Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?

When atheists debate believers about religion and atheism — should we keep those debates private, or make them public? Or does it depend on the situation?

This is one of my “thinking out loud” pieces. I’m trying to decide what I think about this, and I want y’all to help me.

Back in April, JT Eberhard gave a talk at the American Atheists conference, with an idea that struck me strongly. (Lots of ideas that struck me strongly, actually, but one in particular that I’m talking about today.) He said that private debates about religion were a waste of time. He said that, when believers say they’re concerned about our immortal soul and ask to sit down over coffee and debate atheism versus religion, we shouldn’t just say, “Sure, why not.” Instead, we should say, “Sure — can I videotape the conversation and put it on YouTube?” If someone emails us and says, “I saw something you wrote about atheism, here’s why I don’t agree”… we shouldn’t email them back saying, “Sure, let’s debate.” We should email them back and say, “Sure, let’s debate — can I post your letter on my Facebook page or my blog, and discuss it with you there?”

This accomplishes two things. First, it screens out people who aren’t serious. As JT argued: It’s amazing how quickly their concern for your immortal soul vanishes when they’re faced with making a fool of themselves in public. And second: If they do say yes? They’ve given you a public forum for making your case.

I was very struck by this idea. To the point where I included it in my talk at the Secular Student Alliance national conference in July: the one on why arguing about religion isn’t a waste of time, and what our strategies about it should be. And I included this idea when I posted an outline of that talk in my blog.

But when I posted that outline to my blog, a lot of people pushed back on this idea. They said that private debates about religion were most emphatically not a waste of time. And many of them gave examples of how they’d changed people’s minds about religion in private, one- on- one conversations.

So now I’m rethinking. I want to be a good skeptic, and not hang onto an idea just because it’s appealing to me or because I’ve already gone out on a limb about it.

Okay. Here are my thoughts.

On the one hand, I think JT has a point. In a private debate, you only have a chance at persuading one person. In a public one, you have a chance at persuading dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, depending on how big a forum you have. And I think he has a point about how people will make appallingly bad arguments in private that they’ll be embarrassed to make in public. In a public debate, they’ll be forced to think more carefully about what they’re saying and whether it makes sense — and thinking more carefully is exactly what we want them to do.

On the other hand: Psychological research shows that, the more that people have committed to an idea or a decision, the more likely we are to hang onto it. When we have more at stake in a decision we’ve made or a conclusion we’ve come to, we cling to it harder, we rationalize it more intensely, we defend it more hotly, and we get entrenched in it more deeply. That’s why people who have quit their jobs and sold their homes because they thought the Rapture was coming actually cling to their beliefs more tightly when the end of the world turns out to not be nigh… whereas people who only took the week off are better able to say, “Oops, guess I was wrong, my bad.” It’s not rational, but it’s how our brains work.

And going out on a limb in public is something of a big commitment. It puts a fair amount at stake. Yes, people are ashamed of making asses of themselves in public… but that doesn’t always result in them saying, “Oops, guess I was wrong, my bad.” It can result in the opposite — in people insisting, to others and to themselves, that they didn’t really make a mistake and weren’t really asses. People may be ashamed to express stupid ideas in public — but once they’ve done so, they’re likely to get even more entrenched in them. Once we’ve made an assertion in public, it’s harder to walk it back. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Hm. This is a toughie.

Initial thoughts: I think our decisions about how to handle this decision may vary depending on a couple of things: How close is the relationship, what’s your personality, and how much of a public forum are you likely to have?

I think part of the reason I’m drawn to the “Smack them down in public” route is that I have a pretty wide public forum. Not to be all self-aggrandizing, but my blog is read by a couple/few thousand people every day. So the risk/ benefit analysis is definitely in favor of the public smackdown. If my public humiliation of the person I’m debating entrenches them more deeply in their beliefs, I’m still reaching a whole lot of other people — and that makes it worthwhile. But if you post your coffeeshop debate on YouTube and half a dozen people watch it… that might not be worth making someone go out on a limb in public with stupid ideas and taking the risk that this will entrench them even more.

Some of this may also just be a question of personality. I’m not very conflict- averse, and I’m very comfortable with public speaking and having a public persona, both in the flesh and online. So I’m reasonably comfortable having arguments, and I’m reasonably comfortable having them in public. If you, personally, are more conflict- averse generally — or if you’re not comfortable with the public forum, either in meatspace or on the Internet — you might be more inclined to keep your debates more personal, and limit them to people and situations that you think are really important.

