Best Atheist Debate Performances (revised 3-Apr-14)

The Secular Outpost seems to consistently get a lot of traffic from people who are doing Internet searches for “best atheist debaters.” This post is for them.

This post was originally titled “Best Atheist Debaters.” Just as I changed the old post “Worst Atheist Debaters” to “Worst Atheist Debate Performances,” I’ve changed this post from “Best Atheist Debate Performances.” The logic is simple: anyone can get lucky and have an exceptionally good day or exceptionally bad day. So with that said…

I don’t know of any way to be completely objective about this sort of thing; I know that many people will have their own opinions about this. For what it is worth, here is my list of the “best atheist debaters” for oral debates on God’s existence, in alphabetical order:

  • Craig-Dacey Debate
  • Craig-Dacey Debate 2
  • Craig-Kagan Debate
  • Craig-Parsons Debate
  • Craig-Parsons Debate 2
  • Craig-Tabash Debate
  • Craig-Tooley Debate
  • Fernandes-Lowder Debate*

* I know how self-serving it looks for me to put myself on such a list. For what it’s worth, I did so based on feedback others have publicly posted regarding my past debates.

I consider Paul Draper an excellent philosopher and debater, but I did not put him on the list for the simple reason that he self-identifies as an agnostic, not an atheist. If we were to expand or retitle the list into a list of “best nontheist debaters,” however, he would definitely be on the list.

Disclaimer: Nothing should be read into the fact that someone is not on the list. I haven’t evaluated all of the atheist debaters (who do oral debates); additionally, there are others I’ve watched but haven’t decided whether to include them.

Related Posts:

Our Debates” [ Index ]
Review of the Craig-Draper Debate: Does God Exist?” by Jeffery Jay Lowder
Review of the Craig-Jesseph Debate: Does God Exist?” by Jeffery Jay Lowder
Who Is the Most Prominent Atheist” (4-Jul-06) by Jeffery Jay Lowder

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12002307181752334098 drj

    Jeffery,

    I recently watched your debate vs Phil Fernandes, and really enjoyed it.

    Do you have any other debates in audio or video online?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04029133398946303654 David B Marshall

    Thanks for the list, though it's a bit short. I would like to do more debates with atheists in the future, so perhaps I'll look those on the list I don't know up, and keep them in mind.

    What criteria do you use for deciding who a good debater would be? I doubt Hitchens ever put anyone to sleep, but he often rambles. Avalos is sharp and knowledgeable, but I wouldn't much want to be on the same stage with the guy. Are these people thoughtful, quick on their feet, knowledgeable, entertaining, skilled at explaining ideas, likable, or all six?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    I'm surprised you didn't include Draper. I know he doesn't do many formal debates, but your debate with Fernandes followed his with Craig very closely. He does do a lot of debate-like philosophy conferences, though, so I'd definitely rank him among the top.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Wes — I almost added a comment about Draper but didn't; based on your comment, I now think I should have. I'll fix that by editing the post right after leaving this comment.

    The reason I did not include Draper is that he is not an atheist but an agnostic. Although he believes there is strong evidence against theism, he also thinks there is strong evidence for theism (and against naturalism). He doesn't know how to weigh that evidence; hence, he's an agnostic.

    With that said, I agree he did outstanding in his debate with Craig and he is an outstanding philosopher.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    drj — No, sorry. The others are not online.

    David — This won't be the answer your question deserves, but for purposes of providing a brief answer I will list: (1) subject matter knowledge, and (2) debate skills. Note: I'm building a lot into my definition of "debate skills" for purposes of this answer, including things like likeability, entertaining, etc.

    In my experience, (2) is where most atheist debaters fall way short.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    I am honored that Jeff put me on the list. I felt good about my two debates with Craig, but how one feels about a debate and others' perceptions may be at considerable variance.

    Ten years ago I did a debate in Colorado Springs at the invitation of the local freethought group. I debated a local Methodist pastor, the Rev. Trigg on the question of whether humanist or Christian ethics is superior. He was a smart and nice guy who made his points clearly and without any truculence or condescension. I attempted to do the same. At the end of the debate, I once again felt that I had scored well, but I found out later that some members of the group that invited me expressed great disappointment in my performance.

