Essay:HowTo:Debate a Theist

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This essay is an original work by Perceptron. However, the user doesn't mind all that much if you edit it as well. If in doubt, comment on the talk page first.

The Author Rambles[edit]

You want to know how to debate a theist? Maybe you know a loudmouth kid in one of your classes who is always extolling the virtues of "God's love". Maybe you're going to a local school council meeting about whether Creationism should be taught in public schools. Maybe you just want to "pwn this guy". Maybe you're just bored. I don't know if you've come to right place, but you've definitely come to a place.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am a theist myself. I say this not evangelize, but in the spirit of open debate. Oh, and if you want to blame anything you disagree with in this essay on me being a theist, you have my full permission.

An Introduction Of Sorts[edit]

In discussing how to debate theists, I'm reminded of Pluto.

You know Pluto, right? Not the Disney character, but the dwarf planet. Back in '06 Pluto got "demoted" to the status of dwarf planet. You might be vaguely aware of student protests that wanted Pluto to make Pluto a planet again. Maybe you even participated in a few. The vast majority of them were heavily laden in irony or jocular nerd rage. However, if one reads between the lines, some people were legitimately upset that a distant hunk of rock was now referred to with different nomenclature. While it's hard to judge sincerity on the internet, a quick tour of the intertubes will confirm this. Perhaps it's because they fear socialism or maybe it's because they're writing a book (check the comments), but whatever the reason these people are showing emotions usually reserved for things that actually matter.

Why do these people feel this way? Except for some astronomers who have a legitimate reason, the vast majority of people shouldn't care whether Pluto is a planet. They don't live on Pluto, they're not planning on visiting, and as far as I know you can't make money off the planet status of Pluto.[1] By any sort of rational metric, these people shouldn't give two shakes of a dead dog's dick.

A Distinction Is Made[edit]

The value of theistic beliefs is continuous rather than discrete, but for our purposes I have broken all theistic beliefs into two types of people.

Type I: These theists have come into their beliefs through study and self-examination. They're not willing to believe in something just because "the Bible says so" because they realize that what the Bible says isn't often clear. Type I theists have an understanding of the history of their religion and try to go beyond what is taught during weekly service in the church. [2] They often have enough understanding of other religions to be able to discuss them without sounding like a bigot. While a Type I theist might disagree with certain scientific beliefs on religious grounds, they don't try to make their religious beliefs part of public school curriculum.

Type II: These theists will defend their beliefs solely because that's their beliefs. They grew up with a certain religion and, by God, that's where they're going to stay! Most Type II theists you'll meet are going to be Christian but that's only if you're in the USA or Europe. If you were in the Middle East, these theists would be Muslim. If you were in India, these theists would be Hindu. If you were in ancient Germany, these theists would be praising Father Woden. While a Type I theist's beliefs still tend to be highly influenced by the culture they grew up in, a Type II theist's beliefs seemed to be based only on the dominant culture. Type II theists believe that Pluto is a planet because the first thing they learned about Pluto was that it was a planet.[3] When science contradicts their beliefs, science is wrong. Type II theists tend to lack a critical sense of self-awareness. For instance, they see nothing wrong with claiming to be a Christian while still supporting every war their country engages in.


Before you start debatin', you should first do the following things at least.

1. Find out the format of the debate: Is this debate between two friends over a lunch break or are you conducting a formal parliamentary debate with an impartial moderator? This point is pretty straightforward and applies to every debate. You should also try to find out who the audience is going to be. If you're debating creationism in front a bunch of creationists, be prepared to get booed a lot. Likewise, while a bunch of 20 year-old rather liberal college-goers might appreciate your off-color joke about Ezekial 23:20[4] the local school council probably won't.

2. Pick a topic: And stick to it! Again, this is good policy for every debate but religious debates tend to go off-topic very quickly if you let them and it's not always the theist who starts to wander first. There's a number of reasons to pick (and stick to) a topic. First, it prevents the Gish Gallop or the similar non-malicious variations. Second, it gives everyone time to prepare and keeps the debate fair. After all, if the topic of the debate is "Should Creationism be taught in schools?", it's not fair to make the theist defend the Inquisition just as it isn't fair to make the non-theist explain why Hitler's genocide wasn't the ultimate result of the theory of evolution.

