This post is mostly addressed to nontheists who engage in online debate with theists. If you discuss a topic as controversial as religion in a public forum, you will get challenged. The resulting debates are sometimes intellectually stimulating, instructive, and fruitful. Other times…not so much. Here at SO I recently engaged in two discussions on the problem of evil. One debate was engaging and edifying, the other a pointless waste of time. If you want to avoid useless debates it helps, early on, to identify what kind of interlocutor you are facing. Some kinds promise a fruitful debate, others just lost time. Therefore I offer the following taxonomy of interlocutors, a classification of potential debate opponents along with recommendations of whether to contend with them or not. I start with the worst and proceed upwards to the best. Please note that I name no names here. If someone thinks that I am talking about him it is probably because the shoe fits.
1) The Troll: Trolls are stupid or deranged and, while incapable of rational argument, they are full of foaming rage. One infamous Canadian troll used to threaten atheist bloggers regularly, but I think the Mounties finally got him. Trolls’ irrelevant, rambling, and sometimes threatening screeds serve only to remind us all of the importance of funding mental health services.
Recommendation: Do not respond in any way unless they threaten you, in which case you should report them to the authorities.
2) The Total Jerk: Unlike Trolls, Total Jerks are often highly intelligent and well informed, but their severe personality defects make it pointless to debate them. These guys have serious anger management issues, or maybe latent feelings of inferiority and insecurity for which they overcompensate by treating others with contempt. Their attitude is one of utter scorn towards anyone who has the temerity to disagree with them and they ladle vitriol over anyone, even a fellow Christian, who dares to gainsay them. If you try to engage in rational debate with a Total Jerk, he will ignore or distort your arguments, ridicule them, or dismiss them on irrelevant grounds. He is very free with the vituperation and name calling, and not at all above referring to debate opponents in derogatory terms. Ad hominem, straw man, and well-poisoning are his stock-in-trade. His own arguments are clever but shallow, generally amounting to little more than talking points and rhetoric. He really has no respect at all for the intellectual process of debate, because such respect requires a corresponding respect for your opponent and the recognition that he can be a reasonable and responsible inquirer though his conclusions are diametric to yours. For the Total Jerk the only purpose of debate is to humiliate and abuse an opponent. In some ways it is really a shame not to debate some Total Jerks, because, as I say, some are very smart and raise some interesting points. However, as Scott Adams advised in The Dilbert Principle, you should get rid of the assholes, even if they are smart and talented, because assholes are always a lot more trouble than they are worth.
Recommendation: Don’t debate. You may be tempted just so you can enjoy kicking their asses, but it would be like kicking a rock. They would never even recognize that they had been kicked.
3) The Sophomore: Though people can be sophomoric at any age, these are usually young. They have read a few books by C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig and some posts by Ed Feser and they have had a course or two of philosophy. With such preparation they think that they are ready for the big time. They are generally pretty smart, though seldom as smart as they think they are. The biggest thing about them is attitude. Fully validating Francis Bacon’s observation that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and full of zeal to smite the infidel, they rush into combat against nonbelievers. With all the arrogant presumption of few years and little learning, their discourse is long on sarcasm, rudeness, and condescension and short on logic. Generally, they get knocked about rather badly by the much more knowledgeable and experienced debaters they encounter, and soon make their retreat. The really hard cases will stick around spitting invective for a while. These persons remind me of the story I heard about a bright young guy who figured out a “system” to beat the bank in Vegas. He went to the casino with his system, a bankroll, and an attitude. He emerged two hours later with just the attitude.
Recommendation: Don’t debate.
4) The Endless Looper: Some interlocutors also are quite often very smart and well informed, and, unlike the Total Jerks, they are, at least at superficial level, polite and friendly. The problem with these guys is that they hardly ever concede any point, however minor, arguing everything ad nauseam, and they absolutely must, must have the final word. If you reply a hundred times to them, expect them to give one hundred and one. The only alternative to conceding the final word to them is to engage in an endless loop of reply and counter-reply. Their chief rhetorical tool therefore is argument by sheer exhaustion. They not only must have the last word, each of their replies tends to go on at very inordinate length, getting longer and longer as you proceed. They never get tired. The impression you cannot help getting is that these guys have no other lives and do this full time. Those of us who have day jobs and other responsibilities (e.g. grading papers, faculty meetings, non-blog reading and writing) just can’t engage in an endless loop. After a while you will have to break off and get some real work done, and that concedes the final word to the Endless Looper, who treats your withdrawal as his victory.
Another problem with Endless Loopers is that if you really press them, their answers become increasingly obscure until they finally deteriorate into arcane theological gibberish. You really can’t debate gibberish. My favorite scene in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is where one grizzled character stands up in the town meeting and launches into a furious and unintelligible tirade. Another character then stands up and asks “Now, who can argue with that?!?” Exactly. However, if you break off the debate because it has descended into gibberish, the Endless Looper will again have the last word and will use it to accuse you of failing to appreciate that his gobbledygook is really as profound as Gödel. I guess, exercising superhuman patience, you could give them the benefit of the doubt and work with them to see if you can extract any meaning or intelligible argument from the profusion of esoteric verbiage. However, for most of us life is just too short and you are almost certainly just pushing a Sisyphean rock up a hill anyway.
Recommendation: Debate only if you have far more patience than Job, a very high tolerance for extreme long-windedness, and you are retired or independently wealthy and have few other demands on your time. Being a masochist would also help.
5) The Rational Responder: Fortunately, not all who would engage you are crazy, obnoxious, or obsessed. The Rational Responders tend to be the smartest and the best educated and they know how to disagree, at times passionately, without denigrating an opponent. They are willing to make concessions when concessions are appropriate, and they know how to hold their own in a debate without resorting to obscurantist jargon. They respond at reasonable length and at times are willing to let you have the final word on a topic. They honestly believe in, and practice, the give-and-take of rational debate. In debating the Rational Responders you learn a lot. Almost certainly you will never see eye-to-eye on the really fundamental issues because your basic epistemological and metaphysical commitments are just too divergent. Yet you can come to agree on a lot. Also, you learn which elements of your own position are facile and superficial. Worthwhile debate does not have to end in agreement. It is worthwhile if you end up with a more intelligent and informed understanding of the nature of your disagreement.
Recommendation: Certainly, yes. Conversation with people like this is the whole point of debate.