Intelligently Designing a Debate on Religion

Photo by Elise Apelian for the GW Hatchet

This week, I attended a debate on “Does God Exist?” co-sponsored by the DC branch of the Center for Inquiry and the George Washington University Newman Center.  The debate format had alternating speeches by Fr. Carter Griffin and Dr. John Shook, followed by written questions from the audience.  The debate was wide ranging, with both speakers talking about the First Mover argument, scriptural authority, the degree of confidence we should have in recent scientific discoveries, the uniqueness of the Christian claim, etc…

The trouble is, the debaters hit a lot of these arguments in every round, so it was hard to address any of them in detail and easy for speakers to accidentally or intentionally rebut points the opponent hadn’t actually made.  In competitive debate, a common strategy is to ‘spread’ arguments: bring up as many as possible and then attack your opponent if they don’t manage to rebut all of them within their time limit.

It’s a terrible way to approach truth, but is very easy to score.  This is William Lane Craig’s central strategy in his debates with atheists, and Andrew at Evaluating Christianity has written an excellent primer on rhetoric and strategy if you find yourself in this kind of debate.

But I don’t think either of the debaters at Wednesday’s event were necessarily trying to have that kind of debate. So, instead of offering defensive techniques, I want to lay out some preemptive ideas to get the best, most thoughtful debate possible. It’s yet another display of my paternalist tendancies: I want to make it as hard as possible to have a shallow, posturing debate, even if that’s the goal or one or both of the speakers.

[Note, sticking with gender neutral pronouns and trying to keep using synonyms for “speaker” “debater” etc, in the next few paragraphs made it really hard to keep track of the antecedents, so I’m following cryptographic naming conventions and using a hypothetical debate between Alice and Bob]


Debate Format

The standard speech followed by rebuttal format lets debaters off the hook too easily. In each round, I’d like to see the first speaker (Alice) lay out her argument in one speech. Then, instead of giving a rebuttal, Bob would cross-examine her. Bob would be able to ask follow-up questions and immediately correct Alice if she started responding to straw-men instead of Bob’s actual premises. After the cross-examination ended, Alice would give a 1-2 minute recapitulation of her position and expand any defenses that she brought up in the Q&A.

Q&A is a higher stakes format for both debaters. Bob can expose flaws in Alice’s argument more easily, since he can ask her a series of follow-ups designed to lead her into contradiction, but, if he doesn’t understand her position, he may end up embarrassing himself if he asks questions that she can expose as straw-men or misunderstandings. (For example, any question that was premised on the idea Catholics worship the pope or are bound by all of his opinions). It’s a lot easier to grandstand or deceive if your opponent isn’t about to respond to you point-by-point.

This format is asymmetrical; one debater is attacking and one is defending. That’s by design. It can be easy to cheat in a debate by just pummeling your opponent instead of defending your position. As long as the audience buys in to the false choice between the two of you, they treat all evidence against one side as positive evidence for the other side. It’s a bad habit.  When I saw Freud’s Last Session, I thought Lewis’s arguments were strong relative to Freud’s, but Freud being wrong didn’t prove Lewis correct.


Debate Content

To avoid the strafing strategy of switching arguments whenever an opponent gains ground, I would limit each round of speech-cross-speech to a single topic. Each participant in the debate should propose several topics. An atheist might propose “The problem of evil,” “The multiplicity of religions,” and “The moral track record of religions.” The Christian might suggest “The first mover problem,” “Finding a foundation for morality,” and “What is the purpose of life.” The moderator/hosting organization could also suggest topics.

Some of these topics might lend themselves to two rounds, where both Alice and Bob needed to defend their position. Some might be rooted in the premises of only one side, (i.e. only the Christian would need be first speaker in a ‘Problem of Evil’ round, since it’s not a problem at all for the atheist). The two debaters would agree on a final list of rounds by negotiating with each other and the moderator, Eve.

This strategy helps quarantine arguments about history from arguments about metaphysics, which helps defuse the common problem of the two sides referencing wildly different standards of evidence in the same round as they jump back and forth between varying levels of abstraction. Negotiating and agreeing on the broad list of topics beforehand also makes it easier to ensure that both debaters will be prepared to argue about the positions of their opponent, not a straw man or a misconception.

Oh, and as one final safe guard, I would recommend always using the same first round topic for both debaters: Epistemology and standards of evidence. It’s a tremendous waste of time when Alice spends an entire speech listing evidence that Bob thinks is prima facie irrelevant. Talk about these schema at the beginning and let that argument color the rest of the debate.


Miscellaneous Shenanigans

I’m on the train right now to head up to Yale for an alumni debate, and I’ve been trying to think what else you can bring in to avoid having debaters fundamentally misunderstanding their opponents or just taking the lazy approach of rallying your own team instead of persuading the other side (or, y’know, actually seeking truth). My college group had an enormous advantage: we were a community. So if you tried to score cheap points off someone at Thursday night’s debate, you’d have to face them at Friday’s lunch. The better we knew each other, the more substantive our questions could be, and the more accountable we were to each other.

You can’t create that kind of mutual respect overnight, but, as a jerry-rigged solution, I’d suggest requiring Alice and Bob to have dinner together before the debate, with or without members of the sponsoring organizations. It makes it that much harder to dehumanize the opponent or the entire opposing side. If you get a better sense of their position, you can drill down on the most fundamental points of disagreement by the time you take your places at the rostrum.

