As Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion tops sales lists worldwide, and questions about the existence of God and the relevance of Christianity re-emerge on society's agenda, Sydney Anglicans are boldly responding to criticisms of the truth of the gospel. But are staged debates the best way to convince non-believers of Christian truths? Are non-believers actually listening to the response of Christians? Are Christians answering the right questions?

Staging the debate

Springwood-Winmalee Anglican Church's outreach and women's pastor Vicki Brasington organised "The Great Debate' which was held last Monday night at the Springwood and District community Club. This is the third ‘Great Debate’ the church has held.

Mrs Brasington says the purpose of the debate was for church members to invite non-Christian friends and neighbours to a forum where they could hear the case for Christianity presented.

This year the topic was "God is a Delusion' and was debated by former University of NSW lecturer Dr Barry Newman and Australian Skeptics NSW vice president Peter Bowditch.

"Dr Newman clearly put the case forward for God and Christianity. Through dealing with Mr Bowditch's objections as a skeptic, he gave Christians some good defences and apologetics for Christianity. It also gave non-Christians the chance to weigh up the evidence for Christianity," Mrs Brasington says.

The majority of the 120 people present were not from the church and had responded through advertisements in newspapers and letterbox drops, adds Mrs Brasington.

She says Christians have nothing to fear by putting the existence of God and Christianity up for debate.

"As I tried to be an objective observer on the night, I actually found the case of the skeptic to be weak. The case for Christ is clearly stronger than the case against, so Christians have nothing to fear by putting the gospel on trial."

Mrs Brasington says the debate has put Christianity on her local community's agenda.

"It has raised our church's profile in the area. It also shows that we are not a closed shop " we are open to the members of the community questioning the claims about Jesus.”

The rector of St Barnabas', Broadway, the Rev Ian Powell says debates have been a regular part of Sydney University Evangelical Union missions in the past.

US Christian apologist William Lane Craig participated in a debate against Australian atheist and radio presenter Phillip Adams in 2002, and Mr Powell would like to bring him back for another debate soon.

"Lane Craig says he really enjoyed the debates and says he would love to debate Richard Dawkins," Mr Powell says.

"If we can find a time when Dawkins will be in Australia, then we may be able to get Lane Craig out here in 2008 or 2009."

A skeptical perspective on God

Peter Bowditch is vice president of the NSW branch of Australian Skeptics and put forward an alternate point of view in Springwood's "Great Debate'.

He says Australian Skeptics members participate in debates with Christians about the existence of God hoping that those present will go away with a better understanding of why the other side holds the position it does.

"I don’t expect to convert anyone to atheism and I don’t expect to experience an epiphany myself," Mr Bowditch says.

"Hopefully religious believers left the meeting with the impression that skeptics are just people who sincerely hold a different opinion about the existence of God, and the skeptics will go away with the impression that religious believers are the same but the opinion about God is different."

Regarding the suggestion that God is a delusion, Mr Bowditch says his view comes down to questions of evidence.

"As a delusion is a belief without evidence, my point in the debate is that faith is also belief without evidence. The true skeptic position is that God is unknowable and untestable, so God is therefore a form of delusion," he says.

"Please note that this is a weaker position than that taken by Dawkins who has attempted to prove that God cannot exist. I agreed with [Dr Newman] that Dawkins did not succeed."

The case for Christ

Former Senior Lecturer in Science Education at the University of NSW and Christ Church, St Ives member Dr Barry Newman has now participated in four public debates of this nature.

Dr Newman is "interested in getting people along to hear anything about God and his son Jesus'.

"One way to do this is to have a debate with people who think God doesn't exist.”

Dr Newman says Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion has raised questions that Christians need to answer.

"It's a powerful and persuasive book. Dawkins is an able person; he's clever with words and adopts the strongest positions going in atheism. He brings to bear material that requires attention."

However, Dr Newman is confident that Dawkins' logic is flawed and that Christians can confidently respond to his assertions.

"Dawkins suggests that natural selection explains why we have evolved into complex creatures like ourselves. Therefore, if there is a God behind this he must be a simple god indeed and one not worth speaking about. Dawkins treats God like creature, but he has confused creation with the creator," he says.

Director of CASE (Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education) at New College, UNSW, Dr Greg Clarke says it is important to engage with opposing views in a way that allows them to learn from the person.

"I think it's really important to engage with people at the right level. Dawkins' books are popular intellectualism, so he is really connecting with people," Dr Clarke says.

"Christians can either be too simplistic in their answers or come up with such impressive Christian philosophical defences that they miss their audience.”

Dr Clarke gave a public lecture on Dawkins at New College last month which he hopes equips Christians with apologetic responses to Dawkins' ideas.

However, Dr Clarke has even bigger hopes for Dawkins.

"I have heard some Christians say that Dawkins is likely to convert on his deathbed because he is such a passionate opponent of Christianity," Dr Clarke says.

"I hope he does it long before then so he can give his intellectual energies into seeing and knowing God where he now only sees indifference."

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