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#334 Are Debates Too Polarizing?

September 09, 2013

Hello. First things first, I would like to state that I am an unbeliever. My question is pertaining to the promotion of understanding toward the secular side of the debates you so often hold or participate in.

It seems like when you enter into these debates you take a very offensive stance that leaves little room for discussion. By only dealing with what you consider facts it seems as though you are attempting to leave yourself out of the discussion as a factor.

You cannot be surprised when later this is seen as disingenuous.

Getting to the point, I noticed watching all of your debates that you take nearly everything point by point, and disallow any wiggle room on the opposing side. Naturally not many people so adamantly conform to the outlines of the debate at hand.

Often you use this as evidence in your debates that there are no good secular arguments or explanations for things like morality and the fine tuning of the universe. But I see this as a sort of strong man approach to debate and limits understanding of both sides, undermining any ground one should have of respecting an atheists opinions on any of these matters and it becomes harder not to take this personally.

Needless to say this has a polarizing affect on the conversations themselves and they become combative rather than informative.

So my question would be, are you actively seeking to understand your opponents before you engage them? Not just on an intellectual level, but on a personal, moral and emotional level? Do you often ask yourself how they find meaning in their lives and behave well whilst still holding these views? And is this a priority for you? I find it absolutely necessary for two people to not only respect each other, but to understand each others points on intellectual as well as personal levels for a meaningful conversation to be had.

From what I have seen of your debates, you are not committed to this idea, and perhaps do not value it. Or perhaps just let your competitive nature get the best of you. In any case, I respect any form of truth seeking and I would like to hear a response to this issue. I feel like the debate structure in general is to competitive to produce any sort of impact or meaningful outcome, especially on larger issues like this. One side agrees with the atheist, one side agrees with the theist. Hardly anyone questions the validity of their own side's arguments.

In this sense I expect it would be much more fruitful to engage in personal conversations with atheists like me, on more than a professional level. Maybe you should try to befriend Richard Dawkins instead of giving him a hard time? Maybe then he would want to debate you. That's all I'm saying. The man is clearly not a coward.


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Dr. craig’s response


I took your question, Adam, because I’ve been puzzled by the intense dislike of me that I sense among many persons whom I’ve never even met, much less personally offended. Your letter seems to suggest that some of the dislike is due to my debating style.

Now I must say that this simply baffles me and seems to be due in some large measure to a lack of understanding of how formal debate works. You write, “By only dealing with what you consider facts it seems as though you are attempting to leave yourself out of the discussion as a factor.” Right! Like a trial lawyer, the debater is supposed to deal only with the facts and not to bring himself personally into the discussion. That’s why debate is such good training for those going to law school. Just as the personal relation between the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney is irrelevant to the adjudication of the case, so in debate the adjudication of the question doesn’t depend upon the persons involved. The affirmative has a case he presents in support of the resolution, and the negative tries to show why the affirmative case fails to justify the resolution. In a very real sense, you’re not arguing against another person; you’re arguing against his case.

For that reason I never present ad hominem attacks upon the person I’m debating, even when he launches such attacks against me. He may violate the rules of debate etiquette, but I will not (yes, there are such rules, such as not to make facial expressions or distracting gestures while your opponent is speaking!). I try to leave my opponent’s personal life out of it. By focusing exclusively on the case presented, one avoids all the ugly ad hominem attacks and fruitless attempts to psychoanalyze one’s opponent to discern his true motives for saying what he does. All those things are irrelevant to the soundness of the arguments he is presenting. Thus, there is a real de-personalization of the discussion that transpires in proper debate.

So I AM “surprised when later this is seen as disingenuous.” In fact, I’m dumbfounded! Why would anyone think that I don’t believe the arguments I’m sharing? I come away from these debates more convinced of the arguments’ soundness than before because I’ve seen how well they hold up against objections. I suspect that some people think I’m disingenuous because they are so anti-theistic that they think that no honest, intelligent person can believe these things. Since I seem to be intelligent, it follows that I must be dishonest. I’m lying when I defend these arguments! I don’t know what to say to this. If I assure people that I really am convinced of these arguments, they’ll say I’m lying about that, too! All I can do is affirm before God that I really am convinced that the arguments I present are good, sound arguments. What else can I say?

Having said above that debate is by nature de-personalizing, I do frequently try to introduce a bit of my personal life into my debates when I reach my last point and, after sharing my arguments in support of the proposition under debate, I’ll say a brief word about knowing God in a personal way. Sometimes during the Q&A the opportunity arises to share a more extensive word of testimony of what Christ has meant to me personally. But what I won’t do is try to pry into my opponent’s personal life.

