The value of debates on religion

July 3, 2013 • 4:45 am

Later today, Ceiling Cat willing, I’ll put up a post on William Lane Craig, who was just given a long profile in, of all places, The Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s worth reading, though it carefully stays away from criticizing him or asking the opinion of his opponents.

Craig, as you know, has made his reputation debating atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. For the nonce, I’ll just collect opinions on this question: Is there any value to the cause in debating someone like Craig? That is, is the debate format a way to change minds and wean people away from faith. (Of course, Craig is a formidable debater, but I’m asking the question in general.)

127 thoughts on “The value of debates on religion

      1. It ought to, at least with regard to the tack taken.

        I can’t remember all the details now, but I seem to recollect Richard Carrier getting into a debate with I think a Muslim, where it was originally tabled as something like “Can god’s existence be proved?” – A sure win for Carrier in claiming it could not. But then it was changed to something like, “Can the existence of God be disproved?”

        Carrier battled on bravely, trying to disprove God, and failed of course.

        What he should have done was start out with “Of course we can’t. I concede the debate up front. But in the mean time, here’s why that doesn’t matter, and here’s why Islam in nonsense.”

    1. Sadly the atheist may win, but that never seems to stop religionists claiming it as a win for their side. They can be very expert, and shameless, Liars for Jesus.

      Just by agreeing to appear on the same platform as one of them can count as a ‘win’ for them, in that this is often all they want. To share a platform with someone who has a mainstream reputation can be a ‘win’ in itself, regardless of the actual outcome.

    2. Good essay on the link. I think all your points are valid points — so yes, in a sense atheists always “win” debates over the existence of God simply because the debate is being held.

      “Faith” is off the table.

      They are conceding that God’s existence is not obvious.

      And ‘atheism’ is being approached as a live option.

      I think that the people who compare debates on God to debates on evolution vs. creationism forget that the situation for us is reversed on that first one. Simply by appearing on stage with an atheist the theist is granting us legitimacy and credibility in a culture which prefers to think atheists are fringe lunatics.

      1. Thanks. Let me offer an example. Recently I spent three separate nights debating Randal Rauser in Canada over our co-written book “God or Godless.” Not only did this debate tour thrust our book into #1 in “Apologetics” and “Atheism” categories but all of the sales of my books skyrocketed on, the Canadian version.

        Now how could this have happened without the debates?

        1. John, have you ever been subjected to the ‘Gish Gallop’ at a debate? (A high speed recital of a melange of christian “evidence” for creationism, many of which are stunningly stupid.) If so, how did you respond?

    3. You made excellent points in the linked blog post, John. I am less certain if there is any benefit to debating creationists, but I definitely accept the value of atheist/believer debates. A higher profile can only help raise the awareness of freethinking in a christian dominated culture. I will add that the fact that absolutists theocracies prefer to silence freethinkers rather than engaging them demonstrates the danger open discourse represents for religion.

  1. Richard Dawkins refuses to debate WLC. I see no merit in wasting valuable time on Earth debating such a numpty.

    He makes living from writing about religion. Should he ever admit that god/s do not exist, that will be the end of his livelihood. Much like the priests etc who stop preaching. They have no other means to support themselves.

    I would hypothesise that many leaders of religion do not truly believe, they just need to make a living.

    No-one would convince me that the mega church leaders actually believe most of the bull they pour out.

  2. “Yes, we must admit that our opponents in this argument have a marked advantage over us. They need only a few words to set forth a half-truth; whereas, in order to show that it is a half-truth, we have to resort to long and arid dissertations.” – Frédéric Bastiat

    Having said that, I think it’s worth it because often the least vocal members of the audience are the ones who are having their thinking changed.

    1. Worse, some of the statements aren’t even half true; Craig in particular has been corrected many times, so he’s just dishonest (knowingly or otherwise, I don’t know) at this point. I wouldn’t want to debate *that* sort of person.

      Moreover, the debate (e.g. debate club style) format does not lend itself to avoiding bad rhetorical fluourishes etc. unless one has a good moderator.

  3. There is no real value other than entertainment. Just as there is no point in debating with the mormon or garden variety jebus freak who knocks on your door. However, if you have a platform, like youtube, the debate could persuade a fence setter. As a rule, waste of breath.

  4. The format matters, esp with William Lane Craig. Shelly Kagan embarrassed Craig in a less formal style debate a few years back (on youtube). It’s a fantastic trouncing–I’ve never seen Craig look so clueless.

        1. That was great. A *proper* ethical philosopher against a preening godbot.

          Arif Ahmed did a pretty good job on Craig too.

          “Dr. Craig says that: “Objective moral values exist, and I think we all know it”. Now that might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here…”


    1. Yes, this is an important nuance on JAC’s question. The “debate format” is not one thing, its many. Give someone like WLC complete control over the format, and its not likely to “change minds and wean people away from faith.” With a more neutral or unbiased format? Maybe.

  5. I think they can be interesting; one important change I would like to see is that the opening statement and first rebuttals should be exchanged in advance, that way the debater has a chance to check the claims of their opponent. Craig makes stuff up but it’s impossible to check unless you have done your homework thoroughly. And how do you know what nonsense claim he is going to say in advance? I would say virtually all of the atheists that have debated Craig have not done their homework. Craig has. He could be beaten in debates easily but only with thorough research which Craig seems to do and his opponents don’t.

