Thursday, February 05, 2009

How to manage an atheist debate

I've paid very close attention to all your comments on my post about developing a debate infrastructure for atheists.  There has been a lot of positive feedback, and there were some reasonable concerns brought up as well.  Some people suggested that ACA should just start hosting debates locally, and I'm taking some steps to look into that possibility (but no promises!)

Let me address the most pressing concern right here:

Why bother?  Your opponent will never change his mind.

As I hope I've made thoroughly clear in past discussions on this subject, I don't care if the opponent ever changes his mind.  Likewise, I don't care about the fact that some observers will watch the debate and conclude that the theist won simply because he is on their side.  Yes, that will happen for many people, perhaps even most.

The point is meme-spreading.  Same as the show.  If that works for you, then watch debates.  If it doesn't, then don't.  Simple as that.  The real questions you should ask about the debate are:
  1. Would you, personally, find it entertaining?
  2. Would it help raise awareness of the atheist movement, as in the case of books by Dawkins and Hitchens, or our other shows?
  3. Would it do any harm?  If so, then what?
For me, the answers are yes, yes, and no.  I hope that clarifies my intentions.

Now, I've been giving the whole matter a lot more thought.  Don't assume that I'm writing this as a plan for the ACA, but just keep it on file as potential advice for any atheist groups that might like to debate.  If you know of such a debate coming up, please link them here.

I take Eugenie Scott's "Debates and the Globetrotters" article very seriously, and I've seen my share of bad debates.  So I'd like to throw out some general bits of advice that will help in preparing any atheist debates.

Choice of venue

Many debates are hosted in a church.  This isn't necessarily wrong, but it helps to stack the audience.  Fliers can be placed in the lobby of the church a few weeks in advance, so people who like to go there anyway are more likely to be in the audience.

Here are some ideas for a more neutral venue:
  1. A Unitarian church.
  2. A college lecture hall. (Durston vs. Sarkar happened in a lecture hall.)
  3. An outdoor stage.
Churches like to publicize things, so the unbelievers should do so as well.  Go after student organizations and professors.  Really hype it up at your local freethought club, if there is one.  Tell your friends.


This is tricky.  Many debates I have heard turn into shouting matches, where one side loses because they are too polite to talk over the opponent. Dawkins vs. Lennox was a perfect example of this.  Without clear divisions for the speaker, the pushier guy wins.  If your debater is the pushier guy, then maybe this works for you, but personally I don't like that.

Other times, the rounds are way too long.  Some debates allow each person to speak uninterrupted for as long as 30 minutes.  That's ridiculous, and it provides way too much opportunity for the infamous "Gish gallop" that Eugenie Scott described in her article.  Also, if you watch presidential debates, that's unheard of.  Candidates get maybe five minutes for a question, tops (and usually much less).

When I did high school speech, there were two main categories: Lincoln-Douglas debate, which was a slower paced 1 on 1 debate that focused on philosophy and values; and Policy debate, a 2v2 debate focusing on concrete plans and encouraging complex speed presentations.  I was an LD debater myself, and prefer that format, as it can be difficult for a lay audience to follow the rules of a Policy debate.  However, I wouldn't be opposed to pulling in some of each type, so perhaps there would be a values-style debate with teams that would double the length of a typical LD.

In either of these formats, each side has a fixed amount of time to speak in each round, generally less than ten minutes.  There are also fixed times set for direct cross-examination, and a finite buffer of preparation time for each debater between rounds.  For public debates, I also like the style of allowing a long, structured Q&A period at the end.


