How to debate religious believers (with a chance to shake their beliefs)

Throughout the past 5 years, I have debated numerous persons who are religious or believe in various paranormal claims. Most of these people were highly intelligent, educated and otherwise very rational. Throughout high-school, I was myself extremely logical (I participated in four National Olympiads in Computer Science), but that did not prevent me from going to church every Sunday and reading my Bible... religiously.

A rather surprising conclusion emerged from my experience:

Even if you're a highly rational person, you're very unlikely to just sit down one day and liberate yourself from religious indoctrination. You won't ask yourself the hard questions, and even if someone else does, you'll answer mechanically with what you've been brainwashed, and you'll move along as if nothing happened.

To test this hypothesis, I conducted an experiment on a computer programming forum for Christians (christiandevs.com), posing as a conflicted believer and asking for help on the problem of evil. The thread is called Help - the argument from evil and I used it as the inspiration for the Socratic method debate presented later in this article.

The responses from otherwise logical computer programmers ranged from bible babbling to the usual justifications (free will, God having a different standard of good and evil from everyone else etc.) to nonsense to one person saying that "If God suddenly decided that it was righteous to slaughter millions, I don't get a choice in the matter, it's righteous to slaughter millions. [...] If God decides that 2+2 = 3, then 2+2 = 3" 1.

While it can be said that children who are religiously indoctrinated are extremely hard to sway, my father provided a different example: a national chess champion, educated atheist by the communist regime in Romania, and a medical doctor, he got converted by the Baha'i to their religion at the age of 30. He is too small of a sample size, but I'm inclined to think that

A highly rational person isn't immune at all to being brainwashed by religion.

How not to debate religious believers

The psychology principle of reactance and the book How to Win Friends and Influence People teach us that directly challenging a believer has little chance of showing them the errors of their thinking. Direct attack, in general, doesn't work. Using the pronoun "you" is another form of attack. The general rules of debate apply: avoid name calling, labeling etc.

  • don't challenge opinions directly
  • don't name call
  • don't label
  • avoid using "you" and "why". Replace with "I think" and I'd like to know the reasons that make you believe X"
  • don't present your opinions as irrefutable truths backed by science - the believer's truths are irrefutable as well, and that's what matters (not what backs them)

How to debate religious believers with a chance of success

Let's mention this right from the start: changing someone's mind about their religious beliefs is extremely difficult. You shouldn't want to prove any point; all you can hope for is to bring to the believer new information and new questions. They must do the work of realizing the internal inconsistencies of their beliefs and start shedding them.

As a preamble, it's crucial to agree that you can only talk or debate religion if you do not resort to faith. If a believer says "I believe because I have a strong internal feeling that it is so", you can retort "What if someone says 'I do not believe because I intensely feel within that there is no God'?". You need to establish that such claims cannot be debated, and the only way to sustain a position is to bring arguments.

There are two discussion strategies that I have found to somewhat work:

  1. Insidious humor that doesn't offend - "while the mouth is open for laughter, you can shove in some food for thought". Examples:
  2. The most powerful method - an insidious application of the Socratic method. This consists in a dialogue with a believer, getting them to admit gradually more contradictory ideas. It's crucial that the believer themselves states all the "truths", and the skeptic only leads the dialogue with questions. Below is an example of such a debate that I conjured up for this occasion.

The Socratic Method

Here's how I'll try to phrase my next debate on religion. Note the insidiousness. This is not a topic you can fight with your cards in plain sight.

