April 17, 2009

Advice for Debating William Lane Craig, part 3

Posted in Advice for Debating..., Answering Apologists, Atheism, Debates tagged , , , , , , , at 12:27 pm by Andrew

Another prominent atheist has chimed in on my posts offering advice for debating William Lane Craig (Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here); this time it’s Christopher Hallquist, whose stuff I also typically enjoy.

As with John Loftus’s response, I find myself puzzled by Hallquist’s overall evaluation — here, he says that my advice is “somewhat misguided.” This is strange, since as far as I can tell, Hallquist and I agree on virtually everything I said! Let’s take a look:

Hallquist writes:

Do you need to be an expert on high school debate?: Andrew’s basic position is that you cannot debate Craig without a throughout knowledge of “Lincoln-Douglas” high school debate competitions. The first article insisted you absolutely must know the jargon and not be intimidated by high school debaters.

Absolutely true. Note that in the original article, I make two points with respect to high-school debate.

First, as I point out, top-level high-school debaters are very, very good!, and are a great gateway to become familiar with the mindset and approach of people who debate for a living (like William Lane Craig). I don’t think Hallquist disagrees with this.

Second, I think it is important to know LD jargon, not to parrot it back in the round, but to understand the concepts of thinking strategically. Even in debates in which I see the atheist debater stomp all over the Christian, they routinely will make a round-winning argument and then fail to go back to it (they don’t “extend” drops or “impact” those extensions). Understanding LD jargon is a shorthand for understanding the strategy necessary to win in a debate round. Perhaps I wasn’t clear on this in my original post.

Hallquist continues:

In the second post, he takes it up a notch by insisting you must take a year to do this: “a) spend one year judging high-level (”circuit”) Lincoln-Douglas debate, and (b) get specific debating advice from current Lincoln-Douglas debate coaches.”

When I read this advice, one name jumps to mind: Eddie Tabash. Tabash is a lawyer who’s debated Craig and promoted himself as qualified to coach people who want to. He clearly understands LD-debate. But a lot of people found his presentations in debate extremely off-putting. Why? Because he approached it as LD debate, not real debate, and there’s lots of stupid stuff that flies before LD debaters but does not fly out in the real world, which was reflected in Tabash’s too-fast speaking style and table-pounding way of making his points. Craig doesn’t slavishly follow LD debate style, rather, he follows a style which is based on it but also based on an understanding of the difference between LD debate and real-world debate. And getting the jargon is pointless: I’m a little fuzzy on it, but I could figure out what Andrew is talking about because I know Craig’s debating style.

Here’s where I think we’re starting to go a little off the rails, so let me be clear: when I claim that you must understand Lincoln-Douglas debate in order to debate Craig properly, I am not claiming that you must emulate it slavishly. I agree that there are conventions unique to LD, along with pace of delivery (“spreading”) that wouldn’t be appropriate in another setting.

I agree that Craig doesn’t “slavishly” follow LD debate. I think it’s important to understand where Craig got his style from (and where he deviates from it) so that would-be Craig-debaters can make the same kinds of smart choices. I don’t think you can competently select a debating style without understanding the basics.

Positive advice: rather than spending a whole year getting involved with competitive high school debate, just spend several hours listening to audio of Craig’s debates, and studying transcripts. You need to understand his style of debating on its own terms. Even if you aren’t debating him, a lot of Christians will imitate him, and there’s much you can learn from in forming your own approach to debating. Understanding high school debate may help, but is strictly optional.

Here’s the only area where I disagree with Chris. This absolutely is not sufficient advice to prepare you for a debate with William Lane Craig. You need to study his prior debates; sure. But without an understanding of why Craig is doing what he’s doing, I don’t think that study will be as fruitful as it could be.

I think almost everyone who has debated Craig has studied his transcripts and knows his arguments. Yet most of these people go on to lose anyway. Speaking as someone who thinks Craig’s arguments are nonsense, I’d like for that to happen less often.

And yes, I think it would be great if atheist would-be debaters would give back to their communities and support local high school debate. It’s a great activity and it’s worthy of your support, and it will also help you learn what you need to learn in order to debate guys like Craig.

