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.

  • Nox

    Forget who goes first. The key to debating WLC is to not let him get away with redefining words whenever he wants. Every trick in his bag relies on conflating multiple meanings or switching meanings in the middle of a syllogism. If you allow him to do this unimpeded he will run circles around you. If you deny him the use of his one trick he will sputter and collapse at your feet.

    • just sayin

      And don’t let atheists flip flop on the defintion of atheism as the need arises.

  • MNb

    “Craig explicitly rejected this claim.”
    My answer: “Nice. I am not here to deconvert you. It looks like you’re not trying to convince me either.”
    But actually Craig does nót reject the burden of proof.

    “There are no good reasons to think that atheism is true”
    My answer: “Granted, even if it’s only your personal opinion. It doesn’t follow that theism is true.”

    “There are good reasons to think that theism is true.”
    My answer: “Let’s focus on these.”
    And the burden of proof is Craig’s. Then pick your favourite of his five or six “good” reasons and tear it apart.
    But what does Dr. Tooley do? Trying to argue positively for atheism and giving Craig the chance to attack him.
    My son, 18 and also atheist, was there when those two nice JW’s visited me. His remark was that I was extremely careful arguing/proving that there is no god. Indeed the only arguments I use are the Problem of Evil and the problem of Religious Diversity (haven’t used that one yet). The first, as we already know, leads to the DCT, which will generally scare the audience as soon as you manage to give the Problem of Evil a concrete form, like 9/11 or Elisabeth Fritzl. The second one will force the opponent to formulate evidence after all, which will invariably be ridiculous.
    So I don’t agree with you. Of course I have never debated WCL, but that this strategy works I have learned the hard way when I was a teenager. The first time I debated a JW my positive arguments were torn apart. That hasn’t happened to me a second time.

  • Steve Willy

    It should be mandatory for the atheist to go first so that the audience can assess whether two threshold questions can coherently be answered. 1. Why is the atheist even engaging in the debate. On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth; there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are material. Therefore, everyone who ever lived and ever will live could be wrong about a thing. By what standard would that ever be ascertained on atheism? Also if atheism is true, there is no objective meaning to existence and no objective standard by which the ‘rational’ world view of atheism is more desirable, morally or otherwise, to the ‘irrational’ beliefs of religion. Ridding the world of the scourge of religion, so that humanity can ‘progress’ or outgrow it, is not a legitimate response to this because on atheism, there is no reason to expect humanity to progress or grow. We are a historical accident that should fully expect to be destroyed by the next asteriod, pandemic, or fascist atheist with a nuke. In short, if atheism is correct, there is no benefit, either on an individual or societal level, to knowing this or to spreading such ‘knowledge.’
    2. Related to this, why is the atheist debater even alive to participate. If there is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, only an incredibly window of blind pitiless indifference, then the agony of struggling to exist, seeing loved ones die, and then dying yourself can never be outweighed by any benefit to existing. As rude as it way sound the atheist should have a coherent explanation for why they chose to continue existing. Failure to adequately address these threshold questions should result in summary forfeiture of the debate, although the debate may proceed as an exhibition for the audience’s benefit, with the audience being specifically instructed that the atheist has forfeited.


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