Let me give you some great examples of bad debate topics, and I'll tell you why.
  1. The topic of discussion in Durston vs. Sarkar was: "What is the best explanation for biological life on this planet: Intelligent Design or Darwinian evolution?"  This topic sucks.  It immediately sets up a false dichotomy, acknowledging that one or the other must be right.  "Darwinian evolution" isn't even the term used by scientists anymore, which means one side is now defending a position that he shouldn't actually have.  This topic invites the theist to completely avoid even defending the implications of Intelligent Design — let alone garden-variety creationism, or God.
  2. Likewise, "Does God exist?" is a terrible topic of discussion.  Why?  Because there is no agreed-upon definition of "God."  Just this week, the TV email box received a letter from a very earnest person telling us that the universe is God.  Suppose your opponent opens with that... then what do you say?  "Um, I don't believe in the universe?"  Or how about "That's stupid.  The universe isn't God."  You'll spend all your time debating over whose definition is right, which I can conclusively say leads to just about the most boring debates in the world.  Most theists won't get THAT broad with their concept of God, but they'll still try to make their definition as vague and nonspecific as they can in order to cast the widest possible net.
The moral here is, don't let them get away with that.  The definitions should be agreed upon BEFORE the debate.  In a comment on the previous post, "c" suggested this:

"The debates I most enjoy are ones where the theist has to specify which religion they propose and defend it. In my opinion, they are the easiest for an atheist to win (thus the most entertaining.) They are also the most honest because if the debate is generalized to simply whether some god exists, there is often a stalemate and no one can be persuaded that way. It is also disingenuous on the theist's part because they don't just believe in some god, they believe in a specific one, which is a far more preposterous argument."

Great suggestion, c.  Why the heck don't we see more debates where the topic of discussion is "Resolved: That Southern Baptism is the true religion"?  I'll tell you why: it doesn't work for theists, as it immediately kills off a large portion of their sympathetic audience.  Resolve that a God exists, and you have 85% of every audience rooting for you, including Jews and Muslims.  Resolve that YOUR religion is right, and suddenly they're a lot less comfortable.

Splitting the difference, I think that the topics should not get as far as specifying which ecumenical council you prefer.  But I do think it's eminently fair for the topics to be narrowly focused and nail down a clear implication of who wins based on their arguments.  Here are some examples of specific religious topics that seem like they would be fun to debate.
  • Resolved: That heaven exists and can be attained exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Resolved: That Jesus died and was resurrected in the first century AD.
  • Resolved: That the Ten Commandments collectively outline a moral code that is beneficial to humanity.
You get the idea.  Now here are some other topic suggestions that don't evidently pertain to one religion, but do force a focused debate.
  • Resolved: That the universe has existed for more than one million years. (Obviously this one can only be challenged by young earth creationists.  But OMG, imagine what fun it would be to actually pin someone down on really defending a young earth.)
  • Resolved: That the Old Testament contains prophecies which cannot be explained by any means other than divine revelation.  (Note how the burden of proof is established right there in the resolution.)
  • Resolved: That secondary school courses should introduce Intelligent Design as a scientific topic. (A policy topic that suits me fine.)
  • Resolved: That the United States Constitution was written with the intent of creating a Christian nation.  (Watch out for those definitions again!  You may want to nail down in advance what a "Christian Nation" is.)
Some theists have made a career out of debating topics that look nothing like this.  They might see this as a trap and refuse to participate.  Let them refuse.  Don't yield to their terms and let them stack the deck.  Make it known that your opponent was offered a neutral debate topic to defend his particular beliefs, and he refused to get involved.  That's what Bill O'Reilly would say.  Above all else, I think it's important to set up clear standards against topics that allow a lot of weasel room for semantic games.  Ban them.

Final thought: I'd prefer to see debates held in venues where there is free wireless internet.  Use your prep time to look up and catch obvious lies.  If the debate format allows it, having a henchman behind you who can act as your Google Monkey would be ideal... and I don't necessarily see why it shouldn't be allowed.  Actually, this is a good argument for preferring 2v2 debates: one person researches while the other one talks.

If no internet is available, may I alternatively recommend that you download the contents of Iron Chariots in advance?


  1. Good guide Russell. I would love to see the ACA do some debates. I would make a weekend of it and come down to watch. I still plan on making at least one dinner with you all this year.

