If you’re an atheist, there’s a very good chance you have spent time debating believers. Here are my top tips to make these discussions more productive.
Start by remembering believers are not stupid—they are just wrong. After thousands of years, no one has developed a successful argument for the existence of ANY god, despite many smart people trying hard to do so. But believers always have arguments—they are just bad arguments.
If believers are not stupid (and they really are not), why do they offer invalid arguments? It’s because most believers feel the need to rationalize why they believe their extraordinary stories but they only have bad arguments to choose from.
The second thing to remember is the believer is the one with a belief—you are simply wondering why they have the belief. Even if you have beliefs about religions and gods, it is better to keep them to yourself and focus on why the believer believes what they believe. The believer has the burden of proof—hold them to it. And avoid saying anything that will transfer the burden to you.
Avoiding the burden of proof is not cowardice—it’s efficiency. When both participants share the burden of proof, you create something akin to a roundabout with zero friction bearings—it will spin forever. If you want to debate YOUR beliefs, do it in a completely separate discussion and happily accept the burden of proof.
Believers will often use tricks to avoid the inevitable. Shifting the burden of proof to you is a common one. For example, “Prove God doesn’t exist” but there are more. Here are some common tricks.
Failing to acknowledge a lost point by changing the topic.
Don’t let them. Have them acknowledge each lost point before moving on to the next.
Posting long rambling comments.
These can be confusing and make it impossible to pin your opponent down. When this happens, read carefully, extract the essential points and restate them in the fewest words possible. Insist your opponent confirms the accuracy of your summary (or corrects it) before moving on.
Copying and pasting long extracts from religious websites.
I suppose believers find these sites compelling and they imagine you will too. But you won’t—you’ll find them tedious, fallacious and, sometimes, dishonest. Worse still, it will take many words to demolish each point and, if you go there, you will have let your opponent slip out of answering his own bad arguments. When this happens just refuse to read the pasted text. Insist your opponent makes his argument in his own words and as briefly as possible.
Seeking to agree to disagree.
Have none of it. In this type of discussion, one person is right and one is wrong. You will have wasted your time if you don’t pin down who is right and who is wrong. Persevere until it’s blindingly obvious.
Eight important tips
Finally, here are some simple tips to make your discussions more effective:
- Be sure you understand your opponent’s position before you critique it. You can’t make progress if you argue against arguments your opponent is not making. The best approach is to summarise your opponent’s argument in the fewest possible words and hold back your critique until they agree you have expressed it correctly. Never argue until your opponent agrees you have understood the argument.
- Be polite at all times. Never lose your temper and never attack your opponents personally—only attack their arguments.
- Be patient. There are no quick wins. Your job is to clarify and understand your opponent’s argument and then to show the errors in it simply and clearly, methodically knocking down each error.
- Don’t try to look impressive. Use simple language and short sentences. This is about bad arguments, not about your ego.
- Keep it simple. There are times when your opponent makes several points you want to challenge. But don’t blast them all—you’ll complicate things. By the time you understand the argument, you will have worked out where the errors are and which are the important errors that most clearly show the argument is a dud. Stick to the important errors and let the others slide.
- Agree everything you can agree as early as possible in the discussion. Arguing from common ground is much easier.
- Don’t gloat. If you defeat an argument, thank your opponent for their patience with you and ask if there are any other arguments they would like to discuss.
- Learn when not to argue. Some people are so delusional or so lacking in their understanding of logic that a coherent discussion is impossible. When you encounter such people it’s best to find another way to spend your evening—make an excuse and leave.
It takes calmness, patience, and persistence to knock down believer’s arguments. I think if you use these tips you’ll enjoy your discussions more and you are more likely to find onlookers benefit from them, even if your opponents just retire to religious websites to lick their wounds and see if they can do better next time.
Dr House famously said, “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people”. The problem is we have to learn how to reason with religious people and few of us know how to do it.
Once we learn, religious people will learn too. After all, religious people are not stupid.