Atheists often lose public debates with theists, especially when going up against heavyweights like William Lane Craig.
I don’t know of an atheist losing a debate to someone who denies evolution. That’s safe ground because the atheist can stick to science rather than the much murkier domains of philosophy.
But atheists still often, though perhaps not usually, lose debates on philosophical matters.
Debates are not a great method for truth-seeking, and they’re only one tiny part of the intellectual struggle among worldviews, but they tend to draw a crowd. So let me speculate on why atheists lose more often than they should.
First, atheists may lose for lack of time. In a debate, the clock is everything, and besides being poorly trained for debate, atheists often lose because their explanation for morality or consciousness or cosmogenesis or fine-tuning or whatever takes a heck of a lot longer to explain than “God did it.” Thus, the theist has a massive advantage, if he can get away with making the crowd think that “God did it” is an explanation – that it rises to the level of an hypothesis.
Second, and I think more importantly, atheists often lose because they present a weaker case. Maybe all the theist’s arguments are terrible, but to win the debate, the atheist has to show why his arguments are terrible, and (in some way) must give some good arguments for his own position. The atheist often does poorly in both these respects.
Atheists often prove themselves to be woefully incompetent in philosophy of religion, epistemology, naturalistic philosophy, and all topics of philosophy relevant to the debate. When somebody like Craig offers a boilerplate philosophical argument for theism, the atheist often has one or two responses to give. But then Craig gives the standard theistic answers, and the atheist doesn’t know what to do after that. Craig has memorized the first 6 moves of any possible chess game with atheists, and the atheist only knows one or two.
The atheist loses the chess match because he prepared for the debate by reading Wikipedia rather than Plantinga, Rowe, Alston, Oppy, and so on. A theist like Craig, on the other hand, has read all these thinkers many times over.
Example 1: The Moral Argument
The moral argument for theism is really simple. It says that without God as a foundation for moral values, there is no objective standard for morality. Without a transcendent source, morality can only be relative or subjective, and there is not even a reason to choose utilitarianism rather than Kantianism, or contractarianism rather than virtue ethics. But most people think objective moral values exist, so therefore God must exist.
I cannot tell you how many times I have seen the atheist confronted with this argument and refuse to answer. Usually they do not even seem to understand the argument. They protest “But many atheists are good people!” or “But Biblical morality is no good! Have you read the Bible?”
To this, Craig can only shake his head and say, “No, you’ve completely missed the point…” And he’s right. Atheists often don’t know even the first chess move in response to the moral argument.
Example 2: The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil is a handy weapon, because even theists know it’s a strong argument, and because it appeals to people’s emotions. Nobody feels it is “good” that God allows children to be raped by their parents or for innocent people to be drowned by pointless tsunamis. They will tell you they think God is good an all-powerful, but they certainly feel the tension here.
So the atheist has a good start when presenting the problem of evil. Then Craig or another philosophically trained theist will respond with Plantinga’s free will defense, or perhaps Wykstra’s skeptical theism. So far, so good: this is all Philosophy of Religion 101 stuff.
At that point, the atheist often appears to misunderstand the defense being offered, or else he responds with lame rebuttals that don’t go anywhere, and aren’t made in the philosophical literature anywhere because they are lame rebuttals.
Seriously, how hard would it be to read a few articles responding to the free will defense or to skeptical theism? It’s not that hard. These articles are out there, if you’re paying attention. But most atheists who enter debate don’t think they need to read any philosophy of religion before entering the ring with a professional theistic philosopher. So the theist runs circles around them because he has memorized the first 6 moves on all these arguments, and the atheist at most knows only one or two moves.
Maybe the moral argument is a bad argument for theism. Maybe the problem of evil is a good argument for atheism. But the atheist still loses when he fails to show why the moral argument is a bad argument, and why the problem of evil is a good argument. That is what I mean when I say that atheists often lose debates and often offer the weaker case.
So, atheist debaters: Stop embarrassing us. Do a little reading before you debate. At least read Rowe’s Intro to Philosophy of Religion. Read some of your opponent’s work, too. Contact me or some atheist philosophers and ask us to point you to some relevant literature, if you don’t have time to study the whole field.
Every good chess player has the first few moves memorized. This is not rocket science.
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