Why Do Atheists Debate Theists?

There is a common perception that there must be “something more” to atheism than simply disbelief in gods because of the fact that atheists are so often engaged in debates with theists. After all, what’s the point of debating if not to convert someone to some other philosophy or religion?

It is, then, legitimate to ask why atheists get involved in such debates and what they hope to achieve. Does this indicate that atheism is some sort of philosophy or even a religion? The first thing to note is that many of these debates wouldn’t occur if theists didn’t appear in order to try to convert atheists — usually to some form of Christianity. Some atheists seek out debate, but many are content to simply discuss things — often not religious issues, in fact — amongst themselves. The fact that an atheist responds to prompting from a theist does not suggest that there is anything more to atheism than the absence of belief in gods.

The second thing to note is that there is a legitimate interest among nonbelievers in educating people about atheism, agnosticism, and freethought. There are quite a few myths and misconceptions about these categories and people are justified in trying to dispel them. Once again, the desire to spread accurate information does not suggest anything further about atheism.

Nevertheless, there is a category of debate which does involve something beyond atheism, and that is when debates are engaged by atheists not simply as nonbelievers, but as nonbelievers who are specifically working to promote reason and skepticism. In this manner, the specifics of the debate may be about theism and religion, but the purpose of the debate is supposed to be about the encouragement of reason, skepticism, and critical thinking — any encouragement of atheism is incidental to that.

Rationality and Logic

When participating in such discussions, it is important for atheists to remember that not all theists are wildly irrational and illogical — if that were so, it would be much easier to simply dismiss them. Some are genuinely attempting to be reasonable, and some manage to do a decent job. Treating them as if they never heard of logical arguments will only serve to put them on the defensive in the end, and it is unlikely that you will accomplish anything.

This raises a very important question: if you are engaging a theist in a debate, why are you doing it? You must understand what your goals are if you have any hopes of getting anywhere. Are you just looking to “win” an argument or vent your negative emotions about religion and theism? If so, you’ve got the wrong hobby.

Are you looking to convert people to atheism? In the context of any one discussion, your chances of achieving that goal are slim to none. Not only are you unlikely to succeed, but there isn’t even all that much value in it. Unless the other person begins adopting a habit of reasonableness and skeptical thinking, they won’t be much better off as an unskeptical atheist than as an unskeptical theist.

Encouragement Over Conversion

However mistaken a person’s conclusions may be, the process which brought them to that conclusion is the key. The important thing is not to focus simply on their erroneous belief, but instead upon what has ultimately brought them to that belief, and then working on getting them to adopt a methodology which relies more upon skepticism, reason, and logic.

This suggests a more modest program than simply trying to convert people: planting a seed of doubt. Rather than attempting to foster a radical change in a person, it would be more realistic to get a person to begin questioning some facet of their religion which they had not seriously questioned before. Most theists whom I encounter are absolutely convinced of their beliefs and take on the attitude that they could not possibly be mistaken — and yet still hold on to the idea that they are “open minded.”

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

But if you can genuinely open their minds some small amount and get them to reconsider some aspect of their religion, you’ll be accomplishing quite a bit. Who knows what fruits this questioning might bear later on? One way to approach this is to get people thinking about religious claims in the same way they already know they should approach claims made by used car salesmen, realtors, and politicians. Ideally, it shouldn’t matter whether a claim occurs in the arena of religion, politics, consumer products, or anything else — we should approach them all in the same fundamentally skeptical, critical manner.

The key once again will not be to simply tear down some religious dogma. Instead, the key is to get a person to think reasonably, rationally, logically, and critically about beliefs more generally. With that, religious dogma is more likely to crumble of its own accord. If a person is thinking skeptically about their beliefs, all you should have to do is point out some key flaws in order to generate a reconsideration, if not a rejection.

If religion really is a crutch, as so many atheists believe, then it is unreasonable to imagine that you’ll accomplish much by simply kicking that crutch out from under people. A wiser solution is to get people to realize that they don’t actually need that crutch after all. Causing them to question religious assumptions is one way, but it is by no means the only way. In the end, they’ll never truly be rid of that crutch unless they toss it aside themselves.

Let’s face facts: psychologically speaking, people don’t like to change or abandon comforting beliefs. They are, however, more likely to do so when they find that it is their own idea to make the change. Real change best comes from within; therefore, your best bet is to first make sure that they have the tools which will help them reconsider their assumptions.