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Sample Debate Format


Provided by Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org)

A debate can be anything you want it to be: a casual panel discussion; a brief statement followed by audience questions; or a timed, formal contest. Most of the formal debates I have done have had different formats, but they all involve Opening, Rebuttal, and Closing.

Here is one possibility:

Opening Statement (Affirmative: 10-20 minutes)
Opening Statement (Negative: 10-20 minutes)

Rebuttal (Negative: 5-10 minutes)
Rebuttal (Affirmative: 5-10 minutes)

Cross Examination (Affirmative: 5 minutes)
Cross Examination (Negative: 5 minutes)

Break (Optional: 5-10 minutes [see below])

Second Rebuttal, or Second Statement (Negative: 5-10 minutes)
Second Rebuttal, or Second Statement (Affirmative: 5-10 minutes)

Closing Statement (Negative: 3-5 minutes)
Closing Statement (Affirmative: 3-5 minutes)

Audience Questions (Optional: 20-40 minutes. Can be moved before Closing Statements.)

This will take one or two hours, not counting introductions or Audience Questions.

If the topic is framed as a question or positive resolution ("Does God Exist?" or "Is The Bible a Good Moral Guide?" or "Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?" or "Resolved: Creation is the only meaningful explanation of the origin of the life") then you have an Affirmative and Negative, in which case the Affirmative (who assumes the burden of proof) usually Opens first and Closes last.

If the topic is framed as an open question or a contest of hypotheses ("How are the Resurrection accounts harmonized?" or "What is the basis for morality?" or "Evolution vs. Creation"), then it doesn't matter who goes first, and both sides assume equal burden of proof.

There are many variations on this format.


I've done Opening statements from 5 minutes to 25 minutes. I think 15 minutes is about right. I don't want to tire the audience with long speeches.

I notice that many Christian debaters want longer Opening Statements. My debates with Horner in Iowa and with Boyd in Madison were 25 minutes for Opening -- way too long, in my opinion.

On two occasions, my opponents made the unusual request that I take the first Opening Statement, which I was happy to do, even though I had the Negative. In each case, they took the final Closing Statement.


The Rebuttal should be about half the time of the Opening Statements, but certainly no more than 10 minutes, in my opinion. The Rebuttals could be 7.5 minutes, for example.

The moderator should guarantee that there is nothing introduced during Rebuttal that does not bear directly on what the opponent raised during Opening.

The order of Rebuttals is flexible. It makes sense for the first Rebuttal to be a response to the Affirmative (who went first), but this sets up two Negative speeches in a row. (That's fine with me.) Taking the first Rebuttal balances the advantage of having the first Opening.

If the Affirmative takes the first Rebuttal, the Affirmative is responding immediately to the Negative's Opening Statement, which is quite an advantage. By the time the Negative gets to Rebuttal, it is a response to the Affirmative's Opening Statement a long time before, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

Some debate organizers use the simple tactic of automatically alternating between participants for the entire event, no matter what is happening.


This is the liveliest part. During Cross Examination, one participant gets to ask questions of the other for the period of time. The participants agree to keep answers brief.

The moderator also guarantees that nothing is raised during Cross Examination that does not relate to something that was said earlier in that debate: no new information unless it is requested by one of the opponent's valid questions, and no questions about anything outside of the debate, such as material in one of the opponent's published books or articles that was not raised during that particular debate.

Cross Examination can be a crowd pleaser. The audience gets to watch the participants think on their feet and relate to each other as human beings, unscripted. It is also a great way to confront the opponent with an apparent discrepancy, or to trap the opponent in a contradiction.

Norman Geisler declined the Cross Examination. His presentation was read entirely word-for-word from prepared documents, including his Rebuttals(!). But many other Christian debaters are game.

In my debate with Francis Nigel Lee, the Cross Examination was more structured. We each asked five direct questions of each other, from the podium, and the responses were timed to 1 or 2 minutes from the podium. This worked okay, though it avoided the direct one-on-one interaction of a looser Cross Examination.


This can be a good time to collect them written questions. But it can be disruptive. Use a Break only if it is a long event.


Optional. Same as First Rebuttal, often shorter. Many debates omit the Second Rebuttal in order to expand Closing Statements or Cross Examination or Audience Questions. Some long debates have a Second Statement here, and even insert a Second Rebuttal after that, if time allows.


These should be brief. Three to five minutes. In an Affirmative/Negative debate, the Affirmative goes last. (I have noticed that many Christian opponents tend to use this time to "sermonize," to leave some kind of proselytizing taste in the audience's mouth. However, if Questions from the audience follow, the Negative may have a chance to sneak in a response to this "last word." And vice-versa, of course.)

Some Christian opponents don't care who goes first and/or last. (I certainly don't care.) If the debate is not an Affirmative/Negative format, then it is sensible to allow one opponent to have the "first word" (first Opening) and the other the "last word" (final Closing).


The audience is the reason for the debate, and their participation adds a lot to the event--substance as well as energy. Questions can be written or spoken.

My preference is to have the moderator announce that written questions will be collected during the break. Each question is directed at one of the opponents. The moderator (or perhaps a team representing both sides) will choose the questions to be asked of each participant, alternating from one to the other. This is a good method because it avoids potential grand-standing from the audience and keeps things moving. It also allows the moderator to exclude irrelevant, repetitive, preachy or ad hominem remarks.

If you choose this method, you should provide the audience with paper and pencil, perhaps on each chair, or handed to each person as they enter.

