Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Beware the debate tactics of the fundamentalist

I thought I’d make a few comments today on the debating style of fundamentalists. This is something that every atheist needs to be aware of. And if an atheist/fundamentalist debate takes place I want to explain the rules that one must insist upon.

The first thing the Christianists have a tendency to do is to throw out 101 and different arguments. To make an assertion may take seconds and to rebut can takes minutes or more. They know this.

I remember reading some of the authoritarian rubbish published by Gary North, an advocate of theocracy, stoning people to death, etc. North spoke about how he would throw pages and pages of material at his opponents. The idea was not to get them to actually answer him at all. His goal was to make it impossible to answer. If you throw out 100 claims and the person pulls out the most important ones and replies to them the tactic is to ignore the replies entirely. Simply point out that he missed all the other points.

The idea of such a debate is not to, in fact debate the issues, but to force the opponent to withdraw from the debate. The fundamentalist does not debate to find out truth. They already know the truth since the Bible tells them what it is. There entire strategy is to score points.

So they will trot out one fallacious argument after another until their opponent wearies from the constant discussion that accomplishes nothing. He can debunk the first 10 arguments or claims only to find his opponent now ignoring those previous claims for 10 new ones. And it will go on and on. At some point the rationalist has to conclude that they are wasting their time and drops the issue. The fundamentalist then crows that they won a victory.

Another tactic they like to use is to make claims to someone when that person is not able to comment on those claims. I do not mean the claims are true but that are totally outside the realm of knowledge of the rationalist. There are various kinds of arguments that the fundamentalist can use. They could rely on philosophical arguments if they wish. They could make claims about the universe and physics if they wish. They could claim historical evidence for their beliefs.

So what is the tactic I’ve seen them use. When I watch a fundamentalist debate a philosopher they avoid philosophy entirely. Instead they make claims about physics. In one debate I witnessed the minister was up against a man who knew philosophy and history. So the minister avoided making claims in those two fields. Instead he concentrated on physics.

The philosopher/historian, being a honest man, said that physics is not his realm and that he can not address arguments based on claims in that field. The minister and his fanatical followers in the audience then took this as a victory. On the other hand if they were debates a physicist they would stay away from that field entirely and make claims about history.

The fundamentalist is not shy about making claims in fields where he, in fact, knows almost nothing. He walks into this debate that he has God’s truth and therefore any claim in these fields which appears to verify the predetermined truth must be accurate. And he’ll repeat it. An honest opponent, who would speak about the fields he knows, is at the disadvantage. He knows he is not knowledgeable enough on that topic to make assertions. The fundamentalist has no such restriction. They will make claims in any field even if they have very little, or no, understanding of the field itself.

Now I think both these topics are inherently dishonest. But then I think most fundamentalists are intellectually dishonest. They are not seekers of truth at all. They are “knowers” of truth battling for their deity. So, in fact, they can not be convinced since they are now open to being convinced in most cases.

In debates with fundamentalists (including those who are not Christian fundamentalists but who have the same sort of mentality) there are some rules that need to be established up front.

The debate needs to be limited to a specific topic and not some broad generality. For instance “Does God Exist?” is far too broad a topic. It allows the 101 argument approach and it allows the fundamentalist to make false claims outside the field of his opponent.

If a fundamentalist and a rationalist debates it must be a precise debate. If the fundamentalist says he wants to debate whether science indicates an intelligent designer that is very specific. I would then agree that a debate between him and a credentialled advocate of evolution would be appropriate. But the fundie must be strictly told to stay on topic. Otherwise he will try to divert attention from his own weak arguments by dragging in unrelated claims outside the field of his opponent.

Secondly, the debate needs to be further limited in focus so that the 101 approach can’t be used. It is too dishonest an approach for any legitimate debate. So if the debate is on how science proves intelligent design then I would suggest it be further divided into: “The three strongest scientific arguments for intelligent design.”

The advocate of the pro position can pick which three issues he wishes to concentrate upon. He then says I will be debating for intelligent design based upon the issues of A, B, and C. He need not give his arguments in advance merely define the parameters of the debate.

Under those conditions it is possible to have a real debate. But beware that even then there is a high chance the fundamentalist will try to smuggle in points D,E,F,G through to Z as well as include topics not originally agreed upon. His only hope of winning is to force his opponent into debating outside his field of knowledge or to swamp him with more claims than it is possible to respond to.

I so clearly remember the one fundamentalist minister literally using his 10 minute opening statement to make several dozen claims. Each claim, while false, only took a few seconds to make. To rebut those claims adequately would take at least a few minutes each. By making a few dozen such claims he guaranteed that his opponent, according to the rules of the debate, could not possibly respond to all these points. In fact it would be hard for him to even remember all the points. Some were made so fast that the opponent wouldn’t have had time to take notes even.

