Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.


  1. jacobfromlost says

    I never argue to change the mind of the person I’m arguing with. I only argue to help my own understanding, and aid the understanding of an audience.

    Sometimes I think rationalists fall into the trap of WANTING to change the mind of their argumentative opponent. But the fact remains that we don’t have control over what they believe or think. (And when you are more concerned about changing someone’s mind than you are the truth…the truth gets quickly sacrificed in service of changing that person’s mind.)

    And, ironically, I think someone who makes an intellectually honest argument while keeping in mind they don’t really CARE of the other person changes their mind or not…has a better chance of changing that person’s mind.

    I’m far more open to changing my mind if the person arguing with me demonstrates that they are more concerned about what is true than about changing my mind. If the person arguing against me relies on clear details, evidence, and reason, and it is clear they are arguing from that demonstrated information and their conclusions don’t particularly benefit them…

    Then I am forced to reconsider my own position in light of the evidence.

  2. Kazim says

    I agree, and that’s why it’s important to recognize the difference between conversing with an honest person who can acknowledge his own fallacies, and somebody who’s just arguing as a way of admiring himself. If you’re arguing with an audience (whether it’s live or online), you can kind of play with the obvious flaws in that person’s belief and get the audience on your side. But if you have no audience, and you aren’t learning anything from the experience, and the person isn’t listening to you enough to accept any of your points, you might as well just not waste your time.

  3. jacobfromlost says

    I’ve only had a couple arguments privately online, usually in the wake of some disagreement about underlying facts where the person I was arguing with seemed intellectually honest (and I thought I had some chance of clarifying those facts with them so that they might accept them).

    You are right, though. Why argue with someone who doesn’t care one way or another about what is true, especially when there is no audience to benefit from the exchange? (I still have some crazy guy from Australia sending me intermittent private mail through youtube–and it’s always something like, “You atheists believing in nothing. Ha ha. Where does the universe come from then? BWAAAAA!”)

    So if the person seems unhinged, don’t debate them privately either. (Debating them publically at least makes it easy to get the audience on your side! lol)

  4. Afterthought_btw says

    I think you’re most likely to change the mind of the person you are debating if you argue privately. Generally when people argue in public, they find it harder to back down, because of the amount of people that are there to see it – or at least that’s my experience.

  5. John K. says


    On the topic, I am curious about what you think of Richard Dawkins refusing to debate William Lane Craig. I tend to think Dawkins is right when he says Craig will just use Dawkins’ celebrity to promote himself, and there will be little in it for Dawkins. Dawkins also takes this direction with various creationist apologists, thinking a debate will do more harm than good.

    Of course, Dawkins is being accused of cowardice. I think he is a great educator and biologist, but not that great at public debate. Is it better for him to step down? I think so.

    And of course, Craig is great at being persuasive with complicated though terribly flawed arguments. If there is anyone that can make you “lose” with a “winning argument”, it is him. He is my textbook example of a great debater with terrible ideas.

  6. Kazim says

    Well, I support Dawkins in the sense that if he doesn’t think it would do any good to debate Craig, he shouldn’t do it. But I don’t think that means that EVERYONE should refuse.

    I’ve heard Dawkins in several contexts before. He’s a brilliant and inspiring lecturer, and he handles audience questions well. In a debate format, he’s a little mediocre. IMHO, he isn’t aggressive enough, and doesn’t take the offensive in trying to steer the topic toward winning ground. That’s what Craig does best.

    IMHO, in a debate with Dawkins I expect that Craig would try to keep the subject on everything BUT evolution, because that’s Dawkins’ expert domain. He’d probably keep it in an area where Dawkins would sound cold and unemotional, or perhaps (if he went science based) push the discussion into the terrain of cosmology.

    The reason that scientists are often wary of debating apologists is because scientists already have scientific credibility, whereas apologists are often trying to gain some by sharing a stage with them. On the other hand, a non-scientists doesn’t need to have any such reservations; and indeed, often the best debaters are the ones who are primarily entertainers — like for example, Bill Maher, John Stuart, and Penn Jillette. Craig is ultimately an entertainer, albeit an entertainer with a philosophy degree.

  7. jacobfromlost says

    “I think you’re most likely to change the mind of the person you are debating if you argue privately. Generally when people argue in public, they find it harder to back down, because of the amount of people that are there to see it – or at least that’s my experience.”

    Have you actually changed a person’s mind from theism to atheism? This has only happened once for me online, and the person was not the DIRECT person I was arguing with, but one of those who “chimed in” during the debate to argue against me, and slowly changed their mind (I don’t think they had really thought about it much either way, and was only loosely a theist). To be honest, I debated that person BOTH publicly and privately, but they seemed to be debating with intellectual honesty in both situations because they were genuinely curious what the truth was, and hadn’t thought that much about it.

