April 30, 2009

More Advice on Atheist-Theist Debates

Posted in Advice for Debating..., Atheism tagged , , , , , at 11:45 am by Andrew

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.


  1. I find this discussion interesting because when I listened to Dr. Craig, I’m annoyed by his leaps of logic and especially of the way he attempts to twist Cosmology to his liking. The later he knows very little about.
    When he finishes his opening remarks all I can think is B.S.

    I guess from a pure debate scoring viewpoint, you are correct. I just hear
    the whole thing differently. I don’t have a background in formal
    debate so I’m not qualified to offer suggestions on the subject.

    Thanks for the many interesting posts on your blog

    • Facilis said,

      “especially of the way he attempts to twist Cosmology to his liking.”
      Yep and all those cosmologists (Davies, Vilenkin, Hawking ,Barrow, Tipler,Rees) that he quotes are in on it too with Bill Craig.

      • Matt said,

        Quotemining Hawking and pseudo-quotemining nutjobs like Barrow and Tipler is not exactly argument.

  2. Andrew said,

    I think this is an excellent point. I view debates — from the standpoint of the atheist — as primarily an opportunity to conduct outreach into the larger community of folks who disagree with us. (It’s what I’m trying to do on the blog.)

    So in that sense, when the atheist fails to respond to Craig’s misconceptions about cosmology, we’ve failed — not because Craig is right, but because the only people who know that are the people who already agree with our position. I think that one of the things Craig (and others) excel at is forcing their opponents to respond to a scattershot of arguments that are intuitively persuasive to an audience that is generically versed in Christianity. Something I should put up there in the next post is that atheists should also go on the offensive; put up pages from Biola university and force Craig to defend absolute biblical inerrancy. Rock him back on his heels such that he’s got to respond with stuff that the average person thinks is weird (such as Biola’s policy of young-earth creationism, for starters).

    • Facilis said,

      But that would not be valid. Unless the debate is “Is the Bible innerrant”. that would be a red herring. God’s existence or even the Christian God’s existence has nothing to do with inerrancy. The bible writers could have been dead wrong and God could exist.
      Craig isn’t a YEC and is well versed in modern cosmology. And craig works at Talbot, not Biola.

  3. Quinn said,

    I didn’t go to the debate, but the college newspaper (The Daily Texan) made it sound like another standard affair where no one had any hope of persuading anybody about anything. The only time I’ve ever disagreed with an atheist presenter facing a religious one is where Hitchens claimed that The World Series was named after the New York World.

    I will say that the Atheist Experience guys do great work on their local t.v. show. I’ll have to ask what happened at the debate at happy hour tonight.

  4. Danny said,

    Michael Shermer is a good spokesperson for the skeptical/scientific outlook, but I don’t have much confidence with his debating skills. I’ve watched his debate with Kent Hovind (!) and I thought he lost it too. To “Dr Dino” of all people! He should stick to writing articles for Skeptic Mag.

  5. jackd said,

    Andrew, I’m really enjoying this series for the way it brings out an aspect of these public debates that I’ve never appreciated before. With no personal experience in formal debate, I’m not fully convinced that your approach is optimal for someone arguing against creationists, but you’ve obviously studied the matter much more closely than I have. (Your advice regarding WMCraig debates seems absolutely spot-on, but in that case you’ve established that it’s specifically designed to counter Craig’s techniques.)

  6. Andrew you said: “when the atheist fails to respond to Craig’s misconceptions about cosmology, we’ve failed.”

    Knowing atheists and freethinkers like I do so well, who is the “we” in “we’ve failed”? Herding us is like herding cats. Hitchen’s failed. Carrier failed. I didn’t. You didn’t. Atheist’s didn’t. I choose my spokesmen. So do you. The media doesn’t choose them for me. Book sales don’t do it either. While you’re advice can help I still haven’t seen any connection from Hitchen’s loss to Imy loss, or to atheist’s loss. I really haven’t. I think you do. That’s why you’ve decided to write these essays so YOU don’t lose again. At least you’re trying to help, sure, but Christianity will not be debunked to the degree atheists win against Craig. Debates are both entertaining and educational. Like a boxing match we get to watch two people spar for the approval of the audience. but truth is not decided by debate. I think you know this, but the words you use (above) say otherwise.

    And I echo Facilis comment above. If someone went after inerrancy Craig would say something like, “this debate is about X, not Y,” and simply ignore everything said about inerrancy, making the time spent on it an irrelavancy.

