How not to stage an atheist debate, part 1


As Martin announced on Sunday, last night at the UT campus Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, among other things) held a debate against Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, authors of sever old earth creationist books and proprietors of reasonstobelieve.org. There were some other guys on Michael Shermer’s side too, UT Philosophy of Science professor Dr. Sahotra Sarkar and Biomedical Engineering chair Kenneth Diller. However, they did not do a full presentation, but were apparently only there as backup for the Q&A portion.

I took my son Ben to the debate, not because I thought he would get much out of it, but because I had him for the evening and I figured it couldn’t do him any harm. I gave him a six year old eye view of the creationism controversy, building on stuff I already told him about Galileo about religion’s frequent stance against science, and touching on the Scopes trial as well as talking about the evolution controversy today. Matt D. was in attendance and so were at least two other ACA members that I’m aware of, Don Rhoades (not Baker) and Annie.

In my perception, the debate was an unmitigated disaster. The debate was a prime example of everything I’ve been saying in these posts about how atheists and science defenders continually get suckered into debates where the theist controls the format, the topic, and the crowd. It’s almost enough to make me give my unconditional support to Eugenie Scott when she warns that you should seriously consider not debating at all.

When I talked to Matt last night he seemed to disagree, and if he doesn’t chime in we’ll be discussing it on The Non-Prophets this weekend. I plan to write several posts in this series, so you can see the updates quickly but still get around to all my notes eventually.

For now, here’s a quick list of grievances:

  1. Turnout. It was very clear that churches hyped the hell out of this. This was a big gymnasium filled with folding chairs; in the lobby there were at least three tables loaded with Christian apologetics books, and none on the atheist side. Without exception, every conversation I heard that did not involve an ACA member was dismissive of evolution.
  2. Format. Oh my dear FSM, what happened? Ross and Rana both got to speak uninterrupted back to back before Michael Shermer got up. Between them — I timed this — Ross and Rana clocked in at an hour and fifteen minutes, while Michael Shermer got just over thirty. The other two members got face time, but no presentation. By the time Shermer was done, people were already starting to leave anyway.
  3. Topic. Was there one? The proposed topic going in was “Was Darwin Wrong?” which is bad enough. (Yes, of course Darwin was wrong. Duh. Evolution isn’t wrong but Darwin was wrong about a great many aspects of it.) However, they didn’t make any pretense of discussing this topic. The opening PowerPoint slide said “Evolution & Intelligent Design,” then Hugh Ross proceeded to say he was not going to talk about Intelligent Design because he would be promoting a Christian “testable theory.” Any kind of constraints on the discussion were thrown out the window from the first minute.
  4. Sponsorship and moderation. The debate was sponsored by one or several Christian groups, and some guy from the UT Engineering department announced at the beginning that the department had also sponsored it, although this didn’t imply that they condone anything that was said. But rather than moderating, the chair introduced the speakers, and then two hours later used some Q&A time to further bash the evolution side and speak about the importance of mixing some religion in your science. (Matt was actually under the impression that he was billed on the creationist side. I looked up the fliers. He was not.)

That’s enough for now; expect more posts as the day goes on.

Comments

  1. says

    I wonder what Shermer’s reaction to the whole thing was. As much as I like the guy I think he is the weakest of the big name people in debates.

  2. says

    I thought Shermer was a poor spokesman for his position. He was flippant, ridiculing, and condescending instead of responsive to the issues raised. That is, when he was not misrepresenting his opponents position, misrepresenting biblical and linguistic scholarship, or throwing out red herrings (“Why doesn’t God regrow limbs?”) having nothing to do with the topics under discussion.I think he has so little respect for his opponent’s views that he felt it beneath him to seriously consider and try to understand them. Far easier to use cheap debate tricks to get a few laughs. The UT professors on the panel discussion represented the Darwinist case far more ably than did Shermer.