Oh, and pick a topic that you could reasonably debate in the time you have and one which isn't likely to descend into a mutual shouting match without 5 minutes. Religion is a touchy topic and you'll know what's appropriate to debate with your opponent more than I will, but "Does God exist?" is probably the wrong topic to start with.

3. Brush up on basic science: In general, the common populace doesn't understand science. According to the political scientist Dr. John Miller, only 20% to 25% of Americans are scientifically savvy.[5] For comparison, 18% of Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth.[6] (For comparison, Great Britain and Germany had similar numbers, so this isn't something to be blamed on all Americans being a bunch of backwoods fundamentalists hicks). Realize that almost any person that you debate is not going to realize that there's a difference between a theory and a hypothesis or that there are mathematics that can determine whether an anomaly is an actual anomaly or evidence that something else is going on. You should be ready to give a clear explanation of the scientific method and why theory doesn't mean "just a guess".

4. Find out what type of theists they are: The tact one uses when debating a Type I theists is far different than the one used when debating a Type II theist. I'll get into the differences more in-depth, but this should be a preliminary concern. You should also try to find out what specific sect they belong to or at least their general beliefs. For instance, not all Protestants believe in the Rapture and Catholics don't at all and if you bring up the Rapture when debating a Muslim or a Buddhist you're just going to look like an idiot.

And this should go without saying but 5. Know what you're talking about: Unless you're in an informal setting, perhaps an impromptu debate between friends, where a little bit of leeway is permissible, than make sure you fully understand the debate's topic. This includes finding out common arguments used by the opposing side. If you're allowed to bring in written material (see point 1), then do so. Make a list of facts with references [7] so that it doesn't seem like you're just spouting off unsubstantiated nonsense. Type I theists will respect you and be more willing to listen (though expect them to have references as well) while Type II theists will probably not know how to respond.[8] Bible quotations are a bit tricky - make sure they're in context and have an additional reference to back up that that is the right context if you can find such a reference.

Behavior During Debate[edit]

Your behavior during a debate does not only reflect upon yourself but the position you're defending. Is this fair or even rational? No, but c'est la vie.[9]

6. Don't talk down to your opponent: Everybody holds at least one belief which is wrong. Our brains are tricky things. Sometimes, it seems, it makes more sense to hold onto a useful, but wrong, belief than it is to hold onto a less useful, but correct, belief. The easiest example of this is modeling a physical system. Useful models simplify and abstract the underlying physical properties of the system. While technically wrong, they're accurate enough that as long as you're aware that the model is not reality, you don't have to (usually) worry about inaccuracies. For example, assuming that an object falls on Earth with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s^2. It doesn't - you have to take into account air resistance and 9.8 is only accurate to one decimal place - but it's useful.

Why bring this up? So that you don't talk a down to someone just because their beliefs are wrong. You do them and yourself a disservice by talking down to them. They're wrong about something, but undoubtedly you are too. Don't talk down to them even if they "really deserve it".

7. Be civil and be kind: Even when they're not. You're debating a human being, not an inanimate rock. Unless their beliefs are immediately harmful, there's no need to be hasty and trample over their feelings. Yes, their feelings are going to get hurt when they lose, but that's no reason to twist the knife. Keep in mind that you're also seeing the person in what is probably their most incorrect. Just because someone believes that the Earth was made 6,000 years ago and fossils were put there by Satan, doesn't mean that they don't love their family, give charity to the poor, or work towards world peace. Type I theists will definitely appreciate your civility and most Type II theists will as well. As for those Type II theists who try to start a shouting match, well the more polite you are the angrier they'll get and that's just hilarious.

