So you want to debate an atheist? If you are serious about your endeavor, then here are a few rules to consider. Keep in mind that I'm not claiming to be a spokesperson for all atheists, but if you consider these 6 simple rules for debating an atheist, then you should be able to get through those initial barriers.
1. Does your opponent have an open mind?
First determine if the atheist is open-minded to the idea that there might be a "creator". To do this, ask a question that will show your opponents position. Something like: "If I were able to prove through clear and acceptable evidence that there is a god, would you believe?" If the answer is "no" then you have a closed-minded atheist, nothing you say will matter, you should move on. I use this all the time when debating Christians, except that my question is different: "is there a chance that you are wrong and that there is no god". If the answer is "no", then I have a Christian with a closed mind and there is no point in continuing. My question doesn't mean that I'm making the claim that there is no god, but it will clearly show whether or not my opponent has an open mind or not.
2. Define "god"
This is very important and often overlooked. At one point in time I was injected into a long debate with a Christian via email. After a month of correspondence, I grew bored, considered all that was said, and decided to give in to my opponent, this is what I said before ending the debate:
After careful consideration, I have decided that you are right, there is a god, and last night I gave my soul to Odin, may his runes guide me.
Don't hide your god, clearly state what you mean by "there is a god" otherwise you could be inadvertently debating for Allah, Thor, Isis, or my favorite; Odin, from which Wednesday was named.
3. Do not redefine atheism
This is a shitty approach, but also a common logical fallacy called a strawman. If you want to prove god is real, the last thing you want to do is try and tell an atheist what it means to be an atheist. Most atheists will see this for what it is, misdirection and avoidance. Atheism has no tenets, doctrine, or dogma and therefore it is not a belief system or a religion.
For example, if an atheist accepts evolution, that does not mean that believing in evolution is a tenet of atheism. Even my use of the term "atheism" is a misnomer as there is no "ism" to being an atheist. Try to accept the position of the atheist without attempting to convince them what they are, this has nothing to do with whether or not there is a "god".
If you use this dirty trick on me, I will remind you that Christians were the original atheists, according to the ancient Romans, because they were the first to reject the pantheon of gods that were worshiped long before "the one true god".
4. Don't shift the burden of proof.
Atheist have nothing to prove (see #3 above). Atheism is the default position to a claim that there is a god. If you are unwilling to attempt to prove that there is a god then there is no point in discussion. You have already stated your position, that being, that you cannot prove there is a god. If you want to shift the burden to the atheist and discuss topics like abiogenesis then that is fine, just know that proving or disproving this will in no way determine whether or not there is a god. Your time and efforts will be wasted and to put this in Biblical terms, you will bear no fruit.
5. Don't use the Bible.
The Bible and other "holy books" are no more evidence of "god" than a comic book is evidence of Spider Man. Most atheists know the Bible very well and will use it to illustrate why they are an atheist. When Christians tell me to "read your Bible" I laugh because it was the Bible that led me to being an atheist. What many Christians mean when they say read the Bible is to only read the parts they read, namely: Psalms, Proverbs, and Revelations and then to kindly ignore all the bad stuff, like when it's okay to kill your neighbor, family member, or friend or to rape and enslave a virgin girl.
Using the Bible to try and prove god does not work because the Bible is the sole source you have for your belief in god. Essentially, trying to prove god is trying to prove the Bible is true. If you want a real chance at convincing an atheist, then you need to avoid this circular argument.
6. Don't confuse a logical argument with a valid argument.
In order to follow this rule, you have to understand what logic is, if you do not, then take a 101 course at a local community college, it will be well worth your $75. I'm not being flippant here, this is genuine advice, I took a logic course and I think you should too. Or at least be willing to dedicate some time reading up on fallacies online. A logical argument looks like this:
- Premise: All tourists are purple.
- I'm a tourist, therefore I'm Purple.
That logic is sound, no really, it is. The problem isn't the logic, the problem is the premise that all tourists are purple, it simply is not true. If you feed a false premise into a logical statement you will probably get a false conclusion. A premise must be true to get a true conclusion, this is a "valid" argument and works with logic to make your point.
If you want to decay a debate into personal insult that has nothing to do with the topic at hand, then be sure to invoke an ad hominem. Then be prepared for personal insults as many atheists and theists alike will reply in kind when met with an ad hominem. If you find yourself wanting to talk about the person, instead of the topic, then there is a good chance that you have already lost the debate. Focus, and stay on topic.
Don't ignore logical fallacies and do your best to understand them before entering into a debate. Most atheists will outright reject any so-called evidence that hinges on a fallacy. Common fallacies to understand include the strawman fallacy, shifting the burden, ad hominem (very common, and sad), argument from authority, argument from ignorance, non-sequitur, and argumentum ad populum. Learn these, understand them, admit that you would not accept these fallacies from an atheist and likewise atheists wont accept them from you.
That's it, 6 simple rules for debating an atheist. There are more, many many more. But if you consider these few rules, then you will do far better than those that do not. What are your rules for debate?