I watched the movie The Great Debaters last night, and it helped me to understand why atheists are such bad debaters. The movie portrays four students from a little black college in Texas, and shows how, under the tutelage of their pugnacious coach, they went on to defeat Almighty Harvard. Denzel Washington, who plays the coach, says early in the movie that debate is a kind of bloodsport. It’s great virtue is that it puts rival ideas up against each other, as argued by people who passionately espouse those ideas, and then it lets the truth emerge through a kind of gladiatorial elimination.

For about three years, it appeared as though the leading atheists were formidable debaters. But the reason was that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens were selecting weak opponents and then generally giving them a public whipping. In one staged encounter, hardly a debate, Richard Dawkins ambushed televangelist Ted Haggard for a film Dawkins was making. Not only did Dawkins control the format, he also controlled what was shown on film. No wonder Dawkins got the better of that encounter. Harris took on pastor Rick Warren in Newsweek, where Harris made outrageous allegations and Warren basically said that Christians are nice people because they help AIDS victims in Africa. Hitchens promoted his book God Is Not Great by traipsing through the South taking on local pastors. Now your typical pastor is not used to debating a versatile and suave character like Hitchens. A few months ago Hitchens embarrassed theologian Alister McGrath in Washington D.C.  McGrath couldn’t handle Hitchens’ vitriolic accusations and came off looking conciliatory and weak.

Unlike the characters in The Great Debaters, I was never part of a debate team. I got my debate practice through confronting critics of my various books. Mostly I learned by taking on such seasoned debaters as presidential candidate Walter Mondale, the literary scholar Stanley Fish, and a whole series of civil rights activists from Cornel West to Jesse Jackson. Prior to my debate with Hitchens, he described me as “one of the most formidable debaters on any topic.” Richard Dawkins seems to agree: the great Haggard-slayer has somehow gotten cold feet when it comes to debating me. I guess he’s afraid that I’ll make him look as ridiculous as Haggard.

Then there’s Sam Harris, who tells me that debate is not a very useful medium to arrive at the truth. He didn’t seem to think that previously. Harris wants to engage in a written debate, and I’ve agreed, but it should be noted that written debates allow each side to consult experts and therefore they don’t reflect the true spirit of debate, which is the clash of ideas embodied in the most articulate representatives of those ideas. I’ve suggested to Harris a couple of weeks ago that we do both a written and an oral debate, and I’m waiting to hear his response.

Why are the atheists faring so badly in these debates?  Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens really think that their position reflects pure reason and that my position reflects “blind faith.” If this were really true they should win every single debate, for the same reason that a round-earth advocate should never lose to a flat-earth advocate. In reality there are good arguments on both sides, and I as a believer know this. I know it’s hard to make the case for an invisible God and for an afterlife. In short, I know the strength of the argument on the other side. Leading atheists, however, simply do not expect to hear good counterarguments to their position. When they do, they have no idea how to answer them. So they either erupt into jejune name-calling (all too familiar to readers of my aol blog) or they slowly fall apart (witness what happened to Daniel Dennett).

In reality, I don’t have to win debates against atheists; I merely have to draw. Just by coming out even, I defeat the atheist premise that atheism is the position based on reason and religion is the position based on unreason. Even a tie shows that bothpositions are reasonable. By defeating atheists in debate, however, I have totally exploded the atheist self-pretense. I have shown atheists to be the unreasonable ones, and this is why leading atheists like Dawkins and Harris are now going into hiding. But if these guys are scared to debate me, even in secular university settings where the audience is largely on their side, what does this say about them and about the soundness of their positions? Perhaps Dawkins and company should go and see The Great Debaters. They might get some useful tips, and they might also get their nerve back.