I’ve debated with many theists in person and online. Many of them have shown a profound understanding of theology and philosophy, which has left me scrambling for the research books! Some of them have baffled me with facts about science, such as quantum mechanics, that has forced me to go away and do my research. On the other hand, many theists I’ve argued with have shown very little in the way of a serious debating challenge. I think this is because many theists, (if they’re anything like me), were brought up (or taught) a series of arguments in favour of their beliefs and stock answers and defences. They’re even taught stock answers to counter-answers and all the basic apologetics.
One might have been brought up a believer, or chosen to believe. I was brought up with a head full of arguments for god, a stock of rehearsed excuses and counter-arguments, and various reasons why other religions were wrong, and atheism was a mistake.
Sometimes when I debate, I admit, I can lose patience quickly if I feel the other party isn’t being logical or honest. And my penchant for sarcasm often manifests itself. Perhaps what I don’t do enough is show empathy with the believer and make them understand that most of the time, I know exactly where they’re coming from. Now, I don’t want that to sound arrogant, as if I am above anyone and I can see their mistakes now that I’m “better”. But I think when I was a theist I’d have been slightly more receptive to an “opponent” if I knew they’d held my beliefs but rejected them. As a believer I’d want to know “why?!” Perhaps I’m just curious, or perhaps I have a passion for knowledge, but this is one reason why being told to stay away from apostates or critical information on the internet made no sense to me.
There are many atheists who de-converted, and many who were never affiliated with any religion. I won’t pretend that I have any special insight that other atheists don’t have (because I don’t), but I do have the experience of being a fundamentalist and then an atheist. So I’d like to offer the follow observations:
I think many theists are in for a shock when they debate with atheists. Whereas it’s a self-evident fact are that all humans are born atheists, a professed atheist has at least a modicum of critical thinking, and this is the key thing! It is the one thing that for all the training I was given as a believer, I wasn’t taught this! And because theists aren’t taught it, many don’t expect it. More so, a lot of them don’t understand it.
Let me say first, if I’m debating with a theist and I use the expressions “Occam’s razor” or “post hoc fallacy or “begging the question”, or “the regressive fallacy”, I am not going to get on my high horse because my opponent doesn’t understand those terms. Not all theists are versed in philosophy, and society in general doesn’t do a very good job of inculcating critical thinking skills, especially in the young. So, fair enough. However, I would genuinely expect any intelligent person to acknowledge a logical fallacy after it’s been pointed out to them.
I also know that, for all my biblical knowledge, pro-theistic arguments, and apologetics, I wouldn’t have lasted half an hour in a room of atheists. This is because many believers, especially the proselytising type, are used to talking door-to-door, or with other believers, or, and I mean no offence, people who simply don’t know good thinking from bad thinking. Coming across someone who knows how to construct and deconstruct arguments, scrutinise ruthlessly, respect facts whatever they are, and has a reasonable understanding of philosophy and perhaps most importantly science, is like running into a brick wall.
I was no theistic slouch, but I couldn’t have stood against such a person back in the day. That is why I understand the problem many theists have now. I also understand how disconcerting and even harrowing it is to consider that your cherished, rooted beliefs might be wrong.
When I was de-converting, I did my research. I soaked up everything I could on critical thinking and logical fallacies. Even after rejecting my theism and sending a thank you e-mail to Bob Carroll at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, I still didn’t accept evolution. It seemed counter-intuitive to me, and I still couldn’t buy it. Here I was, knowing that god couldn’t exist (at least the gods of human invention), yet believing in intelligent design. It wasn’t a strong conviction, since I’d learned more about evolution in a month than two decades of Creationist propaganda. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a booked called “Life: How did it Get Here? – By Evolution or Creation?” It is one of the biggest squalid collection of lies, half-truths, misquotes, fabrications, bad arguments, misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and fallacies you will ever read.)
My point is that my beliefs were challenged, so I did my research. This is something that believers simply don’t do enough of. Incidentally, all it took was time and lots of reading and I understood evolution. (And to be honest I’m delighted that I do. I feel that a great truth about the universe was withheld from me for years.)
If you’re a theist and you want to seriously debate with atheists online, you will almost certainly find that they are very well versed in critical thinking and science. In short, they will almost definitely know all the Arguments for God before you even recite them. The chances are, you won’t be the first theist who’s arrived in a forum/blog and said “God must exist! Look at the beautiful design in nature!” or something along those lines.
In other words, know your audience. Many atheists used to be theists. Many of them might even know your holy book better than you do! The best advice I can give you before getting into an argument (and this goes for everyone) is to know how to argue, and do your research. Not only will you avoid being embarrassed (it happens to us all at times!), you will avoid wasting your time and everyone else’s. Knowing a few logical fallacies, sound arguments, and basic science and philosophy are truly invaluable skills for any serious debater. The beauty is these things don’t even take long to learn!
Above all, in a proper intelligent discussion both parties should have one goal: truth. It doesn’t matter what you believe, answer this question:
Is there anything, even in principle, that would make you admit you’re wrong?
You know the answer, even if you won’t admit it. And if you know deep down that you’re going to hold your convictions whatever anyone says, then don’t waste time arguing. Furthermore, don’t pretend that you’re interested in truth. You’re not. Your only interest is what you already believe. And if you’re just looking to convert, again, don’t waste your time.
If you’re really interested in the facts, whatever they are, you won’t be put off by the possibility of being wrong. You won’t be afraid to go away and read up.
I’m an atheist because I think the facts support that position. But I might be wrong! You might be right! Let’s argue about it and see who’s correct. But my interest is the truth. Is yours?