And when we’re deciding whether to make our debates about religion public or private, I think we have to consider how close our relationship is with the person we’re debating. I actually made this caveat when I gave the talk at the SSA. That whole “exposing them to public humiliation thing” that you might be willing to inflict on a casual acquaintance? You might not want to go there with people you’re close to. You might decide to have a public debate with the random guy who came up to you on campus and tried to convert you… and keep it in your living room when you’re explaining atheism to your mom.

Hm. I don’t know. I’m still thinking this one through. Thoughts? Pro, con, or context dependent? Are there other factors I haven’t considered here that might affect our decisions about this?

(Oh, and for the record: I don’t want to debate here whether debating about religion is ever a good idea in the first place. It is. Thousands of atheists have been persuaded out of religion by atheists’ arguments. I’m one of them. Today I want to discuss strategies for how to carry out these arguments, and I don’t want that strategy discussion to get derailed into defending a position I think is self-evident. We can have that conversation some other time. Thanks.)

Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?

43 thoughts on “Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?

  1. 1

    I notice you assume that it’s only the other side that risks self-humiliation via bad arguments!

    Well they do seem to have a lot of really bad arguments and I have yet to see any convincing ones, but for the sake of PR if nothing else…I recommend a more symmetrical approach. 😀

  2. 2

    Initial thoughts: I think our decisions about how to handle this decision may vary depending on a couple of things: How close is the relationship, what’s your personality, and how much of a public forum are you likely to have?

    My initial thought (given your assumptions for the whole discussion): it’s definitely context-dependent. To the factors mentioned by you (all valid ones), I would add another one: what sort of person contacted you. As I take it, you are not just an atheist activist, but also a human being. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to reduce your question to a mere issue of strategy (just as it’s not a good idea to reduce Greta to the role of an atheist activist). When you read an e-mail (say) from someone, I guess you ask yourself sometimes: who is this person? Why did he contact me? Is he a jerk in a dire need of a good, public humiliation? Is he energetic, able to take care of himself, able to defend his position on a public forum? Or maybe he is helpless, lost and confused? For me at least, the question you ask has also this human dimension.

  3. 3

    Well, I do agree that if you have the option, some record of the debate is better than no record of the debate.
    But of course, the sweeping generalization is always wrong.
    The correct answer is a big ‘it depends’, and it depends on who you’re debating and why.

    Sure if it is someone you don’t know, don’t do anything that’s not recorded. Unless you’re learning the ropes yourself and don’t want to goof up on tape.
    I’d still try to get some record though to improve your skills, and suggest you first try to write something on the blogverse out there (as I am doing).

    But what is ignored in the generalization is discussions with family and friends. If your friends want to talk to you about this topic, you start in a friendly manner. Make sure they understand there’s a reality out there that is not affected by whichever outcome the discussion has.
    Okay, that can be a discussion point in itself, but you can do worse to start by removing as much stress as possible from the discussion. Recording such discussions would be very counterproductive for the extra stress it gives you and especially the person you’re debating.

    You already have to take very special care not to give them an excuse to dig their heels in…

  4. 4

    Context-dependent, but I lean towards public if it is going to be online. Text-based debate seems more fair, doesn’t depend as much on a person’s presentation style, and no one can say that they have been misrepresented if they are posting in a public forum where their opponent doesn’t have editing/moderator power over their posts.

    That, and I think it probably does act as a filter. People who just want to preach at you about going to Hell probably aren’t interested in a public, published debate about it.

  5. 5

    Why not politely request if your correspondent would mind the argument/debate becoming public? Give them the option to proof-read everything and the right to veto publication at any time before you put it up.

    If they say “sure”, then make it public. If they say “no”, have the debate in private anyway.

  6. 6

    Another thing to consider. Yes, people might entrench themselves in bad beliefs at the time, at least outwardly, to save face, but inwardly they may be reevaluating their position. Or they may do so at a later time away from the conflict, in quiet reflection. With long held beliefs, it’s unusual for a person to change their minds all at once anyway, and this one discussion may be one of several that accumulate to shift the person’s ideas.

    I agree that it all depends on context and your relationship to the person, when deciding upon what forum to have a discussion and what approach to take when having it.

  7. 7

    Embrace the power of “and”. It’s not so much an either/or situation as one of tag teaming.

