A New de-Convert’s Guide to Debating Christians

April 29, 2009 at 2:49 pm 15 comments

This guide is in many ways similar to a sex education class. I am neither condemning nor condoning recent de-converts’ decisions to debate their lack of beliefs with Christians. I am simply recognizing that for many of you it is inevitable and therefore insisting that you learn to do so properly.

Of course, I mean “debate” loosely. It’s only half up to you, but it should be a conversation characterized by more than two sides trying to score points by pointing out each and every one of the others logical fallacies by their Latin names. But part of any conversation with conflicting points of view is a debate, and understanding how a pure debate works is important.

Much of what you need to know is just standard knowledge of how to debate and knowledge of Christianity and apologetics in general. I won’t go into any of that, but will instead focus on the psychology of recent de-convert versus Christian debates. It’s my hope that if you don’t know your stuff at all, you find this to be fairly unhelpful. Learning to debate what you do know is the art of communication, while learning to debate what you don’t know is BS artistry.

Recent de-converts are at an enormous debate preparation advantage simply due to timing. De-converts often go through an enormous intellectual struggle trying to make themselves believe before realizing that trying to believing that which one has learned to be false is hopeless. Thus, de-converts know exactly why they left their faith. By contrast, even apologetically inclined Christians probably have not been studying like that, simply because it’s hard to match the passionate study of a de-convert trying to figuring out if they’re going to hell.

But recent de-converts are at an enormous psychological disadvantage, because they still think like Christians. This is among the 72% of statistics that are made up on the spot, but to de-convert you only have to see through 20% of Christianity’s flawed reasoning. An 80% Christian worldview is easy fodder for an apologist to make a move on, and they don’t have to understand what’s going on for it to work.

Part of this problem can be avoided by trying to focus the discussion on the question “but is Christianity true?” Amazingly many of evangelists’ common lines are evaded by focusing on this topic, simply because most evangelism has little or no logical content in defense of the truth of Christianity. This is best illustrated by examples.

“If you don’t believe in God/Christianity, what basis do you have for morality?”  If you still unconsciously believe that you must necessarily have a basis for absolute morality, you’re going to have a hard time answering this.  Obviously, where this is headed is that to have a basis for morality, one needs to believe in God.  There are two kinds of answers to this: to argue that atheism (or some other form of non-Christianity) provides a basis for morality, or to argue the irrelevancy of the point. I highly recommend the latter. Remember this line: “Are you talking about truth, or about what you want to be true?” If the topic is truth, then it’s not at all clear that we have a basis for morality, at least not for the kind of absolute morality Christians have in mind. I mean this literally: write down a one-line way of avoiding arguments of the form “if Christianity is false, unpleasant conclusion X results” or “Christianity needs to be true for desirable conclusion X to result.” Even if the undesirable conclusion does not follow from the incorrectness of Christianity, make the argument that is easier to make.

Answers like this do not help you communicate or discover what kind of non-Christian you are. What basis do I have for morality can and should be answered. What I’m saying is that you don’t need an answer to debate the truth of Christianity, so don’t set up your arguments in a way that makes you depend on your ability to defend an ethical theory still in its infancy.

By the way, don’t confuse the emotional moral argument that I’ve countered above with the actual moral argument for God, namely that moral behavior is an observation not explainable without God. This post is about fielding the plethora of soft balls that depend on psychological manipulation and not about defeating arguments that take more than an understanding of what is going on emotionally.

Another line that always gets a rise out of recent de-converts is the accusation that maybe you never were a Christian in the first place. If “Christian” means someone who believes in Jesus’ Resurrection, this is objectively false. But that’s not what is meant. The accusation is that you never had a relationship with Jesus. At the expense of sounding like a psychologist, why does it bother you?

The first likely reason is bothers recent de-converts is you still equate “Christian” with “good.” But think about it this way: you don’t believe Christianity is true anymore. So when someone claims that you never were a Christian, that means they are denying that you made a mistake in the past. It’s an accidental complement that isn’t actually true – feel free to contradict it, but just remember that the degree to which it bothers you is a good measure of the degree to which you are still thinking like a Christian.