Skeptic (in disguise): I just watched Schindler's list last night and was horrified. How was it possible to murder so many people, in the name of what? My mind cannot grasp a tragedy of that scale.
Believer: That was definitely atrocious, let's pray to God it will never happen again.
Skeptic: Let us... Such an evil act... Do you think the Holocaust was evil?
Believer: Um, yes, of course?
Skeptic: I still can't grasp its size... So many people... Would you think that killing 26,500 children each day is evil?
Believer: Yes...
Skeptic: If someone were to commit that crime, what should be done to them?
Believer: Death penalty? Life sentence?
Skeptic: What if someone very rich could intervene to greatly reduce that crime at little to no cost to them, for example by distributing a vaccine which they have anyway, and would expire in a few weeks if not distributed, and is already there? Should they do so?
Believer: Absolutely! Why let the poor children die when you can prevent it?
Skeptic: But what if that someone just wouldn't do it? What would you think of them?
Believer: I think they are a cold-blooded murderer by non-intervention!
Skeptic: It saddens me to no end that these 26,500 children actually do get killed each day. Have you read about the study published by Global Issues?
Believer: What do you mean?
Skeptic: Take a look at this article, Today, 26,500 children died.
Believer: Nobody's killing these children. They just die of disease, or because nobody feeds them, but nobody is exactly obliged to.
Skeptic: Well, I don't know... May God have mercy on them... You do believe in God, do you?
Believer: Of course, and in Our Lord Jesus Christ!
Skeptic: Do you believe God is almighty?
Believer: Yes!
Skeptic: And all-knowing?
Believer: And all-knowing as well!
Skeptic: And all-good and all-loving?
Believer: That too.
Skeptic: Have you heard about chaos theory or the butterfly effect?
Believer: I'm not sure I see the point, but yes. It means that very very tiny changes in the physical world, like a butterfly flapping its wings in New Zealand, can have wild effects across the planet, say causing a tornado to happen in Mexico instead of Florida.
Skeptic: Do you believe in chaos theory?
Believer: I guess I do... God Almighty can certainly arrange for it.
Skeptic: Do you believe that we have free will?
Believer: That is one of God's greatest gifts to us.
Skeptic: Would something like a butterfly flapping its wings affect anyone's free will?
Believer: I don't see why it would.
Skeptic: Now what if God caused such a butterfly to flap its wings and trigger a chain reaction of events that would eradicate the Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit malaria?2
Believer: God can certainly do that, but probably has His reasons not to do it!
Skeptic [internally: WTF?!]: We agreed earlier that if someone could save those children, they should, and if they don't, you think they're a cold-blooded murderer. Why does God get away with it?
Believer: God is above this kind of logic! He has His plan and we are too limited to understand why 26,500 children must die each day as part of it.
Skeptic: If God is above logic, can he do logically contradictory things, like draw a square circle?
Believer: I suppose so?
Skeptic: Or tell a truth that is a lie at the same time?
Believer: God doesn't lie!
Skeptic: If God tells the truth all the time, but at the same time he's above logic, he can then tell truths that are lies all the time, no? Like the truth that you will end up in Heaven if you accept Jesus as your Savior.
Believer: God doesn't do that!
Skeptic: How do you know?
Believer: I just know!
Skeptic [internally: end of debate...; returns to a different track]: OK, so maybe God just has a different definition of good and evil than we do? In other words, to us things like the Holocaust or the 26,500 daily children deaths are evil, but to God in is unknown infinite wisdom, they are not?
Believer: Yes, we cannot understand God's will, but it's ultimately for our good. Imagine that one of those children would become a genocidal terrorist who would kill millions.
Skeptic: What about the other millions of children mass-murdered to kill one potential terrorist?3
Believer: God's mysterious plan.
Skeptic: If we don't understand these big things that God does, why do we claim to understand the little things, like when we should fast, or what day of the week to observe the Sabbath?

Other hard questions - ethics

Skeptic: If God's definition of good and evil is so different from ours, are our laws mistaken? We do condemn murder and genocide.

Skeptic: What if a man actually started murdering little children left and right and when we put him to trial, he claimed he was Jesus Christ in His second coming?
Believer: He would be a liar, of course.
Skeptic: What if God came to Earth as Jesus, and with our limited eyes we couldn't see Him, but He started killing little children left and right?
Believer: He'd have His unfathomable reasons for doing so.
Skeptic: Yes, but how would we distinguish Him from the man in the first case?

I have received no sane replies so far to any of the hard questions with footnotes above, and some went without any reply at all. I can only hope that those questions induced a moment of clarity in some of the readers, and they started the slow but liberating process of cracking the impenetrable sphere of their beliefs.

Footnotes

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