April 16, 2009

Advice for Debating William Lane Craig, part 2

Posted in Advice for Debating..., Answering Apologists, Atheism, Debates tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:29 am by Andrew

My first post on this subject went to number one on Google and attracted the attention of Richard Carrier (who has previously debated Craig) and John Loftus (who would like to). Let me expand on my previous remarks.

First, Carrier notes the enormity of this task:

I agree with nearly everything he says. I just don’t think it’s possible to fulfill.

For example, it is unrealistic to expect anyone to be a lifelong professionally trained debater and a Ph.D. in an academic field. In fact, I do not know anyone who fits that bill (except Craig, whose background is exceptional in this regard). Yet, if no experts ever debated Craig citing lack of skill (as Andrew is essentially recommending), you know he will translate that into “they can’t beat me, therefore they know I’m right,” which buys into the very bankrupt epistemology I’ve already decried here: the belief that winning or losing a debate actually has anything to do with the truth.

I agree with Carrier completely. My solution for this (as set forth in the first post) is for would-be Craig debaters to do two things: (a) spend one year judging high-level (“circuit”) Lincoln-Douglas debate, and (b) get specific debating advice from current Lincoln-Douglas debate coaches. If you head over to Victory Briefs, you can easily hook up with a college student or teacher who would be happy to tutor you. Heck; if you catch me with a significant chunk of downtime, I would be happy to tutor you; just email me at evaluatingchristianity@gmail com.

Judging high school debate is also a way to give back to the community, so it’s not like your prep is a total waste, either.

I understand that this is a lot to ask of would-be debaters. But Craig is the major leagues; he’s the very best that the Christians have to offer. As in any competitive activity, you can’t go straight to the majors without hard work. Craig works hard at this — so should you. If you can’t make that kind of commitment but still want to debate, go stomp on their minor-leaguers. It’ll be much more fun, I promise you.

2. Next, Carrier suggests that I am encouraging glib responses:

Which leads to my second problem: e.g. Andrew recommends rebutting the argument from analogy in the teleological argument with a 13 word response (“universes aren’t like watches” or situational equivalent). But Craig will respond to that with an extension (often with an argument to authority) and/or claim a drop (“that’s a mere assertion, and fails to address my point”).

This is emphatically not my point, although I can see where one might have misinterpreted my original suggestion. My point is that you must pre-screen and pre-test all of your responses for word economy. I used the example of the “argument from analogy” response to illustrate that you can reduce a 106 word response to 13 words (and perhaps even further) to save time.

What I do suggest in the post is that you cover all of Craig’s arguments with multiple offensive and defensive responses, to prevent him from extending through ink. So, on the teleological argument, I would start with something like this and then re-write it and re-write it until you can deliver it in a timely fashion:

This argument hinges on two premises: A, that objects that “look designed” are in fact designed; and B, that the universe “looks designed.” Craig doesn’t substantiate either of these two premises, and both are false.

First, we don’t have a reliable “design detection” mechanism when it comes to universes. Our intuition won’t cut it, and so-called expert models, like William Dembski’s, have been thoroughly refuted. In fact, design models are notoriously unreliable — it’s what led Percival Lowell to conclude there were canals and thus intelligent life on Mars — all because he inferred an intelligent agent from an unknown process.

Second, we have a vivid counterexample in evolution, which I guess Craig rejects, even though 99.99% of all biologists accept it. Dawkins’ work on “designoid” objects like the pitcher wasp shows how unguided, naturalistic processes can produce things that are indistinguishable from human-made, intelligently-guided tools.

So the first premise is refuted, and the argument is invalid. We could move on. But the second premise actually provides better evidence for atheism than it does for theism. So let’s move on to response 3, that the universe does not exhibit the hallmarks of design.

Craig trots out the tired “fine-tuning” argument. But that’s been convincingly refuted by physicists; just google “Monkey God” and you’ll see that his parameters can be adjusted by many orders of magnitude and still produce the conditions necessary for stars, terrestrial planets, and complex life. So scientists don’t buy it. And, of course, no one knows if the constants of the universe can be altered; that’s why they’re called “constants.” And of the four fundamental forces, half of them have no impact whatsoever on the development of life — gravity and the weak nuclear force. So the universe isn’t fine-tuned for us.