  3. says

    If you’ll forgive the plug, I have a five-part series on “Advice for Debating William Lane Craig” (you can see the latest one here, with links to the previous posts) over at Evaluating Christianity. To over-summarize, I would say that atheist would-be debaters need to take seriously the fact that the Christians who do this are professionals, and they’re thinking about the strategic and tactical implications of their arguments. It’s not enough to be right; you have to understand why the opposing side wins and counter their tactics as well as their arguments.A really good example of this is the obvious preparation Matt Dillahunty did for his “debate” with Matt Slick. The fact that Slick got destroyed didn’t just happen because Matt D. is smarter or because Slick is wrong; it happened because Matt D. did his homework and thought about the most effective way to present his counter-arguments.

  4. says

    These two guys, Ross and Rana, did the same exact thing when they lectured at UCSB. They did 2 long presentations and the professors refuting them had no experience at all defending science. They got creamed by their presentation skills. Ross and Rana thrive on poor format, unpreparedness and cheap tricks.After the farce, they were giving out free calendars in the lobby. I took one. It had a fact about the universe for each month. One of them said, “String Theory posits that there might be as many as 11 dimensions. This could explain how God could listen to a million prayers at once.” I kid you not.

  5. says

    does anyone have a link to what they consider a satisfactory debate? it seems like non-theists always fall into the traps that others have brought up here.

  6. Dave Huntsman says

    A ‘satisfactory’ debate, in my view, is one where William Lane Craig was up against someone he couldn’t intimidate or out-prepare: Bart Ehrman.Andrew is right; people like Craig are polished, prepared – and generally won’t accept a ‘debate’ in which they can’t control the format and won’t will and will not be discussed.The reason Bart can’t be steamrolled by polished, manipulating liars:- he used to be an evangelical himself; graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton evangelical college, before going on to Princeton Theological Seminary.He’s now a real historian, eminent NT scholar, and of course fluent in several ancient languages.- he’s also taught 300 freshman students per year in his Intro to New Testament class at U North Carolina – in the bible belt. Basically, he’s heard it all, been attacked with it all, had to handle it all. I’ve been to one of his lectures; he is NOT condescending, handling every single question put to him – from evangelicals, from other historians -with completeness, and great. It’s why they’ve created websites against him.And when Craig pulls the same stunt he and many evangelicals often pull – ‘most scholars agree….” etc. etc., Bart’s the only one who doesn’t let him off; and points out there is a difference between real historical scholars – and theologians, like CraigThis debate is on the resurrection; and craig follows the exact same format as he did in 1992 when he debated frank zindler (and trounced him, debate wise), as when he debated Richard Carrier in 2009, and trounced him, debate wise. But you can’t watch this debate on the resurrection from last year, and say that Craig trounced Ehrman. Which is why people like Craig now avoid people like Ehrman, and go after easier pickings – like the rest of us. And even when they pick on another true scholar -like Carrier – they are picking on a dedicated, but very young, person, fresh out of school; not someone honed by facing hundreds of students decade after decade in the bible belt. http://unreasonablefaith.com/2009/03/09/bart-ehrman-vs-william-lane-craig/

  7. says

    I almost went to that. Guess I should be glad I didn’t. I heard that debate advertised on the local Austin Christian station which I listen to mostly to see if there’s any new arguments i need to counter. As soon as I heard them say the topic was “Was Darwin Wrong?” I knew the debate was going to be a sham.

  8. says

    does anyone have a link to what they consider a satisfactory debate? it seems like non-theists always fall into the traps that others have brought up here.”To me EVERY debate is a farceical masturbatory facade. I have NEVER seen a debate where reality and rules are enforced. It’s always a sophistic show boating where one side brings their cheering section and does a nanananabooboo of the other side using them as a giant voodoo doll straw man.I don’t care much about the details of who gets to talk for how long but…for Christ sake…make it like a trial. Have a moderator that MODERATES and enforces rules. He buzzes people on logical fallacies, when they get off topic and has a team of fact checkers with laptops to check any facts or statistics they shoot out or validate any quotes. If the person tries a bullshit the judges TRY to catch it and inform the audience of a wrong fact when they’re done speaking. This way the less knowledgeable and the less evidence you have the more ridiculous you look since then the judge takes 15+minutes rattling off all examples of your bullshit. Use some SEMBLENCE of the rules Right now all debates are truthyness, (thank you Colbert for giving us this word, your name be praised). Anyone can shout out a bullshit fact (I own a lumber company? that’s new to me) and NO one calls them on it in the debate. Fuck one of the creationists could have said “Darwin was dead wrong, admitted such on his death bed and admitted he created the theory just so he could feel less guilty about his pedophilia/beastiality addiction…….also he shot Kennedy and stabbed Queen Victoria in the Vagina” and it’d just be eaten up the crowd like they were a pack of rabid dogs thrown a juicy stake.