    Now I thought that I had made my points cogently and rebutted effectively, so I was puzzled and inquired about what was lacking. The response I got was that some people felt that I was not "likable" enough. Now when you debate you don't want to come across as a son of a bitch, and I certainly hope I did not, but I guess I am not sure just what "likability" consists of in such a context and why it is so important. Also, apparently, assessments of likability vary greatly from person to person. I have heard some people, even liberals, characterize George W. Bush as likable. To me he is about as likable as genital warts.

    So to be likable do you tell jokes and act folksy? Should you cultivate an accent that is more Texas than Harvard? Unless you really are folksy and from Texas, wouldn't this come across as phony? When Pat Robertson, a Yale educated lawyer, does his down-home accent and flashes his Andy Griffith "aw shucks" grin, it makes my stomach flip flop.

    So, I guess I agree with Mr. Marshall that it would be good to spell out more clearly what the criteria for a good debater are and characterize more clearly what some of these traits really are.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487990587362445908 Ash

    For a combination of quick thinking, sound reasoning, and clarity, I recommend Sam Harris and Richard Carrier. It is always a pleasure watching them dismantle religious apologetics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Ash — Out of curiosity, which oral debates on God's existence do you think Harris and Carrier did well in?

    I agree Carrier does excellent in written debates–I awarded him the win for one of his written debates on the Secular Web–but I haven't seen any of his oral debates on God's existence.

    Regarding Harris, which oral debate(s) on God's existence did you have in mind?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Jeff,

    Fair enough. I'm still not sure what to make of Draper's professed agnosticism. I take it that he knows how to weigh the two methodologically (i.e. through his subjective Bayesianism), and he seems to think that metaphysical naturalism is intrinsically more probable. In every thing I've heard and read from him, he always seems to think that the evidence for theism is not terribly strong (he rejects teleological arguments, downplays the significance of the cosmological argument, rejects Plantinga's EAAN, etc.). He has given many arguments picking out data that he thinks is more probable given naturalism than theism. I just don't know how to square this with his agnosticism. I trust, though, that he could explain it in a way I would think is reasonable. He is definitely my favorite philosopher of religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Wes — Have you read his defense of the argument from moral agency for theism?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Keith,

    I actually had a similar reaction to one of your debates with Craig (I've only heard one).

    I know how gracious you've been to me on this blog and in our few personal correspondences, and you and Victor Reppert seem to be good friends and have had a lot of excellent congenial discussions. I came away from the debate I heard between you and Craig, though, thinking that you would not pick up any "likability" points. I don't know what gave that impression (tone, explicit comments, etc.), but that was how I felt listening to it.

    No one familiar with your posts here or who has had any kind of meaningful interaction with you in another format could think you were unlikable, but I can see why some have gotten a different impression from your debates.

    None of this is helpful to you (since it's a collection of vague generalities), I know, but thought I would chime in.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Jeff,

    No. I'll have to look it up. Do you have a title for that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Thanks, Jeff!

    BTW: I was trying to find it on my own just now and got redirected to a recent post on this blog (http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2011/11/paul-draper-fallacy-of-understated.html). You identify one of the main texts you draw from as the "Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Religion." After some clicking around, it appears it is actually a Blackwell, not Cambridge Collection (http://www.amazon.com/Companion-Philosophy-Religion-Blackwell-Companions/dp/1405163577/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid;=1323118375&sr;=8-2). Thought I would let you know.

    Thanks, again.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06761686258507859309 John Danaher

    I'd put in a vote (I know we're not voting) for Louise Antony. I thought she did a pretty good job in her debate with Craig.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Thanks, Wes. In debating a controversial issue before a hostile audience it is foolish (and maybe dangerous!) to gratuitously antagonize them, but I am not sure just how you can be likable while not pulling your punches.

    My first debate with Craig was at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. Of the 4500 in attendance, approximately 4450 were on Craig's side. The issue of belief and free will came up. I noted that if the penalty for unbelief is hell, then the freedom God gives you to believe or not is like the freedom the mugger gives you to hand over your wallet or not.

    When I watched the video of the event one woman in the audience was vehemently shaking her head at that comment, so I gather I was not being very likable to her at that moment. Yet, I think my comment was entirely apt for the debate context. I did preface my opening statement by informing the audience that I would not patronize them or pull my punches, and that I would assume that they were there to hear their views vigorously challenged. In short, I assumed I was treating them like mature, intelligent adults. So, I am not sure just how you can be both likable and as candid and forthright, and a bit aggressive, as a good debater needs to be.

