Rules to keep in mind

My approach to religious debates aims at making the conversations as effective as possible.

What does it mean to have an 'effective' debate or conversation?

At minimum, an effective debate has to have actually engaged the real thoughts and beliefs of the participants. In what I've witnessed, most religious arguments fail at achieving even at this meager goal.

Beyond a minimal 'meeting of the minds' -- an effective debate will involve real challenges to the real thoughts of the participants.

And, of course, the most effective argument or debate concludes with one side convincing the other of something they had not accepted before.

I have encountered many people who think that any kind of religious debate or conversation is a waste of time.

As I said before, I aim to make religious conversations between people as effective as possible. I am not expecting my ideas to become dogma -- it is almost certain that I have not formulated the perfect recipe that yields the most effective conversations possible -- and so I welcome suggestions, challenges, and improvements on all aspects of my approach.

Over the years, I have had hundreds of conversations with pleasant people from every faith -- the ideas that I share come from my dissecting these conversations and thinking about what worked, and why; what didn't work, and why.

Let me give you an example. Imagine two people, one a committed Christian, the other a committed atheist secular humanist. Let's start with a plausible broadside from the secular humanist.

Atheist: "Why does God allow suffering?"

I have come to think that there are several reasons why this question is phrased terribly. First of all, the atheist is asking the Christian to explain God's behavior. All other considerations aside, if every other piece of the ensuing argument completely destroys every possible reason that the Christian can think of for God allowing suffering there is a huge retreat still available. Namely, the 'why should I know why God does that' 0r some other variation.

Rule 1: Do not let your argument hinge on asking a Christian to explain something he could conceivably say, "I don't know" as a legitimate answer to an argument.

So, how do you tweak the question to ask essentially the same thing, but to close the "I don't know" loophole? Ask the slightly improved question:

Atheist: "Why do you worship a God that allows suffering?"

It's still not great, but notice that answering, 'why should I know why I do that' is not a legitimate answer to the question. You may still hear that answer, but even the Christian will feel uncomfortable about such a lame answer.

In watching other people debate or talk, it's much easier, of course, to be critical of a missed opportunity or a wrong step.

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