The atheist community is deeply divided about religious fundamentalism and creationism, but not about whether such preposterous claims have any validity. They disagree on whether scientists should debate fundamentalists about the "science" of the Bible. I think both sides have reasonable arguments in the debate on whether to debate.
Here are arguments against debating: What's to debate? Evolution is–true! That a man named Noah put pairs of all species from a 6000-year-old earth in an ark he built when he was 600 years old is–false! Sharing a stage with creationists just lends them credibility. In any case, evidence will eventually win. Debates are often more about oratory skill than evidence. Preachers and pseudoscientists usually have more debating experience and skills than do scientists. Should we also debate Holocaust deniers or members of the Flat-Earth Society?
Here are arguments for debating: If scientists don't defend scientific theories, we will lose the battle of public opinion. Many fundamentalists have heard only the preacher's side and a debate might spark illumination for some who listen to a scientific theory explained by a real scientist.
My opinion is that the best way to counter bad speech is with good speech. I've debated on topics that include whether God exists, if we should have prayer in public schools, whether we are a Christian nation, if atheists should be allowed to hold public office, and whether we can be moral without God. My debates have often been against fundamentalist ministers in my home state of South Carolina, with most of the audience from the minister's flock. I've never worried about giving credibility to the ministers, who more likely might be worried about giving credibility to me.
Debates are never about changing the mind of the debate opponent. I hope to plant seeds of doubt with those in the audience who are open to new ideas. I think religious discussions and debates can be especially productive for atheists. A theist is more likely to hear something new from an atheist than the other way around.
Even so, many atheists, myself included, have been overly optimistic that a rational argument will be sufficient to change minds. I now think the best we can do is make good points in a reasonable and pleasant manner. I emphasize "pleasant" because in any debate many in the audience make unconscious judgments based more on personality than on arguments. That was difficult for me to understand at first, since it's so different from my academic world of mathematics. Smiling is effective in debates and useless in mathematics.
Here's another controversial statement: I think it's usually better for Herb Silverman to debate religious fundamentalists than for Richard Dawkins to do it. This is not because I'm a better debater than Dawkins (I'm not), but because of the instant credibility and fame a fundamentalist gets by simply appearing on the same stage as Richard Dawkins. Case in point: William Lane Craig, one of the best known Christian apologist debaters, has spent countless hours trying to get Richard Dawkins to debate him. Craig has even called Dawkins a coward and then debated an empty chair that he substituted for Dawkins.
Written By: Herb Silverman
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