Do public debates on controversial topics do anything other than entertain, stir up the blood, and make people more entrenched in their views?  It there any sense of speaking of a “winner” in a debate in which virtually all listeners already have opinions?  Is there any substantive reason to have these events, other than to provide a bit of public spectacle?

I’m in London for the holidays, spending most of the time visiting family on Sarah’s side.  But we did have a chance to get to a play on the West End, called “The Best of Enemies.”  I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s made a big splash, probably because of its obvious ongoing political and social relevance, even though it is about a series of events from 55 years ago.

The play is a dramatization of the debates held on ABC between William F. Buckley, famous and outspoken conservative intellectual, and Gore Vidal, famous and outspoken liberal intellectual, during the 1968 Presidential National Conventions.  Some of you will remember these characters well, others of you will never have heard of them.  I’m in between.  I was twelve at the time, and do not remember the debates, and may not have even heard of them at the time (I wasn’t in a massively politically engaged family).  I certainly knew about the Democratic Convention that year — people still talk about it.  Democrats with a split party meeting in heavily democratic Chicago with the iron-fisted highly influential Democratic mayor Richard J. Daley who was trying to deal with massive protests in the street over the war in Vietnam and other causes.

It was a very bad time – just a couple of months after the assassination of the presumed nominee Robert Kennedy (throwing the Democratic party into turmoil), which itself had come just a couple of months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – a time of riots, demonstrations, and divisions on numerous levels.  Daley cracked down on the demonstrations in the name of “law and order”; it was ugly and bloody.

The play is about passionate political differences expressed by two

fiercely intellectual and unusually articulate spokespersons, representing different perspectives that still resonate with us today, showing the fault-lines between conservative and liberal values, priorities, perspectives, social agenda, and political policies.

I won’t describe the play at any length.   Short story:  ABC news was a pitiful third in the three-way race among television networks (back when there were *three*!  Many of us remember those days well).  They had no competitive edge; they were underfunded; couldn’t get sponsors.  The other two networks, CBS and NBC, were going to do live in-color (!) full coverage of both conventions (the Republican one was in Miami Beach).

In a desperate attempt to win viewers, ABC decided to try something different, an “unconventional convention coverage,”:  a live televised series of six hour-long debates on outstanding and divisive political issues between two prominent and outspoken figures with very different views and the ability to express them forcefully with wit and rigor.  Moreover, these two did not like each other and didn’t mind saying it.  The debates ended up producing fireworks, ad hominem attacks, and finally a major flare-up on screen – all of which made a massive difference in the television ratings, with people throughout the country glued to their TVs to the detriment of the other two channels.

But was anything resolved?  The debate attracted millions of viewers, many of whom were eager to see what would happen next, but most of whom already had their views and were unlikely to be moved by the arguments one way or the other.

So what was the point?

The issue is raised in the play itself – including, notably, by novelist and intellectual James Baldwin, friend of Vidal who, three years earlier, had himself engaged in a more formal debate with Buckley on the issue of social justice for black Americans at Cambridge University.  Baldwin raises the key question: No matter how eloquent you are, no matter how powerful your arguments, no matter if you are judged to do a better job than the opponent in a debate – what does it even *mean* to win a debate like this?    Even if Gore Vidal *does* seem to get the better of William Buckley in the end, what does it matter?  The issue, in this case, was palpable.  Buckley in the end made a major faux pas.  But his Republicans crushed the Democrats in the election of Richard Nixon.

I think about this issue of the significant, value, merit, and very *point* of public debates a lot.  Sticking with the political realm: do they really matter for anything?

When it comes to Presidential debates, of course, sometimes they do make a difference, especially when, as often happens, quite surprisingly, many people who do not keep up closely with the news don’t think there’s really that much difference between the candidates to choose from (remember, before the election itself, Gore and Bush?).   But how often do public debates between two experts about social issues, policy decisions, domestic policies, foreign affairs, actually change anyone’s mind?

Typically the debaters want to look good, not to look like an idiot, be likeable, thought to have done a more rhetorically effective job.  But most people watch especially for the gotcha moments.  And so in the end, what *good* does it do?  What *difference* does it make?  What practical *effect* does it have?  Is it really all just a popularity contest and a form of public entertainment?

The same is true in other realms as well, including debates between religious experts.  People like watching them.  Some people like participating in them.  Others do them because they think it can perform a valuable service, say, to help people “see the truth.”  But in the end, does it do any good?

What do you think?

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2023-01-02T11:49:03-05:00January 14th, 2023|Public Forum|

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  1. DoubtingTom January 14, 2023 at 7:09 am

    Debate can be educational when the debaters have respect for each other.
    Otherwise they are a predictable waste of time, rife with virtue signaling while dehumanizing the opponent.
    Every political debate moderator is deeply biased, and tilts the discussion in favor of his preferred opponent.

  2. Judith January 14, 2023 at 7:39 am

    For those who are searching for what is true, what is right or which is better, debates are helpful.

