Theology and the average reasonable person of british parliamentary debating

Tim Lees
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Imagine a truly awful novice debate.  Closing Government both pass out in a drunken stupor mid-way through their Whip speech; the Member’s speech consisted only of incomprehensible rambling, which apparently greatly amused the speaker (if no one else). The Member of Opposition panics and runs out of the room without saying a word, closely followed by the Opposition Whip.  As an adjudicator, you are forced to choose between the opening-half teams.

The teams have chosen their own motion: ‘This House would reintroduce the death penalty.’ Opening Government essentially repeat ‘murderers should be punished so that they suffer; if you have taken someone’s life, you should lose your own’ for the whole of their two speeches. Opening Opposition base their entire case on the Biblical injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’.  They assert that the Bible is the basis of morality, and that, accordingly, the state should not kill people. You are thus forced to reward either badly explained retributive justice, or badly explained Biblical ethics, with first place.

Perhaps you find both of these positions so unpersuasive you would toss a coin.  However, I would suggest that the conventional approach here is to side with retributive justice.  The average reasonable person of British Parliamentary debating (see WUDC World Parliamentary Debating Rules 3.3.2, the ‘Average Reasonable Person’) might be convinced of the merits of retribution.  By contrast, the Average Reasonable Person is in practice disposed to discount theological arguments as irrelevant, except perhaps in explaining how religious groups will behave.

In this article, I want to begin by considering how the Average Reasonable Person is constructed.  Then, by way of illustration, I will consider two possible justifications for deliberately excluding theological arguments from that construction:

  • belief in God is irrational, and, accordingly, theological arguments have no place in debating as a mode of rational discourse; and
  • debating should privilege non-theological arguments since they are accessible to those of all religious beliefs and none.

In doing so, I hope to persuade my reader that theological arguments are in fact not inherently unamenable to British Parliamentary debating. For the avoidance of doubt, it will not be possible within the scope of this essay to consider every possible reason for excluding theological arguments from British Parliamentary debating.  However, I hope my reader will be able to at least sketch a reply to other objections based on what is contained here.

Following this, I will then seek to demonstrate that the norm against theological arguments is harmful to debating.  Finally, I will suggest how these problems might be addressed.

By ‘theology’, I shall refer primarily to Christian theology.  This is both because it is the tradition with which I am most familiar, and because in order to make my case it will be helpful to give definite content to the idea of ‘God’;  the Thomist colouring to the discussion reflects both my own interests, and important trends in contemporary theology, both Catholic and Protestant.  It should also be clear, however, that the arguments I make could apply equally to any of the major world religions with a little adaptation.  Whilst I think that the exclusion of theological arguments is troubling in itself, my broader aim is to use theology as a ‘test-case’ to illustrate why debating would benefit from being more receptive to ideas that do not fit comfortably within a secular liberal ‘bubble’, the origins of which we consider in the next section.

The Construction of the Average Reasonable Person

Good judges and the beliefs of the Average Reasonable Person

Who gets to determine the standard of the Average Reasonable Person – and why?  In one sense, this standard is determined in each individual debate by the panel there present.  Two panels can, of course, come to different conclusions after viewing the same debate.  But equally, tournaments rely on a degree of consistency between panels in order to allow the ranking of teams who do not face each other, and to provide the sense that the same ‘game’ is played across different debates covering radically different subject matters.

Part of the role of the Chief Adjudication team is to ensure such consistency, in so far as possible, by putting ‘good’ judges in the chair and keeping ‘bad’ judges away from debates that are likely to decide the tournament. A good judge will possess technical qualities, such as the ability to follow a fast-moving and sustained argument and to articulate their reasons for preferring particular teams.  However, in order to deliver a result consistent with other judges, they also need to understand common expectations about the Average Reasonable Person’s ‘beliefs’, by which I mean ‘claims that are taken to be true’. 1

Note that the Average Reasonable Person does have beliefs.  If they did not, debating would be impossible.  At a very basic level, the Average Reasonable Person must believe that the words uttered by the speakers have particular (if overlapping) meanings – otherwise adjudicators would be unable to distinguish between relevant, well-made arguments from a random pattern of noise.   Beliefs thus provide the framework within which arguments can be evaluated.

