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The Value (or Not) of Debates

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 evangelical 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…

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My Recitation Debates
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  1. Avatar
    cjeanne  March 10, 2016

    Your earlier point was made. Over half the class had already made up their minds that Acts was history.

  2. Avatar
    thelad2  March 10, 2016

    Bart: I seem to recall you describing your UNC students as coming from the “belt buckle of the Bible belt.” If that’s the case, I am, frankly, pleasantly surprised that nearly half the class voted for the the negative side. Maybe you’re a better debater than you know.

  3. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 10, 2016

    This is certainly going to be a fascinating thread to follow! I have to say, it was an acquaintance online that introduced me to your work. He tried for several weeks to get me to read one of your books. I refused because I didn’t want to read anything by an atheist. So then he tried to get me to watch a debate. Nope, wasn’t doing that either. He then asked me to watch a short video clip of you on The Colbert Report. I figured that you would be (sorry) a total jerk. I had discussions with several atheists in an online group, and I found them to be very extreme in their views.

    Anyway, I watched the video clip which made me uncomfortable! I thought Stephen was the aggressive one which surprised me. You made a silly joke, so I thought, okay, you’re not too *mean* I guess. After watching that, I agreed to watch a debate. I was very intrigued by the debate, so I then agreed to read Misquoting Jesus because my acquaintance swore it wouldn’t be a book about slamming Christians. He was right, and after more research on my own and watching a few more debates, I thought you could be right about *some* things. For a while, I thought you were still a bit extreme, so I wouldn’t join the blog. It didn’t work though because it sucked me right in! lol

    Overall, I think your debates are valuable. Otherwise, where would I be right now? Probably still trying to figure out a doctrine.

  4. Avatar
    kid_dr  March 10, 2016

    “He who debates himself argues with folly” – Hezekiah 20:19

    Insightful post as always, Bart. Thanks.

  5. Avatar
    longstop  March 10, 2016

    It must have occurred to you after all these years that no matter how well reasoned researched or delivered your arguments are you will not be able to overcome blind faith in a debate. I have watched your lectures on Youtube and I get so angry at the way your opponent will take issue with you; yet fail quite spectacularly to address your point. I am always willing to read the work of an academic who disagrees with you; ( but competent ones are few and far between). However debating with Evangelicals is doomed from the start as any concession on their part would be construed as a denial of faith. Don’t let the *******s grind you down. Pip pip.

  6. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 10, 2016

    Bart, blog about my loving father Zeus. The father in heaven I love so much !

  7. Avatar
    garytheman  March 10, 2016

    Why in your debates do you always take the negative side? Dr. Wallace for one has to debate you on substantiating the critically aclaimed conservative Christian aspect–the belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and even though there are slight discrepancies none of them are so relevant that you have to tear apart what the majority of Christians believe.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      Ha! Good question. I guess it’s because I simply accept the debate offers that come to me, and they’re always by people who want me to argue against the view they hold! But I suppose in the “suffering” debates I take the affirmative side.

  8. Avatar
    john76  March 10, 2016

    There is no such thing as “truth,’ just “point of view grounded in bias.” For example, when Republicans and Democrats debate in politics, one side is not “right” while the other is “wrong,” one side just has a “Republican bias,” while the other side has a “Democratic bias.” One side will win because they get the most votes, but that doesn’t make their position the “true one.” Or, take the example of the Supreme court: Late judge Antonin Scalia didn’t rule as he did because his positions were true, he ruled as he did because his rulings agreed with his “Conservative, originalist bias.” There can’t be one “truth” when there are “conservative” and “liberal” Supreme court justices. Recalcitrant evidence can disconfirm a point of view, but agreeing evidence can only support, never “prove,” a bias driven point of view. Every point of view is biased because they always carry along with them uncritically accepted assumptions.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      Well, it’s a complicated issue. But I’d say that it is true that Obama is the President, even if it can’t be established as true or false if he’s a *good* president.

      • Avatar
        john76  March 11, 2016

        Exactly. The problem is that people want to establish that he is a good or bad president.

