April 25, 2009

Advice for Debating William Lane Craig, part 5

Posted in Advice for Debating..., Atheism, Debates tagged , , , , at 9:32 am by Andrew

You can find the previous posts in this series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and
Part 4, or you can click on the “Advice for Debating…” tag.

1. One of the most important things you should be doing to prepare for any kind of formal debate — and I can’t believe I didn’t mention this earlier — is to practice debating the other side. Atheists, that means you should find the best debater you know (other than yourself) and set up a practice round in which they come in with a case for atheism that you haven’t seen, and you play the role of William Lane Craig.

And you should play dirty! Make unfounded assertions, logical leaps, spread a ton of arguments — do whatever it takes to “win” that practice round.

Why should you do this? Well, a lot of reasons, but the primary one is so that you don’t fall in love with your own arguments. Debating both sides of a proposition helps you evaluate the claims you’re making with greater objectivity.

It will also help you understand how best to counter those sorts of tactics when William Lane Craig uses them against you! (And trust me, Craig can’t help himself; he tried to spread and extend against Christopher Hitchens when Hitchens was outnumbered five to one on a panel discussion (and thus it was really inappropriate to call out drops). Craig can’t help himself from debating in that style and you absolutely, positively must be ready for it. The best way to do that is to use it against someone else and then switch sides and have them do it to you.

That’s what “professional” high-school and college debaters do. When the topic is “Resolved, that capital punishment is justified,” my liberal students couldn’t simply go in and forfeit every affirmative round. They had to learn the very best arguments for capital punishment and make them as sincerely as possible. Similarly, when the topic was “Resolved, that health care is a universal human right,” my conservative students couldn’t just take the negative position every time.

So play the theist in a practice debate. Then switch sides. Then switch sides again. You’ll quickly learn what theistic arguments are effective in the confines of a debate round, which is a valuable lesson against the likes of William Lane Craig.

In fact, I think I’m going to add this to my formal list of criteria for being a good atheist debater: a good atheist debater should be prepared to debate the theist position.

2. Next, John Loftus asks:

Andrew, not ot belabor my point too much (and since I said I was done perhaps I am), I was hoping you would be able to explain why you think it would not be to my advantage to debate Craig first rather than have several debates under my belt where Craig can see how I argue? Why do you think it would be to my advantage if I first debated several people before I debated Craig, given that he would not know in advance my strategy and I would know his inside and out? If you cannot support or defend your contention then why not call for a debate between Craig and me?

I’m not sure if John is suggesting that he intends to surprise Craig with new arguments, or surprise him with his debating style, but it seems to me that neither of these is a sufficient justification for not engaging in prior debates.

a. First, a large part of what I’m calling for people like John to do is to debate privately, get private coaching, and judge high school Lincoln-Douglas debate. So there’s no disclosure problem in any event.

b. Second, I think the idea that disclosure puts you at a disadvantage is silly. In fact, experienced high school and college debaters often disclose their arguments to the other side in advance of a round. In any event, if you have some sort of secret awesome killer argument, feel free to hold it in reserve in your public debates until you debate Craig. (But try it in practice rounds in private; it might not be as killer as you think it is.)

c. Finally, the notion that you can keep a “style” secret from Craig is very silly. Craig already has the best debating style there is. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the substance of his arguments. But in terms of tactics, if your goal is to win public debates, your goal should be to do what Craig does.

Hiding your “style” from Craig is thus of no advantage to anyone. When Craig prepares to debate you, if you have no prior experience, he will assume that you’ll debate properly (i.e., using his style). The more you deviate from that, the more he’s prepared to take advantage of it. If he has access to prior debates in which you showcase your style, it won’t affect his preparation for you one bit.

In sum: prior debate practice is essential in order to develop the skills you’ll need if you’re going to beat William Lane Craig. Those practices can all be private if you want, but if you skip the preparation, you will get crushed. Period.

3. Commenter Dave2 asks about the difference between offensive and defensive responses:

I’m no debate expert, but this makes no sense to me.

Are you saying that if an atheist masterfully shoots down and picks apart all four of Craig’s arguments, and provides a devastating argument for atheism and successfully defends it against every criticism, then the atheist loses?