    You have a large audience, and I would imagine requests for private debate could eat up a significant portion of your time were you to try and honor them. And I expect you would get pretty tired of having to make the same arguments over and over and over again. Making a few of these debates public would save you time and reach more people; so, even just from an efficiency standpoint, “no private debates” would probably be a good way to go.

    For me? Not so much. I can probably count on my fingers the number of people who read my Live Journal, and they’re mostly interested in the pictures of dogs, cats, frogs, lizards and such. Going public with a debate is kind of a moot point for me! Public or private, about the same number of people are going to see it!

    So, you go and be loud and forceful and public on your large stage, and I’ll quietly do that same thing on my tiny one. The important thing is that we, each in our own way, get the message out there.

  8. 8

    I’m going to try to visit your blog more regularly. Whenever someone else links to you, I know it’s going to be good. Just randomly clicked over and read the most recent post, and it’s certainly got me thinking about the topic.

    For people I know in the flesh, my position’s simplified, since I haven’t gotten the courage to out myself as an atheist. I’d rather not get found out until I’m good and ready. When I do eventually out myself, I’ll probably avoid doing it to anyone close to my life just because there’s already an abundance of fundie landmines in Texas. I have to be able to make a living and I’d prefer not to risk activating a hostile work environment.

    I did have one online roleplaying friend find out about my atheism by searching for a phrase I used, but it was cool with him, and we’ve got something else to talk about, since it turned out he’s also a skeptical type.

    Anyway, in the off chance I receive an email from a stranger instead of a publicly viewable comment on my blog, I’m certainly willing to bring it out to the public arena in the form of a post. I’m pretty small time, so it’s exceedingly rare for it to occur, though. I definitely prefer it be done in text, so that there’s an unambiguous public record and time to think about how to phrase responses, in case someone tries to get sneaky.

  9. 9

    If it’s an email discussion, or a discussion on some other private electronic messages, there is almost automatically a log of the debate. In that case you can always ask later in the discussion if the person minds if you post some of the discussion on your blog. You can then also offer to keep the other anonymous if they want. That way other readers can still benefit from the discussion (and your effort), but you don’t have to put people on the spot and risk them clamming up.

    That would be a little more difficult with spoken conversations, of course. You could do it, but unless you started recording from the start, you won’t have a log, and will have to write from memory. Personally, I wouldn’t want to start a conversation by asking to record them, though. I know a lot of people aren’t comfortable with having their face and voice recorded, and especially with having those released online. Of course, with people who are already public figures I’d not be so reluctant.

    I think on the whole you’re going to have to use your personal judgment, to judge what the effect of asking to record and/or publish the conversation is on the other party.

    One thing, though: if the other party is recording, make sure you make your own recording as well.

  10. 10

    I like the ‘go with what you’re good at approach’. If someone is close to you, you don’t want to be humiliating them in public.

    Now, allow me to rationalize my own position on the efficacy of battling in public. 😛 While people may attempt to rationalize a position they’ve already voiced on record, the only way to continue to defend that position is to become increasingly more ridiculous, which gives you the means to hang up Christianity in the public forum for all the on-lookers even more. Even if I concede that informal social controls like shame cause people to rock up beyond rescue (which I don’t yet, see next paragraph), the on-lookers don’t have that shame as a relevant factor – they only see the champion of religion looking continually ridiculous.

    You also needn’t only talk to them about their belief in god. You can also talk to them about the importance of reason, and the shame of being foolish. This also works (in my experience, see the Sitting Next to a Missionary post).

    Love you. 🙂


  11. 11

    I think it’s certainly context-dependent, and the most important factor is whether you want to convince the person you’re talking to, or other people. If other people, reach as many other people as possible (whether this is at a dinner party (though that’s probably not a good idea) or on a blog). If them, keep it private because of all the research we have on how people change their minds.

  12. 12

    well, unless they are both somewhat competent in debate skills and have decent equipment to post a video to YouTube, I think it’s a waste of time. Often the atheist looks bad because they don’t have the arguments down, or were surprised with one; the whole debate is full of cleared throats, awkward pauses, and ‘um’s; the the quality is so poor it’s painful to watch. A skilled orator is a joy to behold, but most people aren’t. Skilled. Or even comfortable speaking publicly.

    As for a blog/email exchange: again, depending on the competency of the participants. I have no desire to see anyone humiliated, because shaming is a poor way to change behavior–any behavior. An uneven (on either side) debate just looks like a bully picking on the class nerd and makes everyone uncomfortable. And often just the poor grammar and spelling is enough to make me close a page, let alone illogical premises and poorly constructed arguments.

