Yougren said he found the book angry and spiteful and felt Dawkins simply made no sense whatsoever, so he gave up reading.) But the preacher did face a couple of critical questions. One came from Horst Klaus of the Niagara Secular Humanist society. He asked if god was loving, why create animals that ate others? Why create viruses and bacteria that destroy other creatures from the inside out? Youngren replied that man created the harsh world we live through Adam and Eve's rebellion in Genesis. He also countered that God, even it appears he is doing something violent or bad, he still approached people with love.
The debate was, overall, well-mannered and was very well attended for the first time such an event has been held in St. Catharines. I want to think both Mr. Barker and Mr. Youngren for their time and willingness to debate such an important subject.
This is a very brief sketch of the debate that night, and I will be extending an invitation to both Dan and Peter, along with Mr. Klaus to post their impressions of the debate.
From Left: Dan Barker - Freedom from Religion Foundation, Peter Youngren - Niagara Celebration Church, Grant LaFleche - Gadfly, Horst Klaus- Niagara Secular Humanists.