“Offensive responses”: This that when you rebut an argument for your opponent’s position, you throw in an argument for your own position. Andrew recommends making this a key part of your strategy, but do this obsessively, and you’ll end up with too many balls in the air. That’s OK in high school, but not in the real world. Craig does it occasionally, but only when he’s got an argument ready that he uses a lot anyway. For example, he frequently will respond to the problem of evil by invoking the moral argument for God, but it’s hard to find other examples of this tactic used by Craig.

Not really. An “offensive response” is one that, if your opponent drops, you win the debate. A defensive response is when you claim that your opponent’s argument is simply incorrect. The difference — as should be obvious — is that your opponent can just ignore defensive responses and drop an argument if you haven’t made an offensive response (“turn”) to it.

For example, when Craig claims that the universe is fine-tuned, saying “no it isn’t” is a defensive response; saying that the universe exhibits the hallmarks of being undesigned and in fact hostile to human life, and contrary to the descriptions in the Bible is an offensive response.

Too many debaters focus on defensive arguments and forget to make turns. If you’re going to debate William Lane Craig, you need to know better.

(Incidentally, the claim that this gives you “too many balls in the air” seems a little odd to me; you’re free to extend or drop your own offensive responses as you see fit. Making more of them simply puts you in charge of the debate round and not your opponent.)

Being concise and writing out your speech: Here’s where Andrew gets something right. I’m sick of hearing people like Richard Carrier and PZ Myers complain that they must not be concise on principle. Truth is, most Ph.D. types are in the business of being pointlessly verbose.


This has got to be the number one reason Craig is such a good debater: most of his opponents are college profs who’ve tried to rationalize their self-worth by convincing themselves that wasting time is a matter of principle. The debate goes like this: Craig says what he has to say in a concise manner. The prof throws away most of the time alloted to him. Craig points out the prof didn’t address most of his points. Craig wins. The prof goes home and tells his buddies he lost only because he has principles. Andrew’s article has a very clear example of how this happens and how it can be avoided.

Since that’s one of the two main points of my article, I’m gratified that Hallquist at least thinks I got “something” right. 🙂

The balance of Hallquist’s article offers points with which I agree, as well as Hallquist’s proposed outline for debating Craig (with which I would quibble, but not substantially disagree). The only major change I would propose is that the atheist debater absolutely must offer some standard, some decision rule for adjudicating the wealth of arguments that will fly over the course of the round. I articulate this in point 4 of my previous post.


  1. Hmmm… you’re probably right that most people who’ve debated Craig have studied previous debates with him. What I should have said, then, is “You have to study not just for what arguments are used and what are their strengths and weaknesses, but watching for tactics and asking yourself ‘who won and why?'” I really do believe someone who studies Craig’s debates asking those questions can figure out how this works, independently of studying Lincoln-Douglas.

    As for offensive rebuttals: the “too many balls in the air” problem occurs in part because most audience members are not going to have their legal pads out to keep track of the debate. I’ve listened to debates where one side has seven arguments, and you simply don’t remember them all unless you’re writing them down.

    Also, quality of argument matters in real life, so offensive replies aren’t much good unless you think you’ve got something that you’d consider using anyway. This second reason is, I think, the main reason that Craig hardly uses offensive replies, aside from using the moral argument in response to the argument from evil.

  2. Andrew said,


    I think the first part of your response is completely fair, and again it emphasizes that we don’t disagree that much. I would say that the best way to figure out “who won and why?” is to understand the conventions of formal debate, and the best way to get involved with that — for a whole host of reasons — is to judge and understand high-school LD. It’s rigorous enough to help you beat Craig, but not impossible to understand or so hyper-specialized as to lead you astray. I think it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that Craig won for lesser reasons if you just listen to the debates without knowing in advance what you’re listening for.

    With respect to offensive responses, I continue to disagree. Making offensive responses in rebuttals turns both speeches into arguments that Craig has to defend, and lets you decide which balls you’re going to pull out of the air or not. Since Craig doesn’t know, he’s either got to cover everything or face your claimed drops and extensions in your final rebuttal. It doesn’t matter whether the audience remembers them or not — you get to remind them in your final speech.

