On February 11, 2006, I sat amidst a debate between Wilfrid Laurier Professor Christopher diCarlo, and Scott Wilkinson, pastor of the New Creation Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was held in the Bricker Academic Building, and to everyone’s surprise, the room was filled. I suppose it isn’t shocking when you consider the debate’s topic. It’s one that can certainly draw a crowd:
Does the God of the Bible exist?
Going into the room, I assumed that Christians would be a minority. I figured the debate would be a pretty academic gathering — maybe only a handful of students lucky enough to have heard about the event. I assumed any Christians there would be the pained targets of anti–religious sentiment.
The opposite was true and the tension was immediate.
The God question, of course, is often intensely personal, and a crowd typically can’t remain objective for long. The debaters, unfortunately, couldn’t either. Even the MC was decidedly Atheist — he made a few passing comments that came off as snide. Both debaters showed some similar distaste for opposing mentalities, and the crowd rallied behind their biases with biases of their own — this came primarily, I must admit, from the Christian side.
Though applause was a big no–no, Wilkinson was applauded and cheered much more than diCarlo, and not due to any argumentative prowess. The comments that earned the most reaction were the more biased ones, such as Wilkinson’s frightening indifference towards gender inequality in Christianity: “At least women were made in the image of God, and not dredged up from slime.” To my despair, some women shouted their approval. diCarlo’s rebuttal raised applause as well: “Though we came from slime, men and women rose from it equally.” My own human rights bias compelled me to clap.
To pick on diCarlo for a moment, his use of humour, while energetic and entertaining, brandished too much bias — his jokes catered to the progressive Atheists in the crowd and excluded those he needed to convince.
Despite this, arguments on both sides were presented clearly and presented well, though the nature of those arguments differed in ways that affected their overall reception. diCarlo’s arguments for Atheism were, to put it bluntly, a lot easier to grasp: Atheism’s general embrace of science allowed diCarlo to tie his ideas to nearly irrefutable instances of
empirical evidence. When needed, he could move into some simple philosophy. Wilkinson’s arguments stayed abstract and more ethereal. It seemed as though he had to enter into a much more ambiguous mode of argumentation to defend ambiguous ideas.
Their arguments centered like this: diCarlo insisted that God is an invention, that world religion is a control mechanism, and that all religions somehow fail to peg down the transcendental force they refer to. Wilkinson argued that without the Christian God, there could be none of the logic that Atheism relies on. Without God there could be nothing permanent or stable; no logic, no moral code, no facts, since unchanging absolutes imply transcendence, and to have transcendence you must have a transcendent God. Here was Wilkinson’s major misstep — judging by the title of the debate, the discussion wasn’t supposed to be about whether there’s a God or not, but whether or not the God of the bible exists. The pastor didn’t pause to consider the obvious: if there has to be a Platonic transcendental force, why does it have to be the Christian God? The question was even raised, but he tactfully misinterpreted the question, redirecting the discussion elsewhere.
By the end of the debate one became aware via Wilkinson’s final speech that his participation wasn’t about discussion, it was about conversion, and a subtle sermon had been trickling in. He finally implored the Atheists in the audience to change and be saved. diCarlo didn’t call him out on this, which leads me to believe that he was confident that all along, though they had perhaps not intended it, both had been debating to bolster the resolves of the ideas already present in the crowd.
Even if it doesn’t sound like it, the debate was certainly worth the watching. It was incredibly refreshing to see something this personal discussed outside of the church and outside of the classroom. I want more, and I want you to go next time. If you’d like to read the paper diCarlo used for the debate it is published here: www.cdicarlo.com.