James White’s 4 Keys to Effective Debating

“When you explain their view on an issue, they should nod in agreement with everything you are saying before you explain why you disagree. If they don’t believe you understand their position or if they think you have misrepresented their beliefs, they will dismiss any argument you proffer against the faulty position you have presented.”


I don’t know how I got there, but by some fluky mischance, I found myself embroiled in a debate with James White.

Anyone who has witnessed one of White’s 150+ moderated debates will sympathize with my unhappy predicament. As gracious as his attitude invariably is, and as measured as his responses tend to be, White’s logical jiu-jitsu methodically maneuvers his adversary’s argument into an inescapable chokehold from which the only relief is to tap out. Resistance is futile and potentially humiliating.

I was innocently ordering pizza when it happened. I asked the waiter for the gluten-free option, and in an instant recognized I had activated a launch sequence of sorts. White’s eyes narrowed as he sized me up like a gunslinger in a spaghetti western. Then, his opening gambit: “Have you been diagnosed with Celiac disease?” This wasn’t small talk. It was bait. He enunciated the word “diagnosed” carefully as if he wanted an imaginary court reporter not to miss it.

I felt a pop of adrenaline hit my nerves. Instinct told me to back out of the minefield by retracing my steps— “Did I say gluten-free pizza? I meant soup-&-pea pizza. I have a speech impediment.” I was more confident in my ability to fake an impediment for the foreseeable future than to navigate the next five minutes with any intellectual dignity intact.

But the masochistic part of my psyche was curious to see this play out.

“No, I don’t have Celiac disease, I just think gluten-free flour is better for me.”

When a lawyer asks if you know the time, you don’t give him the time; you say “yes.” I should have just replied “no,” but instead I had painted a target on my forehead for him.

What followed is a bit of a blur to me. It must have looked like a Jedi Knight brandishing a lightsaber, making short-shrift of an Ewok armed with a stick.

I recall some disjointed phrases: “most unjustly vilified substance in the whole nutritional corpus” and “cherry-picked results” and “meta-studies show” and “ignorantly perpetuate fallacies…”

The force is strong in this one.

In God’s kindness the waiter reappeared, like an angel, to give me the way of escape: “We are fresh out of the gluten-free option, my apologies.”

“No problem ol’ sport, just bring me some pizza, extra gluten if you please, let’s not perpetuate anything, it’s an unjustly vilified substance anyway.”

Whatever mind trick I just fell prey to, I recognized this was a rare opportunity. I was a padawan with an audience with Yoda, why not milk it?

So I whipped out my moleskin notebook and fountain pen, hit record on my phone, and grilled @DrOakley1689 on how to debate more effectively.

Here are James White’s four keys to becoming an effective debater:

  1. Seek to be consistent. (Use equal scales)

This is mandatory in a serious debate: you can’t use unequal scales. You need to apply the same level of respect and understanding of how they employ their source material as you would want them to apply to how you employ yours.

Rookie debaters attack aspects of their opponent’s system that they would dismiss with an exasperated eye roll if the favor were returned. He offered a smattering of examples. Here’s some of his riff on this point, transcribed from a recording and cleaned up a bit…

A lot of arguments used against Islam or Mormonism will involve picking on their writings…..eg the Book of Mormon says Jesus was born in Jerusalem and apologists will say “see, Joseph Smith did not know what he was talking about.” But when we defend the Old Testament we often point out that that there are places where the author has used a very specific geographic term referring to a wider region. We defend against these alleged errors using that methodology—so we must be consistent and allow the Mormon the same methodology; i.e. they would say that Bethlehem is very close to Jerusalem, in the same general area.

There are a lot of arguments that I would not use when attacking the Qur’an because I realize that when defending the Old Testament I am going to have to utilize very similar responses from what I would expect from a Muslim. So we need to be very careful.

A lot of people attack Joseph Smith’s false prophesies – and there are false prophecies – but Mormons allege that there are false prophecies in the Old Testament too. So your argument saying that Joseph Smith was giving a false prophecy might boomerang and they will say that Jonah was giving a false prophecy, or Ezekiel when prophesying against Tyre (referring to Ezekiel 26:1-14).

Most Christian apologists are better at attacking the other side rather than defending the best arguments made against Christianity.

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