The Course of Reason

Debate Between Dan Barker and Rev. Joe Boot: Is there life after death?

April 3, 2013

Our group was founded in 2010, and our membership has been growing quickly. To date, we have done a lot of tabling, held monthly meetings, attended conferences, and participated in fundraisers. We decided that it was the right time for our club to host a large event.

members and supporters of windsor essex county atheist society
Members and supporters of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society with Dan Barker and Dr. Gordon Drake. (Photograph taken by Ryan Scott Photography.)

At a club meeting in October 2012, we brainstormed ideas for future events and decided to hold a debate on campus. We ran a poll for potential topics, and the top choice was "Is there life after death?" In deciding who to invite as our guest speaker, we reflected on our group's purpose statement:

The purpose of our group is to raise awareness in the community about secular issues, educate ourselves and the community about theism and nontheism, engage in philosophical discussions, create a network for nonbelievers, and foster communication with groups of both similar and dissimilar views.

Dan Barker was the first person to come to mind. I met him at Skepticon III and admired his activism and work as co-president of Freedom from Religion Foundation. Club members were very receptive to inviting Dan to our event. We also asked the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (Windsor) to work with us in co-organizing this event. They invited Rev. Joe Boot to the debate. Rev. Joe Boot is a senior pastor of Westminster Chapel in Toronto, ON. He is also founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Both Dan Barker and Rev. Joe Boot accepted the invitations and approved the debate topic of "Is there life after death?"

In the months to come, our club made room bookings, organized the debate format, arranged for sound equipment, and planned the room setup. We invited Dr. Gordon Drake to participate as debate moderator. We were fortunate to have Freedom from Religion Foundation, Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG Windsor), Secular Student Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Ontario as our sponsors. At first we requested to have 350 seats in the room in which the debate was to take place. However, the debate grew a lot of attention once we started advertising, so we increased the seating to 400. We advertised through Facebook, flyers, email, and on our website. We designed and printed a banner to advertise our event in the student centre on campus.

The banner Windsor/Essex County Atheists used to promote their local event.

Our event attracted attention from local newspapers, including the Windsor Star and The Lance.

the debate speakers

We contacted the Secular Student Alliance and the Centre for Inquiry, our affiliates, and ordered more pamphlets and stickers. We wanted to make sure were fully stocked for debate night. We held a movie night fundraiser and showed the film Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life, which is a 2012 film by Richard Dawkins. On the days leading up to the event, we worked closely with the co-organizers from the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship to make final preparations for the event. I managed to persuade my brother, who is a photographer, to record the debate.

audience photo

On March 7, 2013, two club members and I drove to the Detroit airport to pick up Dan Barker. We enjoyed lunch together at a quaint café in Windsor. Up to that point, everything seemed too good to be true. Doors were to open to the public at 6:30 PM and the debate was to begin at 7:00 PM. When we arrived to the University of Windsor that evening, members of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship greeted us with a disappointing announcement: Reverend Joe Boot would be about 1.5 hours late. We did some quick problem solving and decided that we first had to announce that the debate would be delayed. While I frantically notified the attendees, a few club members took Dan Barker out for a treat at Tim Hortons. Around 6:30 PM, people started filling the Ambassador Auditorium for the debate. To pass the time until Rev. Joe Boot arrived, I introduced the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society and then a co-organizer introduced the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Dr. Drake introduced himself and then Dan Barker spoke about the separation of church and state. At this point, the room was packed with about 450 people.

After a brief break, Reverend Joe Boot arrived. Unfortunately, he was late to the debate because he was in a car accident. The debate went underway. Though the debate was cut short in the interest of time, the feedback from the audience was very positive. 

Video links:
Pre-debate discussions

dinner after the debate

After the debate, club members enjoyed a delicious late-night meal with Dan Barker at an Ethiopian restaurant. We presented him with a thank you card and a pen engraved with his name.

Over this entire process, our club executives have learned a lot. We learned the value in keeping organized, advertising effectively, networking, working with other groups, and being flexible when unexpected change occurs. Dan Barker wrote an excellent blog post about the event as well. The bar for our next event has certainly been raised high!


About the Author: Shawna Scott

Shawna Scott's photo
Shawna Scott is a doctoral student at the University of Windsor who recently received her M.A. in Clinical Psychology. She is also the president of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society, which is a ratified student club with over 200 members.




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