Human beings have an innate need to believe in something. We are capable of achieving things, great things, things well beyond our means, if only we believe that it is possible. Conversely, we can be drawn into some of the most reprehensible behavior mankind is capable of by belief. Some of the greatest humanitarian acts and gravest human atrocities have been caused by certitude. The power of belief has brought sick people back from the brink of death. Sleep-walkers who believe that their dreams are true can leap through closed second-story windows, hit the ground and keep running. In fervent defiance, monks can sit calmly in the midst of the fire that destroys them.
The dialogue about belief and faith here in Birmingham, especially religious faith, tends to be a bit one-sided. Sure, there are a number of religions practicing here, but I think we can all agree that Christianity is the dominant force in Birmingham’s religious culture. There is very little room for questioning, for dissonance. Very quietly, one Birmingham think-tank has been laboring to change that, though not for the reasons you might think.
The Fixed Point Foundation, a Christian organization that according to their mission statement is “committed to publicly defending Christianity through education, events, and the development of innovative resources that empower Christians and challenge skeptics,” was founded in 2004 by Fixed Point’s current executive director Larry Taunton. You probably haven’t heard of them. They’ve kept a purposefully low profile. “Only recently have we really made an effort to get our name out there,” says Taunton. “Otherwise, we sort of stayed below the radar just a little bit, and that was really just because I didn’t want it to be about us promoting ourselves, per se. I wanted it to be more about issues or the speakers or the events themselves.”
It’s understandable for Taunton to want to accent his speakers and events. In the last six years, the Fixed Point Foundation has managed to put together a series of debates that have featured some of the superstar intellectuals of religious and atheist thought, including Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. Taunton saw the absence of real dialogue in our culture and decided to fill it with well-founded argument. “I just felt like, that in some way the academic world was a microcosm of what is happening in American society overall and that there is very little sustained development and exchange of ideas on things that affect all of us. Instead what we have and what is passed off as dialogue is really something like Crossfire, or Hannity and Colmes—where we put you in the middle, and we shout at you, literally and figuratively, from the right and from the left. Where no one’s mind is changed. It’s the O’Reilly thing— you get the last word but really I don’t give you the last word. I felt a real conviction that there was need for someone to take interest in this, specifically in our case, issues of faith and culture, into the marketplace and have a reasonable, rational discussion about how these things affect us.”
When selecting speakers for debates, Taunton tries to choose representative speakers that most would agree are worthy of holding up their respective ideologies. “If I’m debating an issue,” says Taunton, “I want to choose someone that I think you will feel is a fair representative of your view, and that I haven’t just set up a straw man, someone who’s easily knocked down, or someone who is on the fringe, someone that you would say to me, look, that guy, he’s milquetoast, he isn’t anyone who really represents me.”
Fixed Point’s latest attempt at such a meeting of the minds, which Taunton will moderate, is a showdown between Christopher Hitchens, a self-proclaimed “anti-theist”, and author of the bestseller “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” and Parisian David Berlinski, author of “The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions," an agnostic secular Jew who is one of the chief proponents of Intelligent Design.
Fixed Point loves Christopher Hitchens in particular, having brought him to speak many times, though this time his appearance is clouded by his recent diagnosis with deadly esophageal cancer. Says Taunton, “Immediately after he was diagnosed with cancer, and before it became public, he told me that he had the cancer and that he was planning to keep his engagement and I was really surprised by both of those pronouncements, particularly when he told me just how grave his diagnosis was. I said, Christopher, maybe you want to think on that just a little bit, because your attitude may change once you start the chemotherapy. He has been adamant since the diagnosis—no, I am going to keep my commitment to you, I am going to do this event, I want to do this event.”
Hitchens’ illness also poses an interesting dilemma for David Berlinski, who according to Taunton is “a savage debater. The guy is one of the wittiest, and most articulate people that I’ve ever met. But David is in an awkward position. And he has said to me, ‘You know Larry, I don’t know how I feel about debating a guy who’s as sick as Christopher Hitchens is.’ So David’s very aware of Christopher’s health, and mindful of it in an appropriate way, and I think it’s his desire to engage Christopher in as friendly a manner as he can. And for Christopher’s part, Christopher said, ‘Look, don’t tell him I don’t want him going easy on me at all. It will make me mad if he does.’ So it should be a very interesting evening.”
Fixed Point’s mission is what interests me, in that it stands firmly in the surety of its belief, but rather than denouncing opposing arguments that challenge them, they have chosen to open their views up for criticism by some very well respected thinkers. “We as a society are becoming increasingly fragmented and fractured and unwilling to expose our own views to any kind of scrutiny,” says Taunton. “I’m of the view that if Christianity is true, then let’s be confident about it, let’s put it out there, let’s talk about it. I don’t have all the answers. But I think that we should be willing to submit the Christian faith. Let’s take it out into the world, a confident, muscular Christianity. And let’s discuss it.”
Taunton didn’t always feel so confident in his foundation. “When Fixed Point was started in 2004, it was really just me working out of the house, and I had a gracious board, a bunch of guys who believed in what I was doing. More than I did maybe, because I really wasn’t sure that I’d stay employed. I just thought, what have I done? I’ve gone from a job working a paycheck to one where I’d have to raise support. And is there really a need for this? And it quickly became clear that we had struck a chord in the culture, that people across the spectrum were interested in the things we were doing.”
In particular, Christian-affiliated Republican organizations began to extend overtures to Taunton, but he is careful to remain separate from political ideals. “I think that Christianity in America has become so heavily politicized, and I always find every time I wanted to exchange, to enter a discussion with someone that didn’t agree with me, that the moment you use particular words they immediately think you’re coming at them with an avalanche of republican political ideals, and I constantly found myself trying to separate my faith from some of the baggage that had been attached to us in the culture.”
The Hitchens/Berlinski debate, which I’m sure will be eminently entertaining if nothing else, is entitled “Does Atheism Poison Everything?” and will be held on September 7 at the Sheraton Hotel in Birmingham at 7 p.m. There will be a pre-debate luncheon and book signing at 11:30 and a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets to all three together are a prohibitive $125, but Fixed Point is a 501c3 without a huge endowment, so at least you know they need the money. Individually, the luncheon/book signing is $50, the reception is $75 and the debate is a relieving $25. So, the debate alone is not out of the means of your everyday inquiring intellectual with a need to argue. For more information visit www.fixed-point.org.
Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.