Why Richard Dawkins Doesn’t Do Debates August 14, 2012

Why Richard Dawkins Doesn’t Do Debates

The other day, I mentioned a planned boycott at an event where Richard Dawkins was going to speak.

Image via lewishamdreamer

Now, groups are calling on Dawkins to take part in a debate on God’s existence and Dawkins isn’t taking the (de)bait. He explains why:

… in their shoes, perhaps I would be clamouring for debates as well. If your case depends on pulpit-style oratory, manipulating the emotions of your audience and playing with words, debates will probably work for you very well. They do not, however, work well for explaining science. Debates play to the emotions, to soundbites, to oratorical flourishes and, all too often, to sheer volume. They may make for good drama, but they do not make for good understanding. Fine if your goal is to grandstand; no good at all if it is to educate…

He makes a point I’ve heard many times before. In a debate, you’re never playing to your opponent(s). You’re playing to the crowd.

And Christians are excellent actors.

Dawkins will, of course, take questions from the crowd after his talk as he has always done.

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  • Joe Zamecki

    I love god debates! First of all, when the Christians show up to the god debate, it’s like they’re admitting that their god belief is debatable. That’s a concession, in my humble opinion.

    I also think that our side can play to the audience with skill as well as the other side can. Playing for emotions is also within our realm of strategies, as there can be a lot of emotion to consider when thinking about how non-religious people are surrounded by religious people. Inside almost every Christian is someone who can understand the perspective of the underdog, just because they’ve all been trained to, when bemoaning and celebrating Jesus’ execution.

    One thing I don’t think we need at god debates however, is the same old names and faces we see at conventions every year. We need new people with creative ideas and bold approaches on that stage, who don’t help prepare the other side by being so well known in the first place. It’d be easy for us to debate Ray Comfort effectively, but if we don’t even know the point person for the other side, we’re at a disadvantage in that particular debate. Well that will work in the other direction too. 

    This is the kind of “sport” I like. 🙂

  • Patterrssonn

    Strange idea that you can debate god into existence.

  • anyone interested in the “debate” between believers and us has likely 1)already made up their mind or are already moving in the direction of changing their identity and 2)gets up off their butts to go to one of these on purpose and because they want to. let have ’em! free speech and stuff. i agree with joe, too. it’s nice to see them, en masse and in public, seemingly agree that the intellectual & scientific sides of the debate valids one.

    there is, as dawkins notes, a difference between entertainment/competition and education. that’s a whole different animal and i don’t think most debaters on any topic believe the latter is their goal. 

  • Hamster4life

    I’ve been a fan of only a few debates I’ve watched between atheists and theists. Quite honestly, when I’ve seen atheists go against the big Christian debaters, such as John Lennox, I’ve seen us doing quite poorly. Both Hitch and Dawkins were waxed by him. I don’t think it was because they were good “actors”. It was because they were just better. In other words, it’s a bit intellectually dishonest to say they may win because they are “good actors.”

    I totally agree with Richard that debates are better drama then instructive.

  • Well since God only exists in peoples’ minds, it is possible to debate the God belief into existance (or out of existance).  It isn’t a battle for or against the existance of God, it is a battle for and against the God-belief in peoples’s minds.

  • Stev84

    It’s still based mostly on rhetorical trickery. Given that speakers only have a limited amount of time, one popular tactic is to throw out so many points that they are impossible to address properly the few minutes available and then claim victory because something wasn’t answered.

    You’ll also notice that many debaters have a few talking points they recycle all the time. Both sides do this. It’s often less of a free discussion than it appears.

  • Fuzz

    The problem with such debates is that usually/often the theist argument is simple and makes an emotional appeal, while the scientific argument is more nuanced. Take the “evolution = a hurricane through a junk yard producing an airplane = impossible” argument made by many theists. At the surface, this seems to make sense — it appeals to our emotion/intuition right away. But in order understand why that is a fallacious argument, the opposing speaker has to explain (and the audience has to understand) many things like chemistry, biology, genetics, statistics, etc. It is easy to make the evolution = junk yard argument in 5 seconds, but harder to debunk it in the same amount of time.

  • Julietdefarge

    The man has real science to do.  I’m grateful that he can spare any time for promoting atheism at all.

  • Philo Vaihinger

    Too, if you’re willing to stonewall with stupidity so egregious it’s a kind of defiant, bullying challenge, that can work.

    Cap Weinberger in an Oxford debate on Vietnam answered an objection that the fate of Vietnam posed no threat to America at all, let alone to its survival, with the assertion that there was no nation so small or so remote that the US did not have a vital interest in it.

    An assertion so numbingly stupid and appallingly, self-evidently false that the place went completely silent, utterly flabbergasted.

  • Guest

    I guess that’s as good of an excuse as any. 

  • Coyotenose

     ” Inside almost every Christian is someone who can understand the perspective of the underdog…”

    They’ve been trained to think of themselves and Christianity as the underdog. They react badly when the actual underdog is someone else, as it usually is.

  • would a written debate work better?

  • David

     He is in his 70s now, so I am no sure how active he is as a scientist any more; nowdays I think he carries the title of Emeritus Professor which implies at least partial retirement.

  • David

     There is an on going written debate going on between Russel Glasser and Stephen Feynstein on the Atheist Experience.
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/2012/07/31/reply-to-stephen-feinstein-round-three/

  • Dbaker13

    This is why I can’t stand William L. Craig. He tosses a LOT if arguments that have been boiled down to the bare minimum, and they take longer to debunk than to state.

  • Guest

    By the way, just because debates have been the stuff of intellectual discourse since, oh, about the time of ancient Greece if not before, and on up to the present day, Dawkins’ quick (and suspiciously weak) dismissal of them reminded me of nothing so much as this famous line: “Have you ever heard of Plato?  Aristotle?  Socrates?  Morons!”  Heh.

  • Guest

    So by that, you are saying that when atheists are showing up for a debate, they are conceding that there might be a god, and there might be valid ways of approaching the question outside of the typical parameters as usually defined by atheists? 

  • Bryan

     And even written debates fall into some of the same traps that verbal ones do: witness the Gish Gallop responses from Feinstein on the debate series David mentioned.

  • Pseudonym

    This is where I miss Hitchens. He could match theist debaters soundbite for soundbite, emotional appeal for emotional appeal, rhetoric for rhetoric, and cliche for cliche. He wasn’t bound by inconveniences like scientific merit or nuance either.

  • I was going to post something similar but less cogent, so I’m just going to “like” this one and call it a day.

  • Bo Tait

    It’s really important to take into consideration the experience gap between most atheist speakers and christian speakers.
    Christians tend to have way more hours standing in front of the crowd with the intention of evoking emotional response. They are practiced and have refined their onstage presence and style. Comfort and flow does a lot for you in these types of debates when considering the crowd.I never liked watching Dawkins debate because I don’t think he is very good at it, and that’s probably due to his relative inexperience in comparison to someone that preaches weekly. He just isn’t very polished or quick on his feet. Whenever he stumbles it makes him seem unsure. Perhaps this is because this topic isn’t actually his area of expertise.His written work, specifically scientific oriented, is much more convincing. That’s where he shines. He can take his time and build his case from the ground up in the field he is clasically trained to handle.  Although, from what I can tell, his Selfish Gene theory isn’t favoured like it used to be the book is incredibly well constructed to support his viewpoint.