As I mentioned in previous post, on March 7, Dan Barker came to the University of Windsor at the request of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society to debate Joe Boot on the topic of life after death. Craig Pearson blogged about it in the Windsor Star the evening before the debate, with appreciable even-handedness, especially considering that he was able to get a hold of Dan for an interview, but not Joe. The way the sides are presented in the article turned out to reflect the debaters' strategies very closely.
Shawna had offered to bring Derek and I with her to pick Dan Barker up at the airport in Detroit, so the day's events started early for us. We retrieved Dan in the early afternoon and headed back to Windsor for lunch at Taloola Cafe.
Conversation in the car began with the Star article and moved to Dinesh D'Souza, Christian apologist and frequent debater. I think D'Souza has gone up against most if not all of the 'Four Horsemen' of 'new atheism' (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens), and I learned Dan has debated the man eight times. Eight times! Shawna, Derek and I took our turns decrying D'Souza's clever but frustrating debate tactics, and Dan gave a demonstration of the niceness he's known for in mentioning that he doesn't have any personal grudges against D'Souza at all, though we also gossiped a little about D'Souza's expulsion from King's College. We talked about what we do with our lives -- Dan's a sociable interviewer -- and after we crossed the border back into Canada, he held our passports hostage to peruse them before giving them back to us.
|Dan Barker pondering, not praying, |
at Taloola Cafe
|Shawna got a shot of the FSM |
manifestation hovering behind me.
We talked about the March for Myths a bit. A few times I interrupted Dan accidentally: rudeness as a symptom of enthusiasm, if I may excuse myself so swiftly. At one point he mentioned that he viewed the varying styles of Christianity (Bible-thumping vs moderate) as symptomatic of culture. People choose the churches that fit their personalities as individuals, he was saying. When I suggested that it works the other way around too (people pursue the styles of religion which reflect of their religious upbringing, creating culture in a cycle), Dan agreed. I think we were on the same page. That was cool.
|Such attractive associates!|
After a mishap in which a parking meter with a grudge ate a bunch of Shawna's money, we crossed the street into campus, and ran into a few members of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. They had some bad news (which they were very apologetic about): Joe Boot had gotten stuck in traffic on his way down from Toronto, and would be late for the debate. This meant Shawna would have to send updates to a lot of people, so while she left to commandeer a computer, myself, Derek, Dan and our other club member headed down to the CAW's main floor to grab some Tim Horton's and wait in the cafeteria. I think tensions were increasing at that point due to the unexpected delay, but we kept chatting and more club members trickled in to join us at our table, as did some of Dan's American fans. We sat around for an hour or so, talking about politics, history, travel and religion, comparing states and countries. Dan was impressed by our club members' familiarity with American history. It was a good time.
From Dan's blog post about the day:
I learned from some of the locals that the Tim Horton restaurant chain is one of the closest things to national pride the Canadians will celebrate these days. Horton was a famous hockey player, and that sport is their other claim to national unity, they told me.
We did talk about Tim Horton's, but man does it ever look... sad. Welcome to Canada: nationally unified by the marketing strategy of an American-owned coffee chain. Dan asked us about Canada's founding documents and wondered whether we have any beloved historical figures analogous to the United States' founding fathers, but we don't really treat any with that much reverence. Another club member emphasized our population's love for Canadian health care. I heartily second that as a hub of cultural unity -- I'm not a hockey fan and I think McDonald's coffee is better than Timmy's. A heretic in every way, that's me.
It turns out Tim Hortons has a contest where some of the cups are printed with prize announcements to lucky winners. So when I finished my coffee [...], Currie, one of the atheist students, showed me the arrow on the cup pointing to where the prize might be. When I rolled up the rim, surprise! I won a free cafe latte.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I held that cup up before that audience, they were impressed. (You have to get your fun where you find it.) “This is proof of the power of non-prayer,” I announced. “I did NOT pray to win, and I won!”
At first he had exclaimed upon winning, "Ooh, I should give this away at the debate! Like a prize for the person who asks the best question!" and I said it was a great idea, but then his later choice to give it to Joe Boot as a gift at the start of the debate turned out great. A philosophical counter-point wrapped in a free drink. Smooth.
When we returned to the Ambassador Auditorium, it was already getting crowded. A few of us in the W/EC Atheist Society had argued at length about what debate topic to choose, and I had pushed hard for the life-after-death option, hoping that such a wide-reaching (albeit easy) topic would bring in a large audience. I don't know whether the topic increased the attendance beyond Barker's and Boot's drawing power, but I sure was relieved to see the auditorium filled nearly to capacity. I helped sign up a few new official club members, met up with friends, and posed for a picture with group members.
