How To Say No to Useless, Time-Wasting Internet Debates
Ever been in an online debate? Ever felt like it was hopeless? Like it was a waste of time?
As a blogger and columnist, I’ve been in hundreds of social media debates over science, ethics and religion. Some have been great, some worthless. The sad things is, I see “worthless” happening over and over again, watching other believers debate online.
It’s as if Christians think they’re stuck: that we have to keep going, and going, and going, as long as the atheist or skeptic keeps pushing us. Atheists have even told me, “Your Bible says you’re supposed to witness to me, so you’ve got no choice. You have to answer.”
I don’t take Bible lessons from atheists. I look at Jesus instead, and I see how willing He was to walk away at times. The classic instance was in Luke 20:1-8, where he said in effect, “Go talk among yourselves; I’ve got nothing to say to you.” Some questions don’t deserve an answer.
And some people just want to waste your time. An atheist commenter going by “Skepticism First” told me I should really try to understand him better by reading a FAQ on his belief system. I looked at it, did some computer-assisted counting, and found — I’m not kidding you — that FAQ totaled more than 1.7 million words. Take The Hobbit plus the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, multiply it by 3, and that’s about what he was asking me to read. To understand him better.
Usually the time-wasting is more subtle and manipulative than that, though. Multiple questions coming at you all at once, for example: “What about this question, and this one, and that one, and then this other one —— ?”
Or sometimes it’s one quick, easy-to-ask question that demands a long, complex answer. Here on The Stream, for example, Guy Montag demanded, “So please share with us your general rules for deciding when the usage is literal or idiomatic. Please clearly show everyone how this decision is based on some clear standards and practices of textual criticism.”
Fair request? No. What he asked in 35 words, I’d have needed thousands to answer properly. And I’d have been dancing to his tune. When I was done, he’d have kicked off another song for me to dance to. I never chose him for a dance partner, and I’m not obliged to act like one.
Still he followed that up with repeated allegations that I was unwilling, unable, or “failing” to answer. As if he’d won something over me.
9 Steps for Pulling Out of a Debate That’s Going Nowhere
So how do you walk away from a useless debate, without being the one who “gave up”? Follow these nine steps.
- Use good evidence and good logic, for starters. That’s basic for every debate.
- Learn to discern when you’re getting somewhere, and when debate is fruitless instead. If good evidence and reasoning don’t get through in the first eight or nine tries, it’s not likely they’ll get through in eight or nine hundred tries.
- If it’s fruitless, say so: “This is going nowhere.” Briefly explain how you came to that conclusion.
- Then inform them you’re pulling out of the conversation.
- Expect them to howl in glee: “A-ha! You’re quitting because you can’t stand up to my superior reasoning.”
- Don’t take the bait. Answer instead, “I’ll take my risks with you thinking that about me. As for other readers who might be looking on here, they can see what’s going on. I’m willing to let them draw their own conclusions.”
- Then let it drop. You’ve said your peace. Be content with that.
- If they needle you for another answer, here’s one I’ve found useful many times: “Goodbye.” (Feel free to use it — verbatim, even. It’s okay: no need to credit me as your source.)
- Then walk away. Go do something worthwhile. Don’t look back.
Three Closing Thoughts
No one else owns your schedule. Chances are, you’ve got more important things to do with your time. That by itself is a good enough reason not to answer every challenge. Gently remind the person they’re not in charge of you that way.
These are just guidelines, though, and there are exceptions. I know of one Christian/atheist debate that dragged on and on and on, round after round — until the atheist finally said, “That’s it. It’s over. That last question was my last try. You’ve answered everything I’ve asked, and you’ve convinced me. Jesus is for real, and it’s time I start following Him.” So treat everything I’ve said here with a lot of prayer. Let Jesus’ example give you freedom to walk away, but always do it with God guiding you.
And finally, I’ve been speaking here of atheist commenters treating me this way. That’s who I’ve had this experience with. I’m sure Christians make some of the same annoying errors in online debate, too: pushing multiple questions at once, demanding answers, trying to control others’ time. Just don’t do it. Remember, you’re communicating with a human being, not just words popping up on a screen.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of How Would Jesus Blog? Answering Online Adversaries Jesus’ Way. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor. Follow the Stream: @Streamdotorg.