And, as anticipated, the opponent could not reply to all three dozen claims. The fundamentalist proclaimed he had won the debate because his opponent didn’t reply all his claims. The fundies in the audience applauded and walked convinced that God’s side had won again. Of course it is impossible to convince them otherwise.


Blogger luggage79 said...

I stumbled across a book at my mother's house with the title "How to have a debate with fundamentalists without going mad". The issues you mentioned reminded me of it. It is impossible to have debate something with somebody who is not willing to challenge let alone change their own beliefs.

November 22, 2006

Blogger Ethereal said...


November 22, 2006

Blogger Publius II said...

This is a good synopsis of how to identify individuals who are bad at debate. One such individual in my opinion is atheism's newest televangelist, Richard Dawkins. In his book, The God Delusion, he makes hefty use of all sorts of logical fallacies, and overall, the book (and the shows in the UK which he did to spout his non-sense) is intellectually weak to the point of laughability. Honestly, when The God Delusion came out, I was hoping for a good intellectual challenge, but was sorely disappointed.

November 29, 2006

Blogger GodlessZone said...

Personally I thought the Dawkins book had many good points about religion and morality. It was not his purpose to set out to prove that a deity doesn't exist but to discuss various aspects of religion. If you were looking for a rebuttal to theism then you were looking in the wrong place. I would suggest George Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God for that. Dawkins was dealing more with other issues. And to be precise I was not speaking about being bad at debate. In fact many debaters would say those are "good" tactics in that they get people to think you won the debate. Debate rules can be manipulated in defense of the irrational. And the purpose of formal debate is to win. Now the tactics the fundies use are rather common in debating circles especially lower level debate circles. But what is good in a debate (where the goal is to be declared the "winner" ) is not the same thing as find the truth. For instance it is the time constraint issue in a formal debate that makes throwing out 40 claims, and then harping about how you opponent only rebutted 5 of them, effective. No such constraints exist in book form per se though it is impossible to cover all the issues. No matter how thorough one is there will be something a reader will find missing.

November 29, 2006

Blogger Publius II said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

November 29, 2006

Blogger Publius II said...

Good point, as I should have been more clear about the fact that I was actually talking about the same thing you are, discussing truth, and finding it through debate and discussion.

Regardless of what Dawkins purpose was in writing the book, it is nothing more than an intellectually weak rant. He makes all sorts of ignorant claims without doing much, if any, research on the topic he was discussing much of the time. I expected more from someone who apparently at the forefront of this latest atheistic crusade.

November 29, 2006

Blogger GodlessZone said...

Atheists do not have crusades. Billy Graham has crusades (well, these days he can't get his tent poles up so he doesn't). I don't find Dawkins weak though he is a tad off the topic here. His purpose is absolutely critical before one can appraise the book. If you don't understand the purpose you can't appraise the methods used. What is happening is simple. Dawkins, like Dennett, like Harris, even like my humble self were people who had no desire to engage the fundamentalists. But the fundies wouldn't leave us alone. They insisted on laws, regulations, campaigns, controls and lots and lots of government to force their theocratic views on the rest of society. And so some of us got sick and tired of these would be Stalinists and decided to fight back. There is no central heirarchy, no denomination, no pastor leading the flock. Just a lot of pissed off individuals tired of authoritarians using their fantasies as an excuse to impose their control on others.

November 29, 2006

Blogger Publius II said...

Right. If that were the case, then his book and his sermons that he preaches would reflect that. Instead he makes absurd and unqualified statements using the very same nonsensical arguments and debate tactics you've tried to say that "fundamentalists" use all the time. His "purpose" seems to me to be more leaning toward simply slandering Christianity and people who take the Scriptures and God seriously.

If his aim was to lash back at people who try to interfere with Government based on their interpretations of religion and what they think other people ought to be doing, then that's one thing, and I would wholehearted back him and anyone else with the same goals. It's simply not right to try to impose morality via laws and regulations. But his focus is obviously beyond that. And to stay on topic with your article, what we have instead is someone of the Atheist religion preaching sermons and writing propaganda using the same tactics you say fundies use. And of course, you'll likely praise his work regardless.

November 29, 2006

Blogger GodlessZone said...

At this time I will not discuss Dawkins as that was not the topic. The topic was tactics in a debate and as far as I know there is no debate with Dawkins. As I said once debates have rules and those rules were being manipulated to get a dishonest outcome. If you wish to discuss formal debates then fine. If you wish to smuggle in other topics I'm weary of it.

November 29, 2006

Blogger Tyler said...

Debating "religious" topics by fundamentalists is genrally not even allowed in American colleges or public venues. The irony is that atheists dominate the classrooms and courtrooms and never allow open discussion at all. The Stalinists are the atheist elites who squash anything remotely Christian. Most relgious people are dismissed out of hand and rarely even get a change to be heard. See Ben Stein's movie "Expelled".

November 18, 2009


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