What's The Deal With Big Questions?

Hannah Tuttle | 8/5/22

We all know the age-old debate to end all debates: which debate type is the most valid or fun. Congress kids will swear that they have the best rhetoric to fact ratio, public forum kids promise that the logical approach is the best way to tackle problems, and Lincoln Douglass kids will declare that they have the fairest or more inherently meaningful form of debate. However, almost no people in the NSDA would say that Big Questions debate is their favorite, despite thousands of kids having done it at some point. Why is it that despite having minimal interest, Big Questions garners so many participants? Well, first you’ll have to join me on a deep dive of a man by the name of John Templeton- and how he created an event that is an affront to genuine conversations.

John Templeton was born on November 29th, 1912, and had a very eventful life. He was a known Presbyterian contrarian (say that three times fast) who became extremely wealthy off of establishing mutual funds and gaming the stock market. He was even knighted in 1987 for his investment in philanthropy. While all of this sounds impressive and even applaudable, there’s a shadier side to how Templeton spent his money and how exactly these “philanthropies” helped people.

Templeton believed that much of the universe was unexplored, and to remedy this, he decided to invest in theological scientists to ask questions about the purpose of the universe and its overall impact on our lives. He hired almost exclusively religious officials to run his new foundation- the very creatively named John Templeton Foundation. The purpose of this organization was to ask big questions like “what influence does religion have on the universe?” And “would it be beneficial to have a planet wide religion?”. While these questions seem fair, if not a little leading, on first glance, they actually sparked a huge issue- they were only ever answered by Templeton’s endorsed advisors and officials who would reiterate his own ideals.

The John Templeton Foundation funded religious scholars to explore theology within the world and space. This quickly became an issue, as this intensely religious funding masked as fair and equitable questions began to create biased articles and research studies. Studies funded by the JTF were often lackluster in their quality of reasoning and evidence and many times attempted to tackle theological issues within the scientific community. While scientists are more than welcome to believe in their own religious beliefs, these interests should not interfere with the quality of the work they produce.

The JTF has many funding adventures outside of its scientific community, however. The organization created Big Questions debate, aimed at middle and high schoolers. The debate form would ask a deeply leading and theological question that inherently was unfair to both sides. When I was asked to compete, the question was regarding whether religion as a whole was beneficial to society. Of course nobody can fairly argue that all religions are bad, so this inherently was an affirmation-heavy debate that would lead to participants scrambling to find benefits of religion. While religion certainly has its merits, forcing impressionable teenagers to focus on how heavily the benefits outweighed the consequences in an unfair debate was certainly questionable.

Not only did the debate inherently serve as a form of propaganda, encouraging participants to engage in a heavily weighted debate, but most participants had no idea that the JTF was funding the event. The JTF would give thousands of dollars in funding to schools that would have a certain percentage of students participating in these events. This was not outwardly advertised, meaning most students had no idea that they were essentially being used as pawns for more funding in an underfunded district. Essentially, JTF was bribing underfunded schools to engage in a weighted religious debate in exchange for a few thousand dollars- without letting the kids know that this was the case.

In debate, we encourage participants to examine sources for biases and unfair conclusions, but the inherent funding behind Big Questions was left mostly undiscussed. It’s one thing to have questionable sources within a debate, but quite another for an entire event to be based around centering the narrative of a group. Not only were these debates subtly influencing the teenagers engaging in them based on a monetary reward, but the organization could even choose how much funding to provide schools with- revoking their offer if not enough kids participated.

While I’m not discouraging anyone who may have enjoyed big questions debate (some of the questions actually are fun to discuss with friends), it’s inherently problematic to tie financial gain to event participation when the questions are religiously linked and heavily weighted. In many cases, the question was posed in such a way that the reasonable conclusion would be that a society should believe in absolute morality or create religious theocracies.

Debate is supposed to encourage free thinking, questioning authority, fighting for what is fair and just, and analyzing situations before exercising judgment on them. Big Questions inherently defies these goals by creating a murky misunderstanding of the purposes of the debate and acting as a simple fun debate- when really it unfairly leans towards religious ideals.

This debate form can be actively biased towards Western-aligned Christian individuals, as it encourages a mindset of absolutism, framing religion as all or nothing, and insinuating the options are either a monotheistic society or no religion at all and total anarchy. In reality, society is made up of shades of these- people are free to practice their religion but also may not enforce a religious theocracy nor discriminate against others who disagree. Big Questions frames theocratic questions in an impartial light, pretending that it has no religious ties while actively encouraging a mindset that heavily leans towards Christian values.

Mixing both religious undertones that are not outwardly stated and hidden funding from debaters makes this event much darker than a fun philosophical debate. I truly believe that debaters should be able to question the framework of debates that are inherently unfair and to have a debate that allows all perspectives to be thoroughly examined. Narrowing the options to all or nothing simply makes debaters narrow-minded and unable to consider nuance.

Well, how do we tackle this issue when for many schools it is a vital source of income? Plenty of debate teams rely on this funding to operate. There are two solutions here- either outwardly present Big Questions as a religious and biased debate, or fix the inaccessibility of debate. In my opinion, both should happen. As we’ve discussed before, we as a collective debate organization should begin to create free avenues for debate and establish ways for lower income students to have a fair opportunity to participate. Larger-scale, those who are able to vote should fight for equitable district funding for schools so that schools don’t need to take bribes from organizations to get enough funding.

Take the time to point out the flaws in this debate if you are able to. Fight for equitable education and debate resources. Our debates should be free from religious bias and bribery- and able to accept all people of all backgrounds.