    1. It is probably not practical, but as a counter to just what you described, I’d like to see a kind of team format tried for these kinds of debates. Each team would consist of a debater and one or more research assistant. The research assistants would have a computer and whatever other appropriate research tools to enable them to vet in real time the opponents arguments and claims. Then the debater of the team could use that information to counter during their next round.

      Perhaps a rule where a team could interrupt an opponent to present data to the debate moderator showing that their opponent has made a factually incorrect claim would be worth a try.

      Another option to try might be to have researchers under the direction of the moderator vetting both debaters arguments and claims and calling bullshit when appropriate. A problem with that though would be the issue of having to trust in the moderator’s, and researchers’, neutrality.

      In any case I’d really like to see some kind of new format for these kinds of debates geared toward countering disingenuous debate tactics, and that result in well supported information and rational analysis having more weight than Gish Gallop type crap and appeals to ignorance.

      1. As Ant says – you are describing more of a trial not a debate.

        A good debater can counter disingenuous debate tactics and disinformation. The problem is that someone like Craig has spent decades crafting debate technique and his opponents are often knowledgeable in their fields but not in debating. Debate is like a sport, and if you haven’t trained in it you can easily be tripped up.

        Having done competitive debating in university,I think more formal debates in general are a good thing, because the more you expose yourself to rhetoric and argument, the better you become spotting good and bad arguments and good and bad rhetoric.

        To your points about Gish Gallop and appeals to ignorance – a prepared debater can use these tactics against their opponent simply by pointing out what their opponent is doing, then moving the debate in a different direction.

        I think the most common mistake I have seen people debating Craig make is wasting time engaging Craig’s bad arguments instead of moving the debate forward on their terms.

        1. “. . . a prepared debater can use these tactics against their opponent simply by pointing out what their opponent is doing, then moving the debate in a different direction.”

          This is the crux of my issue with these debates. I have watched a lot of debates and what you say here is not only not as easy as you make it seem, it is also not solely dependent on you and how prepared or skilled at debate you are. For example, the debate format, timing or the moderator may prevent you from being able to adequately point out your opponents’ bullshit.

          Also, I don’t care about the sport aspect of it. In my view that is a bug, and it shouldn’t be a feature. I think it is a shame that you have to be an expert at countering expert dishonesty in order to do well in these kinds of debates.

          These debates about religious beliefs and claims, and about creationism vs science, these are serious issues that have a significant impact on our society. We need to grow up and stop pretending that the bullshit carny salesman methods of swaying public opinions should be given any respect or just fatalistically accepted as the norm.

          Trials and debates are not all that different anyway. Both are “disputation arenas.” Both are two adversaries trying to convince that their claim is valid. Both are methods that people have devised with the supposed goal of getting closer to the truth.

          1. If it matters at all, I like your idea. Having a fact-checker/researcher working for the debater in real time would disallow blatant dishonesty. I had a similar idea. The fact checker would have computer access to the debate as it’s being recorded and thus could counter the theist debater’s mischaracterizations of the atheist debater (and vice versa) by displaying video that proves what exactly the atheist debater actually said and his/her facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice when he/she said it. It would be much more effective than saying “No, I didn’t really say that. I said…” and having to rely on the memories of the audience. In the instance of W.L. Craig, his debate tricks, distractions, and lies would be shown for what they are. We have very imperfect memories, especially under stress. We have technology to help. Why not use it?

            Why should debates need to follow some old format, or slight variations on the same, for the sake of tradition. If debate is a sport rather than an attempt to find the closest approximation of truth that one can achieve in such a format, the master debater will always win, no matter the bullshit being peddled. Facts, not debating “skills,” should be what matter. Leave the smoke and mirrors to the magicians. At least they admit they’re bullshitting you.

            It seems to me, though I know almost nothing of the history, that debate formats rely mostly on tradition, even if that tradition no longer makes sense. That reminds me of…um…uh. Damn, what is that word so frequently discussed on this website? Starts with an ‘r’ I think.

            1. Thank you. I think I agree with everything you wrote there. I have imagined a system very much like you described, inspired by watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where they do pretty much exactly that. Although, of course, it is after the fact instead of in real time.

              I wouldn’t claim to know what methods would be best, but some methods of lowering the value of lying, misrepresenting and making stuff up during these debates, seems to me like it could only be a good thing.

    2. If you want to know what stuff Craig is going to make up, all you need to do is watch a few of his debates on Youtube. He only uses a few well worn arguments and his tactics are always the same.

      In his opening speech, he will always lay down five or six criteria that his opponent must substantiate to win the debate. Note that these may or may not be relevant to the subject – that’s part of the sleight of hand.

      The opponent hasn’t got time in his rebuttal to address all of those points, so Craig will claim victory by belabouring the points his opponent fails to address.

      There are people online who will tell you to have really sharp rebuttals to Craig’s criteria so you can get them all in your rebuttal, but the most effective tactic is the one used by Sam Harris and Shelly Kagan: just ignore the high school debating bollocks and concentrate on delivering one’s own points as well as possible.