Less abstractly, consider a team who in proposing the motion ‘This House believes that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union’ argues that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union and join ASEAN owing to the United Kingdom’s South-East Asian location, supported by extensive discussion on the benefits of geographical proximity with respect to geopolitical blocs.  Whilst the proposition team would not automatically lose the debate, particularly if none of the other teams pointed out their error, an opposing team who (rightly) pointed out that such arguments favoured remaining in the European Union would be hamstrung if the Average Reasonable Person had no prior geographical beliefs.  Perhaps they could produce an atlas, but this should hardly be necessary (and moreover the proposing team could (successfully) argue that the atlas was a European conspiracy unless the Average Reasonable Person had prior beliefs about reliable geographical authorities).

This is not to imply that the Average Reasonable Person’s beliefs are confined to questions of geography, or ‘factual’ matters more generally.  Shengwu Li (2012) has suggested that good judges tend to adopt a ‘moderate liberal position’, which includes:

‘… a defeasible belief in Mill’s harm principle; that is, insofar as an action affects just the actor, the judge has a presumption against government action.  That judge believes that important moral questions should be resolved by reasoned deliberation, not appeals to unquestionable divine authority.  This is because a good judge is an open-minded individual of the sort likely to think that debating is a worthwhile activity.’

The idea of a defeasible belief is particularly important: whilst the Average Reasonable Person must have beliefs, any particular belief they might have ought to be justified, and might be overturned given good reason precisely because they are a ‘Reasonable Person’.  As such, their beliefs might change during the course of a debate as they are provided with arguments in favour of believing other things, and accordingly they might be persuaded to value arguments differently than they otherwise would.  However, such arguments are precisely arguments, and will be evaluated within the framework created by the Average Reasonable Person’s beliefs prior to the debate (their ‘Initial Beliefs’).  As reasonable people within the debating community (whether ‘average’ or not), we ought to consider carefully the reasons undergirding those Initial Beliefs.  Whilst ‘unquestionable divine authority’ might not be a legitimate foundation for an argument, ‘divine authority’ (in some other senses) might be.


The formation of a ‘liberal’ bubble

The Average Reasonable Person is a construct of the debating community, and therefore of the power dynamics operative within it.  Power at any particular debating tournament is concentrated in the hands of the Chief Adjudication team – they set the motions, allocate the judges, and are extremely influential in deciding the winners of the debates that will determine the tournament.  The Chief Adjudication team plays an important and often explicit role in defining the Initial Beliefs of the Average Reasonable Person at particular tournaments, and to the extent that they carry broader influence, more generally.  This is in one sense beneficial: it provides the common standard teams need in order to be ranked against one another at particular tournaments, and to some extent between them.  However, there are at least four levels on which such influence is problematic.

First, debating is made prone to ‘groupthink’.  Irving Janis (1982:9) defined groupthink as:

‘A mode of thinking  that  people engage  in when  they are deeply  involved in a cohesive  in-group, when the  members’  strivings  for unanimity override their motivation to  realistically appraise alternative courses of  action.’

Groupthink would thus clearly be inhibitive of critical reflection on the Average Reasonable Person’s Initial Beliefs. Its causes include homogeneity of groups and strong concern with social-status (Janis 1982:242-259; Hart 1991:257-259).  Across tournaments, Chief Adjudication teams are typically drawn from a relatively small elite cadre of debaters, hailing from a relatively small number of elite Universities, often concentrated within a few degree disciplines: a comparable lack of diversity perhaps plays a role in corporate groupthink, which (for example) allows ‘deal fever’ to take over when considering mergers leading to companies over-paying for businesses they subsequently struggle to integrate into their own (Roberto: 2009).

Moreover, whether an adjudicator gets to be a Chief Adjudicator, or further to judge the top rooms, depends on how perceivedly adept they are for such a role.  I would submit that these perceptions are not wholly informed by an adjudicator’s technical abilities, or even their understanding of expectations about the Average Reasonable Person’s Initial Beliefs, but by their social status within the debating hierarchy.  Such pressure can only make debaters, particularly those who wish to hold Chief Adjudication positions, less likely to forward contrarian views. To the extent that the Average Reasonable Person’s Initial Beliefs are irrational, they are unlikely to be challenged.

