Request for suggestions for pre-debate questions

Joe Puckett, Jr, a minister at the Hartville Church of Christ that is about an hour’s drive from where I live, has invited me to a debate. The topic we have agreed upon is God Does Not Exist that I will affirm and he will deny. I know the proposition is a counter-intuitive one but I have reasons for choosing it.

As part of the format, we both agreed that sometimes these kinds of debates tend to have people talking through each other because they have wrong assumptions about what the other believes and is using as a framework. To avoid this and to have a more meaningful exchange, we decided that before the debate we would each ask the other a set of questions about what he believes. The questions and answers for each person must fit on a single page and a one-page document will be created with each set on either side and distributed to all who attend.

I have some ideas about the questions I want to ask but am throwing it out to the readership here to suggest what they think are the important things to know about the ‘god exists’ side before the debate.

[UPDATE: As a clarification, the questions should be such as to be simple to answer in a few words, so deep questions should be avoided.]

The debate will be held on Saturday June 21, 2014 at Northwest Church of Christ, 3904 38th St NW, Canton, OH 44718, which seats 800 people. It will run from 6:00-8:50 pm and allow time for an intermission and questions from the audience. Joe seems to think that there will be a huge amount of interest. I am not sure that we can fill such a large auditorium since I am not a big name, though perhaps Joe has a large following. The debate will be streamed live and will also be uploaded later on YouTube.

Joe and I have had cordial exchanges about the arrangements and I think it will be a friendly, thoughtful, and fun evening.


  1. says

    Argue that we should assume god doesn’t exist until there’s solid evidence of god’s existence (basically, Russell’s teapot argument) and that we can’t even say something like “god exists” until we have some kind of idea what god is, and how its existence would be evident. You might want to do some well-poisoning in advance by pointing out that complaints about evolution doesn’t mean god exists. I’d also ask him for evidence that the god he believes in exists that wouldn’t also be acceptable evidence for Odin or Zeus or Ahura Mazda.

  2. Scott says

    After the basic definitional questions: Define God,listing his 5 most important attributes (with definitions of said attributes), it is imperative that he be asked “If you were shown evidence that god does not exist, would you change your mind?” and “What evidence do you anticipate would disprove God’s existence?”

    People need to know if he’s sincere about being open.

  3. jonP says

    I’m glad I will have a chance to watch on Youtube. One problem here is with the definition of the word “god.” Which god does not exist? All god(s)? That’s tricky because the existence of one thing that fits any definition of “god” disproves the statement. Is it the god described in the christian bible that does not exist? This one is easier because logical contradictions from the bible can demonstrate that this god is not possible. Is it the onmi-benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient super-god that answers prayers and is personally interested in our eternal fate that doesn’t exist? This one is super easy, and can be disproved experimentally by praying for things that are highly unlikely to occur. This god would want us to know about it (and worship it?), and would therefore not hide. We could pray that everyone would have a 10-digit number revealed to them. If this god can reveal such a number, then we can all compare our answers. If everyone has the same number in mind, then it seems likely that we all received this information from the same source.

    You may also want to clarify the word “exist.” Does god exist as matter/energy? If not, then how could it interact with objects in the universe? Does it exist as a concept in the way that hunger exists? Can it “exist” in our imagination the way that Kirk and Spock exist?

  4. says

    Another possibly fruitful tack to take would be to talk about naturalism, and use that as a way to divide epistemologies. What can we know about nature? We can observe and experiment and discover it behaves in predictable ways. As something becomes “known” to us, it falls into the natural world – that’s what “knowledge” means, really. But when we’re talking about the supernatural it gets difficult because “supernatural” is indistinguishable from “unknown” and “unknowable” (perhaps also “imaginary”) and that’s a serious problem for someone who wants to claim knowledge of god. And isn’t knowledge a prerequisite for belief?

