5 Tips for debating with theists about your beliefs (or lack thereof)

Virtually every atheist/agnostic encounters those who would attempt to debate them on the merits of their religion, or theism in general.

We all face similar problems, and would like to represent ourselves and atheists at large in a manner that is convincing and respectable. Below I have listed a few tips that I personally have found useful, and I invite others to add to the discussion in order to share what are the most effective means of spurring healthy debate. By doing so we advance atheism in general and protect our fellow atheists from harmful repercussions.


**Note: While this post provides helpful tips for debating people about atheism, the connections to debating political atheism or scientific atheism are weak at best. I will soon provide another post regarding debates about political and scientific atheism.


1. Remember that you are representing atheists in your country and around the world. To allow frustrations to boil over and personal issues with religion to take hold will not only make your opinion
appear weak, but will give credulity to the incredulous stereotype of the "militant atheist". Which ties in nicely to my next point:


2. Always stay calm. Living in a world where atheists are the minority and where theists use religion to control our lives through government is extremely frustrating. Getting angry at your debate opponent will not serve your purpose, and will undermine your point. When debating with a particularly ignorant person, try to remember why you became an atheist in the first place: you prefer logic over emotion, reason over faith. Logic and reason
require calm debate to take hold.


3. Know your debate. What are you actually debating about? I have found that *most* debates about atheism fall into three categories:

  • Atheistic philosophy - (ex. "atheists are immoral")
  • Atheism in politics - (ex. "having an atheist president/PM would be
  • Atheism vs. theism - (ex. "but my religion blah blah blah.")

I believe that one of the most useful "strategies" for debate used by theists is to jump from point to point. Try to pin down exactly what your opponent is talking about and don't allow them to change the subject when they get frustrated. You want to frustrate your opponent. Convincing someone requires backing them into a logical corner first. Be sure to address misconceptions about atheists that are common. If you have the opportunity to speak to these people more than once, try to remember their points that you might not have an immediate answer for. That way, you can look up counter-points later and be prepared for the next conversation. Respond to points in turn and then give your counter-points. Staying mentally organized is your best defense.


4. Know your goals going in. I know we would all love to say one magic phrase to a person and completely change their worldview. We are all chasing that moment where we get someone to say "wow! you're
right! I'm totally an atheist now!" It's never going to happen. Ever. Instead, think of all people falling somewhere on a continuum of "faith", with atheism at one end and the most hardline religious fanatics at the other. Your goal cannot be to move people from one side to the other, because you will never succeed. If you can move someone a few steps further toward atheism, that's about as good as you can hope for in one encounter. With that in mind, your strategy of debate is different depending on the person. So you should...


5. Know your audience. To win your argument, you must understand your opponent's. Try to stay focused on their beliefs and logical incongruities present therein. Also, your relationship to this person plays a
pivotal role in debate. The type of theist you are talking to will determine how to talk to them. Again, I have listed a few categories (though I am sure more will come in the replies).

  • Family/close friends - One of the hardest groups to talk to. Also unfortunately, one of
    the hardest to give advice about. An atheist's "coming out" can be met with hostility and consequences. Only you know these peoples' motivations and only you can determine the best way to talk to them. However, the other tips in this post are still relevant and helpful. If you are dealing with a particularly religious person who is extremely important to you like a parent, try focusing on atheistic morality for your first few debates. Also keep in mind that when dealing with a parent, they have the best intentions for you. While you disagree about important things, it is important to remind them that your opinion of them hasn't changed, and that you as a person haven't changed.
  • People with power over you - Totally up to you. You may want to just stay quiet about your atheism when it comes to bosses, teachers, etc. The only advice I can give you is to know your rights. U.S. citizens have several legal protections from people in certain positions that would denounce your view or antagonize you. Other countries have similar protections available.
  • Hardliners/literalists - These are possibly the worst group to have to debate. Things seem to almost inevitably turn ugly at an alarming rate, with debates that quickly devolve into shouting matches and almost always involved being told that you should be punished for your beliefs. They are the most entrenched group because deep down, they know that one concrete argument topples their whole house-of-cards religion. There is good news and bad news here. The good news: they are actually the easiest to debate because they tend to be the least logical. Also, you have a bulletproof argument against them: biblical contradictions. How can you say the bible is literal, if even the bible says that the bible is wrong? Simply try to get the person to admit that in the bible has pieces that are contradictory (I accomplished this once. the whole thing was thrilling). The bad news: they will probably ignore you and spit in your face anyway. As with most religious people, they probably have never really read their holy book and have no intention to. Just try to remember the continuum I wrote about and STAY CALM!
  • Cafeteria theists - These people believe that since they disregard the parts of the bible that are immoral by any normal standard, its OK that they still go to church and have supernatural faith. The nice thing about debates with these people is they tend to be the most amicable. Even if you disagree, you probably won't be hurling insults at one another. The not-so-nice thing is that while these people display a large aptitude for logic and reason in their disregard of immoral tenets of Christianity (i.e. hating gays, misogyny, and general biblical literalism), it is incredibly frustrating when you can't get them to make the last step. These debates should really focus on the philosophy of their chosen beliefs. One of my favorite points to use regards morality, and comes out something like: "Don't you think God would find it more important that I act morally rather than adhere to doctrine?" Other popular topics include God's effect on creation, God's effect on evolution, God's 'plan' and free will.
  • Platitude Guy - Platitude guy will repeat meaningless phrases at you over and over. He will say things like, "Well I feel God's love," and will tell you that God loves you too. This person has no interest in debating with you on any real level. He is extremely comfortable with his faith and considers life meaningless without God. Try to get him into a conversation with substance, but if it doesn't go well early on you probably won't get anywhere with him.
  • Old people - I know, its weird that they get their own category. But they have their own motivations and way of thinking about faith. To be honest, I don't debate God with anyone over 70. I made the mistake one time of trying to talk to my grandmother about her faith (she was 88 at the time), and I felt terrible about it afterward. She had been believing in something completely for almost a century, and the look on her face when I began to pick away at her faith was just depressing. It's obviously up to you, but I would just leave it alone. They probably won't change, they probably know several people who are about to die or have died, and they are extremely comforted by the idea of an afterlife and salvation. Taking that away from them seems to me rather cruel.

Bonus - Keep in mind that for the most part, the people you are talking to have held these beliefs for decades. Be respectful. Don't immediately dismiss their points regardless of how silly you find them. You laughing at them will stop them from listening as quickly as it would stop you. While the fact that the vast majority of people believe in a supernatural power isn't evidence of its existence, it does mean that we, as atheists, are fighting an uphill battle. You must approach all debates with patience and understand that getting people to convert to a minority viewpoint should be slightly harder than the the other way around.


Please comment and help your fellow Atheists!

Views: 515

Comment by Bill Carruthers on March 6, 2011 at 8:02pm

Re the Atheism in politics debate - how many people here realize that the present Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is an avowed atheist and lives with her male partner unmarried and is childless. Most Aussies sensibly say they don't give a damn about her religion or lack thereof. Oh for such sensibility in the US. She is presently making her first visit to the states - probably have the fundies in fits if she spoke like she does in the attached article



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