Whether or Not It’s Possible to Debate Fundamentalists, Fundamentalists Want to Debate You


There is an article by Race Hochdorf going around Facebook entitled, “The Tyranny Of Fundamentalist Language.” It is provocative, insightful, and (in my opinion) spot-on. The heart of Race’s piece is the following statement:

It is impossible to debate a fundamentalist….because their very language psychologically traps them into their frames of mind.

In saying it is impossible to debate fundamentalists, Race is saying that fundamentalists — to borrow a concept from Robert Jay Lifton‘s idea of totalism — load the language. They use language in a radically different way from most society, which enables them to control dialogue. They use “thought-stopping cliches” (which is also a term Lifton uses). Race explains that,

That’s why it’s impossible to debate with a fundamentalist. By replacing “my” with “God” and melding beliefs about authority with authority itself, fundamentalist vocabulary has left no room for humility, reason, openness, doubt or change.

This is one of the most important realizations one can make about fundamentalism. The way that fundamentalists engage with people outside their communities is antithetical to dialogue. But this requires an important distinction:

Debate is not dialogue. Debate shuts down dialogue.

I agree with Race that it is difficult to dialogue with a fundamentalist. But it is absolutely essential to add that fundamentalists are chomping at the bit to debate. Ken Ham, for example, was more than willing to debate Bill Nye. Richard Dawkins was more than willing to debate Rowan Williams. Doug Wilson was more than willing to debate Andrew Sullivan. We probably all know a fundamentalist of some sort who is more than willing to debate us on our Facebook walls. As Michael Schulson wrote in The Daily Beast about Ham’s eagerness for his recent debate with Nye,

When you exist on the cultural fringe and make your living by antagonizing established authority, there’s no form of media attention you don’t love…debate is a format of impressions, not facts. Ham sounded like a reasonable human being, loosely speaking, and that’s what mattered.

I would simply add that there is no form of attention period that fundamentalists don’t love. The reason for this is that, to a fundamentalist, debates are quests for linguistic dominionism. Debate gives fundamentalists the chance to extend their loaded language into a larger context. Debates give fundamentalists the perfect opportunity to publicly defend their fundamentals. 

To a fundamentalist, defending the fundamentals is the number one value.

An unwavering dedication to defending certain fundamentals is the essence of what “fundamentalism” means. There are various and somewhat differing definitions of fundamentalism, but all these definitions arise from a specific sentiment. That sentiment, of course, began in the early 1900s when “fundamentalism” referred to the so-called “Five Fundamentals” articulated in 1910 by the Presbyterian Church in the USA, codified by Lyman Stewart in The Fundamentals pamphlets. But now that sentiment applies beyond Protestantism and (whether fairly or not) to all sorts of movement, most recently atheism and (curiously enough) “ex-fundamentalism.”

At the root of these various fundamentalism is, I believe, a mindset that values ideology over people.

Fundamentalism is an obsession with getting ideology right, rather than a dedication to doing right by people.

This is why, then, defending the fundamentals is the number one value to a fundamentalist. It is more important to a fundamentalist Christian to convince people that young earth creationism is true than it is to actually go and do work Jesus commanded. It is more important to a fundamentalist atheist to convince people that Jesus never existed than it is to actually go and live a more compassionate life than a fundamentalist Christian.

So you can raise all sorts of real life consequences to believing this or that idea, and the fundamentalist will continue in the idea unwaveringly. You can list disadvatange after disadvantage, you can cite a litany of the most horrifying consequences — and it simply does not matter.

I could go up to a American Christian fundamentalist, for example, and say, “Your belief that being LGBT* is a sin quite literally leads x many young people to commit suicide every year,” and the fundamentalist would not budge one bit. The fundamentalist will come up with excuses, wax eloquent about fidelity to a narrow understanding of exegesis, will try to explain away the suicides, will deflect from responsibility, and so on and so forth. The fundamentalist will, in fact, wholeheartedly welcome  you to debate the topic with him or her, just to demonstrate that he or she is not “close-minded.” “I am willing to debate this with you,” the fundamentalist will say.

Fundamentalists advertise their willingness to debate like it was a Boy Scout merit badge they earned during summer camp.

Because at the end of the day, life isn’t about people to the fundamentalist. Life is about ideology.

And honestly, there really isn’t much you can do to persuade them otherwise. You cannot debate a fundamentalist out of fundamentalism. (Fundamentalists know this. That is why they want to debate you.) The fundamentalist mindset is allergic to nuance; this allergy directly plays into debate. Insofar as debate is a game (the goal of which is to win), debate has a similar allergy. When your goal is to win, you don’t want to explore nuance. Nuance is a waste of time. When your goal is to win, you content yourself with propositions and ignore the human beings behind them. Human beings are messy, have needs, and exude complexity. Winning requires shutting that humanness down. And since shutting that humanness down is unnatural, this communicative format gives the fundamentalist mindset — of unnaturally valuing ideology over people, magically justified via loaded language — an edge. As Schulson points out,

You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to realize that, when it comes to guys like Ken Ham, you can’t really win. If you refuse to debate them, they claim to be censored. If you agree to debate them, you give them a public platform on which to argue that, yep, they’re being censored. Better not to engage at all, at least directly.