No. I’m saying that won’t happen due to time constraints. Here, let’s try and map out a potential round. I’m only going to look at Craig’s argumentation here just to illustrate a point; in a real round, the atheist would also have an introductory (“constructive”) speech. But bear with me:

A. Craig offers a 10-minute introductory statement in which he sets forth his five arguments for the existence of God.

B. In the five-minute rebuttal period, the atheist devotes one minute to each of Craig’s five arguments.

Now, Craig is going to look at speech (B) and figure out how best to salvage as many arguments as he can from his initial constructive (A). This is the first thing a good debater does. He’s not going to go to his “favorite” argument; he’s not going to go in the order you’ve presented, he’s going to go to the argument that has the fewest, weakest responses and “extend” it, and say “the atheist can’t deal with this evidence for God.”

If Craig is really pressed for time, and all you’ve done is made defensive responses to his claims (“X isn’t true”), then Craig gets to pick and choose the arguments to which he wants to respond. He can drop anything else, so long as he’s winning his overall framework.

So the atheist’s job in that rebuttal speech is to make it as hard for Craig to answer as humanly possible. The best way to do that is with “turns,” or offensive responses. In other words: when you respond to Craig’s claims about the universe, don’t just say “the universe isn’t fine-tuned,” claim that the universe is fine-tuned against the universe described in the Bible (it is, you know!). That way Craig must respond or you can claim victory in your final rebuttal.

Do that enough times and you can counter Craig’s natural advantages in word economy. That will give you the opening you need to emphasize the arguments of your own that Craig has under-covered.

Hopefully, those of you who are would-be debaters are starting to get a sense of the strategic and tactical elements that go into every debate round regardless of subject. I promise you that William Lane Craig is aware of these issues; you should be, too.

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  1. homelessgirl said,

    great advice, I’m gonna use that next time I debate an atheist.

  2. Andrew said,

    Go for it! I’m a fan of good debate, and it’s no fun for me when atheists crush unprepared Christians, either. (Well, okay, maybe it’s a little bit of fun, as Sam Tyler-Smith and Christopher Hitchens can attest.

  3. [...] put up some excellent posts of advice on how to debate William Lane Craig (one, two, three, four, five). The reason Craig wins all his debates with atheists is not because his arguments are sound, but [...]

  4. homelessgirl said,

    Actually as a christian I can honestly say that the way we represent ourselves in arguments and debates e.t.c well at least most of the time is pathetic. we think we can get away with sloppiness.
    I’m sometimes embarrased

  5. Luke said,

    Andrew, have you ever done a formal debate with a theist? What is your debate experience?

    • Andrew said,

      I have never done a formal debate with a theist.

      My debate experience is as a former high school debater as well as a debate coach for 15 years. If you’ll forgive a bit of a brag, my students routinely dominated their state tournaments, appeared in late elimination rounds at national tournaments, qualified to the three major national championships, and frequently advanced to the elimination rounds at nationals. (I miss coaching; I had to give it up as my law practice expanded.)

      In that vein, I’m also a civil litigator with both trial and appellate experience, although neither is directly comparable to a formal debate.

  6. Ben said,

    I am enjoying this series.

  7. Dave2 said,

    I’m still having trouble.

    If your point is only about time constraints, then I really don’t see how this favors offensive over defensive responses. Do offensive responses take less time than defensive responses or something?

    You also say: “He can drop anything else, so long as he’s winning his overall framework.” But why? In deciding which responses to address and which to ignore, I would have thought the strength of the response is what matters, regardless of whether it is defensive or offensive. Thus I’ll be much more concerned to address what looks like a devastating refutation of my argument (a defensive response) than to address a weak and lame-looking ‘turn’ (offensive response).

    I mean, is there some sort of debating rule that says the strength of a response is not as important as whether it’s defensive or offensive? Does that mean I have to supplement a decisive refutation of my opponent’s argument with some sort of offensive response, even if I can’t think of any offensive responses that are at all plausible? That seems pretty dubious, even setting aside considerations of dishonesty.

    • Andrew said,


      It’s a tough strategic distinction to grasp, so let me try to tease it out a bit better.

      Craig typically delivers a speech in which he sets out the burden on the atheist (“defeat all five of my arguments and give a positive argument for atheism”) and then sets out five arguments for theism — (1) the cosmological argument, (2) the teleological argument, (3) the moral argument, (4) the argument from the historicity of the resurrection, and (5) the argument from veridical personal experiences.

