Is Debating Theists Futile?

Many atheist activists take the time to debate and discuss religion with theists while others often assert the futility of such discussions.  I spend a good amount of time in discussion with theists and aside from the fact that I truly enjoy this type of discourse I personally find that the exercise is more often healthy for all parties involved than not.

Consider the following three examples:

Here in the deep south, in a small town where there are almost as many churches as people – many believers have never been exposed to such fundamentally differing opinions as my own rejection of the faith worldview in exchange for a naturalistic and evidence based approach to determining truth. In my discussions with “real life” people here I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of believers are under-prepared for this level of debate and in many cases find themselves admitting that they are ill-prepared and under educated in the tenets of their own faith.  Most of the time I’m the one that has to explain what the Bible says about any certain topic and I think that this fact has had an impact on many local believers in-so-much that they frequently commit themselves to better understanding their faith and even other view points.

Am I saying that the result of some discussions with theists is a stronger and more informed faith for the theists? I absolutely am, and I think this is a good thing because it often drives a thirst for knowledge and understanding that might have previously been absent. If a discussion with one of us can drive on of the 63% of Christians that have never read the Bible to actually do so then I believe we have done a great service to mankind by giving someone the tools they need to question what they hear in church and at the very least begin to make their own decisions – this is the spark of Critical Thinking, Critical Thinking is the spark of Doubt.


How people like Ray Comfort want atheists to be percieved.

Next , if you will, please consider the misconceptions that many theists  have about who and what atheists are.  Rather often we are painted by evangelists like Ray Comfort and others to be immoral, angry, bitter people all hell bent on providing free abortions in our leisure time and “taking Christ out of Christmas“.   These extreme and extremely ignorant views are often accepted without question – but when we act graciously during our discourse and approach it with kindness rather than hate and arrogance we disprove and discredit the claims of people like Comfort giving reason enough to doubt any other claims by people of his ilk.  On top this is the fact that such a large majority of atheists are also Secular Humanists – placing a high value on human life and freedom out of a conscious decision to do so rather than religious obligation or fear.  Defeating preconceived notions and false assumptions about who we are not only increases our impact on those around us, it also improves our sense of community and mutual respect – I don’t know too many people that would object to that.


Lastly, and I believe most importantly, vocal discussions about faith give the quiet doubter the knowledge that they are not alone.  Many doubters are afraid to discuss their questions about faith – especially here in the Bible belt where family discontent and the loss of many friendships is often the price one pays for being an “out” atheist.  Hearing and knowing that others have been in the position of doubt and embraced a life without religion is empowering and comforting in a time that for many is quite scary or lonely. Our debates may not always result in hard-lined Christians renouncing faith (though it can) but it can frequently provide a refuge for the doubter.

These examples bypass  the fact that our arguments are frequently centered around human and civil rights, effecting positive change in the political spectrum, and the many other great things we are capable of doing when we take the time to pursue it – but I think those things speak for themselves. I for one am more than willing to fight for the rights of Christians or Muslims or anyone to be able to freely practice their faith so long as it brings no harm to anyone – if ever an attack came against theists rights to do so I’d be there standing in solidarity with them to ensure that their freedoms were preserved, like the Ground Zero Mosque issue that recently occurred in New York.

In conclusion – regardless of whether or not anyone is particularly swayed by scientific or philosophical arguments  the process and result of this level of discourse can be healthy because it requires us to communicate, when communication occurs effectively a level of respect should be gained  by all parties and can improve both our own tolerance and understanding of our opposing parties. It is the fact that believers do not generally convert through apologetic means, instead converting through an emotional experience, that makes this worldview so difficult to overcome – but with a well reasoned and kind approach we can help people overcome their prejudices at the very least.


I encourage my fellow atheists to pursue respectful dialog with people in your community as well as to find other positive ways to impact the world around you. Find pastors, believers, and even churches that are willing to have open discussions and perhaps even to have you come speak to the church or youth group at one of the services or special event and open yourself up to be asked anything as Hemant Mehta did not long ago.



  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    My debates, though rare these days, tend to be more about what people do with their faith. If loving Christ helps one to love their neighbor and care for the least of these, then I support them 100%.

  • My experience with atheists on your Facebook dialogs has not been a good one at times. Personal attacks, anger, bitterness etc. are the tools that have been used against me. I have mentioned it there and there has been no apology for that … explaining them away by stating (paraphrase) "well our experience with Christians has been negative in the past." The very things that you claim come out of the mouth of people of faith have been my experiences with people who deny God. I believe that these divergent experiences are the result of something you mentioned here … that people of faith many times come to their faith through emotional experiences and are attached to their view. In my opinion, and from my experiences with your Facebook dialogs, many people who deny God are also emotionally attached to their point of view … every bit as much so as the believer. As for coming to God without reason I can say that I am confident that anyone who wants to journey towards discovery, true discovery of science, will come to the conclusion that God is most definitely real and believing that God doesn't exist has no scientific merit. I would welcome that debate anytime with any audience and all I ask is for people to judge – at the conclusion – who gave the most plausible argument. Anytime … Anyplace.

