Atheists and theists frequently get into debates over the existence of gods, over the nature of religion
, over whether religions do more harm than good, etc. Although every atheist and theist are different, it still works out that a lot of these conversations keep hitting the same topics and keep running into the same problems. Both sides can be at fault for this, but there are a number of common errors which theists make that can kill any chance there might have been at having a productive, interesting, and substantive discussion. These errors can be avoided if theists know about them in advance and care.
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Many conversations between atheists and theists are killed at the very beginning when a theist lectures an atheist about what the "real" definition of atheism is, who "real" atheists are, and that people who call themselves atheists are "really" agnostics. More often than not this religious theist has no idea what they are talking about: they read some false claims in an apologetics books and are now repeating them as if they were gospel truth. Instead, they should take some time to learn how atheists and dictionaries define atheism and agnosticism
, not presume to impose their own on us. Atheism vs. Agnosticism...
2. Presume to Preach and Proselytize, As If We Needed It
Far too often, religious theists enter conversations with atheists not to learn something and not to merely communicate their perspective, but instead to simply proselytize and preach. That's not a conversation because a real conversation is a two-way street where both contribute and both are interested in taking something away. Preaching or proselytization is a one-way street where one person does all the talking but none of the listening and none of the learning. Atheists don't need this and are almost never at all interested in it. If you feel the need to preach, ask if the person wants to listen.
No one is perfect and few learn how to construct logical arguments, much less how to identify and avoid logical fallacies. Even so, few things are more annoying than to see someone commit the most obvious and egregious fallacies, even those which should have been noticed without specific education. If you commit such fallacies, and especially if you commit many of them, many won't even bother trying to explain it all to you. If your position isn't worth your spending time to identify and eliminate basic errors in how you explain it, how can it be worth others' time listening to or rebutting it? Logical Fallacies
4. Try to "Prove" Something By Quoting the BibleChristians regard their Bible significant in their lives, but for most atheists it is little more than literature at best — ancient literature mixed with a bit of mythologized history. For atheists, quoting passages from the Bible proves nothing about any gods whatsoever. At most, it may prove that the person doing the quoting doesn't have anything better to offer. That the Christian doing the quoting considers this the best possible sort of evidence to offer reinforces the tragedy of this miscommunication. Avoid this by remembering that you can't prove anything to atheists by simply quoting the Bible.
Many religious theists believe there is a punishment for bad people in an afterlife. In certain religions, like Christianity, this punishment plays a central role in their mythology. They always live under the threat of punishment if they don't behave and believe correctly, so it may seem reasonable to pass the threat along to nonbelievers — but that will likely have the opposite effect. Many people react negatively to threats and telling atheists that they will go to hell
if they don't convert, or that atheism is a "bad bet" with bad consequences, will likely push them away. Atheists Have No Reason to Fear Hell...
People making a positive claim have a burden of proof
; this means that they voluntarily assume an obligation to support their claim. All theists claiming that their god exists have such a burden of proof. Atheists only have such a burden when they make a specific claim. Some theists pretend that they don't have any obligation to support what they say, like for example arguing that such a burden lies with those who hold a minority position (atheists), regardless of whether they make any claims or not. Atheists shouldn't fall for such tricks and won't take the attempt very well. Why Atheists Ask for Proof of God...
7. Cut & Paste Arguments From Others That You Can't DefendTheological arguments can get very difficult and very complicated. Many people, atheists and theists, can quickly get in over their heads and have no good answers or arguments to offer. There's no shame in this, but occasionally a person will simply take a short cut by copying arguments from someplace else and pasting them into their own conversation. Even worse, they don't understand the argument well enough to adequately defend it. Quoting others is fine, but only in support of arguments you are making on your own. If you can't make your own arguments, then it's better to admit this and bow out.
8. Ignore What We Say and Pretend that We Didn't Just Object to that ArgumentA large number of debates, no matter what the subject, can end up with all parties just talking past each other: each is more interested in what they have to say than in listening to what others have to say. Everyone does this, but when it comes to discussions with atheists many theists do something in particular: they offer arguments for the existence of their god and then ignore the various objections and rebuttals offered by atheists. It's one thing not to agree with those rebuttals, but quite another to go on repeating the argument as if no objections had been raised at all. Please don't do that, it's annoying.
9. Offer That Same Argument Again That We've Refuted a Million Times
There are only so many arguments for the existence of gods, so we can't expect theists to offer something completely new and original every time. This doesn't excuse offering the most simplistic forms of these same arguments, nor does it excuse a failure to do some research to learn what the most common objections and rebuttals are. If you do this, atheists will often assume that you really don't know much about the argument or even about how to argue this subject in general. If you want to kill your chance at a substantive conversation with an atheist, demonstrate that you didn't do any research ahead of time.
10. Tell us to Go Read a Book or Do Research When We Challenge YouSooner or later in every debate, atheists will challenge a theist to provide evidence to support their claims. The proper response is to actually provide evidence. What you shouldn't do is insist that it's up to atheists to go do research to find out whether there is any merit to your claims. There are a potentially infinite number of claims we could encounter and we don't have time to thoroughly investigate them all. It's up to the claimant to show that their position has enough merit to be taken seriously and be looked at more closely. If you can't provide enough evidence to do this, then don't start making claims to begin with. We certainly aren't going to go out to research your claims just because you say we should.
11. Announce That You'll Be Praying for UsOne of the most condescending things a theist can do to an atheist is to make a point of announcing that they'll be praying for us. Atheists don't believe in the power of prayer, but even theists can't think that prayer will be more effective for having announced. So what's the purpose? Some say that it's to express well-wishes, but people say that they'll pray for someone when the person is sick or having trouble. One way or another, the theist appears to be expressing superiority over atheists in a passive-aggressive manner. That suggests they weren't interested in serious conversation to begin with.