    I’m sure there have been many “lurkers” I have influenced to take that rational turn, but I’ve never had anyone I was directly arguing with back down on their main claim (ie, god of whatever sort) in public OR private. I’ve had lots of theists back down about this or that fact, but never collapse into, “yes, you are right. How do I choose among so many supernatural claims that all hinge on the same ‘leap of faith’, when the choice isn’t necessary at all and I can use reason and evidence to live my life?”.

    The only time I remember this happening on AE is when “Mark” did his shtick in a postshow one time, but we now know that wasn’t sincere (and I think he ended that call with an invitation for the hosts to go to his Church anyway, lol, so I’m not even sure his fictional character was convinced). It DOES, however, seem like AE has gotten a not insignificant number of calls of watchers/listeners who said the show made them turn the corner toward rationality. If I had seen the show 5 or 10 years before it started, it would have done that to me–luckily I was always skeptical, did a lot of reading formally and informally in college, and graduated an atheist who went on to read a book here and there on atheism before this new wave post 9/11.

    I think the thing that pushed me from a self-described agnostic, to a self-described atheist (what I would now call an agnostic atheist) was a college course where we read the Great Books and discussed them. When we read certain parts of the bible, one of our professors was a Calvinist. He said the devil was absolutely evil. So I asked about evil–is evil destruction, disease, death, etc, and he answered yes. That’s when I suggested that if that was the case, then wouldn’t a “being” that was absolutely evil…be required to be absolutely destroyed, absolutely diseased, absolutely dead, etc…which would seem to mean such a being didn’t exist.

    He said no, that one being could be absolutely evil, and the devil was. So then I said doesn’t that mean that an absolutely evil devil and an absolutely good god would be in a stalemate for all eternity? Yes, he said, until god throws Satan in the lake of fire at the end of time.

    DING! I can still remember the feeling of “this guy is CRAZY and he’s my college professor!” going off in my head. (He was apparently a radio personality for a while, and now works to help teach Christians how to be journalists…whatever that means.)

    It was just one too many logical problems for me to take seriously.

  8. jacobfromlost says

    I used to think Dawkins should always accept debates at these things, since a lot of people already believe the weird things WLC is spewing, so Dawkins showing up wouldn’t seem to “lend credibility” to WLC any more that believers were already giving him.

    But now I’m uncertain. WLC has that annoying habit of ignoring logic and reason as if it doesn’t matter (when he wants it not to matter), and embracing it when he does want it to matter (in ways that ignore certain facts and evidence and make baseless assumptions and pass them off as facts). In essence, he treats logic and reason in a way contrary to logic and reason while trying to maintain the semblance and weight of it, if that makes any sense.

    It’s almost like a magician challenging a scientist to come to his magic show and explain how the rabbit disappeared. If he CAN’T, the magician says, then magic is confirmed real…and many in the audience may buy this as “rational”.

    It may simply be that the best course of action is for Dawkins to ignore WLC.

    Craig isn’t intellectually honest anyway–I’ve seen him feign ignorance about all kinds of things…even when he has been set straight about them YEARS and YEARS ago and knows better. In one of his debates with Hitchens in the last few years, he even acted like he didn’t know what “atheism” was and LABORED under his misconception through half the debate. Finding that shtick a bit unbelievable, I searched out and found an old debate from the mid to early ’90s where he was making the same tired misunderstandings of what atheism is, and THAT debater set him straight YEARS BEFORE HITCHENS DID! Between then and now, I can only assume he has been set straight on what atheism is dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and was STILL acting like he was completely in the dark with Hitchens.

  9. Afterthought_btw says

    Have you actually changed a person’s mind from theism to atheism?

    From theism to atheism, probably not. I have caused people to seriously question their theistic beliefs – which is as good as you can reasonably expect I think – and set them on their way to becoming deists (I don’t know if they are still deists now, or gone forwards or backwards to atheism/theism), and I have (I think) changed someone’s mind from deism to atheism.

    I’ve certainly had them back down on their main claim before, but never in public. I tend to find that if you can offer a way for them to ‘save face’ in some way, it helps. (This can be through suggesting a point in the conversation where a misunderstanding may have occurred for example (whether it has or not!), or trying to find common ground.)

    I’m not saying it is common, but I’ve seen it happen.

    On the other hand, as you and Kazim have pointed out, if arguing in public, then you do indeed have a chance of persuading onlookers. And if you’re trying to achieve maximum deconversions that’s probably the way to go!