      Suppose in your rebuttal you give a tremendous set of defensive responses to (1) the cosmological argument, but because you’ve run out of time, you only give a weak defensive response to (4). What Craig will do is get up in his rebuttal and spend ~50% of his time “extending” his unrefuted arguments about the historicity of the resurrection. If you’ve truly crushed the cosmological argument, he won’t say a word about it. Because of (a) the burden he established on you at the outset of the debate and (b) the defensive nature of your responses to the cosmological argument, Craig can just go for something else.

      Now this puts you in a real dilemma in your last speech. You can try and lamely come back and respond to the arguments and extensions on the resurrection, but (a) you’ve run out of time and (b) it will look weaselly, because you didn’t respond to them in your previous rebuttal. Or you can just ignore it, which Craig will point out in *his* final speech. Either way, you’ve lost.

      Worse, you can’t outweigh it with the fact that you “beat” his cosmological argument, because by your own terms that’s not an argument for atheism — it’s just an argument that one of Craig’s arguments for Jesus was wrong. If Craig wins any of his other arguments and you haven’t disputed his framework, then he wins the debate no matter how wrong he was on the cosmological argument.

      Does that make sense?

      Does that mean I have to supplement a decisive refutation of my opponent’s argument with some sort of offensive response, even if I can’t think of any offensive responses that are at all plausible? That seems pretty dubious, even setting aside considerations of dishonesty.

      No, it just means that you need to be cognizant of the arguments you’re making in the context of the entire round such that you’re putting Craig to a respectable burden in his rebuttal.

      Hope this helps,

  8. Silly, eh?

    Okay, if you say so. But then you don’t have a clue what I’ll do or say, do you? Until you do you don’t have enough information to pontificate about it.


    • Andrew said,


      Are you going to respond to my specific points or just continue to take offense?

      I stand by my use of the word “silly’ to describe a strategy of foregoing practice in order to come at William Lane Craig with a “secret” style of debating. Respectfully: that makes no sense.

      • Of course you would. Why not? You must save face in light of your ignorance about my knowledge of Craig’s arguments and the fact that you do not have a clue about my strategy. No, I won’t bother telling you. You would only strain at a gnat and nitpick to find a small problem with it.

        I suspect you’ll do the same thing with my debate against Wood. Like they say, it’s easier to be a coach where you never make a mistake than to play the game.

      • Luke said,

        You have your answer, Andrew. The latter option was chosen.

        John, are you for real? You’re SO offended and angry because Andrew and I suggested that you and everyone else might want to practice debating before debating?

        Are you really the same person who wrote “Why I Became an Atheist”? I’ve re-read my own posts and tried to see if there’s anything offensive about them, and I’m just not seeing it. You might want to reconsider your own reaction.

      • I hope this reply is placed after Luke’s. Listen up. Would you please tell me based upon what Andrew has said which skeptic who has debated Craig meets his criteria for debating him? Which one of them has had any debate experience at all except Tabash or Hitchens? Which one of them studied the Lincoln Douglas debates? That’s two, count them, two people who might have partially met his requirements. Now after a couple significant losses he presumes to single me out to tell me I should not debate Craig without understanding me and what I might do. I guess he never read my book if he thinks I don’t have what it takes. That’s not only ignorant on his part but also something I take exception to, as you would if it were you. Rhetorical skill is indeed important, as is experience. Where does he get off saying I don’t have either of these things without knowing me or what I plan to say? As Carrier has said why place such an emphasis on rhetorical skills or experience when I think I have the substance? Surely a potential debater should want both, but why doesn’t substance even factor into his advice? I simply don’t get it.

        And it is utterly foolish to think I am not interested in experience. Where does he get that from? I have challeneged every single educated apologist to debate me one at a time. The title of the post is “I Challenge You!” It’s just that I would prefer to debate Craig first.

        And of the skeptics who have not taken any of Andrew’s advice a few of them win, like Tabash, Louise Antony and Shelly Kagan. I’m saying I can too.

        • Jonathan said,

          Well, I have been reading most of your posts here, and all I can say is with you indignant hubris, you will be slaughtered if you debate WLC. Do you actually think that because you wrote a book or two you can debate? In the written word you don’t have to respond to immediate rhetoric or tactics. In a book you don’t have to “provide rebuttal to all my 5 claims and then provide your own positive case that God doesn’t exist”. In a book you can take 50 pages to pine away about a fantastic narrative about the insufficiency of evidence for Christ. You can do any of the above in a 15 minute opening statement, a 10 minute rebuttal and a 20 minute cross-examination.

