Monday, February 21, 2011

How and When to Debate

This isn’t an article which will equip you with debate tactics or rhetorical moves to win any debate. Rather, it is simply to point out the value of debate: how and when to debate. The following tips I hope provide some guidance and perspective.

First, always be respectful. I know that some people disagree with this one. Some may say if a person is full of scorn, we need not treat them with courtesy. However, I believe this is not what Jesus would do. I do not mean we must be passive and accept false beliefs. I do not mean we may not repudiate sin and call it what it is. I do not mean we may not disagree. I do mean we must be courteous.

How should we do this? We should not respond to personal attacks. In a debate, whether written, formal, or conversational, we should point out the personal attack, but never reciprocate. Always speak kindly, even if firmly, showing the love of Christ.

Second, don’t take anything personally. Even if it was meant personally. This will allow you to focus on the first piece of advice above.

Third, learn to recognize what is relevant to the argument. For example, if one is debating whether or not the current U.S. president is fulfilling his campaign promise, and your opponent mentions “The economy is at its worst condition since the Great Depression,” point out it is a red herring! Unless his campaign promise was directly tied into the economy’s condition, it doesn’t make a difference. What makes discussions unfruitful or internet debates so long is this single fact. One can just read threads discussing any debate topic. Quickly, he will discover the argument is far off track from its original starting point. This happens because people think the allowance of any assertion is tantamount to a concession of the major point or topic. This is simply not true.

Fourth, tease out logical implications of your opponent’s position. But be sure to label them as such. It is somewhat dishonest to claim your opponent promotes Y, because X entails Y, and your opponent claims X. There are varying ways of doing this. One is to find a counterexample. For instance, if I posit “every possible world in which something is created is preferable to a world in which nothing is created,” all you need to do is find a possible world which contains something which would not be preferable to a world with nothing created (such as a world containing only Hitler and Stalin—would that really be preferable to a world with nothing at all?).

Another way to do this is to attack its logical coherence. An argument or proposition is logically incoherent if it contains a self-contradiction (or if a necessary truth exists which directly contradicts the proposition). “The universe was able to come about by the laws of physics, thus proving it indeed came from nothing,” is just such an example.

A third way of doing this is to show the proposition lends itself to other truths which are unacceptable in some way. “Moral right and wrong are recognized as such, legitimately, by the culture in which one lives.” This statement entails another unsavory truth, which is: in the 18th century in America slavery was a morally right action. Most people seem reticent to say this (as well they should). However, it is an inescapable corollary of societal-relative values.

Fifth, examine a proposition to see if it is really the case. Sometimes, people make very strong claims in a proposition. “If a future action is known it is impossible to be free.” This, like any claims of logical impossibility, must be supported by some pretty good evidence. That being said, any proposition or premise in an argument must be supported by at least enough evidence to render its affirmation more plausible than its negation.

Sixth, find any logical fallacies. This does not mean to become a so-called “fallacy finder.” Such a person believes that by labeling a fallacy he may avoid interacting with the force of an argument. Suppose someone said “if God existed, then more people would believe in him.” At first glance, this appears to be argumentum ad populum. Indeed, if this is all the argument entails, one may have a point. But it’s worth noting that this premise isn’t stating if many people believe in God, he exists, or if many don’t, then he doesn’t. Rather, it states a (mistaken) belief that God would cause people to believe in him if he existed. Sometimes, it’s worth noting the fallacy in passing before proceeding with the argument.

Seventh, when constructing your own argument, try to avoid controversial premises. By that I do not mean premises with which people disagree. I mean that if a premise in an argument is, for instance, “God exists,” you’re unlikely to convince any atheists to agree with your conclusion (at least based on the argument). Or, if a premise is “causal determinism is true” you may experience problems.

Finally, know when to walk away. That’s so important I’m going to say it again. And in bold. Know when to walk away. Some debates get so heated insults are on the tip of every sentence. Sometimes, people forego all pretense of debate simply to hurl invective, e.g. “I’m sorry you’re so stupid; perhaps if you read a book for once in your life you’d feel differently!”

One way to keep a clear head and know when to walk away is to avoid hyperbole. If someone tells you they believe vaccines for children is good/bad for their health, and you disagree, do not say “well I guess you like killing little children, don’t you?” It’s uncalled for, rude, probably not true, and it will not get you anything other than rhetorical points. And those come cheap.

One thing I try to do is “give you the last word.” It allows me to end a debate without taking control. The opponent can say whatever he wants, fair or not, but it also avoids the appearance of being unable to answer his arguments (since I tell them upfront I am giving them the last word).

I recently debated an atheist who, abruptly, starting saying how unintelligent I was (while altogether avoiding any discussion of the topic). I simply responded that I was sorry to see that he felt the need to resort to personal attacks, that I would not insult him, and that I wished him well. When people start getting superemotional, it’s best to walk away.

If the debate is simply repeated arguments (or recycled from 3-5 messages earlier), find a way to end it. If no new information is forthcoming, why keep it going?

Finally, the Bible provides a great guide on answering people. Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” If the conversation is foolish, it’s best not to get (or remain) involved. If it is like so many dangerous doctrines or atheistic claims and influential, we still must have an answer, so that the foolish doctrine is not viewed as confirmed. It involves a measure of wisdom we must pray for (James 1:5), and it is a role we must take seriously! We must know how and when to debate and discuss with others.

Have any questions or comments you’d like to add? Do so below!


  1. Great tips, thanks for posting! Debates should be vigorous and respectful.

  2. Thanks for commenting Keith! It's something I must constantly repeat to myself.

  3. Awesome insight. Thinking of writing these on a post-it! Thanks!

  4. Thanks I appreciate it! Hopefully we'll see you around here again. :) Do you have a blog?


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