About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Formal debates

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.


Margaret said...

But the nagging issue in my mind is just how valuable these debates are.

I think you answered your own question, Russell.

"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."

That is all one can hold for.

NewEnglandBob said...

I agree with Margaret. I think that exposing others to the skeptical and thought-provoking methodology that you used can continue to chip away at the house-of-cards that is religion.

Spencer Troxell said...

I have to admit it: It wasn't pure reason that led me away from christianity and into the infidel folds. My christianity liberalized and liberalized, gradually eroding over time. I recognized that my values grew increasingly humanistic, but I was always able to shoehorn Jesus into them. Eventually--when I began entertaining intellectual arguments against my own perspective honestly--I switched sides, but it wasn't a dramatic transition. Reason ultimately relieved me of my religion, but it was more aesthetics and subjective principles that got me to the point where I was susceptible to logic.

That being said, hearing all of the arguments and listening to the best versions of them tried against each other has made my position more sophisticated, and has saved me from having to re-discover the wheel as it were.

I think the debates are useful in this area. And since I don't follow any sports, they fill that gap for me too.

Anonymous said...

come see the last!

in your room where time stands still...


Stephen Moore said...

Whilst there may be some superficial impact in providing some people with food for for thought, even if they don't actually change their mind on the issue, I think there are three other reasons these types of debates are useful.

The first is entertainment. Although such debates are on a weighty issue, they generally are entertaining to most, if not all, members of the audience. And, one hopes, for the debaters as well.

The second is community. It can be difficult for atheists to meet others of a similar mind. Though there are other avenues of building and maintaining community, events of this type are a relatively easy way for a lone atheist to attend an event and meet other atheists.

The third is social. It is a way for theists to meet atheists. In engaging with each other, theists will, hopefully, be dissuaded of the many negative stereotypes about atheists, learning that we are indeed regular people of whom they need not feel threatened by or scared of.

Alex said...

I can't remember where I read it, but one of the biggest reasons Hitch keeps doing what he's doing, even when in bad health, is that it does indeed plant important seeds of doubt in believers everywhere he goes (and he goes to a lot of religious schools, universities and organisations). Lots of these write him letters later affirming it, and you always see the odd comment in the various atheist blogs from people who did attend and started their journey out of religion from it.

Now, I can't remember you telling me you were to do this thing, so perhaps bigger letters and blinking text the next time alerting us, you know, so we can prepare our banners and vuvoozelas? :)

Adrian said...

But the nagging issue in my mind is just how valuable these debates are.

I can say that it was from watching my first debate that I learned what a truly miserable enterprise theology truly was. I was shocked at how transparently fallacious the points were and how the apologist demonstrated zero interest in learning or understanding the truth and would say or do anything to prop up his belief. It was revolting and did a lot to dispel any lingering doubts I may have had.

That said, every subsequent debate grows less interesting even when superstar orators like Hitch are present. It sounds like they still draw a crowd so hopefully there are still people like the old me.

March Hare said...

I think it may be valuable to have these debates in universities and small communities as it gives atheists (or Christians perhaps?) an intellectual reason for being what they are and allows the other side to see the valid reasons in terms that the person themselves could never vocalise.

It legitimises atheism (or religion) in the eyes of others and allows people to say what they are without fear of having to combat the stereotype because you've already done that.

(I should re-write that for clarification, but I'm busy making a living...)

Anyway, look forward to hearing the debate.

steve oberski said...

Many of the debates I have seen are just rhetorical exercises that allows each side to present their position without any interest in or even expectation of a rebuttal.

The debate format I find very irritating is the one where the audience votes for or against the proposition before and after the debate, as if truth is amenable to popular opinion.

One variant of the voting system that is somewhat useful is a pre and post debate poll that asks the audience if they changed their position based on the debate.

Of course, for sheer entertainment value, there is no better use of one's time than watching a master debater like Christopher Hitchens unleashed on some poor sacrificial goat.

My favourite in this genre was the Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Anne Widdecombe MP, speaking against the motion, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry speacking for the motion "Is Catholic Church is a force for good", with Fry's memorable "Then what are you good for?". The apparently brain damaged archbishop spent most of his time arguing against his side and Anne Widdecombe exceeded my worst expectations of a dogmatic catlick, she truly is a vile person.