    So, for a good speaker who can command a crowd with comfort: debate away. An educated blogger who can string together sentences without making my grammar tic shoot to high alert: have at it. If you are good at it, competent, careful, thoughtful…I love it. Watching it, reading it…it’s a joy.

    But it is most assuredly NOT for everyone. Not for most people.

    That said, if the other person is making a public display, rally your resources and represent! If this is a public figure who decided to throw down the gauntlet, represent! But, please, do it well. And I don’t mean watch your tone, I mean watch your noun-verb agreement, your sentence structure, the way you build an argument…please!

  13. 13

    I’ve come to pretty much the same conclusion as JT, except on another topic: I’m not going to exhaust myself emotionally and mentally by arguing about feminism with a single clueless d00d; if I’m going to do that, it better reach a wider audience, so that it’s worth the effort and lurkers can learn from it, too. A private discussion simply doesn’t have that many positive externalities.

    OTOH, I can see the intensive one-on-one treatment working, too, if you have the energy and the time to devote to that one individual, and if you’re guaranteed to be able to spend a lot of time explaining everything.

  14. 14

    I’m inclined to agree with your thoughts, Greta. I’m all for debating theists in both public and in private, and will gladly do so. The primary difference between these two that I see is that a private discussion is more for the benefit of the person with whom you’re conversing, while a public debate is more to serve the audience. In either case, your points are being made. If you can entice people to start thinking and asking important questions, either in public or in private, then you’ve accomplished something good.

  15. 15

    I got into a very public debate with one of my old college friends – a good friend, since my second child is named after him. Our lives had diverged; we both studied for the ministry but my career was short and I eventually became an atheist, where he has become a respected pastor with a thriving church and 30 years experience.

    He had emailed me to ask; “How can the Christian be the bad guy? That seems backwards.” So with his permission I took his question onto Les Jenkins’ blog Stupid Evil Bastard, which has a large audience and we had it out for over nine hundred comments, him and me and all of Les’ regular readers.

    Thing is: I’m a tech-support person unskilled at argument, and as an evangelical pastor with a graduate education, he argues for a living. I don’t want to say I got creamed – I held up pretty well given that differential – but it didn’t go well and we have not communicated since. And I don’t feel particularly good about it. No, that’s not right; I feel bad about it.

    Of course he has a tremendous amount invested in his Christianity and in the notion that Christians are a force for good in the world. Against that investment were my arguments, which were standard stuff that probably don’t carry much emotional weight if you were privileged never to experience the minority perspective.

    Over the years I’ve read your blog, and read books by Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan and thought; “Yeah!” and mistaken agreeing with the arguments for the ability to make then convincingly myself. It’s rather like appreciating ballet I suppose.

    So contextually (and not referring to you personally, because your argumentative skill is da bomb); how much do you have invested in the relationship, and is there a differential in your level of argumentative skill?

  16. 16

    If you’re thinking about how wide a public forum you have, you also have to ask: Who do you deal with in your daily life? I simply don’t ever find people who are interested in debating the fate of my soul over a cup of coffee. This may be due to my disinterest in the activity, but surely the fact that all my friends are gay, physicists, and/or skeptics also plays a role. Besides having an effect on the frequency of private discussions, this also has an effect on the subject matter (eg talking about the Bible vs talking about New Age religions vs talking about atheists being such big meanies), and on the level of discussion.

  17. 17

    My view: do it in public as much as possible. The main point is not to convince your believing adversary, it is to expose the ideas as bad so that other people who encounter them will have been exposed to reasons they are bad. It is an opportunity to vaccinate the population just a bit against the nonsense.

  18. 20

    @george w., That’s kind of what I’m talking about in the post I linked above. Your argument with your old college friend is a great example of an argument that could be productive while keeping it private. As you said, learning to agree with Sagan and Dawkins is not the same as arguing at their level. But what enables you to argue at their level is practice. Whatever this evangelical pastor said to you that you couldn’t answer is an excuse to improve your education in that area, so you can hit the next guy who makes the same arguments harder.

  19. 21

    @kazim, He really didn’t say anything I couldn’t answer, at least to my satisfaction. I just wasn’t prepared for the discovery that what constitutes a credible source can be very different depending on ideology, or the disappointment in an old friend.

