Make Believers Stay On Topic During Debates (Tip 2 of 10 for Reaching Out To Religious Believers)

Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers:

1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

2. Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.

Religious believers debating atheists often have a machine gun style of shooting arguments our way. “How could everything just come from nothing? You really think this is all there is? How can you know there is no God? What is to stop me from killing you and feeding you to my dog if there is no God? How can there be love or ponies in the world if there is no God? How can you ignore the testimony of the apostles who died for Jesus and would not have died for a lie?”

On and on and on, the challenges and arguments are made. Before one can get three sentences out to answer a fallacious line of reasoning which is so confused that it merits a 3,000 word footnoted reply, there is another question or another argument flying at you. No one has a shorter attention span or a greater unwillingness to patiently listen and consider what you are saying than the average Evangelical Christian, for example. They are chugging thoughtlessly through a list of talking points half the time really not interested in understanding you but in spreading the Gospel.

So here is what I recommend. Insist, as a condition of having a discussion about religion and atheism at all, that they concentrate on one question at a time. Insist on only dealing with one issue until it is satisfactorily covered. Don’t let them hop off on a tangent before you finish making your point. Insist they address your arguments in their substance before dismissing them and that they let you counter-address their rebuttals, or that they concede the point. If they do not do this, if they refuse to admit they have lost a point but instead want to change the topic instead, just don’t let them. End the conversation. It is, in my estimation, more important that you insist on seeing one idea through than that you dance around with shallow back and forths on 20 topics in a way that never forces them to reconcile in an in-depth way the numerous problems with an one of their positions.

If someone leaves a topic before you’ve fully refuted it, they can just tell themselves later that there are plenty of other arguments to support their position after all. Corner them intellectually. Make them thoroughly analyze and confront the total emptiness of a position and concede out loud that they have it wrong or at least that you have raised considerations they cannot answer and that they must do much more thinking on that topic, before you let them change the subject.

Your Thoughts?

3. Don’t Tell Religious Believers What They “Really Believe”.

4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.

5. Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence.

6. Don’t Demonize Religious People’s Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms.

7. Take Philosophy Seriously.

8. Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments You Can Think Of And Create Gestalt Shifts.

9. Be Unapologetic, Rigorous, Patient, And Gracious With Religious Believers.

10. Love Religious People.

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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.

  • Jason Thibeault

    This is called a Gish gallop, after creationist Duane Gish. It can be really hard to get an audience to understand that asking a billion questions, each of which requiring answers that take a very long time, is actually arguing in bad faith. They see a billion minus one unanswered questions. So I definitely agree that it’s paramount to pin them down to one question at a time before you start debating, otherwise you’re going to get overrun.

    A corollary to this — they often won’t even do this in the context of an argument, they’ll just meander through non sequiturs til they get to The Big Bang even if the topic was something as far removed as evolution.

  • fastlane

    My number one tip:

    Don’t. Almost all believers who want to debate are lying shills who’s livelihood in some way depends on being able to ignore facts and spout lies by the dozen.

    A friendly discussion with a friend who happens to be a believer is another thing altogether.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I wasn’t thinking in terms of professional debaters in formal debate settings here. Those rules would be much more involved. To account for the things Jason notes, it seems such rules really do need to be devised though, because the freewheeling ability of the creationists to pile on nonsense that is so dumb it takes a complicated explanation to unpack all the wrongness, is ridiculously advantaging the liars over the scientists too often.

  • mandrellian

    Agreed with the OP and comment 2! Don’t debate professional creationist apologists – formally, anyway. Regardless of the actual result, formal debates involving creationists are more or less always won by the creationists, simply by virtue of being allowed on stage with real scientists. Way better to chat with a friend or email/whatever with an intelligent believer.

    But whoever you talk to, and in whatever scenario, I agree that nailing people down on a single point is vital. The urge to change the subject or go off on a tangent that a believer feels is a classic sign that they’re getting uncomfortable and possibly running out of answers/talking points/copy paste responses/references to theology or whatever. Keep them on-topic, get them off-script and watch them dig their own grave – you might not convince them of anything, but any reasonable observer will have to concede just how little they had to say. Letting them stray is also giving them way too much power over the conversation, and if you’re having a public conversation it’s also very frustrating for people watching. For example, sometimes when watching The Atheist Experience TV show hosts talk to a theist caller who’s trying a scattergun/Gish Gallop, I find myself almost shouting at the screen “don’t let them get away with that! Make them explain what the hell they means!” if one of the hosts happens to let something slide. For the most part the TAE hosts (esp. Dee, Dillahunty and Harris especially) are great at making people explain themselves but every so often they get a caller who’s clearly an experienced galloper.

    Another good example, for anyone that’s interested, is the epic and neverending Bathroom Wall over at Panda’s Thumb, where creationist idiocy & spam is relegated once it gets too far off-topic on the main threads. There are three creationists there, constantly pasting talking points, proselytising and proclaiming the end of “Darwinism” but each and every time they do, a small but dedicated assault team of scientists & science-literate commenters shred them. It’s a daily visit for me and very educational, in more ways than one!

    The list is coming along nicely! Looking forward to part 3.


  • Aliasalpha

    Kylie Sturgess posted a video of just such a debate the other day, the religious side did so much dancing around the point I’m surprised they had the energy left to sum up at the end. It very effectively illustrates the point of this post.

    Despite the facepalm danger (I had to write an extended rant just to cope with it), the debate is a good watch just to see some of the laughs the rationalist team get and hear the crowd deride the religious ones when the archbishop can’t improvise an answer to a simple question and when the female member of team god said christianity is all about female equality…

  • shripathikamath


    And nearly always impossible.

    In my experience,the moment a theist finds her position untenable, she digresses into a tangent.

  • drlake

    Same basic logic applies to discussions with conservatives, I’ve found. I had an extended Email discussion with a local conservative columnist, and found him using exactly the same technique of “debating”. I stopped talking with him because (as I told him) he was unwilling or unable to have a substantive discussion of the issues. Of course, as with most conservative pundit types, most of his discussion points really revolved around personal attacks on someone anyway, so it really wasn’t a very useful exercise. Interesting to see the pathology in action, though.

  • Leanna

    I’m going to try this the next time I have an argument with a particularly conservative Catholic aunt of mine. As soon as I question one thing she says, she slips directly to “tangent mode,” and disputing each one of her absurd ideas is time-consuming and only leads to more tangents on her part. If I can ignore all that and keep bringing her back to the first topic, it should be interesting.

    This is the kind of news source she uses and shares with me, as if it somehow proves something. It’s very difficult to have a logical conversation with a person who thinks this drivel is fact!

    As frustrated as this aunt makes me, I depend on her for childcare, and my children love her. As much as I can, I avoid religious or political talks with her, but sometimes she says something about the evils of PBS or Planned Parenthood, for example, and I can’t bite my tongue. It should be fun to try and control her rant next time and see how she reacts.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Great! Report back here on the experiment!

  • Red

    This is a very good point, but I think it’s worth noting that your typical believer is not interested in having a reasonable discussion in which everyone gains a greater understanding of the other sides position. They only want to preach at you (because they think that wins them gold stars on Jesus’ Great Refrigerator in the Sky). We should always approach the conversation as if the other party will engage in good faith, but we shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out they do not.