Second, strong debaters will generally gravitate towards the easiest way to win any given debate, and thus seek to challenge as few of the Average Reasonable Person’s Initial Beliefs as possible.  Indeed, an effective strategy is often to argue that there is no trade-off between apparently competing beliefs – for example, that a particular punishment for criminals will both be more effective as a deterrent and as a rehabilitative tool than the alternative – so as to leave both sets of beliefs unchallenged.  With practice, debaters get better at making such arguments, and as arguments formed within a ‘moderate liberal’ framework become increasingly finessed and persuasive, both panels and speakers become genuinely more-and-more convinced of their merits.  This makes it harder still for debaters to see the merit in alternative perspectives.  Moreover, Chief Adjudication teams are placed under pressure to set motions that readily admit of such arguments so as to produce ‘good debates’, perpetuating this cycle further.

Third, whilst judges’ technical abilities develop over time and often with considerable effort, it is quick and easy to adopt views that are (perceived as) similar to the Chief Adjudication team’s, and thereby to inflate one’s position as a judge – either by directly coming to an ‘accurate’ conclusion in the eyes of the Chief Adjudicator(s), or indirectly through receiving positive feedback from other ‘good’ judges, who themselves have an incentive to pander to the Chief Adjudication team’s perceived biases.  In the middle-to-bottom of the tab, one is thus attacked with a barrage of ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘externalities’, divorced from any sense of their meaning or even relevance.  Having once been such a debater, I don’t think teams make arguments like this (merely) because they want to sound like the better teams: they make them because, especially in rooms still further down the tab, judges reward them for using buzz-words rather than for actually debating.  This stifles the emergence of new and different arguments from debaters outside contemporary elites, who might bring radically new and disruptive perspectives to debating.

These three effects together produce the debating equivalent of the internet filter bubble – where search engines provide users with content that reinforces their pre-existing world views by focussing their search results on those sites commonly selected by those with similar search histories.  I will happily concede that the debating bubble shifts steadily over time as Chief Adjudicators nudge its boundaries with their pet topics.  However, I would suggest that we really want this bubble to explode, or at least froth into a multiplicity of bubbles in which novel forms of rational discussion can take place.

On a fourth level, and specifically with respect to theology, we should note that debating elites emerge within a particular historical context, primarily the Western academy.  Where once in the West ‘there was no secular’ (Milbank 2006:7) and theology provided a unifying vision, in particular to the University (D’Costa 2005:1-5), developments such as:

  • Duns Scotus’s conception of Being apart from God, such that God could conceptually ‘not exist’ 2 (Pickstock 2005:esp. 550);
  • certain late-medieval wars branded (sic) as the “Wars of Religion” which, notwithstanding that Catholics and Protestants routinely fought on both sides, allowed the State to supplant the Church in its prior role as guarantor of the peace in both the popular and even the ecclesiastical imagination (Cavanaugh 1995); and
  • the emergence of Enlightenment philosophy out of those Wars, with a vested interest in displacing theology against which it emerged, and which posited supposedly neutral reason (i.e. its own domain) as the foundation of public discourse (Milbank 2006:74-144),

all contributed to the construction of the modern secular Western academy, and to popular Western conceptions of religion more generally.  Together, they lead to the widely-held view that religion can safely be, and perhaps ought to be, excluded from public discourse.  However, it is not clear that these specifically European and specifically Christian/post-Christian developments that moreover rely on particular conceptions of Christianity prevalent circa the Reformation, should inform the approach taken to theological arguments (including here those drawing on other faiths) in general.  Indeed, a Christian heresy, 3 a mislabelled war, and philosophy faculties at best no more disinterested than the theologians they supplanted hardly seem like sound bases on which to construct such an approach, however relevant they might have seemed in their day. A reassessment of theological arguments is thus in order.  Whilst a return to the ‘single light of Christendom’ (Milbank 2006:7) might not be appropriate to debating as a global activity, neither, I would suggest, is a fixation on the shadows of its occlusion.


Religion and irrationality

Debating requires reasoned argument and deliberation.  No matter how the Average Reasonable Person is constructed, therefore, they will not, nor should they, be convinced by arguments that are clearly and obviously irrational.  For present purposes, irrationality can be understood in two senses.  In one sense, an argument might be irrational because its conclusion fails to follow from its premises – for example ‘Killing is always and absolutely wrong, and therefore we should go to war against [Country A]’.  In a second sense, those premises themselves are such that no reasonable person could accept them.  For example, ‘Killing is always and absolutely right, and therefore we should go to war against [Country A]’.  Whilst this premise irrationally entails the speaker’s own immediate death, I suspect that almost everyone – and probably the Average Reasonable Person – is more convinced of the wrongness of universal killing than any reason they might give for it.