  3. jsgleeson January 14, 2023 at 7:57 am

    I rather doubt that any single debate results in an epiphany for one or more individuals, whereby they reverse their own position on the resolution at the center of the debate. At best, I expect that’s a rare occurrence.

    But I do think that listening thoughtfully to a debate is one forceful form of enquiry that, when combined with other forms of enquiry, can shape public and personal opinions, which in turn shape public policy and affect people’s lives in concrete ways.

  4. rivercrowman January 14, 2023 at 7:58 am

    No. Not in my opinion. Watching you debate William Lane Craig and Jimmy Akin gave me my fill of such novel and somewhat entertaining events.

  5. RD January 14, 2023 at 8:11 am

    Political debates are not useful in general because they often seem to devolve into tit-for-tat attacks, sometimes personal, on the opposing candidate’s views or policies. The more articulate or quick-witted of the two gains an advantage. Better to have each candidate asked basically the same set of questions one at a time while the other is not present on-stage.

    Religious debates seem to be different, usually more respectful, less confrontational and thereby more informative and enjoyable for the audience.

  6. spl January 14, 2023 at 9:46 am

    Political debates tend to come down to one thing; which candidate is the most charismatic? They are usually the one to get elected. But intellectual debates can have some influence. Some people who have not been engaged may begin to incline towards one side or the other. And some partisans may be ready for a conversion experience and switch to the other side. It does happen sometimes. In the short term little effect, but in the longer term these things are cumulative.
    As for debates around, say, the question of whether Jesus existed, they can have little value for determining the truth. The debate will be “won” by the person who is the best debater or with the most supporters in the audience. The truth can only be approached by a deep and thoughtful consideration of the different theories and supporting evidence. The audience at a debate are not going to be able to do this. It is more a case of getting some of the audience interested enough to probe deeper.

  7. jscheller January 14, 2023 at 9:51 am

    It’s debatable.

    • dabizi January 17, 2023 at 7:39 pm

      It is interesting to see individuals who have switched sides on an issue debate. They can often anticipate arguments well and can bring more clarity to their articulated position. But while the thinking has changed, the mindset/behavior often remains the same, or perhaps is even more invigorated. For those of a former fundamentalist bent (whatever the discipline), the rigid certainty, and especially the passion about the stakes of being wrong, may still be there.

  8. blclaassen January 14, 2023 at 10:48 am

    IF the debaters are actually experts presenting objective info in an objective manner and leaving it up to the observer to choose one platform over the other as more constructive, then yes, it does some good. But that is almost never what we see. Behind the majority of public debates in this age, the presenters are seeking publicity for the sake of profit – emotion equals ratings. The observers are effectively manipulated into watching a tribal contest with loyalties already firmly in place. We smile when our side makes the other one squirm, we simmer when they make our side look bad. If the objective is to educate people on policy and platform, that can be done in print as opposing viewpoints in order to showcase leadership qualities. Debating hot topics in person exists for the overarching reason of creating drama for drama’s sake, of which the human animal cannot get enough. If this sounds cynical it’s because I have watched too many televised debates in forty years that have led exactly nowhere.

    • BDEhrman January 15, 2023 at 11:11 am

      I suppose if both sides were dealing with a matter that involved only objective evidence there would be no debate!

      • dabizi January 17, 2023 at 8:06 pm

        Even then, it can make for a good debate. For example, the cost of increasing inpatient psychiatric care for a particular region might be $X hundred million dollars. It would likely reduce deaths due to exposure, overdoses due to self-medication with illicit drugs, as well as violence between A and C%. It is also objective information that such a project will require a Q% increase in property taxes. All objective information, but there will be passionate defenders on all sides of the debate, and an issue like this might even split the Left between paternalists who want to protect people from themselves, and those who seek autonomy for the mentally ill and unhoused.

        I think dialectical debate is best to rationally draw out the important positions for any issue, but any sort of debate still has value for society. It takes courage, confidence and hard work to debate successfully, and i salute those who do participate in debates.

      • TimOBrien February 3, 2023 at 10:45 pm

        Debates — on politics or religion — generate more heat than light because of the same, dualistic, “both sides” presupposition.

        Our political choice is between liberal Vidal’s caretaker, “Mommy” government and conservative Buckley’s disciplinarian, “Daddy” government. It’s either condescending, “You share with your little sister!” Democrats or scolding, “You behave yourself!” Republicans.

        The libertarian view of citizens as competent adults capable of running their own lives — that government should merely protect peaceful, honest people from those who aren’t, and provide the infrastructure used by everyone — isn’t on the dais.

        Voters have been reduced to the rope in a bipartisan tug-of-war. (They do fully agree, however, on their disastrous policy of sending what *should* be our national defense forces on military adventures all over the planet.)

        The “both sides” of political debates is like the range of musical stylings at Bob’s Country Bunker: “We have both kinds,” the barmaid boasted, “Country AND Western!”

        But, no worries. The future is secure in the hands of our professional ruling class. Vote for Hobson!

