Christians can be pretty divided on the subject of debate. Some people believe it is a useful means of sharing Christianity and testing ideas to see how they hold up to scrutiny. Others believe it is a useless example of showmanship and doesn’t actually change people’s minds. I developed an interest in formal debate before I knew about apologetics. I’d just finished my first year competing in debate when I picked up Greg Koukl’s Tactics. It hit me pretty quickly that there was a lot of overlap between the two areas of study, and I was excited to learn more of both. However, even among some apologists, many still question if formal debates are at best a waste of time, and at worst doing harm. While I need to acknowledge my own bias, I want to explore a few different aspects of this question. Why do Christians debate?
Reasons to Prefer
Because of course I’m going to organize this post like that. Like I said, no bias whatsoever here.
Iron Sharpens Iron
As much as I value bouncing ideas around with other Christians, eventually we need to give them a true test run. How do they stand up against someone who actually disagrees? Are they sound and persuasive arguments? Can I present them in a winsome and loving way? One could argue you don’t need a formal debate to do this, and I would generally agree. However, there are unique aspects of a formal debate that help with this.
Choosing the Best Champion
A formal and structured debate gives an opportunity to have the best representatives of each side match wits. Both sides know more or less where the debate will go, and will have time to practice and prepare. It’s the academic equivalent of two armies facing each other, and rather than getting into a messy bloodbath, they decide to both choose their strongest representative. What better way to see if arguments hold up to scrutiny than to see them tested in a confrontation between the best?
Speak to the Bigger Audience
Debate is never about persuading your opponent. I recall watching the rather disappointing debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye a number of years ago. Many people got hung up on Ken Ham admitting that nothing could change his mind. To harp on that is to miss the point of debate. And let’s be honest, there were much bigger problems with that debate. Even among amateur high school debaters, you will never see a debate end with one side saying “My opponent is absolutely right, and I was wrong.” It’s not my job to persuade my opponent any more than it is a defense attorney’s job to persuade the prosecution. In a debate about Christianity, the focus must always be on the audience.
These kinds of debates with big names attached tend to attract a larger audience than any lecture by one of the speakers ever could. Many viewers will come in firmly on one side of the debate and come out of it not having changed in the slightest. But the beauty of attracting a larger audience is that more people in the middle are likely to view it. People with no interest in a Christian sermon or lecture might tune in to hear someone intelligently make the case for Christianity while going toe to toe with some of the brightest skeptics in the world, that can get people’s attention.
Encourage the Believers
These public debates also provide a way to encourage those who already believe. Seeing a Christian stay composed under pressure while presenting strong arguments can be a great encouragement to a less confident Christian. Sometimes I will hear someone like William Lane Craig or another Christian thinker get deep into a philosophical concept I don’t fully understand. I am encouraged knowing that even if I don’t fully understand, someone does, and that person still believes in the same God that I do.
Reasons to Reject
While I think those are good reasons to still have debates, I do want to touch on a few reasons people do not like them.
They Don’t Work
This is the most common objection to them, that they take all this time and effort, and nobody changes their minds.
Showmanship Over Reason
People often assume that if you put the two smartest people in the world and have them debate, you’ll get the best debate. In reality, there are many skills like organization, time management, and public speaking that will be critical to success in a formal debate. In some people’s eyes this makes them less valuable, as there are too many other barriers to get through before analyzing the raw arguments.
There’s Better Ways
Some would say that there are good ways to reach people without resorting to a debate. With a debate people’s defenses go up, there’s no room for a more sincere conversation. Even now, many of these formal debates are opting for a more casual conversational approach, closer to something like Justin Brierly’s “Unbelievable?”
Why do Christians debate? As someone who’s been a fan of this kind of event ever since I watched William Lane Craig debate Alex Rosenberg back in high school, I’m of course somewhat biased. There are reasons to prefer and reject this kind of public formal debate, but I’ll let you be the judge in this case.
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