  6. It depends on the format of the debate. If it’s purely lectern-based with very little conversation then I don’t think they hold very much value (although perhaps just a little). If it’s more of a discussion with a moderator present or has an extended Q&A section then those are a lot more constructive. Craig had one such debate with Shelly Kagan, it was quite enlightening.

  7. Yes, because there is always hope that someone will see these debates and be persuaded. Many of us were once theists, having been raised in religious homes as children. For some people it is one event or change that makes them turn from religion, but for many of us it was a slow erosion. I think a lot of the arguments put forth by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens probably had an impact on my deconversion.

    Plus, we know every theist argument already. It’s not like they have any new data or information to use in their arguments (unless some more gold plates are brought down from heaven or whatever). They haven’t had anything new to offer in nearly two millennium.

    The side of science, however, finds new information and data constantly.

  8. Quite frankly, I find Craig rather questionable, and for a few reasons.

    1.) Means of determining who won the debate. I haven’t seen a lot of debates of his, but in the ones I’ve seen, who won is determined by how many agree with either participant at the end, as opposed to how many opinions they changed (no tally taken at the beginning).

    2.) Representation of opponent’s ideas. Take the Craig vs Harris debate. I’ll provide the transcript of the section I’m thinking of. You tell me if it seems like an honest representation of his opponents, or of their opinions.


    “Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr. Craig, or all religious people, are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.”

    “He also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things. Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting. It is absurd to think that Peter van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr. Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic. Uh, this is simply, uh, below the belt.”

    Feel free to read the transcript for more context if you find it necessary. Does this sound like an honest representation of what was said?

    3.) Understanding opponent’s ideas. I can’t recall the exact debate, but there was a section that was just between Craig and the other (if memory serves me correctly, it was a philosopher of morality, subject was foundation of morality), but he had difficulty understanding fairly simply subjects. Now, this may be part of the reason that his representation of his opponent’s ideas isn’t spot on.

    4.) Promotions. Has anybody else read Coplan’s Is God a Moral Monster (book promoted during his debate with Harris)? Let me put it like this, I’ve read quite a bit of it. For the most part, there isn’t anything original. Its basically a mish mash of common responses that at least provide an explanation (great if you’re looking into how apologists justify things), that upon investigation, are dishonest or ignorant of the subject.

    Of course, there are other critiques on RationalWiki.

  9. Craig’s debates with Bart Ehrman shook my Christian belief that rested on a metaphysical premise defining the Bible as inerrant. Dr. Craig’s debate tactics and tone were so obviously manipulative and his conclusions were reached without any evidence. I started reading Dr. Ehrman’s books which made the Bible not the inspired word of god I thought it was and led me to read John Loftus’s blog where I learned about this website and your book. My curiosity regarding the scientific method was sparked and once I started understanding knowledge through that lens, I could no longer see religions as anything other than preferred cultural fairy-tales that drive unquestioned agreement and acceptance. The emotional acceptance part seems good but the intellectual agreement cost for that is too high for me now. So, yes, debates saved my ass.

    1. An excellent account. If debates can have such a result for one thoughtful person in a hundred, they’re worth all the effort and frustration.

    2. I think that right there is all that is needed to answer your question Jerry. At least in the general case, if not the specific.

      Thanks for sharing Chuck.

  10. Public debates can be a decent platform for exposing people en masse to various arguments or points of view, but as a method of discerning the truth of things they are just about useless. They consist entirely of rhetoric, with no rigorous requirement for backing things up with actual facts. The “winner” is usually gauged by public opinion and the reactions of the debaters more than any semblance of respectable epistemology.

    So, no. Not really worth it, except perhaps for publicity, and even then one is better served by exploiting the format of the debate than actually having points that are verified and valid.

    1. I think, perhaps, it’s “exposing people en masse to various arguments or points of view” that is of most value. So many people seem ignorant of credible alternatives to what that were brought up with in their faith.


      1. True, but even that goal can get polluted by debating tricks and tactics. Then you give invalid or discredited ideas a false appearance of legitimacy.

      2. Agreed! Presenting credible alternatives has great value. Public debates can contribute to that.

        Accepting an alternative view as credible/respectable and non-threatening seems actually the most difficult step in a transition away from doctrine.

        Facilitating understanding of the value of evolutionary biology therefore may achieve more than trouncing creationism as childish or irrational.

    2. Agree with John.

      We’ve known since Kennedy v. Nixon that style & appearance trump substance. Reagan won them by being “folksy.” Dubya by coming across as a wiseass frat-boy.

      Debates also scare me in that they arouse partisanship & demagoguery much more than measured reflection. You can see it at any atheist convention–the audience is primed to be united behind the chosen speakers, whose every lame joke will therefore be applauded. I.e., just like any other human tribal event.

      Most of the elements of debate are diametrically opposed to what makes for good critical thinking, IMO.