We learned before the debate started that Boot hadn't merely been stuck in traffic, he'd been in a car accident. I felt pretty bad for having gotten miffed about it. We took our seats, and the pre-game began. Dan, Shawna, Jordan from IVCF, and mediator Dr. Drake all gave their introductions. The video of the introductions is below:
Dr. Drake began answering philosophical questions called out from the first few rows' of audience members, but fortunately that didn't last long -- the questions (and the way he was answering them) had the potential to spoil the debate. That said, he was appropriately impartial for a debate moderator: a fan of Gould's "NOMA" perspective.
Mr. Barker talked to the audience about his life, and what it was like before and after he rejected theism, as well as his family and his work as a musician. He gave Shawna and the W/EC Atheist Society a nod for their hand in removing the prayer from U Windsor's convocation ceremony. As he states in his blog post, he deliberately stayed away from subjects that would sway a debate about life after death in his favour.
A video of the full debate is here:
For Dan's perspective on it, head to his blog. I won't bother reiterating exactly how it went, but I will comment on Boot's approach during his rebuttal period. He got up behind the microphone with rhetorical guns blazing, ad-hom style: he poked some fun at Dan's history as a preacher to imply that he hadn't been a true Christian, called Dan's atheism "cereal box atheism" and implored his listeners to do more than read "the back of Richard Dawkins' book," implying that atheists are only pretending to think for themselves, and aren't educated. It shocked and offended me, but in a good way -- I assume sports fans feel similarly when game rules are bent by the "other" team.
It's ironic that Boot used such accusations, considering that he had opened in his introduction with a shameless pronouncement that his entire argument begged the question. He began by declaring his unshakable belief that nothing at all in the entire universe (including words) could possibly have any meaning without his god, the existence of whom also necessitated an afterlife. Thus in his view, it was impossible to even talk about life after death without assuming the existence of life after death. He reiterated his sentiment that debate is impossible throughout the debate. Figuratively put, Boot flipped the game board and declared: 'I win because I won't play,' leaving Dan to play by the rules of rationality. But then, what else can one expect but an appeal to authority from the perspective of dogmatic faith? During the Q&A, Boot also confessed that he doesn't accept evolution. Oh, shoot. I had hoped he wouldn't be so easy to topple (he's a very smart guy), but with that he just lay down voluntarily.
On the plus side, Boot was a pleasure to listen to regardless of disagreement. A few times he pronounced the "br" in "brain" the way David Tennant pronounces the "br" in "brilliant." Combine that trill with Boot's charisma, confidence and attractiveness, and I might nearly have been swayed to his position. Like 90% of everyone, I have a massive soft spot for cute, eloquent Brits. If someone's going to espouse a faulty position, at least let them be easy on the ears and eyes, as I always say starting now.
The cross-examination period was a lot of fun, but it and the Q&A period had to be cut short because the debate had begun later than planned. Dan and Joe only got to ask each other one or two questions. Disappointed!
After the debate, W/EC Atheist Society members piled into other members' respective vehicles and headed out to World Marathon Ethiopian Restaurant for a late dinner with Dan. Several of us hadn't had Ethiopian food before and it was well-received.
I had trouble getting started, though: basically, the way to eat Ethiopian is to use a piece of flatbread to pick up the food, in exactly the way you would use a paper towel to pick up a hairball or other animal 'accident.' I have three cats, so I know this more intimately than I'd like. But once I got over the chance association and actually started eating, I loved it.
The group presented Dan with an engraved pen in gratitude for his efforts, as well as a "Thank You" card signed by everyone, which he accepted graciously. Members with copies of his book (he gave us a few as gifts) got personalized signatures. Very cool. We stayed late, and conversation never slowed, though I personally tried to stay out of a lot of it so as not to hog our guest.
That said, when the topic of opposition faced by the FFRF came up, Dan mentioned that the protesters they get at HQ are kinda kooky -- including "one of those men's rights guys," he said, in a tone of exasperated distaste. As gender egalitarian, I just had to pipe up and mention that the issue of men's rights is a multifaceted one (there's more to gender relations than feminist dictum, which can itself be bigoted), but the conversation didn't continue further in that vein, probably for the better, since the issue can be a powder keg. Of course, anyone specifically picketing an atheist foundation for "men's rights" probably supports the misogyny in the Bible, so no wonder Dan found those particular picketers to be exasperatingly kooky. I would too.
I believe a few club members discussed the Christian Flag at City Hall issue with Dan, and he encouraged us Canadians to pursue effective activism regarding church/state separation in Canada. Before we brought him back to his hotel, he emphasized the importance of patience and said a few times, "You've got to have a fire in your belly." I wondered aloud whether I have it. I think I do sometimes, but it flickers. On the bright side, the day's events definitely helped to feed it.
Many thanks to Shawna and another W/EC Atheist Society member (whose name I haven't mentioned because he's asked me not to reveal his identity in the past) for doing such a large portion of the work in putting on the show. You worked your butts off and it paid off -- to the tune of 400 guests! Thanks to all other members for contributing, thanks to the debate sponsors, and of course, thanks to Dr. Drake and to our debaters Dan Barker and Joe Boot for hosting an insightful and entertaining event.