    There is a liberalizing tendency with evangelicals over the years. It won’t be atheists that lead them down this road, which can and does lead to atheism. The liberals do this just fine without us. The real debate isn’t between atheism and evangelicals anyway. It’s just that both groups in America seem the most passionate about the issues. The real debate is between evangelicals and themselves. Evangelicals and liberals. Evangelicals and each and every religion in the world. They cannot even with the debate between themselves, much less with the liberals, and even less with the many other world religions. When they use the same rational tools they use to debunk every other religion against their own they will become agnostics and atheists.

  7. JOHN:
    And I echo Facilis comment above. If someone went after inerrancy Craig would say something like, “this debate is about X, not Y,” and simply ignore everything said about inerrancy, making the time spent on it an irrelavancy.

    “Dr. Craig sidestepped the issue of Y, saying that this debate is about X, not Y. But Dr. Craig’s concept of X includes Z, which entails Y. So while other Christians might argue that X is committed to Y, Dr. Craig is not one of them.”

    “Mr. Holloway says that I’m committed to Y because of things I’ve said elsewhere. But I didn’t bring those things into the debate — he did. My point is that you don’t have to believe Y to believe X, and X is what we’re here to discuss.”

    “Dr. Craig says that you don’t have to believe Y to believe X. This is true by someone else’s concept of X, but not by Dr. Craig’s. When I’m debating someone else, I’ll be happy to deal with their concept of X. Tonight, I’m debating Dr. Craig. As an aside, I think it’s quite telling that he’s tried to dodge the issue twice now.”

    • Such a misinformed tactic might play into some people’s hands, usually atheists who ignorantly think that by pointing out a few Biblical inconsistencies (misnaming them “Biblical contradictions”) is all they need to do. But more informed people on both sides of the fence would think with Craig that is a waste of time, including me.

      Now you may not value my opinion on this matter, but I know what I’m talking about. One can believe in the resurrection without believing in inerrancy. One can believe in Christianity and in the Christian God without believing in inerrancy. This is both obvious and non-controversial. The debate topic, not being about inerrancy, would lead most intelligent people to understand why Craig isn’t addressing it. A similar situation would be if Craig attacked you for being a Marxist and critiqued Marxism when the debate was about whether God existed. One can be an atheist and not a Marxist, so you could say your economic and social agenda is irrelevant. So most intelligent people would understand if you dismissed it and stuck to the topic at hand.

      I think the time would be better spent on other substantive things. I also think someone offering to hand out advice on debating Craig should know more than he does about such things.

      • “Mr. Holloway is an A, which is ridiculous because of B. I know Mr. Holloway didn’t bring the fact that he is an A into the debate, but he tried to bring in outside things about me, so I guess that sort of thing is permitted.”

        “Dr. Craig points out that I am A, and refutes it. Fair enough — A is false. I’ll just have to adopt ~A, as many atheists do. And since he has once again dodged the topic, I’ll assume that Dr. Craig is conceding that Y is false. If your concept of X doesn’t include Y, then that’s not a problem. But if it does . . . well, let’s just hope no one from Biola University is here tonight!”

  8. Andrew said,


    Respectfully, you’re just way off on this one. Craig’s prior commitment to inerrancy indicts the source material he uses for his arguments. It’s obviously relevant to his stock presentation (and any informed rebuttal).

    I agree with you that “lists of biblical contradictions” are silly. But you can see how much the inerrancy question made Craig squirm when Bart Ehrman raised it in the manner I suggest.

    P.S. I thought we had buried the hatchet? Why are you back with the snide remarks?

    • Andrew, the snide remarks were directed at me. I made the mistake of saying something less than fanboyish about him.

    • All I can say is that you are both wrong to suggest going after Craig’s position on inerrancy, as I’ve explained, dead wrong. That would be a major non-sequitur fallacy, and as such, a major waste of time.

      • Not just wrong, but DEAD wrong. Not just a waste of time, but a MAJOR waste of time. Suddenly I’m feeling a cold existential horror . . . *shiver*

        In all seriousness, I wouldn’t invest a great deal of time in going after Craig on inerrancy, because John’s right, the arguments themselves do stand apart. But his inerrancy is such an important background factor that it’s worth bringing up at least once. Here’s how I might do it (regarding the design argument):

        “Evolution provides a natural mechanism whereby natural objects might have the appearance of design. Now, Dr. Craig happens to believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, right down to the talking animals…”