  11. Someone like Craig has a good reputation among theists, he’s very well read and is a professional debater. But he’s horrible to listen to, especially when he’s allowed 15 minutes to ramble on. He uses the familiar tactics of manipulating unknown or unknowable facts as evidence for his points and generally editing his opponents to make him victorious, like a more intelligent Ray Comfort. See Stephen Law’s blog for more details on their debates – – If debating Craig can make one person open minded and curious about nature then it will be worth debating.

    “For the nonce…” Does ‘nonce’ have a different meaning outside England? It is not a word you want to use lightly.

    1. In that phrase, it’s perfectly good idiomatic British English.

      If you read about cryptography and related topics, you’ll also come across the phrase “nonce value”, an arbitrary value use for a particular transaction and then discarded.


    2. “like a more intelligent Ray Comfort”

      That made me laugh. Excellent description of Craig.

  12. It strikes me that the answer to the question depends at least in part on who the participants are. Jerry’s debate with John Haught was, IMO, a worthwhile use of time and space. But I don’t think a similar debate with, say, Ken Ham would make much sense. Debating creationists and debating religion are somewhat different activities.

        1. I’ll second that gbjames. I attended Jerry’s debate with Haught at University of Kentucky and the contrast between the two presentations couldn’t have been more stark; Jerry had evidence and Haught hand-waved. Haught’s presentation was, frankly, embarrassing. The worst part, to me, is that he didn’t seem to notice.

  13. The debates themselves, I think, don’t provide much value. The debate format is terrible for actually determining the truth or falsehood of a proposition, but rather simply shows which of the debaters is more persuasive.

    However, I think there is value in having the debates, particularly with well-known personages like Craig. Why? The same reason I think it’s valuable that you, Dr. Coyne, read theology. It shows that atheists are not simply ignoring the “best” arguments being made for theism, but instead are willing to stand up and directly confront them.

  14. Craig is a masterdebator. Say that out loud, and you’ll hear it’s resemblance to another word which also refers to engaging in something like another task, but without any of the practical benefits.

    Craig doesn’t debate for the truth, he debates to win. As such, only two kinds of people should bother with him. Either someone who is just as willing to argue on ‘his level’, which I’m not in favor of, because that means emotional appeals, or someone who is exceptionally skilled, and capable of winning in spite of Craigs advantage of just making shit up.

    No other apologist is as good a flim-flammer as Craig is though, and they can be beaten (in the sense of changing more peoples minds and making their side look good) with more reasonable talent.

    However, showing up to one of these debates without the proper preparation is a bad idea. These are people who are skilled in emotional appeals, bald-assetions, and other tactics that work in a debate, but not in a serious discussion. To many people come out of a debate looking bad because they tried to have an honest discussion, whereas their opponent had no such intentions.

  15. Is it possible to use Bayes Theorem to gauge the probability of whether Craig influences atheists’ beliefs more often than his opponent
    influences theists’ beliefs? Wouldn’t that answer indicate the strategy?

  16. Still standing tentatively within Christian theism, I am very embarrassed to have Bill Craig out there as the prominent mind and face of Christianity. His persistent and cowardly adherence to biblical “inerrancy” contributes mightily to a religious disposition that is positively sociopathic–need I specify the instances of this in his canon of positions on subjects?
    I think a debate format could be fruitful, if only the theist participating were not a grinning, gunslinging apologist denying the many foibles of the Bible and vastly overstating the epistemic condition of the Christian case.

    1. I am no psychologist, but I’ve thought him to be sociopathic for quite some time. At the very least, some kind of narcissistic personality disorder.

      First, he constantly pumps up his own credentials, talking down to other people who aren’t philosophers. Then, on the same coin, he talks about how much he knows about history or cosmology, decrying the claims of actual historians or cosmologists.

      Second, he seems to reject the idea of any idea of moral authority, excepting that which comes from someone with absolute control over you. If this ultimate power says to kill babies, well then, a-baby-killing we will go.

      He’s in absolute love with himself, shows a disdain for all others, and equates power with morality. Even if that’s not enough to make him a sociopath, it hardly sings well of what kind of diagnosis he would receive.

  17. If a person did decide to debate Craig or someone like him, my advice would be:
    Craig’s tactics are fairly well-known, he uses the same arguments over and over. Don’t be caught unprepared. Don’t assume that because your positions are better, you will win.

    1. Yep! It’s annoying how few of his opponents apparently take advantage of knowing what he’s going to say. I’m not sure why not: perhaps they assume that all Christians are stupid and therefore they can just wing it. Whatever else he is, Craig is not stupid, as Hitchens and Harris found out.

      1. Hitchens did a good job pressing Craig on whether (Craig believed that) not a few humans were ressurected and walked about Jerusalem (what did they do and where did they go in ensuing days?) as a consequence of The Crucifixion, Hitchens tongue-in-cheek opining that resurrection apparently not all that rare in earlier times, and surely ought to have been independently verified by non-biblical documentation. All Craig could say was that he believed what the Bible said about the matter but offerred no reasoned analysis of it.

  18. I would strongly recommend against debates on religion. Debates are a kind of a combination of non-contact sport, and light entertainment. But the religious often treat them like they are a legitimate way to establish the truth of a proposition.

