In the comments that were posted below a recent blog I wrote I was challenged to consider a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart Ehrman regarding whether or not the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the relevant historical data. You’d have to read all the comments to get caught up on the context of the challenge, but it all boiled down the claim that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was not very compelling, and Ehrman proved as much against Craig in this particular debate. Well, I got around to listening to the debate (the audio I listened to can be found here) and what follows are a few comments about debates in general, and that debate in particular.
An important context for this entire discussion, as alluded to in the title of this post, is that we are all biased; Craig, Ehrman, me and… yes… even you.
When I first started into Apologetics I was not familiar with the use of debates to explore divergent opinions. My impression was that debates felt like useless exercises to keep scholars busy. They just argue with each other and nobody changes their minds. If this is your thinking, please read on. If you are already familiar with what debates are all about, and understand their merits, you can skip this section.
I’ll get to the purpose of debates in a minute but first I want to discuss a more practical question, how is a formal debate different from the kinds of dialogues we might find ourselves in over coffee and across our neighbours’ fence? First and foremost, a debate is publicized. There is an audience. When you share the big questions of life with your co-worker there probably aren’t a bunch of other co-workers sitting around the corner listening in. There should be less pressure than a formal debate, and rather importantly, there isn’t a clock telling you that your time is up.
Second, debates are not intended to be disinterested investigations into the truth, but rather they are intended to give both participants the opportunity to present the best possible case they can for their perspective, and to point out perceived holes in the perspective of their opponent. When you dialogue with people, if you take the approach I describe in Arguing with Friends, you will be primarily focused on searching for truth, and secondarily concerned with defending your views and finding fault in your friend’s views. For debaters they need to represent their side of the debate to the best of their ability. For the rest of us, we need to focus on truth, and be willing to acknowledge if we need to reconsider our perspective. We need to be as unbiased as possible (though nobody is completely so) whereas debaters are expected to defend their biases.
There are downsides to live debates. One downside I often see (and I saw it in this debate) is that there are so many concepts flying around that both sides usually end up misrepresenting the other – quite accidentally I am sure – on certain minor points. I paid attention and I believe in this debate there was at least one obvious misunderstanding on both sides. One speaker then ends up arguing against a position the other side does not hold simply because they misunderstood what was said. This is a downside, but I feel the benefits still outweigh the drawbacks and debates are still very useful tools.