Thoughts on debates with religious believers

Many of my readers are well-aware that I relish debates with religious believers. I take a positive approach, seek genuine discussions, and have a great deal of patience with religious believers…or so I have been told. Contrary to some atheists or skeptics who believe debates are ‘wastes of time’ or ‘pointless,’ I view debates as opportunities which allow for audience members to hear representatives of diametric positions engage in a civil, respectful, critical, and informative setting.

Throughout my past four or so years as an atheist, I have maintained that worthwhile ideas should be able to withstand the most formidable challenges.

When I first realized I was an atheist, I was quite intrepid and perhaps placed too high of a demand on theists to defend their ideas. Years later, I have become more aware and sympathetic to some who are uncomfortable defending their beliefs or otherwise and unwilling to do so.

Instead of demanding people defend their ideas, I have become accustomed to a different approach: asking questions first and later levying objections to those who feel comfortable having discussion. I have presented some of these ideas in a recent speech I delivered titled “Reframing the Discussion” and have found these tactics to be successful and instrumental to productive discussions. Further discussion may also be found within a podcast titled “Practical Strategies to Combat Faith” I hosted which featured Dr. Peter Boghossian.

I have also noticed, throughout the years, as my friend Rodney Collins says, some theists who like to ‘talk a big game,’ but are unwilling to defend their ideas when challenged. In a podcast Rodney and I produced titled “Respecting Beliefs.” Rodney, in the podcast, put it quite quaintly when he said that some theists go from ‘onward Christian soldiers’ to running away like dogs with tails between their legs.

Challenging one’s cherished beliefs can often be difficult, especially when people haven’t thought critically about their beliefs or have encountered objections. During my childhood in Catholic classes and church, I was indoctrinated into valuing faith and believing that those who challenged my belief in God were agents of Satan, possessed by Satan, or may have been Satan incarnate. This mentality was, of course, toxic and difficult to overcome.

Thankfully, not all religious believers behave like the ‘former me.’ Within the last two years, I have had various recorded discussions and debates with religious believers who were willing and happy to have the discussions with me including the local pastors John Murray and Marcelle Dotson in addition to the Catholic Philosopher Dr. Ronda Chervin.

Unfortunately, some still want to ‘talk a big game’ and not have discussion. This was most apparent in 2009 when I had pursued an Establishment Clause violation concerning a religious holiday display on a courthouse lawn in Luzerne County. Hate mail flooded my inbox, public airwaves, and my Facebook notifications lit up like a Christmas tree; rather than respectful discussion, people resorted to name-calling and intimidation.

What, then, is the ‘moral of this story?’ While facing objections to our cherished beliefs might feel uncomfortable, the process should be rewarding, conducive to progress, and a positive learning experience if the quest for knowledge is genuine, respectful (if multiple parties are involved), and aimed at learning.

My commentary, although presented in light of discussions between atheists and theists, is not limited to this. I have recently seen intellectual dishonesty, unwillingness to face objections to beliefs, and smearing tactics employed by atheists aimed at other atheists. Persons should rise above this type of behavior and be willing to, if comfortable in doing so, defend their ideas realizing that criticism need not be viewed as attacks on character…especially if people make their ideas public, thus opening them to criticism.

Concluding this post, I will offer a quote I really enjoyed from philosophers Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood in their book “Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology” (which I highly recommend):

One sign of insufficient concern for truth is that when such people are given an opportunity to test their more cherished beliefs, they decline it, or apply it too casually, or offer defenses of the beliefs that are weaker than any that these people would accept in other contexts.

Rather than having an insufficient concern for truth, we should look at challenges to our beliefs as opportunities for growth, discovery, and learning. Debates or, more generally, challenges to our beliefs need not be viewed as (and hopefully are not) wastes of time or pointless. Foster a positive attitude and inspire others to model similar productive behaviors.

The public debate challenge which I had issued in July of 2011 to religious believers still stands. Don’t hate. Debate.