The second reason is that you may be hoping that your testimony is proof that people really can lose their salvation and therefore Christianity is false (or at least perseverance of the saints is false.) By others denying that you ever were a Christian, you are being robbed of this argument. Deal with it. You won’t be able to sustain this argument against someone who knows and believes their theology. In fact, the fact that you even want to use it is because you are still thinking like a Christian. An essential part of the argument is to establish the fact that you were once “saved.” But you don’t believe in “saved” anymore!

What your de-conversion does show is that people who externally look like Christians and talk like Christians might end up not believing in Christianity. This observation is consistent with pretty much any version of Christianity. The fact that you’re now supposedly heading to hell will not cause a consistent Christian any new intellectual struggles. Yahweh is a heartless bastard to those who can’t dance to his tune, and Christians accept this and continue to call him good with a jarring indifference. And you’re out now. They still care very much that you will be tormented for eternity, but they believe they will still be happy some day in heaven when God makes them forget you. “Blessed are those who mourn, for their memories will be wiped clean of whatever it is that they were mourning about. The eternal sunshine of the evangelical mind.” (Kudos to slacktivist for this line.)

I want to explode in fury whenever I think about what my friends and family are forced to think about me. I didn’t realize just how evil Christianity is until I had been out for a while. But learn to accept the reality of what Christians are forced by their religion to believe about you before they tell you themselves – if you can’t do this, either prepare yourself for a blowup or a sobfest, not a debate. Love your enemies, especially the ones who aren’t really your enemies and who wish they didn’t seem like enemies. Anger doesn’t help you think straight and it won’t lead a conversation anywhere productive. I know of only one way to deal with the anger and that is to remember that I once believed it too. But sometimes I still don’t know how to deal with the grief. Remember this when deciding if you really are capable of a civil debate.

So don’t respond to questions about your past faith by playing along. Don’t build up your credentials, especially with people who knew you as a Christian. Well, you can, but just realize that you are sharing a personal story and not making an argument.  This is exactly the kind of anecdotal evidence that the paranormal thrives on, which is to say that it’s not really that great of a rational argument in the eyes of people who aren’t you. It’s much better as a rebuttal to their anecdotal evidence than as a positive argument.

What you should do to questions about your past faith is ask for an explanation of what is meant by “Christian,” if it wasn’t already made explicit. Chances are, the answer will be some sort of religious description. Your answer should be that you never had a relationship with Jesus because he’s dead, your name was never written in the Book of Life because it doesn’t exist, and you were never truly saved because Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t do anything aside from kill Jesus. This perfectly leads back into the topic of “but is it true” while shifting the burden of proof where it belongs – on the person making the positive claim. If your de-conversion was even halfway rational, this is the ground on which you will be strongest (in addition to the correct ground for a rational debate.)

Another question whose intuitive answer is the wrong one is “why don’t you believe?” Chances are, you have lots of reasons. But in a pure debate, you shouldn’t immediately give them. The key question is not why you don’t believe, but why they do believe. A straight answer that doesn’t mention that you don’t have the burden of proof psychologically shifts the burden of proof to you. This is especially the case when you’ve changed your mind recently and they haven’t – it just feels like you should have the burden of proof, but you are still not the one making a positive claim. To win a debate with the burden shifted to you is as hard as deconverting. To win a debate with the burden where it belongs is as easy as not converting.

Sometimes giving a straight answer is the courteous thing to do, especially when someone wants to understand and not to argue. But just make sure that you recognize the rhetorical concession you just made and it’s on purpose. (Also, an understanding of who has the burden of proof may have itself been a large part of what changed. If so, say so.)

From my online and in person debating with college-educated Christians (and based on my experience of being a college-educated Christian), my suspicion is that as far as logic and knowledge are concerned, it’s a lot easier than you may think. The case for Christianity is so weak that you should be able to demolish an equal and hold your own against a knowledge class or two above yourself. A freshmen in physics should not be afraid of debating a room full of professors telling him that the earth is flat.