        So just grab a beer and enjoy Super Bowl LVII. (Hey! Maybe we could have the same two teams play each other every year! 🤔)

        Then there’s debating religion from both sides…

      • TimOBrien February 4, 2023 at 9:45 am

        Tempestuous debates over the putative “empty tomb” have been brewing of late in YouTube/podcast, religious teapots.

        Did a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, one Joseph of Arimathea, successfully petition Pilate for the body of the crucified Jesus to be interred in what was to be this (apparently no longer secret) admirer’s own tomb? Or was the body of the failed, Jewish Messiah left to rot on the gibbet, before being ignominiously tossed into a mass grave — as was the common, make-an-example-of-him practice of the Roman occupation?

        All the sturm und drang arises from the presuppositions of the only two debaters ever represented in the brew (ha ha 😉) — atheists, who believe there IS no God to have raised Jesus from the dead, and apologists for church doctrine orthodoxy, who will twist the particulars of any Bible passage into a plausibility pretzel to preserve the inerrancy of their “sacred scripture.”

        There never seems to be room on the dualistic dais for the excluded middle.

        Falsifying the “empty tomb” postscript to Jesus’ horrifying execution does not perforce discredit assertions that he was raised from the dead and appeared to some of those who had followed him during his brief, earthly ministry.


      • TimOBrien February 4, 2023 at 9:50 am

        Unflagging defense of the“empty tomb” narrative merely illustrates the doctrinal obsession with casting the Incarnate Word as the fulfillment of OT prophecy — by perpetuating the Jewish theology of physical, bodily resurrection.

        No room is made in the plethora of these YouTube/podcast debates for the possibility that the divine emissary, sent by the “Father” to show the “Way” to salvation, was (more logically and appropriately) resurrected in spiritual, rather than corporeal, form. Though that was in fact the experience Paul claimed to have a few years later.

        The “Son” would, of course, have appeared to his erstwhile disciples as the Jesus of Nazareth they had known and loved — the mortal man who in face of an unimaginably horrific death refused to repudiate the emissary or mission he had taken on. To borrow a line from Tom Petty: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell and I won’t back down!”

        What became of the body of Jesus doesn’t detract in the slightest from his astonishing life and appallingly undeserved death. Obsessing on how and where he was buried merely demonstrates that orthodox apologists “do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

      • TimOBrien February 13, 2023 at 1:35 pm

        The “both sides” here are RC orthodoxy or atheism.

        Prod fastidiousness notwithstanding, AFAIK no Christian denomination has ever challenged *any* fundamental doctrine propounded by the Council of Nicaea. The only thing Luther & Co repudiated was what had become the (absolutely) corrupt, RCC power structure.

        Aside from deposing the pope as infallible authority for deck chair rearrangement on the IHS Christianity, the vaunted “Reformation” produced NO doctrinal reforms whatsoever! All RCC tenets — from such mundane inanities as the “Virgin Birth” to the profoundly consequential “Substitutionary Atonement” — continue to remain unquestioned, unexamined, and utterly intractable.

        Which denomination reflects Marcion’s theology of dueling divinities — because the “Father” of Jesus could not possibly have been (the obviously deranged) Yahweh?

        Which embraces the Ebionite understanding of Jesus as a mortal man who became the “Son” when the Holy Spirit descended upon him at his baptism?

        Which preserves the Gnostic view that salvation comes, not from Jesus’ brutal death, but from the life-giving knowledge he imparted of how to draw closer to the Divine over successive lifetimes?

        Has *any* denomination embraced *any* of these (eminently defensible) alternative theologies?

        Has any jot or tittle decreed “heresy” by the imperially-empowered RCC — sixteen centuries ago! — EVER been challenged?

        • BDEhrman February 16, 2023 at 3:56 pm

          It’s possible of course to see what “denominations” think about this that or the other thing, at least when their leaders comment on it. But most Christians believe things at odds with this or that denominatoin, and there are plenty of Christians that believe all sorts of theings that would be condemned by this or that set of denomintional leaders — from Baptists, to Catholics, to Mormons, and soon.

  9. giselebendor January 14, 2023 at 12:07 pm

    Never thought about this. Thanks for posting ” out of the box”.

    Watched every debate I could since I came to the US, even as I couldn’t yet vote for 20 years after my arrival in 1980. For me it was an important way to understand the public conversation. My goal was educational.

    Never having formed an opinion on public debates, considering them a staple and an exercise of Democracy, I googled a bit.

    Clearly most people don’t think such debates influence election outcomes much, yet the same people enumerate a goodly list of unsuspected benefits.

    Surprisingly, Presidential debates seem to influence the candidates themselves by defining the issues for them. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton offered relevant comments on the issue of issues ( pun intended). Their statements are included in the comprehensive article

  10. joeydag January 14, 2023 at 12:31 pm

    Isn’t it interesting how a debate between two seems more dramatic than a panel discussion between three or more? The drama of a debate is more entertaining than a presentation of contrasting views on an issue but not necessarily more informative. Do debates draw more people to attend? That would be a reason to present more debates than say roundtable discussions and probably costs less to attract the participants.

