Explosive Debates: Putting Out Fires and Dodging Verbal Bullets

Explosive Debates: Putting Out Fires and Dodging Verbal Bullets

We human beings are a passionate bunch. We vigorously defend our countries, families, and worldviews. While back alley brawls, gunfights, and kung fu showdowns might be more violent, verbal spars can get ugly, too.

RTB’s theme verse, 1 Peter 3:15, advocates exhibiting “gentleness and respect” in a debate situation. But it’s difficult to keep your cool when someone’s ripping you apart verbally (I’d probably resort to crying).

The RTB scholars have faced their fair share of difficult debate opponents, so I asked them each for advice on putting out the fires of a heated discussion about religion, creation, or evolution.

What do you do when a discussion with a skeptic or a person of another faith goes sour?

Jeff Zweerink: Remember the main point isn’t to win the argument—it’s to help the other person think about things differently. If you’re going at the debate with an ‘I need to win’ mindset, you may win the argument yet not accomplish anything of lasting value. But if you engage the person and help them think about things in a different way, you’re going to get closer to the truth because people are going to reevaluate their assumptions. They’re going to say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about that before. How would I respond to that?’

If you come across as combative right away, then you’re going to get a lot of defenses. You want to get through the defenses to get down to the central issues. Ask a bunch of questions. Questions help draw people out. Typically, it will become clear where to push, where to probe, where to walk away.

But for Christians the thought of discontinuing a debate about faith before convincing the other party of the Bible’s truth can seem untenable. Is there a time, then, when it is okay to walk away from an unruly discussion?

Fazale Rana: It’s interesting that Jesus said, ‘Don’t throw your pearls before swine.’ Those are hard words in many respects because we don’t want to think about people that we care enough about to try to engage as being like swine. But I think the message is if people are not going to receive the precious things you have, then to try to give it to them is equivalent to ‘throwing your pearls before swine.’ It’s not appreciated; you’re just destroying that which you have. So in a sense, don’t waste your time or your resources.

It’s one thing to engage somebody who is fairly well entrenched in their viewpoint, but still is willing to engage you. But if they won’t let you make a point, if they won’t listen, if they continue to be rude even though you call them out on it, then at that point they’re not interested in really having a conversation with you and really engaging your position. I think it is okay at that point to pull up stakes and just end the conversation.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t engage that person in the future, but at that particular point in time there’s just no sense in prolonging it.

Emotions often run high during heated discussions, and it’s easy to resort to using emotional arguments to make your point or discredit your opponent. But it sure isn’t easy or fun trying to refute appeals to topics such as “why would a good God send people to Hell?” How can you maintain a cool demeanor without stomping all over the other person’s feelings?

Kenneth Samples: I think the best way of addressing this kind of issue is to acknowledge that there are emotional issues in life and we are emotional people, but we can’t allow those emotions to stir us to make poor decisions or to color our thinking.

Emotion can often leave us thinking things that are probably not terribly reasonable. There’s a whole list of fallacies connected to the emotional areas of life. A good example is the ad hominem fallacy. This is when somebody ticks you off or says something offensive to you and you lose sight of the issue at hand and want to attack back.

Another powerful fallacy is the appeal to pity. This is may be the ideal fallacy in characterizing these kinds of faulty reasoning. It’s where you appeal to a pitiful situation to try to get somebody to accept your argument. All of us have a sense of compassion, but making a person feel guilty doesn’t change the logic and the rationality.

I don’t want to leave a person thinking that I couldn’t care less about their emotional situation or their pain or irritation, but I do want to point out to them that sometimes we have to set aside the emotional situation and look a little deeper. We want to have firm heads but very compassionate hearts.

Though all Christians profess a belief in and love of Jesus Christ, we also differ on many secondary issues, such as the age of the earth. The verbal sparring matches that sometimes result from these differing viewpoints can be downright hurtful. So what do you do when a debate with a fellow believer gets ugly?

Hugh Ross: With Christians it’s important to always begin with the Bible, rather than with science. I take every opportunity I get when I’m being hit with objections and hostile issues to turn them back to Scripture.

The idea is to help people realize that they need to integrate across the entire Bible and all the disciplines of science. Often hostility arises when people focus on just one text. They know a few Scripture passages really well but they haven’t taken the time to integrate it and, therefore, fail to see the weaknesses of their position. I ask, “Have you actually looked up those Scripture references? Have you actually looked up all the passages pertaining to that topic and seen what they say and how they are worded differently?”

I think it’s also important to recognize that people have probably heard only one perspective on creation all their life, they’ve been told that the arguments and evidences are slam-dunks, and when they find out otherwise there’s a level of embarrassment. So it’s important to be sensitive especially if there’s a crowd of people listening to the dialogue. Try to create some distance between your opponent personally and the organization or people that fed them their material.

It always helps to start with, “Have you considered X, Y, and Z?” If you can get them to say, “No, I’ve not considered that,” it relieves a lot of the tension and the hostility. The whole idea is to get dialogue going and to get them thinking about things they haven’t thought about before.

No matter which side of the fence you stand on in a religious debate, I hope these tips will help you keep your cool and dodge those verbal bullets. In the end, maintaining a friendship despite differences is the bigger triumph.

— Maureen

Resources: RTB founder Hugh Ross is a consummate debate veteran and has faced a variety of opponents when discussing science-faith issues. Audio and video recordings of these debates are available for purchase from the RTB Web store.

Talking with skeptics:

Responding to a Skeptic: Shermer Challenges/Ross Responds with Dr. Michael Shermer and Dr. Hugh Ross (CD)

RTB Live! Volume 1: The Great Debate with Dr. Victor Stenger and Dr. Hugh Ross (DVD)

RTB Live! Volume 2: UCSB Skeptics Forum with Dr. Harry Nelson and Dr. Kevin Plaxco representing the evolution view and Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Fazale Rana representing the creation view (DVD)

Talking with fellow Christians:

The John Ankerberg Debate: Young-Earth vs. Old-Earth with Kent Hovind and Dr. Hugh Ross (DVD)

The Great Debate on Science and the Bible with Ken Ham and Dr. Jason Lisle representing the young-earth view, and Dr. Walter Kaiser and Dr. Hugh Ross representing the day-age view (DVD)