Notwithstanding that many ordinary religious people have irrational theological beliefs in the first sense, just as many ordinary believers in science have irrational scientific beliefs (see Goldacre 2009), almost nobody thinks that theological arguments inherently fail to follow from their premises.  I shall thus concentrate on the second kind of irrationality.  My thesis here is that theological arguments are sufficiently rational to be incorporated into British Parliamentary debating.


Rationality and belief – the Evidential Problem

A full proof of God’s existence, assuming it were possible, would be beyond the scope of this paper – much as would a full proof of the existence of, e.g., ‘universal human rights’, ‘other minds’, or ‘the past’.  However, I want to at least complicate the view that belief in God is an inherently irrational premise by considering the ‘Evidential Problem’ with the existence of God, since the Average Reasonable Person is and ought to be concerned with the presence (or absence) of reasons for a particular position.

The Evidential Problem has been aptly illustrated by Bertrand Russell (1969:6):

‘nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.’

In other words, it is not that the existence of God is impossible; it is just that there are no reasons think that God exists. Accordingly we ought to live, and in turn debate, as though God does not.

However, for orthodox theology, God is not relevantly similar to a teapot. 4  Nor indeed is God relevantly similar to an invisible, intangible, inaudible unicorn; or to two enormous green lobsters called Esmerelda and Keith who might be supposed to transport the world through the cosmos (c.f. Dawkins 2008:75-78), amusing as these images might be.  Rather (per e.g. Augustine (2011:XI.x),  Anselm (1998:5-81) and Aquinas (2010:I.QQ.8-10)) God is he who exists in/ hrough himself.  Creation participates in God’s existence in a sense derived from, though perhaps not identical with, the Platonic notion of objects existing in so far as they participate in an ideal Form.

A different analogy might help make sense of this idea.  It is impossible to draw a perfect circle, and no such circles exist in nature.  It would be wrong to conclude, however, that ‘circles don’t exist’.  Objects are circular, to varying extents, in so far as they approximate to an ideal circle.  For classical theism, God is inter alia the ideal Form of existence; things exist, to varying extents, depending on how closely they approximate God in this regard. 5  It is not so much that God is a ‘necessary being’, but rather that God is ‘Being’ itself.  This view is orthodox, though not uncontested – one might say it is debatable.  It is not, however, a clearly and obviously irrational belief.


Special revelation?

Being is, of course, not the sole quality (or better, activity) ascribed to God – his goodness, love, mercy etc. are all critically important.  Perhaps the ascription of these qualities to Being is clearly and obviously irrational through lack of evidence?

How we might come to have knowledge of God is a topic of ongoing controversy among theologians.  On one approach, known as ‘natural theology’, God’s qualities can be extensively determined from nature alone.  Arguments of this type are necessarily complex, and perhaps always unsuccessful; as I read him however St Anselm’s Monologion is a far more credible attempt at this approach than he himself suggests in Proslogion In any event, they need not be repeated here.  On another approach, knowledge of God is entirely dependent on grace – indeed, for Karl Barth, knowledge of anything at all is dependent on God’s first having revealed himself as its creator, such that common experience and scripture form a single continuum  of revelation with different species of revelation appropriate to different kinds of knowledge (1958:350-362).  The broader question of whether there can be a ‘pure nature’ devoid of grace remains contested (see e.g. Milbank 2005; Long  2010; Feingold 2010) – one might even say ‘debated’.

This caveat notwithstanding, a common approach is to use reason – whether understood as inherently grace-filled or not – to interpret ‘revelation’ (in the form of Scripture and/or more personal religious experience).  As Aquinas put it (1987:Q2.1):

‘For although matters of faith cannot be demonstratively proved, neither can they be demonstratively disproved.’

