What does it take to de-convert someone?

I'm a regular reader of John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity. John's a former preacher, and a student of my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig. He's written a number of books on Christianity and atheism detailing his de-conversion as well as the arguments that support his view.

He recently debated Dinesh D'Souza, who ranks in my book as one of the most abrasive, obnoxious people alive. He's a crafty public speaker and a great debater, but his arguments are almost comedically awful under close scrutiny. Fortunately for him and other apologists who love debates including the aforementioned William Lane Craig, the debate format is extraordinarily poor as a means of substantively deconstructing such arguments.

John appears to believe he lost the debate. I'm not sure that he did, or what one can really consider "winning" or "losing" in a debate like that. I mean, lots of people "win" those things by presenting an avalanche of arguments that can't be sufficiently and substantively addressed in the time allowed, or by resorting to red herrings and straw men. And just because one person appears to have "won" or "lost" does not mean their arguments are correct. Although I'm relatively well-educated on evolution and the folly of "Intelligent Design", I would probably lose a debate with an ID advocate like William Dembski simply because I am not an evolutionary biologist and would likely be unprepared to offer thorough rebuttals to all his arguments. But my lack of specialized knowledge or preparation is not a reflection on what is actually true, and even very experienced and knowledgeable people can be caught off guard in such a format.

I'm not sure what John expected the reaction to his debate with Dinesh to be, but most surveys I've seen of debate audiences indicate that few people are persuaded by such events. John Loftus is a smart guy who has some great arguments up his sleeve, but convincing people to de-convert is not about persuading them with sound argumentation alone. In my experience, even when believers cannot adequately answer an argument, they make the assumption that someone else like them – someone smarter and more experienced – probably does.

Religion thrives on groupthink. Its worst enemies are free thought and skeptical inquiry. It's no coincidence that atheists are notoriously difficult to mobilize, and that they often self-identify ass "free thinkers". Accordingly, the greatest weapon we have against religion is to simply persuade people to think for themselves. It really doesn't take much – a single conundrum that confounds them will set off a chain reaction. Once the pieces are set in motion, we don't have to do anything more – the believer will eventually reject religion on their own. It just takes one moment of lucidity, one small thing that allows the believer to briefly set aside his or her own biases and critically contemplate their faith.

I haven't watched the Loftus/D'Souza debate, and I don't plan to. I'm already a very well-studied atheist, and I've read plenty of writings from both authors. I've watched a couple of D'Souza's debates, and I find him incredibly irritating, as though he possesses a pompous sense of self-assuredness that belies the transparency of his arguments. John might think he "lost", but I think that simply putting these arguments out there is half the battle. If only a few of the believers in the audience are persuaded to examine their faith critically, the process has already begun. Regardless of anyone's flowery oratory skills or lack thereof, atheists will always "win" these debates for one reason alone: we're right.


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