  11. Apocryphile January 14, 2023 at 12:37 pm

    In terms of changing peoples’ minds and pre-set views of the world, no, I don’t think debates matter a wit. It’s the same arguing your point with someone of a different political stripe at the dinner table – I don’t think you ever change someone’s mind this way. I recall my own conversation with a family member who was convinced that Trump “won” the debates with Hilary Clinton(!) What televised debates, especially ones between presidential candidates *do* do, is, as you suggest, garner viewership for their networks. People tune in for the spectacle, for the mud slinging and gotcha moments, no matter how elevated their view of their own reasons for watching them. Bread and circuses – but in the end, no one’s preconceived opinions are changed.

  12. billw977 January 14, 2023 at 12:52 pm

    Do Public Debates Do Anyone Any Good? I’m going to say in general, yes. Personally I’m not into watching debates unless it’s about a subject matter I’m really curious about, or, involves someone that I’m wondering, what is that person really like, like you. I read your books, which were very informative and helpful but, watching you perform in a debate would, for me, lead credence to your claims. (You passed) That’s probably not a good scientific way of looking at it, but human nature is human nature. For example, back when I used to be into that kind of thing, I watched a debate/discussion on TBN about ‘young earth vs old earth’ theology. Ken Ham and Hugh Ross were guests among others. Ken Ham could have been 100% correct on all his points but the way he acted towards Hugh Ross turned me completely off to him. I was leaning towards Ross’s ideas anyway, but this kind of sealed it for me. So yes, debates can be helpful.

  13. illogician January 14, 2023 at 2:26 pm

    When it comes to debates I think the good that comes out of it is that people who watch them—whichever side they happen to be on—have to sit and listen to someone they disagree with. Many people will only hear “the other side” in the form of caricatures drawn up by people on “their side,” and when they have to sit through a debate and hear a view they disagree with articulated by one who actually holds it, they may realize that even if they don’t ultimately agree, “the other side” has points to make. And those points may be less crazy than they realized.

  14. Kevin Pendergrass January 14, 2023 at 2:34 pm

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I think it depends on the debate itself, the platform, the participants, and so on. If the topic is relevant, the participants are skilled, knowledgable, respectable, and kind, and if the format is conducive to learning, I think it is fantastic.

    I’ve learned so much from your debates with Mike Licona and Robert Price. Both were done very well. On the other hand, some of your opponents were, well, not knowledgeable, kind, or respectable. They were simply skilled in rhetoric and theater. I think that’s where debates get a bad rap.

  15. mini1071 January 14, 2023 at 3:20 pm

    “The debates ended up producing fireworks, ad hominem attacks, and finally a major flare-up on screen – all of which made a massive difference in the television ratings, with people throughout the country glued to their TVs to the detriment of the other two channels.

    But was anything resolved? “

    A lot was resolved half the world away…. 68 was the Tet Offensive….

  16. Stephen January 14, 2023 at 5:26 pm

    Probably not but your encounters with fundamentalists are enormously entertaining.

  17. edelawfirm January 14, 2023 at 5:37 pm

    Bart, in my experience it depends on who the debaters are that are participating. A specific example is when you debated Mr. Dinesh D’Souza on the topic of Theodicy. I don’t place Dinesh in the category of “fundamentalist” but his arguments are fairly typical of those I grew up hearing in my former Southern Baptist circles. You had a spirited debate as Dinesh has an articulate delivery. I was able to share a replay of it with a friend who was in a very conservative charismatic community at the time. Your closing statement had a significant impact on this person who was moved by what they perceived as a disheartening effort by D’Souza and a new appreciation for your views not presented in their community. In this instance the debate was useful.

    • BDEhrman January 15, 2023 at 11:16 am

      Thanks. Dinesh is a very smart fellow…

  18. rickivens January 14, 2023 at 6:05 pm

    Do people watch NASCAR just for the wrecks?

  19. RayC January 14, 2023 at 6:36 pm

    Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but whether or not a debate does any good depends upon the topic, the debaters, and the audience. Using William F. Buckley’s Firing Line program as an example, he would debate those of every political stripe. By far most (not all) were civil, each side let the other speak, few ad hominem attacks, with an adherence to the topic and facts at hand. Watching some of these debates today show just how effective a tool a good debate can be. Unfortunately, today we have attempts to simply silence one side of a debate, an extremely worrisome development.

    By the way, in the Buckley/Vidal debates, Vidal engaged in ad hominem attacks far more than Buckley. When Vidal finally accused Buckley of being a Nazi, Buckley exploded by saying he fought the Nazis along with a strong statement about Vidal’s sexual orientation. Buckley’s attack is remembered as a major mistake (and even he admitted as much), but Vidal and his personal attacks on Buckley were apparently fine and dandy, meriting not so much as a mention as I recall. Anyway, sounds like an interesting play.