Note that this logic cuts two ways: sacred doctrine is true, and if your beliefs about it are false or absurd, then you do not truly believe sacred doctrine.  It is possible then to make bad theological arguments, which can be rejected on their own terms (even if obstinate people will still cling to their ostensibly theological beliefs when these become theologically insupportable).  One cannot, for example, consistently hold that the Bible is historically true in its entirety.  The problems with this view begin on page 1: the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3 (which places the creation of men and women on the sixth and final day of creation) contradicts the narrative that begins in Genesis 2:4, where Adam is created before any of the plants or animals, and Eve is created last.  Similarly, it is possible to make bad scientific arguments, for example that African potatoes are an effective AIDS treatment, which can be rejected on their own terms (African potatoes apparently cause serious health issues in AIDS patients) even if certain obstinate people, such as former South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, insist that they are effective (see Goldacre 2009:187-188).

Suppose then that whilst reading the Bible, you are overcome by a sense that you are ‘saved’.  Let us further suppose that your understanding of such salvation is not irrational on its own terms, in the sense described above.  However, you recognise that other people have not shared your experience, and might never do so.  Whilst you might be justified in your private religious belief (see Plantinga 1998:Ch.5), can such non-universal experiences form any basis for public-facing rationality (cf. Lee 2010)?  It will help to compare theological arguments to something particularly niche. For example, someone might form an elevated view of abstract art after understanding Wasilly Kandinsky’s (1914:Ch.4) analogy between painting and music. 6  This is not irrational on a private level – such a person has reason to hold this view. Nor is it irrational to make broader arguments about the purpose of art, aesthetics, and perhaps ethics more generally following from this; notwithstanding that others have not read that book, or seen any abstract art, or that some people are born blind and/or deaf, and so incapable of appreciating the analogy (at least in full), particularly in so far as such persons ought to recognise that other people have had and/or could have such experiences.  In a debate adjudicated by such people it might be easier to choose a different line of analysis, and this will often be the most prudent approach, adopted by good teams.  However, most debaters will have seen a well-explained yet unfamiliar argument winning a debate owing in part to its captivating unfamiliarity, and the difficulty thereby presented in responding to it.  Theological arguments ought not to be treated any differently (notwithstanding that they ought to seem less obscure).


Universality and theology

However, even if there is no reason to exclude theological arguments, perhaps ‘secular’ arguments should be credited far more highly because of their neutrality on matters of faith, thus avoiding the risk of discrimination against those of other religious backgrounds or none.

As I will argue below, such an approach is plainly not theologically neutral, and moreover leads to the Average Reasonable Person being especially biased against theology as compared with secular worldviews.


The non-neutrality of the secular

The contention that non-theological arguments are neutral is problematic on two levels.  The first level relates to ‘space’.  A secular-humanist might admit there are appropriate places/contexts (i.e. spaces) within which theological arguments could be made, for example in Church; but a debating tournament is not such a space – only arguments that do not reference God can be made there.  But the contention that there is such a space where God is not present is not theologically neutral, and indeed is contrary to an orthodox conception of God which considers God to be pervasive.  Such contradiction is self-evidently not theologically-neutral.

A second level relates to the problem of moral dogmatism between differing ethical systems. 7  In a good debate, one might expect each side to enter into the other’s thought-world in order to defeat their opponents on their own terms, regardless of the ideological differences between them.  But what if this were not possible?

By contrast with the example from the Introduction, imagine a debate in which the Prime Minister gives a flawlessly executed speech, grounded in utilitarianism: she leaves everyone in the room in no doubt that the policy will advance the sum of human happiness (in some nuanced sense), and everyone clearly understands the grounds of her contention that this is the State’s role.  Then suppose that the Opposition Leader gives a flawlessly executed but explicitly theological Thomist counterproposition: everyone is left in no doubt that the counterproposition will lead to a more virtuous society, in an equally nuanced sense, and is left with an equally clear understanding of why this is the State’s role.

How might the (utilitarian) Deputy Prime Minister respond to the Opposition Leader?  Perhaps ‘we don’t care about your magical cloud fairy and his imaginary conception of virtue.’  Equally, what response might the (Thomist) Opposition Leader and his Deputy give to the government’s utilitarian case?  Perhaps ‘we don’t care about your warped conception of human happiness, spuriously divorced from the Good.’  Neither side’s argument is even potentially persuasive to the other, each deeming their opponents to have taken into account irrelevant considerations, and ignored relevant ones.  Tragically, the criteria by which ‘relevance’ is judged are integral to each side’s position: there is no ‘neutral ground’ between which the two can be judged.

