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In the skeptical community, many times the keys to successful discussion are tone and structure. It is sad that we have to constantly fight against misconceptions of skeptical aggressiveness and arrogance, when really people are simply offended when you call them out on not arguing with actual arguments. Consequently, one of the main components to maintaining a professional, reasonable tone is to follow the common rules of rational discussion.

Here are a few pointers and rules to follow if you want to have an intellectual discussion and not just bang you head against a wall.

Can We Talk About This Like Reasonable People?

Being good skeptics, we know that we frequently argue with those of a non-logical persuasion. This may be for any number of reasons; the person may have never learned formal debate and logic, or perhaps they are just stubborn. The topics that seem the loudest within the skeptic community are those where we argue with people who have a chronic lack of debate etiquette. It is with those who we feel we are beating our heads against a wall (creationists, homeopaths, etc.) that following the rules for rational discussion is most important.

Let us first look at some examples illustrating the difference between using these rules or ignoring them.

Example 1 (No Rules):

Me: Can we talk about your belief in a god?

Religious Person: I am resolute in my faith, nothing will change my mind, and I will not listen to any anti-religious arguments, including any evidence you may present.

DISCUSSION OVER– Well we didn’t get very far did we? This kind of discussion is always pointless, and you should not waste your time on such closed mindedness.

Example 1 Continued (No Rules):

Me: So why don’t you agree with evolution?

Religious Person: Because it says in the Bible that God made all life.

Me: I know that’s what the book says, but do you have any other evidence?

Religious Person: I don’t need proof, I have faith.

DISCUSSION OVER– The religious person has ignored an important rule when he/she refused or was unable to provide evidence for their claim. Any claim that wants to be taken seriously needs to be dealt with using at least some form of evidence.

Example 1 Continued (No Rules):

Religious Person: I don’t have any evidence, but I have faith. However, I am willing to listen to your argument for evolution, so what proof do you have?

Me: Although I cannot personally show you the genuine articles, evidence has been gathered for over 200 years. There is molecular, genetic, fossil, artificial, physiological, geologic, behavioral, developmental, demonstrable evidence (among many other lines of evidence) that you can find outlined in any museum or biology textbook. All of this evidence discredits the creation accounts in the Bible.

Religious Person:That can’t be true, it says so in the Bible. God is beyond science and the Bible is 100% true.

Me: I know that’s what the book says, but do you have any actual evidence that the Bible is 100% true?

Religious Person: What do you think about how perfect the human eye is? What about your evidence for that?

DISCUSSION OVER– Although we got further than the first example the religious person still uses an argument that he/she has not established with any proof. Furthermore, he/she then sidesteps another request for evidence by changing the subject. Both of these render the discussion meaningless.

Example 2 (Rules):

Me: The Bible does not explain dinosaurs, and evolution coupled with fossil evidence can explain it naturally [lest  you admit that we have trickster for a god]. Can you reconcile the massive amount of evidence for the evolution and existence of dinosaurs?

Religious Person: The existence of dinosaurs seems very well established, and you make an interesting point about this relating to the evolution of dinosaurs.

Me: So will you reconsider you position?

Religious Person: Explain your evidence further please.

DISCUSSION SUCCESSFUL– Although the religious person has not made a 180 degree flip, they have at least been swayed to listen by arguments supported with evidence without ignoring them. This is the beginning of a reasonable discussion.

So then, we have come to the rules I have been referring to. Although the graphic below is labeled “Debating a Christian”, these rules apply to any intelligent discussion about any topic; from religion and the supernatural, to science and philosophy. Following these rules and regulations of reasonable debate should reduce the number of frustrated, name-calling, pointless, exchanges concerning important topics.