In Defense of Debates

I understand why some people don't like debates. I really do. Only in an honest dialogue can we get at the truth. In a debate format you'll probably never hear one side admitting the other side has a good point, or retract a statement that was shown to be wrong. No one concedes anything in such a contest because the goal is to win for their side. Just the same, let me offer six reasons in defense of debates.

1) They are entertaining. Debates are contests much like boxing fights, tennis matches, billiard contests, or races of any kind. What is the justification for these contests? Who needs one? We want to see people challenged to do their best at something. We come to root for our side, just like we do with our favorite sports teams. For people who don't like debates it may be nothing more nor less than personal preference. Some people don't like watching baseball or soccer. Still others might not like to watch tennis matches or boxing fights. Some people like one form of entertainment while others like to watch something different.

2) They are challenging. The best analogy to a debate is what we see in a courtroom trial with the contest between lawyers who seek to win their cases against prosecutors. Why would lawyers ever concede a point of a prosecutor, or vice versa? I see no reason why they should. According to court trial philosophy the truth is judged by the jury. The lawyer and prosecutor have rules of ethics they must abide by, but they can skew the evidence all they want beyond those guidelines, and they do (which gives lawyers a bad reputation, unjustified in most cases I think). They do not have to give credence to the other side at all. In fact, they shouldn't. Let the truth be decided by the jury, is the motto. So when I watch a debate I am in the jury, and I'm challenged to decide who won and why I think so.

3) They make us think. Apart from deciding who won and why, each debater forces us to think about the specific arguments they have made. The audience must consider each specific argument and judge it on its own merits. We are forced to consider how to better respond to an argument made by the opposing side, and/or even concede a good argument. I like watching court room programs on TV, whether real or scripted. I like to watch the participants argue. I like weighing each argument made, and catching any gerrymandering that might fudge with the truth in order to win.

4) They are educational. We learn from them. They provoke further study on an issue we may not have heard before. Some people won't read books by the opposition, so in a debate an argument can be introduced that people have never considered before. Such an argument may lead us to further study it for weeks, months, or years.

5) Debates give us something to talk about. They bring two sides together who can talk about the debate afterward. We can argue who won or lost and why, but more importantly it gives us a chance to further discuss an argument that both sides have heard. Only people who watched the debate can further discuss what was said in it.

6) From my perspective debates always favor the minority position, and so they are doubt producing. Since atheists are in the minority we always win by participating in them, as I've argued passionately before. They also introduce us and our work to the other side, and that is a good thing since some believers will get and read what we have written afterward.

So I like watching debates, especially between atheists and believers. I also like the challenge of being a participant in them for the same reasons.

They aren't for everyone, but they are enjoyed by lots of us.