In fact, fourth, the universe is exactly what we would expect if there were no God. The Bible tells us that the stars are bits of fire stuck into a fixed firmament, with the earth a flat disc, and heaven “above” it. Now if astronomy had validated what Christians believed for 1500 years — if the Earth was really the center of the universe, with everything else orbiting around us; if the universe was clearly set aside for our use and our use alone, then maybe Dr. Craig would have an argument. But in fact, it’s the exact opposite. We see that nine-tenths of our own planet is inhospitable for human life, and of that remaining 10%, we’re subject to vicious natural disasters every day — tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, etc. And that’s just the *Earth*. The universe itself is totally inhospitable to human life. There are billions of galaxies, billions of light-years away, with quadrillions of planets that humans can literally never see. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a universe that doesn’t care about us at all.

That’s about 600 words, which is to say it would take a trained speaker moving quickly — but not too quickly — approximately three and a half minutes. I think with practice you could expand on the arguments, couple them with slides that offer more detail and more evidence, and get it down to 2 or 3 minutes.

This is the sort of thing you need to do with every single argument before you tackle William Lane Craig.

3. Carrier continues:

The reason experts deliver longer rebuttals is because we care about being honest and qualifying what we say, and because of a concern to short-stop his expected responses. Now, I agree, using the briefer mode forces Craig to waste time responding, and presumably you can rapid-rebut with a list of assertions at close for a technical win, but that is simply too shady for me. It feels sleazy to say things you know are over-simplifications or have rebuttals that you should address (and, of course, Craig will castigate you for exactly that).

I agree. I think there are two reasonably good suggestions here to permit you to offer lengthier responses where the situation demands it. First, as I suggest above, you should coordinate your presentation with powerpoint slides. That way, instead of reading your sources, you can read the summary and the source will be behind you. (This means taking an assistant with you to the debate.)

Second, you can set up an evaluative framework in your presentation that allows you to ignore arguments. Craig does this; so should you.

4. Carrier concludes:

I’d rather tell people the truth and why I believe it, and educate them on something they didn’t know before. If I concentrated instead on shotgunning Craig with calculated over-simplified assertions, I concede such a tactic might score a technical win. But no one will learn anything and the truth will ultimately be obfuscated behind a shallow curtain of assertions. What, then, will have been the point of winning?

And that, I think, suggests a third strategy for debates with Craig: narrow the scope of the debate to a particular topic that will prevent him from flooding you with his pre-prepared arguments about cosmology, teleology, etc. Or narrow it yourself in your case; e.g., if you’re debating “The Christian God Exists,” I might offer something like this as a decision rule:

“Now, Craig’s arguments, by and large, are deistic; if true, they prove that some God exists, but not necessarily the Christian one. On the other hand, the institution at which Dr. Craig teaches [show slide] promises that the Bible is completely true and without error. So even if he wins his philosophical/scientific arguments that some god exists, if I can show that the Bible is unreliable in any single instance, we know that whatever god it is, it isn’t the Christian one by Dr. Craig’s own admission, and so he will have lost the debate. Now, here are the eight ways we know the Bible isn’t reliable….”

Either way, you need to take control and narrow your own burdens, particularly if you want to explore issues in depth.

5. John Loftus laments:

There’s not much new in it. Besides, what he wrote is easier said than done during a debate.

Hopefully I’ve highlighted some of that new advice is this post. And I agree, it is difficult. But so is hitting a major-league fastball. That doesn’t mean nobody can do it; it just means that you need to prepare and practice until you can.


  1. Luke said,

    Learn Lincoln-Douglas debates, with video:

    • Andrew said,

      These look a bit dated (Pam Cady is now Pam Cady Wykoff, for example), but in general the coaches are solid — Cady, Dukes, Bailey, and in particular Aaron Timmons.

      What you really want in preparing for a debate with Craig is a good lecture on how to give a 1AR.

  2. Steven Carr said,

    I recently debated Canon Michael Cole on Premier Christian Radio on the programme Unbelievable on the subject of the resurrection.

    He got walloped.

    The programme can be downloaded from the Premier Christian Radio web site , unbelievable page.

  3. Andrew said,


    I believe this is the link to your debate with Cole; when I have the chance, I’ll flow it and offer some analysis on the front page. Thanks.

  4. Luke said,


    I would love to hear your advice on:

    1. The best how-to-debate books.
    2. How to get training, practice, and coaching in debating (I don’t see instructions on how to do this at the VictoryBriefs site).
    3. What the heck a 1AR is and how to do it well.

