Is Debate Between Believers And Non-Believers Inevitably Futile?

Z from It’s The Thought That Counts gets discouraged:

I’ve been having these long, philosophical conversations with some of my Christian friends about exactly what their religion means to them (I was happy to find that these friends were open to such discussions!)

There’s no way that people’s moral beliefs are actually formed by Christianity’s teachings, because they’re able to cast out any unsavory (to them) messages and follow only the ones they like, but they can’t see this in themselves. They construct elaborate webs of language that prevent them from noticing any contradictions in their ideas or behavior. This same web deflects any questions I might ask, turning the conversation into a meandering stream of non-answers and platitudes.

If everybody else gets to express their side, I want to express mine. At the same time, the dialogue seems futile. Nobody’s going to change their mind, and it doesn’t even feel like we’re speaking the same language. It just makes me exhausted and depressed, and obviously that’s no good either.

And Hemant Mehta seems to agree with her and suggests just finding political common causes instead:

He has a point. Neither side is going to compromise on beliefs.

What has kept me relatively sane in the matter is that I try to focus the conversation on things we can agree on.

I talk about the need for separation of church and state, the importance of teaching kids to question their beliefs and seek out their own answers (Christians, of course, think this will lead them toward faith), the lack of politicians who represent our constituency, why we need to keep forced religion out of public schools, the myriad cases of discrimination against atheists, etc.

Maybe I’m just a pie-eyed idealist here but I cannot stand all the frequent declarations I hear that debating religion is futile.  The first reason this bugs me is that it shows a lack of confidence in human reason and reasonableness.  While I am keenly aware of how prone we are as humans to prejudicial, closed-minded, irrationalistic, emotionalistic thinking and how regularly subject we are to a long list of cognitive errors and forms of fallacious thinking, I also know that people do actually think about things on a daily basis and they do change their minds fairly regularly too.

It is more prejudicial for us to write off anyone as so obtuse and impervious to reason that there is no use in talking to them about a given topic.  In fact, not only is it prejudicial, it is dangerous, because it risks being a self-fulfilling prophecy that not only leaves someone in error but leaves them to worsen in their errors.  Even the people whose minds you don’t “change” by any measure that you can observe are still affected by what you say.  They are exposed to an influence that at the very least encourages them not to go further in the opposite direction even if it does not pull them one inch in your direction.  Sometimes helping people stay exactly where they are is still an effect.  And by introducing or reinforcing the arguments for your side, you create a counter-balance in their mind to the further extremes of their own side and those considerations will operate in the quiet of their mind long after you put them there and just may be important some day that no one will ever realize.

And Hemant is right that there is room for finding common ground, but there’s room for more than just common political ground too.  Some of my closest friends over my atheist years have been religious people with whom large areas of fruitful philosophical discussion has been possible about issues which skirt those on which we have less tractable positions.  Those discussions have implications for the issues that are less resolvable even if we do not directly address them.

And on the harder core positions, you can often successfully pull people a couple more inches towards your side than that and that’s terrific and worth appreciating.  And it will frequently happen without your being aware of it.  I am of the mind that most of us change our minds not during debates but only later on when we’ve had time to chew on what was said, to let it affect our later discussions with other people, and to consider it outside the context of a debate where we’re engaged in resisting it in a partisan way.   And often we are influenced without acknowledging or knowing it at all.  Our temperament is simply softened or our respect for the opposition is naturally increased or some piece of our confidence in our position is subtly undermined in a way that only much later will become tangibly important.  One crack in a foundation is usually imperceptible to outsiders but if the cracks accumulate over time, the foundation will break.

People change their minds and even when they don’t go that far they at least change their attitudes and their places on the spectrums within their positions.  All of this can be influenced and is influenced to at least some minimal degree in every debate.  It’s constantly happening.  What’s not happening regularly is one person single-handedly converting another in a single conversation or through their personal exchange alone.  And in fact, I doubt seriously it would be a particularly good thing if any of us had that kind of power over each other anyway.