      • Avatar
        john76  March 11, 2016

        You said: “But I’d say that it is true that Obama is the President, even if it can’t be established as true or false if he’s a *good* president.” This is a good illustration of what I was talking about. If you ask the Republican presidential candidates (Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich), Obama was a terrible president. If you ask the Democratic presidential candidates (Clinton, Sanders), Obama was a wonderful president. These are all judgements grounded in bias. It is not objectively “true” Obama was a “good” president, but rather it is “true” from a “liberal point of view.”

        • Bart
          Bart  March 12, 2016

          Right. But it doesn’t mean that some things (other things) can or cannot be “true”.

          • Avatar
            john76  March 12, 2016

            I know. I’m just saying, following Nietzsche, that “Value Judgements” are not grounded in objective truth, but rather biased point of view.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 18, 2016

          But there are fact-checkers. Many things that you say are grounded in bias on either side can be shown by more objective, not just bias-based evidence, to be true or not true.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  March 12, 2016


        Yet even Obama’s opponents (am kind of siding with the expressed view that there is really only human biased opinion – vs. such thing as unimpeachable truth) might argue (some do) that Obama is not a constitutionally valid president due to the controversy of whether he was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii.

        When this controversy was raging and then finally the Obama administration put a pdf of a birth certificate, that was supposed to clear up the matter (because it was signed by the deliverying doctor, mother, etc.), on a website, out of curosity I had my company’s graphic artist download it and we looked at it in Adobe Illustrator where the pdf layers (if any present) could be viewed. Sure enough it was made up of multiple layers. There was a scanned birth certificate document layer – the scanning was obvious due to the manner of residual grey scaled pixilation when viewed in higher magnification. The signatures fields were erased (all pixelation removed) from the signature fields on that scanned layer. Then other layers, having just signatures on them (they took original signatures from different sources), overlaid the scanned layer. Looking at these layers it was obvious that the signatures were carefully hand edited (no grey scale background pixelation due to scanning) by a graphic artist in something like Photoshop. When looked at normal magnification via a pdf viewer, the document looked convincing enough. When examined in Illustrator the document was an obvious fabrication.

        I only dive in on that matter to make the point that really about any assumption, evidence, so-called fact, etc., can be brought into disupte – even what should be very straight forward to establish basic facts (such as is Obama the president).

        In the end we talk about probabilities of likelihood – especially in matters of history. Or at least that is what I have learned from reading various Bart Ehrman writings. 🙂

        BTW, your writings and your debates (many thankfully put on YouTube) do the world at large much good. Tugging people away (even if very gradually) from the negative consequences of fundamentalist psychology is the work of the angels.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  March 12, 2016

      Was there ever such a person as Antonin Scalia? Was he a justice on the United States Supreme Court?
      Is there a United State?. Is there a person who uses the codename john76–or is he (it, she, they) just a figment of my imagination? Your message is one of relativism that has poisoned human discourse and scholarship and religion. This is a philosophical position that corrupts all discourse, scholarship and human interaction. If you believe this nonsense you can discount everything and everybody. It is worse than worthless, it is dangerous and destructive. You don’t believe it yourself, John76 or you wouldn’t bother to post a message that by your own standards is false.

      • Avatar
        Jayredinger  March 15, 2016

        IIamensdor I totally agree with you.

  9. Avatar
    Friendgill  March 10, 2016

    “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.”

    Perfect example of the Confirmation Bias, of which we are all guilty. I was part of the “in-group” of fundamentalism for most of my life, looking out at the out-group(almost everybody else) with disdain and judgment. Then I moved out and into a new in-group that felt that same disdain for my former in-group. It will be one of my lifelong chases to find the middle way.

  10. Avatar
    kentvw  March 10, 2016

    Bart, I think that at the end of the day, until you are willing to debate theology it doesn’t matter how you debate historical accuracy.
    A simple example would be; Did the Apostle Paul really have visions of Jesus or an overactive imagination with a huge ego behind it? A sales team leader pitching the idea that the world was soon going to end as they knew it. As well as his theology on just how that all worked. Who can say really?
    Either consciously or unconsciously people have a ton of fear in whatever form it may take for even questioning the above. The loss of people they hold dear, their community and their identity most of all. The compartments in the brain get sealed and people will die for those beliefs. It matters little what truth is. We are only human after all.

