Two well-known advocates clashed over organized religion’s benefits and harms to an audience packed into the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union Theater Thursday night.
Dinesh D’Souza, president of King’s College and a religious advocate, said religion gives people a sense of the sublime and offers them “a cosmic purpose.”
Compassion, science, the abolition of slavery and the dignity of women and human life are all qualities brought to the western world by religion, D’Souza said.
On the other hand, Dan Barker, a former preacher and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the world would be a better place without religion, tearing a page from the Bible just as Thomas Jefferson did.
Lacking evidence of a god’s existence, Barker said the values religion claims to have would be in the world regardless, and if a god did exist, the tragedies of the world would never happen.
“All you have to do to know that there’s no God is walk into any children’s hospital — you see desperate parents…and yet those kids die at the same random rate as anyone else,” Barker said.
In addition, Barker said those who choose not to follow a religion are just as good and charitable as those who do.
The talk focused on a wide variety of topics, including the existence of Hell, whether wars fought by atheists or Christians impacted the world more profoundly, and the existence of God.
For Barker, a god who scares people with the punishment of a place like Hell is “monstrous,” he said.
D’Souza said followers of religion have reason for what they believe. Asking for a solid physical being is unrealistic considering other relationships — such as love — can be spiritual as well.
“You’re asking for a flesh and blood God — no one believes in a material God, and therefore you’re asking for the impossible,” D’Souza said.
More than 1,400 people attended the event, and organizers had to turn people away throughout the course of the debate, according to Badger Catholic president Nico Fassino.
Fassino said he was astounded by the turnout, adding he had optimistically hoped for 1,000 participants.
Although three student organizations sponsored the event — Badger Catholic, Campus Crusade for Christ and Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics — Fassino said Badger Catholic paid for most of the $10,000 it cost to bring the two to UW.
“We’re happy to do it, because that’s our mission on campus,” Fassino said.
Selling tickets to offset the cost crossed the organizers’ minds briefly, Fassino said, but they ultimately felt free admission was the most effective way to reach out to the campus community.
UW sophomore Michael Strantz said he attended the event because he wanted to see a debate between two intelligent individuals on opposite ends of the religious spectrum and felt the experience was worthwhile.
As someone who said he is often questioned about his faith, UW senior Ben Wingert said he attended the event to hear some good arguments in the name of faith.
“I never really have this good distinct answer to satisfy people’s questions, and I was kind of wondering how someone else would go about that,” Wingert said.
Correction: The original version of this story said Dan Barker was a founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organization was founded by Barker’s wife, Anne Laurie Gaylor, and her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. Barker is a co-president of FFRF. We regret the error.
Watch for videos to be posted here of this event.