Tuesday night at the Beverly Hills Library, with David Berlinski debating an atheist before a mixed crowd of friends and foes of religion, I experienced a lifetime first.
As a journalist writing about people and events, I’ve often had occasion to change or withhold someone’s name or otherwise disguise his identity. Almost always this is because the person in question never asked to be part of my story, is not a public personality and never sought to be, did nothing seriously blameworthy, but would be embarrassed by having his words or actions reported in public. So I don’t identify him. On Tuesday, listening to the debate, for the very first time in my experience I encountered a situation where someone was indeed seeking to make a name for himself but I felt nevertheless it would be cruel to give his name or institutional affiliation in my account of the event.
David Berlinski’s atheist opponent is that person. The poor guy! He was so hopelessly outgunned and outmanned as a thinker, debater, and speaker that I just can’t bring myself to give you his identity. He probably has his name on a Google Alert. Who doesn’t? Even it was entirely his free choice to put himself up again Berlinski in defense of his non-belief, I don’t have the heart to worsen his embarrassment.
The debate was sponsored by the tireless and infectiously enthusiastic Avi Davis of American Freedom Alliance. Dr. Berlinski spoke first and was, as ever, amazingly eloquent. He began by reframing what’s called the “Darwin debate” as something different. Rather than opposing sides in a conflict, for or against “Western civilization,” he generously portrayed the difference of views as an argument between passengers in a lifeboat on the open seas. Our civilization is a sinking boat on the ocean. We’re all, atheists, agnostics, and believers, trying to bail out the sorry craft. The argument is over how best to save all of us. There are no enemies here.
Berlinski went on to summarize Thomas Aquinas’ strong case for atheism and Aquinas’ own reply to that case. He spoke of the mysteries of existence, the origin of the universe, or matter and life, hardly stressing the case against Darwin at all. Afterward, in the Q&A, a questioner addressed him with hesitation: “Mr. Berlinski, you’re so eloquent it makes me pause before expressing myself publicly to you.”
Then the opponent got up. “I didn’t know we’d be talking about the origin of the universe,” he explained. “I would have studied more!”
“It’s not too late!” someone called out from the audience.
“It’s kind of hard to know how the universe came out,” he went on. It went downhill for him from there.
“I have some other little ideas,” he said later. He complained of how hard it is to be an atheist seeing, for example, triumphant pro sports players pointing up to the sky after a score or other victory.
“Atheists have been taking a lot of crap for a lot of centuries, a lot of centuries,” he lamented. “If you’re not an atheist, you don’t know how grating that can be over time.”
I was sweating for him the whole time — maybe the first time, too, that I felt so much sympathy and fellow feeling for an evangelizing atheist.
It reminded me of the story of David and Goliath but with a twist. In the Biblical narrative, the terrified Israelites refuse to offer one of their own warriors to fight the giant. But they are happy to let young David have a try, expecting he’ll be crushed. In this case, too, the famed atheist warriors — Dawkins, for example — would never dare debate a Berlinski, or Stephen Meyer, or Michael Behe. But they are happy to let this poor guy face the giant.
Of course, the Biblical story worked out, in the end, quite differently than the story Tuesday night at the Beverly Hills Public Library.