Future Biola Students Learn the Importance of Apologetics in Debate with Atheists

May. 26, 2011 By Jenna Bartlo

“We’re having the most sophisticated student conversation in the world right now,” quipped alumnus Sean McDowell (‘98) to the audience at a debate between two high school Christian students and two atheists May 17, 2011 in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

McDowell, whom moderated the debate, leads the apologetics club at the school where he has taught theology courses for the past 8 years, Capistrano Valley Christian Schools. Debating the existence, role and relevance of God, two of McDowell’s students squared off against two atheist students — a Redlands High School senior and UC Irvine senior philosophy student. The two Christian students, Hannah Schaller and Andrew Sears, will be attending Biola University in the fall.

The third annual debate, which raised $800 in admission fees for non-profit organization, Invisible Children, and the Speech and Language Development Center in Buena Park, Calif., was a way for the students to have a conversation with those of other beliefs, give the students an opportunity to be stretched in their knowledge and break down stereotypes and understandings, said McDowell.

McDowell took a few minutes to answer some questions regarding his passion for apologetics and the significance of the debate.

Tell me a little bit about the debate and how students became interested in apologetics and trained for the debate.

McDowell: Some of the interest of the students comes from the fact that I’m so passionate about it. In class, we discuss why it matters and how it relates to their lives. I often bring in people of opposing views to challenge my students to articulate their faith. I like to role-play as an atheist, Mormon, Muslim, or skeptic too.

I teach my students to ask good questions and how to treat people with love who view the world very differently than they do. We take apologetics mission trips each year to places like Berkeley and Salt Lake City. The students are used to putting their knowledge into practice and being stretched out of their comfort zones.

How did the community respond to the debate?

McDowell: It was great having so many people together from our school, from the Freethought Alliance of Orange County and from the community at large. It’s always a positive step when people from such divergent backgrounds can come together to discuss their differences with mutual respect.

There were probably about 125 people in the audience who seemed very engaged throughout the debate. The next day I got an email from my friend Bruce, the head of the “freethinking” group, who was hoping we could do more events like this together in the future.

What is the significance of having a debate like this for high school students to participate in?

McDowell: The topics discussed were things like the nature of free will, divine foreknowledge, cosmology and the objectivity of morality. These are not the type of things that students sit around and discuss normally, let alone discuss with a greater understanding of the topics at stake. You have high school students asking the big questions of life and caring about it and giving thoughtful answers and listening respectfully to others responses.

I could not have done that myself in high school. It’s neat to see them stepping out and taking that risk.

When students go to college, often they have no idea why they believe what they believe and fall away from the faith, but I want our students to go to college and not only know that there are answers to their faith, but make an impact.

In today’s world, why is it important for students, or anyone, to be knowledgeable in apologetics? 

McDowell: First, the Bible commands it (1 Peter 3:15). Second, the Internet has leveled the playing field of knowledge today. Youth today are exposed to all sorts of worldviews and philosophies at a much younger age than previous generations. I see far too many students fall away from their faith who are simply unprepared to answer tough questions. Third, apologetics breeds confidence. When young people learn that there is historical evidence for the Bible, scientific evidence for intelligent design, and good answers to the toughest questions posed by skeptics, they are far more likely to step out in their faith. People who are trained in apologetics are less likely to get defensive because their beliefs are well grounded.

Students today are more capable than what we give them credit for. They are looking for challenges and opportunities to step out and live out their faith. I don’t see why every Christian school or Christian club couldn’t do something like this debate.  


  • Inga Aug. 10, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    My son is a debater and is now in a public high school and has gone to Worldviews camp in the summer and has had some apologetics in homeschool and Christian school previously. I'm concerned about his faith and would like to see him involved in apologetic debate, but I'm having a hard time finding a way to fit that in with public school. Have you ever heard of a youth group incorporating this kind of thing? Or any other ideas?

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