How to Debate a Creationist

General Tips

Contrary to popular belief, debating is much trickier than simply knowing the subject matter, and there is no substitute for experience and preparation. Debating with creationists is a specific subset of debating, and it has its own rules. First and foremost, keep a few things in mind:

  1. If you were on your high school or university debate team, you might have become accustomed to your opponent following certain rules. Do not expect that against a creationist; many of them do not respect the idea of debating at all; they are trying to convert you, not debate with you.

  2. There are generally three types of creationist: the garden-variety scientifically ignorant religious fanatic, the religious moderate who has been swayed by religious propaganda, and (most rarely) the religious fanatic who has actually put serious effort into studying the issue. Of those, there is no point debating the first type; fanatics do not recognize the validity of science or logic at all, and an argument will probably devolve into him reciting the Bible and trying to convert you. The second is the easiest to debate; if you can show how the arguments he's heard are logically flawed, there is a fair chance of actually changing his mind. The third type is the trickiest to debate because they are usually quite experienced, and they tend to have a large "bag of tricks" which they can use against you (expect philosophical attacks against the scientific method, heavy reliance upon the "complexity = design" fallacy, arguments copied from ICR and other creationist websites, and liberal use of specific names, dates, and places in order to lend more rhetorical credibility to their arguments).

Having said that, there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for debating against a creationist:

  1. Know your Enemy. Learn about the Bible (at the very least, read the Book of Genesis; it's fairly short and it won't take you very long to read). Follow this up with research of creationist websites and the arguments they use. This website has some resources intended to help in that endeavour. It is far easier to come up with a quick response to an argument when you've seen that argument before, and many creationist arguments are very cleverly constructed so that you need to think about it for a little while to see the logical flaw. Know the argument in advance, and you will have the rebuttal on the tip of your tongue.

  2. Understand Evolution. You need to have a good grasp of how evolution works. Even if you think you have a reasonable grasp, be sure. Study the principles. Read some books if you have to. The majority of creationist arguments rely on distorting the way evolution actually works, and some of these distortions can be quite subtle to the uninitiated, so it is of paramount importance that you understand how it really works, so that you can point out immediately when someone is misrepresenting the process. You don't need to get a doctorate in the field, but you need to have a good grasp of how an animal population evolves over time.

  3. Learn the Surrounding Science: Evolution debates have a habit of swinging onto other unrelated subjects such as cosmology, geology, and the validity of radiometric dating techniques (and in turn, nuclear physics). While these subjects are not strictly related to evolution theory, it is exceedingly difficult to conduct an evolution debate without being drawn into a debate about these subjects eventually. As with evolution, you don't need to become a qualified expert (although it would certainly be nice), but you should endeavour to know as much or more about these subjects than your opponent does (which is often a surprisingly easy task, since most creationists learn only the barest superficialities of any given scientific principle before feeling confident enough to pontificate on it).

  4. Learn the Philosophy. Science is more than a collection of facts and figures and theories; it is also a philosophy. It is a way of looking at the world which has proven its worth over centuries of use, and has survived countless philosophical challenges. But as with evolution itself, one needs to be familiar with these challenges in order to refute them anew, because even though philosophers have identified their flaws a long time ago, religionists continue to use them (for example, even though Pascal's Wager is considered a textbook example of the false dilemma fallacy, it is still in wide use by religionists today). Of course, the most common philosophical argument is the "it's just a theory" argument.

  5. Know your Logical Fallacies. Contrary to popular belief, logic is not the same as "common sense", and contrary to what many Star Trek fans believe, it is not an emotionally detached comportment either. It is a branch of philosophy which deals with the validity of inferences. In other words, given a premise A and a conclusion B, logic tells you whether A really does lead to B. It does not tell you whether A is true. A could be false even though the connection between A and B is valid, or A could be true even though the connection between A and B is invalid. The argument fails in both cases, but logic deals only with the connection between A and B. There are a vast number of arguments in common use which are logical fallacies, such as the Slippery Slope and the Appeal to Motive, and it is important that you know how to identify them. But curb your enthusiasm; one of the most common mistakes people make when they first learn about logical fallacies is to see them everywhere, often incorrectly.

  6. Remember to Stay on Topic. It is all too easy to let a creationist bait you into discussion of other subjects such as morality or cosmology, but even if you let this happen, remember to keep reminding him (and the audience, if one is present) that the subject of the debate is evolution theory. Even if he refuses to go back to the subject, these constant reminders will still be beneficial in the sense that they make it clear how difficult it is for your oppponent to attack evolution theory directly.

  7. Do the Research. You can't do this in a face-to-face debate (which is one of the reasons why written debates are preferable, in addition to permitting far less in the way of theatrics), but you would be amazed how many creationist arguments are simply based on false claims that fall apart once you look them up. For example, one of the infamous "Chick tracks" claims that "Richard Leakey found a normal human skull under a layer of rock dated at 212 million years". You might be tempted to assume that this is true and argue that it doesn't disprove your case, but it turns out that the Leakey claim doesn't hold water. Even ICR admits that Leakey's "normal human skull" had a cranial capacity only half that of a normal human, and that Richard Leakey is not even qualified to do this kind of work at all! In fact, they admit that he has no degree of any kind, has never even been to college, and his claims have "not yet been required to stand the scrutiny of critics"! It is often tempting to try and think of a clever off-the-cuff response when confronted with a creationist claim, but more often than not, you are best served by doing a bit of research.