    Your journey to atheism actually reminds me of mine – although mine was on a far smaller scale – I was pretty young, only twelve or thirteen, and a Christian. Anyway, in our RE class (Religious Education – I went to school in Ireland), the teacher was telling us Anselm’s Ontological argument. I heard it, and thought: “That’s a really, really, shitty argument.”

    So I argued about it with him. I think I pointed out that if something that exists in reality is greater than that which exists in the mind, then that disproves the premise that we can imagine a greatest possible being. (So premise 4 (?) actually contradicts premise 3 (?)) I also pointed out that different people have different ideas of perfection, so there should be lots of different gods around the place.

    His response could be condensed down to: “You’re wrong because I’m the teacher and I say so.”

    To be fair to him, he probably had no real background in theological arguments, but then, I didn’t either. Anyway, his ‘answer’ pissed me off so much, I started to really question whether a god existed or not, because I was starting to wonder if I had any reason to believe in it at all, other than ‘X says so’!

    So yeah, I guess, amusingly, both of us were actually convinced of atheism through arguments by theists.

  10. Joshua Fisher says

    I strongly dislike formal debates. My problem with debate is that the purpose of debate is not to find the truth, but, rather, to convince the audience you are right, regardless of the truth.

    Even the structure of the debate lends to dishonesty. Why, for example do most debates only have one round to respond to the opponents arguments? And, why is the time allowed for response so much shorter than the time allowed for making your argument? This format seems to enable people to try to sneak in dishonest points with no accountability.

    By far, I prefer an informal discussion where points can be taken one at a time and discussed to completeness. Where at any moment you can say to your opponent, “Stop. What you just said requires some justification.”

    Often when debating a theist their statement is basically a 20 minute “Gish gallop” of wrong and you get 10 minutes to rebut. No thank you very much.

  11. jacobfromlost says

    I see your points, but what’s the alternative given that those opposed to our view are unlikely to listen to us at all without a debate format?

    One alternative that might be effective are books by former pastors that illustrate their deconversion, since they would meet the believers on their own turf and then highlight a path to reason.

    But generally I think we are stuck with the debate format, if for no other reason than individual humans DISAGREE on what the truth is. If we agreed on what it was, we wouldn’t have any need for debate.

    And you are right– it can have pitfalls of dishonesty on either side, but then it’s up to the opponent to skillfully point that out (or the audience to notice and consider that side’s overall honesty).

    If you have two equally skilled debaters, and a judging audience that is rational or can be made to see reason, then the debater who advocates using evidence and reason will win every time. If you don’t have such an audience, or the audience hasn’t YET been made to see reason, you just have to keep on keepin’ on. As long as you keep at it and never back down, more people will recognize rationality for what it is.

    The key is in the skill of the debaters, I think. I’ve never seen Hitchens lose a debate. Harris is pretty good–his Elvis zinger to Wolpe is still a classic, and it really does sneak up on you. Dawkins, however, is less skilled–perhaps even less skilled than WLC at times. That could be problematic.

    If you want the best chance to get at the truth in a debate format (which is the best we can ever humanly hope for), the skill level has to be high on both sides, and equally matched.

    This is why defendants can get an appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel. If your advocate is incompetent AS an advocate, the outcome of the trial–especially false positives of “guilty”–are thrown into doubt. In the theist/atheist debate, the atheist is the defense attorney, and the burden of proof is on the theist. But if the theist is a more skillful debater, the false positive of “god” could be reached by some in the audience simply by the lack of debating skill of the atheist–NOT by the skill of the theist or by the strength of his/her argument.

  12. Zach says

    I sometimes wish there was a “boot camp” for debators or those who wish to take their community organizing or advocacy skills to the next level. I can envision a massive reading list that serves as a prerequisite followed by a practical, hands-on week of workshops that teach debating skills, writing press releases, and general media relations, etc. Perhaps even some support for those who establish clubs (ways to be active, fundraising ideas, general club management, to name a few).

  13. JJR says

    Interestingly, WLC keeps ducking challenges to debate John Loftus, of the Debunking Christianity blog. (Loftus is a former student of WLC and former preacher-turned-atheist)

  14. jacobfromlost says

    “Interestingly, WLC keeps ducking challenges to debate John Loftus, of the Debunking Christianity blog. (Loftus is a former student of WLC and former preacher-turned-atheist)”

    lol Now that’s not a turn of events I had anticipated.

    It’s like the magician challenging others to prove the rabbit DIDN’T disappear, and a former magician who worked with him (who knows how all the tricks are done) steps up to pull it out of the trap door and say, “Here it is. Your tricks are not magic at all. And don’t try to switch topics to another trick. I know how you do ALL of them.”

    Under that circumstance, I can see why Craig would be actively avoiding Loftus.