A Revelation
In Alabama, a civil debate over God's existence.

Friday, October 12, 2007 12:01 a.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.--The event had been sold out for weeks. Tickets were being offered on the black market for three times their face value. With 30 minutes to show time, the crowds were forming outside, some wolfing down sandwiches in the parking lot. For this much excitement, people around here generally expect some serious football. Tonight, though, the buzz is over a debate between biologist Richard Dawkins and mathematician John Lennox. The subject, which may be even more important to this audience than whether Alabama can beat Auburn at the Iron Bowl this year: Does God exist?

Over the course of 90 minutes, Mr. Dawkins, 66, the infamous author of "The God Delusion," squared off with Mr. Lennox, 63, on such propositions as: "Faith is blind; science is evidence based," "Design is dead, otherwise one must explain who designed the designer" and "Christianity is dangerous." The two Oxford professors, who had never met before this evening, both displayed rhetorical skills in the best British tradition.

They clashed over whether it was Christianity that began the scientific revolution, whether the universe's complexity was evidence for a creator and whether atheism was itself a sort of faith. Some of the exchanges were funny, as when Mr. Lennox suggested that his opponent believed that his wife loved him even though it's not scientifically provable. "Is there any evidence for that?" Mr. Lennox asked. "Yes, plenty of evidence," Mr. Dawkins answered. "Never mind about my wife."

Mr. Lennox made some good points about Mr. Dawkins's attempt to divorce the atheism of the 20th century's tyrants from their deeds. But Mr. Dawkins held his own. When Mr. Lennox suggested that the Bible got it right (scientifically), in stating that the world was created out of something rather than having always existed, Mr. Dawkins quipped that there was a 50-50 chance the Bible would be correct. And Mr. Dawkins pointed out that for all of Mr. Lennox's attempts to show the scientific existence of a creator, he could still not manage to prove that Jesus was the son of God or that he was resurrected.

Their smart exchanges occasionally went outside of the debate format, despite the best efforts of their distinguished moderator, Judge William Pryor of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Dawkins's words sometimes veered into the provocative, as when he referred to "creationist lunacy," but for the most part the evening was remarkable for its civility. Each scholar received a round of applause after a few of his smarter remarks. But there was no hooting or hollering. Indeed, not one stray comment could be heard from the audience. I didn't make out a single sarcastic whisper from the college students sitting to my left or the middle-aged couples to my right.

Perhaps Mr. Dawkins was surprised by this reception. He recently referred to the Bible Belt states as "the reptilian brain of southern and middle America," in contrast to the "country's cerebral cortex to the north and down the coasts." This debate marks the first time Mr. Dawkins has appeared in the Old South. Maybe his publishers suggested it would be a good idea. After all, "The God Delusion" and similar atheist tracts have been selling like hotcakes (or buttered grits) down here.

But why? Are Christians staying up late on Saturday night to read these books and failing to show up at church on Sunday morning, as Mr. Dawkins might hope? So far, the answer is no, according to Bill Hay, senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church just outside of Birmingham. He tells me that there hasn't been much of an exodus from his church as a result of these books. But he does think that his congregants are aware of them and want to know how to respond to such arguments. He notes that 200 men show up to church at 6 a.m. once a week for a class on Christian doctrine.

Lee Strobel, who used to be a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church in Southern California, tells me that he thinks there has been a nationwide "resurgence in apologetics" among evangelicals in response to the recent spate of atheism books. His own publications, "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Faith" have sold well. But so has Josh McDowell's "Evidence That Demands a Verdict," Ravi Zacharias's "Reasons for Faith" and now, this month, the "Apologetics Study Bible," whose contributors include Chuck Colson and former Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler.

Defenders of the faith are drawing crowds of thousands in person as well. Next month, the Southern Evangelical Seminary will host a National Conference on Christian Apologetics, which will include a special segment for teens. Younger people are some of the most avid consumers of apologetics texts, according to Christian author Jonalyn Fincher, who speaks to college and high-school groups regularly. She says that in the 20th century, Christians often reacted to science's attacks on religion by "running away from culture." But in recent years more Christians have begun to take the attitude, "If our God is the God of truth, what are we afraid of?"

That is the attitude that John Lennox says he was raised with. In a brief biographical statement at the beginning of the debate, Mr. Lennox described a childhood in Northern Ireland surrounded by "sectarian violence" in which his parents encouraged him to read everything and "develop an interest in the great questions of life."

Mr. Dawkins, on the other hand, says he had a "harmless Anglican upbringing." As a teenager, he says he realized that his religion was merely an accident of his birth and soon thereafter gave up his faith. In some sense, it seems he was rebelling less against religion, per se, than against the kind of "harmless" worldview that simply glosses over "the great questions of life." And who can blame him? But if their interest in this debate is any marker, the people in this Birmingham audience did not come out of that tradition.

Ms. Riley is The Wall Street Journal's deputy Taste editor.

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