Of course, the role of the speakers is to convince the panel – theoretically, the Average Reasonable Person – that their position is correct.  Because the Average Reasonable Person is disposed to find religious arguments unpersuasive or irrelevant, the utilitarian team would likely beat the Thomist team even if the former’s mechanistic logic were defeated.  The Average Reasonable Person is thus prejudiced against the Thomists, which is once again not neutral.


Theological vs. non-theological arguments

Before considering why this is problematic for debating as an activity, one further observation needs to be made.  Suppose that the (theistic) Thomist in the above example were replaced with an atheistic Rawlsian; or an atheistic Kantian; or an atheistic (i.e. Left) Hegelian. 8  A similar problem of non-comparability arises, since the adoption of an ethical framework is itself an ethical choice: any comprehensive ethical framework must justify itself in its own terms.  There is nothing special about theological ethics that renders it inherently more or less accessible to its non-adherents than any non-theological ethical framework – except, perhaps, a lack of familiarity among the current cohort of debaters.  The Average Reasonable Person is thus especially biased against theological arguments versus systems with which they are more familiar – predominantly secular ones.

Consequences of excluding/admitting theological arguments from British Parliamentary debating

I am quite certain that other objections could be raised against admitting theological arguments as such into British Parliamentary debating.  For now, however, I want to ask what the consequences of their exclusion are. The following two consequences seem particularly relevant.


Exclusion of religious people

Religious people, especially those attending universities, are (in my experience) very interested in debating as an activity.  They are interested in questions about how people should live, and are used to listening to people talk about such ideas, even debating them.  A debate I chaired between members of the theology faculty at Nottingham on the motion ‘This House believes that salvation is by faith (in Christ) alone’ attracted around 100 audience members, far more than would attend a typical public debate at the time, in spite of being (or perhaps because it was) directly of interest only to Christians and/or those interested in contemporary Christian theology.  Many of the audience members, including those who were not theology students, asked insightful questions.

Whilst Christians, and indeed other religious people, are interested in debating, they often aren’t particularly interested in secular-humanist accounts of the self, the State, and the interaction between the two.  Their position is loosely analogous to that of a secular-humanist required to debate, if at all, within constraints dictated by the Catholic Magisterium, or the Iranian Guardian Council (albeit that their plight might not be as grave).  Readers who are already immersed in debating will be able to think of reasons why the secular-humanist would benefit from participation, such as ‘understanding the system’ and ‘learning how to convince people they are wrong’, even if these reasons are finely balanced by other considerations.  Indeed, the secular-humanist might participate, perhaps masking their beliefs in order to ‘fit in’.  However, the benefits of debating are less likely to be apparent to someone with little prior exposure to formal debating.  Faced with their views being disparaged rather than discussed, and with having to hide their real identity, they might well decide to do other things.


Otherisation of religious people

Note that such exclusion cannot be justified in the same manner that excluding groups such as racists might be, unless theological arguments were likely to prove so (justifiably) offensive to atheists that their participation would no longer be possible.  Indeed, the relative absence, or at least silence, of religious people in debating makes them an easy target, particularly combined with a widespread view that religion is inherently irrational.  Arguments of the type ‘religious people are just irrational’, or further ‘they have a mental illness’, and therefore ‘we don’t need to take account of their ridiculous views’ are worryingly common.  They are, I think, strikingly parallel to arguments such as ‘gay people are just irrational’, or further ‘they have a mental illness’, and therefore ‘we don’t need to take account of their ridiculous views’.  The latter arguments were probably relatively common in the past at Western universities, and perhaps remain so in certain non-Western debating communities.  Both types of argument are offensive, if perhaps not equally so.

Whilst such offence furthers the exclusionary effect referred to above, a further consequence is that debating loses access to arguments of real interest.  Consider the motion ‘This house would require Churches to marry homosexuals’.  The Proposition might assert that religious belief is irrational, and whilst people should be free to pursue their irrational fantasies if it makes them happy, this freedom does not extend to discriminating against homosexuals.  The Opposition would likely be on thin ground if they sought to argue that religion is both rational and discriminatory; they are most likely to accept the irrationality premise and focus on the risk of a ‘backlash’.  Opposition could do better arguing that the emotional harm of being forced to marry gay people is greater than the harm of not being able to get married in a Church, although they are disadvantaged by the need to substantiate this claim versus the Proposition who can apparently assert their irrationality premise.  The debate probably runs short of arguments quite quickly.