Logical Fallacies

There are many logical fallacies in common use among creationists, but here are the most common:

The "Strawman" Fallacy: this is where you build up a distorted "strawman" version of your opponent's argument in order to knock it down more easily. Virtually all creationist representations of evolutionary mechanisms distort the principle somehow, thus falling into this category.

The "Ad-Hominem" Fallacy: this is also known as "attacking the messenger, not the message". One of the most common forms of the ad-hominem fallacy in online debates is to poke fun at someone's spelling errors and then conclude that the person's points are wrong. In religious debates, the most common form of ad-hominem fallacy by far is to attack the morality of an irreligious opponent.

The "Appeal to Motive" Fallacy: this is where you attack the authors of an idea on a personal level by questioning the "hidden motives" behind their arguments, rather than addressing their arguments directly. For example, "you're just saying that vegetables are good for you because you're a vegetarian". Naturally, the most common religious implementation of this fallacy is to say that scientists have some evil hidden motive for supporting evolution theory.

The "Red-Herring" Fallacy: this is where you introduce an irrelevant tangent to the debate. Most people aren't clumsy enough to completely change the subject, so they will pick something which is somewhat related to the general subject but not to the actual arguments being made. For example, "the capitalist theory of supply and demand is misleading because capitalism has been responsible for the systematic degradation of the working class, which produces all of the demand" (notice how it looks like it's related in some way, but despite its appearance it does not actually address or refute the theory of supply and demand at all). The most popular religious implementation of this fallacy is to say that evolution is false if abiogenesis cannot be proven.

The "False Dilemma" Fallacy: this is where you try to force your opponent to choose between two options when in fact three or more options are possible. For example, "you should invest that inheritance money in stocks, because the bond market is not healthy right now" (notice how it assumes that there are only two possible choices). The most well-known religious implementation of this fallacy is Pascal's Wager.

The "False Cause" Fallacy: this is where you assume that A caused B even though this is not necessarily the case. There are many specific forms of the false cause fallacy such as the "post hoc" fallacy where people assume that if A comes before B then A must have caused B, or the "complex cause" fallacy where people assume that something has just one cause when it may have several. For example, "it's too bad Lucy caught Bob watching pornography, because that led to their divorce" (marital failures are often much too complex to pin on a single cause like that) or ""the Nazis reintroduced school prayer when they gained power in pre-war Germany, and the Holocaust followed shortly afterwards, so school prayer caused the Holocaust" (as absurd as that sounds, remember that the removal of school prayer is routinely blamed for everything wrong with society, which is no less absurd).

The "Circular Logic" Fallacy: this is also known as "begging the question", and while few debaters will be clumsy enough to blatantly say something as obvious as "Marxism works because Marxism works", they will generally do so by rewording the same idea in two different ways. For example, "property rights are just as important as human rights because when you examine the human condition and the history of ethical philosophy, you will see that the right to property is one of the fundamentals, which means that it is a self-evident and inalienable right, just as much as the right to life" (notice how it's somewhat pompous but is nevertheless basically circular because its premise is just a reworded version of its conclusion). Of course, in religious debates the most common form of circular logic is to use Bible quotes in order to prove that the Bible is the true word of God.

If you want to know more about logic fallacies (the above list being very abbreviated), then check out the following sites:

A Word of Caution

Do not be overzealous when you first learn what fallacies are. It is common for people who have newly discovered fallacies to start accusing others of fallacies at the drop of a hat. Sometimes you hear people saying something like "I know this argument is bullshit, but I'm not sure what kind of fallacy it is". Sometimes, an argument can be false even if it is not fallacious at all (specifically, when its premises are either false or incomplete), so don't assume that an argument which seems wrong must necessarily be fallacious.

Remember: any logical proposition has a premise and a conclusion. If it does not have both premise and conclusion, it is not a logical proposition, therefore it cannot be fallacious. For example, the statement "you are an idiot therefore you are wrong" is a classic ad-hominem fallacy, but the statement "you are an idiot" on its own is not fallacious, because it makes no conclusion based on this claim. It's certainly considered rude, but it's not a fallacy. Remember: fallacy definitions are irrelevant when dealing with statements that do not purport to draw conclusions from premises, so don't be too hasty in your attempt to slap a fallacy name on something your opponent has just said.

Similarly, despite what you may think, a bald-faced lie is not a fallacy either. If someone says "the United States military is much less powerful than the Australian military, therefore Australia would probably defeat America in a war", this is wrong but it is not fallacious. The premise is false, but the logic between premise and conclusion is reasonable.

A Note on Analogies

Analogies are one of the most widely used (and abused) tools in debating. See my Analogies essay if you want to know more about how one should use and deal with analogies.

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