A Non-Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist

Over the weekend, I was in Columbus, Ohio. I was invited there to do a public talk with a Christian pastor at The Ohio State University.

Normally, when you hear about these things, it’s a debate. The speakers will throw out their arguments as to why there is or probably isn’t a God… or where our morality comes from. Those aren’t bad, but they don’t really get anywhere. Not many people leave with a different opinion, and most audience members don’t get to ask the question that’s most on their minds.

This wasn’t one of those events, and I think everyone had a better time because of it.

Pastor Jay Gamelin and I sat in front of an audience, with two moderators (one religious, one not) seated beside us.

Everyone in attendance (around 150 people, I was told) was given a notecard or two when they entered. If they had a question at any point in the evening, they wrote it down, raised their hands, and an usher collected the cards.

The ushers gave the cards to the moderators, who filtered out the crazy questions and took turns asking the two of us whatever was on the audience’s mind.

It was fun, friendly, and enjoyable. Completely unscripted. Hopefully, it inspired people who saw it to engage in those types of conversations with people they know who think differently about God.

Afterwards, a giant group of the skeptics and Christians went out for a late dinner. Good times were had :)

Video of the event should be up soon… I’ll post it when I get ahold of it.

In case you’re ever looking to hold an event that could bring together people from different ends of the religious spectrum, I recommend this approach.

It’s different, but I’m surprised people don’t do it more often.

  • absent sway

    What an encouraging thing to hear! I’m looking forward to the video.

  • Trevor

    Ah, well crap man!

    I was at OSU this weekend, visiting! In fact, I saw them setting up for something… I wonder if it was your event?
    If I had known, I definitely would’ve been in that audience.

    Oh well – next time!

    ps: I believe PZ is supposed to be at OSU this coming weekend (but I won’t get to be there). They book all the good heathens, don’t they?

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    Cool, that’s an event I would be interesting in attending & participating in.

  • SarahH

    That sounds wonderful :-) Go Hemant!

    My only disappointment is that you didn’t find a way to grab the crazy question cards that were discarded, like you did at the MegaChurch… I mean, those were super interesting! You need to stay true to your record of obtaining extra entertaining material when there are cards being sorted!

  • Pseudonym

    Sounds like a great night. Can’t wait for the video.

    One question I do have…

    a giant group of the skeptics and Christians went out for a late dinner

    I’m guessing you didn’t mean to imply that the groups were disjoint, or that all of the Atheists were skeptics (chances are good they weren’t), etc etc.

  • http://www.rationalitynow.com Dan Gilbert

    That sounds fantastic! More of a sharing of philosophies than a confrontational debate. I have conversations like that with some wonderful coworkers who are very religious. Those conversations are much more enjoyable than debates or arguments… although those can be fun sometimes, too. ;-)

  • inkadu

    Good on you! I’ve listened to religious/atheist debates and they are extremely irritating. Nobody changes their minds, and often they don’t really learn much about the other view, so combative is the environment.

    Some of my best conversations with Christians haven’t been confrontational, but just honestly asking the questions that eventually drove me away from Christianity. It’s interesting the answers they come up (though it’s mostly, “that’s an interesting way to put it” or “you should speak to my pastor”).

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    That’s a brilliant way to do things; I really wish more “debates” were done like that. I agree that listening to christian/atheist debates are just downright painful–I can’t do it anymore.

  • Awesomesauce

    I would say things like “that’s an interesting way to put it” or “you should speak to my pastor” all the time. Though, it usually meant “I could only speculate” or “I may have heard a neat apologetic once in a sermon,” not that I would ever address/think about the question. In fact, I converted my first love through conversation like this (she still goes to my old church).

    It was my love of science and my experience with apologetics that eventually pulled me to atheism. Well, that and having to face my own hypocrisy.

    Although, a conversation like this would have been awesome!

  • http://inevitableconflict.blogspot.com DB

    I like this approach to a dialogue as we have nothing to lose by being civil. Some of the Hitchens debates get really interesting but I can see them turning off some of the more timid people on the fence. Though Hitchens debates are incredibly fun to watch!

  • http://blog.calumnist.com/ Danny

    Even though I’m a bit “militant”, I also prefer open dialogue to out-and-out debates. I hope you can get and upload the video soon.

  • http://www.churchoffreethought.org Zachary Moore

    For any Texans, I’m going to be participating in a similar event that will be touring through the Lone Star State. There will be two atheists and two Christians, moderated, accepting written questions from the audience. We’ll be visiting UTA, UTD, and A&M in the next two months.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    It was a good talk, too bad I missed the beginning of it. Also, I guess my question about how anyone can pick between scripture and reason was considered in the “crazy” column…it’s a shame I would have loved to hear a reasonable answer from him on that issue.

    I would have stayed for dinner but it was taking too long to decide and my fiance’ and I have eating schedules we need to stick to to keep healthy.

    Hopefully you do more things in the Ohio area so I can get to those too!

  • Cereal Man

    I am happy to read a story that finally gives justification to to the title “Friendly Atheist.” Friendly content (at least towards the religious) seems to be often lacking.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    It’s different, but I’m surprised people don’t do it more often.

    Most people seem to want to prove that they are right, not understand where other people are coming from and accept that it’s OK if we don’t agree.

  • Revyloution

    What a great idea! Post the video up soon, I would love to see it.

    With that format, there would be no ‘winner’ of the debate.

  • http://www.justnbusiness.com Justin Chase

    This was very similar to the Barker vs. D’Souza debate at the UofM not long ago. Though they had debate style at the beginning there was nearly an hour of questions from the audience like you’re describing here. It was good, a lot of time the questions from the audience were more poignant then the questions posed from one debator to the other.

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  • John C

    I was in attendance. The talk was really fantastic. I think it turned out that way because the pastor was not what atheists expect when they hear the word pastor. I found myself agreeing with him a lot, which doesn’t necessarily happen with religious people. He gave me the impression that he was following the teachings of Christ, rather than the bastardizations of the teachings that we see too often these days.
    If there is a movement of Christians like Jay, I am looking forward to building a relationship with them to improve society.

  • donnakay

    Hello friend,
    Every one of us has to make a decision as to what we will do with Christ. There is overwhelming evidence about the existence of Christ. Since you only have one soul and only live once, why not use this opportunity to honestly investigate without presupposition the validity of his existence, the purpose for which he came to earth and the reason for which he died. The Jews crucified Christ, not because he did anything wrong, but because he claimed to be God. After personally investigating the life of Christ, I have come to one conclusion which is this, Christ is either one big dumb stupid incredible liar who is worse than the devil himself or he is really who he says he is. It will be very sad for you if you waste this awesome opportunity then when you die, you find out the bible is truth. The bible says let God be true and every man a liar. Ignore what man has to say and seek God for yourself.

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