Thursday, January 20, 2011

What should atheists avoid when debating Christians?

I am going to be more merciless when explaining some of, what I see to be, inaccuracies in the debating tactics of atheists.  I am an atheist, so naturally I believe atheists have reality, logic, and reasoning on our side (or I wouldn't be an atheist!).  There is no point in sacrificing any of the aforementioned advantages in debating and seeing fallacious and poor arguments from my side of the coin is frustrating to me.  There are plenty of good cases for atheism that one need not ever find themselves using a downright bad case.  I respect that fact that I do not speak for all atheists and that all will have their own techniques for debates/discussion.  I am merely suggesting tactics to avoid (for both sides; see "What should Christians avoid when debating atheists?") that will keep a productive dialog.  Here are my tips:

  1. Don't talk down to people
Both Christians and atheists alike are guilty of this.  Smug certainty is going to get the conversation no where.  I have no problem with one person calling someone else's specific belief stupid or another degrading word, however, atheists should avoid treating Christians as if they are stupid on the whole.  When discussing, never assert something without a good reason; the converse of this would be what I call "smug certainty" or telling someone that you hold the correct position because its "obvious" and you are infallible.  Well, I'm sorry, but if your position's evidence was so obvious I would be on your side.  If you think you're right, show the evidence for your case and if you have none, you should be reserving your position.  I have talked to some "smug" Christians before and have been talked down to before through phrases like, "You are mistaken because you haven't felt God yet", or "I know God exists because He told me He does; you must not be intelligent enough to hear his call."  I will explain in a future post why personal experiences count as evidence for yourself and not as evidence for others to accept.  Think about this situation from my point of view, but instead use the subject of unicorns.  The Christian would basically be saying, "I know that unicorns exist because I have experienced one before (whether it be seeing, touching, seeing one in their mind, etc.)."  This is not evidence for me because I cannot reproduce this experience for myself, as well as the fact that humans are extremely easy to be deceived.  These types of statements from the atheistic side go something like, "All Christians must be unintelligent for believing in bronze-age fairy tales and accepting all of their beliefs on faith."  Again, I have no problem with an atheist saying, "I don't believe in bronze-age fairy tales, such as the stories told in your Bible, and I do not accept anything as true on faith.  Here are my reasons why..."  There are huge differences between these statements.  The first statement (the one that talks down to Christians) is a sweeping generalization.  Christians usually do have reasons for their belief other than faith, albeit, in my opinion, poor ones.  The first statement also leaves out the part when the atheist gives his reasons.  A good discussion starts with someone saying X, their partner retorting X with reasons against X, and the original speaker responding with counter-points.  A poor discussion is someone saying that they know X is true, their partner retorting X by saying they know that X is not true, and walking away.

    2.   Don't shift the burden of proof

Seeing this piece of advice broken is a pet-peeve of mine.  Christian have the burden of proof not atheists!  Let's review the definition of an atheist.  An atheist is a person who lacks a belief in a god or gods.  "Lacks" is the key word in the definition.  If the definition was slightly changed to:  "an atheist is a person who believes that no god or gods exist", a strawman frequently used by theists, then atheists would have the burden of proof.  Let's use the analogy of unicorns again with the terms "unicornist" and "aunicornist".  A unicornist is someone who believes in unicorns and an aunicornist is someone who lacks a belief in unicorns.  Which person has the "burden of proof" or the responsibility to provide evidence for their claim?  Obviously the unicornist because they are the ones who hold the positive belief.  If you said that the aunicornist had the burden of proof, please leave your reasoning in the comments below so we will be able to discuss the issue.  Or, see for a brief explanation.  The person asserting that something is true must provide the necessary evidence.  Do not attempt to shift the burden of proof to yourself if you are an atheist.  Let the theists dig their own holes because refuting theists claims is much, much easier than trying to prove that no gods exist (that's just a field of land mines).

    3.   Don't be too respectful of a Christian's religious belief

A person's religious convictions are no more "sacred" than their beliefs on their favorite daytime soap opera.  Granted, there is a fine line between being respectful of someone's beliefs and being disrespectful, so let me explain.  Always realize that people have the right to believe whatever they want.  It's the same principles that allow atheists to hold their lack of belief.  In addition, it's their right to not have their beliefs challenged and to stay sheltered from the evidence against their beliefs.  This being said, if you both agree (whether explicitly or implicitly) to talk about your religious beliefs or lack thereof, I would prefer that neither side holds back.  Christians usually aren't the ones who are guilty of being too respectful of an atheist's position because, supposedly, their duties as a Christian are to defend their faith (1 Peter 3:15) and I think that this is a good thing.  Challenging your beliefs in everything, although wholly impractical, is a beneficial practice.  Ultimately, I would like to know as many true things as possible, as well as having as few false beliefs as possible.  What I don't want to see atheists doing is "going easy" on a Christian just because they are talking about religious beliefs.

    4.   Don't misrepresent/generalize other atheists' and theists' viewpoints

The only characteristic that all atheists share is a lack of a belief in a god or gods.  Although there may be some other aspects that most atheists share, there will never be an "all".  Try to avoid sweeping generalizations such as, "atheists believe that abortions should be legal".  This may or may not be true for most atheists, but I can guarantee you that all atheists do not feel this way.  If your statement begins with "atheists believe..." you should rethink the statement you're about to make.  The same rule applies when talking about theists.  However, when you get down to the denominational level, there are certain characteristics you can give to people.  For example, in addition to a belief in a god or gods, Roman Catholics follow the Pope.  Avoid painting theists with a broad brush.  Allow the theist to define their version or versions of god or gods to deter from tearing down a strawman.  I have heard atheists jumping the gun and arguing against what most Christians believe, only to hear the Christian say, "Well that's not the God I believe in."  Don't give them this opportunity.  

    5.   Avoid letting Christians making too many consecutive claims without addressing them

In order to have a productive conversation, you have to figure out where the two of you agree and where you disagree.  Don't let a Christian build an argument on premises you find to be false.  If you let the Christian lay out their case with premises you find to be false, there is little point in arguing about the Christian's conclusion because neither of you will make real progress.  Arguing the points leading up to a conclusion and working through the logical process together (whether both of you agree with each other or not) can only be beneficial.  In addition, a common apologist debating tactic during public venues is to make claim after claim after claim so that their opponent has an impossible task in refuting them all.  The apologist then claims victory because their opponent couldn't refute their points.  If it is possible, pause the Christian's argument as soon as you disagree and start the discussion.

I hope these points have been instructive or helpful at least.  If you disagree with these tips or have more to add, please leave me a message in the comments below or e-mail me at!  Have a great day!

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