Tactics and Tools

Prepping for Engagement

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/2010

“More Sweat, Less Blood”—that’s the title of the final chapter in my recent book, Tactics. I took the idea from a Marine Corps training motto: The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.

In the work I do with Stand to Reason, this aphorism has become a staple for me. It was constantly on my mind recently as I prepped for a high-profile encounter with one of America’s most lucid and popular atheists, Michael Shermer, founder and editor of Skeptic magazine. For three hours on a December afternoon last year, Michael and I squared off on Hugh Hewitt’s national radio program on theism vs. atheism.

Since preparation—“more sweat”—is so critical to performance—“less blood”—I thought you might like an inside look at exactly how I prepared for this encounter, both strategically and tactically.

First, a qualifier, though. You may find it surprising to know that I do not relish engagements like these. In fact, there is a certain sense in which I fear them. I lack no confidence in the truth of my convictions as a Christian. Rather, I am aware that having the truth on my side is simply not enough to ensure success.

Michael Shermer is a bright, articulate, provocative, highly-educated, well-read, thoughtful challenger. He is also an amicable debater, for the most part. Even though I think his ideas are clearly false, I could not take him lightly. Michael can be very convincing, in print and in person.

In a very real sense, then, Michael Shermer and his colleagues can be dangerous. Eternal issues are at stake and our adversaries are skilled. Consequently, I do not underestimate them. I respect their abilities and I respect their ideas.

Christians are not always this prudent, however. Armed with the courage of their convictions and confidence in the Holy Spirit, some believers wade into the conflict going head to head with talented academics in public without taking their opponents’ skills or ideas seriously, only to have their heads handed to them with the world watching.

The fear of that happening to me in front of a national audience drove me to my knees and to my prep. I wanted to acquit myself well for the sake of the Lord and for the sake of the Kingdom, but I also didn’t want to look like a fool in front of millions of listeners.

So, I read Shermer’s books and listened to his interviews and debates. I noted patterns in the way he argued or presented his ideas. I jotted down one-liners he’d used to try to stonewall or silence Christians in the past. I was alert for opportunities—chinks in his armor, breaches in his arguments—and recorded them.

As I did, a strange thing happened. The more familiar I became with Michael Shermer the atheist, the thinker, the writer, the human being, the less nervous I felt. The more I read his words and listened to his voice—the closer I moved toward him as a person, in other words—the easier it was to debate him.

This is a lesson we constantly need to be reminded of. The more we know, the less we fear. The more personal we get with an opponent, the less ominous he appears. That is one of the psychological payoffs of good preparation.

But I also needed a concrete plan, both strategically and tactically. And I needed it in print.

Strategic Planning

Strategy involves the big picture: launching, positioning, and deploying. I needed to put a larger plan in place so I wouldn’t get disoriented in the details of the debate. In this case, I wrote everything down, reviewed it often, and brought it with me to the studio to use as a crib sheet, if necessary.

I always have a plan, even with shorter, less auspicious encounters. Having a plan calms the nerves. It also keeps the audience from getting lost.

My first concern: Start strong. This is a goal I pursue with every single public presentation I make. That’s why I think carefully about the very first words out of my mouth. First impressions count, for two reasons.

To begin with, my listeners need to feel I’m a solid player, that I know what I’m doing, and that I probably won’t make them flinch by falling on my face. Second, it’s important that I also feel good about my launch. I want to get out of the blocks cleanly, find my feet, and enter the race with energy. It helps my confidence.

Since the beginning and ending are so important in an exchange like this, I worked out exactly what I wanted to say and practiced until I was very familiar with the substance, if not the exact words.

Based on how Hugh had conducted previous interviews (I’d listened), I knew he would ask each of us to give a short biographical sketch at the outset. I crafted mine carefully, including only those details I thought would commend me and my ideas best to the listeners. I actually typed it in outline form and used it during my opening segment (you can get away with this on radio if you’re a good reader).