    • BDEhrman January 15, 2023 at 1:25 pm

      Good points. I was struck by that too. I suppose people thought that it was more relevant, since it is (a kind of?) political charge at least, referring to ideological views that can be manifest in governmental policy? I agree that it was over the top. But calling Vidal a Queer was beyond teh pale at the time. Great play though!

    • BDEhrman January 15, 2023 at 1:25 pm

      Good points. I was struck by that too. I suppose people thought that it was more relevant, since it is (a kind of?) political charge at least, referring to ideological views that can be manifest in governmental policy? I agree that it was over the top. But calling Vidal a Queer was beyond teh pale at the time. Great play though!

  20. brickleytre January 14, 2023 at 8:18 pm

    I take debates to be *introductions* to (at least some) relevant points of contention and resources about issues. I do not think they are (nor should be) conclusive for anyone.

  21. jayakron January 14, 2023 at 9:52 pm

    I guess it depends on one’s definition of “good.” But can there be any doubt that the spoken and printed word is responsible for the evolution human culture? That seem incontrovertible to me, and so I don’t see how debate can be anything less than the most vital and potentially positive form of human expression. Even when someone is called a crypto fascist and the other party threatens to punch him.

    On the other hand, maybe free debate isn’t merely ineffectual but downright dangerous. Twitter, Facebook and Google certainly seem to think so and have invested endless billions into controlling the exchange of ideas. I guess for the sake of the good.

  22. thesanealien January 14, 2023 at 10:26 pm

    Funny that you post this…My wife and I have been going through our deconstruction journey over the past 2 years or so and I frequently have discussions with my father about why I no longer believe. As my biblical knowledge increases, the more flaws and issues I see, but no matter how strong or compelling the facts I share with him, he seems STRONGER in his beliefs after every conversation. Despite any reason. Despite having no answers to my objections or the facts that I present…

    Every time, it always has the reverse effect.

    I’ve chocked it up to sunk cost fallacy. Beginning to think it’s not worthwhile now.

    • BDEhrman January 15, 2023 at 3:48 pm

      Yeah, family arguments never work. Oddly enough, areas of agreement are more likely to effect change. Go figure….

    • Temujin January 17, 2023 at 12:59 pm


      Have you heard of the backfire effect? It seems that is what is going on with your father.

      Usually an appeal to emotions is a better strategy to open someone up, so it is even possible to have their mind changed. Maybe tell him why the flaws matter to you.

  23. dabizi January 15, 2023 at 6:36 am

    The country is so polarized now. Even in academia, i find that individuals only listen to, and (especially) only associate with, others from within their worldview. The insularity of sequestering oneself within a particular hive (which is a choice… supposedly open-minded individuals should especially be motivated to hear other viewpoints) leads to an us-versus-them mindset.

    So when a public debate happens, it becomes a Romanesque event where opposing parties are there to see their side validated (and the opposing side bloodied).

    The faultlines that lead to such discord are not just right vs left topics, but everything… just within my subspecialty, advocates of tocolysis look down on those who are realistic about the evidence (and vice-versa), and the same is true for various progestogens for preterm birth prevention, on and on. And when a less robustly area of medicine becomes politicized, there are serious consequences for dissent, effectively precluding dissent (and any debate).

    It is harmful to moralize a particular viewpoint to such an extent that debating it becomes evidence that an individual is anti-science / immoral / hateful / going-Godwin.

  24. veritas January 15, 2023 at 10:17 am

    My immediate answer is *NO*. In a political debate, candidates voice their concepts and plan to persuade voters on their side,that is the process instituted.Vote for your favorite person,it’s how elections work. In fact, democracy means exactly that, an elected official who works for the people/country. It is a system,fair or not, to declare a winner. Can it be done any either way ? Not sure. When two people are debating about life issues/religion and so forth, there is always a tendency to declare a winner or a loser. It is in our DNA to shout”, Hey my guy/gal won!!!. It validates/reinforces our belief/values. When we look at it this way, we treat it as game of winners and losers and a division between humanity. In fact,many people responding, on the comment section, about a debate, will indicate whom they think won. As such, debates should be treated as *a point of view* to learn and understand anothers theory.Remove the word debate and the competitive edge is lost. Arius, Tyndale and others were declared heretics by those who didn’t agree with them. It does not mean they were wrong. In the end……

  25. veritas January 15, 2023 at 10:52 am

    …..debates are not what they are intended for. We have turned them into a competition on who best articulates with intellectual literary reasoning/prowess and often times a cynical attempt at the expense of their opponent and not a formal argument put forward in opposing views. Sure, they entertain, because we play the game and as such, treat it as a lottery of winners and losers. Over time, we have developed,I think most, a map of what we value, believe, trust and some truths to navigate through life. Many are convicted and many are not, so we stand/flipflop on the side of who best makes sense at the moment. Some things we may never know, but we can hear an outstanding argument, never forgetting it is only a view/theory. It does not mean it’s true. Where we lack,I believe, is our ability to love one another. Not in a Eros,Philia,Ludus or Philautia sense rather in a Pragma, Storge and Agape kind of love. I find it so difficult to do,on a personal level, because in the game of life, we are conditioned/taught to learn/battle our own fights. It is a battlefield of ideology and left to choose,never uniting.

