Spiritual Debate Raises Questions for Atheists

When Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong and Bob Griese attended Purdue University, rarely did students and faculty question the existence of God. Today at this 39,000-student campus in West Lafayette, Ind., the topic of God is more debatable.

Noted for its engineering programs and for graduating the most astronauts, Purdue is centered in one of the most politically and religiously conservative regions of the country. Although basketball seems to rule over God at times in the Hoosier State, most people still acknowledge that the Almighty is alive and pray that He is a sports fan.

But for some of the Boilermaker students at Purdue, doubts about the divine simmer on a middle burner.

A debate on campus entitled "Does God Exist?" heated up the spiritual dilemma. Sponsored primarily by Campus Crusade and the Freethought Society at nearby Wabash College, the philosophical contest matched Christian apologist William Lane Craig against atheist scholar Austin Dacey.

"There are all kinds of ways that people interpret God anymore," says Brenda Dunn, a staff member with Faculty Commons (formerly Christian Leadership Ministries), a division of Campus Crusade. "At Purdue we have a pagan network and a Wicca group, even though they are not real common. The spiritual climate is beginning to turn."

Part of the sacred shift stems from the diverse beliefs of young men and women from more than 130 countries now studying at Purdue. One of these students is Ningying (Rita) Wu, a 28-year-old psychiatrist from China, pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology.

"I don't expect a lot from this debate," she said to a Christian sitting next to her.

Although she calls herself an atheist, Rita is dabbling in Christianity by testing out churches and attending a Bible study.

"When I was about 6 years old, I believed in God. But it was not really believing because I was just influenced by my grandparents who believed in God," Rita explains. "I have no idea about God."

Presenting accurate ideas about God is one of the reasons Purdue Faculty Commons staff members Jim Dunn and John Engberg spearheaded the promotion and execution of the free debate.

"A survey at UCLA reported that 71 percent of students thought religion helped them in some way, but 62 percent say their professors never encourage discussion of religious or spiritual issues," John says. "There is an increased interest in the spiritual, but people's academic life is becoming more divorced from spiritual conversations."

Sponsoring a public discussion about God is one way Faculty Commons hopes to foster spiritual dialogue among Purdue professors and students. Jim Dunn notes that "many polar opposites whose minds will not be changed" would attend the debate, but says the ministry aims "to address those people in the middle."

Perhaps Rita Wu is in the middle, while Charlie Lopez, atheist president of the Wabash College Freethought Society, aligns more to the polar left. Charlie's group co-sponsored the debate, and the California native admits his spiritual views are in the minority in this area an hour north of Indianapolis.

"As far as I know, we are the only nonreligious, liberal group for college students in all of Indiana," says the senior philosophy major. "I hope the debate gets people talking. Religion and the philosophical issues are not talked about a lot. People just don't want to take the time to research and question things."

Giving people something spiritual to question and talk about was the goal of both sides to the debate. The day of the God vs. no God event, Christian students who were costumed as a chicken, a gorilla and a Teletubbie lumbered across campus handing out debate announcement fliers. Agnostic and atheist students opted for more word-of-mouth promotions.

Dulcy Abraham, Purdue associate professor of civil engineering, believes the debate builds credibility for Christ on campus. She detects the subtle yet increasing pressures against Christian beliefs among her colleagues and students.

"I'm realizing more and more that you can't leave your intellect out of what you believe," says the faculty member affiliated with Faculty Commons. "The current student is not interested in touchy-feely stuff; they want the facts."

Searching for facts sparks probing questions: Did an intelligent designer create the universe or did random chance? Did Jesus really rise from the dead, or did some rebels steal his body from the grave? As William Craig and Austin Dacey prepared to argue these issues, Craig paused to explain his purpose for challenging the minds of collegiates and academics.

"The university is the most strategic cultural institution shaping Western society," Craig explains. "We are engaged in a battle for the mind in our culture today, and this battle is raging most vociferously at the university."

As the 7 p.m. debate approached, the only battle that seemed relevant to several Purdue students was the Wiffle-ball game outside the Kappa Sigma Chi Fraternity. But a few blocks away, in the Elliot Hall of Music, some 3,500 curious and convinced packed the auditorium's entire lower level.

One of the convinced was recent Purdue graduate Michael Schweinsberg, a friend of John Engberg. Although Michael and John have developed an ongoing repartee about God, Michael thinks a commitment to Christ will crimp his social life. The 2-hour debate did not convince Michael to abandon his atheist views, but he did gather more material with which to banter with John.

"I don't believe I've ever heard a more convincing argument for God," Michael says. "The debate was brilliantly presented and is hard to refute."

At the end of the orators' logical arguments for and against God, 40 to 50 people stood in the aisles waiting to ask the philosophers questions. Curious Rita Wu attended the debate, and as the throngs headed home, the Chinese psychiatrist delved into her own thoughts.

"We human beings cannot really define what God really is. If there is God, you cannot describe it with words," Rita concludes. "Dr. Craig has his purpose, and he has made people like me think."

With 668 debate attendees requesting more information about God, Rita and Michael are not the only ones in West Lafayette now thinking more about God's existence.