How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

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:

Five Behaviors

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.

 

Image via Shutterstock.

About

Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
  • Ed Buckner

    An experienced debater versus Christians myself, I agree with nearly all of what my friend Herb has written here. I’d be–and I think have been–slightly less concerned with “offending” Christians (I still use the Twain quote and like it), because I think it is in fact impossible to get anyone to consider a new perspective without realizing that their current ideas appear foolish to someone else. And in my experience, theists of all stripes take some offense from the simple fact that I don’t share their basic belief. But I agree that minimizing offense, or at least avoiding gratuitous offense, is helpful and reasonable. It’s good advice for debaters on any side of any issue. I certainly agree with Herb–and therefore disagree with some of my fellow atheists and secular humanists–on the key question of whether formal debates are worthwhile. It’s hard to be objective, because I do admittedly like being the center of attention, but I’m convinced that well done debates are valuable educational tools, helpful in enlightening and deepening understanding even when they don’t change minds. I suspect–but can’t know–that in the long run more minds may actually be changed than anyone realizes on the day of the debate. Anyone–theist or atheist–who gets a chance to hear Dr. Silverman debate should certainly take it–you’ll be enriched and entertained.

    • Herb Silverman

      Thanks for the kind words. I don’t mind if Christians take offense with what I believe or don’t believe. In my most recent debate, I mentioned the Christian belief that Jesus is God manifest on earth to redeem us for a sin that someone in the distant past committed. God then sacrifices himself to himself to save us from himself, and we will be rewarded or punished for eternity based on whether or not we believe this unbelievable story. People weren’t particularly offended
      that I viewed their beliefs as unbelievable. They were offended by the Mark Twain quote because it sounds like I am calling them liars. Probably they are not, but I find it hard to understand how they can sincerely believe what I find unbelievable.

      • http://mpdaniel.blogspot.com Mike Daniel

        And to be fair, Mr. Silverman, we Christians would do well to heed your well-defined points when trying to make our points. Respect, not zingers, will get objective attention. Reading some of the things you share as fundamental to Christianity in general, even as a Christian I find hard to believe! There are entirely too many Christians who believe that once “saved”, they can still be jerks. I find that incredibly offensive and somewhat blasphemous as well as antithetical to the whole of what it means to be a disciple. Thank you for your perspective.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    I also think it is important that the debate format declares a definitive winner. This can be done by polling the audience both before and after the debate and then calculating how many audience members switched their position from the debate. I know Hitchens did a few debates like this and not long ago Sean Carroll and Michael Shermer debated Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchinson with this format. Surprisingly every time an objective standard like this has been used atheists have won the debate.This approach also prevents both sides from claiming victory afterward.

  • RichardSRussell

    I take a somewhat different tack in debate. I don’t say that religion per se is a problem, I say it’s one of many symptoms of the underlying problem, which is faith — the idea that you can somehow “know” things just by feeling that you like them. Faith gives us not only religion but also homeopathy, astrology, objectivism, ufology, conspiracy theories, climate-change denial, false accusations of ritual satanic child abuse, anti-vax movements, a host of superstitions, Chinese traditional “medicine”, feng shui, and the insidious brain parasite that leads people to believe that anyone named Kardashian is of enduring relevance and fascination.

    By trying to demonstrate that religionists are in fact the victims of the hucksters who’ve peddled them a huge bill of goods, I show that I’m sympathetic to them, on their side, hoping to save them from the time-consuming and expensive suckerdom that they’ve been ensnared into. I find that one good line that helps to advance that view is to point out that the difference between education and indoctrination is whether the person at the front of the room invites questions from the audience and to invite them to question everyone — most specifically including me — and not to take things as (ahem) gospel simply because they’re being stated with firm assurance by an authority figure.

    Of course, friendliness and a pleasant demeanor are always the spoonfuls of sugar that helps the medicine go down. We atheists should take a page from the playbook of the LGBT movement, where they discovered that by far their most effective PR tool was simply coming out to their acquaintances who already knew them to be good people but were under the delusion that there was something wrong with “those gays”, only to discover that their friends were, in fact, “our gays”. So I say again to my fellow atheists: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

  • Joseph Richardson

    A quibble with the answer to question 7: verse 53 includes the phrase “after the resurrection” when describing the re-animation of the “saints” at the time of Jesus’ death. So if that’s true, Jesus would’ve been resurrected before them. But then there is also the story of Lazarus or, going back even further for “firsts”, Elisha raising the window’s son, presumably Jewish (1 Kings 17:21-22).

    • Herb Silverman

      Of course there are ambiguities. Here’s what is in Matthew 27:50-52.
      50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.

  • Kurt Brewer

    Herb, a quote from Sam Harris for you and then a question:
    “We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence. And faith is a conversation stopper.”–Sam Harris
    I’m guessing, based on your numerous articles, conversations, and debates with people of faith, that a conversation about faith is not a conversation stopper in your book. I’m curious as to what makes that difference for you–what keeps you engaged in “the conversation” and why?

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