A couple years ago, my son Adam and I attended a debate entitled “Does a Good God Exist?” between well-known atheist and author Christopher Hitchens, and a professor/author from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The event was held at a large church in North Texas, filled with middle and high school students from nearby private schools. That day, Christopher Hitchens eloquently communicated the message of atheism in his sophisticated British accent and with a witty, persuasive style, while the seminary professor attempted to argue in technical, complicated terms why science and Christianity were not incompatible. If there is a God, Hitchens asserted, why does He stand by passively allowing horrific evils in the world? Much of the evil in the world has been perpetuated in the name of religion, he proclaimed. Hitchens “won” the debate with wit and passion before an audience of hundreds of impressionable teens, while Truth was buried in a mire of complex scientific reasoning. Sitting in the audience that day I was more convinced than ever of the true purpose of debate.
Coaching debate has been a journey for me. Several years ago when my children first got involved, I considered communication a life-skill. Knowing how to communicate one’s ideas to a diverse audience is valuable for any career path and so I dove in head first to equip my children with this important skill. However, after a few years, the reality of training young people to persuade their audience of whatever opinion they happened to hold – whether true or not – bothered me. When polished communicators graduated from the league and moved on to college, the reality that several were walking away from their Christian faith bothered me deeper still. As a coach and a parent, I began to question the value of debate and my role in teaching students that there are always two sides of every issue. The natural conclusion that many debaters were coming to was that everything was up for debate, including their Christian faith.
Landing the Truth
I wrestled with this issue for several months, which instigated many discussions in our own family. While I was pleased with the accelerated critical-thinking skills that debate was producing in my children, would they eventually begin to debate the veracity of God’s Word as well? The answer for us was “yes.” However, I was not at peace with abandoning the activity out of fear that my children would question their faith. That option did not resonate with what I felt the Lord was teaching me. So I pressed in. What is the purpose of debate in the life of a Christian? Beyond the ability to articulate his or her beliefs persuasively, how can debate be used to help students land on Truth? I came to understand the answer to this question a lot sooner than I was able to articulate it to others. Only within the last couple years do I feel I can put it into words.
Let’s go back to Hitchens’ claim that God stands by passively allowing “horrific evils” and that much of the evil in the world has been perpetuated in the name of religion. What does an atheist even mean by “horrific” and “evil”? Hitchens assumes a universal and objective standard of morality, a claim not warranted by atheism. The seminary professor attempted to press Hitchens on this, but wasn’t able to set-up his argument convincingly. Hitchens side-stepped the issue and continued on with seemingly reasonable assertions for atheism, riddled with unproven assumptions unsupported by adequate justifications.
Proper debate training can help students hone the thinking skills that they need in order to identify and expose the underlying premises and assumptions behind ideas. By teaching students to question the mindset behind policy changes, and to examine the underlying assumptions behind the positions of others and to take arguments to their logical extreme to expose faulty reasoning, students are better equipped to filter the ideas that they are bombarded with in our culture (movies, books, TV, college etc). However, this training must be coupled with the daily study of God’s Word (Truth). In the same way that government agents carefully study authentic monetary currency to detect the counterfeit, careful study of God’s Word is necessary to detect counterfeit philosophies that are masked as truth. A meaningful understanding of the Truth, the analytical/reasoning skills developed through debate, and much prayer provide the foundation that our children need to stand strong in their faith when they leave our homes, and influence those around them for Christ/Truth.
What about the danger of students debating the truth of God’s Word? I believe most students end up doing this anyway – involvement in debate simply accelerates the process. Many wrestle with doubt, including adults. For children growing up in a Christian home, wrestling with doubt is often part of the process of them taking ownership of their faith, rather than clinging to the faith of their parents. Allowing debate to accelerate the process while our children are still at home – where we and others that love them can mentor them through the process – is an advantage. It is in the process of wrestling with our doubts that we come to understand what we believe and why. Learning to question is a valuable part of the process. As author and pastor Timothy Keller writes in his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism,
“All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because ‘There can’t just be one true religion,’ you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said, ‘There can’t just be one true religion,’ nearly everyone would say ‘Why not?’ The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold un-provable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.”
As parents, we play a significant role in holding our children accountable throughout the learning process of debate, challenging them not to compromise their beliefs to win. Parents, challenge your students to defend the affirmative and negative positions that they argue throughout the season. Challenge them to identify the mindset behind their case and to provide justification for the ideas that they espouse. All policy reform is based on ideas and assumptions. By training our students to identify and justify the mindsets behind their ideas, they will learn to filter and question the ideas they encounter in our culture and determine whether or not they align with their beliefs.
Some debate programs emphasize research skills; others emphasize theory and strategies. These are helpful skills. However, the most important purpose of debate is to train students to be seekers of truth who know what they believe and why, and who challenge their peers to do the same. It is for this purpose that the Tools for Debate Curriculum has been written: to empower parents and students with the tools to help their students sharpen their critical thinking skills. Enjoy!
The Tools for Debate Curriculum will be used by BVRC in teaching our Debate Class next season. Many thank to Mrs. Nasser for allowing us to publish her article.