          Oh, but you have a SECRET strategy!!! Sure just like every other great white hope that has been demolished by WLC.

          Why do you have to balk at criticism? Isn’t criticism what us atheists, skeptics and free-thinkers thrive on? Why don’t you just admit that an adversary sucha s WLC requires MUCH preparation, and MUCH counsel?

          If you go at it in a live debate with the hubris you have on this page, you will be eaten alive, just like Hitchens, Carrier et al.

      • Luke said,

        I don’t think anyone who has debated Craig has measured up. It’s possible a few people have beaten Craig anyway, because he has a much tougher position to defend.

        I don’t recall anyone saying that you don’t have the substance to take on Craig. Indeed, you’re more qualified to do that than pretty much everybody. What Andrew and I are saying is that since you ALREADY have the substance part down pretty well, you might want to take some time to work on that other part that is not so well developed: debate skills.

        That’s it. That’s all we’re saying. At least, that’s all I’ve been saying. I’m just saying: please don’t neglect the part that always gets neglected.

        Andrew has lots of experience as a debater and as a debate coach. He’s trying to improve your game. If Sayre-McCord or Railton called you up with some advice on how to attack Craig’s moral argument, would you react by saying, “How dare you assume I don’t already know everything! I didn’t ask for your advice!”

        You said that Andrew’s unsolicited advice offends you, and would offend me, too. I disagree. It would not offend me. First, because I don’t think offense is a useful reaction to anything. Second, because even if I did that wouldn’t be the kind of thing to offend me. Unsolicited advice from knowledgeable people is always welcome. I can then filter the advice and say “Hmmm, you may be partially right. Thanks.” Or else I can say, “I’m not sure that’s good advice, because X, Y, Z.” But in neither case is offense a good reply.

        And I don’t understand what is so offensive about saying you have less debate experience than Craig. It’s a simple fact. Andrew and I are not insulting you.

      • Luke said: “What Andrew and I are saying is that since you ALREADY have the substance part down pretty well, you might want to take some time to work on that other part that is not so well developed: debate skills.”

        Fair enough, and with that I’ll give it a rest. I’ll listen.

  9. Martin said,

    I watched John’s debate on the problem of evil. I have to say, hi absolutely killed it. Organised, covered all possible rebuttals in his opening address. It was quite something.

    But I still agree with you. Any atheist counter-apologist who thinks that he can take on Craig, should do the homework. I look forward to your thoughts on John’s performance.

  10. Matt said,

    I just watched it, too. I would be intersted in Andrew weighing in on the strategy of Loftus speaking first and covering a lot of anticipated arguments in that speech, is that good strategy or not?

  11. Jon said,

    Andrew, thanks very much for doing this work. This is excellent advice.

    If you do have some time to look over a little of my work and have feedback, I’d be very grateful. Not that I will ever be qualified to debate WL Craig, but I did write a rebuttal to his opening statement that you can read here. I also frequently call in to Christian talk radio shows and debate with the host. My most recent one is here. The subject is torture in this case, not Christianity, but I do Christianity often also. Any advice is appreciated.

    • Andrew said,


      Thanks for the kind words. I’ve started to read your response; you might also want to check out my post on why I find the ‘minimal facts’ model unpersuasive for some additional thoughts on this approach. I also liked the point made by the commenter on your site who noted that cherry-picking individual “facts” is similar to the approaches taken by Moon hoaxers and Holocaust deniers.

      When I get the chance I will go over your rebuttal in more detail.

  12. I have weighed in on the “Craig Problem” here. Please don’t kill me, John.

  13. Matt said,

    When I see phrases like “the Craig problem,” it makes me wonder: why is it so important to you people to refute apologists and convince people that atheism is true? I understand why people like Craig want so much to convince people that theism is true: he thinks that people who don’t believe in theism will go to hell. But why do you think it’s so important for atheists to win debates? Is it like a sport to you or something? I’m just curious.

  14. [...] debates, one can “grade” them (as Andrew at Evaluating Christianity writes, WLC is a pro debater…so much like regular debates are “graded” and “judged,” so [...]

  15. Yusuf Ismail said,

    I will be debating Craig in May in (SOuth Africa). i find a marked lack of substancein all his debates. he is a script reader, which is a major negative. in any event we will be debating the divinity of Christ. any recent debates he has done on this topic in the states? does he employ the same techniques if any?

