I was recently offered an opportunity to debate a creationist, on the existence of God.

I was intrigued by the idea at first, but then I took some advice and turned it down. There’s a stereotype of scientists taking on creationists with the naive notion of presenting some basic science and contributing something to the public understanding of science. They then discover that a debate with a creationist is a totally different proposition. I admit, I have no experience with formal debates with creationists, and I would have got slaughtered. I found some other possibilities—people who do debates regularly—and went back to the less exciting world of making up physics exams.

Still, the notion of a debate is interesting. And when I think about it, asking myself what sort of debate I’d like to witness, never mind participate in, I wouldn’t go for something involving creationists. I, or someone like myself, have too little in common with them for the event to be anything other than a contest. With people that are somewhat closer, there’s enough common ground to make things more of a dialogue than a debate, so there’s more of a chance to learn something. I’ve had a couple of public events with more liberal religious people, and I’ve generally enjoyed them.

Anyway, which would be more interesting: to see a debate between an atheist and a bishop, or two scientists who have no quibble about the modern scientific view of the world, but who have different views on the worth of religion or spirituality? Say, someone relatively hardline atheistic such as Richard Dawkins, having a conversation with someone like Ursula Goodenough? Somehow, an event like that would be much more interesting to me.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Roy Overmann

    I am very interested why a debate with a creationist would not be beneficial. Reading Mr. Edis' posts I don't believe for one minute that he would be "slaughtered." As someone who has debated creationists I admit that it is unlikely that their minds would be changed. However, the impasse usually takes place as the conflict between a world view that sees science and evidence as the road to knowledge about the external world; versus one that sees faith as that criteria.
    Others not wedded to creationism may see the superiority of science and reason as being more reliable, valid, predictable, and successful as the only method to knowledge of the external world.
    I urge Mr Edis to take up the challenge.
    Roy Overmann

  • Bradley Bowen

    Public debates tend to promote "sound bites" and shallow thinking. One way around this is to conduct debates in writing and over a significant period of time (days or weeks, rather than minutes).

    Each side should be given plenty of time to consider arguments and objections, and to formulate responses that are (hopefully) clear, relevant, and well-informed (backed up by references to reliable sources of factual information).

    Such debates would probably have smaller audiences (although the internet provides a means of broadcasting such debates around the world), but it wouldn't hurt to have more literate and thoughtful audiences for debates on hot issues concerning religion.

    An alternative solution is to narrow the questions at issue down to something that could actually be covered intelligently in a two-hour debate format. Creation vs. Evolution is obviously too big a question to cover in such a short time frame.

  • Keith Parsons

    I've participated in a number of debates with theists and creationists (two with William Lane Craig), and I've heard or read the transcripts of quite a few more. I think that such debates have their uses, but I think Taner is right that you should abstain unless you have developed the particular rhetorical and forensic skills. After all, debate is less an exchange of ideas than a stylized form of combat. It is far better to refrain from debating than to do badly, and it is amazing how badly some people do.

    In the mid-1990's I heard a debate between a Campus Crusade apologist named Michael Horner and a well-known atheist author and editor (now deceased). The atheist did an execrable job, managing to miss almost every point, and relying on hackneyed, out-of-date, and irrelevant arguments. By contrast, Horner had his arguments lined up, crisp rebuttals, and a lively delivery. Amazingly, though, after the debate I talked to a number of students in our campus freethought association, and their unanimous opinion was that the atheist had trounced Horner!

    On another occasion, I was invited to speak in Colorado Springs by the local humanist/atheist group and debate a local Methodist minister (a nice and intelligent guy) on humanist vs. Christian ethics. I prepared well, and I felt confident at the time (and still do) that I had carried the debate handily. Everyone was very cordial afterwards, but the word got back to me that some of the Colorado Springs humanists thought I had done badly. I never got much coherent feedback on why they thought that I had done badly, but it seemed to amount to the fact that I had not said what they would have said.

    These experiences make me think that theists think that their guy wins no matter what because they agree with his conclusions. Atheists think that their guy wins if and only if he says what they fantasize themselves saying in the debate.

  • Bradley Bowen

    The Creation vs. Evolution topic could be broken down into bite-sized pieces:

    Is the Universe a few thousand years old or a few billion years old?

    Is the Earth a few thousand years old or a few billion years old?

    Did life appear on Earth a few thousand years ago or a few billion years ago?

    Could a living organism arise from natural chemical processes unguided by an intelligent being?

    Can a new species of plant or animal arise from another species by natural processes unguided by an intelligent being?

    Are the earliest known forms of life on Earth single-celled bacteria?

    Did multicellular creatures evolve from single-celled bacteria?

    Did fish evolve from multicellular invertebrates?

    Did tetrapods, vertebrates with four limbs, evolve from fish?

    Did humans evolve from apes?


  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    As it happens driving bores me to tears, so listening to debates as well as to lectures while I drive has been a big help to me. I agree that the oral format is not the most conducive to careful argumentation and that written debates is the most useful format. There are several such debates; I recall the impromptu mini-debates between Searle, Chalmers and Dennett on the mind-body problem, as well as book length debates such as “God?” by William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, or “Belief or Nonbelief?” by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Martini. There are (at least) two serious written debates in The sprawling “God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence (2007-2008)” ( ) and “Naturalism vs. Theism: The Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006)” ( ).

    As for the oral debates between theists and atheists two patterns come to mind: First, it seems that the theistic side is always represented by a conservative theist. It would be nice to see how atheists fare debating liberal theists, as it would help avoid wasting time with what I consider to be a lot of nonsensical conservative positions. Secondly, theists often do surprisingly well, as for example in the debate between the famous Richard Dawkins and the unknown John Lennox. It seems that atheists are often so much convinced that theism is a trivial position that they do not prepare well for what, as Keith says, is a kind of stylized form of combat. One debate where the atheistic side did well in my view was in the debate between Peter Singer and Dinesh D’Souza. Another was the 1998 debate between our Keith Parsons and serial debater William Lane Craig. Keith says that he debated twice with Craig, but I could not find this second one on-line.

  • tmdrange

    There was also my debate versus Doug Wilson (a presuppositionalist) on the existence of the Christian God, which took place from February to June of 1999.

  • Keith Parsons

    My second debate with Craig, on the topic "Does God Exist?" was held on February 4, 2002 at Indiana University at Bloomington. I think it was sponsored by the Campus Crusade people at IU, and they might have copies available.

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