Debating an apologist?
Get ready for a fight
Cos you’ve got an obligation
To get all the science right—
If you overstep your knowledge
Just a little, and you’re caught,
Then you’ve lost the weight of science
And you only get one shot
If your expertise is physics,
Or biology, or psych,
Best to know your limitations,
Not just wander where you like.
You may truly be an expert
And be perfect for the task
You may know your science backwards
But that won’t be what they ask
They’ll poke holes in what they’re able
And they’re gonna have a ball—
There’s an awful lot of science
And there’s no one knows it all
They would love to make you falter
And they’re surely gonna try
And your expertise is shattered
If they catch you in a lie
Say your answer misses something;
Say it’s off by one percent;
Say you quote the right researcher
But it’s not quite what they meant
Say the science isn’t settled,
Say there’s genuine debate
In the hands of an apologist
You’ve quickly sealed your fate
Now, it doesn’t really matter
If the one who’s right is you—
See, if science isn’t perfect
Then religion must be true
You’re debating an apologist?
Get ready for a fight
Cos you’ve got an obligation
To get all the science right.
A couple of days ago, Physicist Victor Stenger had a piece in Ye Olde HuffePoe on “How to Debate a Christian Apologist“. Now, Stenger is no stranger to this area–his books are carefully thought out, thorough, and devastating to Christian Apologetics (or rather, would be, if apologetics had to answer to the real world). And, you will note, he explicitly says in his introduction, more or less what I just said in the verse above:
Certainly atheist debaters will make their own arguments for atheism during their opening statements. I advise, again from observation and experience, that they limit these to their particular areas of expertise and avoid subjects outside those areas.
During their opening statements and throughout the debate, apologists are likely to make arguments with which atheists may not be so well versed. So, when the time comes for rebuttals, atheists often cannot provide cogent responses, or any responses at all, and so lose debating points.
An experienced debater will make note of every point his or her opponent makes and try to provide at least a one sentence response. That will prevent the opponent from coming back and saying, “My atheist friend never replied to this point.” This takes experience. I never had enough to be good at it. In a debate, impressions are more important than the substance of an argument and not answering a point makes a bad impression.
The point of his article, though, is to give some quick rejoinders to some of the Apologetic points he has heard again and again, so that the reader can see examples of how to quickly address some of the more common claims. It was not intended to be a thorough rebuttal:
I do not provide any technical details. These suggestions are meant to be short, punchy statements to use during your rebuttals, which are usually time-limited. If you are a cosmologist, biologist, or biblical scholar, you don’t need me telling you what to say on those subjects. If you are a non-expert on any subject, you should not say anything about it beyond your competence. Your opponent may call you out on it. I have seen that happen.
Alas, it seems that the good people at Uncommon Descent are as selective at reading Stenger’s article as they are at anything else, and must have missed that bit. Their reply:
Victor Stenger has his How to Debate a Christian Apologist in the Huffington Post. An atheist PhD physicist is reduced to using arguments many of which go beyond fallacious and border on the risible. I find the article very encouraging. If that’s all they’ve got, they ain’t got much.
Since most of their readers won’t bother to actually visit HuffPo to read the introduction, let alone the rest, score one for the people with a commandment against bearing false witness.
I would add one additional caveat to Stenger’s introduction. Because science works via a structured argument among experts, be aware that your opponent will be able (if properly prepared) to quote experts who appear to disagree with you (or your quoted experts). (For instance, Stenger makes the claim “Thoughts and emotions are observable electrochemical signals in the brain.” You don’t have to have read here long to know I vehemently disagree with this–thinking and emotion are not at all relegated to just the brain; they are observed across time in the interaction of a whole person with their environment, and cannot be reduced to brain signals. Mind you, I think his view is worlds better than theirs, but it’s still wrong.)
If you cannot reasonably expect to enlighten your audience about some substantial philosophical differences (and practical differences, of course, as well) between religious and scientific world views, perhaps the best bet is to stick to forms that are not stacked against the more nuanced and complicated view.