    • Hey Phil,I'm fairly certain but possibly incorrect, but I think I have issued multiple apologies for my sometimes snappy tone toward you. I have reacted to what I perceived as hostility from your side and probably did so prematurely – for that I am, again, sorry.I think your observation regarding an emotional attachment to atheism is actually the result of an emotional and painful process of detaching one's self from religion. In the case of some of my friends that you've conversed with you can likely see that this was not an easy road to take for them and still carries some stiff scars – mine certainly does… my emotions are a result of my experiences with the faith itself, not the faithful – but it has little to do with my attachment to the scientific process. I prefer it because empiricism is superior for determining truth.

    • Ben

      First, I want to say that I really like this post, Matt. I think the New Atheism and aggressively anti-theist movement are actually going to divide the groups rather than unite under a common goal of truth. I think both the fundamental theists and the fundamental atheists will create arguments that will never actually be heard by the other side because the groups are shouting so loudly. My personal goal in this area has been to create dialogues/debates where all views are respected. At my last college, I began two series of events that did so. One was a room filled with about 8 groups of 10 people from all faiths and beliefs. We asked questions, and people answered while a moderator ( I was one) made sure everyone was heard and understood. The president of the Freethinker's Group and I also started regular, public debates between our groups with specific topics for each time. They were also moderated and were actually changed to the small group format so more people could engage. Both events were successful. You might be surprised, but churches in your area might be up for these types of events. Although it is Christian-based, Alpha ( is a good way for churches to do such events with little effort, while allowing you and any other atheists to share your point of view.

      Second, there has recently been done some research on atheists and emotional decisions. NYU professor Paul Vitz, Ph.D. (Stanford University) is a professor of psychology and has done research in this area. Very few studies on the topic have been done since most of the studies have been toward religious experience., but Vitz has found connections between the two. If you want any more information about the studies, I can post it once I find it again.

      • I'd be interested in seeing the research you are referring to. Also, the events and forums you talked about seem absolutely amazing, I'm glad you are able to facilitate something like that where you are, I keep striking out in that area.

        • Ben

          OK I really will try to find the research, but also check out the video I posted on your more recent blog post. The speaker refers to some similar research. It may be more current since the research I was indicating is a few years old.

          And about the discussions, I recommend finding some Christian thinker/intellectual in the area (look at Christian groups on university campuses; Intervarsity is your best bet since that is the one I worked through). I will try to talk to my connections and see if they have any in Georgia. Are you near Atlanta? Then you can build a positive relationship while eventually moving to events at colleges and/or churches. Let me know if you want any help or just how it is going getting one started.

  • Sarah

    I tend to avoid religious discussions with family and friends who I know are not open minded in regards to my religious opinions. I have been able to talk with my mother, some, and change her opinions about gay marriage and adoption. Even if her mind isn't completely changed, she's closer to the fence.

    I agree with Phil about people being emotionally attached to their beliefs. Of course, you already know how that feels because you spoke about how difficult it was to come to your realization that your god wasn't real. As humans, we often take things personally when someone suggests we might be wrong about something. It takes a certain level of maturity to admit that you could be wrong, examine your opinions and be open to change them if you find out you are wrong. This can be especially hard when you are in front of a crowd and feel you've been embarrassed because someone said something that made you look stupid.

    • I choose my battles, I think we'd be insane not to. I know that some people just cannot or will not accept any level of discourse on the subject and those are people that I'm not interested in dealing with anyway…some people are proud in their ignorance.I absolutely do understand emotional attachment and my passion often seems rather emotional (it is) but that doesn't mean that certain conclusions were not the result of a search for evidence or that emotion is a basis for a lack of faith, it shouldn't be – but if it drives your passion as it does mine that seems perfectly reasonable so long as you don't allow that emotion to cloud one's judgment as I have admittedly been guilty of at certain points in my life.Thanks very much for your comments

  • AxePilot

    I'd like to hear the argument Phil…"I am confident that anyone who wants to journey towards discovery, true discovery of science, will come to the conclusion that God is most definitely real and believing that God doesn't exist has no scientific merit."…Try reading Shearmer, Harris, Dawkins, Coyne, Dennet, Einstein…etc… If you're able to that is… I doubt you could refute any of their arguments…free will, god, morality and the nature of belief are what's on the table…it's biology not supernatural.

    • Ok Axe let's set up the debate … anytime …anyplace. Me and you and any audience of your choosing. My phone number is 908-208-7778 … my email is

      You bring your science and I'll bring mine … let's do this! BTW, even your boy Dawkins is on film stating – very clearly – that the material universe has the imprint of "design" and not randomness! I can't wait to show that in my presentation!