But emotionally and psychologically, it’s really hard, so make sure you’re ready before looking for trouble – especially with people you still want to be friends with in the very likely case that they don’t de-convert too.

– Jeffrey

Entry filed under: Jeffrey. Tags: , , .

The Illusion of Moral Absolutes Neece’s De-Conversion: A Winding Road to Atheism and Skepticism

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. atimetorend  |  April 29, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    “Recent deconverts are at an enormous debate preparation advantage simply due to timing.”
    “…to deconvert you only have to see through 20% of Christianity’s flawed reasoning. An 80% Christian worldview is easy fodder for an apologist to make a move on, and they don’t have to understand what’s going on for it to work”
    “…my suspicion is that as far as logic and knowledge are concerned, it’s a lot easier than you may think.”

    Very helpful article, and brilliant points (I probably say that because they mirror my experiences!).

    And I agree, it is a lot easier than one might think. But as you said, emotions can lead to a blowup, not a debate. And the emotions can come from each said, with someone deconverting feeling attacked, lost, disoriented. I calm and confident, but not arrogant attitude goes a long way, a lot further than logical arguments at times.

  • 2. FFFearlesss  |  April 29, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks so much for this Jefferey. I think the burden of proof thing is going to be really key if and when this debate ever comes up for me. And like you said, generally speaking, you’re not having this debate with enemies. You’re having it with people who genuinely love you and are legitimately worried that you’re going to suffer for all eternity. So keeping it civil is of utmost importance.

  • 3. writerdd  |  April 29, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    My guide to debating: Don’t.

  • 4. Blue  |  April 29, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    This was really helpful especially this
    Another line that always gets a rise out of recent de-converts is the accusation that maybe you never were a Christian in the first place. If “Christian” means someone who believes in Jesus’ Resurrection, this is objectively false. But that’s not what is meant. I appreciate it. Thanks!

  • 5. Richard  |  April 30, 2009 at 1:01 am

    Excellent, excellent article. This really gets to the undermining of basic assumptions that many of us smuggle out of Chrisitianity and hold on to for a long time, without realizing it, like the assumption that morality must have an absolute base, or that our credentials as ex-christians must be validated.

    To the first point, I would want to add the observation that, much of the time, I think the real fear we may continue to carry with us is that if we do not have a absolute basis for morality, we will inevitably devolve into selfish barbarism. I.e., what we really assume is not that we desperately need a moral ground, but a moral leash.

    But that, too, is a hangover from Christian thinking, where we are assumed to be fundamentally depraved. I think if most of us ask ourselves honestly whether we really *want* to rape, pillage, and steal as much as we were *told* we did, the answer is obvious. We *want* to love and care for our friends and family. Love, kindness, caretaking, and other pro-social behaviors are every bit as instinctual as selfishness — probably much more so. So even if, as it probably is, morality is an entirely arbitrary human invention — well, then its an arbitrary human invention. But ask: does that truth change how you feel about anything?

    Secondly, to the issue of why it rankles to have our credentials as former Christians challenged, I would only add that I think part of the reason that gets our collective goat is that it feels tremendously invalidating to have our basic experience essentially denied. I dont mean to get all psychobabbly, but validation — especially of difficult, painful struggles — is a pretty basic psychological need. We are social creatures and need our experiences to be acknowledged.

    I agree, though, you are almost certain not to get that in debate. But thats why we have websites like this one!

    Wonderful post!

  • 6. atimetorend  |  April 30, 2009 at 9:06 am

    “I think if most of us ask ourselves honestly whether we really *want* to rape, pillage, and steal as much as we were *told* we did, the answer is obvious. We *want* to love and care for our friends and family. Love, kindness, caretaking, and other pro-social behaviors are every bit as instinctual as selfishness — probably much more so.”

    That reminds me of the Christian technique for battling lust by thinking of women (change gender here as appropriate) as younger sisters, meaning, think of them that way so you properly respect them instead of thinking of them as sex objects. That has nothing to do with the laws or holiness of God, it is just caring for others.