    • AngeloB January 27, 2023 at 3:47 am

      You make very valid points Veritas! 🙂

  26. fishician January 15, 2023 at 12:05 pm

    I expect a few people might have their minds opened a little, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort, and it gives the apologists the chance to take potshots that harden their followers’ views. What bugs me is when they take a poll after and say “70% agree with Brother So-and-so, a clear victory for him!” without noting that 80% agreed with him before the debate, showing that he actually lost support during the debate. If you enjoy debates, do them, but it seems like a lot of work for little return. Maybe I’m underestimating their effect or overestimating the work you have to put into them.

  27. Martin Brody January 15, 2023 at 12:21 pm

    I wrote an article on this topic (unpublished; I’m shy) in which I analyze debate dynamics. The article uses the Pepsi Challenge campaign an illustration of debate dynamics as follows:

    “Placebo relevancy” means the debate on its face. What tastes better Coke or Pepsi.

    “Implicit Relevancy” means the real substance of the debate. Progressive values vs. traditional values. Pepsi, the choice of a new generation.

    “Implicit bias” means the inclination toward one position over the other.

    “Objectionable Motivating Passion” means the emotional investment someone has made to maintain their Implicit Bias. It is called objectionable because its either taboo or would be offensive to point out to the person who has this motivating passion. Thus, you really can’t have a debate on this motivating factor.

    “Unobjectionable Motivating Passion” means an emotional appeal to someone that you can actually discuss and maybe make some progress in changing their mind.

    My conclusion is that if you want to change someone’s mind, you have to interject an “Unobjectionable Motivating Passion” into the debate AND in order to overcome the Objectionable Motivating Passion, the Unobjectionable Motivating Passion has to trigger an emotional reaction AT LEAST as strong as the Objectionable. Motivating Passion.

  28. pstrst January 15, 2023 at 12:22 pm

    An anecdote about Gore Vidal: I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in 1982 when he was running for U.S. Senate. During the rally in front of Sproul Hall someone shouted out: “Are you a homosexual?” Vidal’s response: “I’m ecumenical.” It was a great comeback, especially because it sent a lot of us off to find a dictionary.

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 1:31 pm

      Ha! That’s a good one.

  29. doctim1982 January 15, 2023 at 2:41 pm

    A few years back, I started listening to the Intelligence Squared podcast. I learned more about the structure of debate than the content. There will always be disagreement; let’s face it, we come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and go through life suffering different “moods” along the way. As a species, we are all about interactive communication. We need to learn (re-learn) that debate is cool, but we need to emphasize civilized debate and human understanding. Wow, time for another scotch.

  30. GeoffClifton January 16, 2023 at 7:03 am

    I probably prefer debates fought out in print, like those here on the blog. Petty point scoring is less attractive in black and white and arguments can be fleshed out more effectively by people who perhaps don’t always perform at their best in the spotlight. Incidentally, for all his faults, Gareth Vidal was a great novelist. I read and enjoyed Julian (about Julian the Apostate) in my teens.

    • GeoffClifton January 16, 2023 at 7:42 am

      That’s Gore Vidal (@#$ autocorrect) 😄

  31. JustNotSure January 16, 2023 at 7:10 am

    I often think they are more valuable for posterity than anything contemporary. ref your example here! Because of the coverage & commentary they do provide interesting snapshots of politics, rhetoric, ethics etc. of the time in a way other sources won’t. They are emotionally charged in a propagandistic sense, which gives a unique kind of window into public/private sentiment. Also very handy for pulling quotes with which to berate one side or the other down the line, or to poke at the credibility of elder statespeople when they try and get back into the sphere in later life.

    That said, I sometimes daydream about a world in which speeches/interviews are not allowed in politics. Where only statements of policies, timelines, budgets or international relations etc. are legally sanctioned. It wouldn’t work, but I’d love to hang my future on something unaffected by personalities & slickly produced public faces.

    In religious debate – I’m sold on the genuine utility of informed confrontational conversation rather than traditional (i.e. useless) formats, especially when you’re on the call sheet!

  32. T5aylor January 16, 2023 at 9:27 am

    Absolutely debates matter. Keep at them. As individuals, we don’t often see much impact because as social psychology tells us: “People change their minds when their friends do.” People do not change their minds, by and large, because their opponents have fine arguments. However, the rub lies in “by and large.” At the margins, debates can be part of subtle cultural shifts that do lead some people to change positions. When enough people in an “in group” start to express new views (social scientists have published widely on this), other in group members will begin to follow and change ensues, sometimes rapidly. Acceptance of gay marriage is usually put forth as an example. So it all matters, but doesn’t lead to much as seen from the perspective of an individual life.

  33. jayakron January 16, 2023 at 10:38 am

    I’ll take a leap and assume that the “good” alluded to here is convincing religious believers that what they’d been taught isn’t necessarily so.

