Few people will change their worldviews because of a debate. But some Christians might become less inclined to stereotype atheists if atheists debate differently.
As an atheist, I’ve had a number of debates with Christians on topics like whether God exists, whether we can be moral without God, whether science makes belief in God harder or easier, and more recently, whether atheism makes more sense than Christianity.
Usually, debate preparation depends on the topic and what your opponent has previously said, but there are some common strategies that work well in any situation. With a mostly Christian audience, I look for opportunities to change atheist stereotypes and raise questions some might never have considered.
Here are five ways to behave and ten questions to answer in every debate with Christian counterparts:
1. Praise the Bible. I like to mention that every educated person should read the Bible (this line is the only time I get cheers from conservative Christians) because it’s an important part of our culture. I also provide a list that includes books like A Demon Haunted World and The History of God to hand out to audience members after the debate.
2. Target the audience. Most conservative Christians are skeptical of whatever I say in a debate. The best I usually hear from them afterward is, “The atheist seemed like a nice person, even though he’s going to hell.” While atheists usually want me to bash religion, I try not to do that because I want to reach open-minded Christians who have never heard an atheist’s point of view from an atheist.
3. Seek common ground. Treat your opponent and audience with kindness and respect. Assume they believe what they say, even if it sounds like nonsense. I’ve stopped using my favorite Mark Twain quote — “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” — because Christians in the audience have told me they find it offensive.
4. Have a conversational format. In formal debates there are opening statements, one or two rebuttals, a closing statement, and finally the audience Q&A. This format often leads to canned speeches that don’t address the opponent’s points. I prefer debates with opening statements, followed by a moderated conversation between opponents and the audience Q&A. This gives debaters a chance to ask about issues that opponents either ignored or failed to address adequately. It also creates a more comfortable, less aggressive atmosphere for the audience. Sometimes you can even get in a few jokes.
5. Smile. Many atheists, myself included, have been overly optimistic that rational arguments will change minds. I now think the best we can do is make good points in a reasonable and pleasant manner. I emphasize “pleasant” because many in the audience are affected more by the debater’s personality than by arguments. This was difficult for me to understand at first, since it’s so different from my world of mathematics, where smiling and a sense of humor are useless.
Ten Questions to Answer
1. What’s an atheist? The simple and accurate answer is that an atheist is a person without a belief in any gods. I can’t prove there are no gods anymore than someone can disprove my claim that the universe was created 10 minutes ago and the creator planted false memories in all of us. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim.
2. What’s a Christian? There are about 41,000 Christian denominations worldwide. However, here are what I think are the central Christian beliefs: Christianity promotes salvation by faith through grace, that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, rose from the grave, and then appeared to some of his followers for a brief time before ascending to heaven. Christians also believe that people go to heaven or hell depending on whether or not they believe this resurrection story. (Note: Sometimes audience members argue with each other about what a true Christian is, and I’m fine with that.)
3. What about religious morality? Though I don’t believe in any gods, there are many things I do believe. As a secular humanist, I believe that ethical values are derived from human needs and interests and are tested and refined by experience. Our deeds are more important than our creeds and dogmas should never override compassion for others.
4. Does God explain the gaps in our knowledge about the world? Mysteries in nature like thunder, earthquakes, eclipses, hurricanes, and floods have long been considered acts of the gods, but countless scientific discoveries have changed these God beliefs. With every natural scientific discovery there is less reason to believe in the supernatural.
5. Why is science more reliable than religion? Because we know how to distinguish good scientific ideas from bad ones. Scientists start out not knowing the answer and go wherever the evidence leads them. Science relies on experimenting, testing, and questioning assumptions critically until a consensus is reached, and even that is always open to revision in light of later evidence. This is why scientific truths are the same in Pakistan, the United States, Israel, and India — countries with very different religious beliefs.
6. How can we distinguish good religious beliefs from bad ones? As it turns out, there’s a remarkable coincidence to how people choose their religion. The overwhelming majority chooses the religion of their parents. Most Asians are Buddhists, people from India are generally Hindu, Saudi Arabians are Muslims, and Americans are mainly Christians. Religious belief is based more on geography than on theology. With all the conflicting religious beliefs in the world, they can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong
7. Isn’t there good evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? This goes to the heart of Christianity. The only “evidence” for the resurrection is found in a Bible written by people who had never met Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t even the first Jew to be resurrected. In Matthew 27: 52, lots of Jews were resurrected and went to Jerusalem, where many people saw them. Again, no extra-biblical sources. Did you know that after Jesus was resurrected he went to Missouri, where he will return? Christians who are skeptical of this resurrection story in the Book of Mormon will understand why I’m skeptical of theirs.
8. Why do you hate religion? I don’t. I prefer religions that place behavior above belief and focus on improving the human condition (Unitarians and Quakers come to mind), but not those that place belief above behavior and view this life as preparation for an afterlife.
9. If there is no God, what responsibility do we have to be moral? Personal responsibility is a good conservative principle. We should not give credit to a deity for our accomplishments or blame satanic forces when we behave badly. We should take personal responsibility for our actions. I try to live my life to its fullest — it’s the only life I have, and I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishment.
10. Do you have questions for us? Oh, yes. If God gives some the “gift of faith,” why not everyone? If God wants us to have free will, will we also have free will to sin in heaven? What moral purpose can eternal torture serve? And, of course, the theodicy question: why would an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent God permit so much suffering?
I understand that few will change their worldviews because of a debate. Those who “feel” the presence of Jesus in their lives and see his miracles on a regular basis will not be swayed by scientific evidence or biblical contradictions. However, some Christians might become less inclined to stereotype atheists, and some Christians and atheists might get to know one another and find ways to cooperate on issues of importance to both of our communities. Whenever that happens, I consider it to have been a win-win debate.
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