A propos of nothing in particular, I’ve noticed something lately that rather surprises me. Rhetorical questions make arguments weaker. That’s an over-generalization, of course, but time and again I’ve found that any time I find myself about to ask a rhetorical question, I can usually make a much stronger statement by making it a direct affirmation. Not only does it typically produce a result that’s harder to refute, but it also tends to sharpen my own understanding of the argument I’m trying to make. Instead of leaving an open-ended absence of information, I’m forced to dig in to my own argument and understand better why I think it’s true.
I’ve noticed this especially in my discussions with believers. When I use my habitual, semi-Socratic approach, we talk circles around each other, endlessly. When I leave out the question marks, and stick to presenting my conclusions and my reasons for reaching them, I find that my opponents, if not convinced, at least end up with an uncomfortable lack of counter-arguments, and tend to bail out sooner.
Partly this may be dogmatic conditioning: they’ve been trained to believe whatever is asserted boldly and with great assurance. Also, they themselves tend to habitually use rhetorical questions themselves, and by answering those questions with reasoned, affirmative declarations, and avoiding rhetorical questions myself, the conversation gradually takes on the atmosphere of “the atheist seems to have all the answers.” That may or may not be illusory, depending on what we’re discussing and how much I really know about it, but it does have a subtle emotional impact that strengthens the presentation (at least) of my arguments.
Rhetorical questions, and the Socratic teaching method, have one flaw that makes them unsuitable for effective use in debates: they assume that the person you’re speaking to sincerely wants to understand the truth. In the absence of sincere and open inquiry, rhetorical questions merely open the door for the other person to respond with irrelevancies, dogmas, trollery, etc. What’s more, they risk creating a sense that, having responded to your question, your opponent has risen to the challenge and returned the ball to your court. Especially when the other person is discussing matters they know little about and/or haven’t really thought through, they might (and often do) assume that your argument is defeated by the mere fact that they have any answer at all for your rhetorical questions.
So don’t use them. Don’t give your opponents an easy out. Think through your arguments, and state your conclusions, with your reasons for concluding them, as simply, directly, and assertively as possible. There may occasionally be times when rhetorical questions work well, but most of the time the alternative will be more effective.