I was a stalwart of my high school's debating team, and at another phase of my life I was a fairly well-regarded courtroom advocate. However, my school never did win a big competition while I was involved - the best we ever managed was to win our local zone, consisting of only four schools. Nor did I ever become a barrister, as I planned at one point, and thus really test my courtroom skills.
Still, public debating is not something that intrinsically scares me. I can do it. On the other other hand, I don't claim to be Zeus's gift to it. I'd feel some trepidation if I had to do it very often, or if I had to face a world class opponent like Christopher Hitchens or William Lane Craig. But, yeah, it's something that I can sorta do. :)
Today, I popped down to Sydney to have my very first formal debate of a kind that has become so popular lately. I.e., the (New?) Atheist versus Christian sort of debate. I'd never debated in this kind of format before, or on such a topic. It was very interesting.
Hitchens, in particular, does a lot of these debates, and yesterday I was commenting on the one that Dan Barker did last year against Cardinal George Pell. It was, once again, an interesting experience adapting to a version of the format.
My opponent was Dr Michael Jensen, an evangelical Anglican priest who lectures on Christian doctrine at Moore College (a high-status theological college here in Australia). He's an experienced advocate for his brand of Christianity, but that doesn't mean that he's any more experienced than I am in this sort of formal debate. I should also say that Michael seemed like a nice guy, and of course I'm pretty comfortable around evangelical Christians. The topic was "It's time to leave God behind." As you may have guessed, I spoke for the affirmative.
The debate was a lot of fun - though I should say immediately that my arguments were put in all seriousness, and with due regard to some of the solemn aspects of such things as the Problem of Evil. Furthermore, it was a useful exercise for me preparing my argument and strategy. It may stand me in good stead as I work with Udo to plan our new book. I also believe that I made points that should get Christians to think very carefully about their view of the world (the debate was jointly arranged by the Christian Union and the Atheist League at Macquarie University - the Zeus Club and the Friends of Old Thor were not involved). Is Christianity really intellectually tenable?
My challenge for the theists/Christians in the audience (they were probably the majority of the 150 to 200 people) used my own adaptation of John Loftus's "outsider test". I asked them to examine why they believe what they do; whether they think their reasons should be persuasive to a rational outsider who doesn't already believe anything of the kind; and whether, if not, they can, in all intellectual honesty, go on justifying it to themselves. I put some brief (but, I think, strong) arguments as to why they can infer that there's no plausible reason to believe in the existence of God; why there are powerful reasons not to; and why the Bible, the church, and the God-concept are merely human constructs. I do think I gave them a lot to dwell on, and I hope that some went away keen to sort it out in their minds.
For those who are wondering, the debate was not video recorded, though an audio recording of most of it will probably be available soon on one or the both of the student associations' websites.
It's not up to me to say a lot more about how it went. I did enjoy the experience, which suggests that I didn't feel beaten up or anything of the kind. I hope the attendees found it entertaining and intellectually stimulating. My sincere thanks to the Christian Union and the Atheist League for inviting me.
But the nagging issue in my mind is just how valuable these debates are. I wonder whether anyone much changes their minds as a result. I guess some people do in at least superficial ways (there's evidence for this), but do they have any deeper impact? Or is it really too much like a beauty competition? I'm interested in this general question. Discuss.