At the beginning of a new year many people draw up a list of New Year’s resolutions or at least consider how to make the year better in some way. My suggestion for this year is to waste less time in useless religious arguments. Similar objectives might be to waste less time in useless arguments of other kinds, but this article focuses on religious arguments.
Useful Discussions are Enjoyable and Beneficial, but Useless Arguments—Not So Much
I find religious discussion very enjoyable. We get to share ideas, and I get to learn about other people and perhaps gain new insights. My discussion partners sometimes challenge what I write—at times very strongly, but this is useful discussion as well; challenge is a very positive thing.
I love to dialog with those with different perspectives than mine. How can I learn anything if I only talk with people who agree with me? I am quite willing to discuss one issue after another even if their presentation is a bit hostile—as long as dialog is taking place; I might gain new insights or perhaps offer new insights to them.
However, I sometimes get involved in what turns out to be a useless argument rather than a real discussion. A useless argument is one that is confrontational only and leads to no useful dialog at all; useless arguments can be a huge drain on one’s time and energy.
I want to give challengers room to get their points across, but there are a few approaches that cause me to lose interest very quickly. Some challengers have no intention of hearing what I say but just want to prove me wrong with endless attack. Others keep pushing the same question over and over despite my responses to them, this can get tiresome quickly. And then there are those who bombard me with lists of Bible proof-texts, sometimes without even an explanation, as though such references are conclusive arguments in themselves.
These are all useless arguments.
Turning an Apparent Useless Argument into a Productive Discussion
On the other hand, we may be able to turn such an argument into a productive discussion. A lot depends on our attitude and how we respond to them. And using their name in our responses makes it more personable.
1. Don’t imagine the arguer as an enemy; we don’t have to be enemies just because we disagree. Try to treat them so civilly that they are surprised and begin actual discussion.
2. Don’t respond based on your ‘assumption’ of what the arguer believes; sometimes people’s comments are vague, and we can either respond to what WE think they mean OR we can ask for clarification—which is much better. Getting clarification before responding also shows respect and can help develop dialog.
3. Try to agree as much as possible with the arguer to reduce the perception of rigid hostile disagreement. Say, ‘You raise a good question‘ or ‘You make a great point‘ or ‘I like what you say about…‘ Be as generous and affirming as possible. Just because we disagree on some things does not mean we have no common ground at all. A little agreement can often move the discussion forward.
4. Use statements like ‘I think…’, ‘In my opinion…’, and ‘It seems…’ rather than making absolute statements. People respond to rigid positions with their own rigid positions so that real discussion is difficult if not impossible. ‘I’ statements often blunt the sense of hostility and confrontation.
5. Don’t be snarky, condescending, or hostile—ever; disagreement need not be personal. Maintain a positive tone, and don’t ridicule the arguer or engage in personal attack, name-calling, insults, or other disparaging behaviors. Also remember that our theological opponent is a person whom God loves and is invested in, as much as God loves and is invested in us.
All these techniques should be genuine—not manipulative.
How to Disengage from the Tenacious Arguer
Have you ever had an arguer who just won’t stop! It is important to bring a discussion to a close once it’s clear it’s not going anywhere. Remember that we are not required to answer the arguer no matter how many times they demand an answer. We owe them nothing except courtesy.
6. If you have a closed-minded arguer, it is unlikely they will be a good dialog partner; so draw it to a close.
7. Realize that the issue under discussion is not always the most significant issue—it might be inerrancy. A person who thinks their interpretation of the Bible is God’s own word is not likely to accept anything we say. Explaining that we have different perspectives on the Bible might move the discussion in a more positive direction; but, if not, just point out that you are at an impasse and that further discussion is not helpful.
8. Let them ‘win’. Some arguers want badly to ‘win’ the argument. If, at any point, we do not answer their argument then they have the last word and often feel they have stumped us and won. Let them think so; we don’t need to ‘win’. Discussion shouldn’t be a competition.
9. When you have said all you want to say, propose that the two of you agree to disagree.
10. If they insist on continuing the discussion after a couple polite attempts to bow out, just ignore them—even if they continue to insist on an answer. Remember we don’t owe them anything.
11. I almost never delete or block anyone but, if someone continues to badger you online even after you have stopped responding to them, remember that you have these options.
Enjoy discussions to the fullest, but this year consider wasting less time on useless arguments. What ideas would you add on how to do that?
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