Anonymous said...

I think these debates are very valuable. They help further clear one's thoughts about these issues. At least they do that to me. Thank you.

Marshall said...

I was a stalwart of my high school's debating team

Why am I not surprised? ... ;-)

I stood for my HS team, but collecting arguments seemed like such an uninteresting thing to be doing that I soon sat down. Humans will make a contest out of anything! I would much rather let my life knock against somebody else's life in a less formal context; as my Aikido teacher says, "Give each other polish."

I don't watch much of these of debates and panels because they are in general quite boring to me because I see the participants talking past each other. Certainly the undertone of logical positivism in the typical Gnu stance quite misses the point of Evangelicalism as I understand it... and historically, theists who have been seduced by physics-envy to go down that road get stuck on absurdities like Sola Scriptura, YEC, and the "Problem" of Theodicy. Go read Spinoza for something different, back there at the very root of the Enlightenment, before the establishment-religion Counter-Revolutionaries got their assault going. Or Rob Bell for something de jour.

michael jensen said...

Well you cross-examination skills are still intact!

Thanks for the debate. I am only sorry we didn't get a chance for a quiet beer afterwards. This was likewise my first debate of this kind.

With Margaret, I would say that the conversations I had after the debate indicated that both atheists and Christians had some things to think about.

michael jensen said...

Well, your cross-examination skills haven't deserted you, Russell! :-)

Thanks for the debate. It was certainly enjoyable. Like you I hadn't done one before and I now have a lot to think about. I am only sorry that there wasn't the chance for a friendly beer afterwards (my parking had expired).

Unknown said...


I asked them [1] to examine why they believe what they do; [2] whether they think their reasons should be persuasive to a rational outsider who doesn't already believe anything of the kind; and [3] whether, if not, they can, in all intellectual honesty, go on justifying it to themselves.

For what it is worth, I would have answered:

[1] Because of the circumstantial evidence that my belief is consistent with how the bible (as I read it) describes how one comes to faith: not by reason but by supernatural regeneration that draws you to faith. That was certainly the case for me: more or less one day I didn’t believe and the next day I did. One day the bible seemed like nonsense, the next day it didn’t.

[2] No, never. It would be impossible.

[3] Yes, why not? Why would my beliefs be dependent on whether or not I could convince someone else?

Scote said...

"But the nagging issue in my mind is just how valuable these debates are."

Well, you'll need to define "valuable." Studies have shown that people are pretty prone to confirmation bias when witnessing contests, so perhaps these kinds of debates don't change a lot of minds, but that doesn't mean they are without value. The debates give moral support to atheists, at the very least. And they are entertaining to watch if well done. The Dan Barker debate certainly was, as are debates with Christopher Hitchens. I think good entertainment is valuable.

David M said...

I think it's empirically hard to say what causes people to change their minds, or when, but people do, in fact, change their minds. The fact that we could list a toilet roll's worth of different sparks for that change makes it hard (See Jerry Coyne's family photos on his blog today. Sgt Peppers apparently did the trick), but surely it's not a step too far to say that a good argument, or at least any argument presented well, can sometimes have an effect others.

Perhaps I should put that differently. Perhaps it's inevitable that people will, if not specifically change, then certainly have their minds moulded by the information and arguments they hear. If it is indeed inevitable, then the best course of action for those of us wanting to spruik a way of viewing the world we think important is to put our arguments out there, figuring that they will stick, somewhere, somehow.

For me personally, I was raised in an Anglican family (with a mother who was one of the first ordained female priests in Australia), but was never really forced into too much of the church goings on. I recall discussions with my best mate in high school that were effectively "I reckon there's something out there, innit." But I also recall writing a short story in high school effectively calling religion and God a completely human construct. And I used a quote from a U2 song (Acrobat) at the beginning too, which is important.

“And I'd join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I'd break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in”

I can also think of lyrics from RHCP and Fishbone which influenced me greatly. The point there isn’t that those bands are fine philosophers with impeccable arguments, the point being they managed to plant some seeds with some musical polemics.

