[Editor’s note: Keith Augustine is Executive Director and Scholarly Paper Editor of Internet Infidels.]
With a $2000 grant from the Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS), Internet Infidels (II) has launched a project to facilitate oral debates on the existence of God and similar topics. In cooperation with the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) and various student organizations across the United States, Internet Infidels will cosponsor debates from the Spring through Fall 2006 semesters.
We believe that the debate venue represents an ideal opportunity to provide the freethought movement with greater exposure among the least-religious segment of society, the young adults that the future of the movement depends upon. Moreover, campus debates provide us with a unique opportunity to address the broader public.
A live debate on religious topics is probably the only exposure that most religious students get to our point of view. We know from experience that debates can be life-changing events, planting the seeds of doubt necessary to overcome years of indoctrination. In time and with follow-up, information gained for the first time through a debate can turn a fundamentalist into a freethinker. And at the very least, nontheistic debaters can make it clear to a religious audience that religious disbelief is an eminently reasonable position, and that atheists can be noble and compassionate even without belief in God.
A project of this sort has been long overdue. Since the early 1990s, campus Christian organizations have employed full-time and skilled debaters to represent their point of view in debates. These organizations have also typically hand-picked nontheistic debaters with little or no philosophical training or debate experience, and without consulting freethought organizations, stacking the deck against us. This is where the role of the Secular Student Alliance is pivotal: Christian student organizations are usually quite willing to organize debates against a nontheistic debater provided by a secular student organization. And Internet Infidels can recommend and prepare qualified nontheistic debaters with exceptional philosophical training and years of debate experience.
Religious debates are already stacked against us in other ways. Freethought organizations have been either unable or unwilling to hire full-time nontheistic debaters with the debate experience and philosophical training needed to adequately defend a secular point of view. They have not provided post-debate analyses to fine-tune debaters’ skills for future debates. While Christian debaters work full-time on honing their debating skills to make a living, nontheistic debaters are forced to prepare for a debate in their spare time, often between teaching multiple courses, reviewing journal submissions, and so on. The average nontheistic debater only debates when approached by religious student groups, who typically determine the format of campus debates to the detriment of our debaters.
Moreover, nontheistic debaters are usually inadequately prepared to protect their legal rights to what is a joint product of both debaters. In several cases Christian organizations have secured exclusive rights to sell recordings of debates. In at least one case they have even added post-debate commentary by the Christian debater without the nontheistic debater’s consent, input, or knowledge. Religious groups have exploited debates to further their own agenda at the expense of the community of reason for too long!
Thousands of people may attend a single debate on the existence of God or a similar topic. The vast majority of those in the audience have little or no exposure to an accurate representation of our point of view before coming to a debate. While religious organizations have virtually unlimited, daily control of cultural perceptions through their political and media connections, and even their own radio and television networks, any given public debate effectively represents our one shot at getting our message across to at least a portion of the same people. Thus it is crucial that we get it right and ensure that nontheistic debaters are well-prepared. Internet Infidels has a select pool of seasoned debaters willing to fill this role and many SSA affiliates have expressed interest in bringing our debaters to their campus. We also have legal counsel to ensure that the legal rights of our nontheistic debaters are protected.
We have a responsibility to go on the offensive, exposing a wider audience to rational critiques of religious beliefs. By simply being reactive, nontheistic debaters have allowed religious organizations to set the agenda. The time to create a freethought debate circuit, where both sides have fair legal representation and adequate debate preparation, has finally arrived!
Interested in an II-sponsored debate on your campus?
If you’re interested in having an II-sponsored debate on your campus, contact debates with information on the topic of the debate you’re considering, the campus at which you would like the debate to be held, an approximate date for the debate, whether a secular student organization at your campus will participate in putting together the debate, and who the religious debate opponent will be, if applicable.