    This is probably why Christians and Moslems in particular lie, straw man, ad hominem, and openly reject solid evidence when debating. They stack their argument with misinformation and dishonest talking points, lie about their opponents, their opponents’ position, and even things their opponent said earlier in the same debate. Then they claim victory if any of their points are not totally refuted, while ignoring nearly every point made by their opponent. Then their followers get to flood the internet with propaganda about the atheists being clueless and trounced.

    Having watched more than a dozen such debates recently I would say the only representatives of the religious side that I felt conducted themselves honestly in those debates were Ian Hutchinson, Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (a panel debate against Harris and Hitchens), and Cardinal Pels (vs Dawkins — Pels came over as honest but ignorant and not very smart). Four honest men out of more than twenty is not a great strike rate.

  19. I think there is value. WLC is well respected in Evangelical circles (his Reasonable Faith ministry has several chapters throughout the country, and the meetings I’ve attended focus almost exclusively on distributing ammunition to refute atheistic arguments); he draws a large crowd and with it an opportunity to expose theists to arguments they haven’t heard before.

    That said, not just anybody should engage. Personality and style matter about as much as content if you’re hoping to be heard by individuals with fairly locked worldviews. With WLC, I think it’s effective to have a physics background (to combat his cosmological arguments) or theistic background (like Ehrman). But most importantly I think it’s helpful to be likable, which is shallow, but true if you want the majority to listen to you (especially if you are starting with the perceived moral handicap of being an atheist).

    I would love to see someone like Sean Carroll take him on. And I only wish Sagan were still here…

  20. As others have said format matters. I think debates allow you to hear arguments you may not have thought of. I page like when debaters get to ask each other questions.

  21. In the intelligence square debates they always cast a vote at the begining and end. I remember watching the “is islam a religion of peace” one, which in the end seemed to work out fine to inform people.

    1. Yes those are pretty cool but I always thought it would be so easy to cheat by voting as on the fence in the first vote and then voting to one side on the second vote.

  22. Evey minute you can get a Christian to debate you is a minute they are not using to preach their nonsense to the mentally vulnerable. Time well spent.

  23. Whoa and article “How William Lane Craig became Christian philosophy’s boldest apostle” on William Craig.

    As if arguing for a nonexistent entity is something to be proud of.

  24. A lot depends on how the debate is conducted (vigorous but cordial or heated and mean-spirited) but in the end these debates probably have little value.

    sean s.

  25. Debates have value in a different way as well. I will soon be meeting (on the way home from TAM) a religious person (a good friend’s new boyfriend). Having watched the pros from both sides, I can better anticipate where his arguments will go and I am better prepared with not only logical but convincing answers.

  26. I certainly hope anyone who debates Craig hammers hard on his justification of Canaanite genocide

  27. Colossal Ceiling Cat, no!

    The idea of a debate is:

    1) A religious idea of dialectics.

    Which means creationists feel supported by the format.

    2) A secular idea of “equal worth”.

    Which means fence sitters and journalists feel confused by the format, and science is devalued by an unfair comparison.

    In other words, “it looks great on the CV of creationism, not so great on the CV of science”.

    3) A format ill suited to present science.

    Craig can Gish Gallop lies, and presenting just one fact can take time.

    Someone like Craig is:

    4) A charlatan.

    As BBB notes, Craig simply makes up stuff. He doesn’t care for science, because he doesn’t need to.

    Neither Creationism nor Craig should have a platform before Ceiling Cat.

    1. I agree if you’re debating scientific facts vs. wrong religious ideas (like ID) but if you are answering questions about atheism and such I think those debates are worthwhile and I think they reach those sitting on the fence. I’ve seen some good ones done this way.

  28. No, I think it is better to simply ignore the ignoramus.

    Most debates are so poorly defined and moderated that they end up as babbling rhetorical talking heads rather than any attempt to increase knowledge or understanding.

    Written debates are usually better than oratorical debates. Craig is an orator. Another Ingersoll-like debater should debate him. But I doubt that debate would produce any new knowledge or understanding, it would simply put someone with equal oracle skill on the stage with him.

  29. There is indeed value in them. Debates between atheists and christians, and books like God is Not Great and The God Delusion, helped save me from a life of believing complete nonsense.

    As insufferable as it can be to sort of pseudo-validate their religious dogma by taking it seriously enough to debate it, by acknowledging how serious it is to the believer, you are giving them a foundation for taking a step toward letting go of it.

    Plus it’s often really fun to watch.

  30. I would argue that to “debate” an issue implies a multiplicity of equally valid (at least at the outset of the debate) claims.

    But in the atheist/theist matter, I do not see this multiplicity at all. So I see debating theists as an admission that their claims are as valid as humanist/atheist claims. I don’t think we humanists should do that.

    Also, debates are often as much (if not more) about the skills of the debaters as about the ideas. It’s the ideas that matter, and conflating the two (in the minds of the audience at least) is unproductive, I think.

  31. Actually, it should be simple to evaluate, modulo Craig. Run a generic comparison:

    – Do astronomers debate astrologers or heliocentrists?
    – Do astrophysicists debate “electric universe” or flat earth believers?
    – Et cetera.

    If these areas don’t debate their crackpots, whether religious or not, why would biologists et cetera debate creationists?