      Tell me when … give me some time in advance … where do you live? I am in Michigan and willing to travel … Now DON'T BAG OUT ON ME!

  • My experience has been that theists for the most part don't care about rational debate in this area. It's "God (or the bible) said it. I believe it. That settles it".

    • ourwingsareburning


    • I'd say that this is the case about 80% of the time for me. I was the same way for some time though.

  • KillBril

    I deeply respect your attitude Rev. Considering you are living in the southern part of the USA surrounded by a semi-religious driven society. 'Semi' because in my opinion USA-ism mixed with judaistic-christian faith isn't a worldwide acknowledged religion. Making my point to this discussion: I don't think you have a problem with christianity, but with a chauvinistic society which claims to be biblical based but has actually little to do with Christ (as you already found out, most of them haven't even read the bible).

    Christianity as a religion doesn't exist. Closest to 'correct' would be saying: christianity is a person (Christ). Everything that is 'christian' institutionalized is complete BS. Christian schools, christian bookstores, christian sportsclubs, christian what-so-ever, they are a contradictio in terminis. Because Jesus himself states that faith is about spiritual matters and has nothing to do with what you can see or touch. I've worked for a 'christian' broadcastcompany, they are nice people when they feel safe, but when you make them feel unsafe they will get all emotional and not reasonable anymore.

    So knowing this might help in discussion with members of your USA-ism Judaistic-christian driven society. It is pointless to discuss the bible or Christ with them, because if you look through the surface it isn't part of their life, their faith. Their believe-system is based on community and the values of that community. True 'christianity' isn't about morals, but about spirit.

    If you wan't to connect, talk about their community and ask questions about that. Let them take a mental walk around their 'system' (Socrates-style), they might suddenly see things from another perspective walking around it. But make sure they feel safe.

    • Thank you very much for your comment – I think you've highlighted some very important issues (That I intend to eventually write about here soon).

      The fact that this particular brand of Christianity is so incredibly prevalent here coupled with the fact that it isn't a problem that most will be able to recognize because they have failed to read the Bible at all which happens to be the main reason that I tend to push for Biblical literacy as much as I do.

      Why do local pastors so conveniently leave out the parts of the book of Acts that describes the early church as a simple and small commune where all property is shared? Would it bring about the realization that "The Church" as it stands is nothing at all like it was originally designed to be?

      I think pushing this bizarre idea that Christians should read and understand the Bible is the way forward and if the community would be responsive to this message I think we'd see an incredible change in how "The Church" operates…I have a strange feeling that perhaps the rampant hate that exists toward minorities and sub-cultures and the idea that this hybrid Christianity-fascist-patriotism will eventually die off….I think that is the core of some of the greatest transgression the Church commits upon mankind.

      My goal isn't really for me to discuss the Bible with them, it's to get them to discuss the Bible at all…to read it and know it. To either embrace it or leave it behind…but I think perhaps this "Socratic walkabout" may be a great idea to facilitate the sort of reform I'm discussing because it seems that where I am failing is at making people comfortable with the discussion…that's something for me to think about.

      It's funny though, when I was still a Christian and going through the process of maturing and recognizing the problems I saw with the Church – the issues I saw were exactly the same as they are now…nothing has changed in my frustrations with the establishment faith and it's institutions. I'd only have to add the caveat that I don't believe there is enough worthwhile Truth inside of the Christian Faith (that couldn't be achieved in other ways) to cling to the system.

    • Kill … you have no idea what you're talking about. None. Re-read the Scripture. It is clear that true faith as a spiritual reality will ALWAYS demonstrate itself as a physical reality … things and behaviors that we can "touch" … in other words where the rubber meets the road. Read James Chapter 2 as one of MANY references that are quite clear.

  • KillBril

    @rev: I totally agree, the hate will stand no chance when christians would actually read the bible. But they have to read everything in context of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Because if they don't, they will get stuck in Judaism and, as you so nicely put it, christianity-fascist-patriotism.

    talking about the mix-up between Judaism an christianity…

    @phil: I woudn't use James's letter to explain the spiritual walk of a believer. James is not a letter adressed directly usable to you as a heathen-believer, it's adressed to the Judaic-community in the church. Better stick to Paul explaining the ways of the Spirit. Check words Paul chooses to use in Rom 3:20 and Gal 5:22:
    'But the FRUIT the Holy Spirit produces is love, joy and peace…' – Gal 5:22
    'the WORKS of the Law…' – Rom 3:20

    It's the WORKS of the Law and the FRUIT of the SPIRIT. Huge difference, the first one produces death (and everything that brings fourth death as hate, guilt, fear, sickness),the second one gives life. You can't produce fruits, it's the Spirit that brings forth fruit in you.

  • Caprise

    Debating theists is difficult for me because they don't think it's even possible that we're right. It's not like a science thing where there are two hypothesis and evidence and proof for both.