  2. One other suggestion: Don't always have theists debating atheists. Take some issues that are controversial within the atheist community (such as the FFRF sign) and debate each other. (Anything you have ever disagreed about on the show might make a good topic for debate). It provides good practice for your debaters, it shows that we are not all in lockstep agreement on these issues, and it means that theists within the audience will occasionally find common ground with atheist debaters.

    Of course I'm not an ACA member, so that is just a suggestion.

  3. I second Thomas' sentiment.

    You should start up a debate series and start with members of the show debating each other for particulars about atheistic approaches to certain activities. You should invite local churches/schools to participate, in the events and provide members for debate. Perhaps even have a smaller scale "amateur" debate set-up beforehand for members to show up and just discuss with people and get veiws aired, have the debators be disallowed from speaking at this time, but they can hear the debates offered by both sides and use that as information for the upcoming 'main event'.

  4. Even better, for the sake of practice, have an atheist who is conversant with theist arguments argue on behalf of the theist position against another atheist.

    I don't remember all that much from Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" (I'm NOT an Objectivist, btw!), but I recall a paragraph describing Ellsworth Toohey's rhetorical abilities and that he could win a debate, and then in the next debate argue on behalf of the position he had previously argued against and he would still win.

  5. Any chance of, maybe for one of the Sunday lectures, putting on a debate clinic? There was an article you wrote a while back about how to debate people that was really good and a little hands on training would be fun (even though I *never* plan on debating anyone. I get bad performance anxiety).

  6. Next week (on Darwin Day), Dan Barker will debate Kyle Butt on the specific question of the existence of the God of the Bible.

    For those unfamiliar with Kyle Butt's views, see here:

    I watched a couple of minutes of the "age of the Earth" video, and was amazed that he defended the idea that God created the world with fake, apparent age, by claiming that trees in the Garden of Eden would have had rings.

  7. God damn it, Barker.

    See the next post for the reason why Barker's already crippled himself before the debate started.

  8. I agree, Russell.

    The worst atheist performances I've ever seen in a debate were:

    1) Shermer - Hovind
    2) Shermer - Wells
    3) Dawkins - Lennox

    I love Michael Shermer, but he seems to spend most of his time trying to be likable. One simple rule: when responding to a ridiculous assertion, your first words should be, "That's ridiculous...", and then proceed to ridicule the assertion.

    The AE team, particularly you, Matt, Martin, Jeff and Tracie, are the best at this. Also when an assertion is offered as evidence, I know the klaxon will sound during an AE phone debate, whereas Dawkins can be seen staring dreamily at the exit signs.

    The format I prefer is open court. The Kitzmiller transcript is the single greatest evolution vs. creationism debate I've ever read. No assertions without evidence. No trips down the quantum rabbit hole led by an English professor.

    Too often, the creationist or theist is allowed to hop the logical turn-style without ever being asked to pay the toll. In Kitzmiller, if you strayed just a few degrees outside of your expertise you were in for a prompt, verbal dope smack.

    I know the debate you mention very well. I listened to it every day for weeks. When Lennox would offer up knowledge along the lines of |paraphraseing - Jesus showed a wedding party in Cana that from the cool waters of religion he could make something that was pleasant to drink|, I wanted to cry out, "Objection! Your honor, please!"

    But he just kept talking.

    Great post, Russell.


  9. Maybe the ACA should hold an atheist debate on free will :).

  10. I apologize if this is considering necroing a thread, I'm not accustomed to blog etiquette.

    First, to Jack Ryan:

    I agree completely with your comments about Shermer. I have had a SciAm subscription for about a decade now and his columns is one of my favorites. When I started really getting active in the atheist community a few months ago, I was excited to see that he publicly debated theists. I was almost immediately disappointed. I still have an incredible amount of respect for the man, and I hope to meet him some day, but he's not a very good debater.

    Second, well, I'll just make a second post as this one will be too long.


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