Wednesday, October 17, 2012

SSA Stories: A Debate!

A little over a week ago, our Secular Student Alliance sponsored our first big event of the year: a debate between Eddie Tabash and Frank Turek! I was very busy running around taking still photos and video, so I absorbed very little of the actual debate. Judging from the feedback I received, mostly from friends and SSA members, people seemed to think that both Eddie and Frank had distinct strengths and weaknesses. The consensus seemed to be that Eddie offered better content, but Frank was more accessible and charismatic. Even so, our SSA members seemed happy with the outcome of the debate. I did not get to speak at length with attendees from New Life Church, but I assume, judging from the occasional rounds of applause the Frank received throughout the debate from his followers, that they were also pleased.

There appears to be a segment of our community that just doesn't like debate. I've heard that it's too confrontational, it doesn't accomplish anything, etc. At some point, I'd like to experiment with another medium, like a panel discussion. I do think that people find debates entertaining though. We atheist activists have heard most of these debates play out multiple times, but a lot of people haven't. One of my friends who was raised atheist actually told me after last year's debate, "I didn't think I'd get anything out of it, but I actually learned a lot." She went on to attend last week's debate as well.

We weren't able to count how many people attended the debate, but I was quite happy with the turn-out. What would I recommend to groups interested in organizing an event like this?

Firstly, start planning early. We had about four weeks to prepare for the event. Originally, we wanted to bring in Matt Dillahunty, but he wasn't available at the time. We were very fortunate that the Center for Inquiry stepped up and offered to send Eddie our way. If they hadn't helped, this event might not have happened. If I could do it over, I would have tried to get started on such things a couple months in advance.

On a related note, expect and be prepared for little problems. I was really worried that we wouldn't have a debate format worked out by the time the debate happened because we kept having to make changes. We almost didn't have enough people from our group to usher/volunteer at the event. I was actually a bit frustrated by the time it was all over. I'm really glad I had so much support from my officers and from our partners at New Life Church. It takes dedication to plan a big event like this because there's no way to know what's going to happen. Making sure you're ready to work your tail off is the best you can do.

Make sure to promote the heck out of your event. If you don't have a significantly large audience, you will be disappointed, especially considering all the work you will have put into organizing it. I discovered that events like this debate are a great way to connect with the larger freethought community. We worked on the event with Center for Inquiry, but we also had representatives from Michigan Atheists and Mid-Michigan Atheists and Humanists in attendance. I always feel so happy when I can see leaders of various groups together. We spend way too much time working against each other, whether we intend to or not.

Lastly, check your equipment. I am still fighting the technical issues I was having with my camera at the debate. There were some oversights that I am definitely not going to have the next time (e.g., having a significantly large card in my camera).

I have to be honest, organizing this event was hard. On the other hand, it was worth the work. I hope everyone got something out the debate. I know I did.

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