    The reason religion is so squishy about god is because everything that we can claim to “know” about god is transmitted via other human-generated information. We “know” god smote the egyptians because it says so in a book written long ago. Well, we “know” spider-man was bitten by a radioactive spider by the same means. Religious people believe in all sorts of things that they have no way to know anything about other than through books that are maybe a bit more reliable than spider-man comics but only because they’re older. Science, on the other hand, gathers knowledge through repeated observation which can be independently verified through cause and effect. We can “know” about dark matter, for example, because it has a predictable effect through gravitation.

    We can “know” for all intents and purposes that god doesn’t exist because all the ways that humans could have come to know god exists have never failed to not pan out, or to have a natural explanation.

    Ask him if he has a soul, and what the basis for that knowledge is.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    The really important question is not whether a god exists, but what the god has done that cannot be reasonably ascribed to human or natural activity. Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True has done a lot of posts about theologians who carefully define their god as some sort of “ground of being” or ineffable sensus divinatus that cannot be detected by any rational method, which allows them to declare that atheists are too rigid and dogmatic in our “beliefs”. If your opponent is one of these types, you might as well cancel the debate because it would be tantamount to carrying water in a sieve.

  6. says

    define their god as some sort of “ground of being” or ineffable sensus divinatus that cannot be detected by any rational method

    If it can’t be detected, how do you know it’s there?

  7. A. Noyd says

    “Billions of other people believe in a different god than you on the basis of evidence and rationalizations very similar to yours. How can you justify saying you are correctly perceiving and interpreting support for your beliefs and they are not?”

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Did Puckett’s god write/dictate a set of scriptures, and did it allow any errors in same?

    Does it interact directly or indirectly (through angels, prophets, etc) with the material universe?

    What does it want, and why doesn’t it act overtly to get that?

  9. astrosmash says

    I’m more interested in Professor Singham’s personal reasons for agreeing to this. (although I DO understand what ‘personal’ means)… ( :

    Although I’m glad it’ll end up on youtube. I’ve never seen the professor in action as ’twere.

  10. moarscienceplz says

    @#7 Marcus Ranum

    I totally agree with you, but then again, I’m not one of those who thinks getting up early on Sunday morning to go sit on a hard pew in a freezing church for an hour is a good idea.

  11. says

    @moarscienceplz – yep. That’s what amazes me about believers – they have absolutely nothing on which to ground their belief other than “someone told me so.” At which point I like to ask them if they’ve ever heard of ‘lying’?

  12. Tharmas says

    A question to ask your opponent pre debate might be if he believes in sola scriptura, the doctrine that the Bible alone should be the source of religious belief and faith. An answer in the affirmative opens the path of being able to point out the errors, inconsistencies and multiple “truths” in the Bible as a counter to belief in God. On the other hand, if he does NOT believe in sola scriptura, then arguments against the veracity of the Bible could be brushed aside with some verbal dancing.

  13. Mano Singham says

    As a clarification, the questions should be such as to be simple to answer in a few words, so deep questions should be avoided.

  14. says

    Is your God omniscient and omnipotent?

    Does your God makes changes to the universe now, or does it only observe?

    If makes changes, does it do so as a result of prayer?

    If it makes changes, do these include physical changes or only changes to people’s mental states?

  15. vedwin says

    Do you concede that if you were born in Egypt 6000 years ago (or so as not to break any feeble minded creationist brains the Time of the Pharohs) you would probably have different religious beliefs? If so, then why your god now over all the others?

  16. says

    the questions should be such as to be simple to answer in a few words, so deep questions should be avoided.

    Ah, so it’s “soundbites at 10 paces” not really a discussion.

  17. Storms says

    I’m concerned that you’ve taken on the burden of proving a negative given the subject of the debate. You’re best course might be to use a Bayesian method to show it’s the most reasonable conclusion.
    Like Marcus Ranum #5, I think Naturalism is a good approach. Sean Carroll, in his debate with WLC, had a very good section comparing the predictions of theism to naturalism.