I for one stopped trying to “convert” people when I left my evangelicalism behind 10 years ago now.  When I stopped being religious, I stopped considering debate futile if at the end of it the other person did not convert to my religion.  I don’t need the people I debate with to become atheists or to adopt any of my other positions in order to be satisfied with a philosophical argument.  Of course, in the midst of debate, I argue as vigorously and persuasively as I can in order ideally to have this effect or to be shown in what ways I am wrong.  I always use the strongest arguments I have (or those most fit for my particular interlocutor or our topic) and I hope either to have the strongest influence I can or to discover the weaknesses in those arguments so that they will be stronger next time.  But when the argument is over, I leave it behind.  It’s over.  It’s not a win or a loss based on any particular measure besides, “did I pursue the truth and agreement as best as I could through that exchange?”  That’s all that matters in arguments.

The reason I say that is that, unlike an evangelical out to win souls, I do not have anywhere near the hubris to believe that I am personally in the business of fixing or saving people’s souls.  I am not deluded enough to think that in the space of a conversation, or even in most series of conversations, that people can correct their entire conceptions of the world.  I might even be suspicious of any one who was that quickly swayed and question myself to make sure I did not use any unnecessarily manipulative tactics!

People’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, social, psychological journeys take their entire lifetimes and never complete until they arbitrarily stop at death.  In the daily grind of daily debates, all that matters to me from a social standpoint is that those with whom I debate and I are advancing each other’s thinking.  All that matters to me is that they have to confront my reasons and I have to confront theirs.  All I can contribute is ideas and arguments for them.  It is up to them to be affected however they are going to be affected.  That’s none of my business, honestly.  That’s personal to them.

And the philosophical questions I pursue relentlessly matter.  I do not mind my reputation among my friends and peers for indefatigably pursuing philosophical questions even at our parties.  And so far I know of not one single Finckean I’ve created through all my efforts.  I’ve not even been responsible for the creation of a single atheist I know of.  But I’m quite sure that I’ve wasted almost nobody’s time and no one’s ever wasted mine through these debates.  They each have the possibility of impact far beyond what anyone can guess over time.  You never know what will stick with someone or how it will affect their beliefs, attitudes, and actions and how these will affect others.  You’ll never know how to measure all the moderations of positions and all the preventions of extremism you may accomplish.

Over time entire cultures transform their thinking in no small part through these daily exchanges.  We cannot underestimate the importance of each single positive influence in the process.  Because they add up.  Just as it is foolish to assume that your one vote in an election with 100 million votes is irrelevant, it is foolish to think that your voice out of billions means nothing.   Votes and voices add up.  So use yours.

Your Thoughts?

A Scientific Measure of Spiritual Freedom
Before I Deconverted: Christmas Became A Christian Holiday To Me
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 10/16/2009, at The Unreligious Right

    • Bettejo Dux

      Please come visit me at Today’s column, Sunday, Feb. 6, is THE AFFIRMATION OF HUMANISM. I think you’ll like it. I live on Kauai. A beautiful blue state. i speak of that, too. Peace and love Bettejo

  • GeorgeRic

    Seekers of truth can find it in the contiguous dimensional worlds, humorously described by Edwin Abbott in ‘Flatland’. Science determines truth by checking phenomena against the over-all theory. If that theory explains the phenomena then we can firmly hold it. ‘Techie Worlds’ (available at examines Trinity, resurrection, judgment, soul, and finds Christian teaching logical and rational in Abbott’s context.
    Unlike Christians, materialists believe that only this world exists. Science can only experiment with this material world, whereas mankind is quite unable to manipulate the higher worlds.. Yet humans report on miracles, on events such as the dance of the sun at Fatima. Pagans believe in many gods (with good reason) and the possessed levitate, all evidence that spirit worlds do exist. Both positions resolve to ‘acts of faith’, but the Christian (in the Flatland context) is simple, consistent, and teaches love for human improvement. Open your minds with ‘Techie Worlds’ logical explanations.

  • Nikki Bluue

    I don’t debate. I do follow debates on atheist forums that I subscribe to. Majority of the time, they go the old route repeatedly, and often resorted to name-calling and Hitler (Godwin, right?).

    I don’t debate for a few reasons: 1) I don’t know the bible well, nor do I wish to. I read the English Version for the Deaf years ago and it kept giving me a bad taste in my mouth so I looked elsewhere. 2) Same ol’ same ol’. 3) I am a very emotional and passionate person, plus an introvert. Keeping my ground in a debate is energy-sapping for me, both online and offline. I learned the hard way that debating is “not my thing”, tho, yes, I do like to read both POVs in one when I catch one.

