For better or worse, I’ve spent countless hours over the years debating atheists in online forums. I was there when the Reasonable Faith Facebook Page had around 11,000 likes (it’s currently at 670,000). RF had less trolls back then, but still required a lot of work. Over the years I’ve learned what to do and what not to do. I sort of wish I didn’t have all this experience in online debating to be giving you all this information, nevertheless, my hope is that if you find yourself in such a situation, this list of don’ts for Christian Apologists will be helpful.
A Dozen Don’ts
1. Don’t take internet atheists very seriously.
Atheists that make a career out of debating Christians online are generally not going to be experts in the field of religion. As such, we shouldn’t take them, or their opinions, very seriously. The arguments they regurgitate, if they have any merit at all, are only loosely based on the work of professionals. Philosophers of religion are much more careful in what they say and how they say it. An amateur is more likely to make little errors an expert will not. For this simple reason, the claims of internet atheists shouldn’t be taken very seriously.
Here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying we should unreflectively dismiss anything a non-expert believes. Rather, I’m saying we should be careful not to overvalue the opinions of lay-people. This principle doesn’t just apply to religion – it applies across the philosophical spectrum. The claims and ideas we should be taking seriously (on a regular basis) are those put forth by competent authorities.
2. Don’t get sucked in.
Some atheists are highly skilled at baiting Christians into debate. They’ll say things like, “Christianity is obviously irrational,” or, “There’s no evidence Jesus even existed,” or, “Jesus was a zombie,” or, “All of the arguments for God are terrible and have been debunked over and over.” Our natural inclination is to refute such nonsense, but let me suggest a different kind of response. One of the deadliest tools in our arsenal is knowing when and how to ignore people. There are of course times when a response to these claims is appropriate, but we should only join a discussion we consciously choose to join, knowing full-well the ramifications of our doing so. Don’t get sucked in.
3. Don’t shoot from the hip.
This is one of my biggest pet peeves. In the online debating world, I’ve seen people make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims. Instead of admitting ignorance, they begin shooting from the hip, hoping that something, anything, sticks. If you don’t know what extra-biblical evidence exists for the martyrdom of early Christians, don’t just blurt out that said evidence exists (or doesn’t exist). Bluffing to save face is completely embarrassing. Bluffs eventually get called; you will be exposed for the charlatan you are – either in this life or the next. The saddest part is that there’s so much evidence in favor of Christianity, we aren’t forced to shoot from the hip in order to defend it.
Don’t. Do. It.
4. Don’t have the last word.
This is another peeve of mine. Truth is not reserved for the person that has the last word. If your atheist interlocutor wants to stay up till 4am responding to every comment you make, let him. Better yet, learn when the discussion is no longer fruitful and end it. Here’s an easy and respectful way to bow out of a discussion:
This doesn’t convey ignorance or ineptitude. Quite the opposite. It shows that you value substantive discussion and aren’t interested in wasting either you or your interlocutor’s time.
5. Don’t let your insecurities own you.
Here’s a theory of mine: Online debating is largely the result of unchecked insecurities. Christians, atheists, agnostics, whatever, we are insecure about our beliefs and intelligence and thus engage our peers in debate so we can be validated and feel better about ourselves. I am insecure about my intellect so I’ll go online and incessantly debate people I deem less smart than me. I’m insecure about my beliefs, so I’ll go and debate this person that hasn’t read all the papers I’ve read and show them how uninformed they are. The act of debating is an outward expression of deeply rooted insecurities.
These unchecked insecurities can–if we let them–rule over our thoughts and actions. Defending Christianity shouldn’t feel like a “Who’s Smarter” or “Who can quote more philosophers” competition. Before logging on, make it a habit to ask yourself this question: “Why am I going online to debate today?” If ever you can’t think of a good answer to this question, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and reassess your motivations.
6. Don’t waste your time.
You should be reading at least twice as much as debating. For every hour you spend debating online, you should spend at least two hours reading books, papers, journals, listening to lectures, and growing in knowledge. Call this Bertuzzi’s Maxim. If you think that’s too much studying, you’re simply not taking Christian Apologetics seriously. Don’t spend the majority of your time engaging non-experts, spend it with seasoned professionals. Learn how scholars express and defend their arguments. Learn how to accurately articulate and soundly refute objections to your view.
