The trouble with debates

Oct 21, 2011 1 Comment by

William Lane Craig’s request that Richard Dawkins debate him in Oxford was refused on a number of reasonable grounds. Dawkins has a prior engagement that same night in London, considers Craig insignificant and unsophisticated as a religious thinker compared with those Dawkins has debated and those he has had to decline purely on grounds of his unavailability, and he objects to Craig on moral grounds because the latter has defended the Canaanite genocide. And he is clearly not guilty of any dislike for debating sufficiently impressive religious figures (be it due to close–mindedness, arrogance or cowardice) because those he has debated included two Archbishops of Canterbury (soon to be three with the incumbent), the Archbishop of York, the UK Chief Rabbi and numerous bishops, and efforts have also been made for Dawkins to arrange a debate with the Dalai Lama.

By contrast, no similar explanations exist for why Craig has, for years, been unwilling to debate John Loftus. In spite of these facts, Craig’s fans have made accusations such as those suggested above against Dawkins regarding why he won’t debate Craig, and Craig decided the debate that he wished Dawkins to attend would have an empty chair to draw attention to the absence of Dawkins. It is not Dawkins who these facts cast in a harsh light.

Debates as a whole have a major flaw. Any nonsense may be defended with arguments that can be more succinctly expressed than debunked, so the “equal time” aspect of debates guarantees those who rely on such succinct arguments victory. (Luckily, there are those who are too ethical to use such techniques as the Gish Gallop, which may be part of why all IQ2 debates on religion have seen the atheists as the victors.) Thus, debates cannot be a reliable way to find out the truth, even though that is ostensibly their entire point. They may well be properly conducted, if those participating are above dishonest tactics. But what if that doesn’t occur? All else they can achieve is, in essence, propaganda. In light of this, the past record of the person issuing a challenge, or considered for an invitation (suppose Dawkins sought a debate with someone else), could well eliminate them from consideration due to the methods they have used in the past. For the rest of this piece, however, I’ll assume such problems with debating someone aren’t an issue, as there is another concern that one should have.

In the case of Dawkins debating Craig, every time the latter pushes harder for it he comes across all the more childish–looking. Why has he made these efforts for so long? For the same reason creationists have; merely agreeing to take part in such a debate lends them a respectability they won’t have earned. I could, if I wanted, challenge anyone to a debate; if they agreed, a certain style of reasoning would conclude I was somehow on a par, in the relevant field, with whomever I was debating. Whenever creationists have succeeded in getting a scientist to debate them on the subject of evolution, they have crowed boisterously about that success. Years ago Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould made a mutual statement to the effect that, for these reasons, they would never agree to take part in such debates and encouraged other scientists to follow suit.

One criterion that has been suggested for when to decide to decline a debating opportunity due to the opponent issuing the challenge being unworthy is, “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine!” Woody Allen’s alternative formulation was that, if you debate an idiot, he will lower you to his level and win from experience. Take the parallel case of a debate Dawkins has had, such as with the Archbishop of York. Are the Archbishop’s ideas as ridiculous as those of creationists? The criterion described above renders this question irrelevant, however interesting it may be. What matters is that, because of the post to which he has risen, said Archbishop has all the respectability he is ever likely to have; no “oxygen of respectability”, to quote Dawkins, would be leant to him by agreeing to such a debate.


About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.

One Response to “The trouble with debates”

  1. Dave B says:

    Honestly, having seen a few of Loftus’ debates I cannot fathom that Craig is afraid to debate him. Loftus is nowhere near the polished speaker/debater that Craig is.