What's the big deal about debates?

Recently, John Loftus of Debunking Christianity has been complaining about my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig refusing to debate him. It sounds conspicuously like Craig whining about Richard Dawkins refusing to debate him. Meanwhile, Craig is going on a 'tour' of the UK where he's challenging atheists to debates. So far, the only one I'm aware of is a debate with the philosopher Stephen Law. I haven't read much of Law's stuff, but what I have read I like, so it could be interesting.

But, probably not. I really don't get the big fuss over these academic-style debates. Firstly, they frame the dialogue between believers and non-believers as though it is a contest of intellectual and rhetorical virtuosity, which in my view loses sight of the importance of dispassionate, self-critical inquiry. Presumably, each side's 'goal' is to present an argument so devastating that the opponent is unable to respond coherently or relevantly, if at all. But 99.9% of the time, all that happens in these debates is that the two simply talk past each other. The contestants, as it were, are so preoccupied with gaining a rhetorical advantage that they rarely stop to consider charitable interpretations of their opponent's arguments.

Obviously, I'm speaking in generalities. I'm sure there are many moments in which audience members, and perhaps even the debaters themselves, are at least persuaded to consider some ideas they'd not paid much mind to previously, or have been forced to re-examine their pet arguments. But I think these are exceptions to the rule.And quite simply, no argument is ever going to be settled in such a debate. However, the repetition and forced defense often serves to more deeply entrench false ideas and poor arguments – and I mean that with regard to both sides.

I do like seeing dialogue between believers and non-believers. I enjoy partaking in it myself, which unfortunately is not too often (most folks in my neck of the woods would just as soon not talk about their beliefs in any detail). But a dialogue is not the same thing as a debate. The former implies the seeking of mutual understanding, of empathizing with and making every effort to accurately comprehend the others' view; the latter implies a contest of wits and egos meant to subdue the other into a rhetorical quagmire. Given that one's ability to concisely summarize a coherent counter-argument may or may not be representative of the validity of said argument, little is ever accomplished.

But, for those who are into that sort of thing, I guess it'll be exciting. Ho-hum.


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