    Starting in the late 90s and for about 10 years, I debated with active believing members of a religious group I’d once fervently believed was The Only True Religion. I entered these debates with what I thought was a ton of slam-dunk evidence that this religion was a fraud, and was sure that many current believers would have to agree with my perspective.

    To my surprise, none of them agree with me on any points. They all made it clear to me that I was grossly deluded. Many hundreds of online debates seemed fruitless.

    In time though, several of them did leave this religion. It took years before the “pop” of acceptance hit them, and all came crashing down.

    What brings on that “pop”? I believe 2 things:
    1) Time
    2) Having someone close to them voice skepticism — people are FAR more likely to accept skeptical ideas from someone close to them than from someone they perceive is an outsider with an agenda.

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 1:45 pm

      That’s actually *not* what I mean! I mean whether debates do anything other than confirm people in what they alreaady think, whategver it is they think. If not, then I’m not sure what the point is.

  34. matthew January 16, 2023 at 11:46 am

    I learn more from debates than I do from books.

  35. JacobSapp01 January 16, 2023 at 5:27 pm

    Honestly, I think some debates are useful. But others aren’t. It’s worthwhile debating issues that matter deeply to millions of people, but sometimes debates are not approached in an honest manner.

    What topic would you personally like an opportunity to debate in an public forum that you have not had occasion to participate in?

    • BDEhrman January 18, 2023 at 1:52 pm

      Hmmm. Can’t think of any!

  36. longdistancerunner January 17, 2023 at 12:27 am

    I am nearly exactly your age ( September 28 1955) I remember Buckley threatening to punch Vidal or something…
    I miss Buckley’s show and some of the others back when we actually had thinking people talking from principle.
    When I graduated from OCS, I got a congratulatory card from Mr. Buckley. He was an OCS graduate too.
    Politically, I’ve swung back and forth over the years and love a good debate.
    They’ve gotten worse because the debaters have become less informed and less prepared for debate than in the past.
    I think politicians who want to run for the higher offices should be required to meet certain academic standards, namely, be constitutional lawyers.
    Neuro-surgeons have to be qualified, dentists have to be qualified, leading a country is at least as important as those professions.
    Just ordered your book.. looking forward to it.

    • joeydag January 18, 2023 at 4:52 pm

      Vidal called Buckley Jr. a “crypto-Nazi”; Buckley called Vidal a “queer “and threatened to “sock [him] in the goddamn face”.

  37. PDF January 17, 2023 at 6:49 am

    Those who go to or watch debates already have strong opinions. Not only do debates fail to change minds, research suggests that people become more entrenched in their point of view when it is challenged.

    Whether the debate topic is Biblical innerancy or which political party is the worst, few in the audience have open minds. Most of us have the mindset of Lord Molson:
    “I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I
    have already come.”

  38. Temujin January 17, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    I learn a lot from good debates! But I am a visual learner, so I wish more debates used slides or a whiteboard to diagram their ideas.

  39. avdominello January 18, 2023 at 12:14 pm

    I’ve often wrestled with (not to say “despaired about”) this question. I remember when someone asked you about your debate with Mike Licona and would there be a “winner.” you response was something like “Yes there will be, and everyone who sees the debate will know who it was.” Very clever way of putting that.

    But since reading “How Minds Change,” by David McRaney (highly recommended, BTW) I understand that like some of the commenters above have observed, debates can be effective tools for those who are genuinely receptive to information. By definition that would not be most people most of the time. That said, I find debates interesting to hear what tactics are used by either side to be aware of them.

    The author says that debates are hard because of the performative elements that creep in and that one-on-one discussions where common ground and basically Street Epistemology are used are the most effective means of engaging people effectively.

  40. AndySeattle January 18, 2023 at 3:22 pm

    Yes, debates are worthwhile. They are fun. They expose people to concepts that they might not otherwise be exposed to in a less fun format. But even if they were just fun and nothing more, I think that’s a good enough reason to have them.

  41. imu January 20, 2023 at 8:24 am

    If what you are saying is true and evidence-based, and you win over even one person, then I think the debate was worth it!

  42. MichaelHenry January 20, 2023 at 8:42 am

    I think the best debates are between a team of people ( 2 or 3) on each side that are experts in their fields. The best type which comes to mind are the intelligence squared US and UK series.

    I think the debate should be thought provoking and educational. The format I believe to be of best value is: opening statements, questions by moderator, questions to each other, questions by the audience, and finally a closing statement.

  43. kencreten January 20, 2023 at 4:43 pm

    Debates are interesting to me because of the person I am interested in hearing, usually. I do not know if my attitude is common, but I have no interest at all in hearing apologists saying the same arguments they’ve said for … forever it seems. I’d rather hear debates by people coming from the “same place” as far as critical scholarship. So, if Dr. Ehrman debated, Elaine Pagel, for example, on a point they might disagree on, that would be much more interesting than listening to an Evangelical or Fundamentalist discuss the huge chip they have on their shoulder as to why everyone needs to think a certain way about the past.

