The Debate: People Should Keep their Religion to Themselves

Today saw the first big public event in Perth City Bible Forum's week-long mission: The God Taboo.

The debate saw me up against Professor Mike Anderson of University of Western Australia's School of Psychology. Mike was a really pleasant debate opponent, amiable and courteous. All in all I could not have asked for a better opponent.

Mike took the affirmative on the position “People Should Keep their Religion to Themselves” and opened with what could be described as a reasonable call for no one religion to be dominant over another, especially when it came to legislation. Quite rightly, he noted that when such domination happened it led to the erosion of freedoms for everyone. He held up our western liberal democracies as perhaps the best example of where these principles were successfully maintained.

I responded by outlining two major arguments. First, that the presence of religion in our western culture had been, in the main, of great benefit. Christian contributions to academics (including founding Cambridge University where Mike got his PhD (although they call it a DPhil) from), medicine, social justice (countless legislation in the 19th Century and prior to it the Abolition of Slavery) and so on put, I argued, a lie to the claim that Christians should keep it all to themselves. In the 20th Century the work of the Salvation Army, The Royal Flying Doctor Service etc only added to the weight of evidence. A couple of quotes from Wilberforce and Florence Nightingale bolstered my position.

In addition I argued that the essential truth of the matter left us unable to keep our religion to ourselves. If it was true that Jesus not only died but rose from the dead and called us to live out that resurrection life in love for our neighbour then we were duty bound to do so, and this to society's benefit.

Following on from the openings came a brief rebuttal, then cross-examination.

Mike's first question in cross-examination was, to be fair, quite rambling. He spend a fair deal of time speaking about Mary MacKillop (an Irish nun recently canonised) and the issue of prayer. When the question finally arrived it was to ask me whether, if I was minister for health, I would spend my budget researching prayer or medicine? It was a clever question!

I responded by speaking briefly about Glenn Whitehead, one of our church members who passed away recently from cancer. I noted that Glenn had been given extra months to live by access to a clinical drug trial. But I had also seen some miraculous answers to prayer in the life of other sick people. So which would I invest money in researching? Medicine, I said, since I already had more than enough proof that prayer worked!

My questions to Mike centred on the second plank of my argument – that the truth of the Christian claim directly affected the extent to which we should keep it to ourselves. In response to a direct question on the subject I was delighted when Mike answered,

Yes, if there was sufficient evidence to convince me it was true I would join you in an instant!

To be honest, I would have been happy for the debate to end right there. Mike's common appeal to a basis in truth was something I wanted to hear stated clearly and it was. Statements like that provide us a solid basis on which to provide the evidence that we have in abundance.

Summing up was basically a recap of what had already said. It was a pleasure at the end of it all to reach over and shake hands with him. I thoroughly enjoyed the event and I get the sense that Mike did too.

Some observations:

  1. Its possible to have a debate like this without the antagonism and hostility that is often associated with such a contentious area. Mike and I were determined to be pleasant and we were capable of expressing profound disagreement without ever sliding into poor behaviour. Although, it has to be said there were a couple of humour-laden cheap shots wink
  2. The vast majority of unbelievers, even highly educated ones like Mike, have very little understanding of Christianity. Mike twice claimed that the main motivation for believers was fear of damnation. Whilst I was happy for the opportunity to correct him and tell the whole room about grace and the fact that there is no condemnation for those that trust Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), I did walk away reminded that we must never assume that unbelievers understand the gospel. Man is, by nature, a works animal – he is constantly seeking to gain his own righteousness – and so it is no surprise that he understands salvation on those terms. Our apologetic must be both strong in historical evidence but also clear in explaining the gospel.

Will get the video up when its available. Tomorrow I speak to the topic “Religion Leads to Violence”.

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