        **show PP slide from Biola**

        “…so I’m guessing that he rejects evolution on that basis. But what he needs to do is provide evidence from the peer-reviewed scientific literature to support his rejection. Otherwise he won’t get anywhere. Evolution is a scientific area of study, and although it’s controversial among some laymen and some evangelicals, it is thoroughly uncontroversial in the scientific community. So evolution does provide a counterexample to the premise that things which look designed are, in fact, designed, and that premise fails. Moving on…”

        (And the PP slide has been up the whole time. Here’s how I imagine the follow-up might go:)

        “Dr. Craig talked a bit about inerrancy, he said that you don’t have to believe that the Bible is literally true to reject evolution. Okay, that’s fair enough. I personally don’t know of any non-literalist who rejects evolution, but I suppose it’s possible. That’s fine. So the question is, on what basis should we reject evolution? Dr. Craig hasn’t given any, and when I brought up his literalism he rebuked me, so he obviously wants to keep that out of it. He’s left us with no reason to reject evolution. So again, we have a counterexample to the looks-designed-is-designed premise, and therefore a false argument.”

        (And if he does try something for evolution, I’ll have the Index to Creationist Claims handy on my laptop.)

  9. Andrew said,

    Craig’s prewritten presentation uses the Gospels as primary source material for historical claims.

    Craig believes that his primary source material is without error, which is something no historian believes about their primary sources.

    If that’s a non sequitur, something’s changed in Logic 101 since my college days.

    • It is most definitely a non-sequitur as I explained. And I have taught aspiring lawyers in my Logic class how to think. Craig does not, I repeat, he does not require that his sources are inerrant in order to make his case on behalf of the resurrection.

      • Here’s what Craig said in the 3rd edition of his book, “Reasonable Faith,” after deleting the chapter by Craig Bloomberg on the reliability of the Gospels found in the 2nd edition, a chapter that the publisher insisted on including over Bill Craig’s protestations to the contrary: “The Christian apologist seeking to establish, for example, the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb need not and should not be saddled with the task of first showing that the Gospels are, in general, historically reliable documents.” (p. 11) Then he argues his case in chapter 8 without having done so. You see, he doesn’t even require that the Gospels are shown to be historically reliable, much less inerrant.

        This was Carrier’s error, to think and to argue otherwise, and it appears to be your error as well.

      • I think John’s right, actually, it is technically a non-sequitur — but still worth mentioning, for reasons explained above.

    • Danny said,

      As I understand it, the “minimal facts” argument for the resurrection does not require inerrancy either. If one attacks Craig via biblical errancy, he could just utilize the minimal facts argument and avoid having to defend the zombie saints in Matthew’s gospel.

  10. Ben said,

    Danny, John, and Dave – did you actually read the link Andrew posted to the Ehrman-Craig debate? I did, and it’s really clear what the point is if you do that.

  11. I did read it, and what I took away from it is that Ehrman claims that Craig cannot claim to have critically evaluated the gospels as historical documents if he is committed to the position that there are no mistakes in it. I agree with that statement, and I think it’s worth pointing out in a debate, for those who think that Craig Can Do No Wrong — but as John says, it doesn’t really follow from that that the historical argument is wrong, and claiming otherwise will get you into trouble.

    • for those who think that Craig Can Do No Wrong — but as John says,

      What complete and utter idiocy.

      • Who thinks Craig can do no wrong? No one.

        This is fruitless. I’m unsubscribing.

  12. There are a number of Christians, mostly would-be evangelicals and apologists, who think that Craig is the end-all-be-all of the Christian-atheist debate. I responded to one on this blog not an hour ago, I think in the original “advice” post, a guy named iDeist who thinks that Craig is Perfection Incarnate. And, of course, the Christians who were bussed in to see the debate will be placing a lot of stock in his credibility.

    I’m confused, John — did you think that I was attacking you there, somehow?

  13. Andrew said,

    Dave Holloway, your 5:12 pm post up there is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Craig also explicitly endorses Lee Strobel’s egregiously wrong ID talking points (which were in turn written by the Discovery Institute); I blogged about that and provided a link to the panel in which Craig repeats those falsehoods. So I don’t think you need to make the link to creationism implicit; Craig himself has gone down that road.

    That, in turn, is relevant to his credibility on the kalam cosmological argument. Why does Craig accept the scientific consensus on cosmology but reject the scientific consensus when it comes to biology? Because he thinks the former buttresses his argument while the latter undermines it. That’s not someone who’s committed to truth; that’s someone who’s committed to an argument.

  14. […] written from the point of view of someone with extensive experience with college debate. In his final post on the subject he said […]

  15. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.
    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more
    of your great post. Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks!

  16. What’s up, after reading this remarkable post i am too glad to share my know-how here with friends.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: