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.

        • Herb Silverman

          And also to be fair, some atheists can be jerks. I think we would all be well served to measure people by how they behave rather than by their professed religious beliefs.

  • 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.

    • Doug Wilkening

      Too easy for one side or the other to plant ringers in the audience who’ll say their minds were changed.

  • 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.

      • Tom from North Carolina

        Were it true, it must have smelled awful.

  • 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?

    • Herb Silverman

      I like to talk to people about things they find important and about points where we disagree. Faith often satisfies both criteria. Since I think ethics is about how we behave toward others rather than about supernatural beliefs, I question why faith is essential to a loving God who would condemn to hell those who live ethical lives based on the available evidence. I also ask people if they would treat others differently if they no longer had faith in God.

  • John Childs

    This is from Barbara. We need a class with Herb about how to talk to theist. Getting back to my thoughts generated by Herbs letter, Barbara and I were recently served by a very polite intelligent young man while purchasing an item from the business he works for. For clarity it wasn’t a religious store and both Barbara and I enjoyed his banter, expertise, and assistance. At parting he shook hands and said “God Bless You.” I have never found this behavior irritating but I always have felt a loss for how to respond and saying thank you for the blessing seems insincere. For some reason I had a quick response and politely said in turn “May reason be your guide.” These responses to people and how to manage them are of much interest to me so I agree with Barbara, Herb should have a training session for those of us who find it at times difficult to maintain our decorum while making pleasant and constructive responses when challenged to come up with an appropriate response.

  • subclone

    As a person who professes Christianity, I appreciate this article in tone and substance. I recognize the very substantial downside of religious faith and, accordingly, and for other reasons, am appreciative of atheism. I’m interested in the answer to What is a Christian? and that’s a nice summary. I’d actually recommend leaving out the part about how one qualifies to go to heaven. It’s an area where I think there’s actually little consensus among Christians. While I think belief in the Resurrection of Jesus IS central to Christian faith, I think most Christians would not regard that as THE acid test for one’s fate after death. Evangelicals preach salvation as a conversion of the heart; a belief in Jesus as one’s personal savior, which arguably is only possible through the atonement, the death & resurrection of Jesus. But other Christians, notably Catholics, have a more complex (and not necessarily easier to defend!) approach to this, as you know.. Interestingly, the afterlife is, in my experience, rarely preached about in Catholic churches. (I’m Catholic.) In any case, thanks very much for a fine article.

  • anamericanundernogods

    It all comes down to “If there is no God, what responsibility do we have to be moral?”
    Majority of the mass answer “None.”
    Because they need religion to harness them.

  • Doug Wilkening

    Excellent advice, for everyone. I especially agree with the observation that debates don’t change anyone’s core beliefs. I think this is because whatever any of us believes about first things, we believe for emotional reasons, or from our gut so to speak, and that apologetics (for the Christian) or reason (for the atheist) primarily serve to add a respectable intellectual veneer to what we would believe anyway without the apologetic or the reason. One does tend to align with a belief system if one finds people who hold that belief system to be likeable. In fact, forget the debates. Throw parties. You’ll do better.

  • XaurreauX Pont DeLac

    Unlike those lying, slimy, willfully ignorant, inbred creationists, I refuse to resort to name-calling.

  • Shannon Swekla

    First of all, as a Christian, I overall appreciate the tone of this article. I believe that many atheist and Christian debaters alike get too caught up in their own rhetoric to have real conversations with the other side; conversations where the goal truly is to “get to know one another and find ways to cooperate” rather than just attack/convert.

    I do however, think that Herb presents a narrow, if popular, view of Christian belief. I agree with Herb’s general summary of Christian beliefs, but not all Christians believe in a heaven/hell where you go based on your beliefs. In fact, in the bible, it’s not clear as to wether it is right belief (orthodoxy) or right works (orthopraxy) that matter, and different Christian traditions have historically focused on each of these in different ways/to different degrees). Furthermore, not all Christians believe in a literal heaven/hell, and there is even less of consensus as to what these might look like, if in fact they do exist. Finally, if by “gift of faith” it is meant that God is the one who determines who has faith and who does not, this is a Calvinist point of view, and represents only one understanding of the grace/faith question.

    I realize this might be edging into debate territory rather than just discuss the parameters of debate as Herb focused on in this article, but as a “progressive” Christian who tries to focus on the person of Jesus rather than the endless debates over theology that have sprung up around him and his early followers, I wanted to point out that while these characterizations do define many Christians, many of us would not share the beliefs of either the atheists or the believers in many of these debates, and certainly not agree with the kind of tactics Herb is speaking against in this article.

    • Herb Silverman

      Nothing wrong with debate territory. If you focus on the “person of Jesus” rather than on theology, does that mean Jesus is a role model for you, rather than a god endowed with supernatural powers? I’m fine with that, but I think you would alienate a lot of Christians.

      • James Izen

        Herb, First off, great article. Secondly, I am another Christ-follower (I don’t say Christian because I think the term has been hijacked by many who use their “faith” as a club to bash others– like atheists– over the head). I wanted to “+1″ Shannon’s comments regarding your presentation of Christians. While I see that it is easy to bait many “Christians” into the many logical flaws surrounding their faith (and not only easy, but fun as well, I do it way to often…), I think you are missing the point. Faith isn’t believing something you know to be false; it is believing something you can’t prove to be true. It is pretty easy to tear down any belief system, but virtually impossible to tear down faith: try asking an atheist scientist about the origins of the focused matter that gave rise to the Big Bang- he will either provide a purely faith-based answer (it was always there) or confess total ignorance. I believe that we all have faith in different things (you stated that while you don’t believe in God there are things in which you do believe.). Whether or not Shannon (or I) alienate a lot of Christians with our faith is a non-issue- this isn’t subject to popular vote; it is personal faith. Personally, I believe Jesus was a role model (to an extent- I would not advocate casting demons into someone else’s swine herd, but I’m OK with God doing it!) AND God. And while I’d love to hear that you came to know God, I am much more concerned that I do my best to love God with all my heart and love you and my neighbors. Because that’s what He told us to do.

        • Herb Silverman

          I agree that an atheist scientist will sometimes “confess total ignorance.” The
          honest thing to do when we don’t know something is to say, “I don’t know.”
          Unfortunately, some religious people claim to know everything about God and an
          afterlife. I have no problem with those who have faith as long as they don’t
          impose their faith on others.

  • Sam

    Herb, #7 is inaccurate. Josephus wrote about Jesus and cited his resurrection. Mark, the author of the gospel of the same names, was an associate of Peter who of course saw the resurrected Jesus. Also, you forget Paul who saw Jesus. Finally, I’m sure you understand equating the scholarship of the Bible to the Book of Mormon is like equating Pilgrims Progress to The Hunger Games.

    • Herb Silverman

      Some of the resurrection quotes attributed to Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews are known to be fabricated. Paul never mentioned he saw Jesus, other than in a vision or a revelation. See Galatians 1: 11-12. Still, you can’t cite the Bible as proof that the Bible is true. I think the Bible and the Book of Mormon contain the same amount of convincing evidence for the resurrection—none at all.

  • Ctc3

    herb, have you checked out The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Histographical Approach by Mike Licona

  • Carstonio

    As someone who holds no position on whether gods exist, I don’t see the point of debating Christians, other than the fundamentalists who are hostile to individual religious freedom. To be fair, most the arguments Silverman challenges above are from fundamentalists. I don’t care if someone believes in gods, but I do care if they believe in authoritarianism or theocracy or patriarchy or American exceptionalism. My skepticism of the gods hypothesis doesn’t stop me from finding common ground politically and socially with progressive believers in Christianity and Judaism and other theistic religions. And I become disappointed when I encounter an atheist who agrees with fundamentalists on patriarchy and Randism.

Read More Articles

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.