Each of the first two nights of the tour we had about fifty people which wasn’t bad since we had virtually no promotion in Calgary or Red Deer. (Things would have been very different had we done the tour during the university semester, for in that case we could have had the events on University of Calgary and Red Deer College campuses which would immediately have brought in a large student population. June is a tough time of year to do a debate.)
Things were different in Edmonton. With the exposure from the Edmonton Journal and the fact that this is my stomping grounds we had 300+ people packed into Greenfield Baptist Church. Once again the skeptic community was well represented in the audience. By my best guess, perhaps 30% of the audience would have come identifying with John’s position.
With a larger audience the dynamic changed noticeably. The atmosphere was less intimate but more festive. At the beginning of his opening statement each night John said he expected me to change my theology after our exchange. The first two nights the comment was met with a couple snickers. But on the third night, with a sizeable audience, the comment was met with raucous laughter. Based on that positive audience feedback both John and I were more lively, interspersing comments with jokes and gently sarcastic quips. This helped remove much of the tension that had been present at the previous two debates. Indeed, there was virtually no antagonism during the evening. (However, afterward I was talking to an atheist who made some insulting remarks about Mother Teresa at which a gentleman immediately objected that he was a Catholic and took offense at her comments. There were a few other heated exchanges among those in the audience following the debate but, as they say, it’s all good. I don’t think anybody left too put out.)
This debate was structured a bit differently with Myron Penner, author of the new book The End of Apologetics (Baker) serving as a moderator. Myron also offered ten minutes of comments following John’s and my opening statements. Myron is a critic of apologetics and attempted to present the whole debate as a dubious modern project borne out of some kind of post-Cartesian anxiety. I think this is false and I explained why. Myron also challenged the value of the debate because much of the discussion was focused on mere theism and nobody is a mere theist so the topic isn’t religiously relevant. I think this is completely spurious. First of all, many people are mere theists (for example the late Antony Flew). Moreover, for many people acceptance of the existence of God is a stepping stone to full Christian theism. After one accepts the existence of God one can then ask the question: has God revealed himself in history? As I noted, Myron’s objection seemed to be that if apologetic debates can’t do everything then they can’t do anything. Interestingly the absurd nature of this objection reminded me of Loftus who repeatedly labelled anybody who denied scientism as a “science denier”, as if the failure to accept that science can do everything commits one to saying science can do nothing. What rubbish.
I have one final critique for Myron which is already implied in my above comments. His kind of critique is a high level theoretical critique which completely fails to engage with the actual, contextualized function of apologetic arguments. And it leaves one scratching their head in wonder at how Myron himself would propose that Christians ought to respond to putative defeaters for their belief or to present a positive reason for the hope within. Anyway, while I may not have shared much agreement with Myron, I’m glad he was there as a representative of the anti-apologetic position, if only to show its many problems.
Once again, the Q&A was a lot of fun. There were passionate questions and comments which covered a range of topics from evil to cosmic fine-tuning to queries on the backstory of John’s conversion to atheism. It is interesting, however, that no matter how often you say “Please state your question!” people will continue to ramble with no question in sight. Sometimes the rambling is interesting and revealing, but when there is a line-up of questioners you’d really prefer folks to get to the point.
We finally closed the evening at 9:15 with one poor questioner left at the mic. Afterward he came up to me and told me what he had intended to say. The man was Indian (South Asian) and he commented that the debate we’d had would never have occurred at a Hindu temple or Buddhist temple or mosque. So the fact that Greenfield Baptist was open to the conversation showed that we were interested in pursuing truth. Too bad he hadn’t gotten the last word on the mic, for that was a great comment.
I really enjoyed hanging out with John for a few days. He’s one of them good ole’ boys, even if he does like Katy Perry and One Direction. (Apparently when I noted that John liked that UK boy band in the debate last night I referred to them as “One Dimension”. My daughter corrected me after … and she was mortified that I’d made such an elementary pop-culture blunder! Anyway John, don’t feel too bad about liking One Direction. I listen to Backstreet Boys Greatest Hits when I’m alone in my car…)
One more thing. Over the last three days I recorded five podcasts with John as we slowly made our way north from Calgary to Edmonton and I’ll be posting those as the next entries in my podcast next week. So look for them.
Oh yeah, one more final thing. John and I also recorded a show with Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” which will broadcast in mid-July, so be sure to look for it.