Debates with Theists

Where the Debate Ends…

I wrote a post a few weeks ago that covered a few thoughts about this blog.  One of the forks in that post was about debating theists.  Today, I want to revisit that topic.  In that post, I outlined that I enjoy debating theists in the real world, on blogs, and particularly on Twitter.  I enjoy it for the mental exercise.  I pointed out that my goal is often not to convert theists to atheists…that is not likely to happen.  But rather, I hope to plant some seeds of doubt, both in the person I am chatting with (often not likely to happen) and everyone else who is hearing/reading the debate.  I pointed out that many of my followers on Twitter are not atheists, but follow me for some other reason.  Those are the people that I hope are getting some ideas planted in their brain.

Just about every conversation I have with a theist ends along the same line—with the theist punting to god.  This comes in a variety of sources such as “we can’t know God’s ways”, “God works in mysterious ways”, “It is good because God did it”, or “science does not yet have an answer, so I will maintain my faith in God”.  Whenever the conversation arrives at one of those points, or something similar, I know I am at the end of the discussion.

Statements like the ones above are conversation stoppers.  They signify that the theist is out of bullets to fire.  They have nothing left to offer…ergo…the punt to faith/god.  This of course is fallacious in that one cannot punt to that which is attempting to be proven as the answer.  If the topic of the debate is “did god create the universe?” the end result of that conversation cannot be, “well science doesn’t have all the answers, so god did it.”  This statement tells us nothing and brings us full circle–back to where we started.  The very next statement I make could in fact be a repetition of the first statement I made at the start of the discussion.

My goal is often to get the conversation to this point.  Why?  Because the theist is correct, science often does not have all of the answers.  Here is the key point.  While science does not have all of the answers to many things, “it” is still searching for those answers.  Science may in time come up with the very answer to the question being debated.  Religion does not do this.  Punting to god is the equivalent of saying we have the answer.  Religions do not encourage us to dig past that point.  In fact, many actively discourage looking for answers that do not end in “god did it”.

So, yes, the theist is often correct, science does not have all of the answers.  However, it can be pointed out that accepting “god did it” with little or no evidence for believing that premise can be shown to be irrational.  The rational course of action would be to keep looking for the answer, not falling back on millennia old superstition which is riddled with problems already hashed out in the course of discussion.  The theist ends holding an irrational belief.  The atheist ends rationally looking for more answers.    (I realize a few things here:  First, not all atheists are rational.  Second, not all atheists are out looking for more answers.  The atheists I am specifically referring to are those like myself who are engaging in discussion and looking for the “truth” of things).

I realize that there are problems with my stated goal.  One of those problems is that the theist I am debating may be a poor debater or short on the knowledge required to have a proper discussion.  They get to this point in the conversation fairly quickly.  It would be noted by many that there were other arguments that could have been made of which the theist in question was ignorant.  That is fine with me, remember, I am looking to plant seeds.  Once a punt to god has occurred, some seeds may have been sown somewhere.  How will those seeds grow?  Who knows?  Perhaps the theist (or others watching) will go back and learn some info to strengthen his/her case.  Perhaps they will explore the doubt I exposed.  I can’t be concerned about which direction that takes as it is not in my control.

The second problem is similar to the first.  What if I am the one who is lacking the knowledge?  I am certainly not an expert in everything from theology, philosophy, biology, cosmology, etc.  What I am is well versed in many of the relevant topics.  How do I deal with this?  Socrates.  I will admit what I do not know, and then ask questions…I will be the skeptic that I am.  My lack of knowledge in one particular area does not mean that the theist is correct if they cannot prove their assertion.  Now, some of you reading this will be saying, “Hey!  Wait a minute RB, that works both ways.  You cannot then claim victory when the theist fails to have all of the answers”.  In fact, I can.  The burden of proof is on them, as they are the one making the positive claim.  The theist is saying, “I have an answer to your question and that answer is ‘God did it’.  This claim requires evidence.  In these debates, I will often say, truthfully, that I do not exactly how the universe came into being; science is still working on that.  I can point out some of the working theories that science is exploring, but am not at all making a positive claim that X is the correct answer.  I do not have a burden of proof because I am asserting nothing.

What is incumbent upon me then?  To demonstrate the faults in the theist’s claim that “God did it”.  This I can usually do…which leads to the inevitable punt to god, and back to where we started.

That is why my goal is rarely to prove a scientific theory (the exception being evolution for which there is a ton of evidence), but rather to arrive at 3rd and long and the inevitable punt.  The punt can almost always be shown to be an irrational play in the final seconds of the game when the one punting is behind…unless of course the game is a blow-out…which is always a welcome thing to have in a debate.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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12 thoughts on “Debates with Theists

  1. hausdorff from Troy, MI, United States

    I agree completely, it's all about planting those seeds. You never know what it will lead to. I have said before that it took me about 10 years to leave Christianity, and countless conversations along the way planted various seeds for me.

    I'd also like to add that when I debate, I often have the additional goal to simply challenge people's ideas of what atheists are. Even if someone will never leave their faith, if talking to me can make them reevaluate their ideas that we are all evil I will consider that a victory.

  2. Jim in AZ from Bel Air, MD, United States

    My best friend is a preacher in Oklahoma (not where we are from). I actually don't have that experience with him, I think because we've been friends for a very long time and we both know it would do absolutely no good to get into a debate. Besides, he really can't talk science at all, unless he hears something (false) from some televangelist in which case he will actually ask me, "Is that true?". That aside, I do hear and see what you are descibing somewhat frequently. I tend not to engage in those discussions/debates as it always ends up going nowhere.

    1. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

      One of my best friends is ostensibly still a Christian, although I think he still pretends because it's comforting, he really doesn't believe anything anymore. He used to get into debates with me and I'd trounce him so badly and shred everything he had to say so finely that he gave up. His problem is, he does know science, he does know history, he does know reality and he knows that God doesn't fit into it anywhere.

      1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

        Sounds to me like the seeds are planted…now it is the wait and see game. In those scenarios, I try to illustrate that atheism is not scary at all. That in fact, we are just like everyone else. That, life is okay without religion. So many people have that fear of leaving religion, helping them to understand that though the transition can be difficult, the rewards are often well worth the trouble.

    2. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Those are the type of conversations I do not bother having either. There is little chance of success that you will change his mind, or him yours. The only time I engage in that type of conversation is if other people are present. As I said, sometimes the target audience is not the person I am discussing things with, but others who are listening.

  3. Grundy from Hoschton, GA, United States

    "Explaining one mystery with an even more mysterious one."-the apologist's unspoken slogan. I'll tell you, I'm freaking awesome debating theists at this point, I just wish they'd realize that. Most my debates end with the theist in some kind of feedback loop of defending arguments I'm not making and side stepping questions I repeatedly ask. It's frustrating. They move along to points they are comfortable in making while I'm trying to drag them kicking and screaming to their past explanation's flaws.

    Are you on Google+? I do a lot of debating there. I can't get into with people on Twitter.

        1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

          Out of town this weekend, but will have to check it out more when I get back. Thanks for the info. I like Twitter for the sole reason that I know 1200 other people are seeing it. As I said, the target audience is often not the person I am speaking with. That said, I am excite to learn about some new forums.

  4. Brian from Louisville, KY, United States

    Nicely put. Atheists often make the mistake of assuming they need answers for every question about cosmology and biology the theist can throw at them, but this is not the case. I usually say "For the sake of argument, lets say I don't know anything, and that all human knowledge about these subjects was erased. How does this justify your conclusion? Do you have any evidence for an invisible entity with telekinetic and telepathic powers doing these things?"

    Of course they don't. What they have is an argument from ignorance, which is a crystal clear fallacy.

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Good points Brian. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment as well. Many theists will try to catch the atheist on a point of ignorance on one topic. This is purely fallacious. If the atheist cannot answer a random question, say about cosmology, it in no way means that the theists argument is correct. Well said Brian.


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