8. Don't act like they're faking it: Unless the debate is different (see point 1), assume that your opponent actually believes what they say. It's tempting to think that your opponent is "willfully ignorant", that they know the truth but that they're consciously lying to themselves in order to further some sort of nefarious plot[10] but the truth of the matter is that "willful ignorance" takes a level of mental discipline that most people just don't have. Instead, their behavior and beliefs can be explained by two facts. First, they're not you. This should be obvious, but the implications of this is often left unnoticed. Your beliefs were not created fully formed and neither were your opponents. Both of you came to your beliefs through mental processes influenced by culture, parental upbringing, personal experience, and countless other more subtle ways. In short, you and your opponent do not think the same way. In order for your opponent to "realize the truth but lie about it", you assume a priori that they think like you do and, thus, came to same conclusions. Second, cognitive dissonance works to remove or rationalize any belief that a person finds to be wrong. If you can't be arsed to read Wikipedia, cognitive dissonance is the pain that one feels when finding out that what they believe is wrong. It's resolved by removing dissonant belief or by providing a rationalization for it. Cognitive dissonance is part of the reason that point 7 is so important.

Tactics During Debate[edit]

No one article will be able to teach you everything you have to do to convince you're opponent that you're right, but here's some useful tactics to keep in mind.

9. Keep debate on topic: I mentioned this before in point 2, but it's important to bring up twice. There's a temptation to try to fight against every single mistaken belief a person holds, especially if you view them as a fundy loon. Don't do it! The further afield you go and the more beliefs you touch on, the greater the chance you are going to come across a topic you know nothing about or the debate turns into a shouting match. Pick a topic and stick to it, no matter. Now, sometimes, your opponent might try to change the topic maliciously as previously mentioned. You should respond to this with firm, but polite, insistence to stay on topic. On the other hand, and far more likely, it will be an innocent mistake that either you or your opponent might make. This is usually caused when you try to bring up supporting evidence, but the supporting evidence is based on something that your opponent disagree with. Then, all of sudden, you're discussing the supporting evidence and, before you know it, you went from discussing evolution to the validity of the Asch conformity experiments and neither of you know how you got there. If you see yourself or your opponent start to wander, politely steer the conversation back on-topic. Throw in an apology for good measure if it seems necessary.

10. Don't say things like "scientists say": Scientists are not a monolithic group. In fact, some scientists believe profoundly stupid things. While it's a great temptation to say "All scientists believe that X" or "No scientist believes that X", scientists are as varied in their beliefs as most anybody else, especially when it's concerning a belief that is outside their field, which religion definitely is. If at all possible, be specific about what type of scientists generally believe X or, better yet, let the evidence of X stand for itself (then again, see point 3). And whatever you do, don't try to dismiss scientists who believe differently by saying "No true scientist believes X". This falls right into the trap of creating an Us vs. Them mentality.

11. Don't let them get existential: Every system of belief requires a certain number of assumptions. Most religions requires a number of assumptions that a non-religious person is not willing to make. These assumptions take the form of "God exists", "God is knowable", "The stream of consciousness reincarnates until enlightenment is reached", and "God is invisible and pink". There's nothing wrong with assumptions. Mathematicians make them all the time and they seem to do alright. Science itself is founded on the assumption that one can make logical deductions about the universe through empirical experimentation.[11] However, don't let them get away with saying things like "Science is just an atheist religion" or "All beliefs come from the brain so they're all the same, anyways". This is the equivalent to saying that a chair and a house are the same because they're both made out of wood and metal.[12] This reasoning is a type of escape hatch used by particularly philosophical Type I theists or particularly obstinate Type II theists. Remember point 7, but don't let them be a nihilator.

12. Know logical fallacies: And, perhaps more importantly, when to point them out. This very wiki has a page on logical fallacies, so read that and commit as much as you can to memory. Be prepared to explain what a logical fallacy is - don't just cry out post hoc and move on - and give a down-to-earth example, all of which should be on that page. Learn what the difference between a formal and informal fallacy and why it matters. Finally, and this is something that's hard to teach, know when to bring up that your opponent has made a logical fallacy. Sometimes you can just bring up a generic counter-example and move, sometimes it's best to just ignore the fallacy and attack the evidence used as part of it. And while you're doing whatever you decide on doing, remember point 6.