None of this is to say debate is inherently wrong. Debate has its purposes with the realms of academics, public relations, and scholastic competition. But insofar as debate eschews the human element, it strips faces from ideas. This makes it wholly other than dialogue. Dialogue by necessity involve two human beings interacting with each other’s humanity.

Breaking from fundamentalism requires reclaiming the humanity of those outside of your community. It requires a commitment to forego debate and instead embrace dialogue. It requires a dedication to valuing people over ideology.

At the end of the day, you’re better off looking a fundamentalist in the face and saying, “Sorry, I’m not interested in debating you.”

Then go love your neighbor as yourself. Make that your opening argument.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

29 thoughts on “Whether or Not It’s Possible to Debate Fundamentalists, Fundamentalists Want to Debate You

  1. I would dialogue, but I’m afraid that I would be accused of debating, do you think this means I’ve misunderstood you?

    I think you are right that a sin of fundamentalism can be to close oneself off from humility. But is it not also true that humility can be a closing, a conclusion that puts a stop to never ending reflection (I’m thinking of the Kierkegaardian warning)–a “I have heard you.” Humility as listening and openness implies the possibility if not actuality of having grasped and heard, otherwise one is simply left chasing the wind….My question would be is this last position humility or only pseudo-humility? Does this sort of humility undermined itself with a hidden pride, “I listen, but never hear”?

    I wonder whether the separation of loving people from ideology is possible. It would seem that the standards of what it means to love people is an ideology.

    i•de•ol•o•gy (ī′dē-ŏl′ə-jē, ĭd′ē-)
    n. pl.i•de•ol•o•gies
    1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
    2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

    Ideology appears bound up with aspirations. Loving people by telling them the truth may have (partly) unintended consequence of elevating a bad conscience. That is why grace is so important. That is why Jesus is important, full of grace and truth. The truth or justice without mercy will kill any of us by itself….like Javert in Les Miserables. But, for example, not all beliefs that certain LGBT sexual behaviors or identifications of self are sin are unloving, they could be very loving (see here, http://www.thetwocities.com/practical-theology/testimony-practical-theology/im-kinda-sorta-yeah-not-really-gay/ and here, http://www.thetwocities.com/culture/5-ways-to-love-gays/).

    It would seem that loving people requires ideas and ideas are necessary to loving people. It would also seem that love and truth in world of untruth also cause pain. My fear for myself would be that I would avoid pain and decision (decisiveness is not my particular virtue) and in the end not love. Perhaps this struggle is idiosyncratic.

    1. I spent four years dialoging with you in college. I think you are quite capable of dialogue. 😉

      However, I am not sure I understand what you are ultimately asking. I hear you asking two questions:

      1) Can “humility” be a bottomless pit, as in, valuing the search for truth over the truth itself?
      2) Is having the right ideology a prerequisite to properly loving someone?

      …Is that a fair interpretation of your questions?

      1. Care to elaborate? while I don’t agree with Mr. Dawkins on some topics, and I am no longer anti-religion, the attempt by people to lump atheists together as equivalent “fundies” is tiresome and dishonest, imo.

      2. Sorry, I should have been more clear… The “fundamentalists” in that paragraph are intended to be: Ham, Dawkins, and Wilson. I certainly do not think atheists should be lumped together as “fundamentalists” anymore than I think believers of any one religion should be lumped together. The way I am defining fundamentalism here (as valuing ideology over people) would allow for both fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists in every camps: atheism, agnosticism, apatheism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc. I also understand I am defining fundamentalism in a non-traditional manner, which might be a source of the confusion.

        Ultimately what matters for me is if you are putting human beings and their needs and rights first and foremost. If you’re doing that… then, well, whether it’s because you believe no god exists or specifically because you believe you are honoring your god by doing it, is a mute point to me.

      3. I think this is an excellent, operational definition of fundamentalism. A useful question (if in doubt about what you’re dealing with) would be: if someone’s lived experience contradicts a idea, is that experience dismissed, or is it integrated so that the idea becomes better?

      4. Dawkins says in The God Delusion that, on a scale of 1 to 7, his belief that there is no God would rate at most a 6.9. How many fundamentalist Christians would make an equivalent statement?

  2. Yes yes exactly. This reminds me of a conversation in one of my grad seminars this week when we suggested that ethics triumphs logic (in case of would you use a bad argument to defend an innocent person if the logic argument wasn’t going to work for said person), and the prof was all no, no. Yes, people come first.

  3. Pingback: Ham on Nye | H . A
  4. Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
    So this is a really good and insightful article. It’s about fundamentalist Christianity, but can be applied – perhaps not at all surprisingly – to the branches of Radical Feminism that are trans exclusive, whorephobic, and similar. I find this line particularly telling: “At the root of these various fundamentalism is, I believe, a mindset that values ideology over people.” Sound familiar? Do please go and have a read. We may be able to glean some insights from this with regards to how to deal with people who hold this particular mindset.

