(Actually that should probably read ‘Let’s stop arguing…’ as it’s addressed partly to me, and probably doesn’t apply to a lot of my readers!).
I’ve been on more than a few blog comments forums where Christians and atheists have squared up to one another and engaged in full pitched battle. In these fights no-one dies of course, but no-one wins either. And what generally does die is respect, reasonableness, kindness, humanity and mutual understanding.
I just don’t see what’s usefully achieved by these kinds of debates. There’s generally little or no genuine dialogue or engagement with other people’s views. Instead there is attack and insult, accusation and counter-accusation, mutual misunderstanding and misrepresentation. At the end of them we all still believe what we believed at the start, we all just feel scarred, and we all think that everyone else is an idiot or worse.
This is particularly tragic when what we’re engaging about is Christianity, the entire point of which (whether you accept its premises or not) is goodness, love, forgiveness, kindness, hope, restored humanity.
So I say to my fellow believers – stop trying to beat atheists in debates. It doesn’t work. It’s pointless and fruitless and above all deeply counter-productive. Even if you win a point, you gain nothing for Christ or for goodness or for humanity.
Talking past one another
Firstly, argument doesn’t work because in these debates we’re usually talking different languages and so just end up talking past each other. Our arguments are based on fundamentally different, even mutually incompatible, worldviews and assumptions and basic premises. We sometimes mean different things by the same words. Small wonder then that we fail to understand each other.
And furthermore, our beliefs are generally not founded on intellect and reason in the first place, however much we like to think they are. Our beliefs may well have rational grounds, but we tend to gather that after the fact. We believe first, based on a complex mix of emotion and intuition, of personal and psychological and cultural reasons that we have little awareness of. And then we look to justify those beliefs intellectually and rationally. So when we argue, it’s never just reason and logic that’s involved – it’s personal.
Arguing achieves nothing
Arguing also doesn’t work because Christianity has never been primarily a matter of the intellect, of mathematical logic or scientific proof. It is rather primarily a matter of personal knowledge – of knowing Christ and being known by him – and of changed hearts, changed attitudes, changed lives. It is a matter of love and hope and redemption. It is about being free to be fully the people we were always meant to be, free to love and be loved, forgive and be forgiven; free to truly live.
Yes, it is about truth too, but not the kind of truth you can set down in a formula or reduce to a physical law. It is about the kind of truth that is inexpressible in logic or numbers. It is the truth that can only be expressed in stories and songs, in poetry and paradox, and above all in transformed lives and relationships.
So if you want to ‘beat’ atheists in debate I would firstly suggest – cautiously – that you may have significantly misunderstood the heart of the Christian message in the first place. It’s not about winning or being vindicated or proving ourselves right. It’s not about defending ourselves and certainly not about attacking others. What does any of that achieve?
Defending the faith?
Of course, some genuinely feel that in taking on atheists they are defending Christianity or even Christ. I understand this but believe it to be deeply misguided.
Christianity does not need defending; it needs living. Neither does Christ need defending in this way. When the Bible talks about not denying or being ashamed of Christ, it’s not a license for gung-ho attack on anyone who insults or attacks Christianity – even anyone who insults or attacks Christ. (It’s a bit like Peter chopping off the ear of the High Priest’s servant when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus – a genuine attempt to support Jesus perhaps, but probably not the kind that Jesus was looking for.)
If you must argue, then please do it with respect. Listen. Seek to understand the other person – where they’re coming from, why they think what they do, and more importantly why they feel how they do. And try to understand yourself too. Examine your own assumptions; be aware of the flaws in your own arguments. And look honestly at why you feel the need to defend Christ, and whether it’s actually just your own identity and ego you’re protecting.
But if you really want to defend Christ or Christianity, if you really want to confound atheists’ rhetoric, if you really want to show that your beliefs are more than just delusions without evidential backing, then I’d suggest there is a better way to do it than by arguing with non-believers.
Show it works
The only way to truly ‘win’ is to live such obviously Christ-transformed lives that your intellectual opponents will have to acknowledge that your faith has some reality and is not just a matter of words. They may still not believe of course; it’s not your job to make them (indeed, you can’t). Your job is simply to be ever more Christlike and ever more truly yourself.
I’m not talking about being perfect of course; certainly not about being holier-than-thou do-gooders (hell, no). The attempt just to be ‘good Christians’ and to hide our flaws inevitably ends up in deeply unattractive self-righteousness. I’m talking about the kind of real transformation and redemption that can only come from Christ, from within, and with much time and work. And this involves radical honesty – facing up to our inner darkness and not trying to pretend that now we’re Christians we’re all just sweetness and light.
And to our atheist and unbelieving friends I say this – if you want to show Christians and religious people that they are wrong, do the same. Set aside the intellectual arguments and rhetoric, and get on with demonstrating that you can live lives full of meaning and hope and humanity, of goodness and forgiveness and self-giving love without any gods. Show you’re better than these hypocritical religious people.
Or if you’re (say) a libertarian and don’t particularly believe in Christian-style ideals of goodness or forgiveness, show that living your way leads you to truer freedom and greater happiness than the kind Christians proclaim. Whatever you believe or don’t believe, show that it works, that it really makes your life better or the world better. And if you can do that, you won’t need arguments.