Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Pre-Debate Questionnaire

I’ve logged in more debate hours than I care to mention here on the Internet, and what I’ve learn most is that theists are all unique little snowflakes. There are so many stories and scriptures available to adopt and then to adapt to fit one's own level of credulity, I can't assume anything about what any believer believes. This ignorance leads to debates going off the rails from general confusion and unavoidable straw men arguments.  If I don't know my opponents position, how can I possibly accurately represent it? So, from now on, I'll be using this short questionnaire to get the debate off on the right, if not awkward, foot.

Pre-debate Theist Questionnaire
  1. What specific religion best represents you?
    Churches have split over dogma differences so often that the label of “Christian” doesn’t tell me enough. To know what you believe, I want to know with which faith you most identify.
  2. What doctrine(s) of your religion do you not subscribe to, if any?
    To know you as an individual, I recognize that every belief of your adopted religion may not apply. If so, I want to know where you deviate from your faith.
  3. Do you accept the Theory of Evolution?
    This comes up surprisingly often no matter which argument for God we discuss. Give me a heads up in advance if it’s even worth bringing up this aspect of science.
  4. Do you believe in hell and/or the devil?
    I should be able to surmise this from questions 1 & 2, but if the answers are vague or something is forgotten, this answer will prove useful.
  5. Do you see your holy book as entirely literal, entirely allegory, or some of both? If both, how do you determine the interpretation?
  6. How would you describe your level of belief toward the God in question?
    Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
    De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
    Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
I don't have a Pre-debate Atheist Questionnaire, seeing how we have less specifics to our atheism, but we should be able to answer the inverse of question six.

How would you describe your level of skepticism toward the God in question?

Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

(I don't include pure agnostics because I don't see any reason why they would engage in a debate without a position to argue.)

The “God in question,” from above, is an important distinction from just “God” for the atheist. I would tackle an argument for a vaguely defined creator very differently than I would for claims that Yahweh specifically is real. In fact, my assessment of personal belief would also vary. I’m a de-facto atheist in regards to Vishnu, but agnostic towards a god defined only as an agent existing outside our universe.


  1. Good luck getting them to fill this out :)

    I think it is interesting that you point out you are a 6 for Vishnu. I usually think of myself as a 6.9, but I guess that really is for Yahweh. I suppose I would be a 6 for pretty much any other God as I don't know much about them.

  2. Great job Grundy. I feel that you are spot on in identifying some of the problems that we encounter when debating theists. I also think the Dawkins scale is an important tool when applied to the correct god. Like you, I am De-Facto atheist towards most identifiable gods, but when we get to some abstract concept that no religion on this planet really worships (other than something like pantheism) I tend to be a weak atheist.

  3. I didn't know decimals were an option or I'd go with 6.9 too.

    I find that Catholics and Baptists own up to their religion easy, some even admit to doctrine they don't follow, but evangelicals and fundamentalists rarely say anything other than "christian." Theists don't tend to answer number five. It might make them uncomfortable...seems pretty straight forward to me.

  4. The more specifically a god is defined, the less I believe in him/she/it. :-)

  5. I'd say good luck getting anyone to fill that out honestly. Most people never stop to think much about their religious beliefs and the questions you've provided will require them to do so. At best, I'd expect a few vague words for each question that really doesn't tie down what they actually believe.

    That's too bad because it would greatly improve religious debates if theists were better versed in their own faith.

  6. Number 5 is a hard one. Once you admit that there might be some errors in the book, where do you stop?

    And yeah, I've heard people use decimals for dawkins scale before. I don't know if that was Dawkins original intention, but I like it this way. While a 6 seems fairly descriptive, it really doesn't capture it. You can't be 100% certain of anything, but you can get infinitesimally close. I feel as certain that god doesn't exist as I do that the easter bunny or santa doesn't exist. Can you be 100% sure the sun will come up tomorrow? I suppose not, we might be in the matrix and the machines might blink the sun out of existence tonight, but no one is honestly going to consider that a possibility, they will just say that they are sure the sun will come up in the morning.

  7. I feel exactly the same, but just accepting 6 is easier for me to explain during a debate.

  8. Far too many snowflakes out there, huh? How long does it normally take you to get to the point in a debate when you can actually speak the same language? Have you tried implementing the full questionnaire yet? I'm guessing you'll have to work it into the conversation as opposed to just listing out the questions, but I could be wrong.

    It's interesting that you say #5 is a hanging point. Maybe it's a hint of some humility, that they really don't know the Bible as well as they should, and so can't make a defense one way or another to the question.

  9. I start by telling them I'm arguing from the weak atheism position (or, as I prefer, the agnostic atheist position) then ask for a little qualififing infomation from them, questions 1, 2 and 6. I don't ask about evolution or hell unless it comes up and it isn't already obvious, but ideally I'd like to know in advance. Anytime I bring up question 5 it becomes a debate of its own and the previous topic gets a little lost.

  10. I agree completely.

  11. This is a great idea! For the longest time I had debated with atheists from a position of ignorance. I assumed that they believed what I was told that atheists believed. But, I have learned that atheists are people just like everyone else, and each one of them is different. So, instead of immediately trying to trip them up with a loaded question, I learn about the individual I am speaking with. Your questionnaire is fantastic, and I think anyone who implements it will find that it is most helpful in getting to know the person you are debating with.

  12. I like this idea. When it comes to the theory of evolution there are four basic positions a theist can take:

    1. Evolution is a natural process that was started by god in the beginning;
    2. Evolution is partly natural process that god occasionally interacts with and guides;
    3. Evolution is a process that is completely guided by god at every step; or,
    4. Evolution is false and doesn't happen.

    I think these options would nicely outline how a Christian approaches evolution so that you can gear your arguments as such.

  13. 1. What specific religion best represents you? Islam
    2. What doctrine(s) of your religion do you not subscribe to, if any? The assumed sayings of Muhammed (prophetic sayings), most of which are fairy tales derived from other sources.
    3. Do you accept the Theory of Evolution? Absolutely
    4. Do you believe in hell and/or the devil? I believe that the devil is one’s own evil impulses; and hell and paradise is created by the individual himself.
    5. Do you see your holy book as entirely literal, entirely allegory, or some of both? If both, how do you determine the interpretation? The Quran lays down a fundamental principle of how the book should be interpreted which is ignored by most Muslims.
    6. How would you describe your level of belief toward the God in question? Absolutely convinced of His existence based on reason and evidence.