Expect some fire and brimstone at this debate, but it won’t be a pre-election fracas.

Preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker appears ready to stoke the fire when he squares off against philosophy professor Eric Kraemer on the question “Is Religion a Positive Force in Society?” Thursday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“Religion overall is a negative force in the world,” Barker said during an interview to preview his debate strategy.

Kraemer, chairman of UW-L’s philosophy department, begs to differ.

“I’m defending the positive value of religion,” he said, “and I’ll point out the important positive things religion can do.”

Barker was a Christian preacher for 19 years until he eschewed that belief system and embraced atheism in 1984. Now, he  argues that religious faith fosters “climates of hostility” that create conflicts between people and wars between nations.

Kraemer didn’t want to tip his hand in advance of the debate, but he noted, “It’s very easy to point to the negative. It’s harder to point to the positive.”

Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, said he decided to quit preaching when “I found what I was teaching was not true. It has some truth, but the Bible is not true, it’s not historical. … It’s immoral and bad. I asked, ‘Do I want religion or do I want truth?’ I decided I wanted truth. That led to atheism.”

Kraemer said, “I’m not defending any particular religion as true, but I’m defending religion as a social institution.”

Although Barker said religion has restricted the rights of women, gays and blacks, he acknowledged that “most religious people are good, and most religious institutions do good things. But those are not really religious things but human things.

“The doctrinal teachings that dictate the clothes people wear, the food they eat and the day they have to worship restrict people. Religious teachings are not good,” Barker said.

Kraemer plans to argue about the positive connections between religion and social justice.

“Clearly, without religion, the civil rights movement wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “It was no specific religion but lots of people from various religions getting together. I like it because people of different religious denominations were working for the common good based on their own faith traditions.”

The public is invited to the free debate in the Valhalla Ballroom at UW-L’s Cartwright Center.

It is the fourth in a series and the third featuring Barker, said Hank Zumach, president of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society, which is co-sponsoring the event with the La Crosse Student Secular Society. Previous debates have drawn as many as 850 people, he said.

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