Recent books have fueled the simmering controversy.
Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation critique religion, while Francis Collins' The Language of God, as well as books by Alister McGrath, defend its importance and validity in the world.
Next week, the debate comes to Utah.
Mark Hausam, elder at Christ Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, will square off at the University of Utah against David Keller, professor of philosophy at Utah Valley State College in Orem, on the topic, "Is God necessary for ethics?" The debate is co-sponsored by Christ Presbyterian and the Humanists of Utah.
Hausam, who also teaches philosophy at UVSC, believes ethical standards could not exist without God.
"Without God, there can be no objective standard of morality, no real, objective right or wrong, good or bad, no such thing as human rights," he argues. "Nothing, including human beings, has intrinsic value. We are left with only our own human needs and desires, combined with the circumstances and consequences [social, physical, etc.] of this life, in a world without design, without purpose."
Theists look to sacred texts such as the Bible to offer God's perspective on life's thorniest questions - when does life begin, when is it right to end a life, what is sex for, how should men and women relate, how should we care for the Earth, etc.
Humanists, on the other hand, believe that taking God out of the equation makes ethical choices more, not less, valuable.
"If theists adhere to standards of morality, they do so for reasons extrinsic to morality itself, that is, God's will," Keller says. "If atheists adhere to standards of morality, they do so for reasons intrinsic to morality itself, that is, because doing so is valuable in and of itself."
There are unethical theists, and ethical atheists, Keller says, but if two people act exactly the same way, the behavior of the atheist is more laudable, he reasons, because he's doing the right thing for its own sake, not to please God.
The only value of religion, he says, is to use notions such as "fear of divine retribution" to motivate those who are not capable of acting ethically on their own.
Deen Chatterjee, philosophy professor at the U., will moderate the debate from a neutral perspective.
"It's an especially important topic right now, because of the way the world is going," says Chatterjee, who has taught several courses on God, faith and reason. "Long gone are the days when separate religious groups could live in their own ways."
Theists and atheists agree on many moral values, he says, the question involve methodology and sources. Who or what dictates right and wrong?
"Both sides will say the other side is dangerous," Chatterjee says. "I plan to challenge them both."
* Mark Hausam, elder at Christ Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, will square off at the University of Utah against David Keller, professor of philosophy at Utah Valley State College in Orem, on the topic, "Is God necessary for ethics?" at 7 p.m., Friday in Orson Spencer Hall Auditorium at the University of Utah. Information:
* DEBATE: "Is God necessary for ethics?"
* WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.
* WHERE: Orson Spencer Hall Auditorium at the University of Utah