Is the existence of God the best explanation for morality? This question was burned into the attendees’ ears Friday night as Saddleback College played host to a debate Friday night featuring Christian author Sean McDowell and Capistrano Valley High School instructor James Corbett.
The debate, moderated by Craig Hozen, an instructor from Biola University, was the result of collaboration between the Saddleback Freethinkers Club and the Campus Crusaders for Christ. A five dollar door charge was the fee for anyone who did not have a Saddleback I.D., and seating for the event was first come – first serve as the auditorium the debate was held in quickly filled up with an eager audience.
“I’d say we had a little under 500 people attending tonight,” said Saddleback instructor Karla Westphal, faculty advisor to the Freethinkers Club and one of the main coordinators for the event.
The event was so well attended that attendees were redirected to an “overfill” room later in the night, a lecture hall displaying a live feed of the debate.
The audience was filled with local teachers and students, as well as McDowell’s supporters from the Christian community.
“I’m a good buddy of Sean McDowell,” said Jacob Clemens. “I have an open mind towards this kind of stuff, and I think people will definitely have their minds changed tonight.” Others showed up simply out of a sense of curiosity towards the subject matter. Brad Hughes, a Saddleback College instructor of Astronomy and Physics, wondered what both parties had to say. “As a scientist, I’ve been curious about questions of faith and science pretty much my whole adult life. I tend toward an agnostic perspective, personally, so I’d say I’m a little in favor of Mr. Corbett’s position.”
McDowell, 33, and Corbett, 63, began the debate with a series of 15 minute opening remarks. McDowell, a popular author and figure within the Christian community, maintained the position that the existence of a transcendental standard of morality was proof of God. Corbett, a Capistrano Valley High School teacher famous for his 2007 lawsuit in which a student accused him of slandering Christians (Corbett later won the lawsuit), countered that morality was the result of humans learning to help each other in nature.
“Morality grew out of a sense of self-preservation,” said Corbett. “We as humans realized that cooperating benefited the entirety of the species.”
In his rebuttals, McDowell countered Corbett’s claims of an evolving morality with the argument that Corbett’s position did not explain the idea of free will. “I don’t see how there can be a transcendent standard of morality without a God,” McDowell said. “You would say that morality comes from nature, but when you look at nature, you see instances of rape, you see instances of theft.”
The debate featured question and answer segments in which the participants answered submitted questions from the audience, and a section in which the two debaters cross-examined the others respective positions. After two hours of this back and forth, the debaters ended with their closing statements and the audience filed out of the room, with many staying to chat with the two men afterwards. Some in the audience felt that there had been a clear winner. “I liked it,” said Clemens after the debate. “I would personally say that I thought Sean was the clear winner.”
Other members in the audience were less than sure. “I thought it was pretty good,” said Hughes. “I’m going to have to go home and think about it before I would call anybody the winner tonight. My gut reaction is that the two were just talking past each other, like they were trying to prove two different points instead of trying to refute the others ideas. Both sides seemed to lack scientific reasoning in their arguments.”
The organizers of the event were pleased with the interest the debate generated. “It was great,” said Westphal. “We had so many people show up. Plus, the cover charge will be split between the two clubs, after any expenses.”
“I enjoyed debating Mr. McDowell tonight,” said Corbett after the debate. “I think I’m arrogant enough to believe I persuaded some people tonight,” Corbett said, laughing. “But, I do think that there are some people that have doubts tonight that weren’t there before.”