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How to run a debate with atheists

Debates are proving one of the most attractive formats for presenting Christian belief in our secular society. Non-Christians, particularly men, seem much more willing to attend a Christian event if someone is also rigorously putting the case for unbelief. It is then a level playing field and whatever your views, this could prove an interesting evening and an easy event to which to invite friends.

Format and structure

Some people prefer the ‘gladiatorial’ structure of a formal debate. This would normally allow up to 20 minutes for each opening statement, 10 minute rebuttals and 5 minute closing statements. Others prefer a less formal, conversational structure. Each party could give an opening statement for up to 20 minutes. The chairman may then ask both speakers questions, in a relaxed ‘studio’ manner in comfy chairs. This should enable the two speakers to engage with each other informally through the chairman. 

Either way, both formats should allow plenty of time then for questions from the floor. This is most easily done with two standing mics, one on either side and near the front of the venue. Those wishing to question the atheist are invited to line up one side; questioners for the Christian line up on the other. The chairman can then simply alternate questions from each side. (It is easy to lose control of a roving mic as well as losing the balance of the questions.)

Speakers and the chair

Keys to a successful evening include:

1) Having the Christian case presented by someone who is competent. Many people can speak well within the limits of their own expertise but in a free-ranging debate, the discussion can run in any direction. The Christian speaker must be able to stay firmly on his skis when his opponent has led him ‘off piste’.

The Christian speaker must be able to stay firmly on his skis when his opponent has led him ‘off piste’.

2) The opposing case ideally should be presented by a well-known atheist, perhaps a scientist, writer or broadcaster.

3) The chairman needs to be warm, affable and competent and someone who gains the confidence of the entire audience.

There are plenty of vocal atheists around nowadays. Finding an atheist of some substance, a competent Christian spokesman and a likeable and popular chairman in your village, town or city should not be too difficult.

Assuming you can find a Christian who can argue his corner against a whole range of opinions, the local humanist group or their national organisation should be able to steer you towards someone who will present the case for unbelief. A general subject such as ‘Does God Exist?’ makes it easier to find a speaker. Easter time lends itself to debate about the resurrection, but few atheists feel confident to debate this. An impartial chairman, who is an experienced public speaker, should not be impossible to find.

Venue

A secular venue is much easier for non-Christians to enter. Good access, parking, acoustics and amplification are obviously essential for any public event. A large book table should sell the recommended titles of both sides. A small table is quickly surrounded and obscured from view.

A secular venue is much easier for non-Christians to enter.

Publicity

The publicity must appear impartial and present the debate as a community event and not as overt Christian propaganda.

Atmosphere

Finally, we are commanded to give reasons for the hope within us and to do so with both gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15–16). It shouldn’t need saying that polite friendliness and enjoyment should characterise the atmosphere in every respect.

Peter May

Peter May was the organiser of the UCCF Reasonable Faith Tour 2007 and previously Chair of UCCF Trustees. This article was originally published in 2010 for A Passion For Life’s Ideas for Mission.

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