  9. says

    Also my ideal debate would have Hunter S. Thompson as moderator.I just want someone who’ll scream at people for trying to fling bullshit.

  10. says

    @Dave HuntsmanWhat the??Perhaps Ehrman won on style but William Lane Craig surely won on substance.Ehrman made poor probabilistic arguments and Craig put Bayes theorem up on his powerpoint and showed Ehrman why Hume’ argument was an abject failure. Craig was also good at exposing the logical inconsistencies of Ehrman’s position. When the illogic of Ehrman’s position was exposed all he could respond with was ridicule probability and Bayes but provide no substance.Craig debates people like Ehrman all the time. he debated skeptical New testament scholar Gerd Ludemann , Dominic Crossan

  11. says

    I agree completely with Ing. Debate is a form of performance art – much like homiletics, which is why the fundies clamor for it. That’s why someone like Craig is so good at it, and someone like Shermer so poor. Shermer’s goal is to determine objective reality. The believer, despite all of the Christian blather about TRUTH, doesn’t really give a shit about objective reality. The goal of the believer is to continue to believe. Any dramatic tactic that serves that purpose gets thrown into the fray. The fact that people like Mr. Free Thinker are so impressed by these smoke and mirror shows proves my point.It really is time to call a moratorium on these embarrassing spectacles.

  12. Dave Huntsman says

    I also agree with Ing….except for maybe the Hunter S. Thompson part. (Though that would be entertaining; and he’d probably be willing to come back from the dead to do it, as well).he believer, despite all of the Christian blather about TRUTH, doesn’t really give a shit about objective reality. The goal of the believer is to continue to believe. That’s an excellent line; it’s going into my Possible Responses list in my hand-held. It really is time to call a moratorium on these embarrassing spectacles.On the set-up ‘debates’, yes. Unfortunately, that’s all the die-hard evangelicals will agree to.That leads me to think that our emphasis should be more on ‘discussions’ – and not with the die-hard evangelicals, but with the other, dare I say, more moderate religionist groups. Let’s keep in mind that the demonization of ‘atheists’, ‘non-believers’ etc. is pretty common across religionists throughout American culture. ‘Liberal/moderate’ (god, I hate these labels!) religion groups are more open to a joint discussion session anyway.To bring about long-term change in America, you don’t have to move the extremes – in a nation of 300m, we’ll always have extremists in everything, somewhere. But to change things long-term, the main thing is to change the thinking and acceptance of The Great Middle.

  13. says

    I’m going to make a motion that we all just ignore Mr. Freethinker (like the ghost boy episode of South Park). Just don’t respond to his BS, we can comment to eachother about any point he makes but just don’t adress him. At least not until he actually makes a unique point that is not insane spin.I know I’m mean on Mr. Freethinker…but it’s because I think it’s valid. I think he’s deserving of some criticism, and not because of his views or his religion. It’s because of the unnecessarily petty deception he tried to pull that was childish and laughable. I think if he’s going to try to do an ‘infiltration’ for reasons I can’t begin to fathom (WHY DID THE THINK THAT WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA?) and not express his side of the argument honestly until we drag it out of him. He acted like a child and I think until he either admits and apologizes for insulting our intelligence with that or grows the fuck up in some other way he shouldn’t be allowed to talk at the grown up’s table.