Another acceptable method is to have two open microphones in the audience, one for each side of the topic. Questioners can line up at either microphone. Questions from each microphone are directed at one of the participants, and are alternated from side to side. In this case, the moderator will caution the questioners to keep it brief, and may have to interrupt the question to keep it on topic, or to keep it brief, or to keep it civil. This method eliminates the need for a break to collect written questions, though it is somewhat messier. An advantage to spoken questions is that it makes the debate more lively, involving the audience more directly. If the event is videotaped, it is nice to see the audience members asking questions.

The answers to each question should be timed. 1.5 - 2 minutes is about right. After a question is answered, it is nice if the opponent has the option for a brief response, no more than 1 minute. (I often decline the response, in the interest of time.)

If you have 30 minutes for questions, and if each question takes a minute to ask and each participant takes 2 minutes to answer and the opponent takes one minute to respond (4 minutes total), that allows only 7 or 8 questions. If you want to squeeze in more questions, then shorten the response time, or disallow a response from the opponent.

There is never enough time for Audience Questions--people are always left standing in line. During my debate at Bellevue College near Seattle, when they ran out of time, they allowed the remaining people in line to simply state their questions, with no response from the participants.

The Question period can be moved before Closing Statements in order to give the debate a sense of finality. If the Questions come last, the debate might end on a random note, depending on the final question; but this can also be more flexible for the organizers, allowing them to decide when to stop for the evening. (I like having the Questions before Closing Statements because it offers the possibility of cleaning up some loose ends during Questions that won't have to be squeezed into the Closing.)


It is the moderator's responsibility to enforce the time limits. Usually, the participants are advised that when the time limit is reached, they are to finish the sentence and stop. (And not add a bunch of semicolons . . . .) Or they are advised to finish the immediate thought, which might include another sentence. (I once hit the time limit right in the middle of a quote that had the pay-off at the end, so I kept going to the end of the quote.)

The organizers can allow the moderator to adjust the time limits: "You took 20 extra seconds, so we will give your opponent 20 extra seconds." Or, "We're running out of time, so we will limit the questions to 30 seconds."

Usually the moderator employs a time-keeper, a separate person (or persons) sitting in the front row center with a stopwatch and time cards visible from the platform. The time-keeper can display the cards in 5-minute intervals, or 1-minute intervals as the time gets short. I have even seen a 30-second (:30) card in some debates. The final card is normally "STOP" or "TIME." (I have a set of large time cards that I can bring, if requested.) In the Nashville church, they had a large video screen counting down the time.

It is fine with me if the time-keeper or moderator wants to speak the time: "Five minutes," "One minute," "Stop!" I prefer hearing the time, as I might not be noticing the cards. But other opponents may like the distraction of hearing the times spoken out loud. The opponents should agree.

Some participants place their own stopwatches on the podium.


Some organizers provide a printed form for audience members to express their opinion of the event. This could be handed to them as they enter and collected at the end.

The Campus Crusade For Christ did something that I thought was very good at my 1992 debate in Iowa. They had "Before" and "After" scales. On a scale of 0 to 10, the audience members indicated their opinion on the topic before the debate began. Then on a similar scale of 0 to 10, they marked their position at the end of the debate. This was better than "Who won?" because it showed the delta, the actual effect of the presentations. I noticed that although approximately 90% of the audience circled "0" or "10" for both "Before" and "After" (true believers and true unbelievers), about 10% entered the debate somewhere in the middle, and most of those changed slightly in one direction or other. (In that particular case, the movement added up slightly more in my direction!)

That debate also had a "Who won?" question, and I got about 39%, which I think was very good in a country of 6%-11% atheists and in an audience that was aggressively recruited by Campus Crusade. (It means that "God" earned a grade of 61%, which is a D-minus in most universities, so although I lost the popular vote, as expected, I beat the odds.) At other debates I have garnered between 20% and 55% of the straight "Who won?" vote.

You can ask anything else you want on this form. (Such as, "Regardless of your personal opinion on the topic, which debater did a better job of presenting his/her case?") You could ask for suggestions on how to improve debates in the future, or for names and addresses for follow-up.


It is very important that each debater have enough space to sit and spread out notes (and take notes) while listening to the opponent. Two separate tables on the platform -- or three, if the moderator wants one.

It is also very important to have water on the platform, perhaps a full pitcher for each debater.

If there is a Cross Examination, then it is awkward if there is only one microphone. The best would be a microphone on each side of the stage, preferably on separate podiums, or cordless. If there is only one podium, then use 3 microphones: one for the podium, and a microphone at each end, or cordless mikes, for Cross Examination and answering Audience Questions. The moderator might want a separate microphone, so you may need up to 6 mikes, if you include two on the floor for audience questions.

Many debaters use visual aids, such as overhead transparencies or presentation software. Some, including myself, have printed material to be handed out at the end of the event, and it is nice to have a separate table for this. If the sponsors allow books and products to be sold during the event, there should be tables available for that purpose. (I usually have copies of my books on hand.)


There has never been any serious security problem at any debates I have done. In Nashville, the debate happened the day after the Columbine (CO) high-school shooting, and there were uniformed, armed police in the back of the church because of the very large turnout of young people at the public event, but the only thing that happened was the disappearance of my entire box of books for sale that had been stashed underneath a table in the church foyer. The hotel that hosted the debate in Sacramento had received threats by phone from believers who had read about the event in the newspaper, so they hired a private security firm for the evening, costing the organizers a couple hundred extra dollars--but there was no problem.


If the event is to be taped (video or audio), all parties should agree to the terms. It is a best practice that the entire event is reproduced, with no editing of any content, and copies be sent to the presenters with the option of reproducing it for themselves or their organizations. Some debate sponsors have produced a contract covering these conditions.

Dan Barker, FFRF, Inc., PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701 (608) 256-8900

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