  20. 22

    I’d go with context dependent. I’d agree with the observations that debate in private only gives prospect to persuade one person, that debate in public has the potential to persuade more than one person for similar effort, but that the “sunk costs” of public commitment would seem to mean that the person you’re debating is less likely to be the one persuaded. If you have particular reason to think that the particular person may be swayed closer to your views, private discussion is more likely to be effective in actualizing that potential; and contrariwise, if you think the person is likely to remain unpersuaded, it weighs the balance more to a public debate allows you an audience that will be the actual focus of your persuasion.

    In regard to that likelihood, I’d suggest an additional (politically incorrect) contextual detail that doesn’t seem to have been mentioned yet: the other person’s age. It’s not just physics that sometimes advances only one funeral at a time. While there are exceptions, the older someone is, the less likely you will be able to persuade them. GSS data seems to to suggest that religious deconversions become increasingly unlikely with age. (Past 40, they seem almost unheard of.) Possibly it’s an effect of the “sunk costs” cognitive fallacy; possibly it’s a loss of mental flexibility with age; possibly it’s just that the older you are, the more likely you’ve spent more time developing a worldview resistant to easy perturbation. Regardless of why, it seems to be. As a second factor, changing the mind of someone younger would seem to have a larger demographic impact. Thus, with older folks, I’d be more inclined to a public debate; but a young theist — particularly of evangelizing bent — might be worth dealing with in private.

    (Debating about under what circumstances debates are sufficiently unlikely to change any minds that you shouldn’t even bother trying can be left for another day.)

  21. 24

    @george w.: Yes, but those are, in some sense, stylistic issues, and those are every bit as content; at least when it comes to skills that will help you win a debate. In all cases you need to look for common ground, asking yourself questions like: Why does this guy think that it’s a credible source? Where did the source get the information from? Is this just an argument from authority? Is it worthwhile to try and discredit the source, or is it more important to respond to the origin of the information? Would an unbiased audience share his assumptions, or would they make him look stupid? Etc.

    Ultimately you may find that it’s not worth your while to keep talking to this person, but the process of analyzing the cause of your disagreement may be instructive: at least you’ll figure out what immovable paradigms the person has which you can highlight and dissect before an audience.

  22. 25

    There are many aspects of public debates that do not rely on well constructed arguments. From time to time I try to sit through political debates, but I am worn out quickly by people talking past each other, repeating canned talking points, uninterested in addressing each other’s arguments.

    I don’t want to imply that the process is futile, but there are many skills required of a debater that are purely persuasion, where actual logic and reason can be sidestepped. At least in a 1-on-1 those kinds of tactics are not as attractive, or the discussion can be halted or slowed down when some sneaky business goes down without worrying about losing your audience.

    Then again, I may just be more frustrated with the process than most people.

  23. 26


    Let’s not write off the elderly,sometimes it’s not just politically incorrect, it’s incorrect, period.

    It’s personal for me, but this past weekend my deeply religious, 80 y/o mother attended a gay wedding. And I am so freaking proud of her!

    It was a long journey, but she came from the old school belief that homosexuality was both a choice and immoral, through the “love the sinner/hate the sin” nonsense, to believing that denying gays the right to marry was cruel and discriminatory.

    Yay! Go Mom!

  24. 27

    Public debates get the most bang for the buck, but they also generate the most background noise.

    From personal experience, I spent 10,000+ posts on a Atheism vs. Christianity group, and aided in exactly one deconversion over 3-4 years.

    In contrast, I spent less than 100 email exchanges, and aided in one deconversion.

    Yes, bad sample sets, but depending on the goal, the choice varies.

    The preference is a public debate with exceptional scorn and ridicule heaped on the wilfuly stupid and dishonest. If I had one regret, it was that I did not do so as much as I should have.

    The disadvantage of a publicly-owned group over what you have here (a well-attended public forum) is that you can control the conversation and eliminate the ridiculous noise that something flares up and just rages on. On your blog if you can suck in enough theists (which I doubt that you do, despite a thousands-per-day following) it would be ideal. Otherwise, you have to participate in a group like

    Private debates have a low return on investment, because they educate at most two individuals (in the one on one case). Public ones are better in this regard because despite the noise, most will see your argument, as you will theirs.

    So, if I had to vote, it’d be for public debates.