  44. David1948 January 20, 2023 at 5:50 pm

    No, it’s a most ineffectual way to get information, especially in Presidential “debates.”

  45. AQBill January 20, 2023 at 6:06 pm

    No matter your social, political or religious preferences, debates can be useful if the people involved – including the moderators – present their positions in a kind and civil manner. Unfortunately, of late, this is seldom achieved.

  46. HuMelekh7 January 20, 2023 at 6:21 pm

    To quote Michael Heiser,

    “Debates are for the lazy.”

    Because in public debates, you have a limited amount of time to unpack each other’s positions, and I don’t think the audience generally gets what the validity and substance of each other’s positions are.

    I prefer written debates rather than public ones. Because you have more time and less pressure to condense your points, and be able to walk through the position and the justifications behind it, etc.

    Just my thoughts.

    • AngeloB January 27, 2023 at 4:15 pm

      I like written debates too. I wish there were more of those on this blog.

  47. mreichert January 20, 2023 at 6:42 pm

    People change their minds and alter their thinking all the time. Public debates can be one of the ways minds are changed, though sometimes the change can be so small as to seem imperceptible. Then again, I remember not so long ago that Gay Marriage was not accepted across the US. Now it is fairly well accepted nation-wide! I don’t remember any specific debate or other public discourse that caused this change, but somehow an accumulation of public and private discussions did change the minds of lots of people. So, Dr. Ehrman, keep going with the debates. Changing a few people’s minds a little at a time adds up in the end as long as the message is compelling. Imagine if everyone stayed with Church teachings back in the age of Enlightenment? We could still be in some kind of anti-intellectual Dark Ages.

  48. Pattylt January 20, 2023 at 9:33 pm

    I’m a bit late to the party! I enjoy political debates when done by knowledgeable people. It’s often the only time I hear the opposing party’s views in a logical, well articulated manner. Usually, I only hear why the other side is woke or a socialist or anti American! I WANT to know why the other side disagrees with my opinion. I may not be persuaded but at least I know what their arguments are.

    Unfortunately, we don’t seem to get these types of debates anymore. It ends with me still scratching my head and wondering why they believe what they do. Religious debates are simply more fun. I learn what others believe and usually, why. (Often it’s just because the Bible says so). I don’t think they change any minds on the spot but, they can plant seeds or introduce some uncomfortable questions that blossom with time.

  49. david January 20, 2023 at 11:53 pm

    There was a time when debates meant something. The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates clarified the issue of slavery leading to the Civil War. But did they “convert” anyone?

    In the modern era, debates have devolved into showmanship—full stop. Consider the creation-evolution conflicts that lured so many scientists into debates with literalist crowd-pleasers: pack an auditorium with fundamentalists and pair a logic-oriented scientist methodically following the norms of persuasion with a hold-no-bars salesman and you’ll get a circus, not a discussion.

    Check out the creationist Duane Gish and his eponymous debate technique, the Gish Gallop:

  50. Sooty January 21, 2023 at 3:08 pm

    Last night I watched on YouTube an old debate between Christopher Hitchens/Stephen Fry and Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan/Catholic British MP Ann Widdecombe on “The Catholic Church Is a Force for Good in the World.” Having been raised Catholic, and enjoying a good verbal rumble, I was siding with Hitchens and Fry.

    Hitchens and Fry were highly amusing and articulate in their silver-tongued Oxbridge way, and spoke authentically and personally about the RC church’s faults (Fry does a lot of work in Uganda and savaged RC’s condom policy re: AIDS). It was interesting to hear the archbishop and MP counter, to understand what the Catholics felt was so positive. They didn’t have as much to offer in substance, let alone style. Some heated moments about RC, but nothing ad hominem. The audience’s pre-debate vote scored mildly anti-RC, which I’d expect in an Anglican audience; Hitch/Fry sailed away with the post-debate audience score, hundreds having changed their minds and voting to oppose.

    Many in the audience were British college students, so might not have known all the history. I feel hearing Hitch/Fry speak so clearly, and with a human touch (albeit a brilliant, educated human) might have convinced these folks.

  51. truxtonm January 22, 2023 at 8:27 pm

    Really depends on the people. Actually, there was a debate you had with D’nesh I learned how not to lose your s**t with a disengenuous debater. I never liked that guy even when I was in the walls.

    I learn from it when it’s not just the typical apologist word salad and dodging issues.

    Like, I think it would be a waste of time for you to “debate” someone like Kyle Butt (again) or a Ray Comfort type.

    I think Dawkins is correct in refusing to debate young earth creationists.

    I’ve learned a lot from your debates and helped me sort out my exit from my fundie type background.

  52. Spooner January 27, 2023 at 6:20 pm

    In general, I have preferred your lectures because those provide a single consistent narrative. Some debates are useful when they reveal the stronger and weaker points on each side. Debates with folks like Craig are not productive because he tries to set the rules or maneuver to just win.

    I thought your conversation with Sam Harris was interesting because a number points came out that don’t ever see the light when you’re talking to vocal Christians.


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