Very good discussion of atheist-theist debates by Greta Christina, author of the Greta Christina blog.

Why It's So Tricky for Atheists to Debate with Believers

In conversations between atheists and believers, is there any way atheists can win?

I've been in a lot of discussions and debates with religious believers in the last few years, and I'm beginning to notice a pattern. Believers put atheists in no-win situations, so that no matter what atheists do, we'll be seen as either acting like jerks or conceding defeat.

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It's a good idea to be aware of fallacies in general. It helps one to be more conscious of misleading arguments.

There are many sites that discuss them:


Guide to the Logical Fallacies

- among others.
Some good points there. Most of my problems have come from the inability to get in to an in depth argument with a theist without actually insulting them. When I was new and inexperienced at this sort of thing I would walk away puzzled about why they were so angry? Eventually I had the realization that Christians incorporate their belief into their identity so you can't criticize their faith and doctrines without criticizing them as well. You have to do a very delicate dance to stay engaged over any length of time.

In conversations between atheists and believers, is there any way atheists can win?
Yes...Never let the theist off the hook. No matter how hard he tries to change the subject, always insist that he must first describe his god in a way that everyone can understand (otherwise we won't know what we are talking about). And don't let him fob you off with that "look at the sunset and you can see god" stuff.

If the theist can get beyond this point (most can't) his next task is to prove that this particular god exists. He will invariably try to manipulate the argument until he has the atheist trying to defend evolution and/or the big bang, but don't fall for that ruse. Simply remind him of the task at hand and sit back while he ties himself up in knots trying to prove that god exists.

Check these links to earlier discussions on the subject:
I don't see it as tricky. You just have to know when you've won. When the only response is fallacy, or "you're giving me more faith", then I count that as a win. I don't expect people to convert on the spot, but hopefully with enough conversations on the subject they will eventually turn.
Every once in a great while, I get that 'pause.' It is a moment that grants a great sense of triumph.

When I was young (during the Reagan nuke buildup in the eighties) I was a door to door canvasser in Seattle for a grassroots citizen's political lobby to shut down the plutonium factory in Hanford, (eastern) Washington state (among other things.)

I came up to a house with a new lawnmower on the porch that had a note attached that said: "Please, do not take." When the guy answered, he looked me straight in the eye and I realized - right away - that I had knocked on the door of a Jehovah's Witness. Now, the encounter was reversed - me knocking on his door and all - but at least the situation wasn't uncomfortable for either of us. What I did know was he would, basically, damn himself to hell if he contributed to my cause. But I pitched him anyway. He responded that "God would disarm the world."

Well, I told him that I respected his faith and was sure that it gave him a great deal of comfort in those terrifying times. But then, without flinching, I said: "You know, there are a good number of people out there who are not comforted by faith such as you have. For them, even the illusion of being able to do something about the nuclear arms race - such as calling their congresspeople and getting out the vote - as futile as you may know it to be - well, it brings them some comfort to have me knock on their door. I ask you, kind sir, if you would find it in your heart to contribute just one dollar to help me bring my message of hope, false but comforting though it may be, to those who will never heed the wisdom of folks like you."

I left his home having bought his soul for a dollar. I was the only canvasser who had ever gotten any money at all from a JW. And we had over 27,000 contributing members.

Okay - so maybe I shouldn't be proud of it. But it sure did feel good.
Greta, the problem might also be with the term "atheists". Believers seem to think that "atheists" have to be one thing (strong atheist), and that means we have to prove that God doesn't exist, which is of course impossible.

However, we don't have to play that game. We ought not have a problem with a deist god, and we should call out the Christian for hiding behind the deist god. All we need to do in order to reject Christianity is to deal with the claim that "the Gospel accounts of miracle stories attributed to Jesus are true." And that can be done relatively easily.

The best example I've seen of this is Sam Harris's response at the La Ciudad debate. Here's the link:
I don't login to AN much, and just saw the invite to this group today. I know it's been a long time since this discussion was active, but I'll just add my $.02.

You've got some good points here David, and I can relate to the "having conversations" comment. I've done a lot of debating/conversing on William Lane Craig's forum, and I see a lot more value to atheists just presenting a human face to believers rather than trying to win arguments.

Trying to win a philosophical argument tends to naturally put the discussion into an US vs THEM frame, and tends to lead to polarization of viewpoints. On the other hand, discussing differences in viewpoint with an individual or group over a long period, can result in narrow minded views on the differences between US and THEM breaking down. When you allow Christians to gradually get to know you as a person -to the point they can no longer consider it reasonable to believe that a god would condemn a person to hell simply for not having the right viewpoint - then you've knocked out a major chunk of the emotional support for theism within the believers mind. If the believer is a thoughtful person, the whole memeplex can be ripped apart by that cognitive dissonance within the believer's mind over time. (If the believer is not a thoughtful person, you are probably wasting your time discussing things with them altogether.)
A favorite point of mine that I like to bring up is Jesus' supposed lineage to King David from the old testament. This is actually something I heard at a christmas mass I went to with my family once. The bible says that jesus was immaculately conceived, but it also says that Joseph, the virgin mama Marys husband was of the bloodline of King David. well, if Joseph is not the father then Jesus was not of the bloodline of King David, because Mary is his only "earthly" parent, right?
As Maury would say...."Joeseph, you are NOT the father!"
It's right in their bible, and yet they don't question things enough to pick out such logical shortcomings.
It seems like the theist's (particularly the protestant Christian's) position always falls back to "Well, you just have to have faith." And faith is a belief held in the absence of any logic or evidence. How do you even hold a debate with someone whose basic premise is a flat-out rejection of logic? It's like arguing a lawsuit in court where only one side has to follow the rules of evidence. You can't win.

"Sure, I'd love to debate you. But you know those pesky rules of debate and argument? They don't apply to me..... You start."
Ask them to have faith and keep their feet on the ground. That's like impossible.
I always state the God people have the burden of proof. They are the ones talking the crazy talk about people rising from the grave and other wacky stuff.

Oh, and saying you gotta have faith is admitting defeat.

I'm also funny. Funny goes a long way.
It seems as thought the law is on the side of the theists. they have a right to their religion, to believe. Yet, we nontheists do not have the right to disbelief. Believe is an intricate theist word, there needing to be this jump of faith. I like having my feet on the ground. I have the right to my opinion - belief translated - I therefor think that we nontheists have the right to opine. To state one's opinion. Would the world be a better place if it was run by nontheists and why are we in the minority, or are we? has anybody counted?
And yes, I want to win this one!



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