  14. Dave Huntsman says

    When the illogic of Ehrman’s position was exposed all he could respond with was ridicule probability and Bayes but provide no substance.You’re accusing Ehrman of being the illogical one, and Craig the logical one? We are on different planets, my son.

  15. says

    If a Christian wants to talk to me, I have one question, “Am I going to hell?” I allow no waffling, no “It’s up to God, I can’t judge”. It’s yes or no. If the answer is “no”, we can talk. If the answer is “yes” – we have nothing more to say to one another.

  16. says

    I think oral debates are best considered a form of entertainment. i much prefer online “debates” because you see the points and you take your time to research and then craft a thoughtful counter- in this case, the best arguments should win. ideally, it allows for more time to be objective and considerate since you aren’t under the same pressures.as others have said, debate is more about presentation and thinking on your toes. any time i have debated, i am always kicking myself 10 minutes after the debate when i think of something i was at a loss for in the moment.seems to me oral debates give theists at least a level playing ground where peer review gives science a clear advantage.

  17. says

    @IngIf you look at my profile you will clearly see it leads to an atheist parody blog (yes we do parody blogs like this). I am not an atheist and never claimed to be.

  18. says

    Excuse me, Facilis(oh, ahem…I mean “Mr Freethinker”), now that you’ve finally been banned over at Pharyngula for your unending vapid nonsense, can we expect you to spend more time here than usual? I mean, I’d like to schedule my time so I know how many future posts of yours I can completely ignore. Thanks in advance.

  19. says

    “HAHA THOSE PEOPLE DO NOT AUTOMATICALLY BELIEVE THINGS THAT ARE HARD TO BELIEVE AHHAHAHAHAHHA”Kasim how would you rate the parody site with 1 as a Culter (parody in name only as a way to deflect criticism) 5 as a Mencia (mindless LCD drival) and 10 as a Colbert?

  20. says

    Isn’t it revealing that Christians ask for debates with atheists far more than the other way around? At least in my experience, that has been the case. I was a president of an atheist-friendly organization at my university and I would get emails from Christians all the time asking for debates (either on “Does God Exist?” or on “Is Evolution or ID correct?”). Maybe it’s because of a Christian duty to proselytize. But I think the discrepancy is also because of mistaken belief by Christian apologetics that reason and logic are the same things as intuition and rhetoric. And the mistaken belief their side of the argument becomes more correct and closer to the truth if they can win a 3-hr debate instead of investing more time in actually studying the evidence for their claims.

  21. Dave Huntsman says

    But I think the discrepancy is also because of mistaken belief by Christian apologetics that reason and logic are the same things as intuition and rhetoric. And the mistaken belief their side of the argument becomes more correct and closer to the truth if they can win a 3-hr debate instead of investing more time in actually studying the evidence for their claims. I think you are correct on both counts.William Lane Craig is a perfect example. In his opening speeches, debate after debate, year after year, he always first throws out his ‘facts’ – which usually aren’t. But one of them is that an individual (Christian’s) personal experience of God now or back then is just as relevant AND JUST AS FACTUAL as actual historical evidence. And most of his ‘debaters’ aren’t quick enough on their feet to respond to that b.s. – particularly because Craig’s tactic is to include so large blizzard of ‘facts’ that he’ll always be able to say at the end that you ‘repeatedly refused to answer’ one or more of his ‘facts’.Your second point is also true. The hard-assed evangelical wing teaches their flock that they are not – repeat NOT – to read ‘atheist’ books, including ‘anti-Christian’ historians and real scholars. My evangelical wife, when she asks what I’m reading and I take it to her and show her it is one of Bart Ehrman’s latest books, shoved it away from her like it was a pile of evil crap. Yet Bart is ‘mild'; he’s a real, historical scholar, not anti-anything, except willful ignorance.

