Six panelists, 150 people and two opposing viewpoints met Tuesday night as a Gainesville State College club hosted a forum about religion’s role in government.
The goal of the “What Role Should Religion Play in Government” forum was to begin a discussion, according to Devidyal Givens of the Humanist Student Union.
“One of the goals for our club is dialogue and open communication among secular and nonsecular people alike,” Givens said. “We’re not about throwing anything in anyone’s face or promoting arguments, we just want to talk.
“We want people to actually participate in a dialogue and talk about things they wouldn’t talk about with people they wouldn’t always talk to.”
And talking is exactly what happened. The panelists, three promoting the separation of church and state and three arguing the other side, spoke briefly to kick off the forum.
“Time and time again our founders looked to God,” said Trevor Thomas, a frequent columnist for The Times and a math teacher. “Our Constitution, our laws, our values reflect this.”
Brandon Givens, a humanist minister and also a frequent columnist for The Times, said that religion has had a “poor track record” and logic and reason should dictate in government.
“There is not a single law that logic cannot provide us,” Brandon Givens said. “When we vote, we have to vote based on logic and facts.”
Kevin Davis, a nontraditional student at the college and member of the Politically Incorrect Club, said religion is the basic building block of who someone is and should play a role in law.
“My belief is that we shouldn’t exclude things or try them because it’s religious,” he said. “We should try all things to improve society.”
Tom Smiley, a pastor, said that religion already affects everything, and should continue to influence government.
“Religion doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he said. “It deeply impacts the way people interact in a society.”
Professor Doug Ealey, a panelist, said that the United States government has always been an experiment in democracy and religion and that moving forward the nation will have to come to terms with its mix of secular and faith-based ideas.
“We have always had to piece together what we do,” he said. “The only way we can move forward is to do that.”
Devidyal Givens previously helped coordinate a similar event, the Good Without God debate, with the help of the now-defunct Secular Student Alliance. Last year’s event drew a crowd of 350 people, and that popularity is what inspired Tuesday’s forum.
“Last year’s debate was an amazing hit,” Devidyal Givens said. “So I was thinking ‘What else can we do that’s kind of along the same lines?’”
Devidyal Givens said her personal experiences living in the South, where religion can play a pivotal role in the lives of many people, pushed her to hold events such as the forum.
“I know as an out, open atheist that people make horrible assumptions about who I am and how I live my life just because I have that atheist ‘A’ next to my name,” she said, adding that personal stereotypes can lead to misinformation and bigotry. “If just one person goes in (to the forum) with an open mind and learns something new, and walks out of the door thinking differently, then I’m satisfied.”