I can also remember when another close friend was leaving, with quite a bang, Catholicism. His retelling of what he was discovering, as he looked further into philosophy, had a great influence on me. Most importantly, he put me on to Acharya S (DM Murdoch), and her book The Christ Conspiracy. Now, the relative strengths of all her arguments and some of the other stuff she espouses I don’t want to necessarily stand behind, but what was important for changing my mind, was the very idea of questioning the historicity of Jesus. It’s almost incidental to me now whether Jesus is an historical figure or not, the very idea it could be questioned, and the discussion of the writing of the bible and when it was written that naturally followed was enough to move me further towards overt atheism.

There have been other nails in the coffin for me and my relationship with any sort of moderate religion, even as late as watching Hitchens vs Blair earlier this year, whether they count as changing minds or just reinforcing already held beliefs is another thing.

(FWIW Russell, I would credit this blog with giving me a good push to get back to Uni and I am currently doing a first year OU philosophy subject, good luck picking the specific post that “did” it, but the inspiration is still there.)

Russell Blackford said...

It was nice to meet you, Michael. Pity we didn't get to have a drink in the union bar afterwards. As I mentioned on the other thread, we both got mobbed by students wanting to talk to us individually - not sure how many you had, but I had quite a long line - so we got held back. Oh well, next time we cross paths I'll buy you a beer.

Tim Escott said...

I wasn't at the debate, and I don't normally read this blog, but I am one of Michael's students, and someone else pointed me here.

As for the value of these debates, I reckon that understanding and true tolerance is at least one valuable outcome. Even though we disagree, it can only be a good thing to understand each other a bit more.

Anonymous said...

Debates can be a lot of fun to watch, but as you noted earlier, they are also a kind of beauty contest. Additionally an unscrupulous debater can toss out made up 'facts' that the other side has never heard before.

For serious debating, I much prefer the written style. I don't mind, in fact I'd prefer, that the debaters do some fact checking, and some thinking before responding.

steve oberski said...

@David not by reason but by supernatural regeneration that draws you to faith

Ah, the word salad rationalization of religious belief.

one day I didn’t believe and the next day I did

Perhaps some sort of stroke or brain aneurysm could be the culprit.

Why would my beliefs be dependent on whether or not I could convince someone else?

Have you considered the possibility that if you can't mount a convincing argument for your beliefs you might just be wrong ?

steve oberski said...

@David M but what was important for changing my mind, was the very idea of questioning the historicity of Jesus.

This is the thing I most resent about my childhood indoctrination in Catholic mythology, by the time you are excreted from the Catholic education system you don't have the vocabulary or basic intellectual tools needed evaluate truth claims by mounting a sceptical analysis of the evidence.

Andy said...

People who attend the debates may not change their minds in droves (at least, not at that moment), but the debates are worthwhile. It's the teacher in me; I think people benefit just from hearing the argument being had. We have to remember that not everyone is used to hearing these arguments. When Hitchens recently debated David Berlinski in Birmingham, Alabama, it was reported that some of the people in the audience had never heard an atheist present the atheist point-of-view before. They'd literally never heard it expressed. But no matter where you debate, I tink there's bound to be some folks like that in the audience.

Dan said...

These debates are certainly helpful for some people. I was an evangelical Christian for a long time, and watching a lot of youtube debates was helpful in pushing me over the edge when I started to doubt. Watching the weak performances of people like Lennox, Evans, and D'Souza really helped me see that a lot of my reasons to believe were irrational. I still think that just learning critical thinking skills from the skeptical movement and reading theology books and the Bible through that lens was the biggest reason for my deconversion, but the debates certainly helped me think through some things that I might not have considered on my own.

At the very least, these debates humanizes the atheist and their position, which can be very important for people like we who were raised to believe that atheists were monsters. People are more willing to at least consider atheism when they learn that we aren't all depressed, god-hating, sin-loving, relation-less, rational robots.

Ken Pidcock said...

I wonder whether anyone much changes their minds as a result.

Two points:

(1) Most believers have never been challenged to defend their belief. Doing that is a great service to them, whether or not they change their minds.

(2) Many in any audience of Christians are going to be nonbelieving believers-in-belief. To them, you are issuing a call to intellectual integrity, which they may feel more inclined to answer.