Penn State sociology professor Sam Richards and Gary Cattell, also known as the Willard Preacher, debated the ever-present question of God’s existence, life after death, and morality last night in the Forum Building to a packed house of students.
“I grew up in a secular home, but a good one,” Cattell said to start the debate.
After his schooling, Cattell said he began looking for work. While on the hunt for a purposeful job, he discovered he didn’t even understand why he existed. One day, he said, God answered this question for him. He said he finally knew he believed in a higher power. After learning from the previous preacher on Willard’s steps, he took over the position in 1982.
“Some call Willard the free speech ghetto. When you can’t go anywhere else you stand on the street and yell at people,” Cattell joked.
Richards shared a similar story about finding God. He was quick to assert his understanding of God has no form, attributes, or gender. It’s simply a force he felt while experimenting with mushrooms on a mountain in Mexico. After finding he hadn’t felt God’s message at age 19, he set out to discover it.
“I call myself an atheist, but I pray all day,” he said.
“The short answer is yes,” Cattell said to the question of life after death. If the end of your life is non-existence, there is no point to it, he explained. Cattell told the room heaven is a place of “perfect goodness” while hell is a place of “corruption.” “You can’t make yourself good enough to go to heaven. Yes, compared to American society, you might be relatively good, but the bar is not set that high.”
“I don’t know,” Richards responded. “I don’t think it’s possible to know.” Richards pointed to strange near-death experiences humans can have that may be chemical reactions, but may be something else, to argue against Christianity’s version of life after death.
Another point Richards brought up was the phenomenon of young children being acutely aware of details of strangers’ lives — sometimes strangers who lived decades before the child was born. Richards used this as evidence for reincarnation, as opposed to heavenly accession after death. Another piece of this claim Richards pointed to is some young children saying their parents are not in fact their parents.
“[My wife and I] had four children and they didn’t start saying that until they were 15,” Catell said to a laughing audience.
The first of few common grounds found between the two debaters was over feminism and led to the only high-five of the night. Richards said feminism is really a deep acknowledgment that humanity can be found equally in women as it can be in men. Cattell explained he believes there are differences between men and women, but these differences serve a purpose and were created by God to facilitate better lives for everyone. Feminism, to Cattell, is about a deeper level of respect than problems feminism tries to fix can address.
Richards went off-script and questioned Cattell about his image of God. Essentially, is Man created in God’s image, or is God created in Man’s? Cattell stuck to his guns that Man was created in God’s image. “When love collapses, it gives way to things like jealousy and hatred. We were created God-like, but when that cracks it gives way to evil,” he said.
The debate then turned to introspection, as Richards told the audience that for the next week they should refer to God as a female and see the effect it has on their lives. Richards’ main point of the night was that he doesn’t see God as any one thing. God (or religion in general) for him is an energy and he hasn’t yet discovered what exactly that energy is.
Cattell intended to convey the message that God is waiting for everyone to begin a relationship with Her, so we as humans need to let God know we are willing to do that.
“Don’t judge the religion based on people’s actions, judge people’s actions based on the religion,” Cattell said.