Effective Debating 101
In the past, I've been known to take on fundamentalists in debates— mostly Christian, but some atheists as well— although it is the Christian fundamentalists' attempts to put their faith into laws that I have a problem with. Now I'm going to tackle the tactics of many who debate fundamentalists, regardless of what type of fundamentalism we're discussing, although I'll be using Christian fundamentalism in my examples because that's the one I'm most familiar with.
But first, I'd like to speak a word FOR fundamentalists, because my ex-wife was one of them. Most fundamentalists are people of devout faith and strong convictions who truly don't seek to impose their will on others. Many fundamentalist churches are quite small: the one my ex-wife used to attend ran a school that, one year, had 11 kids in grades K-8. My ex-wife graduated from one of the largest Baptist schools in Denver: her graduating class had 23 people in it. While my ex-wife's family is against her being gay (they think it is a sin) and living what they consider a "gay lifestyle", I am not publicly scorned or mocked when I am at their home. I am treated with respect and dignity and the issues that "divide" us are not spoken about. I know they think it's wrong— they have no idea my beliefs because we've never discussed it. I'm gay— that's enough for them to know my beliefs are wrong when measured against the yardstick of their faith. But they're not out there picketing against gay rights and spreading nasty lies about gays on national television like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. These sorts of fundamentalists are what I refer to as faithful fundamentalists. They do what little "political activism" they do (often simply voting or signing a petition that comes their way) because that is what their faith tells them they must do in order to be true to their faith. The other sort— people Falwell and Robertson and other leaders of the radical conservative Christian movement— are trying to create a third political party and hide behind their faith in the process. They are power-hungry and they use their faith as a means of divesting others of power and will continue to do so as long as no one stands up to them.
In this country, roughly 82% of people consider themselves Christians: 24+% of the population is Catholic (which makes you wonder why JFK was the first Catholic president), 16+% are Baptist and the rest are various other denominations with the next largest (Methodist, I believe), being only 6+%. And by the time you reach the bottom of the top ten, you're down to faiths with less than 1% of the population. Doing some quick math, that leaves roughly 20% of the population to come from the other Christian sects in this country. Most of the fundamentalist movements we see today grew directly from the Baptist faith, and the real irony behind this is that the underlying tenet of the Baptist faith is that no one needs an "intermediary" between him/her and God. Baptist ministers do not have to attend seminary and receive some special degree or ordination. The Baptist congregation can "ordain" their minister simply by choosing him as their pastor. And yet the more fundamentalist Baptists are some of the most...prolific, shall we say, at supplying rules for how everyone must relate to God, which seems to me to be contradictory to their very tenet of no one needing an intermediary to God to discern God's will for their lives. But I digress.
I think that the approach most have when debating a fundamentalist— that of confronting them and saying "Your faith is wrong and here's proof"— simply does not work because faith is, by definition, something that is beyond proof.
Creationists who believe that the earth is only 6000 years old (or whatever exact number they put on it) say that the earth was created with the appearance of age, just as Adam was created as an adult and not a newborn baby. While he was only a day old, he had the appearance of being much older. There is logic to their reasoning because logic is relative to the premises upon which one bases one's logic. To the fundamentalist, the premise is that nothing in science can violate the Word of God as contained in the Bible. God controls everything. He is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and the Bible is his inerrant directions for how mankind is to live and what we are to believe. There's no way that anyone else can prove that the earth is not 6000 years old as long as they use the same premise that the fundamentalists use: If God IS omnipotent, then certainly he could have created a world to which every last detail would point to an earth that was so much older. Why he might do that is beyond me, but then again, the mind of God is incomprehensible to the human mind since the limitless cannot be truly understood by the limited. To those who are not creationists, the basic premise from which we apply logic is that the laws of science describe the natural processes (or as some would say, the laws of God) and take precedence over a book that we know has been rewritten, edited and changed. So taking the approach that "your faith is wrong and I can prove it" won't work because the basic premise from which both are working isn't the same. It's comparing apples to oranges and the fundamentalist can correctly say "That apple has nothing to do with my orange." Faith is beyond proof. Faith, in fact, believes despite "proof" to the contrary, like the faith of creationists. What we can't prove, we can't disprove either— so we can't prove that their beliefs about certain issues are wrong any more than they can prove they are right.