Suppose instead that the Proposition argues (as it is possible to do – see e.g. Hauerwas 1998; Rogers 1999) that the historical Christian aversion to homosexuality is an imported pagan commonplace, and not integral to the faith.  The Church’s real concern ought to be with sin, understood as broken relationships with each other and with God; a brokenness which stable, committed relationships such as properly-Christian marriages help repair – whether between people of different sexes or the same.  Proposition then contends that the role of the State, according to the Church, is to bring about virtue, and that accordingly (following some consideration of how laws change behaviour) Churches should be required to marry homosexuals, on their own terms. There is now rather a lot to discuss e.g. whether this is the correct theological position; who gets to determine what the correct position is; 9 whether the State’s role is to bring about virtue, regardless of the Church’s view; and, still the question of a ‘backlash’.  Perhaps some of these arguments could have been made even given the initial Proposition approach.  If this is so, they are at least more relevant in the second debate where they directly, rather than tangentially, engage with the Proposition case.

Perhaps better debaters than I can think of more arguments to run on purely secular grounds.  But a deeper issue relates to the purpose of debate.  I suspect (hope) my reader will agree that one of debating’s many merits is its power to immerse participants in novel ways of thinking.  As such, it promotes mutual understanding over indifference and/or fear; the reassessment of our own ideas, so that they may be grasped more honestly and perhaps refined, or else abandoned; and the ability to talk with those with whom we disagree, rather than merely about them (e.g. in snarling Facebook statuses, as certain liberally-minded debaters have been wont to post regarding religious groups taking positions different than their own), opening up the possibility of actual persuasion rather than badger or coercion.  Just as it is valuable for capitalists to learn to argue not merely for, but within the logic of socialism; and Kantians to argue within Utilitarianism; and, indeed, the faithful to argue within atheism: so too, it would be valuable for atheists to learn to argue within the logic of (various) faiths.

Bursting the bubble: making debating broader

I hope I have gone some way towards showing why the exclusion of theological arguments is not inherently necessary to debating, and further that their exclusion is problematic in so far as debating ought to be both widely accessible and mentally expansive.  If these problems arise with Christian theology, it is very probable that they arise with respect to other faiths and worldviews more broadly.  What can be done about this?

A suggested solution

What would happen if we ‘killed’ the Average Reasonable Person, doing away with their Initial Beliefs and the conventional approach to debates that follows thereby?  Almost certainly, disaster: nobody would know how to judge any debate.  We would, ironically, be like Nietzsche’s madman following his declaration of the death of God. ‘Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?’ (Nietzsche 1974:181)  Judges would still probably ‘light lanterns in the morning’ to borrow from Nietzsche again (1974:181) – a dim version of the liberalism they knew before, readmitting the same standards only less clearly.

I strongly support moves to increase the diversity of judging pools.  However, unless the pressure to conform to the secular-liberal model of the Average Reasonable Person is addressed, the effect this will have will be limited, and those with no interest in this worldview will continue to be shut out.

A more achievable measure in the short-term would be to establish a soft convention of tournaments fielding at least one motion from the perspective of a non-Western-Liberal-Democratic entity (recognising that debaters’ idea of Western-Liberal-Democratic entity is both fictional and incredibly broad). This would function much like the soft convention for having at least one International Relations motion, or one analysis debate.

Motions such as ‘This House, as the Roman Catholic Church, would ordain women’, ‘This House, as the Southern Baptist Convention, would advocate pacifism’, and ‘This House, as a large international Islamic aid agency, would not partner with non-Islamic organisations’ are all pertinent to topics of general interest.  There are moreover theological issues on both sides of the debate, which are (I think) interesting in their own right, and moreover would help debaters engage more constructively with people of faith were they understood.  Whilst I think theological motions would be particularly helpful, it might also be helpful to debate (more) motions set from the perspective of e.g. the Chinese Communist Party, Bedouin tribes, or the FARC rebels in Columbia.