“For every hour you spend debating online, you should spend at least two hours reading books, papers, journals, listening to lectures, and growing in knowledge.”
If I could go back and do things over, marrying this rubric is exactly where I’d start. The number of hours I’ve wasted debating random people online could have been replaced with reading good philosophy. Here’s a question to ask yourself before each comment you post: “Do I have one good reason to spend another second doing this rather than reading?” Virtually every time I ask myself this, the answer is no.
7. Don’t be disorganized.
This one is extremely important. Don’t go into a Facebook or online debate forum without some kind of game plan. Why are you going in in the first place? Is it to change the cultural perception of Christians? Is it to get a better understanding of how atheists think? Keep these goals plastered on your mind before, during, and after going in. They will guide your interactions and lead to more productive discussions.
Once you’ve got a goal in place, it’s a good idea to limit your interactions to posts and topics you are well-versed in. Don’t go challenging atheists on a subject you don’t know anything about. Also, very important, keep track of your time. Some of these discussions can go on for hours, even days, some even weeks. Be cognizant of how much of your time is being devoted to each conversation. Last organizational tip: Try your best to engage in one conversation at a time. Multiple dialogue strings can get confusing and even overwhelming. Don’t.
8. Don’t do it alone.
This is also super important. If you are new to Apologetics, stop whatever you’re doing and forge relationships with seasoned Christian apologists. Create solid friendships with smarter and more informed Christians than you. This has been instrumental in my growth as an apologist (both intellectually and spiritually). It’s unfortunate but some of the most substantive and thought-provoking critiques of my arguments have come from other Christians. The same is true in the academic arena (see this and this).
There are Facebook groups dedicated to Christian fellowship for apologists. Seek them out and begin forging relationships. The Bible also encourages this kind of fellowship (see Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
9. Don’t limit your audience.
The atheists I’ve met online generally haven’t been very open to Christianity. That isn’t to say there were never any, but over the years I could probably count on one hand the ones I considered open. If your main goal with apologetics is to win people to Christ, debating with people on the internet is probably the last place to start. Don’t limit your audience to people that are systematically closed off to considering alternative views.
Find ways to engage people at work, engage your friends and family members. Strike up little conversations with a waiter or cashier. Don’t limit your audience.
10. Don’t forget to pray.
I’ll be honest. Prayer is something I don’t do often enough. I’m often so immersed in the literature or my projects I forget to slow down and pray (what a sorry excuse!).
11. Don’t neglect the Bible.
Some of you already know how I feel about taking the Bible seriously. Christian Apologists have done a great job so far in terms of defending God’s existence, but we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to defending the Bible. Knowing, for instance, that non-chronological narration was common in the ancient world can help squash concerns that the Gospels disagree on the order of events. The first step to combating culture is taking the Bible seriously, for yourself. You must take the bible seriously. Seek to understand its historical and canonical context, learn the literary genres, ask the questions that biblical scholars are asking.
It goes without saying, Bible reading is essential for spiritual growth. If this is an area you’ve felt stagnant in, I would highly suggest listening to a podcast like The Naked Bible or Timothy Keller Sermons by Gospel in Life. Both are amazing resources. The latter being instrumental in my spiritual growth as of late.
12. Don’t reject Christ.
There are two ways in which one can reject Christ in doing apologetics. First, one can completely fail to be Christ-like. Consider the following passage:
How would you rate your online interactions? How Christ-like are they really? Are you using your intellect to put others down or are you being humble, preferring others above yourself? If we’re being honest, most of us do a very poor job at reflecting Christ through our writings.
Second, apologists can utterly fail to ever present the Gospel. This is a travesty. In his advice to preachers and teachers, Tim Keller argues that we should be preaching Christ every time. Every sermon, every talk, every debate, every time we have the opportunity to speak about Christianity, we should be sharing the Gospel message. It’s no accident that every sermon in Acts centers on the Resurrection of Jesus. As Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” Recenter your interactions on what matters most: The Good News of Jesus Christ.