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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
    Hon Wai  March 10, 2016

    Next time, take a vote of hands on the students’ position before you presented the debate. Then take another vote after the debate. What is more informative is the change in votes, not the absolute %.

  2. Avatar
    screwtape  March 10, 2016

    The next time you do a debate with yourself like this, why don’t you record it and put it on Youtube? I’m sure most of us would love to see it.

  3. Avatar
    Sallyanne  March 10, 2016

    I look forward to these upcoming debate posts! I’m sure it is frustrating to feel like people watching the debates are on the side that they will stay on, but watching one of your debates, then reading and listening to almost everything I could find by you was what completely deconstructed what was remaining of my fundamentalist Christianity, and I couldn’t be more thankful! I couldn’t believe how much I didn’t know and how big the discrepancys were! I had only ever heard apologists and believers talk about how the differences were small and insignificant. The story of the adulterous woman in John not being in the original manuscripts really really bothered me. Every christian I talked to had no problem and just said it didn’t change the resurrection, but for me it changed all reliability of the bible and the idea of inerrancy! Anyway, long way to say, your work is helpful and getting through to people 🙂

  4. Avatar
    smackemyackem  March 10, 2016

    //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.//

    Very true!

  5. Avatar
    Alfred  March 10, 2016

    Human evolutionary selection for ability to draw correct conclusions from detailed abstract argument was in my view probably non-existent or very weak. But human (and probably pre-human) evolutionary selection for willingness to accept and respond to leadership is I would guess very strong. When you debate (even with yourself) your are involved in both a debate and an act of leadership. As I write this I am watching the same thing on CNN. So you have to ask both: “did my argument persuade” AND “did I lead effectively”. You could test this by inserting leadership messages (I am wise and strong and people who follow me prosper) into one side of your self-debate and not the other. I bet that side would win. Sorry if this is a depressing idea, especially given what the American people are suffering at the moment ?

  6. Avatar
    prairieian  March 10, 2016

    We live in a world of experts where we have learned to distrust them (I don’t think this healthy). All of us are subject matter experts within our own spheres and most of the time I am in near despair with the content and arguments raised in the media on my profession. I can’t say that I am astonished to learn that your undergraduates have not yet learned how to assess evidence – it is hard to do and very often one must somehow sort out which version of the truth is correct. This is particularly difficult in those arenas in which you know relatively little. Even more difficult if you have not assessed your own biases that you bring to the table.

    That said, your exercise will presumably bring it home to your students how thorough and careful they have to be in assessing evidence and arguments arising therefrom. A useful follow up exercise might be to have the students refute each side of the issue towards the end of the course after they have learned more. Maybe an exam question! 🙂

  7. Avatar
    dragonfly  March 10, 2016

    How accurate would acts have to be to called accurate? Does it have to be 100%? Could the affirmative concede there were just a few details wrong and still argue that it’s accurate? What about a few inaccurate sections? What if the gist is basically what happened but all the details and speeches were made up?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      Ah, that’s one of the issues in my self-debate, as you’ll see.

  8. Avatar
    VirtualAlex  March 10, 2016

    The Mind Castle is EXTREMELY difficult to attack and conquer. The ideas we first hear (especially if we have been indoctrinated from birth) become walled into our minds and resist the assault of new, contradictory ideas at every turn.

    I sincerely hope that you are successful in getting some (hopefully most) of your students to engage in a reasoned consideration of their acceptance of weak (evangelical apologist) arguments and allow their mind castles to be challenged.

  9. Avatar
    dmondeel  March 10, 2016

    I’ve always thought you’ve won the debates I’ve see. That’s why I subscribe to your blog. You’ve cleared up many troubling claims orthodox religion has made

  10. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 10, 2016

    Scaffolding your students’ learning through debate is an excellent teaching method. If most of your students are very young, then maybe they’re just not developmentally capable of seeing the weaker argument. Many young people are very idealistic (fantasy vs. reality) with most areas of their lives: love, money, career, and certainly God. Understanding the difference between a weaker and stronger argument takes a certain amount of maturity. They’re just not *there* yet.

    In the past, I’ve had students write essays countering their own viewpoints. I tell them, “How can you argue your point if you don’t know what the other side is going to say? Research the countering argument and write an essay about it.” They literally have to present a case that’s against their own ideas. Some of them have changed their own minds! Don’t know if that would work with your class.

