Saturday, September 03, 2011

Should people of reason debate people of faith?

As person of reason who thinks it's a good thing to promote facts over faith, I often wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by engaging the faithful in debate about creation or the existence of gods or miracles or prophets or any number of other topics. Lately, the more I think about it the more I think it at least unnecessary and perhaps counterproductive to openly debate people of faith.

First of all, debating is in some sense a sport. It's indulged in or performed as entertainment, especially in law schools and universities. There are well-known strategies and tactics that in the end have little to do with the issue at hand. A good debater can advocate equally well for either side of a question. In fact, there are college courses and clubs that teach and practice the finer points of the sport, again with little regard to the actual matter at hand. This seems to me to make light of a question that is too serious to be taken as mere sport. Moreover, the importance of tactics and rhetorical tricks seems to me to play right into the faithful's strength. In the final analysis, they have no factual or logical arguments that can stand up to serious critique. Rhetoric, metaphor and emotional appeal are the only cards in their hand so they're really good at playing them.

Second, and perhaps more important in my mind, is that I don't wish to dignify or lend credence or publicity to what are utterly unfounded and frankly preposterous propositions. Would a physicist debate a geo-centrist, or a cancer researcher even appear on the same stage with a faith-healer? I doubt it. In fact, Richard Dawkins will not debate creationists for exactly this reason.

What are the alternatives? Lecture, write, inform, meet, educate, advertise, blog, tweet, but don't debate. In particular, don't let religious trolls suck you into playing their game on the internet. Be the voice of reason, literacy and culture. Don't insult, inform. State the facts, leave the name-calling and bad behavior to the pious.


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