Debating strategies for atheists and Christians
Ever since people began discussing theology, or any other controversial matter, there have inevitably been disagreements. During a debate with an atheist, the frustrating thing is not that one’s opponent has different views—this is known from the outset, or there would not be a debate! Rather, it is their apparent inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend a certain line of reasoning, or to see the fallacies in their own thinking. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a set of ‘rules’ on how to go about this? A strategy is needed.
A testable prediction is the starting point of the discussion in the following flow chart. Devised by an atheist, it is generally a useful guide for how both sides should engage.1 However, as they say, ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’, so each debater must adhere to the same rules if it is to be fair (see step C).
For instance, if discussing whether biblical creation is true, what, if anything, would be a game changer for the creationist, an argument that would genuinely make them reconsider their position (step A; discussed later on)? The question could equally be posed to an evolutionist. And if the answer is no, as the chart shows, further discussion seems rather pointless!
Critics of calibre
Individuals cannot know all the arguments that have ever been discussed on a given topic, but some things can be investigated fairly quickly with a little homework. It is important to carefully weigh up claims that have significant ramifications. It makes a big difference whether you were created in God’s image or else you evolved from pond-scum. But whose arguments should you spend time investigating? What would make a balanced debate? For any in-depth discussion you obviously do well to avoid consulting novices; e.g. for a theological dialogue, you would not choose a recent convert. In debating people, it is easy to claim victory when the argument has simply knocked down a strawman, or the opponent’s arguments are ‘lightweight’. The question is, would the debate have gone equally well with a knowledgeable opponent?
For this reason, CMI sometimes gives airtime to high-profile atheists on its website. Naturally, we do not allow equal air time for those with a different view (even when they profess to be Christian); of course, they are entitled to set up their own websites to promote their ideas. If this does not seem even-handed, remember that biblical creationists are hardly given any time to explain their point of view in the secular media, least of all the use of scientific evidence to support their position!
‘Science’ does not trump Scripture
Who decides whether something being debated is scientific or not? CMI would argue, and many philosophers of science would agree, that a scientific proposition must be falsifiable. Karl Popper elaborated on this:
“Whenever a hypothesis appears to you as the only possible one, take that as a sign that you have neither understood the hypothesis nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”2
Experimental results are gathered, observations are made, and scientists must discuss the significance of those findings. So, the flow chart lends itself to discussing scientific matters. However, will all discussions between creationists and evolutionists revolve around such matters of testable science? Given that conflicting worldviews are involved, that is very unlikely. Another thing to emphasise is that science most definitely should not be based on consensus!
Instead, a useful approach to assessing the quality of the science under discussion is given in the following table.
|It is repeatable
|It is not repeatable
|Direct measurements must be possible and accurate results obtainable
|Things are indirectly measured, or extrapolated, or results are inaccurate
|It is a prospective, experimental study
|It is a retrospective, observational study
|Care is taken to avoid bias
|It is vulnerable to bias
|Care is taken to minimise assumptions
|Many assumptions are required
|There is a dispassionate assessment of the experimental results
|There is unwarranted confidence in, or broadening of, the scope of the results
The six criteria of high-confidence science (adapted after Stadler, The Scientific Approach to Evolution).3
Looking at the table, regarding origins, both the creation perspective and the evolutionary story belong to the right-hand column. Neither a belief in supernatural creation nor evolution are repeatable or directly measurable. They both are worldviews with assumptions and biases about the past, and adherents of either view are typically firm in their convictions. Biblical creationists believe the Bible provides historically reliable data about origins; evolutionists (whether theists or atheists) hold tenaciously to naturalism. The evolutionist will only want to argue about naturalistic explanations, and often will demand that no supernatural explanations are brought to the table—i.e. “leave the Bible out of it!”.
By touting evolution vs biblical creation as a ‘science vs religion’ debate, evolutionists push a false dichotomy. They have hijacked the definition of science in their attempt at forcing the acceptance of ‘methodological naturalism’; while that is fine for operational science, it is not for historical science. They have thus defined religion (particularly creationist beliefs) as anti-scientific. In other words, ‘heads we win, tails you lose’.