  32. Kagan is wise to take Craig on on the subject of morality. Almost all objections to atheism have nothing whatsoever to do with factual issues about the details of evolution or the fine tuning of physical constants. Most folk think that if you say that people are animals they will behave badly. This is s the ground they care about. Any other approach will just be brushed aside by them.

  33. No, because guys like Craig are debaters and marketeers. The fact that there is nothing substantive in what they present or that their arguments aren’t based on sound foundations is irrelevant to their purpose. Sadly, speaking eloquently about tripe is convincing to many in the same way that advertising works. Continuing the debates with these people feeds into this ridiculous notion that fairness requires us to rehash discredited nonsense over and over again.

    1. This is dead on. I work as an advertising specialist and my knowledge of how propaganda operates is what made Craig so transparent.

      He’s also affable but ornery enough to appease the passive-aggressive Evangelical mindset.

  34. This is really an empirical question. If we persuade more people than we lose, then the debates are a good thing.

  35. FWIW. I stumbled on Krauss account on ‘debating’ with Craig:

    “I was very disappointed because I had heard that Craig was more of a philosopher than a proselytizer, but that was not evident the other evening.”

    So not only do we put honest debaters against dishonest performers, we put them against militant proselytizers.

  36. I’m mixed on the answer to this question because it depends (as ever) on the audience.

    For those who will listen and learn it could be worthwhile. If there is good presentation of evidence, then yes I would support it.

    Where I hesitate is where the debate is simply an exchange of rhetoric, it might be good to hear the arguments but a well phrased argument might not be right.

    In a recent lunch time discussion with a creationist (I’m a former YEC myself) he specifically brought up debates and how he loived to watch them. He said how he found creationist arguments more convincing because they used the bible for authority and scientists kept changing their opinions with the latest discovery (!).

    I tried to suggest he looked at the science instead and form his opinions on the evidence and what scientists were saying about where the evidence led and why. He didn’t like that idea and was surprised that I didn’t follow debates to the extent that he did.

    If debates help people like him cement his views then I worry that at least some of them are not bringing the right stuff to the table.

    1. I did enjoy this video. But, oddly, it is the only time that a presumable Darwinian looks more like an ape than his creationist counterpart. (Are you a creationist if you believe in the Big Bang?)

  37. Prof Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing) will debate William Lane Craig in Australia, August 2013, in Brisbane, Sydney & Melbourne. And then with a pastor in Perth (22 Aug).


    In an earlier debate between Krauss & Craig I think Krauss was unprepared, too casual, and his jokes did not work with that audience.

    Craig responds at his web site on that debate:

    Unless Krauss is better prepared this time, I fear he will appear to lose the case.

    Craig will never change his view. He has even said that if he were able to travel back in a time machine & witnessed the body of the character Jesus decompose he would think it to be an alien trick.

    1. Oh wow, thanks for posting. I agree Krauss probably “lost” the first debate because of his style – but I’ve watched most of his debates since and think he’s gotten much better (still probably not as practiced as WLC).

    2. I would stay away from it were I Krauss. He’s a good lecturer and a good communicator of science (although I had some reservations about A Universe from Nothing, Atom was excellent), but he’s not a debater and Craig is.

      Craig, unlike Krauss, is not interested in what’s really ‘true’ – he’s interested in point-scoring. His ‘debate’ skills are all about:

      1. Going first to get his arguments in so he controls the debate (his opponent is tasked with ‘refuting’ him rather than building his/her own case)

      2. Working the clock with prepared statements.

      3. Getting in as many points/fatuous ‘rebuttals’ as quickly as he can so that the opponent doesn’t have time to taken them on

      4. Framing the debate so that he can avoid the burden of proof (he does this pre-point 1. Craig is very anal about controlling the titles/themes of debate)

      Using these tactics he can ensure that he ends up saying that his opponent hasn’t answered/refuted all his arguments – therefore Craig wins on points.

      Krauss ‘lost’ last time he debated Craig on presentation and organisation, and he gave too much benefit-of-the-doubt to Craig. He had too many complex physics arguments to get across while Craig gave the kind of pat arguments that may sound ‘convincing’ to the untutored.

      Craig will also trot out – as per usual – some intuitive-looking, but ultimately flawed and empty syllogisms (such is his style).

      I imagine Krauss’ll lose again to be honest.

      However, if he really wants to get Craig he should:

      1. Prepare – watch Craig’s videos. Craig always trots out the same old, tired shtick yet no one picks him up on it.

      2. Create some mock syllogisms that show that the conclusions of syllogistic logic are only true if the premises are also true. Feed nonsense into a syllogism and the conclusion may follow, but it need not be true. Give examples of nonsense syllogisms.

      3. Learn some philosophy – see #2. Read the standard arguments for and against Craig’s major points (Kalam, Ontological, Moral Absolutes, etc). This might be difficult for Krauss, though, seeing as he’s spent a lot of time slagging off philosophers recently.

