Will Craig’s defenders also defend Duane Gish? (with comments on two of Craig’s debates)

In the aftermath of the Craig-Rosenberg debate, this post seems to be getting a lot of attention. Many of the Christians showing up to comment on that post seem unable to wrap their heads around the idea that “winning” debates might often involve rather sleazy tactics.

I need to emphasize the scare quotes around “winning.” This is something I’ve written about before, but it’s worth expanding on. The simple fact is that the questions “who gave the best arguments?” and “who got the rhetorical ‘win’?” often have very little to do with each other.

An excellent example of this is Craig’s debate with Richard Carrier (on the resurrection). Craig spoke first, using his standard spiel mixed with some attempts to paint Carrier as a crackpot. Carrier responded with an absolutely first-rate opening speech that made many good points. Craig never made a serious effort to respond to Carrier’s opening statement. Instead, he continued with his “smear Carrier as a crackpot” strategy for the rest of the debate.

Based on that, I’d say Carrier clearly presented better arguments. Unfortunately… well, Carrier called Craig out on a lot of misrepresentations of his (Carrier’s) work, which sounds good in theory. The problem was that Carrier didn’t call Craig out on ignoring the actual arguments Carrier had made during the debate, or on just how slimy Craig’s tactics were. It felt like Carrier had let Craig change the topic from “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” to “Is Richard Carrier a crackpot?” That made the second half of the debate painful to listen to (for me anyway), so arguably Craig got the rhetorical win.

And the really insidious thing about the kind of dishonest tactics Craig uses is that he can be called out on misrepresenting other people’s views, but the audience will still remember the misrepresentation rather than the actual truth. It’s the Richard Nixon “I am not a crook” effect. You can see that in this post-debate comment by Carrier; Carrier blames one of Craig’s fans for lying but I think the blame rests with Craig for encouraging that kind of nonsense.

Now the connection to Duane Gish. While many Christians commenting on this seem unable to even consider the things I’ve said about Craig might be true, here’s one that actually attempted a rebuttal:

Ok, so If Craig’s arguments misrepresent/are not any good/distorts positions are all these things not refutable? If what he say is plainly wrong then the rebuttal provides opportunity to skewer him. This doesn’t seem to happen.

I would have thought given that Craig makes similar arguments in his debates it should be relatively simple to refute them. You could even anticipate his answers to challenges and prepare to deal with them.

Its not a fault of WLC that atheists don’t debate well.

There are several things wrong with this… the most obvious being that if you “win” by lying about your opponent, yes it is your fault. But another thing wrong here is that you could make the same defense of Duane Gish.

Gish, for those who don’t know, is a young earth creationist famous for debates with evolutionary biologists and in particular for the “Gish Gallop,” basically substituting quantity of arguments for quality with the effect that most of his opponents are unable to respond to everything he says. This, of course, is essentially Craig’s strategy, Craig just has a slightly more sophisticated approach designed for people who won’t fall for young earthism or Josh McDowell.

Now many of Craig’s fans won’t want to get caught defending the likes of Duane Gish. But if it’s always easy to skewer people who are wrong, then it follows that it’s not Gish’s fault if biologists have trouble responding to the Gish Gallop. Is what what Craig’s fans really want to say?

The reason that Gish’s/Craig’s tactics are effective is that it takes a lot longer to refute a bogus talking point than to state the initial bogus talking point. Or, to be somewhat more precise: yes, you can always respond to a string of empty assertions by yourself just asserting, “none of that’s true,” but that’s likely to leave the audience unsatisfied. Something about human psychology–when we hear two people making contradictory assertions, we often just believe whoever we heard first.

There’s also the problem that most of Craig’s opponents are playing with a handicap he doesn’t have, i.e. honesty. An atheist debater could adopt a mirror-image of Craig’s tactics: for example, you could respond to Craig’s cherry-picked quotes with cherry-picked quotes of you own and insist loudly that it’s your quotes that really represent the expert consensus. But I don’t think any of Craig’s opponents would want to do that, because they’re basically honest people.

This is not to say it’s impossible to counter Craig’s tactics (even on the rhetorical level). For example, even most Christians who I’ve heard comment on the debate seem to think that Craig lost his debate with Shelly Kagan. But I think the Kagan debate vindicates what I’ve said about Craig not speaking first.

Not only did Kagan speak first, the debate deviated even more significantly from Craig’s standard format by having an extensive cross-examination period. That meant that instead of Craig getting to cram as many talking points into one speech as possible before Kagan got a chance to respond, the rhythm was “Craig uses one of his standard talking points, Kagan shows why it’s nonsense, Craig moves on to another talking point, Kagan explains why it’s nonsense…” In fact, if someone wanted to really stand up to Craig, they could demand to use that format again.

