1,200 at “Does the Christian God Exist?” debate at U of I

CHAMPAIGN — After two hours of debate between Christian and atheist authors on the topic of “Does the Christian God exist?” Dr. Kenneth Howell declared a winner: the 1,200 who attended Feb. 9 at Foellinger Auditorium on the campus of the University of Illinois.

“Our hope is that you’ve been stimulated to think,” said Dr. Howell, director of the Institute of Catholic Thought at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center who served as the evening’s moderator. “And that you will continue reading and examining your own beliefs in the light of what you’ve heard.”

What the audience heard was a compelling, sometimes heated, sometimes humorous exchange between Dinesh D’Souza, a Catholic and author of “What’s So Great About Christianity,” and John W. Loftus, who penned “Why I Became an Atheist.”

“The weight of the evidence favors God and favors Christianity,” said D’Souza, a 1983 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth University and a former policy analyst in the Reagan administration.

“What we’re trying to decide ultimately,” he continued, “is should we — or not — emulate or build our lives modeled on Jesus? And I’m saying even the atheist is disarmed by that question because it is hard to deny that Jesus’ life would make our civilization better, the world better, and it can also make life for you and for me a lot better.”

Loftus, a former ordained minister with the Church of Christ who later rejected religious belief, said he loves people of faith, but “I just think they’re wrong.” Several times he used the term “brain-washed.”

“Isn’t it obvious that if Dinesh were born to Muslim rather than Christian parents he would be defending Allah tonight with the same passion?” he asked.

“We must learn to be skeptical,” said Loftus. “We ought to all say, ‘I don’t know without hard evidence.'”

The speakers were brought to campus by co-sponsors including the Institute of Catholic Thought, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, the Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers, and the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers student organization.

Much of the discussion centered on science, including the origin of the universe and what happens in the brain during near-death experiences. D’Souza said that while science offers clues, it doesn’t answer some of the most basic questions humans ask, including: Where have we come from?
What’s the point of our lives? Where are we going?

“Here are science’s answers: ‘Don’t have a clue,’ ‘Don’t have a clue,’ ‘Don’t have a clue,’ said D’Souza.

He added that no one can disagree that the way things are in the world is “not the way they ought to be.” All philosophies and religion try to close that gap. Christianity, said D’Souza, says the “chasm” between reality and perfect justice is too large, and had to be closed “from the other side” by God becoming human.

Loftus countered that once a supernatural explanation is introduced into an equation, “any supernatural explanation will do.”

While the topic was most serious, the speakers occasionally used humor to break the tension. At one point D’Souza noted Loftus was wearing a cowboy hat.

“Listening to John Loftus, I almost feel like I’m at a rodeo,” he told the audience. “I see a point here, a point there, but a lot of bull in between.”
“I can’t beat him for charm,” said Loftus of D’Souza. “But he’s wrong. And he doesn’t know it. Brainwashed people do not know they are brainwashed.”

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, the two speakers fielded about a dozen questions from the audience, ranging from Jesus as a historical figure — a point of general agreement, with the notable exception of Jesus’ claim to the Son of God — to whether the children of atheists are “brainwashed” as well.

In addition to the 1,200 in attendance, another 600 watched a live video stream of the debate online, according to David Hazen, director of communications for St. John’s Catholic Newman Center. The discussion continued at book signings following the debate.

Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, director and head chaplain at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, offered welcoming remarks, thanking both speakers and attendees for braving the day’s snow in order to take part in the discussion.

A link to an audio version of the debate was expected to be available at the Newman Center Web site, www.sjcnc.org.

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