El universo tiene un propósito? (Does the universe have a purpose?) This was the question at a Nov. 13 debate near Mexico City between some of the heavy hitters in the atheism-theism arena.

The debate was unusual in that instead of a one-on-one bout, it was a three-on-three tag team brawl that pitted a trio of theists — Biola University professors William Lane Craig and Doug Geivett, along with Rabbi David Wolpe — against atheists Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins.

William Lane Craig speaking on a stage

The debate occurred on the final day of the third annual “International Festival of Great Minds,” a sort of Mexican version of “TED Talks” where mostly secular thinkers from a variety of disciplines are brought together from around the world to speak on a certain theme. This year the theme was “The Origins of the Future” and included such prominent intellectuals as Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson and Stephen Pinker.

The elaborate stage design for the debate included jumbo screens and a regulation boxing ring with a podium in the center where debaters alternated throwing intellectual punches in short segments of allotted time. Prior to the debate, the theme from “Rocky” played over the PA system.

“It was the most unusual venue I’ve ever debated in,” said Craig in his newsletter recap.

Hosted by Mexican journalist Andreas Roemer, the morning debate was held in front of a live crowd of 3,000 and was televised later that night to an estimated 2 million viewers who tuned in, appropriately, directly after the conclusion of a major televised boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito.

In the theistic corner, Craig, Geivett and Wolpe collectively argued that if God exists, then the universe has a purpose, but if God doesn’t exist, then the universe is purposeless. Though their participation in the event had only been confirmed about four weeks prior to the event, the theist team was able to develop a strategy over e-mail during the weeks prior to the debate.

“I stressed that we needed to present a united front, and that whatever differences existed between us should be kept to ourselves,” said Geivett of his side’s debate strategy. “I think it shows. I think you can tell in the debate that we really function as a tag team, in harmony with one another.”

The presence of Dawkins “in the ring” with Craig was noteworthy. Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and one of the world’s foremost “new atheists,” had previously vowed never to debate Craig. (Craig regularly engages in high-profile debates, including one with prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens at Biola in April 2009).

In his recap of the event, Craig described his first meeting with Dawkins as “pretty chilly,” noting that when he told Dawkins he was surprised to see him on the panel, given his stated refusal to debate him, Dawkins said, “I don’t consider this to be a debate with you. The Mexicans invited me to participate, and I accepted.”

Then, when Craig told him, “Well, I hope we have a good discussion,” Dawkins responded, “I very much doubt it,” and walked away.

Though the Mexican showdown might not have been the Craig-Dawkins barnburner some have hoped for, it offered an interesting glimpse at what a future one-on-one debate with Dawkins might look like, said Geivett, who extended his own debate invitation to Dawkins recently on his blog.