‘Maybe it can start here’: Atheist, Christian professor debate beliefs at New Pal church

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NEW PALESTINE — John Loftus was preparing for a jam-packed presentation with intense cosmological discussion and debate. But he didn’t prepare for his truck breaking down before he could even get to the venue.

The renowned atheist author was on his way to debate James Spiegel, a Christian philosopher and Taylor University professor, at Brookville Road Community Church Wednesday evening. The topic of their discussion — the rationality of religious faith in modern times — was sure to ruffle some feathers, and he was eager to get started.

But the engine of his 2000 Dodge Ram had other ideas; Loftus’s vehicle broke down on the way to New Palestine, leaving him stranded in the middle of Muncie. Unsure of who to call, Loftus contacted the church to explain the sticky situation he’d found himself in. Of all people to come to his rescue, it was Spiegel himself who swung by to give Loftus a ride.

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It was an unusual way to meet his philosophical opponent, but it ended up breaking the ice, Loftus told the crowd with a chuckle. The two became friends during the trip to the church and actually got along quite well, they said.

Their unorthodox introduction served as a fitting start to the evening’s debate, Spiegel said. Hundreds of people gathered to witness the two philosophers hold an honest, intelligent discussion featuring two diametrically opposed worldviews.

Hopefully the debate’s spirit of mutual respect helped the audience to understand different perspectives, regardless of their religious beliefs, they said.

Members of the church and interested spectators from around the county –Christian and atheist alike — piled into the building for the event.

The audience’s murmurs grew quiet as the debaters took the stage in the church’s auditorium.

“In our culture, way of public discourse has become loud, shrill and hostile,” began the moderator. “I believe conversations like this, that model civil disagreement, are more important that ever.”

And with that, Spiegel and Loftus began.

The debate format allowed for each side to present introductory arguments, a few brief rebuttal periods, closing arguments and a question and answer section with the audience.

Loftus was raised Roman Catholic and later became an evangelical minister, only to renounce his beliefs after having a crisis of faith in the 1990s. Loftus’s speech focused on why modern Christians cling to what he considers to be a deluded religious worldview.

Religious folks are raised to look at the world a certain way and to adopt personal beliefs unquestioningly based on faith alone, Loftus said. This dogmatic approach to discovery limits a person’s capacity to realize the world’s truth through the use of science, Loftus said.

The Bible is a superstitious book written by goat herders, Loftus added. He prefers to put his trust in observable and accurately documented sources, not in faith, Loftus said.

When Spiegel took the microphone, he countered that the world’s most prominent atheists are guilty of the exact same reliance on faith through their faith in science. Even scientists such as himself (in addition to having a doctoral degree in philosophy, Spiegel holds a degree in biology) must acknowledge the limits of the scientific method when it comes to universal truths.

Spiegel explained how theism — more specifically, biblical Christianity — provides an explanation for the origin and the fine-tuning of the universe; how something could come from nothing, and how Earth came to have such precise features in order to maintain life. Belief in creationism also provides an answer for the emergence of life, consciousness and morality, Spiegel said.

Naturalism is unable to provide answers for these phenomena, making belief in God a far more rational point of view, Spiegel said.

Their comments continued back and forth for about two hours. Audience members were able to chime in and ask questions to Loftus and Spiegel. Throughout the night, it appeared that the atheists and Christians in the room agreed to take a break from mud-slinging and name calling for the duration of the evening. Everyone was civil.

Spiegel’s son, Bailey, sat in the front row during the debate, scratching out his thoughts in a small notebook. He made a T-shaped diagram with two columns: One column read “Dad.” The other, “John.”

“I don’t want to be closed-minded in a sense,” Bailey said. “I am a Christian, and I believe everything my dad has said. But I don’t think it’s fair to only think of one side of the story.”

Aaron Voss, a philosophy major at Taylor University, was leafing through one of Loftus’s books at the conclusion of the debate. Exposing himself to new ideas, especially ones that he disagrees with, is vital to developing his own point of view, Voss said.

People who refuse to consider the other side of an argument often do so out of fear, he added.

“I think these books are critical to understanding both sides of the spectrum,” Voss said. “Anybody that understands one worldview on a topic is basically handicapping themselves … If you’re a theist, you shouldn’t be afraid to turn over a rock bigger than God.”

Loftus and Spiegel said they certainly agree on one thing: People have a tendency to throw out common virtues and courtesies whenever deeply held convictions are on the line, Spiegel said.

“Mutually respectful discourse is becoming more and more rare, particularly on issues where people disagree so fundamentally,” Spiegel said. “What we need people is being calm, patient, making rational arguments.”

Loftus agreed, saying that he holds no animosity toward anyone personally because he disagrees with them — especially if they’re willing to help him out when his car breaks down, he added with a smile.

“There’s so much hatred between people that disagree,” Loftus said. “It’s got to start somewhere, maybe it can start here.”