  25. 28

    @kazim: Just one example that came up in the debate. I relied on mainstream historians regarding US History, and he appears to be getting his information (though he wouldn’t admit it) from David Barton. I wasn’t expecting that. So is that an argument from authority? If each side levels that charge at the other, no progress can be made.

    I guess my point (if I have one) would be; “Think twice about debating old friends, it can be painful.”

    On the other hand, the record is out there (in response to Greta’s question) for anyone ambitious enough to read through 900+ comments, and decide for themselves. So that’s probably worthwhile.

  26. 29

    @george.w: David Barton’s perhaps one of the easiest fake authorities to refute, IMHO, because he’s definitely got a reputation for making shit up.

    I wouldn’t always call for this as an approach to take, but in this case attacking the messenger is DEFINITELY worth your while. Barton is a faker. As the Wikipedia page on him says right at the top, “Barton holds no formal credentials in history or law,” so he’s a horrible authority to use for accepted history. (When you argue with somebody about this, NEVER use Wikipedia as your main link, however. Instead, follow the footnotes and find the most neutral sources you can find, so that your opponent can’t attack your source in return.)

    As the argument progresses, he may wind up dogmatically defending Barton, but that’s a great outcome, because it’s an incredibly weak point to defend, so you want him arguing from there. Demand primary sources where Barton got his claims, since he’s got no relevant degrees. (Tip: In many cases there are none.) If he’s so married to his beliefs that he’s willing to die on the hill of Barton’s credentials rather than admit a mistake here, by all means call him out on that.

    Also, please do enjoy this extended interview that David Barton gave on the Daily Show. Your mileage may very, but it struck me as painfully embarrassing.

    See, my point here is that even though the arguments may have seemed insurmountable to you when they were first presented, often you’ll find that others have heard them before and know how to respond to them. Instead of seeing your lack of immediate response as a permanent failure, take it as a cue to start asking for help and reading up on it. That’s how you’ll improve.

  27. 30

    Also, public debates that are handled poorly cause a lot of trouble for other atheists who try to argue with Christians. We get a lot of calls, emails, and blog posts that point us to individual examples where an atheist debated poorly. It does happen; Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer have both put in some relatively weak performances, and William Lane Craig is cited often as a guy who steamrolls atheists (the guy has a talent for bullshit, but the fact that it’s bullshit doesn’t mean that an atheist can get away with being unprepared).

    It’s reasonable to say that cherry picking an individual poor performance does not affect whether the arguments are correct or not; I’m not obligated to defend Dawkins’ rhetorical skill in every situation, and I think the arguments should stand or fall on their own. But the weak performances definitely do get used as leverage, which is another reason to start out arguing privately before you go public.

  28. 31

    @Kazim: Thanks for the links – it’s good stuff. And I didn’t figure out until afterward that’s where he was getting his “facts”. What I wasn’t prepared for, because I had never encountered it in a discussion, was the preference for purely ideological sources. It was a huge disappointment to me coming from him because I sort of went in thinking that when a thing was shown, it was shown and that was that. He turned it around on me and said I was the one being ideologically inflexible (right – me, the guy who studied for the ministry and became an atheist) and it threw me off-balance. It was like watching a friend with brain cancer or something.

    I don’t want to burden the thread with a tangent anymore, so to return to the original question, I now avoid debating friends and co-workers. Everyone else is fair game, and in public. And at the first mention of Barton or Pielke or “Lord” Monkton or Behe or whatever then I know what I’m dealing with and act accordingly.

  29. 32

    @shripathikamath: – the sample set may have been small but it’s interesting. But in the 10,000 posts you might have been helping a lot of people get their thinking going – and certainly clarifying your own in the process.

  30. 33

    @Kazim #30, Of the debates that I have watched where atheists do well, the common elements seem to be the able to think on your feet, good rhetorical skills and the lack of restraint in ridiculing ridiculous positions. Hitchens and Sam Harris do this really well. PZ does so as well, even if he does not ridicule as pointedly as he does on his blog. Dawkins is a huge disappointment, and I think he should not be debating anyone except in written form. He gets flustered (often because he simply cannot believe how ridiculous the other person is), and is far too docile in his refutations.

    Every time I see him with Bill O’Reilly, I get reminded of how poorly he performs in debates.

    Yet, I love his books. There he argues his case brilliantly.


    Oh, I learnt a lot. From both the theists and the atheists. It was useful till it got repetitive.

