I have always been a big fan of debate and argumentation. I believe that in a controlled setting where respect is given, individuals can have a very intellectual exchange of combating viewpoints. During my undergrad, I took a variety of courses that catered towards debate and advocacy. I found the whole process, rules, and strategies very fascinating. I participated in a variety of debates; some I won, and some I lost.
Any good debater knows that engaging in debates is like a Chess match, that is, each side has to think a few moves ahead. In other words, a strategy must be formulated. One distinct strategy that gives a definite advantage in debate is to know where your “opponent” is coming from and then generate your own arguments to combat them. The more you know about the other side’s potential arguments, the better you will be able to defend your own points of view – and this is true across the board.
In today’s world, it seems that some of the most common debates are between Theists and Atheists. Unfortunately, given the nature of the topic, both sides often become extremely agitated and disrespectful towards one another. This is not to say that all conversations and debates on the subject follow this trend. In fact, I have been a part of, and seen, respectful dialogue between these two camps of thought. However, it is during my conversations, and witnessing others between Theist & Atheist, that I have discovered the distinct advantage of the Atheist.
Atheists are often better debaters because they have the ability to know the perspective and arguments of their (usually) amateur Theist counterpart. You see, in many (but not all) cases, Atheists have fallen away from their faith. During debate, they conjure up memories and scripture from their days as a Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc. If the Theist debater is not as well versed in their religion, textual history, and literary devices, then countering scripture can appear to be a difficult problem.
The other major difference I have noticed is that Theist debaters can be too quick to accept their opponents definitions. This is why debating religion can be so difficult – definitions between Theists and Atheists are nearly impossible to agree upon. Skilled debaters will first debate definitions, then the issues. Too often, Theists will miss this because they are too eager to “defend their convictions”. As a result, they blindly accept the definitions put forth, and in due time, they run back to their Bible/Qur’an/Torah with their tail tucked between their legs.
There is a difference between winning a debate, and appearing to win a debate. I have found that there is an extremely large group of Atheists that “win” their debates by trying to make their Theist opponent look “stupid” (therefore eliminating credibility). Naturally, this is a fallacy in debate (argumentum ad hominem), but it happens all the time. When I see this happen, I have found that the Theist is less likely to reciprocate and therefore they appear “defeated” by the their counterpart. If they do reciprocate, they commit the same fallacy as the Atheist. For example, it may look like: “you say that God doesn’t exist because you want to justify your immorality”.
My advice to Theists (and many Atheists) in regards to debate:
1. Learn as much as you can about your opponent. Granted, as I mentioned, Atheists often have the upper-hand in this area, but there are plenty of avenues to explore.
2. Don’t be too quick to accept your opponents definitions – find an agreement first! It sounds simple, but using a dictionary to establish common ground on terms is the best method. Don’t rely on your opponents ‘pop-culture’ definition of truth, morality, spirituality, history, logic, science, and so on.
3. Don’t attack the person. If you find that you are being attacked personally (in the attempt to make you appear ‘stupid’ for your beliefs), then call them out on the argumentation fallacy and move on – the true insignificance of their “argument” will be made clear.
4. Have fun, be respectful, and appreciate the ability to discuss important topics in a civil manner.