I also wanted to frame the discussion in a very particular way. In my mind, Shermer and I were not fighting about facts, but rather offering competing accounts of reality. So before I launched into my personal biography, I said this:

Hugh, I approach this discussion today not as a philosopher or as a theologian—though I have advanced degrees in both fields—but as a man trying to make sense of his world. Which view—atheism or Christianity—does the best job explaining reality as we discover it to be? That’s the question.

I “bookended” the interview with this concept by ending on the same point. In my final 60-second salvo, I revisited the worldview question:

Hugh, the atheistic worldview is too austere. It doesn’t answer enough questions, and its explanations seem counterintuitive at almost every turn: the universe comes from nothing; life comes from non-life; consciousness comes from matter; morality comes from molecules. These are all wildly counter-intuitive. By contrast, the Christian worldview makes much more sense: a Big Bang needs a big “Banger,” design needs a designer, moral law needs a moral lawgiver. Christianity, not atheism, fits reality. It resonates with our deepest intuitions about the way the world actually is.

My strategic plan included two other elements. The first was a style component. I wanted to exemplify the virtues of a good ambassador. I also knew that, based on the pattern of Hugh’s past interviews, I’d be given time to develop my thoughts. So I posted these points on my outline:

  • Strong and confident
  • Genial, collegial, and fair
  • Keep talking

The second component was based on content, key points central to my case that I wanted to make well. Under the heading “Big Issues” I wrote:

  • Two definitions of science (methodology vs. materialistic philosophy)
  • Moral objectivism vs. moral subjectivism (relativism)—the grounding problem
  • Waving the wand of evolution—the devil is in the details
  • Smuggling objective morality into a subjective system
  • Equivocation in “Evolution explains morality”—Darwinian evolution vs. cultural evolution

Finally, I wrote out my overall goal for the debate: Show that Christianity is a reasonable, rational worldview that resonates with our deepest intuitions about reality.

My general strategy, then, was to start strong, position the discussion in a way that made my case easier to defend, and then focus on key issues that highlighted the weaknesses of atheism and the strengths of Christianity, showing that my view was more plausible. These broad concerns were easy to keep track of on the first page of my notes.

In addition to a strategic plan, though, I also needed a tactical blueprint.

Tactical Concerns

Here is why tactical prep is so important. It’s hard to be quick on your feet when you’re under fire. It’s much easier to come up with clever quips or apt illustrations when the pressure is off. I took advantage of that fact by planning my tactical moves in advance.

Based on Shermer’s previous interviews, writings, and debates, I had a good idea of specific moves he was likely to make. I structured my notes as responses to those challenges. I then organized them in sections with headings to make navigation easier if I had to refer to them during the broadcast. My headings were: General, Arguments for God, Jesus, Intelligent Design, Mind/Body Problem, Evolution, and Morality.

Most of what I prepped for had to do with morality and science. There was a reason for this. Grounding morality is one of the atheist’s thorniest problems. Science, most atheists think, is ours. I wanted both an offense and a defense.

Here are some examples of what I came up with. Notice they are to the point and as punchy as I could make them, using compelling illustrations when I could. Some are a little longer because there were different ways to respond to the same question.

“Intelligent Design is not falsifiable.”

Do you tell that to all the people who buy your books expecting to find compelling evidence falsifying ID? If you really believed Intelligent Design was not falsifiable, you’d have nothing to write about.

“God is a science stopper.”

This is a bold statement since, as a matter of historical fact, God was the science starter for virtually everyone involved in laying the initial foundation for the disciplines of science.

Also, the God hypothesis has no bearing on the day-to-day details of science. Therefore, answering the question about ultimate origins isn’t going to bring science to a screeching halt. Put another way, a person can follow a recipe for baking bread quite easily without giving a thought to the cook who invented the recipe to begin with.

“Who created God?”

This is a curious question. Michael Shermer the atheist doesn’t think God was created. I don’t think God was created. No one in this discussion thinks God was created. So why ask, “Who created God?”