    I found it wiser for me to leave the debates to those who know their holy texts better than I. Right now, I care very little to read any of the holy texts.

  • david crowther

    I for one celebrate the debate (discussion), because I think best and most clearly in a group discourse.

    A thought on Z’s comment that people’s morality cannot come from Christian teachings, because Christians pick and choose what they say/believe/rely on: There is no reason that I can see (despite the fact that I would describe myself as a Christian (even if it might be trouble to describe what that means)) to suggest that rational, useful morality cannot be found from a variety of sources. It is a mistake to think that a designation term (i.e. “Christian”, or some other group) wholly contains the member of the group. Again, I would call myself a “Christian”, but I wear the concepts and practices of the group, so long as they fit. If I discover something that does not sit with my logic or with general logic from Christianity, or (dare I say, my “heart”), I throw it out or take it off (following the clothing metaphor). Ideologies are, I believe, most dangerous when they are taken in an all or nothing posture. Discussion, is therefore useful, in that it can and should shape our continual understanding of reality, whether it informs our amoral, mundane activities or our purposeful morality.

  • Clergy Guy

    Daniel, a great article. I must confess that I’ve gotten discouraged from dialogue with atheists. It seems like it often boils down to “Uh huh!” and “Nuh Uhh!”

    I have enjoyed our discussions but I’ve given up trying to have conversation with many atheists. I don’t call names and I don’t accuse others but I’ve been addressed rudely and accused often of being judgmental when I have not been.

    I also feel like I’m expected to defend the entire religious community when in fact I think a lot of it is ridiculous.

    I love good conversation. I have searched out atheists simply to stretch my own thinking. I welcome it. But the atmosphere can get so combative. I get enough of that in my church!

    Having said that, I have appreciated the respect you’ve accorded me and I hope I’ve responded in kind. You’ve challenged me to point of giving me headaches but always with respect.

    I love the idea of being able to state our thoughts strenuously without alienating each other. You do that better than I do, but I value it.

  • brgulker

    Thanks for the interesting post. I’d prefer to use the term “conversation” to “debate” because the latter (at least as I understand it) is fundamentally about determining who’s right and who’s wrong, winners and losers. I’ve had enough “debates” in my life in the academy, let alone the blogosphere or among friends.

    I think that’s just a semantics thing, though, as you appear to be asking for the same type of approach as I would want to pursue but by a different name.

    However, I’m not sure how fruitful “debate” can actually be, regardless of approach. Maybe that’s just the pessimist in me, I’m not sure, but I think I’ve lost count of the number of atheist blogs I’ve unsubscribed to due to not being taken seriously simply because I am a religious person. I’m sure that’s true conversely as well.

    Like Clergy Guy above, I seek out atheists precisely because I want to be challenged; I want to be stretched. But I don’t want to be laughed at and attacked. And like Clergy Guy, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of conversations reduce to that very quickly.

  • http://none Bettejo Dux

    Just as it is true that no one is born a Christian, Jew or Muslim, or a member of any other religious system, so is it true, I think, that no one is ‘born’ an atheist. As we mature- hopefully- we learn to question, to feed a basic need to search for truth-about all thing-and, if we’re lucky, to have no fear about where our search will take us. I’m sure not to have been taught as a child to fear god’s wrath plays an important part in it. Fear is such a heavy burden for anyone-child or adult-to cast off and it does play an enormous role in the freedom from most religions and their fierce, insane and horrible gods. Fear is a powerful weapon and a sweet freedom from fear, from the very idea of guilt and sin and damnation and god is a start. When free of this needless and excessive luggage, the next step in life is to find the courage to speak out. As human beings we are, in grand array and number, pouring out of the closet. Peace and Love Bettejo

  • Gerry


    Here is an article that has spawned an intelligent debate between theists and atheists, a cut above the normal on the internet:

    Warning! May keep you up for hours as it did me!

    At least it may give you a more sophisticated take on the sorce of beliefs of some theists…

  • ted wilcock