This reminded me of some debates that I've gotten into with all kinds of people, mostly certain religious types. We'll get into a debate over science and evidence, but I can never win the argument with them because they don't seem to understand how the scientific method even works or what actually constitutes evidence (which they continuously demonstrate, thinking that multiple, unverifiable anecdotes on top of more unverifiable anecdotes will somehow magically transform it all into actual evidence). I can even apply this to some debates I've gotten into with some global warming deniers, as the ones I've debated refuse to even understand what the issue is even all about (as they'll think that a cold winter in a particular region somehow disproves it), so no matter what evidence I provide, it won't matter because it's like we're not even playing the same game.
Before I go on, allow me to address to common objections:
1. Why debate at all? Nobody's going to change their mind.
This is a very specific claim, and it's a testable one. I know that I've changed my mind, and I can name other people (both personally and those whose stories I've read) who have done so. In other words, people can and do change their minds, even though they rarely do it in the course of one debate. (A friend of mine once related a story where in one conversation, he swayed somebody over to the right side of the gay marriage issue. Yeah, that's correct - there's a "right" side to this issue - the one that maximizes happiness and causes the least amount of harm.)
2. Why do you care what people think? Let them live their lives.
What people think matters. It affects how they live their lives, how they vote, how they raise their children, etc. The truth matters, and when people operate under false information, they are likely to make bad choices. I don't believe in forcing anybody to change their beliefs, but I do believe that beliefs should be challenged. (Yes, even - especially - mine!) Part of engaging people in conversations and debate is to determine which ideas are best and which hold up. If mine are faulty, then I absolutely SHOULD change them.
I recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the whole notion of debating religious beliefs. It's called A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian. I had heard about it, but I wasn't really interested. I don't know, something about the title turned me off. Even though I'd never deny that I think that this world would be a better place without religious faith, it just seemed like a way to be as annoying as religious fundamentalists who preach on street corners.
I changed my mind when I heard an interview with him on Seth Andrews's The Thinking Atheist podcast. After hearing that, I bought the book and read it within a couple of days. Ironically enough, I now feel less likely to want to debate with believers. I'm somewhat less of a reactionary as well, I think. Let me give an example:
Driving out of San Francisco, you might see a road sign put up by the young-Earth creationist propagandists called Answers in Genesis. It reads something along the lines of: "To our atheist friends: thank God you're wrong!" There once was a time where seeing that might have prompted me to write a blog post, commenting on how stupid it is. But what did I do when I saw it? I smiled. I felt good, actually.
Why would I feel that way? Because obviously we atheists are getting to them. Can you even imagine somebody putting up a sign like this just twenty years ago? Atheists were such a small blip. Sure, they were out there (I was not among them then) but for the most part they felt the need to keep it to themselves. That's changed though, and as the United States (and much of the rest of the world) becomes less and less religious, groups like Answers in Genesis, who not only depend on religious belief but an almost fanatical following, are starting to feel the pinch. And as Sam Harris said, they're losing the argument. And they know it. And they're getting desperate, which is a good thing.
The basic premise behind Boghossian's book is that before you can get into conversations about evidence, the reliability of scripture, etc., you have to get right to the heart of the issue, and that's faith. Essentially, faith is a faulty way of learning and knowing about the world, and that's what needs to be discussed and dismantled before you can go anywhere else. Of course, and I've seen this done before, believers will often play word games and say that everybody has faith in some way or another. That's why the nonbeliever needs to first distinguish between the kind of faith where you can substitute the word "hope" ("I have faith that my wife won't cheat on me.") with the kind of faith that has you making knowledge claims ("I have faith that Mohammed ascended to heaven on a flying horse.")
Once you've established that's what you're talking about, then you can proceed with a conversation, and it's not difficult to show that this type of faith is unreliable. I could write a whole blog post on this alone, but suffice it to say that since there are so many different faiths out there that lead to disparate, contradicting (and in some cases, downright harmful) conclusions, it's not something that's reliable for discerning truth. In other words, it's a faulty epistemology, as Boghossian writes.
What's much more effective than debating is to engage in a Socratic conversation. Keep asking questions, and it won't take long before you give them just enough rope to hang themselves. I've tried this with some of my more thoughtful, intelligent theist friends along with those who, well, let's just say that I find them to be a bit more sheep-like. In all cases, it ends with a "I'll get back to you on that." And I have yet to have any of them get back to me.
Boghossian also notes that when it comes to religious faith, people are usually believers because they are raised with it or some sort of traumatic incident or desperate situation that led them to it. When people abandon their faiths, it's usually the result of a long, complex, sometimes even agonizing process. (These are generalities, of course, and I'm sure that they are exceptions, but I'm inclined to think that it's a pretty useful way to look at it, as it certainly matches my experience and the experiences of many people I know.) They rarely just give it all up in the course of one discussion. But this doesn't mean that nonbelievers should stop having these conversations. While you might not get a believer to go from saying "I know that there is a God" to "I don't believe that a god is likely", it is reasonable to get one from "I know that there is a God" to "I strongly believe that there is a God." That's a subtle difference, but it's a difference nonetheless, and subsequent conversations can take them further down the road to enlightenment.
I realize that to the believers and undecideds out there, this all might seem somewhat arrogant. However, I recommend that everybody, not just atheists, check out Boghossian's book. Because here's the thing - if faith, no matter which religion we're talking about here - is a legitimate way of attaining knowledge about the world, then it will stand up to his methodology. If we can take him at his word that his Socratic method of getting people to abandon their faith has had as much success as he says it has, then the faithful really need to ask themselves why the simple process of asking questions makes it all fall apart.