Further, the question is irrelevant to the issue of ID. You don’t need to know the manufacturer of a shoe in order to know that a shoe made the prints. You don’t need to know who made God to know that someone like God made the universe. They’re unrelated questions.

Nothing about the case for ID requires a creator or designer for God. So the question cannot undermine my argument. Atheists know this. So why do they keep bringing this up? It’s a rhetorical move to distract attention away from evidence for design.

“I believe in science.”

I believe in science, too. I have great respect for science doing what it is capable of doing: telling us about the nature of the physical world. Science is not the problem. The materialistic philosophy currently imposed on science is the problem. There is nothing about the regularities of nature themselves that suggests they can’t be superseded by the maker of nature Himself.

“If there were no God, would you still be good?”

I’ll answer your question if you answer mine: Would you still have to be faithful to your wife if you weren’t married and never had been? Clearly, the question doesn’t even apply. The same is true for your question.

If there is no transcendent standard for morality, then “good” means either following my own individual or cultural morality, or responding to my evolutionary impulses. Could I do those things if there were no God? Could I do what you call good? Sure.

If I’m the one making up the rules, though, I’d probably make some adjustments. What I’d call “good” would be a lot more convenient than what God says is right. That’s hardly a problem, though, since without God morality would be relative anyway.

It certainly wouldn’t be an inferior morality, as your question implies. How could it be substandard on an evolutionary view of things? You’re following your genes, and I’m following mine. Who’s to judge which is “better”?

“ID is nothing more than God of the gaps.”

Notice first, the challenge is a tacit admission there is a problem—a gap—that the materialistic approach has not been able to deal with. So what do atheists propose? They suggest sticking materialism in the gap and then adding time. But what is their justification for doing this? A blind commitment to materialism. This is nothing more than science of the gaps.

Proponents of ID are not just sticking G-O-D in the gap. They are inferring a transcendent intelligence because the evidence itself points forcibly to it. The data is specific, precise, and measurable, and needs to be addressed, not dismissed.

So both sides have a way to fill the gap. One places facts and reason in the gap. The other plugs the hole with wishful thinking about the future. Which side is guilty working from ignorance here?

“Evolution can explain morality.”

Tell me, how do you get from “survival of the fittest” to “love your enemy” by means of Darwinian evolution?

So your objection to rape is that it violates our evolutionary programming? How could that make rape wrong?

Evolution is a completely materialistic system. No rearrangement of matter is going to cause an immaterial moral obligation to pop into existence, regardless of how much time you have. Evolution gets you relativism, nothing more. Atheistic philosopher Michael Ruse is clear on this: “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...and any deeper meaning is illusory.”

“Good” in evolutionary terms simply means “pro-adaptive.” “Bad” would have to mean “mal-adaptive.” We can only know what is maladaptive when it goes extinct. That’s the definition of maladaptive, after all. So why is there still so much bad in the world today? If Darwinism governs morality, evil, being mal-adaptive, should have gone extinct eons ago. Ironically, the evolutionist is the one saddled with the problem of evil.

Hitting the Beach

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War, once noted, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

His point: You never know what surprises you’ll face once an engagement begins. But this is no excuse for neglecting to set a course to begin with, or failing to be ready for what you think you might encounter along the way.

I’d done my planning. I had a general strategy that focused my direction, and individual responses to particular issues I was certain would come up. As the debate got closer, I read and reread my notes. I added new details and reflected on my arguments. I prayed. I took every opportunity—even in casual discussions with others—to rehearse my points to settle them in my mind. The more I talked them out, the more embedded they became.

By the end of the first radio segment I was already thankful for my preparation. I had a good start and I knew where I was going. By the end of the three hours, I hadn’t followed my plan exactly. Some things never came up, and there were a few surprises I had to adapt to. But I never stumbled and I never lost my stride.

Michael Shermer proved to be a bright man, a worthy opponent, and genial debater. In this battle, though, I didn’t bleed much because I had paid my dues in sweat before I hit the front lines.