  22. says

    “William Lane Craig is a perfect example. In his opening speeches, debate after debate, year after year, he always first throws out his ‘facts’ – which usually aren’t.”Most of the facts he uses are uncontroversial. What facts do you think he uses that are incorrect?? But one of them is that an individual (Christian’s) personal experience of God now or back then is just as relevant AND JUST AS FACTUAL as actual historical evidence.I would agree. it would be stupid to deny personal experience.“And most of his ‘debaters’ aren’t quick enough on their feet to respond to that b.s. – “I agree that is a major problem in debates. Craig is a professional debater and is good at word economy , while he debates many long-winded college professors. I recall one debate where a prof did not even get to state his position before time ran out. Craig summarised his position from his published book for him and refuted it.particularly because Craig’s tactic is to include so large blizzard of ‘facts’ that he’ll always be able to say at the end that you ‘repeatedly refused to answer’ one or more of his ‘facts’.It’s a pretty normal debate tactic. Call out your opponent if he has not engaged an argument. He is really formal in that sense.Your second point is also true. The hard-assed evangelical wing teaches their flock that they are not – repeat NOT – to read ‘atheist’ books, including ‘anti-Christian’ historians and real scholars.Come on. I’ve read a couple of atheist books (Dawkin, Harris , David Mills , Victor Stenger) I really don’t think anyone tells them not to read certain books.My evangelical wife, when she asks what I’m reading and I take it to her and show her it is one of Bart Ehrman’s latest books, shoved it away from her like it was a pile of evil crap. Yet Bart is ‘mild'; he’s a real, historical scholar, not anti-anything, except willful ignorance.I don’t know if he’s anti-anything but he is one of the more liberal New Testament scholars.I read one of his books to get acquainted wit what liberal scholars are saying.

  23. Dave Huntsman says

    I don’t know if he’s anti-anything but he is one of the more liberal New Testament scholars.I read one of his books to get acquainted wit what liberal scholars are saying.I still don’t know what a ‘liberal New Testament scholar’ is. He’s a historian, and you can question, agree, or disagree with individual findings and arguments. What do you mean by ‘liberal NT scholar”?

  24. says

    I still don’t know what a ‘liberal New Testament scholar’ is. He’s a historian, and you can question, agree, or disagree with individual findings and arguments. What do you mean by ‘liberal NT scholar”?By liberal I mean his overall position is to the left. He’s a critic of the New testament and thinks it is not really reliable. If you were to compare his position to someone like Craig Blomberg or F.F. Bruce they would be more to the right, thinking the New Testament is more reliable.I’m not saying he is wrong, his position is just more to the left.

  25. says

    By liberal I mean his overall position is to the left. He’s a critic of the New testament and thinks it is not really reliable. If you were to compare his position to someone like Craig Blomberg or F.F. Bruce they would be more to the right, thinking the New Testament is more reliable.I’m not saying he is wrong, his position is just more to the left.”Demonstrate that a view on the reliability on a historical source is innately either politically left or right. As with most you say I call bullshit.

  26. says

    Come on. I’ve read a couple of atheist books (Dawkin, Harris , David Mills , Victor Stenger) I really don’t think anyone tells them not to read certain books.”Harry Potter book burnings. I also call bullshit on your reading list. If you did you clearly did NOT grasp any of it.

  27. Dave Huntsman says

    Simply saying your definition of ‘liberal’ is someone who investigates a book, and finds lots of errors, forgeries, etc. in it, how does that make them ‘leftists’? Critical analysis, and science and investigation, etc. are neither ‘leftist’ nor ‘rightist’. So still don’t understand what a ‘liberal’ is. I’m not interested in reading anything by a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative'; I am willing to listen to people who can investigate, explain, searching for the truth wherever it leads – and no matter whose dogma is skewered. Don’t you agree?

