The pre-debate dinner was nice, though I think the atheist proponent was sizing me up. I wasn't feeling relaxed vibes from him. When I got to the church, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. I told Glenn, the Senior Pastor, that they'd basically built a ziggurat in a cornfield.
I met the Rabbi, who hadn't been able to make the dinner. A nice man. We hit it off. The moderator had us draw lots to determine the order of debate. The atheist drew first, and got the third position; I drew the first position. That, of course, gave the atheist the advantage of being last in every round and finishing off the debate at the end. It also put a lot of pressure on me, I felt, to make a good start.
It was a good debate. I thought the Rabbi was over-reaching a bit at times, which smart people often do. At times, he let the atheist get to him. The atheist, of course, was on top of his game. This was his 93rd or 94th debate like this; he does it for a living. Very glib, very polished, and full of factoids divorced from their context. To answer them all would have been impossible. My strategy was to stay on message and not let him get to me.
One of the few times I responded directly to Mr. Baker, the atheist, was after he accused me and the Rabbi (again) of believing in a magical book with revealed instructions, etc. I pointed out that in my presentations, I had deliberately avoided making a case based on the Bible and had opted to base my approach on natural theology, and that he hadn't answered me. "The Bible is your bugaboo, not mine," I said.
During the question time, the moderator read questions written on cards from the audience. I got several which looked like "gotcha" traps from the atheists in the audience, but since I'm not a fundamentalist and don't fit the suit they have fitted for their strawman, I took the questions at face value and answered them without embarrassment. I got other questions that sounded like something that people really had wrestled with.
After the debate, I was approached by some people from People United for Separation of Church and State, who asked why more Christian leaders didn't join their movement. They were rather surprised at my answers, but then no one ever said these people had a clue. One of them seemed to be a college professor or something who wanted to debate the founders' intent with me. He thought the Supreme Court had ended all debate on these matters, and I replied that that's why we have elections. There were also a lot of people who thanked me for my participation, and that was nice. Strangest of all was the lady whose group sponsored the billboards in Indiana that started all this ("You can be good without God"), but who grew up EUB/Methodist and wanted to chitchat about old clergy friends of hers that I might have known. How sad.
All in all, I think I did well. I didn't "win," but then, I wasn't trying to. I was just trying to speak the truth in love. If I'd been as snarky and in-your-face as the atheist, my manner would have belied the truth I was proclaiming. I thank all my friends for their prayers. I deeply appreciate them.