    As for simple questions:
    1) What significant body of scientific evidence can you produce that confirms the existence of minds without brains.
    2) What objective, measurable effects does your theory of god predict in the world?
    Reasonable Doubts podcast did a good job of gutting most findings for the health/happiness benefits of believing.
    3) Using Bayesian reasoning, explain why god is a more reasonable explanation than naturalism.

  18. Mano Singham says


    This is just basic information for the sheet of paper to be handed out to the attendees and for us. The discussion is different.

  19. Mano Singham says


    I was well aware of the burden of proving a negative and I deliberately chose to do so to make certain points that are often not made in such debates.

  20. notmyrealnameforobviousreasons says

    Nice short question; Why should we trust prayer when people of every religion are equally convinced that their God is answering their prayers.

  21. eigenperson says

    If I were debating a Christian, I would want to know:

    1. Do you believe everything in the Bible is literally true? If not, which parts (if any) do you believe are literally true?
    2. Do you believe that God makes concrete physical changes in the world today in response to prayers?
    3. Do you believe on God on the basis of faith alone, or based in part on evidence? If the latter, would your belief in God go away if the evidence turned out to be faulty?
    4. My friend believes in Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Do you think her belief is erroneous?
    5. Do you think there is a possibility, however slim, that you are wrong in your belief in God, or is it impossible that you are wrong?
    6. In your opinion, why is it that not everyone believes in the same god you believe in?

    By the way, is an interesting read, I think.

  22. eigenperson says

    EBWOP: The post from December 2012 about the Argument from Desire is particularly interesting since it may offer some insight about his approach to the debate.

  23. MNb says

    “How does god, being an immaterial being, interact with our material Universe?”
    “Where was god during the 24 years Elisabeth Fritzl got raped two, three times a year by her father?”
    “Why didn’t god reveal himself the same way more than once, resulting in all kinds of different religions?”

  24. pethenry says

    I read Mano’s request for input as not for debate-style questions designed to convince the audience that one’s opponent is a fool, but rather for questions which might be useful to ask Puckett, pre-debate, in coming to an understanding of what he actually believes, and why.

  25. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Are you debating about a God in general, or the God of the Bible? That should be the first thing to agree about. There have been many famous philosophers who have developed “proofs” about God’s existense, without giving proof that it’s the God of the Bible.

    Given the audience, God of the Bible seem likely. In that context my strategy would be to point out the numerous contradictions in the Bible. Even the character of the God evolves from a nasty tribal spirit (envious of others, see the first commandment) to a more lofty world spirit in the writings of St. Paul (who was influenced by Hellenism and Stoic philosophers). That story arc already proves that it was written by humans, and (at least in part) motivated by secular politics.

  26. Mano Singham says


    Puckett has written an entire book on the Argument from Desire that I am in the process of reading.

  27. Ray de Silva says

    I would want to establish what would constitute an acceptable proof, and who would constitute a credible witness. Many theological arguments are made which refer to imaginary witnesses and circular arguments for “proof”.

  28. says

    The “Argument from desire” appears to be kind of bogus. As Lewis formulated it:
    Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.

    Ah, so if I am hungry, only pizza can satisfy my hunger? No, wait! It’s only if I am specifically hungry for pizza! And not any kind of pizza, but only one kind of pizza will satisfy my hunger. But, no, wait, here’s a problem: the pizza I imagine in my hunger can never exist. Um…

    Premise 2: But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.

    I have no such desires.

    Conclusion: Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.

    If it is more than time, earth, and creatures, it cannot satisfy desires because it doesn’t exist. It certainly isn’t a fucking mushroom pizza; they aren’t timeless.

    It’s amazing that christians take this kind of bullshit seriously.

    Hey, christians here’s one for you:
    1) Prayer is better than nothing
    2) Nothing is better than a good steak
    3) Therefore prayer is better than a good steak
    See if they fall for that.


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