Many atheists and theists alike have sat through or listened to countless debates about the existence of God. But do debates work?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I have just finished a foreword for a book of debate openers and other essays for prolific atheist author John W. Loftus. His voluminous and impressive back catalog covers the whole gamut of anti-theist thinking and analysis.

This book, Debating Christianity: Opening Salvos in the Battle with Believers contains, in Part I, the written debate openers for public debates he has previously taken part in. Part II comprises some original and collected pieces, including an argument against the existence of God from the size of the universe, and a great chapter arguing against William Lane Craig’s inner witness of the holy spirit.

The power of this book is that the debate openers are in written format so the reader is stripped of the effect of live rhetorical and oratorical devices that may sway the listener irrespective of the rational power of the points. And this has got me thinking and wondering if you, the reader, have any experience with this.

While I believe books like this, and all of Loftus’s catalog (and you could include mine or any other atheist writer here), are extremely valuable resources that can be very persuasive, are debates—live debates—ever a source of mind-changing events?

When I think back to the early days of getting into counter-apologetics, I feverishly consumed all the debates I could find online, particularly those involving William Lane Craig. And though Craig often won them with his superior rhetoric and slick presentation skills, as well as his impressively quick mind, when he won, I didn’t find myself thinking about conceding the argument for the non-existence of God.

Rather, I imagined doing a better job myself (obviously!), or feverishly searching for counter-arguments to, say, Craig’s points. Craig’s successful debates arguably invoked the backfire effect, whereby I was entrenched even further into my original positions. It was all rather like a game, and although I (by proxy of the other debater) might have lost a round here, or a round there, I was prepared for future victories or searched out debates online that would ensure an atheist revenge-victory. (For the record, I always thought that Sean Carroll, Shelley Kagan, Ray Bradley, and Eddie Tabash had the better of Craig.)

These were opportunities for post hoc rationalizations.

Was I ever in danger of having my beliefs shift in any way?

As I have gotten older and wiser, and as my belief in the non-existence of God has become more solidified, I find that the sorts of debates I listen to concern the intricacies of philosophy. In reality, they often aren’t debates, but more often discussions between interlocutors or even just presentations. In these scenarios, with just me and these ideas floating around that may be about the ontology of logic or morality, the whole process isn’t so “team-based,” not so us and them.

I am interested in whether any debate you have ever watched—live or otherwise—has changed your mind.

Now, this might not be a case of changing your mind straight away, but a case of sowing a seed of doubt about something, instigating a journey toward a change of belief or opinion.

My opinion is that changing one’s mind in light of a debate is a rarity, though I can imagine that there have possibly many seeds sewn. What if your experience? And what is the single best debate you have seen? Was this debate about the spectacle, about the oratorical art form, or was it about the clash of ideas, with a meaningful winner?

[Debating Christianity: Opening Salvos in the Battle with Believers by John W. Loftus (foreword by Jonathan MS Pearce and an afterword by David Madison) is available in ebook with a paperback version to be released in the coming weeks.]

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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