  5. Andrew said,

    A good place to start is with the (rather modestly named) “Ultimate LD Debate Handbook.” While I don’t endorse everything in the book, (1) I do think it’s a good starting point, and (2) it’s free.

    In an LD debate round, the Affirmative gives an entirely prewritten speech that is 6 minutes long. The Negative then gives a 7-minute speech that is equal parts prewritten case and refutation. The Affirmative then responds with a 4-minute First Affirmative Rebuttal (the “1AR”), which needs to cover everything the Negative has just said and extend arguments from the original case.

    In four minutes. (!)

    So experienced debaters recognize that the 1AR is the toughest speech of the debate round, and that many rounds hinge as a matter of strategy on a) the Neg making the Aff’s 1AR as hard as possible, and b) the Aff rising to the challenge.

    Understanding how to do those two things is, in my opinion, key to understanding how to beat William Lane Craig.

    P.S. Nice site; I added it to my blogroll links at the right.

  6. exapologist said,

    Thanks for doing this, Nathaniel. It really needed to be done.

  7. Dirnov said,

    Super post, Need to mark it on Digg

  8. Nathaniel said,

    Thanks for doing this, Nathaniel. It really needed to be done.

    Er, that would be thanks to Andrew.

    For my part, I actually agree (for once) with Richard Carrier: such agonistic contests prove less about the merits of the respective cases than about the forensic skills of the participants. It’s nice that Bill Craig is so good at it. But for the purposes of a thorough investigation into the truth of any issue of even moderate complexity, a LD-style debate is not the way to go.

  9. Andrew said,

    For my part, I actually agree with Nathaniel. 🙂

    I enjoy debates; I think they’re fun, and I think doing high school debate is one of the most rewarding things you can do in high school. I would strongly encourage adults to participate as judges as a way of supporting academics in their community.

    But debate is, first and foremost, an exercise in the skill of the competitors rather than the truth of the underlying propositions. In more than 20 years’ involvement in the activity, I’ve only seen the underlying topic strongly skew results once — for the topic “Resolved: Capital punishment is justified,” in which affirmatives virtually never won.

    • ptah said,

      “I think doing high school debate is one of the most rewarding things you can do in high school.”

      If so, only because having sex during school hours is frowned upon.

      And I grant you that having sex is not something LD:ers seem to do a lot.

  10. Danny said,

    Good posts on the topic. I agree that debates are mostly intellectually stimulating forms of entertainment. Enjoy it for what it is, be challenged to research the claims put forth by both debaters, and know that the victor won because of his/her debating skills and not necessarily because his/her side is true.

  11. […] past couple days, I’ve gotten a request for advice on debating Christians, and seen a pair of somewhat misguided articles on how to debate William Lane Craig by Andrew of Evaluating Christianity. Here, I’m going to […]

  12. makarios said,

    Do you think Craig is in it just for the sport? I’m appalled at how quickly Carrier’s comments about the need for truth and integrity just fly right over your head.

  13. Andrew said,


    I don’t think you should be “appalled.” I care very much about whether the arguments Craig advances are true, and I try to address them in depth all over this blog.

    Debates are one (very tiny) subset of how we atheists respond to Christian arguments. I am trying to point out how to do that effectively in this post.

    I understand Carrier’s point quite well; it’s why we pretty much agree. Where I would disagree is if he were to argue that you can’t be truthful and also be strategic in your argumentation; I think that’s possible, although very very difficult. Striking that balance is part of what I’m trying to encourage in this post as well.

  14. Ben said,

    Just like updates. No comment right now.

  15. […] Christianity has put up three excellent posts of advice on how to debate William Lane Craig (one, two, three). The reason Craig wins all his debates with atheists is not because his arguments are […]

  16. dodo said,

    frankly, carrier’s response is pathetic.

    he agreed to do a debate. he loses, then states that debates are pointless.

    people debating craig should accept the terms and conditions of what a debate actually is rather than agreeing to do the debate and then complaining about it afterwards.

    debates don’t prove the truth? remember that the next time a christian tells you ‘evidence against christianity doesn’t affect the truth that god exists’. will that satisfy you?

  17. fantastic, i can say only that!

  18. lece za oci said,

    Hi folks, I discovered your blog on my web directory website, i must tell you your blog seems excellent! Have a nice day!!

  19. […] 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 […]

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