Hi. I’ve got stuff on my mind, so settle in. This might take a while.
Yesterday I was searching through my saved media files for something to listen to, and I came across this debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. It’s about six months old and an hour long. Lennox is one of those smug “academic” style theologians, saying — Ha ha — of course the universe is fourteen billion years old, nobody seriously contests that! But philosophers and historians alike all agree on the historical resurrection of Jesus, let me name drop a few names and throw out some academic words to blind you with my erudition. Etc.
As I listened to this discussion, something gradually dawned on me about Richard Dawkins… he’s not really very good at this. Oh sure, Dawkins had a strong initial presentation, but in the second half, Lennox just goes steamrolling all over him, babbling about Genesis and miracles and the wonderful love of Jesus Christ, virtually uninterrupted.
A couple of times, Lennox brought up “famous scientists” (i.e., Francis Collins) who believe in God, and Dawkins responds by sounding shocked, saying something like “No, really??” At that point I let out a big vocal “WTF???” I’m not sure what Dawkins was sounding so shocked about… perhaps he was really trying to say “Seriously, you’re not trying to use Mr. ‘Waterfall Split Three Ways‘ to support your position, are you?” But in the audio it came off as “Oh my goodness, I had no idea that Francis Collins was a theist! This is a simply devastating turn of events!”
Elsewhere, Dawkins asks “You don’t honestly believe in miracles like turning water into wine, do you?” And Lennox, in his cute little Irish accent, goes “I dyoo, and let me tell ye whae.” Then he proceeds to ramble at length about the amazing creator of the universe and the awesome power of the miracles that are made possible through him. PZ Myers had a positive spin on this debate. He says: “Dawkins played it right, letting Lennox just run off at the mouth and expose the inanity of the theological position.”
I’m sorry Paul, I love your blog dearly, but in this case you’re wrong. Dawkins did not play it right, and here’s why. The inanity of Lennox is obvious to you and me, but a Christian audience just eats that stuff up. Even a largely neutral audience will see Lennox as winning that point, simply because it wasn’t effectively challenged.
Meanwhile, as I listened to it, I could practically hear our own Matt Dillahunty’s voice jumping in: “Hang on… hang on… hang on…” Most seasoned veterans of the TV show would not let Lennox go on for so long without backing up the discussion and trying to take a closer look at some of his claims. Had Matt or I been there, Lennox would be talking about how amazing it is that the order of creation in Genesis perfectly matches what science has discovered, and we’d jump in and yell “Plants didn’t start growing before the sun existed, asshat!”
This is not an uncommon reaction for me, either. About 90% of atheist debates I hear wind up with me grinding my teeth in frustration after a while. There are just so many missed opportunities, so many places where I remember when the same topic came up on the show, and there’s a perfect one-liner to knock it down. But the atheist just lets it blow right on by.
On the TV show, we regularly debate people with dissenting views, by making a point of prioritizing calls from theists and others likely to disagree. Matt, Tracie, Don, Martin, Jen, Jeff, and I, deliberately do this on a regular basis. (I’d also throw in many past hosts and cohosts, including Ashley and Keryn.) The response to the Atheist Experience has been enormous since we gained a YouTube presence. We routinely receive around 10, 20, 30 emails every day at the TV address. The chat room on a live show day contains 200-300 people. I think part of the reason for this is because we’re the only game in town: no one else does what we do, at least not as often.
As I said in my lecture about atheist evangelism, practice is absolutely the key to getting good at any game. Only by doing such a thing repeatedly can you identify what your opponents are going to bring against you regularly. You can have lots of theory behind you about what should work, but having to spit out a sound-bite within five seconds of hearing a common apologetic tactic is something that requires experience. It’s not that we AE members have an inherent advantage over other counter-apologists; we just do it more.
If Richard Dawkins, who is a pre-eminent scientist and the author of a best-selling book on atheism, isn’t good at debating atheism in person, then who is besides us? There aren’t that many people. I thought the Rational Response Squad did a fairly good job against the tag team of Comfort and Cameron. Reginald Finley occasionally hosts debates, either covering the atheism side on his own, or inviting guests like Massimo Pigliucci to act as a champion. I can’t think of a lot of others.