    I heard someone say that Dan Barker can be both likable and hard-hitting, so maybe he should be the model here.

    By the way, I consider Craig to be a highly effective debater, though he certainly does not come across as likable to me. To me he always comes across as just a bit too slick, and maybe a tad pompous too. So, I am still not clear on how important likability is for being an effective debater.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Wes — Thanks. I fixed the other post.

    John — Thanks for the tip. Her debate is on my list to watch.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04029133398946303654 David B Marshall

    Keith: I don't want to be too helpful, but as a student of missions history, I think one key in effective persuasion (towards conversion) is convincing your audience that you come as a friend to their culture. (Rodney Stark says, you help them "preserve religious / cultural capital," but its a bit broader than that.) Matteo Ricci, who not only related Christianity to ancient Chinese thought, but wrote a popular book on friendship, and in practice proved a loyal friend to Chinese literati, is a great example of someone who did this extremely well.

    "Likable" is subjective, as you suggested, and depends partly on prior beliefs. Billy Graham himself might not seem very "likeable" on the streets of Kabul. But normally, a person is persuasive in part to the extent that his life is perceived as being lived in conformity with his announced values, and if his life renders the values attractive, from the perspective of the audience. I don't think that's irrational, because human beings "pick up" on as much truth subconsciously and intuitively, as we process cognitively, in many cases. I think one reason some skeptics misread Pascal has to do with a failure to attend to such subtle existential clues.

    I agree Harris seems formidable, from what little I've seen. Carrier, against Craig, I felt rather embarrassed, frankly. Maybe he does better elsewhere.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05034037930336299849 Mike Gage

    Does anyone know if Stephen Maitzen has participated in any theism/atheism debates? His criticisms of popular theistic views seem really strong to me. There isn't anything on Common Sense Atheism's debate page for him, though.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    I heard somewhere (perhaps "Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot"?) that he has done at least one debate, but I've never seen it and I don't know if it's available online. If it is not listed on Common Sense Atheism's debate page, then it probably is not available online.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487990587362445908 Ash

    Jeffrey…

    Here is a powerful debate performance by Harris against Craig:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaHXKLRKzg

    Alongside Michael Shermer (who is also good in debates), Harris destroys Chopra's "arguments"…
    http://youtu.be/_kl5jCVU4vQ

    I've never seen a bad Carrier debate performance, but here is a classic one debating the resurrection myth: http://youtu.be/xdnFYAPyh5I

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Ash — I haven't watched Carrier's debate against Craig, but it's my understanding that Carrier believes he lost that debate. Also, that debate is on the resurrection, not God's existence. So I don't understand why that debate is supposed to be a good example of Carrier in an oral debate on God's existence. Have I missed something?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487990587362445908 Ash

    I read your comment too quickly and missed that you were limiting the debate topic specifically to the existence of god. Of course, I think Carrier indirectly makes that argument anyway during that debate. He might have wished he had done better, but it was an exceptional performance nevertheless.

    Here is a debate Carrier did specifically about god: http://youtu.be/oocFLfoT0Q4. It was also a solid performance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14360566092148805751 Damion

    Arif Ahmed, Stephen Law, and Jeremy Beahan are all careful thinkers and highly effective debaters who are unaccountably underappreciated on the atheist debate circuit.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12002307181752334098 drj

    Sam Harris is a good debater, situationally.

    He's very rhetorically effective, but doesn't present the most philosophically rigorous or airtight cases. He really does, at times, have a really magic way with words. But hardcore philosophers probably won't be satisfied with him.

    He's good at combating apologists that might be considered "pop-apologists". He's done various debates with Rabbi's and reverends, and has done numerous with D'Souza – and its good to have someone who is rhetorically effective against that level of apologist – because that's mostly what those sorts of apologists wield, themselves.

    And I think it might be true that its that level of apologist who ultimately holds the most influence with people outside philosophy circle. You're average Christian has never heard of Plantinga, or WLC.

    But going against someone like WLC, he's a disaster (that debate was rough to watch).

  • Taylor

    I would agree with this, but also add Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Quentin Smith to the list.


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