Three objections might be raised against my suggestion.  First, such debates, at least initially, could be awful.  Novices often struggle at debating because they know relatively little about the motions which are set.  However, they are then motivated to learn more about such topics by the prospect of doing better at debating (this has at least been my experience).  I submit that it would be good for debaters to learn to inhabit new moral frameworks.  It might initially be necessary to pre-announce motions to help debaters prepare to do so, but over time a wider knowledge-base could be expected to develop.

A second objection arises in relation to judging.  Won’t judges struggle to evaluate arguments made within traditions with which they are radically unfamiliar?  Once again, this might be the case at first; but this provides teams with an additional incentive to explain their positions clearly, and perhaps moreover to explain the relevance and importance of their arguments to their panels.

Alternatively, won’t judges continue to import liberal presumptions into the debate, owing in part to their ignorance of other criteria? This problem often rears itself when a motion such as ‘This House, as the Catholic Church, would allow the use of contraceptives’ ends up being won on essentially secular-liberal grounds (e.g. reducing population growth and the spread of STIs) rather than on specifically Catholic ones (e.g. the divinely ordained right of married persons, whether HIV-positive or not, to enjoy sexual union with their spouse): the Average Reasonable Person’s ‘moderate liberal’ Initial Beliefs contaminate the decision. Pre-announcements should once again help overcome this issue; Chief Adjudication teams should moreover reward judges who do their homework, and penalise those who don’t.

A third objection is that my suggested solution does not solve the problems I have outlined: implicitly, theological arguments would remain excluded from most debates, in an unjustified and discriminatory manner. I readily concede this. But in order for the relevance of theological arguments to win wider acceptance, they first need to be understood; and moreover, for the cosy liberal paradigm within which debating takes place to be disrupted. Targeted motions seem most likely to achieve this end by forcing debaters and judges to engage with new ways of thinking. With increased understanding, I am confident that more innovative speakers than myself will find novel ways of applying theological (and other) ideas in surprising contexts, to great effect; and will be aided in doing so by the Average Reasonable Person’s Initial Beliefs becoming broader and/or less stable.  Moreover, this targeted approach would at least open up new spaces where arguments of interest (hopefully) to those already engaged in debating, but also at least some of those who are currently left out.



To reiterate: the monolithic Western-Liberal-Democratic bubble is understandable, yet arbitrary and damaging.  Something ought to be done about it.

Will my suggestions (or similar measures) be implemented?  This depends on whether debaters, and in particular debating’s elite, want to merely win at debating, or to win from it. If we want debating to entail the rehearsal and refinement of essentially the same arbitrarily chosen ideology(ies), and moreover their universal imposition upon a global debating culture, then we should continue with the status quo.

On the other hand, if we want to challenge ourselves to think freely by opening ourselves to ideas that might not readily pass through the filter of our (idiomatic) Western-Liberal-Democratic framework; if we recognise that as important as any debating tournament is, who we become or are capable of becoming outside of debating is far more important; and if we want to take baby-steps towards a kinder, more understanding world, then we ought to force ourselves to inhabit worldviews radically different from the Western-Liberal-Democratic framework, so that we can start to build the bridges that will make real understanding possible. A few bad debates, a few undeserved fourths, seems a small price to pay. 10



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  1. For the avoidance of doubt, I am deliberately trying to sidestep any epistemological distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’.
  2. The relationship between ‘God’ and ‘Being’ is discussed further in the next section.
  3. ‘Scotism’ is at very least arguably a heresy (see esp. Pickstock 2005).
  4. ‘Orthodox’ in the sense of ‘right-teaching’, not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox etc.
  5. The idea of existence not being a binary concept may seem strange, but debaters invoke precisely this idea when speaking of ‘self-actualisation’.
  6. i.e. that just as music need not to have a definite form or subject in order to express the inner life, and indeed would be limited if it were, neither does painting.
  7. I hope what follows will clarify this problem for those readers who are unfamiliar with it.
  8. Broadly, ‘Right’ Hegelians believe that Hegel’s system is compatible with Christianity; Left Hegelians do not.
  9. NB: states quite routinely make this distinction, at least to some extent, in granting special rights to religious groups qua religious groups – the state has to be able to determine which rights are requested for religious purposes, even if it does not afford religious groups carte-blanche.
  10. Although I might not feel this way immediately after watching you give a terrible speech, or after you give me a fourth that I did not deserve.