By Miklos Jako
I am a big fan of FFRF. I’ve been a member since I saw Anne Nicol Gaylor on Phil Donahue’s show some 40 years ago. Though I remain a theist philosophically (I believe in the probability of a general, almost deistic God not tied to any particular religion), I strongly oppose Christianity in the same way FFRF does. I regard atheists as my compadres, not Christians.
Similar to Dan Barker, I came out of Christianity, slowly, carefully, over time. During that journey, I’ve argued with hundreds of Christians, including top apologists like Hank Hanegraaff (“The Bible Answer Man”), Hugh Ross (a legitimate astrophysicist), Peter Kreeft (sometimes referred to as the C. S. Lewis of our day), and William Lane Craig (the best Christian apologist out there, in my opinion).
I think my observations on how to argue with Christians are valuable. The following are some of the basic methods I’ve found to effectively communicate and debate.
Pick the right issues: Too often atheists like to talk about the existence of God or about evolution. As important as these topics are, you usually end up just going around in circles, talking past each other.
Instead, I find the Dennis McKinsey approach (Dennis is the author of The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy) to be much more productive: Focus on biblical contradictions and immoralities. The bible is replete with serious problems. Use their own book against them.
Productive engagement: Engage with patience, not hostility. You’d be surprised how willing Christians are willing to talk, IF you have the right attitude. Don’t say, “So, you really believe this imaginary man in the sky answers your prayers?” Instead, say, “I overheard you talking about the bible. Can I ask you a few questions?”
There is a place for hard-core criticism and/or mockery, but in individual discussions, it’s best to keep it civil. Try to understand their viewpoint. Choose your language carefully. Even though you might be thinking, “Oh, that’s absolute BS!” make yourself say, “Well, I strongly disagree with you about that!” My favorite parting line is a cordial “Well, we agree to disagree.” That way I haven’t insulted them and the chances are better that they’ll be willing to actually think over some of the arguments I made.
Conservative vs. liberal Christian: They are different species! They interpret the bible very differently. They view social issues very differently. The liberal Christian normally does not believe in hell, does not condemn homosexuals, does not oppose church/state separation, does not oppose evolution. Liberal Christians are cafeteria Christians, accepting what they like and simply ignoring what they don’t like. In my opinion, combating the conservative Christian is far more important, because they are the ones who cause harm.
Appreciate their circumstances: Keep in mind that Christians are Christians not because they are inherently dim, but because they have been culturally indoctrinated into their religion, usually from childhood. They’ve been taught to focus only on the good aspects of their religion. They’ve been raised with the idea that Jesus is the personification of all that is good. And they have a profound emotional incentive to remain Christians because so many of their friends and family members are fellow Christians.
Realistic expectations: Here are words probably never spoken in human history: “You know, that’s a good point. I think I’ll give up my religion.” You cannot give a Christian your best arguments in 30 minutes and expect him to give up beliefs he’s held for 30 years. Change is glacial. You’re just laying seeds. (I once had a Jehovah’s Witness write to me 25 years after our conversation, to tell me he left his religion.)
Being too literal: Try not to interpret the bible too literally (as atheists are wont to do), but allow for figurative and metaphorical interpretation, if at all reasonable. Otherwise, the Christian will dismiss you as a typical, myopic atheist, who understands nothing about spiritual matters. If you insist that Jesus was scientifically wrong to refer to the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds, they will regard you as a foolish “wooden literalist.”
The “taking it out of context” ploy: Frequently you’ll hear them say, “Oh, you’re taking the passage out of context.” They often try to peremptorily dismiss a criticism with this general assertion without actually dealing with the issue. Insist they explain to you exactly how the context radically changes a normal reading of that passage. Make them back up their claim.
The talking in paragraphs ploy: Christians, especially ministers, will often talk in whole paragraphs, in set-piece sermonettes, and not allow you to interrupt with a timely objection to their line of reasoning. They do this deliberately to ground the discussion in the Christian worldview, and to end up presenting a fait accompli in favor of Christianity. If you try to interrupt, you come across as being rude, not allowing them to finish a thought. My answer to this ploy is to let them finish, and at the end say, “I was not able to follow your reasoning and would you please repeat your presentation, but this time very slowly, step by step.” Then, I can point out the flaws in his reasoning or in the biased assumptions he is making along the way, without being perceived as “rude.”
They will frequently bombard you with related but irrelevant points at length. Christians are experts at deflection. If they don’t address the relevant aspect of your question, ask it again.
Strategy and research: Whatever topic you want to bring up, make sure you know their positions ahead of time. Don’t underestimate them. Christianity has had 2,000 years of developing and fine-tuning its apologetics! There are innumerable books on apologetics. It’s hard to find any topic they have not already defended, often quite cleverly (and convincingly for the Christian, though, not so for the objective inquisitor). Before I talked to William Lane Craig, I spent nine months studying his website, reading half a dozen of his books, watching scores of his debates on YouTube, taking and organizing copious notes.
I recommend Geisler and Howe’s When Critics Ask as the best Christian apologetics reference book. It covers virtually every issue from the Christian perspective, and succinctly so. Note that the website Biblegateway.com is extremely helpful in looking up info. I used to own 14 different versions of the bible and often labored through them, but now everything is quick and easy on that website. I also strongly recommend Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith for getting a good feel for the Christian mindset and the issues involved in leaving Christianity.
It certainly helps to know the bible well, but, you don’t need to. Just pick a couple of arguments you like, and keep using those.
Miklos Jako, who lives in Massachusetts, is the author of The Truth About Religion and Confronting Believers.
Getting what you pray for
The following are two examples of a specific debate conversation.
I reject Jesus because he promised to answer our prayers and we all know prayers do not always get answered.
Christian debater: Sometimes the answer is no. Jesus did not promise your prayers will always be granted.
Yes, he did! In Mark 11:24 — “Whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
Christian debater: Uh, but it’s qualified. If it’s according to God’s will.
Yeah, but that makes the promise completely meaningless. It makes Jesus’ promise essentially: God will grant your prayers when He does, but He won’t when He doesn’t. That is not what Jesus meant, or what a normal person would understand by Jesus’s words in that passage. I mean, that’s just typical Christian double-talk. If you say to someone you will do anything he asks, and then qualify it by “according to my will,” that is to essentially say you will do anything YOU wish, not what the other person wishes.
Stoning your loved ones to death
I could never be a Christian. I could never kill a loved one just because they decided to follow a different religion.
Christian debater: Where do you get that!? Christianity teaches us to love one another!
In the Old Testament, it tells you to stone to death, without mercy, any loved one who decides to follow a different religion. It’s in Deuteronomy 13:6-10.
Christian debater: You’re taking things out of context. That was probably a very particular situation, where the survival of the Hebrew nation was at stake. Obviously, Christians do not hold to that kind of severity today.
I think such a command is profoundly immoral no matter what the period of history, no matter what the context. This command was NOT specifically retracted at any later point. In fact, in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy, 12:32, it says, “Everything that I command you. . . . you shall not add to it or take from it.” Psalm 33:11 says, “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, The plans of His heart to all generations.”
Christian debater: Well, that is disturbing. But that does not refute Jesus and who he was.
I think it does. The Old Testament God was the God Jesus believed in, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus knew Old Testament scriptures, and he did not repudiate the bad stuff, as he must, if he’s supposed to be the ultimate beacon of morality.