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  • Thanks for attending the debate.

    FYI: Dr. John Shook has also debated Dr. William Lane Craig. You can see the video here:

  • Will

    A note: “jerry-rigged” is a bastardization of “jury-rigged” (a sailing term) and “jerrybuilt”.

    If use of it continues, I shall have to send the killer pandas to eat, shoot, and leave.

  • Hmm. Are you sure you aren’t conflating “the kinds of debates most persuasive to me” with “the best ways to debate”? I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve learned a lot more, and been more deeply persuaded by, speeches which roved freely (or careened drunkenly!) from topic to topic, or which centered on a single image rather than a single topic, or which attempted to change the questions of the debate rather than answering the questions their opponents cared about… than by speeches which followed roughly the guidelines you set out. This may be a purely personal difference, or it may track other differences in how we relate aesthetics and reason.

    I also would rather stick forks in my eyeballs than have to do an epistemology debate before anything else. It’s so easy for those to devolve into “but how can you be sure?” fear-of-commitment-style arguing. Plus I worry that listing the kinds of evidence you approve and accept in advance makes it harder to be startled by something striking which falls outside those boundaries. My impression, which could be wrong or overly cynical, is that the more people focus on epistemological questions in this kind of debate, the less likely they are to actually change their minds about anything–because you can always find more reasons! Or add epicycles, or whatever.

    Have fun in Sunny New Haven! Burn a museum for me.

  • Joe

    I agree with Eve. When considering a covenant marriage with someone ther are many different tactics for judging their pros and cons, but if you can admit that the romance is real hopefully you will be willing to take the risk of certainty and marry them. You can’t know everything in advance that would spoil the adventure. One thing I’ve learned through atheist-theist debates is that jumping the broom with Jesus is not like jumping the shark.

  • Slightly off topic (but not too much).

    I thought some of you folks would enjoy hearing something by a Christian pastor that is totally different than you would expect. It’s titled, “I Believe that I Cannot Believe”.

    Try and give it at least 5 minutes, then it starts to get good.


  • Funnily enough, I was just reading an online debate with a fair amount of, well, niceness. I didn’t know what to think. Is this Internet thing broken?

    What I wouldn’t give for a few more debaters like Chesterton. Scuttlebutt had it that the man could argue cheerfully without all that other baggage. Heaven knows I could do with a grace or two like that.

  • deiseach

    Leah, may I compliment you on being sensible and polite? I don’t understand all the points you may wish to make, because once we get past “2+2=4” mathematics is a sealed book to me, nor have I ever studied philosophy at all, but just the sheer relief of someone who defines what she is going to say and then sticks to it is marvellous.

    I have just this Saturday been ploughing through a pamphlet by a lady describing Process Theology (or her version thereof) and it was an experience akin to wading through treacle. The major point I derived from it reminded me of a sub-theme in “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons, and while I have no objection to mingling SF and theology, I can say that a 482-page densely written space opera was easier to follow than a chatty 22-page online pamphlet broken down into paragraph-sized points to lead the hard-of-understanding through what it entailed. Apparently we are going to be God, who may or may not currently exist, but created us because God – no gendered pronouns, please! – got lonely; I’m assuming there’s no Trinity in there, but it was hard to make out since there was no mention at all of the Holy Spirit, which surprises me now I look back on it. and I wasn’t quite clear whether or not she believed in the divinity of Jesus – I’m betting not, since the Resurrection wasn’t a literal thing but rather the hope we get from God overcoming evil, which is nice, only evil isn’t the same as sin and sin is “missing the mark” or making choices that go against God’s will. So resurrection means that God’s will will overcome ours. Or something.

    Also, I get huffy when someone shrugs off the 13th century and St. Thomas Aquinas, but that’s just me and my mediaevalism 🙂

    • deiseach

      Now I’m even more confused when I try to explain it, because how can God’s will overcome ours when (a) it’s all about relational process, so God does not impose God’s will on ours and (b) we’ll be God in the end anyway?

      Resurrection means our will will overcome our will so that everything we willed will be our will, even if we willed against our will in the first instance? That can’t be right! I must be mistaken somewhere!

  • One problem I’ve heard about with debates is that it’s often one specialist vs. someone who has no idea what he’s talking about, like a Chesterton v. Darrow. If truth were ever the goal in situations like this, they would pretty much become lopsided lectures between His Eminence and Agreeacles.

    I’m thinking the Agreeacles effect will be negated with each of the following, both pretty much what Leah suggests.

    1. Smaller topics, and
    2. Common ground defined well and explicitly, published in advance.

    Both are artificial constraints meant to clearly set in- and out-of-bounds. Generalized: Granting framework X and argument Y, with major premise Z and epistemology W, argue for or against the application within WXYZ of minor premise P.

    I suspect that the only debate worth having right now regards the problem of induction, which basically summarizes just about every objection to just about everything with supposed theistic overtones.

    Yes, X seems true, and I like it, but it is not necessarily isomorphic to reality. Just because I know no exceptions does not mean there are none …

  • butterfly5906

    Entirely off-topic, but I’m not sure where else to put this:
    Leah, I just thought you might like to read this article, about a “morality pill”: