Deep thoughts in a small, rural town

Somewhere between the towns Ottertail and Nimrod, nestled among pungent pines and lakes thick with walleye, lies a place that - for one day a year - can claim to be the Athens of America.

It's New York Mills, Minn., and while faux philosophers may call out their doctrines from street corners and subway platforms in this town's East Coast namesake, the Midwestern version boasts a tradition of thinking perhaps unique in the United States.

Like Aristotles in a modern-day Acropolis, four citizen-philosophers will arrive in this small town of 972 Saturday to apply their mental might to one of the most divisive issues in human history: Which is more dangerous, science or religion?

And like the thinkers of ancient Greece, the contestants will be judged not by scholars or politicians, but by the town members themselves. Bankers and lumbermen and students here - many of whom still speak the Finnish of their ancestors - will gather in a tiny bandbox of a gymnasium with lemonade and cookies to decide who is "America's Greatest Thinker."

"We're the only people doing a debate of this magnitude," says Eric Graham, director of the Great American Think-Off. "These are regular folks who give consideration to serious issues. It's completely American."

The format is simple: Each year, the town chooses a topic. Anyone who wants to enter the contest mails an essay on the subject to a panel of eight judges - some from the town, some from out-of-state. Then, the panel chooses the top four essays.

This weekend, those four finalists - two on each side of the topic - will present their arguments to the people of New York Mills. Perhaps appropriately, Minnesota Gov. Jesse "The Mind" Ventura has hinted that he might show up, too.

He's not the only one who's interested in this year's competition. C-SPAN and the "Today" show have made inquiries about the debate (which begins at 7 p.m. local time).

Indeed, the six-year old event already has a colorful history. Consider last year, when 820 entrants mailed essays in response to the question: Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

Although the eventual winner, the Rev. Clark Berge from New York, convinced judges that honesty was not always the best policy, many audience members voted for the flamboyant California sex therapist Susan Block, who showed up with her publicist and "10 Commandments of Ethical Dishonesty."

"When she rode into town, everyone knew she was here. New York Mills was definitely not ready for her," says Barb Schultz, an avid Think-Off supporter in New York Mills. "It's going to be hard to top last year's debate. It was a gas."

This year, fewer applicants sent in essays for the think-off (only 550), but Mr. Graham is convinced the question will draw equal attention. Past questions have also included: Does God Exist? and Is The Death Penalty Ethical in a Civilized Society?

The debate is held in three rounds. In Round 1, Mark Friestad a high school social-studies teacher from North Dakota, and Debra Tastad, a nurse from Minnesota, will argue that science is more dangerous.

"My essay is about the death of an atheist," says Ms. Tastad. "He had nightmares of demons and devils, and all the science in the world couldn't save him. Without a belief in something besides science, you are left to die alone."

In Round 2, Laurie Lalko, a community-college English instructor from Arizona, and Taylor Hayward, a computer programmer from Boston, will defend their position that religion is more dangerous.

Before Round 3, two contenders are cut by the audience, then the two finalists duke it out until the winner is declared - again, by the townspeople.

That's what makes this competition unique, the contestants agree. "I think it's more important what the general public thinks," said Ms. Lalko, who was originally scouting the debate for her students at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. "We need to encourage regular people to take on these issues."

And what about being judged by people more familiar with North Dakota than Nietzsche? "Midwest-erners have a different set of values from those from the West and especially the East," says Mr. Friestad. But "if you can get a Midwesterner to open up, very often they have a more well-developed philosophy than you'd think."

In addition to the $2,000 the four finalists will share, this year's champion will also be offered a gold medal and a book contract by a Massachusetts-based publishing house.

There's no word yet on whether the first 972 copies are on order.

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