In what follows, we will limit ourselves to atheistic evolutionists. We should not avoid questions from unbelievers but should seek to answer them respectfully (1 Peter 3:15), testing everything and holding fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The Christian does well to test everything in the light of Scripture. Atheists often claim that creationists are therefore guilty of circular reasoning. Everyone has a worldview commitment, and so shares this ‘guilt’ because, as I explain elsewhere, “All deductive reasoning is circular because it must start with axioms. This is true for those who disbelieve in the Creator of the Bible (atheists) as well as for theists.”4
It is not as if Scripture is believed by blind faith. For instance, past discoveries have shown that archaeology supports the Bible. Evidence—although not proof—does strengthen the biblical case.
The fact that, after many centuries, this debate still rages, illustrates that what one side deems a devastating blow, the other side dismisses.
One such example is the origin of life from non-life. The creationist will argue this is naturally impossible, whereas an atheist must hope that, one day, scientists will discover how chemical evolution is possible. From what we do know, it is utterly impossible, indeed a hopeless quest—blind faith (see rule 4 below).
A Precambrian rabbit fossil would convince staunch evolutionists of the error of their ways, so they claim. But out-of-place fossils have been pointed out many times, and somehow the Darwinian paradigm is always plastic enough to be able to accommodate these finds. One method is to ignore such fossils; another is to accuse fellow scientists—deceased or living—of having allowed contamination. The Darwinists assume that an out-of-place fossil did not really originate from the layer in which it is found, but somehow came from a different layer, of different age. For example, South American pollen fossils were found to be over a billion years ‘out of date’—a pollen paradox.
Further thoughts on the discussion flowchart
In step C (complying with basic principles of reason) a logical fallacy is committed in the examples. Something that is more reasonable and has more supporting evidence must not be accepted as necessarily true, only more reasonable. For example:
Q. What mammal walks on four legs, has fur, and a tail?
The most reasonable answer from a choice of apple, bird, and cat, is of course the latter, but it might still be wrong, as a dog would also qualify.
Regarding step D, discussion rule 1—introducing a new argument while another has yet to be resolved—this is indeed bad practice.
Discussion rule 2—do not move on to another argument if a ‘fact’ is shown inaccurate—might seem superfluous; by this stage the debater has already conceded to stop using an argument if shown to be faulty (see step B—broken arguments must no longer be used). However, an inaccurate argument is also an unreliable one. Besides, according to rule 1, the rebuttal of an argument means admitting that it must be rejected.
Discussion rule 3—provide evidence for your position or arguments—has the problem that what constitutes ‘good evidence’ may be perceived differently on each side of the debate. One thing that evidence is not, is proof. For example, no scientific method can prove how old the Earth or universe is (whether billions of years or thousands of years) but numerous scientific evidences point to their being ‘young’.
Discussion rule 4—do not argue that you don’t need evidence—is certainly a valid point to put to atheists, since they insist the universe must have a ‘scientific’ explanation. This addresses the crucial issue of faith:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God (Hebrews 11:1, 3).
Creationists believe things by faith, but so do evolutionists. This is the whole crux of the matter, because the first group admits it, but the second group—by and large—denies it. Examples:
- Atheistic evolutionists believe that, somehow, life came from non-life. They don’t need evidence for this because, having ruled out God, the fact is we are here!5
- Before that, the universe had to have created itself, somehow. And, by the same reasoning,
- Intangible things such as consciousness and morality must somehow have arisen from matter.
For more about what counts as evidence, including for God’s existence, see A detective’s approach.
If you affirm the question at step E (“Did you breach any of these rules in the discussion?”) then you are deemed to have “cheated”, and to have “conceded all opposing arguments up to this point”, and “you forfeit any right to complain about the discussion.” However, this seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater! For example, if I were to state something incorrect at the end of an article, does that mean the entirety of the article is false? Of course not.