    It’s a shame that someone would argue their point by manipulating the audience. That’s dishonest and they know it. I think your opponents could do a better job at making a case for their side. And I can’t believe your students won’t volunteer to debate you. I would! I’m sure you’d completely destroy my argument, but I wouldn’t care. It would be fun!

  11. Avatar
    J--B  March 10, 2016

    I was asked by the forensics coach at the high school where I taught to act as a judge at some local competitions – although I knew almost nothing about debate. (He was desperate for judges.)
    The Lincoln-Douglas debate was always the most difficult event for me – especially when the topics were those on which I had strong opinions. Although I attempted to remain neutral, I knew I had heard great (and/or poor) debaters when I awarded a win to the side opposing my view.
    I guess there are many good reasons to “judge not”.

  12. Avatar
    toejam  March 11, 2016

    Yes, I find it difficult at times to take seriously the sincerity and open-mindedness of evangelical debaters. I’m keen to hear your debate with Richard Bauckham though. Looking forward to that one!

    I’m curious. I’ve only just started reading your new book, so maybe you address this in there. But here goes: Has your view of the historical Jesus changed at all after your studies into memory? Obviously I take it you still think he was an apocalyptic prophet with imminent apocalyptic expectations, but were there any minor details that you changed your mind about regarding what is or isn’t historical, or at the very least, anything you’ve reconsidered your level of confidence over? It seems to me that memory studies can’t add anything to our understanding of the the historical Jesus, but only expose further to us our inability to be confident about just about anything claimed about him. Can we ever really say we “know” anything about Jesus? I don’t think we can. We can only say what we suspect.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      I’ve changed some views on details. Maybe I’ll answer this in a mailbag post.

  13. Avatar
    gavriel  March 11, 2016

    Non-professionals need professionals with good communicating skills. If you hadn’t developed your debating skills from early age, you might not have produced all those best-selling trade books. After all – having read one of them years back, it made me continue buying most of your other books. Also, your videotaped debates published here are great for getting through a particular topic during a lone evening meal. So please continue! The problem to the non-professional is that we may misjudge the technical validity of topical arguments, because we lack the expertise, and let the communicating skills decide what we think is most convincing. Style seduces.

  14. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  March 11, 2016

    I really wish someone had filmed this!!

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 11, 2016

    1. What a terrific idea for some upcoming blogs.
    2. What a terrific idea to debate both sides of an issue in front of a class and how interesting what the students thought to be the better argument.
    3. I thought an exception to your having debated only fundamentalists might be your having debated a mythicist or two about the existence of Jesus, but I could not find such a debate. My “memory” thing again.
    4. The reactions that you have experienced in debates is exactly the same thing that I have experienced in church class discussions. It’s frustrating.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 11, 2016

    I would be interested in reading a summary of the pro and con arguments you used in your debate with yourself about whether or not Acts is historical.

  17. Avatar
    DeanMorrison  March 11, 2016

    Bart, as a Python fan you might appreciate this 😉


    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      Ha! Yup, it’s a classic, one of the best. EVERYONE on the blog should watch this!!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  March 12, 2016

        Fantastic!!!! We’ve all heard certain people taking each of the positions on this Python post–well, maybe not all the head pounding, but pretty close.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  March 12, 2016

        No they shouldn’t!

  18. Avatar
    Heraclitus  March 14, 2016

    I can only speak for myself, but I can say with certainty that your work and debates are almost solely responsible for the fact that I am no longer a Christian. And I consider that to be a very…very good thing. I first read Jesus Interrupted…but I was still a Christian. I then purchased your Bible course on tape…but was still a Christian. I watched you debate…but was still a Christian. It wasn’t…not ever is it…an instantaneous change. But trust me…the holes were poked and the thoughts were stimulated, and after a lot of careful consideration, I switched from your opponent to your supporter and never looked back. Thanks for all of it! I would still be a slave to ignorance without your work. It’s priceless in my book.

  19. Avatar
    RapidRiver  March 15, 2016

    Debates do not work in changing people’s world views, however they serve to further one’s personal convictions. To prove this one just needs to go to the 2000 presidential debates. No matter how poorly Bush did the far right always claimed him the victor. Perhaps I too would have claimed him to be the winner had I supported him. However, I imagine a lot of people who are not set in their ways come to your debates with a wanting to see both sides.

  20. Avatar
    gavm  March 17, 2016

    Hav you ever considered doing a debate with a muslim? You could do the historical
    Jesus/historicity of the cruxifiction

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