April 30, 2009
More Advice on Atheist-Theist Debates
The principle reason I’ve written the “Advice for Debating William Lane Craig” series of posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5, or you can click on the “Advice for Debating…” tag) is to help spread the word about common debate techniques with which Christians seem (to me, at least) to be more familiar and better equipped to use. My goal is that when we atheists trot out our “big guns,” that everyone who watches the debate walks away with at least a healthy respect for the atheist performance.
Michael Shermer is certainly one of those “big guns,” and he recently debated creationists Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana from “Reasons to Believe” ministries (an OEC outfit). I haven’t seen the debate, so I’m not qualified to comment, but the folks over at the Atheist Experience have, and they were not impressed (click here for part two), calling their entire review “How Not To Stage An Atheist Debate.” Michael Shermer’s account of the debate is here.
Many of the problems the Atheist Experience highlights are problems I’ve identified in the “Advice for Debating…” series, and so I think they bear repeating here, along with proposed solutions. Again, let me stress that I am offering a meta-commentary here; I have not seen the Shermer debate, but I have repeatedly seen the types of issues Russell talks about in his review. So this post is not meant to attack or even comment on Shermer specifically; it’s meant as general advice for tackling theists using the Atheist Experience review as a jumping-off platform.
1. Know the format, and demand changes if the format is nonsensical. I think this takes several forms; first, as an atheist, you should not be going first and you should not take on the burden of proof. You should also insist that cross-examination and opposing rebuttals punctuate both sides’ performances. Apparently, at the Shermer debate, Ross and Rana were able to speak for seventy-five minutes before Shermer was able to say word one (!), and Shermer got just half an hour of total speaking time.
I don’t care if you’re the hybrid clone offspring of Daniel Webster and Socrates, coached since birth by Aaron Timmons and the staff at Glenbrook North — you cannot win a debate under these circumstances. Nobody can refute a 75-minute presentation in a way that won’t make the audience want to claw their eyes out. You should pick a particular subject area and confine speeches to something on the order of 10 minutes in length. Which ties in directly to another piece of advice:
2. Precisely define a topic and stick to it. Shermer and the creationists apparently debated “Was Darwin Wrong?” As the Mythbusters might say, “Well, there’s your problem.” As the atheist, you can’t possibly defend that topic even in principle, as Darwin was wrong about a whole bunch of things. Worse, you’ve now given the creationists license to bring in 75 minutes of their canned talking points on literally any subject area, up to and including “Darwin = Hitler”. I’m sure that’s not what Shermer intended to debate, but if he didn’t want those sorts of arguments to be topical, he shouldn’t have agreed to debate that topic!
3. Show respect for your opponents, even as you demolish the substance of their arguments. Given that the public perception of atheists is that we’re a bunch of arrogant jerks, you should try extra hard to be as minimally jerky as you can. On the comments to part 1, Scott Purcell opines:
I thought Shermer was a poor spokesman for his position. He was flippant, ridiculing, and condescending instead of responsive to the issues raised. That is, when he was not misrepresenting his opponents position, misrepresenting biblical and linguistic scholarship, or throwing out red herrings (“Why doesn’t God regrow limbs?”) having nothing to do with the topics under discussion.
Again, I can’t validate whether that’s true or not — but I can say as a general piece of advice that you should reserve ridicule in a debate for the points that are truly ridiculous. That ridicule will stand up more effectively if you’ve treated the Christian presenters respectfully.
Note the italics there. I am emphatically not suggesting that you must treat Christian arguments with respect; you should demolish them. But you should take care that your attacks come off as attacks against the substance of what your opponent has to say, and not against them personally. Some of this is present in the little things; for example, you should dress professionally during a televised debate, even if you think Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort are weenies.
4. Do your homework. Also on part 1, commenter “The Everything Else Atheist” notes:
These two guys, Ross and Rana, did the same exact thing when they lectured at UCSB. They did 2 long presentations and the professors refuting them had no experience at all defending science. They got creamed by their presentation skills. Ross and Rana thrive on poor format, unpreparedness and cheap tricks.
I’ve said this before about William Lane Craig, and it bears repeating. Professional Christian debaters often stick to the same script they’ve used in previous debates. Craig definitely does. Find yourself a transcript of their prior debates and prepare your answers in advance. Test them out with your atheist friends and colleagues. Rehearse and rework your responses for purposes of word and time economy. Go through these guys’ published works, websites, and the like and find ridiculous things they’ve said and prepare arguments based off of that. (That’s another common tactic Craig uses.)
5. Use technology to your advantage. High school debaters are forbidden from using Powerpoint presentations, handouts, and other techniques; you aren’t. I think this is a great way to respond to the valid concerns of people like Richard Carrier who are concerned that time-effective arguments are incomplete or misleading. You audibly deliver the summary of the argument, but put the entire passage you’re quoting/complete support for the argument up on the slide behind you. Similarly, you should use the Powerpoint slides to graphically augment your case; that keeps the audience paying attention. All of the good Christian debaters do this, and so should you. Here’s how Russell puts it, in part two of his evaluation:
Extremely cutesy PowerPoint transitions. I swear, every single page of his presentation involved a different wipe, fade, cut, 3d foldout, etc. I found it annoying, but an excellent foreshadowing of the total emphasis of style over substance.
I don’t think you want to be annoying, obviously, but I think debaters should take advantage of the same technologies that their opponents are using.
6. Finally, if there’s a two-word takeaway from the previous five posts in this series, it’s this: think strategically about your arguments. In a public debate, it’s not enough to simply be correct; you also have to persuade the audience. Many Christian debaters are very, very good at this, and you need to take their strategy as seriously as you take their underlying arguments.