Congratulations (step F)—the debate is finished. Emotions in a debate may run high, as many of us have, no doubt, experienced. Biblical creationists are instructed to answer people “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), even if provoked. However, atheists are actually under no moral obligation to heed such an exhortation. Although we acknowledge that atheists sometimes do argue their position politely and respectfully, unwarranted ad hominem arguments are all too common.
Who wins the debate?
If it were a simply matter of dispassionately assessing evidence and arguments, one side would always concede victory to the other. It is never that simple, especially when a debate involves opinionated human beings with passionate convictions about origins and the existence (or otherwise) of God. Why do atheists think they are rational, but Bible believers apparently are not? Aren’t they convinced all humans are merely the result of natural processes and chemicals that came together in a haphazard process, without direction or guidance?
Atheists believe matter made everything and nothing made matter, so how is it that we can exchange ideas, which transcend mere matter? Unlike God, we cannot create matter (or energy) from nothing, but being made in His image means we can be creative and generate ideas and information. Matter can serve as a medium for information to be stored, in the form of a code (e.g., a certain string of binary digits, or a particular arrangement of letters from an alphabet). Materialism—matter is all there is—cannot account for information; only intelligence can be its source.6
When atheists call the Christian faith irrational they are guilty of a double standard for, in order to define something as irrational, they must assume that rationality exists. But that is to borrow from the Christian worldview in order to argue against it—that is, that we are made in God’s image and thus are able to reason (Job 13:6; Isaiah 1:18).7 And that, if you think about it, is an irrational thing to do!
Nobody knows how life spontaneously arose from non-life. Evolutionists hold their position by faith; they believe that, in due course, scientists will find the answer. That is not science, it’s a belief (and arguably an irrational one). A classic example of double-thinking in the origins debate is the idea behind the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) which has gone on for decades: “to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology”.8 Although nothing has been found, these same scientists have been ignoring the outstandingly-sophisticated, coded information signals found in DNA. The double standard here is breath-taking because, as world-famous physicist Paul Davies acknowledges, “biological information is not encoded in the laws of physics and chemistry … (and it) cannot come into existence spontaneously. … There is no known law of physics able to create information from nothing.”9
So, what are some conclusions to be borne in mind in debates about origins?
- Consensus is not science.
- True science really should be falsifiable.
- Evidence is not the same as proof.
- What seems reasonable is not necessarily the truth.
- ‘Playing’ by good rules will make the discussion more profitable.
The atheist’s discussion flow chart for debating Christians is an admirable attempt at engagement, but few atheists themselves follow those rules when ‘debating a Christian’. Christians, however, should try to maintain high standards of honesty and fairness in debating people with whom they disagree. Despite the pitfalls discussed, the chart does offer some sensible advice in how to engage.
References and notes
- Adapted from a chart by WilRic on a now defunct atheist website, but see: So you want to have a discussion, godlesspaladin.wordpress.com; accessed 19 January 2021. Return to text.
- Popper, K.R., Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 265, 1972. Return to text.
- Stadler, R., The Scientific Approach to Evolution: What they didn’t teach you in biology, CreateSpace, scientificevolution.com/scientific-approach-to-evolution,14 September 2016; accessed 17 July 2020. Return to text.
- Tuinstra, L., Having convictions is not a crime: Are biblical creationists guilty of circular reasoning? Update, CMI-UK/Europe, February 2021. Return to text.
- However, in spite of their protests, any suggested ‘evidences’ for chemical evolution are imaginary just-so-stories, not operational science. Return to text.
- The information stored on a memory device is not part of the memory itself. Weigh it, delete its contents, and weigh it again: no change. Similarly, the content of a letter is not a function of the ink and/or paper. Return to text.
- See C.S. Lewis quote: creation.com/cs-lewis-on-materialistic-thoughts. Return to text.
- The science of SETI@home, setiathome.berkeley.edu/sah_about.php; accessed 1 July 2020. Return to text.
- Quoted in: Williams, A., Quantum leap of faith, Creation 22(2):42–43, March 2000; creation.com/quantum-leap-of-faith. Return to text.