In this corner: Michael Newdow, best known for attempting to have "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance this summer, prepares to defend his atheist beliefs. And in the other corner: Cliffe Knechtle, Christian scholar and author of two books, is out to prove the existence of God.
The two men will be debating the existence of a higher power in a live simulcast hosted by the Church Communication Network on Sunday, December 8th. It will be broadcast into over 1,000 churches nationwide, and the Center Point Church in Lakeland will be among them.
Round One: The Players
Michael Newdow was named "America's Least Favorite Atheist" by Time magazine after he filed a lawsuit so that his daughter wouldn't have to say "under God" during the Pledge of Allegiance at her school. He used to be a regular joe who just happened to not believe in God. Now he's a national atheist icon, and he admits that's given him a bad rap.
"People think we have horns, and we're devil worshipers, and that affects us. Atheists can't get elected in this country because 48 percent of the population will refuse to vote for you merely because you're an atheist," he says. "We are discriminated against. It's not as flagrant because most of us don't walk around saying we're atheists, but it exists and it shouldn't be there."
Atheism is simply the denial of the existence of any supreme being, and according to Newdow, it can be considered a religion depending on how one defines religion. His definition? "A system of beliefs that encompass the relations between humans and the understanding of how we got here."
Newdow runs his own atheist church in Sacramento called the First Amendmist Church of True Science (FACTS). They don't have regular church meetings, but they do participate in charity events, such as clothing drives for the needy. Although he's not new to public speaking, this will be his first time to debate his beliefs in front of such a large crowd.
Cliffe Knechtle, on the other hand, is a seasoned pro. As a minister for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, he travels to college campuses across the country, giving talks on life after death, faith, and moral absolutes.
Knechtle, who lives in Connecticut, attended Gordon/Conwell Theological Seminary just outside of Boston after graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina.
"I saw the contrast between a lifestyle where Jesus is Lord versus a lifestyle where money is Lord, and I decided that a lifestyle where Christ is Lord is so superior that I put my faith in Christ," he explains.
His books, Give Me an Answer and Help Me Believe, answer his most frequently asked questions about God.
Round Two: Their Arguments
With the recent outbreak of violence in the world -- sniper attacks, suicide bombers, school shootings -- it seems like there must be some source of evil causing them. And if there's some source of evil, then there must also be some source of good to keep things balanced.
So, if there's an element of evil and an element of good, does that mean there's a God and a devil that control them? And if there is a God, and he's supposed to be all-loving, then why doesn't he put an end to that evil? Allowing innocent people to be shot or blown up doesn't seem like a very all-loving thing to do. So does that mean there's no God?
Newdow would say yes. He believes people are generally followers, and that's the main reason so many believe in a higher power.
"People tend to follow, and when you're brought up going to church and your mother and father are worshiping this imaginary thing in the sky, you have two choices: You'll either say, 'All these people are psychotic' or 'Okay, I'll join in,'" he says. "At some point, you become so indoctrinated, you learn to see everything with that view in mind."
Knechtle argues that there are several points that prove God's existence. He says the origin of the universe has to have been the work of a higher power because such a complex system couldn't have come from nothing. He also believes our consciences are evidence of some sort of moral lawgiver.
"The amazing order and design of the cosmos points to an intelligent mind," he says. "If the Earth were a little closer to the sun, we'd all fry. If it was a little further from the sun, we'd all freeze."
Round Three: The Expected Results
Jeff Bigalow, pastor of the Rolling Hills Church in El Dorado Hills, California, had seen the press coverage of Michael Newdow over the summer and formulated the idea of a debate between him and a Christian scholar from Connecticut, whose books he'd read.
Newdow didn't live far from the church. El Dorado Hills is a suburb of Sacramento, and all it took was a phone call to convince Knechtle to head west and participate in a local outreach debate for Bigalow's church.
But word got out, and the Church Communication Network, a national network that broadcasts to churches in every state except Alaska, picked up on it. Soon enough, plans were in the works to take the debate live and nationwide.
Now viewers all over the country will be able to ask questions by phone, fax, or e-mail during a designated Q&A period, and CCN will be polling viewers in all participating churches after the debate to determine which man gave the more compelling arguments.
"I hope I'm persuasive enough to change everybody, but I don't expect that's going to happen," said Newdow. "More importantly, people will see that we don't have horns. We just don't believe in myths."
Knechtle, of course, has other goals: "I'm convinced that a person puts their faith in Christ because God's holy spirit draws them. I am praying that his holy spirit will use this debate to draw many to Jesus Christ."