Note: I haven’t found time to watch the debate yet, but now that I’ve seen one Christian complaining about Craig not being a “gentleman” I really want to.

  • smrnda

    Debates, unless there’s some way of forcing people to respond to their opponents points or make sure that they are actually representing what the opponent said correctly tend to turn into contests of ‘who can talk the most?’ I noticed this happening in presidential ‘debates’ where candidates often go off on tangents rather than address the questions put to them, and when their remarks are criticized the lack of true back-and-forth prevents any real examination of the quality of argument either side put forth.

    Craig’s tactic, to me, seems to be to reach into his grab-bag of standard arguments, and then just pull out as many as he can. Because people hear him make more points than the other side, it’s assumed he ‘won’ but the real problem is that Craig (and many Christian debaters) are less about making a rational case and more about a kind of hucksterism pitch.

  • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

    I’ve not listened to the full audio yet, but from the Rosenberg debate, while Rosenberg was pitiful in what he offered it seems that Craig decided to take a page from Gish himself. He gave EIGHT arguments in his opening.

    Just from what I tried to do in refuting the Kalam argument, it took upwards of an hour in the videos I made to refute it decisively, and I was barely able to condense the main points into a 5 minute response for a short video.

    Debaters get less time for rebuttals than they do in the opening statements, so I can’t imagine how someone could respond adequately in that time frame.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    One of the things I see here with the Gish Gallup is that it seems to reflect the style of debating American university debating societies adopted. In university, I participated in the Canadian university debating society at my university and we sometimes shared tournaments with American schools, and there were sharp differences between Parliamentary style debate and the American style of debate. One of the big differences was that in American style debating it was felt that winning the debate meant refuting every point that was brought up, while in Parliamentary style specific points could be missed as long as the case was refuted overall. So American debaters tended to generate lots and lots of points, even if they weren’t strong, because winning would require their opponents to address all of them, while in Parliamentary style it was generally believed that if a point was obviously weak the judges wouldn’t worry if it was directly attacked, but would mark teams down for missing important points or addressing them inadequately.

    This sounds a lot like the style you say Gish and Craig adapt.

    Which might mean that the best way to short-circuit the strategy is to go Parliamentary on them: address the overall case and not necessarily all the points — or, at best, with a minor “These aren’t really relevant” — and rely on the audience to understand that the points aren’t that important even if the opposition brings them up at the end.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Yes. Exactly. Craig apparently has a background in American-style college debate.

    • DrVanNostrand

      I was a high school debater for two years (US, late ’90s) and what you say is absolutely correct. Not only is it all about speed and quantity, with almost no attention given to the quality of argument, the arguments rely mainly on appeals to authority. To support arguments, you would have brief quotes (often taken out of context) from articles, reports, etc… You would refute arguments with your own brief quotes. If you have the most quasi-relevant quotes, you win. No attention is paid to the larger context of the quotes, or the quality (or lack thereof) of the sources or arguments in the original article. The way Craig emphasizes quantity over quality, uses rapid-fire delivery, and tosses out brief quotes from experts (with no context) is exactly the way high school debate works here. I quit because it’s a stupid and pointless activity that involves no genuine exchange of ideas, and can’t convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe.

  • Jon Hanson

    Wow, now that you mention it I think all of the debates where Craig has been beaten have involved actual back and forth where he can’t just get away with too many assertions. Shelly Kagan, Ray Bradley, Stephen Law, all those debates really hinged in the actual discussions that took place where the atheist could hold WLC’s feet to the fire. Interesting.

    • Kevin

      He did this against Pigliucci as well. The debate was specifically about the Christian God so Pigliucci dismissed the Kalam, design, and moral argument since they don’t get you to the Christian God. How does Craig respond to this? He says that Pigliucci admits that the arguments are sound (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwcrN90RLzU @3:35). The kicker, less than two minutes later he says that Pigliucci’s view of morality doesn’t satisfy the second premise of the moral argument. So, Craig claims that Pigliucci thinks the premises of the moral argument are true, and then immediately afterwards claims that Pigliucci disagrees with the second premise. Blatant dishonesty.

      • Kevin

        Sorry, this is in reference to what Greg G. said at February 4, 2013 at 6:19 pm.

