Apologetics is one of my big interests – given my interest in theology. I tend to feel that good apologetics is actually more about knowing the theology of your faith than knowing metaphysics, philosophy and science – but I don’t discount those topics at all (I particularly like philosophy and I respect science a great deal!)
These days you can sharpen your wits and theology, and test your heart, on the Internet in a thousand different forums. Over time I’ve developed some “rules of engagement” for apologetics (although, these rules will work for any topic you would like to debate). Not that I’m the best in the world at this, but I thought these might be helpful to you. If anything, they help to prevent an online debate becoming a bloodbath – and help you keep your sanity and heart intact. At least, that’s what they do for me.
So, here are the ten rules for engagement:
1. You are there to serve, not to win
A debate – especially an online one – can often be an angry one. Passion is one thing, but calling a person a dumb idiot another. Do not engage in a debate to win. Engage in it to serve; to add to the discussion; to help people think through their own choices and thought processes. You’re there to love and respect people. You want to help people dig deep. This is because, ultimately, our choices take place in our heart, not our heads. Many atheists might claim that their choice to be an atheist was a head decision and emotions had nothing to do with it, but those atheists will frequently betray that thought by the way they will talk to you and about the topic.
2. Respect. Always.
People have intrinsic value – they are made in the image of God and we must love and respect them. Always. Remember, once again, you are not there to win! Many people are going to read the comments section and the first thing they are going to notice is who is acting with respect and who is being immature.
3. Don’t be afraid to call people out
Does this go against (2)? Not really. Respect people, but try and look for their hearts in the discussion and address that. I don’t mean we should get all psycho-analytic, but I do mean that when people are arrogant or self-righteous and they’ve got a high opinion of themselves, there’s no problem with – respectfully – saying so.
Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers and a whole lot of other rather hectic things. He wasn’t scared to call them out on their self-righteousness. I frequently call out people who claim that “they don’t need a crutch for religion” for their self-righteousness and arrogance. I have no problem with saying that Jesus is a crutch, and more; they, however, seem to have a very high opinion of themselves and a very low opinion of people who don’t make their grade and who aren’t as tough, intelligent, and accomplished as they are. This hidden self-righteousness should be called out. I think that, perhaps, self-righteousness is the one thing we can always be confident in calling people out on, because Jesus did it.
4. Know the topic fairly well
Don’t debate something you actually know very little about and don’t write a blog about a topic you don’t know much about! There’s no reason to enter that kind of debate unless you are more keen on winning than serving, which you shouldn’t be. How are you going to add to a discussion if you don’t really even know much about the topic?
For example, I won’t debate economical theory or evolution. Neither of these, in my opinion, really have any bearing on my faith anyway (evolution is not a big deal – honestly, it doesn’t matter if it’s true) so I’m not going to talk about the third law of thermodynamics or engage in a debate about the fossil record. If anyone tries to bait me that direction I won’t bite. It’s not my field. I might, however, engage with an atheist who claims that evolution is the nail in the coffin for Christianity. It’s not, and I know enough about the topic of whether or not it is – and I know Genesis 1, 2 and 3 well enough; and I know Christian theology, both present and historic, well enough – to know that evolution has very little bearing on Christianity and the Bible.
People make this mistake all too often. Atheists do it too – it’s not uncommon for an atheist to try their hand at theology, trying to prove why the Bible is self-contradictory or claim that certain verses mean what they actually don’t. Richard Dawkins is often trying his hand at theology and philosophy, when his field is biology, and he fails at the former two. Help them to understand the Bible and you’ll help them get over their bias around the topic. Remember, they are usually projecting their understanding onto the Bible and then criticising the Bible based on their own projection!
5. Don’t get distracted
A debate can go nowhere soon. Someone posts a blog that says, “Christians don’t believe in Science” and you reply with some stats that show that to be untrue. Then, instead of talking about that, they post “Your God is evil! What about violence in the Old Testament!” After your brief answer about that, the next one will be, “Yeah, but he’s going to roast everyone in hell! Some god that is! And look how many pastors steal money!”
Stick to the topic, even if they don’t. If they want to talk about violence in the Old Testament, don’t engage it unless you are able to somehow come to the heart of the issue fast (their heart, mostly) or you know the topic well enough that you can easily dismiss their claims and guide the conversation into something more helpful, healthier and of benefit to everyone who is reading it and those engaged in the conversation. And remember, if you don’t know the topic well enough, don’t engage it! I won’t engage most discussions around Old Testament violence, for example; I just don’t know enough about the topic to do so.
6. Be a good sport
If someone attacks you personally, laugh it off or try and see the funny side to it. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
7. Remember, it’s usually more beneficial to the readers
While the person who you are engaging will nine times out of ten put their back up, the people who are reading or listening to the debate are carefully considering the different thoughts being presented. So, keep them in mind and always remember how you can also help them to find value in the discussion.
8. Admit when you’re wrong, learn, and move on
Swallow your pride, admit your mistake, and move on. Don’t try and defend an obvious gaff!
9. Ask questions
Questions are a great way to help everyone relax and also probe the heart. You don’t want to be the mountain mystic who only ever answers a question with a question! If someone wants to know what you think then tell them. But ask them questions too – find out why they think what they think; their background; their story; and see how you can help them think carefully about their decisions and thought process. Remember, you want to serve them, not beat them!
10. Write / speak on topics that don’t always attack
As soon as you attack people are going to put their back up. Rather, write or speak on interesting topics that add to the discussion. For example, a post on a recent study on how many scientists are theists might stir discussion around whether or not religion and science really are at odds. It’s good to let atheists see that their common perception on this topic is incorrect, without directly attacking them on it.
Or, use allegory and poetry – Jesus spoke in parables and also made use of poetry. This is because poetry and allegory and art are able to often bypass the “dragons” as C.S. Lewis called them and go straight to people’s hearts. This is an apologetic method I’m exploring right now and, to be honest, I think is probably the most effective – not that debates on logic and philosophy are not valuable, but it’s the heart that matters.
About Ryan Peter
Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.