  28. says

    @Dave HunstmanThat is what definition of liberal is. If you are a liberal senator there are some social issues you support and some you don’t.Similarly if you are a conservative scholar you probably would find the bible more reliable and a liberal would find it less reliable.“Simply saying your definition of ‘liberal’ is someone who investigates a book, and finds lots of errors, forgeries, etc. in it, how does that make them ‘leftists’? Critical analysis, and science and investigation, etc. are neither ‘leftist’ nor ‘rightist’.”But I mean there are other scholars such as Daniel Wallace, Bruce Metzger, Craig Blomberg…etc who apply the same standards and come to more conservative conclusions.“I’m not interested in reading anything by a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative'; I am willing to listen to people who can investigate, explain, searching for the truth wherever it leads – and no matter whose dogma is skewered. Don’t you agree?”I agree. As long as someone can show good evidence for their positions it does not matter where they stand.Out of curiousity, have you read any books by Christian scholars?

  29. says

    “I also call bullshit on your reading list.If you did you clearly did NOT grasp any of it. “Those books aren’t terribly impressive you know

  30. Dave Huntsman says

    If you are a liberal senator there are some social issues you support and some you don’t.Similarly if you are a conservative scholar you probably would find the bible more reliable and a liberal would find it less reliable.I understand now what you mean; but I think it’s wrong to compare the two categories. If you have two astrophysicists constantly arguing over the models of stellar interiors, you shouldn’t be able to tell what church they go to – or even what school they are at, if they are honest scientists. The arguments should be over data, and models, and more data, and changing models, etc. The same with historical scholarship. I shouldn’t be able to tell what religion anyone is on any historical issue they are arguing over – no matter whether it be the American revolution, or the existence of a historical Jesus, or whether there really was a Moses. Because they should be arguing over data – and in appropriate cases, where lack of data might tell them something – and whether things fit or not with what is already known. If religion enters into it – then it stops being historical research. Waving one’s hands at some point and saying ‘god did it’ means from that point on I can’t take that ‘scholar’ seriously.“But I mean there are other scholars such as Daniel Wallace, Bruce Metzger, Craig Blomberg…etc who apply the same standards and come to more conservative conclusions.As I said, if they reach their conclusions in any way with something that sounds like ‘god did it’ then it isn’t scholarship. I’d be particularly interested, though, if you have any one book by Metzger you think is worth reading. “Out of curiousity, have you read any books by Christian scholars?”What’s a ‘Christian scholar’? Dom Crossan considers himself a Christian, though he knows the Christ figure is a myth. (I think what he means when he says he’s a Christian, based on my reading of his books, is that he is a follower of the real, historical Jesus; ie, he really likes the guy. I guess he’d prefer a term that implies a follower of Jesus (rather than of the Christ figure), such as, maybe, ‘Jesuit’, but rumor has it that that name is taken…).Ehrman wrote several of his early books will still religious. Even Robert Price still goes to church.In terms of trying to figure out what happened in history – ie, what really is true – I’m not interested in reading ‘christian’ or ‘pagan’ or ‘atheist’ authors; just real good historians. Someone who will follow the truth, wherever it leads.I haven’t read any of NT Wright’s books per se, or Craig Evan’s; but I’ve read papers by them, till I couldn’t take it any more. They are theologians first – not historians. They are the more scholarly equivalent of a William Lane Craig (and that’s not a complement).

  31. says

    Those books aren’t terribly impressive you know”Well it’s hard to let anything into your mind when you’ve stuffed it so full of junk.

  32. says

    Dave,Don’t say anything bad about William Lane Craig. Facilis/Mr.F thinks he’s a certifiable genius and would have his babies if he could.Best to just pretend that WLC holds the title of World’s Smartest Christian(TM), who leaves hordes of dead atheist debate opponents in his wake. We wouldn’t want Mr.F to start crying or anything.

  33. says

    In all honesty , Ing , what argment do you find presented by these people for atheism do you find most compelling? I thought some books made some good points but for the most part were poorly reasoned.

  34. says

    In all honesty , Ing , what argment do you find presented by these people for atheism do you find most compelling? I thought some books made some good points but for the most part were poorly reasoned.”You have a poor grasp of reason you sad silly man. They don’t have to convince me…because I DON”T BELIEVE YOU!!!! It’s not that they convinced me, it’s that you failed to. Now that you have been addressed I will no longer respond to your posts.

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