  • Trent

    The Gish comparison doesn’t really work. The biggest difference is that biologists are experts in biology, not creationism, so they won’t be skilled at refuting YEC arguments. They usually end up just giving lectures. But atheists have no excuse because they are supposed to be experts in theistic arguments and know how to refute them. They’re not like biologists who only have a passing familiarity with arguments for creationism. Second, Gish uses technical scientific misrepresentations while Craig uses simple syllogisms that are easy to point out.

    Also, in Craig’s 2005 debate with Dacey he only used kalam and the resurrection so he does fine even with only a few arguments (Though I suppose the sub-arguments he uses to support kalam and resurrection could be considered more than one argument). But at least Dacey tried to give multiple arguments and Parson’s was ready to rip Craig to shreds and gave him a run for his money. The rest are hopelessly pathetic in their hubris and decision to not study for WLC debates. Rosenburg was just the latest victim of that self-destructive attitude.

    • RobMcCune

      Craig debates all kinds people, not just philosophers, while lazy research might account for some of it, Craig’s distortions and handwaving are a big part of it.

    • Chris Hallquist

      “But atheists have no excuse because they are supposed to be experts in theistic arguments and know how to refute them.”

      This is false, just as it would be false to say that afaeists (people who do not believe in fairies) are supposed to be experts in the arguments for the existence of fairies. Some atheist philosophers, like Graham Oppy, do specialize in theistic arguments, but most of us have other things we do with our time.

      Also what Greg G said.

      “Second, Gish uses technical scientific misrepresentations while Craig uses simple syllogisms that are easy to point out.”

      Yes, but Craig uses all kinds of misrepresentations to support the premises of his syllogisms.

  • Greg G

    I saw WLC debate Robert M. Price on the resurrection in the mid 90′s. Craig went first, then when he spoke again, he would tick off any points Price didn’t address as Price agreeing with him even though Price had demolished the points he did address. My Christian friend thought Craig won but I disqualified him for such sleazy tactics. It was my first experience with debating. It was before we thought of YouTube.

    • eric

      That sounds exactly like what VS is talking about; a focus on refuting every point offered by the opponent rather than making a solid argument about the topic of the debate. Unfortunately, I think American audiences expect and want the former approach. So while the Parliamentary approach might be perfectly legitimate in theory, in practice you are not going to win over many US audiences responding to a host of points my ignoring them in favor of a better, more general argument. But, maybe I’m just cynical. Its probably worth trying, at least.

      A larger point is: I am not sure there is much general value in debating such people at all. There may be value in specific events, but in general science and philosophy are best argued in text (a step up) and the peer reviewed literature (higher, more stringent step up). The historicity of Jesus’ open tomb isn’t going to be solved in a theological debate, its going to be solved by a wide combination of archaeologists, literary experts etc., looking at the data we can find and publishing on it. Rhetoric and debate are not good tools for improving our understanding, they are primarily useful for communicating stuff we already know.

  • Greg G


    The point of the Gish Gallop is not to try to stump biologists. It takes longer to explain how a claim is wrong than it does to make a claim. Gish tells more whoppers in his 15 minutes than an expert can refute in 15 minutes.

    Craig always wants to make his case unburdened by his opponents claims. His opponent must make his own case and refute each slice of Craig baloney in the same amount of time.

    A timed debate is the only debate format that gives the side with the least evidence for and the most evidence against an advantage against honest opponents.

  • Kevin

    Chris, have you seen the Arif Ahmed debate? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpfzyyUmaC8)
    I think it is a prime example of Craig getting his ass handed to him in the traditional debate format yet no one seems to bring it up when referencing debates that Craig has lost.

  • Greg G


    The value of debating is to sell books written by the opponents.

    I think the question of the empty tomb could be answered by the literary experts alone. In “The Christ Myth and Its Problems”, Robert M. Price collects the conclusions of several scholars who have traced the roots of Mark’s gospel to the Old Testament and Homer’s Odyssey. I think Mark was also familiar with Galatians, 1 Corinthians and other literature. Nearly every passage can be traced to the literature of the day. There isn’t room for oral traditions. The other gospels use these stories that happened to other people and fictional characters.

    The epistles talk about the crucifixion a lot but give no details, never mention the empty tomb, and don’t say it was a recent event. They never tell about a ministry, deeds, sayings or anecdotes. The epistles should be the best evidence for Jesus but the absence of evidence where there should be evidence is evidence of action.

    There is no contemporary evidence. The extra-biblical evidence only tells us there were people who thought there was a Jesus but none of them were in a position to know.

    Mark barely mentioned the empty tomb but the other gospel writers filled in information that conflicts.