  • 7. Frreal  |  April 30, 2009 at 9:45 am

    When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son…. shouldn’t the appropriate answer have been …..” No God it is wrong to sacrifice the innocent. ” With God in turn rewarding Abraham for recognizing and refusing to practice evil. Sigh, If only.

  • 8. 30 April 2009 (am) « blueollie  |  April 30, 2009 at 10:44 am

    […] and Society Here is a short note on how, as an ex-Christian, one can talk to Christians when debates over the validity of Christianity come up. Of course, one of the things one has to pay attention to is how the issues are […]

  • 9. ArchangelChuck  |  April 30, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Your post is inspiring. Don’t ask why.

  • 10. Eve's Apple  |  April 30, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I used to get this BS about not having a relationship with Jesus all the time–and this was *before* I deconverted! The rationale for that judgement? I belonged to the “wrong” denomination!

    Anyway, what gives anyone the right to judge a “relationship” that is only visible on one side, where the other person is never seen, is never heard? What you are doing is judging what is going on in my head, and that *no one* can do! Only God, if God exists! How can anyone say I don’t have or know Jesus under those circumstances? They can’t!

    I used to let myself be initimidated by such people until I realized that they were floundering around in the dark just like myself, and had no *special* knowledge I lacked. It reminds me of the time when I was very little and got into a debate about “fairyland” with my brother. It quickly became very clear that the world he saw within his mind was not at all the same as the world I had in mind, and that there was no way of establishing the “truth”, because we were not tapping into the same experience. Right in the middle it came to me: this is what grownups do when they argue about religion.

    So, my policy is: I try not to get into arguments about religion. If you are going to come and talk to me about God (and why are we even talking about God in the third person if God exists? Can’t God talk for God’s self?) then I want to see some credentials. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John, he got her attention by telling her something about herself that he, being a stranger, would not have known (unless he overheard the village women gossiping at the well before she arrived). Now here is the challenge to all those who would have me return to the fold: tell me something about myself that only God and I know. There is an answer I am waiting to hear. If you are genuinely connected to God, you will know what it is. You will know what the question is. Until then, I refuse to debate.

  • 11. Monty  |  May 1, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    “How can anyone say I don’t have or know Jesus under those circumstances? They can’t!”

    But they do, and they do it all the time. This is a very common ploy. No matter how much you protest and affirm your once passionate belief and faith in Christ, the other will still maintain you never had any; otherwise you would never have rejected Christ. It can be useful to point out to someone using this ploy that this is an example of the “No True Scotsman” or “Self-sealing” logical fallacy. These arguments take positions that no evidence can possibly refute. This is a common refuge for those who can’t argue fairly. Good luck debating, but you’ll just get flamed in the end anyway. I like the post that said: My guide to debating: Don’t. That’s probably the smartest advice.

    Great post Jeffery!
    Thanks, Monty

  • 12. ArchangelChuck  |  May 2, 2009 at 2:51 am

    Looks like the part of my original comment that gave it context and meaning was removed… Oh well. A few people were lucky enough to see the greatness.

    Anyhow, yeah. The only way to win is not to play.

  • 13. recent deconvert  |  May 3, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    I think you’re spot on on the burden of proof thing. I’ve been asked a few times what has made me deconvert, what has convinced me that Christianity is false. But all that’s happened is that I became aware that I never had any good reasons in the first place.

    I’m going to face my Christian friends for the first time since losing my faith, at the weekend, so this article has come at a good time, and reminded me of some important stuff.

    Thanks. 🙂

  • 14. RLWemm  |  May 12, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    My response to the Real Relationship with Christ challenge is to say:
    ” After a long struggle to believe otherwise, I came to the conclusion that what I thought was a real relationship with god only existed in my religiously primed imagination. Whatever makes you think that this is not the same for you? What evidence do you have that you will not one day come to the same conclusion?”

    This shifts the burden of proof back to them, which is where it should be.

  • 15. Coltin  |  June 22, 2011 at 7:24 am

    A million thanks for psotnig this information.

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