Debate formats and the burden of proof

One response from Christians to my post arguing that William Lane Craig should never again be allowed to speak first in his debates is that he should always speak first because he takes the affirmative in debates. However, it’s been difficult to find any atheists who think this is a good idea (see my comment about Jeff Lowder here)–with one exception.

A few years ago, Andrew at Evaluating Christianity wrote a series of posts on debate advice for atheists, written from the point of view of someone with extensive experience with college debate. In his final post on the subject he said this:

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 forseventy-five minutes before Shermer was able to say word one (!), and Shermer got just half an hour of total speaking time.

Andrew isn’t explicit about this, but I take it that the first two points are linked: he thinks atheists should not take on the burden of proof, and if you’re not taking on the burden of proof, it makes no sense to be speaking first because you’ll have nothing to rebut.

I’m not as opposed as Andrew to atheists taking on the burden of proof, but let’s grant him that. The problem is that even if he’s right in principle, it doesn’t apply to debates with Craig because Craig will never agree to take on the sole burden of proof. Craig always starts off debates on the existence of God by stating/implying his opponent will need to present arguments against the existence of God. In at least a couple debates, his opponents took the stance that theists bear the burden of proof, but both times Craig explicitly rejected this claim.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the idea of an equal burden of proof (or arguing about burden of proof in the debate itself). But if that’s how you’re going to do it, there’s no general reason for one side or the other to speak first. In Craig’s case, though, his repeated abuse of his opponents debating naïveté, along with his repeated use of his opening statements to smear his opponents before they’ve even gotten a chance to speak, are pretty good reasons to deny him the ability to speak first.


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