    Jesus didn’t have a tomb because he never existed.

  • Rain


    Craig: My first argument based on the origin of the universe has gone unrefuted. Therefore, we can all agree tonight that there is an immaterial, uncaused, beginningless, spaceless, timeless, enormously powerful, Personal Creator of the universe, who may or may not be good. That would be a very strange form of atheism!

    Ha ha! He made a funny! Lol.

    • Jon Hanson

      Wow, sometimes I think Chris is too hard on Craig, and then I’m reminded of something like that. Such pure, unadulterated bullshit that serves only as a reminder that he views these debates as something between a sporting event and a missionary outreach.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Atheist Says He’ll ‘Turn Christian’ if Evil Is Explained During Major Debate
    Get a load of this song and dance:

    (Craig:) “It’s possible that only in a world that is suffused with natural and moral evil that the optimal number of people would come to know God freely, find salvation, and eternal life,” he continued.

    Craig says this this odd circumstance which he just pulled out of his nether regions is “possible.” It seems enormously unlikely, however. But what is an “optimal” number” I would think more would be better, so why not maximal? And many other objections.

    (Craig, continuing:) “So, the atheist would have to prove that there is another possible world that has this much knowledge of God and His salvation in it, but which is produced with less evils. How could He possibly prove that? It’s pure conjecture. It’s impossible to prove those things.”

    The atheist “would have to prove” his case. But why is Craig’s wildly improbably suggestion any less “pure conjecture”?

    • MNb

      That’s why I always start out as an agnost when debating believers. I don’t have to prove anything. Moreover the fact that I haven’t addressed a point doesn’t imply I accept it. I don’t believe because I don’t see any reason to believe. That’s it.
      Your counterquestion is an excellent example of the debating technique I use. There are a few other things wrong with that WLC quote as well.

      “he would tick off any points Price didn’t address as Price agreeing with him”
      That’s why I think having the last word is more important than having the first word – to give me the opportunity to disclaim WLC’s false conclusions, simply with “we didn’t have the time to discuss this”.

    • Steven Carr

      CRAIG “So, the atheist would have to prove that there is another possible world that has this much knowledge of God and His salvation in it, but which is produced with less evils. How could He possibly prove that? It’s pure conjecture. It’s impossible to prove those things.”

      How come Craig’s hypothetical god spends half the Bible telling people not to do something which they then did?

      When Craig says that it is possible that those things just had to happen for his hypothetical god’s plans to work?

      Is Craig just dumb or too slick to admit in public that if his hypothetical god tried to stop evil(but failed), then an atheist has a good case that evil should be stopped?

      • Steven Carr

        CRAIG “So, the atheist would have to prove that there is another possible world that has this much knowledge of God and His salvation in it, but which is produced with less evils. How could He possibly prove that? It’s pure conjecture. It’s impossible to prove those things.”

        All those Christian charities, trying so hard to create a world where more people believe in Craig’s hypothetical god and also trying to reduce suffering, hunger and poverty….

        And Craig scold atheists for looking at Christian charities trying to bring about a better world , when atheists are told by Craig they are irrational for thinking that there might be a better world.

  • Greg G

    It amazes me that someone with as many advanced degrees in philosophy as Dr. Craig has that he still doesn’t get the problem of evil or the problem of suffering. If God is omnipotent, he could achieve that optimal number with or without making babies suffer. That means that suffering is unnecessary. However, there is suffering so the omnipotence chose for there to be unnecessary suffering. If God is omnipotent then he is not only not benevolent, he is sadistic.

    The other option is to define omnipotent as “not omnipotent”.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      1) It’s not in his interest to get those problems.
      2) Omnipotence ain’t what it used to be.

  • Jacob

    The trouble is, that if you look at Carriers blog comments after the debate even Carrier admits he lost.

    I was there. Carrier, as he states early on, tried to swith topics after the debate started.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Carrier may have said he “lost,” but that doesn’t mean he agrees Craig gave good arguments. Unfortunately, Carrier seems to have gotten duped into buying the stupid idea that “winning” debates = winning according to American college debate judging standards. (Why the fuck should anyone care about that?) You seem to have missed the entire point of that section of the post, which was that before talking about who “won” a debate, you need to clarify what you mean by “won.”

      Nor did Carrier try to switch debate topics. What he said about the unreliability of the gospels was obviously relevant, given that the Bible is the only “evidence” Craig has for his claims. Craig was pulling a sleazy trick when he insinuated that Carrier was doing something improper by making these obviously relevant (and devastating) points.