As for taking “nearly everything point by point,” that’s just good debate technique. Remember: your audience isn’t taking notes, and they’ll be confused if you’re disorganized and jumping all over the place from point to point. You want your audience to remember the fundamental points of your case, and so you need to remind them of these points, especially if your opponent fails to respond to some of them. Otherwise, they’ll slip away into oblivion. You say, “Often you use this as evidence in your debates that there are no good secular arguments or explanations for things like morality and the fine tuning of the universe.” Adam, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. Rather I use it as evidence that my opponent has no good arguments for this or that. And that will be true. I always try to characterize my opponent’s responses fairly and correctly and then respond to them. Taking an opponent’s arguments seriously and explaining why you disagree with them is the best way of “respecting an atheists opinions.” Maybe I’m dense, but I just don’t understand why so doing makes “it . . . harder not to take this personally.” Personally? Why? I don’t take it personally when someone presents a refutation of my case. Can’t we charitably disagree without taking things personally?

Yes, debate is polarizing and combative. But that in no way implies that it is not also informative! On the contrary, a good debate will inform you of the principal arguments pro and con concerning an issue. I have often said that the academic life is an agonistic life; that is to say, it is combative, involving the struggle of ideas. But that does not imply that we should take things personally.

Now, certainly, I seek “to understand [my] opponents before engage them” But this is almost exclusively intellectually. I read their work, I try to understand their views, and try to present them fairly. So, for example, you’ll find in my recent dialogues with Lawrence Krauss that I was careful not to characterize him as an atheist; rather I recognize that he is agnostic about God’s existence. But how am I to figure out in advance what makes Lawrence Krauss tick? To understand him “on a personal, moral and emotional level?” Adam, get real! This is something that even people who spend a great deal of time together rarely achieve.

So, honestly, no, it’s not a priority for me to “ask [myself] how they find meaning in their lives and behave well whilst still holding these views.” Those sorts of concerns are irrelevant to the issues we’ll be discussing. When I argue, for example, that on atheism there is no ultimate meaning and value in life, people too often misunderstand this to be the claim that atheists live immoral and dull lives. Asking your question would only contribute to the misunderstanding. The issue is emphatically not my opponent’s personal behavior or fulfillment in life! It is rather that no matter how we behave or how much we enjoy life, our lives are objectively worthless and purposeless if God does not exist.

Now debate is just one forum for truth-seeking, and since you value them all, you should value it, too. Other forums in which I participate include books, often with an exchange of views by multiple authors, and articles in professional journals in which a conversation takes place across the years. Sometimes I’ll engage in dialogues in which a conversation can take place. But the forum is no guarantee. What I found in my recent dialogues with Prof. Krauss in Australia is that he uses that forum, not to have a conversation, but to interrupt and even talk over his interlocutor. Such a “conversation” is no less, nay, even more combative than a debate. After our dialogues I felt as if I had been in a barroom brawl! Give me the calm civility of a formal debate any day!

I know you’re wrong, Adam, when you say that “the debate structure in general is to competitive to produce any sort of impact or meaningful outcome” because I receive testimony to the contrary. For example, here is what one atheist who attended the Melbourne dialogue wrote afterwards on Facebook:

I must say, being there as an atheist has really opened my eyes to how reasonable, intelligent people can believe in god. My mind has been changed. My opinion still hasn't but that's not the point.

I thought that Craig took large parts of the debate away from a very feisty Krauss. This type of dialogue reaches more people than anyone would realize. Can't tell people how grateful I was to be there.

Congratulations to WLC for accepting a debate such as this. The forum suits argumentative atheists like myself. WLC NAILED it.

Much credit to you guys for a super gutsy and even effort in a difficult forum. I am now going to endevour to read all of WLC's books with a very open mind. Might even open the bible again!!!! I will also read Krauss' book again for some clarity.

I feel. . . Blessed! Lol.

Now I’m sure you’ll agree that that represents a pretty significant and meaningful impact.

Befriend Richard Dawkins instead of giving him a hard time?” Seriously? Do you really think I give him a hard time? I’ve responded to his critique of theistic arguments and had some fun Eastwooding him, but is that a hard time? Others may give him a hard time, but I’ve largely ignored him. I did give his movie a negative review, I guess, but that’s about it. I wouldn’t mind at all being friends, but from the things he’s said publicly about me I doubt he’d be open to it.

Adam, you seem to be a sensitive spirit, and perhaps the debate forum is not the best for you in your search for truth. But for many others it is a valuable forum for airing the issues and helping them take some small step along life’s path.

- William Lane Craig