I’m contemplating doing another debate for BECO (Bart Ehrman Courses Online; you can see the various courses on my website: http://www.bartehrman.com).  It won’t be just like the last one, on whether historians can “prove” that Jesus was raised from the dead,  since that one was, well, seven hours! (https://www.bartehrman.com/did-the-resurrection-of-jesus-really-happen-bart-ehrman-mike-licona-debate/).  But if I do it, it would be on something equally interesting.  While pondering doing it, I remembered that long ago on the blog I talked about the value (or lack of value) of public debates, in relation to one of the exercises I do in my undergradaute classroom.  I looked it over and thought it might be good to run the thread again.  Here’s the first one, on … whether there is really any point in doing them…


As most readers of the blog know, I do a good number of public debates, almost always (I’m trying to think if there is an exception!) with conservative Christians or fundamentalists who think that my views are dangerous to the good Christians of their communities and to all those non-Christians they very much want to convert.   My view all along has been that my historical views are not a threat to Christian faith, but only to a particular (and particularly narrow) understanding of that faith.   But most of my debate partners can’t see things that way.  For them, their views are Christianity, and any other kind of Christianity is not actually Christianity.

I usually look forward to these debates in advance, but I have to say that almost every time I’m actually having one, I start jotting notes to myself, asking “Why Am I Doing This?” or “Why Do I Do This To Myself?”   I often find the debates very frustrating.

I imagine my debate partners do as well.  They just can’t understand why I don’t see the truth.  Or rather, they think that because I’m a fallen creature who does not have faith (or am willful; or wicked; or rebellious) that I simply can’t see the truth that is staring me right in the eyes.

For my part I certainly don’t understand why they can’t see the truth staring them in the eyes, and in my weaker moments I tell myself that it’s because they are so dogmatically tied to their views for very personal, emotional, and psychological reasons that they won’t allow themselves to see what any reasonable person ought to see, whether it is about discrepancies and historical mistakes in the Bible, or about our highly unfortunate lack of early, extensive manuscripts of the New Testament, or about how there can be such intense and meaningless suffering in a world supposedly ruled by an Almighty God, or … or about any of the other things I debate.

The bigger problem, of course, is that people in the audience also are already on one side or the other before the debate, and in most instances (the vast majority of all instances) they are there in order to see their side win, and they are bound and determined that in fact their side will win and, afterward, has won.   An argument one side makes can be as fallible and specious as a person can humanly conceive, but it will sound convincing to people because it is what they want to hear, and when they hear it, they are convinced, because they were convinced before they heard it.

I think one of the most frustrating things for me is that in many instances (very many instances, from what I can tell), it will be clear as day that a debater is using an argument that will be way over the heads of almost everyone in the audience – the kind of argument that takes years of training to follow and understand.  The argument may be completely bogus, but the audience would have no way of knowing that, and demonstrating its fallacy would take something like an hour.   But the argument is convincing to people because it is an argument being advanced by someone who is smart – smarter or at least more knowledgable than they about this topic – and the very fact that a smart person can use such an argument shows that the conclusion drawn (the one the listeners want to have drawn) is intellectually defensible, and since it is both the view they have always held, and now can be shown to be defensible, well, then, they can rest assured that they are on the side of truth!

All of this became clear to me yesterday [remember: this was many years ago now] when I did something highly unusual in my Introduction to the New Testament class.   What I did is not actually unusual in the course – I do the same thing every year.  But I would say that it is a highly unusual exercise.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else ever do it, or heard of anyone doing it.    The exercise is meant to show students how to engage in a public debate.  The students need to know this because after spring break (which, thank the gods, is next week!) each of them will be involved in a class debate in front of their small group (20 person) recitation, arguing the affirmative or negative side of a resolution (they have to prepare well in advance for these debates: I’ll talk about them in a future post).

So students have to have some sense about *how* to engage in a debate.  And that means I have to show them.  The sensible way to show them is to stage a debate in the larger lecture class (there are about 140 students in the class this semester – I lecture to the larger class twice a week and then they meet with their smaller recitation for class discussion once a week).  The problem is that in that context it is very hard for me to find anyone who is willing to do a debate, for example, with me.  Most of my graduate student teaching assistants do not want to go toe to toe with me.  So how can I model a debate?  For years this is how I’ve done it:  I debate myself.

It’s actually a good bit of fun.   I have a resolution that I state.  I then give an affirmative speech arguing for the resolution.  Next I give a negative speech against the resolution.  I then give a negative rebuttal of what the affirmative side said.  And I end by giving an affirmative rebuttal of what the negative side said.   The whole thing takes about 45 minutes.

So I debated myself in class yesterday.  When I was the “affirmative team” I had on a sport jacket; when I was the “negative team” I took off the jacket and put on a cap.  Two different teams.

The resolution I debated was this:  “Resolved: The New Testament Book of Acts is Historically Accurate.”  The affirmative side mounted arguments that Acts is accurate; the negative side argued it is not accurate.   I threw myself into both sides with the best arguments I could make.

In my personal judgment, based on many years of study, I am convinced that the negative side has the better argument.   But I did my best to argue the alternative perspective as well.   At the end I had the students vote on which side they thought won.   Just over half the class thought that the affirmative side won.

Now I know that side extremely well – I had just argued it.  But I myself think it has a MUCH weaker argument.  And yet over half the class was convinced by it.  That made me sigh and think…..

So my plan on the blog is to show how this particular debate went by laying out the arguments made by each side (me and me)  and trying to expose the weaknesses of each, in an effort to reflect on the importance of being able to argue both sides of a controversial issue and to reflect on whether debates actually do any good or not.