    Bart, it is very difficult being a warrior for *truth. I bet that in some way I don’t understand truth thanks you for your efforts.

  11. talmoore
    talmoore  March 10, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, debates are probably one of the worst methods of arriving at the truth of a proposition. Invariably, debates end up devolving into a battle of style over substance. That is to say, debaters are more concerned with using winning tactics than with actually arriving at some kind of accurate description of the universe. That’s why it’s no coincidence that debating teams are often made up of future lawyers, because lawyers usually care more about winning than with the truth. (Indeed, lawyers treat the “truth” as an inconvenient nuisance most of the time.) That being said, probably the most effective way of arriving at the truth was already discovered 2,300 years ago by the Greeks — that being the dialectical (i.e. Socratic) method — because in that method each and every propostion is picked apart, weighed and measured. Moreover, in the dialectical method the participants aren’t supposed to come in with any pre-conceived believes or objections. By agreement, each participant is there to arrive at some kind of objective truth, so there’s no “sides” or “teams”. The only side is the side of truth. That’s why I believe debates should be done away with and replaced with open dialogue. In such an open dialogue it becomes much more difficult to rely on sneaky tactics and fallacious reasoning, because all statements are analyzed dialectically. No one would be allowed to get away with a questionable or pandering utterance.

    As for who you choose to debate, I wish you would debate more Mythicists, because they have really become a plague in the secular community. In fact, many Mythicists will even quote mine your own writings to support their Mythicist positions, and I have run into more than a few Mythicists on the Interwebs who claim you to be a Mythicist! And when I correct them, they will actually use your own words against me to defend their believe that you’re a Mythicist. I know, strange, huh? But the only reason they can get away with claiming you as a Mythicist is that you simply don’t debate Mythicists enough, so they get the impression that you must be one of them. I know that debating Mythicists isn’t as sexy as debating hard-core evangelicals, and I’m sure the honorarium you get from the religious organizations is far more attractive than that of secular ones, but I would think that when it comes to your professional reputation, well, you can’t put a price on that.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      Yeah, the problem is that I’m simply not interested in debating mythicists! They are so much *work*! Like a girlfriend I had once….

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 11, 2016

        I feel ya

      • Avatar
        toejam  March 11, 2016

        I heard you were debating Robert M. Price in November? Is this still happening?

      • Avatar
        JB  March 12, 2016

        You used to date a Christ Mythicist? That’s a whole other blog post right there 😉

      • Avatar
        gavm  March 17, 2016

        You normally charge 5k for a debate yes? Charge a non jc believer 10k. That way its worth yr time and you’ll be motivated.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  March 11, 2016

      Bart wrote a book claiming in no uncertain terms that he believes Jesus existed. Carrier and his mob have written a counter book to that. Bart is also debating Price this year. If anyone thinks Bart is a mythicist they’re an idiot.

  12. Avatar
    MMahmud  March 10, 2016

    I think everybody on this blog would be veeery happy to see Acts argued, for and against.

    One question-like how many people do you think followed Jesus? Like 50-100 or even something in the thousands? I think we know it expanded pretty quickly when even converts like Paul were STARTING churches!!!(and filling those churches)

    But initially, after the crucifixion event how many followers did he have?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      My sense is that the NT is right: after his death there were possibly 11 men and a handful of women who “believed in him” — possibly 20 people at the start, or fewer.

  13. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  March 10, 2016

    “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 a couple of hours.”

    Ah, I believe you are speaking of Dr. Craig…

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      Ah, right. But not just him!

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 18, 2016

        Debates are for the audiences, not just the debaters. So, do you ever call an opponent on using an argument that’s way over the heads of the audience and challenge him or her to make the point some simpler way so that the majority, at least, of the listeners could understand?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2016

          The problem with raising that in a debate is that members of the audience might think it would be condescending to them.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 19, 2016

            I can see that. Call for a show of hands? “How many here followed Dr. So-and-So’s argument?”