I hate to keep picking on Richard Dawkins, but here’s a relevant bit of information: he has said on multiple occasions that he won’t debate creationists. That’s certainly his prerogative. In the linked article you’ll see plenty of perfectly valid reasons why it’s a bad idea to debate creationists: It gives them the unwarranted appearance of credibility. Free publicity. A spoken debate emphasizes style over substance. These debates are attended by a stacked and biased audience. Etc.
Dawkins is in good company. Stephen Jay Gould wouldn’t do it either, and Eugenie Scott wrote a very persuasive article on talkorigins.org, explaining why a scientist debating a creationist is like an unprepared team going up against the Harlem Globetrotters. Not only do they lose the game, but they wind up looking stupid while making the opposition look good.
Yeah, that’s all well and good, but it’s simply not true that “the only winning strategy is not to play.” If you don’t play, you don’t improve. If you don’t improve, you can never win. Then creationists get the upper hand anyway, because they get to crow about how “everyone is scared to debate me.”
Here’s a big problem: atheists and scientists who would be debaters have no infrastructure to back them up. There are a lot of professional apologists, who practically have a job description of traveling around the country debating people. William Lane Craig springs to mind. Also, I heard that PZ Myers debated Kirk Durston over the weekend. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but the name of the opponent stood out for me because I’ve heard Durston debate before, years ago. I wrote the report on it, in fact. So Durston is a pro at this: he flies around the country, and wherever he goes, he debates people who are not professional apologists; they are local professors like Sahotra Sarkar. Smart guys, yes, but they have day jobs and lives. They don’t debate for a living. Par for the course, I think.
People pay to fly William Lane Craig to a university as the champion in a debate. It’s one of the perks of having an organization that people tithe to. Nobody pays for regular travel for atheist champions. They don’t offer speaker fees for a professional on the other side.
Note that I’m not necessarily saying that the Atheist Experience team are the right ones for the job. I do think that any one of us would stack up well against most opponents. I would love to debate Bill Dembski on the identity of the intelligent designer sometime, and I bet Matt would jump at the chance to go after Ray Comfort face-to-face. On the other hand, the TV show offers a lot of home field advantages that we would have to do without in a live debate. Stuff like having a hold button, for example. Standing side by side with Ray Comfort, there is no opportunity to say “I’m sorry, you have repeated this bullshit three times now, I’m hanging up on you.” Also, it’s certainly clear that the people whom we debate regularly are amateurs, often repeating arguments that they don’t really understand.
What I’m saying, though, is it doesn’t much matter who the professional atheist debater is; there needs to be one, and he or she needs practice on a regular basis. And it would also be cool if there were occasional conferences with round table discussions and lectures on how to do this properly, as well as a team of diverse experts to offer serious post-mortem analysis of any debates that happen.
There are many advantages to having an established counter-apologist debater. Local professors would not feel the pressure to do something they are bad at, thinking “If I don’t do this then no one will.” The chosen spokesperson would get to do regular debates, which would help him or her improve and gain insight into the process which could then be passed along to others. The spokesperson would also gain some notoriety and be a focal point for interviews for the atheist movement. Apologists would probably jump at the chance to try and defeat this person — which effectively flips the usual equation of not wanting to grant creationists unwarranted credibility. Atheists don’t have credibility in pop culture; theists do. In science, the reverse is true; creationists are the outsiders.
Here’s the bottom line: it’s all too common for atheists to assume that the ridiculousness of religion should be apparent to everyone. The facts should speak for themselves, we say. Well, they don’t. Facts don’t speak, people do. Apologists use rhetorical tricks and live debates because it’s a good forum to gain media attention. So what are we going to say — that we should abandon this medium to them? Why? Are atheists just inherently dumber than theists when it comes to style and charisma? No, I don’t think so. This is a shortcoming that needs to be corrected, and the time to start is now.