  5. Seems like one of your fundamentals is not having debates with fundamentalists.

    I’ve found that people on the “Christian” Left use this as a dodge to avoid debating. They love hiding in their echo chambers and taking potshots (mostly straw man and ad hominem fallacies), but are too chicken to debate. It isn’t always about changing the other person’s mind but about exposing the middle ground to the best of both arguments. This “never argue with a fundamentalist” bit seems like an extended play passive-aggressive tactic combined with a personal attack.

    1. No, I don’t mind having debates. I’m a long-time speech and debate student and coach. I love debate.

      But I do prefer dialogue to debate. And I’m happy to dialogue with anyone who’s interested in actually having a conversation.

  6. My experience is different. Fundamentalists are only human, that means: They have empathy for others, they have doubts, and they change their minds on things. That’s true for atheists, Christians, and other people. We, as human beings, are not immune to arguments.

    1. I wrote this two years ago, so I feel I’ve grown and changed in a number of ways that would make me both think and write about this in slightly different ways. At the same time, I feel I can generally agree with the main thesis of my piece and at the same time agree with everything you said. I definitely have experienced fundamentalists who have doubts and have changed their minds (after all, that’s why “ex-fundamentalists” exist). But I feel that the big moment of transformation for them usually comes when they shift their main value from ideology to humanity — and often that big shift comes from a crisis, such as when a fundamentalist Christian parent has to experience the full weight of anti-LGBT ideology when one of their beloved children identifies as LGBT.

      Could you maybe expand on how you see what you said as contradicting what I said?

  7. Yet in all that is said about those who are fundamemtalists…..you are in fact quite similar and as dogmatic as they. How can you justify such an article that is in itself…..self contradicting…..and straddles the fence in so many ways. People will believe what they will. ..
    It’s the forcing of another belief which they wish not to accept. ….that causes contention……I may not like what one believes…..but I can love them anyway.

  8. When I was in seminary there was a set of cassette tapes (!!) in our library about “How to witness to….” various groups. (Being a Lutheran I don’t do much witnessing at all.. I take people too seriously to render them into some kind of ‘project.’) But I learned some key buzz-words that will shut down a lot of fundamentalist arguments. I’ve used them for over 35 years (when someone is trying to witness to me) and they always work! It is possible to pull the rug out from under some of those self-righteous arguments/people!

  9. I fail to understand how atheism can be a subject of debate. There is no belief, no theology, no anything other than the individual’s rejection of an unsupported assertion by others. Debating humanism, science, or any other aspect of reality perhaps, but not atheism.

    How can atheism be considered “fundamentalist” if there are no fundamental beliefs? Dawkins doesn’t even assert that no God(s) are possible, only that he is 99% sure that those God(s) man has come up with so far are hogwash.

    Your assertion here vis atheism is just silly.

    1. How can atheism be considered “fundamentalist” if there are no fundamental beliefs?

      Because, as I explicitly stated in the piece itself, I am defining fundamentalism as “an obsession with getting ideology right, rather than a dedication to doing right by people.” An atheist can do that just like anyone else can.

      1. Then your definition is fundamentally flawed (pun intended). One cannot simply label people as ‘fundamentalist’ simply because they devote much of their time and effort to a given occupation, task or philosophical idea. That is simply not the accepted definition of the word in any dictionary – which all mention a religious component.

        Your entire focus is a word-game, which I find so common in the latest generation of the religious trying to defend their ideologies. Realising they cannot provide sufficient actual evidence in defense of their beliefs they play games with semantics. It is rather sad really.

        Professor Dawkins is a science educator – that is is job and his passion. He is not ‘selling’ atheism but the idea of the scientific process as the best means we know to understand the universe. Judging by the results vs ‘religious thought’ he is right. Or do you think that the ‘power of prayer’ is all we need to solve the world’s diseases, energy problems and so on?

  10. Oh, and Professor Dawkins and other vocal atheists are railing against unreason, not theism per se. You and many religious people see them as enemies of your belief system but what is it that they really espouse? Nothing more than critical thinking and reasonable, evidence-based thought. They want people to be skeptical and to be free to ask, ‘Prove it’ for any claim others make.

    When you take sides against people like Professor Dawkins you are fighting against the idea of reason itself, the cornerstone of modern society.

  11. I just had an extended dialogue with a fundamentalist which began with Colossians 1 – Christ being the image of God who has already reconciled everything under heaven and on earth vs eternal hellfire, moved on to “hel” (old Norse) Sheol Hades Gehenna & c the multiplicity and evolution of concepts in the Bible, included a discussion on context versus metacommentary, and concluded with the fundamentalist needing to convincingly show how Luke’s description of the Roman census at Jesus’s birth can be reconciled with historicity. At that point the fundamentalist shut the discussion down without explanation . You always know you have hit a nerve when they leave the conversation without any reason why.

Leave a Reply to TessaCancel reply