Thoughts on A Plea for Round-Table Discussion, not Debates

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Larry Hurtado wrote:


Debating is a win/lose contest, little subtlety or complexity allowed.  It doesn’t make for the sort of careful consideration of matters that is most often required. It certainly doesn’t allow for people to grow, develop/alter their understanding of matters. […]

via A Plea for Round-Table Discussion, not Debates — Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I’ve often been frustrated with debates as a tool for advancing knowledge and understanding. Many times, maybe even most often, both sides claim a victory, but wins and losses are hard measured in debates. Debates are seen as win/lose propositions, but they rarely deliver that kind of satisfaction.

Listen to any political debate, and both sides will claim victory. Listen to any debate of atheist and theist, and both sides will claim victory. The after debate responses are continuations in kind of the debate – both sides trying to convince the other and the world of their victory. The claims usually fall flat and ring hollow to anyone who makes an effort at remaining objective.

If we want to get at truth and understanding, debates are not the best way to do it. Respectful discussion and dialogue are much better platforms for truth and understanding.

I am not much a debate watcher, as you might expect from the perspective I have already presented, but they serve to illustrate my point. The first debate between the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, and his colleague, John Lennox, (the God Delusion Debate) is a good example. At one point it became evident that Dawkins defined faith one way (belief in spite of the evidence) very differently than Lennox (trust in the evidence).  Since they both started from different premises, the entire hour and a half debate was an exercise in the two of them talking past each other.

I recently listened to an interview by the atheist, Sam Harris, of the agnostic, Bart Ehrman, on What is Christianity? Harris began the interview lauding the virtue of approaching a familiar subject from a fresh point of view. Unlike a debate, Harris and Ehrman very much agreed with each other on most every point. One has to wonder what was the fresh point of view. It all had a very familiar feel.

The respect and generosity that Harris offered Ehrman in the interview would have made for a much more interesting discussion if Harris had a scholarly believer on with him to talk about the same subject. While the discussion was enlightening, it wasn’t as valuable as it could have been. It wasn’t a true dialogue – more like an echo chamber.

Today, just before I read the Larry Hurtado blog, I listened to an interview on the Unbelievable podcast of Christian philosopher, Dr. Robin Collins, and atheist philosopher, Dr. Peter Millican, on the issue of the Fine Tuning of the Universe. The discussion was exactly the kind of thing that debates and echo chambers are not.

Justin Brierley, whose podcast it is, does a great job of generating mutual respect and is generous in allowing well-rounded, nuanced discussion that is refreshing. The point isn’t to crown winners or losers in a dual of wits and rhetoric, and it wasn’t an exercise in preaching to the choir. The focus was, refreshingly, to get at truth and understanding.

We could use more of that. The one-upmanship of debates and the echo chambers of discussions with people who think like we do are platforms that are not as good at cultivating understanding, in particular, and truth as a healthy, respectful dialogue with people  think differently.

I am not going to go so far as to say that debates are useless, and discussions with people who think like we do are not wholly invaluable either. Debates certainly contrast points of view in ways that maybe dialogues don’t, and two people pulling in the same direction is, maybe, a better way of advancing a particular view or framework. Dialogues, however, take sharp edge off of debates and tend to generate more respect and understanding. Dialogues, on the other hand, sharpen our thinking in ways that discussions with like-minded people can not do.