    • Christianjr4 said,


      Dr. Craig’s opening speech is scripted but by no means in this the case with his rebuttal speeches. There is nothing wrong with having a scripted opening speech. If anything, it’s a good thing because one shouldn’t go into a debate without a logical structure and plan to how one will present their arguments. If you’re planning on going into this debate unprepared and totally unscripted than I suggest you think twice. You’re going to be debating one of the best debaters in the world. Any lack of preparation on your side will make you look massively inferior to Craig. Good luck, cause you’ll most definitely need it.

  16. Casey said,

    Winning a debate doesn’t mean you’re right. But if Christians leave debates thinking they won, that’s not going to help. Not to mention that with the evidence being on our side, there is no good reaosn why they should win.

    I think what people need to realize that you don’t need to be an expert on a subject to win a debate if you have great debating skills.

    Craig is not winning debates because his ideas are better or even because he is right, he wins them because he knows the rules the best (trust me on this I learned it the hard way in policy debate rounds vs. cal). Even if you can come up with the most eloquent fucking speech in the world that has bunnies falling out of your butt crack and tears falling from the audience and judges eyes, it’s still a debate, and debates have rules and good debaters know them and can use/exploit them for a win regardless.

    So lets say you manage to address his 5 points successfully and destroy them some how with no extensive knowledge of debate, all he’s going to do is speed up and get more arguments in. They don’t talk that fast because it’s detrimental to their win loss record. The faster he goes the harder it is for you to answerall of his arguments.

    So don’t let the rules of debate be the reason for losing.

    If you want a better idea of why so many people don’t understand debates and how they work, watch the next political debate you see on tv. Keep track of each persons arguments and track which arguments respond which arguments and see what happens. You’ll see that often, the debate most people are exposed to is often not at all a debate, but rather a big giant excercise in word poop.

    This is an ok video of the format and pace of debate that I was used to. That first speech should be about 10 minutes or so, sometimes less. They’re covering far more points while reading excerpts from evidence they have gathered before the tournament. Those tubs he’s using are serving as podium, but those are full of “cards” which are the evidence you have on hand at the debates. The other team gets to look at your evidence too, which makes it fun.

    Trust me, in debate, it doesn’t matter if you think the stuff you are saying is true, it matters how you say it.

    For a good example of another evil successful debater, look at Karl Rove.

    2 things I still want after all of these pages, 1, a good tactic for addressing the co-opting of any impacts and adding eternal damnation, and I would say one path I might direct people down is making a counter argument that you can justify as being a priori or however you speel it :), and say that until he answers for that point, non of the dogmati discussiontaking place is necessary, relevant, or even valid. Then go onto say that even if you do buy that religion is justified as being a debatable issue, then go on to answer all of those arguments. Also, I would then co-opt any arguments that justify religion, faith or a deity, in order to say that reincarnation …. Der der der I think I just found a sort of solution for the impacts I was thinking of. Any way, do that and you could even throw in some philisophical arguments that would maybe not be in line with christian sensibilities, which can end up provoking an emotional response.

    Andrew, I am 100% with you on this. I’m not as crisp in the delivery and structure and i’m bad at flowing, but innovative ideas coupled with crisp execution through the channel of debate can effectively shut this clown down. I would say you should set up a challenge to policy debaters at colleges across the country to challenge this guy. If he is on the affirmative, they can play to his pace and not come right out and try to spread the guy. Speed up as he does. I doubt he would be ok with having to have evidence there, but a policy debater probably would not be told they could not have any with them. Plus, everyone knows his 1a, his 2a is pulling from a pool of knowledge that has been scarcely updated. Is he a young earth guy, if so, I would bring in evidence that refutes that to say that you have a whole universe of evidence that predates his that is complimentry to the more recent batches of evidence that are newer and coming from people with degrees. Not to mention, make technical arguments to bring the bible in to question as a source to begin with. If the informational basis for the argument is wrong and bad, so is the argument itself, as long as you make the case for it.

    Ugh, there’s so many ways to tear this guy a new one it’s not even funny.

  17. Casey said,

    Sorry I gueess no embedding allowed.


  18. […] up some excellent posts of advice on how to debate William Lane Craig (one, two, three, four, five). The reason Craig wins all his debates with atheists is not because his arguments are sound, but […]

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