Pitfalls in debate – the difficulties we face
As a person who discusses his beliefs mostly with the like-minded, I find it difficult to speak to someone with a very different viewpoint to my own in relation to religion, science, the paranormal and the metaphysical. I generally won’t stand by and let what I perceive as foolishness escape challenged, because I think misinformation is dangerous, and too easily manipulated. And I can’t always fault the person from which this misinformation comes, as we all have our understandings of the universe because of what we’ve learned and what information we’ve been exposed to. Most of the people with whom I’ve debated have been reasonable people who just have a different viewpoint. There is nothing wrong with a different viewpoint if both parties in a debate can appreciate the relevance of the case being stated, and when this happens, we make progress as people.
But sometimes the people we love and care about can have views and ideas that either we see as false, or know as outright foolishness. The last thing I want to do when debating with family members or loved ones is to alienate them or cause a rift between us.
The problem here has several parts:
- People’s core beliefs are very precious to them, because this is what they base their assessments of their universe upon. If you stomp on these, you stomp on all they hold dear.
- When discussing topics of belief, people with strong views which you are addressing or opposing can tend to “clam-up” and stop listening to you. The more insistent you become, the less they hear.
- Aggressive attacks only cause the other person to feel threatened. If you get too emotional about a topic or during debate, you lose, the other person will claim victory based on your lack of self control.
- Pedantic and semantic arguments can be a trap for both aides of any argument. As in politics, arguments can be all too readily used against you if poorly worded.
- Facts are your friend, they can also be your enemy. If you don’t know the answer, it’s difficult to stand your ground in a debate.
So what to do? Given these difficulties, how can we talk sense to someone we care about without coming across as a bully?
I for one see the way forward when debating against the tenets of religion, anti-science, the paranormal an other forms of denialism is to be as empathetic as possible. You have to really listen to what the other person is saying. You’ll find that a lot of the time their deeply held beliefs will stem from fear; fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of being alone in the universe, fears that their lives are without purpose. These fears can be somewhat placated by belief in a higher power who is here to look after you, to listen to your wishes and to grant you eternal life after your life ends. And these fears are very powerful, because they address the very nature of what it means to be human. If a person were to lose their entire perspective on life, and all they hold to be true, the confrontation of this may be too much to bear. None of want to see people simply giving up on life.
The militant stance of a soldier of reason will not have a favourable result in most cases. The idea that the mainstream media has of atheists as aggressive and “strident” is damaging to us all, it’s false and needs to be adjusted by out actions. That’s not to say there’s not room for Dawkins and Hitchens in the debate, but if we are all like them, we come across as a mob, or as evil.
In my eyes, I see the best way to go into debate is with a sense of respect for the individual (this is a human with human experiences/needs much like your own), a sense of empathy (try to understand what the person means rather than just what they are saying), and a lot of patience ( aggression and insults will only foster the same in kind).
I am not professing to know everything about interpersonal communications, nor am I saying that this is how I operate all the time, but this is what I’d like to see people adopt in their arguments. And yes, I’ll admit that there’s nothing like the occasional firefight to spark things up, but at the end I always feel like I’ve betrayed myself somewhat.
What are your experiences/advices when it comes to dealing with conflict that arises from atheistic/theistic/scientific debate?