      4. Craig often appeals to authority. Get some good quotes (hopefully from the same people he quotes) refuting him. Craig’ll probably bring up Borde/Guth/Vilenkin. Get a quote from Guth stating that his model only proves the origin of the *present period of inflation* of the universe – not the origin of the universe itself. Craig also brings up Hawking/Penrose on singularities. Quote them disowning that theory. Also point out that Craig uses these physicists to try to disprove infinities – yet what Craig proposes instead (a singularity at the beginning of time) is *by definition* infinite in curvature and density – therefore Craig refutes his own argument on infinities.

      5. MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL. All Craig’s arguments – with the exception of the ’empty tomb’ (which is fatuous) and the appeal to experience (which is even more so) are deistic arguments. But Craig isn’t a deist and isn’t using them to argue for some formless god: he’s using them to argue for Jesus. Krauss shouldn’t let him get away with it! He should hypothetically grant his premises and then suggest Zeus as a candidate, or Odin, or Huitzilopochtli or any other god or gods. Then ask him *what method he uses* to get from “everything that begins to exist has a cause” (which isn’t true!) to “therefore Jesus”. He won’t be able to explain because they’re non-sequiteurs.

      – maybe he should make use of Stephen Law’s ‘evil god’ argument. This argument works against the Kalam, the Ontological and all the other deistic arguments Craig uses.

      There are loads of other things Krauss could nail him on (all Craig’s arguments are terrible), but I fear he won’t.

      1. Lots of good ideas there. I agree that his arguments are terrible – I am always a bit bemused when he gets praised for being a good debater – it all seems like sophist flim-flam to me, though I must admit philosophy in general tends to come across like that to me.

        1. “. . . I am always a bit bemused when he gets praised for being a good debater – it all seems like sophist flim-flam to me, . . .”

          Unfortunately that is very effective at convincing a significant percentage of the population. Also unfortunately, many people also think that whatever skills result in convincing people are good debate skills. Everything else is subordinate to the goal of winning. Including the reason for having a debate in the first place.

      2. In my view Craig wins most of these debates. He’s a true professional and most of his opponents seem amateurish. Hitchens was a great performer but stumbled badly. He looked really off his game. Ehrman calls Craig out on his nonsense and I reckon he beats Craig. James Crossley is a noted secular new testament scholar (not many of them about). He’s not polished but performs well against Craig. I’d love to hear Sean Carroll debate Craig. He’s a brilliant impromptu speaker.

  38. No. These debates have been done to death. There’s nothing new to say and all the points of the creationists have long been refuted and yet they keep on making them as if for the first time.

  39. In the case of WLC specifically, I think you could look at it as a tactical problem. If there is good reason to believe that you are capable of making him look like a fool to at least a few of the average audience members then, yes, it is worth it. If not then, no.

    A debate with Craig has very little to do with facts or evidence, and everything to do with framing and other propaganda tools.

  40. I, like some who have posted, believe that these sorts of debates are ultimately effective. The irony is that I, as a result of watching these kinds of debates to strengthen my Christian defense, ended up at non-belief. Even stranger is the fact that, in my opinion, the Christian debaters I supported never officially lost a debate….on paper.

    One of my favorite debates to which to listen was Greg Bahnsen vs Gordon Stein from the 80’s. Bahnsen was every bit the talented debater as WLC, if not better, but he was Presuppositionalism’s/TAG’s biggest proponent. Once again, on paper, Bahnsen won, but that just isn’t the whole story. (Stein did as well as he could, as he wasn’t prepared for the TAG argument, as many, even today, still aren’t….get prepared, dammit!…it’s not that hard to beat!)

    Listen to how comfortable/schooled/slick at debating Bahnsen was (I put these clips right at their interesting parts, so have a listen):

    First Cross Examination:

    Second Cross Examination:

    The reason that Christian philosophers are no longer compelling to me in any way is because they never truly get off the ground to begin with, and that’s strictly due to their attempted rationalizations of their respective holy books. They can be as schooled in the general subject of Philosophy as they like, but once they start trying to rationalize bullshit in the Old/New Testaments, their credibility is immediately, well, discredited.

    …my apologies for the long post, but it’s hard for me not to keep typing, sometimes.

  41. WLC seems to have a lot of success in directing agreement that the topic of debate be about a generic god, rather than the god he believes in. If someone was able to debate him about the god of the bible I think they’d have more success, not only against WLC but also at shaking up the beliefs of others who believe what he believes.

  42. The problem is debates give the illusion that the best idea won when really the best debater won.

    I think the standard debate format tends to lend itself more to a contest of rhetoric and persuasion than a contest of ideas. Persuasion is easiest with simple intuitive ideas. More technical or involved ideas take too much time to explain and can seem like lying in contrast to a simpler idea. The debate format locks people into time chucks, enabling an opponent to stick an accusation or counterargument in the audience’s minds long before the other person can respond, unlike in a conversation where accusations and ideas can be dealt with immediately.

    William Lane Craig is a fraud. He shows how someone can become such a good debater that he’ll win regardless of his ideas. Craig has amazing rhetoric and debate skills. His ideas are very intuitive and are presented as official philosophical syllogisms. But Craig’s ideas are rubbish. Debating Craig gives him a platform to confuse the public and embarrass atheist by making atheism and science seem far weaker than they really are. Craig is just a punk who got really good at high school debate. It’s best just to ignore him.