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 11, 2016

      ::cough::Kalam Cosmological Argument::cough::

  14. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  March 10, 2016

    Your debates make a HUGE difference. Every time I watch (or more often, listen) to one of your debates, I reflect on the points presented and, if so moved, do some of my own amateur research. I’ve watched your debate with James White several times. It’s painful to watch with so many uncomfortable moments, but I learn a lot and “borrow” many of the more salient arguments. I didn’t enjoy White’s rhetorical style, but his constant questioning of whether you “are familiar with (insert your own Biblical scholar)’s research” seemed to be his most effective tactic. If you answer “no”, it implies that you may be limited in the sources you rely on for your argument, but if you answer “yes”, you run the risk of being asked to make your opponents point for them. I thought you dominated the debate, but I’ve employed White’s tactic a couple of times and found it to be very effective. Of course, your debate opponent will want to stick his thumb in your eye, which I was hoping you would do to White, so I only use the tactic with those I want to antagonize!

  15. Avatar
    perishingtardis  March 10, 2016

    I can imagine that debates are frustrating as everyone has already made their mind up before the debate. But at least you are sowing the seeds of critical thinking, and in years to come some of those present at the debate may start thinking about their beliefs and remember how much you actually taught them.

    Also I preordered your new book ages ago on Amazon UK and on the release date it became “out of stock” (even though I preordered). Obviously this is beyond your control, but the wait is killing me!

  16. Avatar
    Jimmy  March 10, 2016

    Hi Bart,
    I watched all of your debates on youtube and other resources. I can understand your frustration debating fundamentalist Christians. They continue using the same arguments over and over and over. I am looking forward to your debate with Robert Price later in the year. He is a very well read and nice guy. This debate will be a refreshing change from did Jesus rise from the dead debates. Are you looking forward to this debate ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      No, not at all, actually. But Bob’s a good guy, so it should be fun. But I’m just not that interested in arguing about mythicism….

  17. Avatar
    nacord  March 10, 2016

    I think the good members of the blog are going to need to see a video of that!

  18. Avatar
    plparker  March 10, 2016

    I look forward to your discussion on debates. I’m a big fan of debate as a learning activity for young people in high school and college, especially with a topic that involves religion where it may come up against firmly held beliefs. One of the toughest sells is to convince someone with firmly held beliefs about something that their beliefs lead them in the opposite direction on. Rather than be disappointed that more than half of the class ended up favoring the affirmative side of this question, I wonder how many who were predisposed to vote affirmative before the debate changed their minds and voted negative after the debate? Or visa versa? Have you asked your class how many voted differently after the debate than they would have voted before hearing the debate? Also was there a particular argument that persuaded them to think differently about the subject?

    When it comes to religious belief, what types of arguments tend to do better in persuading a person to reconsider something their belief system tells them the opposite about? I tend to think storytelling type arguments are best (e.g., the parables of Jesus), but also the rhetorical question with a pause, then an answer, can be effective. In both cases you’re letting the mind connect the dots for itself. In watching some of your debates I think you are especially effective with both of these techniques.

    In studying debate and speech arguments academically, or in my case, studying arguments in negotiations, it is useful if you can pinpoint a key “turning point” argument or pivot point. Why was that particular argument effective? What can I do to replicate that type of reaction in future negotiations or future debates?

  19. Avatar
    TomSmith  March 10, 2016

    Speaking of which: what’s the latest on the allegedly-first-century Mark fragment that one of your debate opponents was on the verge of putting out there? Seems like it’s been a couple of years, and the silence is deafening.

  20. Avatar
    Judith  March 10, 2016

    The debates are important as is everything you are doing. IMHO, you are pioneering a revolution for those of us fundamentalist Christians with the tiniest little crack in our belief systems. Once that process begins, there’s no going back in spite of how painful it is to be so very different from everyone else we love and care about. It has to be difficult for you, leading the charge. Hopefully, we can be supportive.

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