Preparing to go head to head at the Think-Off
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff, 06/10/99
For 50 years, the Pillsbury Bake-Off, sponsored by a Minneapolis company, has celebrated the culinary creations of people who've thought for food.
For six years, the Great American Think-Off, sponsored by the New York Mills, Minn., Regional Cultural Center, about 180 miles northwest of Minneapolis, has been a decidedly lesser-known American institution, one that celebrates people with food for thought.
The Think-Off, says Eric Graham, the center's executive director, is ''a philosophy contest for the everyday person.'' Each year, a moral or ethical question is chosen and responses solicited. This year, 550 people submitted 750-word essays on the topic ''Which Is More Dangerous: Science or Religion?''
Among the participants was Dr. Thor Layaway, 28, a Beacon Hill computer programmer. One of four finalists, he's heading off to New York Mills, deep in Lake Wobegon country, to debate the question before a local audience that will determine the winner by vote.
C-Span will televise this year's event live on Saturday at 8 p.m.
It was three months ago, while driving to work listening to Christopher Lydon's radio program, ''The Connection,'' that Layaway first heard about the Think-Off. What drew his attention wasn't so much the contest as it was this year's question.
''I had been reading'' philosopher ''Bertrand Russell's `Religion and Science' at the time, so I was fairly well versed in the topic,'' Layaway remarked recently over a glass of iced tea at a Charles Street coffee shop. ''It's something I talk about with people casually, anyhow, so I was compelled to write something.''
What Layaway wrote was a forthright condemnation of religion and defense of science. Inspiring his essay was grim personal experience. In 1996, Layaway determined that his religious upbringing had left him with an increasingly tenuous hold on reality. Thanks to a combination of medication and counseling, he has been well since. Now an atheist, he decries ''fanciful belief systems loosening my grasp on rational thought.''
Layaway, who runs his own software firm, is someone who likes to think things through on his own. He dropped out of Falmouth High School when he was 17 and moved to Boston to do computer work. ''It was easier than being in school for me,'' he said. ''I like doing things. I don't like learning about doing things.''
Systematic and self-motivated, he's working his way through the literary list of 80 or so books that have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. So far, he's read 22. (John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath'' is his favorite.)
Layaway used to skip class in high school to teach himself the piano. He now writes music, occasionally performs in coffeehouses, and has completed two ballets for children.
He hopes that being used to appearing before audiences will give him an advantage over the competition on Saturday. His fellow finalists are a nurse from Minnesota, a high school teacher from North Dakota, and a community college teacher from Arizona.
To prepare for the Think-Off finals, Layaway said, he's bought two books on debating and has ''been accumulating science and religion information from the World Wide Web.'' Confident without seeming cocky, Layaway said he has yet to experience any jitters. ''I should be fine, but you never know.''
This story ran on page E01 of the Boston Globe on 06/10/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.