On September 23, 2023, at Longwood University, I'll be participating in a debate on the existence of the Christian God. As I have talked about the event, some have asked questions about where the debate will be, the time of the debate, who the opponent is, and whether or not it will be live-streamed. However, two questions caused me serious reflection: Why debate a YouTube content creator? Are debates worth it?
Why Debate a YouTube Content Creator?
Some Christian apologists balk at debating "YouTubers" (as they're sometimes pejoratively called). Many content creators on the platform need more academic credentials that, in the past, have traditionally been required for debates, namely a PhD. My opponent, Eric D. Murphy, has over six years of experience as an atheist activist, debater, and content creator. He founded the YouTube shows "Talk Heathen" and Murphy's Law. He also co-founded the YouTube show "Skeptic Generation." Talk Heathen alone (just the episodes where Eric appears as host) have over 1 million views. For example, I looked at one episode from three years ago with 125,000 views alone.
Why Take A Debate?
So why debate someone like Eric Murphy? While engaging academics on meaningful science, religion, and culture topics is fruitful; they don't possess the immediate scope, reach, or influence of online content creators.
More kids today watch YouTube as a primary source of information and entertainment than they do streaming services such as Hulu, Apple TV, or Disney Plus. Whether we want to believe it or not, these influencers shape and build the next generation of Americans to a large degree. Therefore, Christians need to engage with their material consistently and debate the actual content creators publicly to show the merits of the Christian worldview.
Additionally, debating YouTube atheists should take place in a public forum because it takes complete control of the conversation out of their hands. Many of the online shows have call screeners and additional hosts who identify the subject and provide reinforcements should things start moving in an uncomfortable direction. Additionally, the host of these shows can always choose to hang up on the caller if they decide they no longer want to engage in dialogue. In a public forum, such as a debate, there is no call-screener, second host, or ability to hang up on the interlocutor. Both parties involved must answer for their worldview on a level playing field.
The Need For Debate
I've chosen to take this debate with Eric for several reasons. First, I know Eric well. We have been friends for over five years. Our discussion will be in good faith. We both care about the truth, each other, and the audience. So, for one, I've taken this debate with Eric because I trust him. Eric is a formidable opponent but is also genuine in his desire to dialogue, which leads me to my next point: The culture has lost the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. We live in a culture where the TV shows talking heads yelling, fighting, insulting, and pejoratively putting down the other side. The result has been the creation of an intolerance among citizens to hear the opposition, assess their points, and either counter or accept a new way of thinking.
Our culture needs to find a way back to humble disagreement in the name of advancing critical thinking. So many people in society, religious and non-religious, have been taught what to think, not how to think. Many more have been sheltered from opposing worldviews and have no clue what people believe. Instead, they assume and reinforce stereotypes.
One of the goals that Eric and I share is to present a different path forward for how religions and non-religious people engage with one another. While it won't change the cultural landscape or how some in the audience view the "other side, " we hope some attitudes begin to shift with our debate.
I firmly believe people can be "argued" into the Kingdom. Jesus and his followers met people where they were and gave reasons why they should turn from their old life and adopt a new one. Jesus engages Pharisees, Sadducees, and Centurions. Peter addressed thousands of Jews on Pentecost, and Paul addressed many at the Areopagus; they each argued, not by yelling but by laying out the case for change. Why should we discontinue their tradition of meeting people anytime, anywhere, to discuss any topic? I don't see any good reasons.
Public debates still matter. We should engage in them, encourage them, and attend them when possible. Given the influence of online creators and the desperate need for dialogue in our country, there is no better time for civil, public, debates than now.
Photo Credit: Miguel Henriques