Friday, August 16, 2013

Debate Tip #1: Expect to Lose

You will lose 99.99999% of all casual theology debates.  By "lose", I mean that you are not going to convince anyone to give up their faith based on your argument, at least not at that moment.

You may be right, and you may have even been able to get your opposition to admit that you have a valid point, but don't expect them to suddenly see their house of cards faith crash down right before their eyes.  Simply put, long-held beliefs don't work like that, at least not usually.  Let me illustrate through a non-faith related example:

I remember an engineering issue I had become familiar with; a certain component broke earlier than its expected lifetime.  I had considered the possible causes, and developed a theory of what the failure mechanism was.  About two years later, I had a chance to actually see the mechanism of failure in action, but there was one problem:
It didn't fail in accordance with my theory!

It took about two days for me to fully come to terms with the fact that I was wrong.  In the meantime, my mind worked to provide all kinds of alternate explanations of how my original theory was still true, but, in the end, I had to face facts.

The engineering example above is a pretty simple scenario.  I had nothing more invested in my wrong theory than my own ego.  Yet there was still a futile struggle in my mind to reject what I had learned.

Compare that to all of the complexity of religion, where there is considerable investment of finances, effort, and hope, and it should not be surprising that you will not find any converts at a debate!

The best you can hope for is to plant a seed of discomfort in your opponent's mind... a discomfort which is enough for them to consider what you've said beyond time of the debate.  Then, kind of like in Jesus' seed sowing parable (Matthew 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:4-8), if that seed lands in fertile soil, in a mind which wants to know more than wants to believe, your loss may yet yield a victory in time.


  1. "By "lose", I mean that you are not going to convince anyone to give up their faith based on your argument, at least not at that moment."

    I think it is natural to think we can convince people to change sides, but ultimately we need to redefine wining and losing. Getting someone to realize they have made a small mistake is a win in my book. Honestly, getting someone to understand my position a little bit better, even if they don't agree at all, I call a win. Simply communicating with each other properly is a good thing.

    1. see my note below if you get a chance concerning "to change sides"
      I think that thinking about "sides" has some fundamental mistakes in it.

  2. Indeed, Hausdorff. We definitely need to redefine a win and a loss, and I too count it a victory when I can tell that my opponent has actually considered and understood, even if they don't agree with me.

    It was too funny to see your post about how hard it is to admit a mistake, as I already had this tip drafted up at this point. In fact, for a little bit I considered doing a quick rewrite and linking to your post, and maybe even directly including some of content. But I decided to stick with the engineering example to demonstrate that this issue is more about our basic brain function than it is about faith in particular.

  3. I hope you make this into a series of posts!

  4. Thanks Lydia! Indeed, I do have a series in mind. You'll see them pop up about every other week. Enjoy!

  5. Persistent belief are indeed a human tendency -- and perhaps adaptive.
    We don't want to change our minds about a belief that has been working for us for years ("investment") without lots of evidence tested over time. Others can be liars, mistaken, misinformed ....

    And as you say, this goes for everything.

    We all know the stereotype of the person who changes their mind in a second -- no respect there.

    So, stubborn persistent belief has its clear benefits.

    I love the SEED analogy.
    I agree -- planting ideas in someone's head allows that head to use that seed to grow something new when they need it.

    But counter to Hausdorff, they inevitably use it to grow something very different than we expected. They don't build ideas identical to the ones you think you taught. For everything is colored with agendas, feelings, different uses and emotions. People don't believe in systems as much as they USE systems.

    When I was a Christian have watched people become Christians who I rejoiced about, but only to see them use their Christianity much like they used their former ideology to support their personality. Lots of Christianities out there.

    Likewise, I have seen people give up religion but embrace the world very, very differently than I imagined they would without god-ideas.

  6. Excellent points on the need for persistent beliefs and the use of systems, Sabio.

    I am not exactly sure what the percentage is of people who use the systems versus believe in them. There's of course, some question on where to draw that fat, gray line. It probably lies in the hands of each believer; whether they believe and so receive benefits, or they believe simply for the sake of those benefits. I think I've run into people on either ends of the spectrum!

  7. And people certainly do a mix of both depending on what fits their needs and their personality. All the while, blind to the whole phenomena.

  8. Absolutely, Sabio! Absolutely!

  9. I expect to lose everything I do, that way I'm always either pleasantly surprised or correct as usual.

  10. Indeed, Grundy! Kind of like the tried and true axiom:

    Set your standards low enough, and you'll never be disappointed! :-)

  11. I never go into a debate expecting to "win", trying to convert the other person to my side, it just won't happen. Going into it with that mindset is kind of like the fundamentalist practice of "soulwinning", which I something I didn't do enough as a fundie, I invited quite a few people to church, discussed Christianity with them, but I only personally converted about 6 people that I know of (I know, I was a bad fundie, lol).

    I don't try to "convert" fundamentalists, because in most cases it's impossible, they see you as being from "the world", that evil vile, corrupt sewer of a place that exists outside the confines of fundie land, and so anything you say to them in most cases is going in one ear and out the other, especially once they figure out they can't convert you. You have to shut out opposing views and wrap yourself in a Christian cocoon in order to stay in fundamentalism, there's really no other way, it's a defense mechanism they build around themselves to keep "the world" from pulling them away from Christianity.

    Then again, speaking with them can have a slow effect sometimes, like the old saying "constant dripping wears away stone", it may take years, but it may make them question. Usually, you can tell who are the ones who are searching for answers, and beginning to question, they seem almost eager to hear your explain yourself.

    In the end, though, it has to be their decision, they have to able to open their mind to serious questioning of their faith before the de conversion process begins, and once the doubts start coming, they usually don't stop. Until they reach that stage though, they usually won't listen to anything you say.

  12. Thanks for the input Sheldon. You were a better Christian than I was! I don't think I led anyone to convert. :-)

    I like the dripping on the stone analogy. I think it definitely fits. And not all types of stone have the same degree of susceptibility to those "drips". It's a great mindset for us to have; that though we may not have made an immediately noticeable difference, we played a part in breaking down the stone in the long run.

    There's definitely a difference between an ardent apologist/fundamentalist and someone who is seeking answers, or at least is open to actually hearing what others have to say.