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Well, that's what we expected when a hardy group from Western Sydney Freethinkers went to the Archangel Michael and Saint Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church at Mt. Druitt to see a talk about young Earth creationism. The talk was an intersection of two programs - a tour of the country by leading creationists from Creation Ministries International and a series of discussions at the Church about issues relevant to faith. As the speaker from CMI was Dr Carl Wieland we were prepared to hear lots of nonsense (and that we did).
The format of the event was to have four speakers on a panel who could present their positions and then turn the night over to questions from the audience. Dr Wieland represented the young Earth group, who claim that everything was created in six twenty-four hour periods about 6,000 years ago, that almost all life on Earth was destroyed in a massive flood about 4,000 years ago except for the plants, people and animals that were carried on Noah's Ark and that all people on Earth are descendants of the eight people on the Ark. There was a science teacher who represented theistic evolution (although he said he didn't really believe it!), and a medical student who gave the case for Intelligent Design (and looked uncomfortable doing so). A biologist from the University of Western Sydney had been invited to give the scientific position, but unfortunately he was not able to attend. Our first real surprise was when we were approached by the priest and asked if we would like to provide the fourth speaker. We declined on the basis that none of us were scientists, plus some of us had seen Dr Wieland in action before and had no desire to spend time in a maze of twisty little logical fallacies. (A debate I had participated in some years ago with Answers In Genesis, the previous name for CMI, had taught me that debate was pointless with people who make up the rules as they go along.)
As it turned out, we didn't need to be on the panel, because the audience did our job for us. Normally at events like this the skeptics are in a very small minority, but these people took the idea of a discussion session about religion and faith seriously. It helped that the Orthodox tradition is not based on the literal truth of scripture, but even so it surprised us a little to hear Christians asking a creationist for evidence. This certainly had not been the case on other occasions where I had heard speakers from CMI present their fairy tales. (See here and here for examples.)
After the formal part of the evening was over a lot of the congregation wanted to talk to us, with several of them saying that they would like to come to our Freethinkers meetings. Some of us are planning to go to further discussions at the church. (The next one is on the most difficult topic for any member of the major monotheistic religions - the coexistence of evil with an omnipotent god.)
What looked in advance like an event where we would be cringing at the nonsense that we have been hearing for decades while sitting in a crowd of true believers turned into an enjoyable night out which met a major aim of our Freethinkers group - interaction with people with other belief systems to the benefit of both sides. They aren't likely to convert many of us to Christianity (the creationists certainly aren't) and we don't expect them to renounce their faith, but we have established a dialogue which can only benefit all of us as we learn about what others think and believe and think about the justifications for our own positions.
I would like to thank the members of the Church for the welcome and hospitality they showed towards a group of admitted non-believers. If only all churches were so accepting and tolerant.
This article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on August 23, 2011