Hundreds filled the Physician's Auditorium on the College of Charleston campus Thursday night to hear the atheist and the Christian debate the existence of God.
Herb Silverman, professor emeritus in mathematics at the college and president of the Secular Coalition for America, engaged Jack Hoey Jr., chief operating officer of Seacoast Church in a lively and respectful exchange concerning the nature of belief and disbelief.
Silverman began with a summary of his views, saying that "belief in God arose from fear and confusion about the mysteries of nature.
"But it's important to distinguish between the world as we know it and the world as we would like it to be," he said.
Silverman said he cannot believe in God until "good evidence" is presented, noting that religious sentiment is varied according to geography and culture, and that all of it stakes a claim on truth.
"Religious beliefs cannot all be right," Silverman said, "but they can all be wrong."
Hoey said religion "provides a basis for the meaning of life."
"If there is a God, then our life has purpose," he said. If he is wrong about God, then he has made a "catastrophic mistake" and wasted his life, Hoey said. But if he is right, and if his view of Christian salvation is right, then catastrophe will be avoided.
Hoey said empirical evidence for God is beside the point since "God transcends the material universe." Science and religion are separate. "Science," he said, "must be radically agnostic."
While Silverman said he relies on an evidence-based world, Hoey said he does not think that science and religion, though distinct, are necessarily irreconcilable.
"The Bible is not a history of the planet, and it's not a history of the human race," Hoey said. "It's the history of God's relationship with human beings," and Jesus is the link between a mysterious God and mankind.
The debate was sponsored by the Well, Seacoast Church's college ministry, and the Atheist-Humanist Alliance at the College of Charleston. Spectators occasionally burst into applause after one or the other spoke and listened attentively to the discourse.
If God exists outside time and space, then it requires revelation to know God, Hoey said. He said the existence of God "is a reasonable inference to make from the universe's order and harmony."
Silverman said it's easy to prove the science of the Bible false, and if you can't trust it to explain the past, how can you trust it to explain the future? Eventually, mankind will achieve a complete understanding of the universe without help from God, he said.
"If the universe must have a cause, and God is the cause, then it follows that God must have a cause," he said. So why not just start with the existence of the universe?
Hoey said something has always existed.
"I've never seen an undirected process produce a coherent result," he said, citing evolution and the genetic codes that help dictate how life evolves. "I don't understand how a code can occur spontaneously from random components," he said.
Silverman wanted to know from Hoey how Christians distinguish between scriptural passages meant to be taken literally versus passages that are metaphorical. For example, he said, was there really an Adam and Eve and a talking snake?
Hoey equivocated, saying the first chapter of Genesis "reads like a poem to me," but adding that "provisionally, I would agree those were the first people." He said the significance of the Adam and Eve story is to show that good and evil are intrinsically linked.
Silverman, who pointed out inconsistencies in the Bible and referred to changing attitudes toward its texts, said what we consider "flawed" today, such as the misogyny of Solomon and Abraham, wasn't considered immoral at one time.
He said it's a mistake "to credit a deity for our accomplishments or blame Satan when we act badly. I believe we should take responsibility for our actions." Behavior, Silverman said, trumps belief.
The two men continued, asking one another questions about biblical inerrancy, the moral obligations of human beings, the value of the First Amendment and more. And they took questions from the audience, most of which seemed directed at Silverman.
"What will happen to you after you die?" someone asked him.
"I know exactly what's going to happen when I die," he said. "I'm going to medical school."