There were technical difficulties, cheers and jeers from the supporters of the home team, and a landslide victory for one side – no, this wasn’t a sporting event, but last night’s debate between Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Peter Youngren, a pastor with the Niagara Celebration Church (previously the Word of Life Church), on the topic, “Does God Exist?”. (Notices of the event had been posted at http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=973586 , http://www.centerforinquiry.net/ontario , http://www.mycelebrationministries.com/mycm/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=72&Itemid=101 , http://www.globalhumanism.org/globe.html .) The event was moderated by a reporter from the St. Catharines Standard, whose online Religion section, at http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/SearchCat.aspx?cid=2663&cname=Religion , has, as of this writing, yet to mention the event. TV cameras recorded the event, though I was unable to find out when or where the recordings would be made available.

I arrived by the ‘doors open’ time, and sat third-row centre, beside where audience members would stand to ask their questions. To one side, some tables were set up with books and pamphlets, half from the church, half from secular organizations such as Niagara Secular Humanists (who organized the debate) and the Center for Inquiry Ontario. My only regret for the evening was that I assumed a bank machine would be within walking distance, and I had insufficient cash on hand to purchase the two CDs of Dan Barker’s counter-religious music. The format was for each side to have a fifteen-minute opening statement, then a number of five-minute exchanges, and finally audience members asked questions, with the person asked having two minutes to answer, and their opponent one minute to rebut. Throughout the evening, the PA system gave off an annoying amount of static, but it didn’t obscure any of the words spoken. At the end of the night, there was a drawing for a door prize, which turned out to be a bottle of wine – naturally, there were some jokes about it having previously been water.

For the meat of the debate, both in my own opinion, and in my highly unscientific poll of exiting audience members, the result was obvious: Barker completely overwhelmed Youngren. The pastor said many things, but in the end, failed to meet the debate’s most basic challenge, to provide any significant evidence for the existence of God. He also made a number of easily-verifiable factual errors, and used a number of deprecated debating tactics, nearly all of which Barker pointed out as being logical fallacies. Youngren even Godwinned the debate early on – for anyone unfamiliar with the term, it’s used in online debates, and refers to the practice of comparing one’s opponents to Hitler or the Nazis. (Barker did not bother to rise to the bait on these occasions, other than to once mention that Stalin was seminary-trained, and Hitler was Catholic.) In fact, Youngren did an even worse job defending his claim than in some online debates on the topic I’ve participated in. He’s obviously not unintelligent, whatever his theological beliefs, so the only conclusion I can reach is that he simply wasn’t playing to win the game, but was participating for some other reason, perhaps involving displaying something to his parishioners.

During the question period, one of the questions posed to Barker (by a Muslim, as it happened), was “Who created heaven and the Earth?”. Once Barker had finished pointing out that the question was based on a flawed premise, one of the audience members started shouting out that Barker hadn’t answered the question, and so he’d lost the debate. This, after Youngren himself had failed to answer any of Barker’s questions asking for evidence for the existence of God. (Youngren’s response to that was to suggest that it was up to the atheists to prove there is no God, despite the obvious fallacy that it’s logically impossible to prove a negative.)

The oddest question was the very last one. A woman explained that she was a health professional, and had laid hands on a patient’s tumor, which immediately disappeared, and she had radiological evidence to prove it… so was it possible for a homosexual to be a Christian?

My favorite moment of the evening was when Barker described how it is unjust for one person to accept punishment for the crimes of another – if he has transgressed, he himself will pay the fine for it, or spend time in prison for it, not anyone else. If, simply because he is not a Christian, that he does not want someone else to be punished on his behalf, God will condemn him to an eternity of torture, he would go to Hell with his head held high.

As would I.

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