I have found that the tactic that is most effective is to point out the inconsistencies of a fundamentalist's actual arguments and leave matters of faith out of the entire debate as much as possible. For example, when I am told that being gay is a sin, I say to them, "In my faith, going to church on Sunday is a sin. Would you accept the term 'sinner' if I applied it to you?" When they say, "No, because that's not what my faith says" (or some variation of that), then I come back with, "So why do you expect me to be bound by your definitions of sin that are based on your faith if you are not willing to be bound by my definitions of sin based on my faith?"
Another example: They tell me that being gay is immoral. I tell them that morality is subjective because it depends on what one believes. They tell me that God dictates morality and is the same for everyone, so therefore it is objective. So I tell them, "You chose your God. You chose your faith. Therefore you chose the morality that you would live your life by. That makes it subjective." I have yet to hear a valid argument against that line of reasoning.
Most fundamentalists have been taught that others will attack them for their what they preach just as Jesus was attacked for what he taught. They're told that others will attempt to "prove" their faith is wrong. And every time someone attacks their faith rather than the illogical arguments or the hypocritical stances (ie, taking a right for themselves that they seek to deny others), this teaching is reinforced and therefore they're going to dig in further and say "I'm going to be a true warrior for God and not let these people sway me." But if you can show them that their arguments are illogical or that their stand is hypocritical by using examples like that given above, in many cases, you'll hear words that astound you like "I never thought about it that way before."
As an illustration, there's a radio talk show here on the very conservative Christian station that I listen to quite frequently (to keep tabs on what lines of attack to counter). One day they were discussing the woman in Florida who had her license revoked for refusing to remove her burqa for her license picture. Every single caller to that station supported the revocation, saying that they had to understand that sometimes sacrifices were necessary for public safety and that we all had to obey laws that we didn't like or agree with sometimes. (One guy even compared it to having to get your car inspected!) There was also an almost unanimous call for her to "go back where she came from" if she didn't like the laws. I called up (which I do quite frequently) and when I got on the air, I said something like, "What the state of Florida is telling this woman she has to do is considered a sin to her. That would be like the state of Florida requiring every Christian who wanted to get a license to take the Lord's name in vain before being allowed to do so. How many Christians would support the state of Florida then? And as for 'going back where she came from', have you thought that maybe she was born in this country?" The host of the show paused and then said, "I never thought about it like that before." I may not have made him change his mind about whether he supported the state of Florida's decision, but I did get him to think about it in a new light and sometimes, that's all that it takes. And even if nothing changes, they have for that moment walked in the shoes of another and have a greater understanding of what others are going through— even if only for the moment. I see those moments as seeds that are planted and I leave the growth of those seeds in the hands of the universe/God/dess.
As I said above, most fundamentalists are NOT part of organizations like Moral Majority or Christian Coalition. Organizations like that— with their membership numbers all added together, don't even comprise 3% of the population of the US, and yet because they are so well funded and so organized, they have a disproportionate amount of power. The people at the top like Robertson and Falwell are not stupid people. They know how to manipulate public opinion. So they love it when gay rights activists or pro-choice activists or any other cause they're against attacks their faith and not their arguments because they play those soundbites back to their audience and say "Our faith is under attack". That's when the checkbooks come out and the money starts flowing in to fund even more attempts to gain more power.
If we want to do a more effective job of "neutralizing" their arguments, we have to stop attacking them and their faith and instead attack their arguments. Show the hypocrisy. "Make" them admit what they try to hide behind through verbal acrobatics, like Bill O'Reilly did when he kept pressing Mr. Bennett (spokesperson for Concerned Women of America) by saying "You're avoiding the question" (or something like that.) Demonstrate the unfairness of their stand-- how they want the right to pray in school, but they also want to take away another faith's right to wear jewelry of their faith in school, for example. Show they have a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude. But don't attack their faith or them. Use of the Golden Rule is a must when debating a fundamentalist. (It should be a "must" all the time, in my humble opinion, but that's another story.) The Golden Rule is a unilateral command: you do it first and continue to do it regardless of whether it is done back to you. Don't stoop to their level of personal attack.
We are guaranteed many rights in the US Constitution, but unless we start effectively countering the arguments being used by fundamentalists, those rights are in danger of being stolen from us. We can't disprove faith, so attacking matters of faith is pointless unless our point is to give them more ammunition to use against those who would counter their threatening tyranny. Attacking them only makes them martyrs for their cause, thereby fulfilling one of their "prophecies" that they will be persecuted for their faith. So we're left with only one valid option: to attack the argument itself. It's time to stop the name-calling, time do cease debating who's right and who's wrong and focus on the lack of any foundation to the arguments they use to validate usurping power from the individual.
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