  31. cbc

    I know this is a sidenote, but “explain it like you’d explain it to your mom” is a tired phrase that I’ve encountered a lot recently. I know you’re aware of the reasons it’s problematic. Why not “brother” or “nephew” or even just “sibling” in there?

  32. 35

    Whether public or private, Here is a dandy flowchart of groundrules you should have your interlocutor agree to before proceeding with any debate or discussion. If they won’t agree to these rules, your wasting your time.The hold them to it. No “fudging” If they break the rules, the discussion is over, period.

  33. 36

    I think it definitely depends on the situation.

    You made some good points in the post already. I was going to bring up the size of the public forum when I started reading the post, but you already mentioned it.

    I’d add that it’s important to consider why you think the person is asking you about atheism. One can’t read minds, of course, but if it seems like the person is having doubts and is therefore asking an atheist about information or going to an atheist with questions they have, then it might be good to address them privately (as they may not want to have their doubts publicly aired). Maybe after the private discussion, it might be a good idea to ask if you can share their message/email, to show others that there are people who have doubts about religion, but doing it beforehand might just make the person nervous.

    However, if it seems someone wants to debate, to prove you wrong, to convert you, then it might be good to have the debate publicly. It weeds out those who aren’t serious, as was mentioned before. Who knows? Maybe they’ll agree because they’ll see it as a way to reach other atheists who read your blog and convert them as well.

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    The last time a theist tried to convert me we were sitting on a crowded train (and later a crowed station platform). I was perfectly content to leave him alone to read his bible but he didn’t want to leave me along to read whatever it was I was reading (probably an atheist argument of some kind or a popular science book). Our private discussion became very public and very embarrassing. He couldn’t get his head out of a literal reading of the bible and I dismissed the bible as nothing more than anachronistic mythology (which it is). His bible stories weren’t evidence of his god and my evidence was just some crazy scientist’s opinion. I think that I came across as the less bloody minded of the two of us but it was close. 😉

    This anecdote is to say that if you want to argue about religion or for atheism in a public forum then choose your ground and be prepared. Have a set of rules for the sake of politeness and reasoned debate and as a better way of getting your argument across. Don’t react but have a plan laid out on how you wish to present your argument. Keep it flexible but try to stay on track. Be willing to allow their points for the sake of argument but make clear that you don’t concede them. Try to be reasonable and friendly.

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    I think one thing you have to consider is time and place.

    I did most of my communicating with other people at work, which was the postal service. We worked in pairs or small groups, rarely alone. It’s work, so management tends to frown on you wasting time to set up a camera and mike to record something you’re discussing while you’re working. For some places, you may need permission to bring in a camera at all; this was the case at some facilities where i worked, depending on the mail they dealt with, or the technologies. Or the paranoia of the person in charge of the facility. Do you think you’re going to be able to spend time writing if you have 2100 bundles of magazines to distribute?

    So are those of us who don’t have the time or means to argue via email or on tape–are we supposed to shut up when we hear nonsense from theists, and let all the people who have access to email and cameras handle the issue?

    It sounds snotty, pretentious and elitist, all at the same, when you put it in those terms.

    No, we don’t need to extract a blood oath from theists to argue with them. We can do it because we want to, and anybody who thinks they can make themselves into big kahunas of the New Atheists by telling us how, when, where, why we can argue with theists can shove it.

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    I’m going to say it depends on the person you are discussing the topic with. I have a friend who is probably an atheist already, but is having trouble letting go of his “faith.” I have no issue in having private conversations with him. (Though, if I get a profound thought, I might copy the idea to my blog and make it public, but I won’t necessarily say where from the idea came.)

    However, I have also encountered a very religious acquaintance on Facebook who, when I object to something he puts up on his more public wall, will want to discuss it further in private email discussions, instead of just continuing the debate on the wall. As I don’t see him losing his “faith” any time soon, I don’t see any reason to grant him the private conversations.

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    When you debate someone publicly, it’s insanely unlikely that you will change that person’s mind. In a formal debate, because it’s the other person’s job to not change, and in a casual debate for the reasons you mentioned.

    But your opponent isn’t the target. It’s all those observing. That’s your audience; that’s who you care about. Do a good job and you may plant some seeds of reason.

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    I think it depends on whose mind is being changed. If it seems like they’re actually listening and engaging a real exchange of ideas, then I prefer doing that in private. Such things are personal, and setting up an audience would give everything an artificial and staged feeling.

    If instead this is some howler scoring debating points, then by all means set up the cagematch and take them down.

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