    It’s things like that — thinking both tactically as well as strategically — that make the difference in a debate with someone like Craig.

  3. Madeleine said,

    Andrew wrote:“I think it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that Craig won for lesser reasons if you just listen to the debates without knowing in advance what you’re listening for.”

    Precisely. Often people come with a particular conclusion in mind so any points made in favour of their preferred conclusion they see as compelling and any points made against are dismissed as ridiculous.

    I organised for Bill Craig to debate Bill Cooke in Auckland last year and precisely the same whipping happened as in the Hitchens debate for precisely the same reasons, most of which you outline in this advice guide. Yet the majority of the atheists made stupid comments about us deliberatly choosing a poor opponent (we went to the largest atheist organisation in the country and said – you nominate the opponent and we went with their choice). The other line they trotted out in the face of defeat was this one, that my fellow atheist countryman expresses in Hitchens in the Lion’s Den.

  4. Madeleine said,

    Just realised that “my fellow atheist countryman” is too ambiguous. To clarify I mean, ‘my fellow countryman, who is an atheist.’ I am a theist.

  5. I have to chime in on the Hitchens debate: I watched Lee Strobel’s bit, then Hitchens’ bit, then decided I’d seen enough. Compared to Hitchens, Strobel looked completely ridiculous. Sure Strobel had a strategy that would have made perfect sense in a one-on-one debate with full-length opening statements, but that wasn’t the format. Strobel’s approach was inappropriate for the situation–obviously with five Christians for the one atheist, you can’t play the “he didn’t address all our points” game. No one who’s even a little skeptical of the sorts of arguments Strobel was using is going to be impressed by that. Sheesh guys, step outside your debate-nerd world and see what this looks like to people in the real world.

    Also re: Madeleine: I’m not seeing the relevance of your anecdote. “He was a weak opponent” is an explanation that is compatible–and reinforced by–“he doesn’t know how to debate.” Apparently some atheist audience members were confused about who had picked the representative of atheism, but I don’t think there’s a broader lesson here. The key question is: how much insight did they have into why the atheist was a weak opponent?

  6. Madeleine said,

    Their words, not mine. They had no insight as to why.

    From my perspective, Bill Cooke, like Hitchens, came ill prepared and seemed to have no idea of what to expect both in terms of Craig’s debating skills and the arguments and case he presented.

    I remember thinking, does Cooke not have access to google?

    Cooke failed on his lack of debate skills, his lack of preparation and research on Craig but equally on his poor arguments, his content was terrible and a piece of cake for Craig to shred. I was aware of much better atheist sources that Cooke could have drawn from in preparing his opening statement but it was as if Cooke didn’t know of them or had decided they were not that good.

    You can watch the Craig v Cooke debate here if you are interested:

  7. Ben said,

    I’d just like updates to these comments. Have nothing to contribute right now.

  8. […] 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 sound, but […]

  9. I’m wondering what is mean when you say that someone is ”not qualified to debate William Lane Craig,” since some people seem to misunderstand what you mean. If you’re trying to issue an imperative that would prohibit non-qualified people from debating Craig, then what reason do you have for issuing such an imperative? Is it because you think non-qualified people who lose to Craig somehow do your position less than justice? If so, what reason should a potential debater have for obeying your imperative? Would YOU obey your own imperative if Craig emailed you and invited you to debate him? What obligations does a potential debator have toward you if he wants to debate Craig, since it’s an honor to do so?

  10. Andrew said,

    John: my reply to you is on the front page.

  11. Dave2 said,

    Not really. An “offensive response” is one that, if your opponent drops, you win the debate. A defensive response is when you claim that your opponent’s argument is simply incorrect. The difference — as should be obvious — is that your opponent can just ignore defensive responses and drop an argument if you haven’t made an offensive response (”turn”) to it.

    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?

  12. […] Evaluating Christianity Advice for Debating William Lane Craig, part 2 Evaluating Christianity Advice for Debating William Lane Craig, part 3 Evaluating Christianity Advice for Debating William Lane Craig, part 4 (answering Loftus) Evaluating Christianity Advice […]

  13. […] 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 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: