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How to debate an atheist and win

28 August 2013, 14:31

Debating Atheists can be a tricky business, the gulf separating the believer and the non-believer is undefinable in width, and the waters are all too easy to get swept up in. However, there is a way to win, and convincingly put up a good fight. You just need to understand the rules of engagement. Now obviously in any argument, sometimes you will need to use multiple ways, and you may get called out for some of the tactics if you are much too obvious in their use. It’s important to do it in a way that is not obvious.

It’s no secret that good barristers – such as Gumble who created the Alpha Course – have a high degree of successful cases for their clients. It is not the case that all their clients are innocent in a defence case, but their arguments are convincing enough to show that a conviction of guilty is unreasonable. In a God argument, the rules are the same, one does not need to prove the existence of a God, or disprove it, and you just need to show the evidence supports a reasonable judgement either way. Here are my handy tips that if I was arguing with an atheist, I would make use of:

1)      Faith. Never ever bring this to your argument. No argument has ever been won on this, it’s the one thing that will destroy you in a debate. Consider: If I argue I believe in UFO’s and when questioned simply reply I take it on faith, or I believe it in my heart to be true, how does this come across to an outsider? I can tell you that it looks bad, and however tempting, must never be used. If your only response is faith, then no response to the question is actually better. Divert or ignore a question, if your only answer is faith. It is a non-answer.

2)      Atheists are good at defining who has the burden of proof. We do this because it immediately relieves us of needing to respond to any argument against us. For example, if you posit the universe must have a first cause, and thus a creator, we will always (ALWAYS) ask you how you know it must have had a first cause, or why God does not require a first cause. In this example it is easy to see how immediately you can be on the back foot. Now the burden of proof becomes the theists who must ad infinitum attempt to answer questions that even the most versed philosopher in metaphysics would struggle with. It is important to always put the burden of proof right back at the atheist’s door as soon as is honestly possible.

For example in this particular argument, if the question is “how do you know the universe had a first cause” you can begin by paraphrasing the argument as “How do you know the universe didn’t always exists?” It’s easier to answer this since you can say things like “Well I go on reason and evidence, I have never been shown something that always existed, in my experience all things that come into being have a cause – even life itself. Do you know of any demonstration of something that can come into existence without a cause?”

It’s clear that the burden of proof has been shifted. Now this won’t work every time, and clearly not within a week of this article being published for the exact argument above, but it is reasonable in a debate to expect this kind of tactic. Being on the back foot is not something you want.

3)      Never argue that you can prove god. This is unreasonable. Never argue that you “know” god exists for the same reason. When last did you find an atheist argue that he “knows” god cannot exist, or that he can disprove God? Sure we might say it sometimes if you’re already losing an argument, but its rare to find that as an opening – and normally carries another motivation altogether if that is the opening. It does happen that atheists deposit it sometimes, and it is never very convincing. Its easy to make this kind of argument, and I have fallen into this trap myself – writing articles on why Gods existence is impossible – but later review of them I realise its just bad all round. Its not worth it in my opinion and should be avoided, you are setting yourself up to defend the indefensible. Instead you just need to show what is most probable. I now agree I cannot disprove God, and you should assert the same – its impossible to prove him. Now we are into the grey area of what is most likely, or most probable – it’s a position that we actually assess all claims from. Is it probable the sun will appear tomorrow? Yes. Is it absolute fact? No. In the debate you want to be on this same page.

4)       Its pretty important to understand that the bible is not a meaningful book to use as evidence. The moment you bring it up, the atheists are going to be all over that like a bad rash. In my own debates I never bring up the bible, unless the theist does. It’s a game of cat and mouse with this one, and it should be for you too. Don’t bring the bible up unless the atheist will – and eventually someone has to – and only then use it. You see if the atheist is going to bring it up, it undermines the argument that it has no value. If they try backtrack, the old “why did you bring it up then if you don’t want to talk about it” is a never fail ingenious way to discredit your opponents. Always let the opponent start with it.

5)      Carrying on from the bible – when an atheist does bring it up, lets be honest, there are no prizes for the sections that he is going to mention. Genocide, slavery, rape etc. If you don’t know how to respond to these common (so common that everyone on N24 must have heard them multiple times) arguments, then you are digging your own grave here. It will take you about 10 minutes to search google for apologetics responses to these arguments. First off, make sure you DEMAND the atheist quotes the part of the bible he has issue with. This avoids goal post moving.

Let’s take the slavery one – Leviticus 25:44 “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves” It comes up all the time. Yet why has no Christian ever quoted right back at the atheist Exodus 22:21? “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

It is not reasonable to expect the sceptic to answer the assertions against your faith for you, and you must be able to figure this out on your own. Now I don’t suggest that you try using this argument with me, but when arguing with an atheist, who hasn’t read the bible, this is a perfectly good response to his argument, that immediately refutes the idea that slaves were being treated poorly, and bolsters the idea that they were more like a hired servant who had a debt to pay off.

6)      Once again carrying on with the bible – you need to know your source material. The atheist knows it, and if you don’t as a Christian who is supposed to know this stuff, that’s pretty poor. You’re going to look like a fool at step one every time. You will have no argument against the atheist who brings up Exodus, or Leviticus slave laws, you will not be able to answer the arguments against Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, or the reason why Jesus’s resurrection is special despite the apparent commonplace of resurrections at the time. In fact not knowing about the 9 resurrections in the bible along with the untold number of saints resurrected (many) is going to catch you off guard. Knowing the source material is paramount. I know it, probably better than you do. There are Christians who know it better than me, and guess what? I back off from the bible when it’s evident they do and change my attack to a different area. To give an example, when arguing with theists I have a number of common little tricks I like to pull which gives me a general idea of their knowledge of the bible. To give a single example, I start by asking a theist if they take everything in the bible as true in the New Testament. Almost universally the answer is Yes (it should be) and I immediately follow with – “Then what does Jesus mean when he says in Matthew 10:34 that he will bring not peace, but a sword?”

The number of Christians who do not know the answer to this is embarrassing. It’s a good question because it demonstrates to me if you actually read the bible or not. There are good answers to this, and again, reading your bible lets you respond with “Do you think Christians take it literally when Jesus says if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out?” – And see what I did there? Shifted the question to the Atheist.

7)      Don’t make assumptions about the Atheist. Often I am told that I actually do believe in god but I am in denial. How ridiculous is that to start a debate with? I mean when engaging with the other side, what’s more reasonable – to ask what they believe and why, and engage positively with them or assert they have no idea what they even think? Yet time and time again, assumptions are made about atheists – what they believe – why they are immoral – why they hate God – that they follow a religion of Atheism. It’s not helping you, and you need to stop if you want to appear credible.

8)      Don’t tell us you are going to pray for us. I mean come on. Did you want to come across as a high and mighty bigot? Do you think that telling us this makes you appear open to discussion and reason and evidence, or like a proselytising fool? Do that stuff in your own time. I don’t proclaim to be reading Dawkins on your behalf, and if I did I’m pretty sure you would find that laughable.

9)      Don’t copy and paste apologetics arguments, don’t name your argument and most of all don’t paste a link to somewhere else in response to anything asserted. This demonstrates dishonesty – you can’t argue the point so you going to paste stuff in the hope you don’t look bad. It’s a terrible way to argue, and it does look really bad. If you want to argue that miracles happen, posting 10 YouTube links of OTHER PEOPLE experiencing miracle is not convincing to ANYONE. Its obvious that people make stuff up all the time, from the Uri Gellars to the Peter Popoffs to the Deepak Chopras to the Sathya Sai Baba’s. First-hand accounts of miracles are everywhere, and in any faith you care to name. Pasting someone else’s argument then not being able to defend it also looks terrible. Naming an argument and leaving at that is pointless. “Hi I believe in God, why? Look at the Cosmological argument. Thanks and bye.” How is this an argument? Unless you can personally attest something, it’s not very meaningful. Otherwise we have to go out and find that guy who said this suff and argue with him.

10)  Substitute your argument with another faith before presenting it. Why? Because we do exactly that. If you are going to say that millions believe in Christianity, or Jesus helps people find meaning in life, then substitute those claims with Islam and Allah. Does the argument still work? This is why you don’t want to make those kind of claims.

In this overview I hope to show some ways that one can engage with an atheist and argue convincingly. In summary – know the bible, don’t allow the burden of proof to put you on the back foot, don’t make claims that you have not experienced or understood yourself and don’t arrogantly tell people what they think or what you will do for them. Try to think ahead, check your own argument with yourself.

How much good can you gain from the advice of an Atheist? That’s up to you – after all I could just be tricking you into believing that this is what you should be doing. After all:

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.”

Kind regards


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