After Debate[edit]

Unlike a football game, the real debate isn't over just because the formal one is.

13. Thank your opponent: Pretty simple, really. Politely thank your opponent after the debate is over. Don't try this unless you can sincerely be thankful for the debate or can fake it well enough. Of course, if your opponent looks like they're about to murder someone,[13] than don't bother because no matter what you say it will sound like "fuck you" to them.

14. Realize you're not Saint Augustine: Saint Augustine of Hippo was the Catholic church's theological hit-man. He would come out to debates when the Church needed to soundly trounce somebody in a debate. Augustine created the first theological justification for the use of violence by Christians and debated the Manichaeans and some other sects out of existence. Yes, I said "debated out of existence"[14] Augustine was so renowned at debating it is said that his opponents would sometimes convert during the debate itself.

You are not Saint Augustine.

If you can get your opponent to admit that you were right and they were wrong after the debate, than you're far ahead of the curve. In general, your opponent probably isn't going to de-convert to atheism is the middle of a debate. You're not going to be able to "pwn" them so hard that they break down in tears. There's too much inertia due to cognitive dissonance. The best you can reasonably expect is that you conduct yourself well enough during a debate that your opponent and/or audience re-examines their previously held beliefs and may at some time in the future come closer to your way of thinking.

15. Realize that all beliefs are inconsequential to Cthulhu: No merciful, paternalistic "god" looks down on you from the heavens - just an endless, frozen void that cares nothing about the fate of a collection of insignificant bipedal microbes at the hands of vastly more powerful beings whose motives their puny minds cannot even comprehend! Do not think that knowledge and science will provide salvation either, for no matter how powerful we are now, humans are at best interim caretakers while the planet's true masters are away![15] Also, Cthlhu wants a reduction on federal income tax on top earners.

Comments, Criticism, Response[edit]

You have just read an essay by Perceptron. The user encourages you to make comments and criticism on the talk page. If they're good, they'll end up here.

7. Be civil and be kind: The big argument when I first posted a version of this in the Debate space was that I did not think that creationist beliefs are immediately harmful. I still don't. I have no problem with running roughshod and completely ignoring a debate when, say, a person's beliefs are preventing a child from getting life-saving medicine. I just don't see how creationism has that same sense of urgency. If everyone became a hardcore creationist today, nobody would die - at least not on any sort of reasonably short timeframe. Would the mass conversion over to creationism have long-term, negative implications? Yes. Should you oppose intelligent design being called a science? Yes. Should you debate against creationism, especially when it concerns the teaching of creationism in public schools? Yes, very yes. Should we treat creationists the same as people who believe that only God heals the sick and let their children die from easily preventable diseases as a result? No.

See Also[edit]

Debate:How to debate a theist


  1. If anyone has found a way, please tell me so I can get in on that action. Writing a book doesn't count.
  2. Or synagogue or mosque or similar religious structure
  3. "Ah," you say, "I was wondering where you were going with that Pluto thing."
  4. "There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses."
  5. Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much
  6. New Poll Gauges Americans' General Knowledge Levels
  7. Like this
  8. They'll probably default to an out-of-context Bible quote
  9. Or, alternatively
  10. Televangelists and self-loathing gay fundamentalists not withstanding
  11. Then again, one could make the argument that science is able to prove itself since it is probabilistic, rather than absolute, to which a reply might be that probability is an abstraction and inherently false not to mention that all belief and correlation comes from the brain which is inherently fallible and ohgodkillmenow
  12. I'll let you, the reader, choose whether science and religion is represented by the house and chair or vice versa. Than again, I'd rather not live in a house without chairs so I might be reading too much into the analogy
  13. Congratulations on that, by the way, unless your intent was to convince your opponent of your position in which case you did a poor job.
  14. This was just before the Catholic Church got their hard-on for "inquisiting out of existence".
  15. Why We're Here