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?

Atheist evangelism and the problem of infrastructure

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, 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.