  43. I agree with those who have already said above that the value lies in persuasion of fence-sitters (and silent lurkers, in an online forum type debate). Though there are indeed hard-nosed Christians out there who can also be driven to see the light…like I was. It is never a bad idea or waste of time for scientists, atheists, etc., to put their ideas, facts, and beliefs out there for the world, even when it’s in front of an unfriendly audience.

    1. “It is never a bad idea or waste of time for scientists, atheists, etc., to put their ideas, facts, and beliefs out there for the world, even when it’s in front of an unfriendly audience.”



    2. It’s certainly cheering to hear from you and the others above that these debates made a difference. With all due respect, though, these are anecdotes, not data. We might just as well conclude that fence-sitters and lurkers are already on their way to enlightenment and would have gotten there, debates or not.

      Without knowing quantitatively how many of a debate’s audience are only further-convinced of their initial dogmatic beliefs, we can’t draw conclusions.

  44. Late to the party, not sure I’ll try to catch up.

    Much depends on the format. I rather like Richard’s idea of discussion rather than debate, possibly with (but ideally without) the help of an intelligent moderator to steer the topic in a particular direction.

    If it’s to be an actual debate, the only device I’d want is a chess clock wired to the microphones. Each side is welcome to use the allotted time freely. When you’re done talking, you press the button, your clock and microphone stop and your opponent’s start. If you want to blow all your time in your opening statement, great; if you just want to dole out a bunch of one-liners, fantastic. But the two things you can’t do are interrupt or monopolize the discussion.

    I’d also insist on the right to publish the entire debate (including any Q&A from the audience) as well as the right to make my own recording. If the organizer publishes a quality version in a timely fashion, wonderful, but I’d at least be able to fall back on my copy to defend myself from the likes of Comfort.

    All those formalities aside…debates are infotainment. If people enjoy them, if they happen to learn something, fantastic. They’re especially good for, as Richard puts it, talking to those sitting on the fence.

    I doubt very many Christians would be interested in debating with me, though. After my opening statement mocking Christianity the same way that Christians mock any other primitive superstition, there really wouldn’t be anything left to talk about.



    1. Let me second the notion of a chess clock tied to the microphones. I thought of the same idea idea myself and I think it would be an excellent way to moderate debate about having to have a moderator who might be biased or perceived as biased, and it would also prevent certain people like WLC from gaming the moderator.

  45. Watching debates was a very important part of me becoming an atheist.

    I read a number of books on the topic of general science and by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. which got me thinking. Then I started tooling around online and discovered debates with these authors and it added a great deal of tangibility for me.

    I distinctly remember finishing The God Delusion and god Is Not Great and still having some reservations about completely letting go of my religious/spiritual beliefs.

    I then went online and watched the first debate I found, which turned out to be that Dawkins debate where in the Q&A he is asked the infamous, “What if you’re wrong?” question.

    I recall grinning with such satisfaction as I went on a bender watching debate after debate on Youtube. Odd as it might sound, (and from non-scientist perspective) witnessing these debates added a lot of legitimacy to Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. for me. I might go as far as saying that seeing their eloquently written words and arguments being brought to life even more eloquently and coolly on stage was my confirmatory moment as an atheist.

    I still put these debates on when I’m doing chores, like ironing and such. I continue to derive great enjoyment from watching many of them and they were instrumental in developing my ability to debate religion with family, friends, and acquaintances.

    Jerry regularly reiterates the importance of targeting the fence sitting audience and I agree. I think these debates are an important tool for doing just that. Nearly all of my close friends, who to this day still have less interest in the topic of religion/science than I do, became atheists after my ‘conversion’. I was never able to get them to pour into the books, but I was able to get them to watch the debates.

  46. The debate format has never been a good way to bolster a legitimate understanding of anything. Especially since most of the persuasion comes from inflection and rhetoric (Craig’s specialty).

    Debates are all about winning arguments; arguments not necessarily based on fact. We’ve all seen it done–time and time again–where a point is given with charismatic inflection and utter confidence, but doesn’t happen to align with the facts.

    I agree with Laurence Krauss’ caveat before debating Craig back in 2011, “I [Laurence Krauss] don’t like debates. I find them combative, and not a good way to elucidate information. But I came anyway.”

    Unless it’s a debate carried on at book length, and there’s a systematic breakdown of points (giving evidence where need be), I can’t imagine debates offering anything more than good entertainment.

  47. Yes, there is value. Craig himself, is untouchable, but some of his fans are not. When debating, never debate your opponent. Instead, debate those few people listening in the audience who may have doubts.

  48. When I heard the Craig/Harris debate asking whether moral values are natural or supernatural I had to ask if it really served any benefit for those in support of reason and common sense. Harris soundly defeated Craig by refusing to waste time responding to his constant stream of logical fallacies and instead laid out a stunning case against morality coming from religions or gods. Yet by the end of the debate Craig and his minions proclaimed that they delivered a crushing defeat to their opponent. Unfortunately they actually believed what they were saying. Only a tiny few of the faithful will allow a debate to penetrate their alternate reality where willful ignorance is a virtue. Extended presentations pounding home the the full weight of evidence against religion is a far more effective way to change these people’s views.

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