The Atheist’s Advantage

 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.

God Bless,


10 Responses

  1. Excellent points. I have found that many atheists play the following cards over and over and don’t realize the logical fallacies therein:

    “I have examples of Christians saying stupid things, so Christianity is false.”

    “People have misinterpreted the Bible, so Christianity is false.”

  2. Neil makes a great point. That’s been the essence of the debates I have engaged in as well.

    In my college classrooms, I found that atheists were more prone to “pick off” the people who claimed to believe in Jesus, but had no idea what they were talking about, had not read the Bible, or just were too easy of a target (as far as being hypocritical).

    It’s hard not to get emotional in the midst of a debate; but, as a Christian, I find that it’s good to remember that, yes, I need to be able to give an account for what I believe; but, ultimately, I am not in control of a person’s beliefs (just mine).

    Oh, one more caveat. I remember reading an article about Liberty University’s Debate Team. Apparently, the tide might be shifting…

  3. i agree…being involved in debate in college and being a philosophy major, i have seen the same thing. but i also think that sometimes, we shouldnt be debating the atheist.

    instead, we should be living our lives in such a way they cannot refute our lives. i am not saying we never share our faith. but it must be from a point of respect. an atheist wont respect you (and so even if you “win” a debate you havent helped the atheist believe anything differently) unless you have proven yourself over time.

    this is hard, but i believe in the long run, it will pay off much more than studying how to “debate” your opponent.


  4. Hi Suppermannino,

    I have seen what you and Neil are talking about as well. You probably know this, but such a claim is called a “slippery slope” argument and it is also a fallacy within debate. I am a fan of debate because I have always been one who likes to give reasons for my particular beliefs. Granted, it’s hard to put into words why I know Christ is my savior, but I love the challenge. Sometimes I debate to help change the perspective some Atheist’s have in regards to Christians – although with some, their perspective will never change as their heart is already hardened.

    PB and J,

    I agree, we can’t get too wrapped up in debate, but sometimes I feel that Christians shy away from it too often. Christians need to realize that they have a responsibility. The responsibility isnt to convert, but it is to be active in our beliefs – debate can help re-affirm them.

  5. I’d like to throw in my opinion as an atheist, if I may.

    I actually find, throughout my own personal experience, that too many people who engage in debates are not on equal footing regarding their intellectual capability and their own experience. Most of the time, what I see is some intellectual atheist/theist intentionally debating someone below his/her caliber. I find this quite disconcerting and intellectually dishonest.

    If someone is going to choose to enter into a debate, one needs to pick an opponent who is assessed as somewhat of an equal. Often, I see educated theists attacking undereducated and angry atheists. Likewise, I see very intellectual atheists attacking theists who are not well-versed in their own faith and those who tend to lack critical thinking skills.

    Also, another point for theists: The debate tends to end when the term “faith” is brought into the conversation. Justin is correct when he says that definitions need to be clearly defined before entering into the debate. The proposition must be clarified at the beginning. Oftentimes, it’s the language being used that causes confusion and emotionalized rhetoric to rear their ugly heads.

  6. Put me down as a vote against debate. It’s a waste of time, because it is no more likely to change someone’s mind than a football game is to change a fans loyalty. A debate is no more than a spectacle, with fans attending from both sides to cheer their side on.

    I encourage discussion between theists and atheists. The difference is two fold:

    1. The goal is not to further your viewpoint, but to better understand the other’s.

    2. Neither party intends to convert their audience or those they are interacting with, their focus is on helping the others see things from their perspective.

    I find a discussion is a much more useful thing.

  7. Hi Kelly,
    you make a great point about intellectual capability! I guess some people get their kicks from “outsmarting” someone. Often times in debate, we see that if someone knows the rules of debate, they can “defeat” another without ever bringing up actual points (instead, just attack procedure)…that can be somewhat annoying.

    I agree with Joe in that “debate” is sometimes pointless (unless you like it…like some enjoy playing sports). However, there is a thin line between debate and conversations as often casual convos will require one to defend their beliefs and question another’s sources.

  8. instead, we should be living our lives in such a way they cannot refute our lives.

    And that’s why atheists can, and should, bring moral credibility of the interlocutor into play. Christians make it a material point of debate; the atheist is simply playing by the Christian’s rules in these situations.

    It does boggle my mind that Christians would want to argue this way (look at how righteous we are!); one of the central tenets of Christianity, original sin, cuts the argument at the knees.

  9. I think I have to agree with Joe on this one.I am one of Kellys intellectually challenged people so I only debate myself.However I find I can make arguments for both sides.I’m not sure if thier is truly a god or not.I haven’t figured out how you people make that desision for yourselves.I read parts of the bible and find I really like what it’s saying to me.I read other parts and find they make no sence to me.I hear people discuss topics like creation versus science and I can’t see where the two of them disagree.I am in a constant state of debate in my own mind.I have a lot of questions that are pretty much unanswered and perhaps I’ll never find an answer.

  10. […] Christians, but then only attack the fundamentalist viewpoint of Christianity. Funny thing is, most atheists were former fundamentalists (no wonder they lost their […]

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