Greg Koukl expains the right way to handle an angry, aggressive atheist

Greg Koukl is one of the scholars who got me started in apologetics. I can still remember, (and I know my old friends Andrew, Kerry, and Jose can, too!), over 10 years ago, when we used to sit around in my basement listening to Greg Koukl’s radio show over the internet. At the time, streaming audio was quite new. Well, he taught us all how to be ambassadors for Christ. (See 2 Cor 5:9-21)

I got his recent “Solid Ground” newsletter (free registration required), for January/February 2009, and the topic was on dealing with angry, aggressive atheists. This is a topic of real value for me. Not only do I have to face these belligerent atheists in my office (Yes, Gerry, I mean you!), but I also face them online at the Richard Dawkins forum, and face to face in my own family and friends!

Let’s start with the question “what is a steamroller?”:

The defining characteristic of a “steamroller” is that he constantly interrupts, rolling over you with the force of his personality. Steamrollers are not usually interested in answers. They are interested in winning through intimidation.

Greg breaks down the techniques for handling steamrollers in 3 steps.

Step 1: Stop Him.

Your first move when you find yourself in a conversation with a steamroller is a genial request for courtesy. Momentarily put the discussion on “pause.” Ask to continue making your point uninterrupted.

One of the ways you can do that is using body language. You can raise your hand in the stop motion to emphasize your verbal attempt to pause the conversation so that you can finish responding. Ask for a specific amount of time to make your point, and make sure that you him to agree that you will get that time to respond! But the most important thing is to not lose your temper.

Be careful not to let annoyance or hostility creep into your voice. That would be a mistake, especially with this kind of person. Don’t let a steamroller get under your skin. Being defensive and belligerent always looks weak. Instead, stay focused on the issues, not on the attitude. Talk calmly and try to look confident.

…don’t take unfair advantage of the time you buy with this little negotiation. Make your point, then ask, “Does that make sense to you?” This invites him back into the conversation. Give him the courtesy of offering you a reply without interruption.

I hear J.P. Moreland saying “Does that make sense to you?” all the time in his lectures, and now I’ve started doing it too! And so should you! But what if “stopping him” doesn’t work? Then we go on to step 2.

Step 2: Shame Him.

Suppose the steamroller interrupts you again during your negotiation response time. You want to gently draw attention to the fact that he is being rude and intimidating in the conversation. Again, the goal is not to show the slightest discomfort, but always to act with confidence.

Phase two of the Steamroller tactic is to shame him for his bad manners while maintaining your integrity. Stay on topic and don’t follow any “rabbit trails” he may voice.

That point about not taking on any new questions until you finish answering the first one is vital. You see this all the time on the Richard Dawkins forum. Every time you make a point about the progress of science, they start complaining about how cruel God is. (Note that atheists can’t even judge God without assuming an absolute moral standard, which only a designer of the universe can ground!)

Below is example of how to do step 2:

“Can I ask you a quick question? Do you really want a response from me? At first I thought you did, but when you continue to interrupt I get the impression all you want is an audience. If so, just let me know and I’ll listen. But if you want an answer, you’ll have to give me time to respond. Tell me what you want. I need to know before I can continue.” Wait for an answer.

Part of becoming a good ambassador is knowing how to guage your opponent, and how much force you should use. Practice, practice! But suppose even step 2 doesn’t work. What should we do now?

Step 3: Leave Him.

The most difficult thing to do is to break off a defense, especially when there are people around listening in or even participating. Usually you do this when the person is moving the wrong way on the aggression scale. Greg cites a number of Bible verses to show that the Bible does support this kind of strategic withdrawal from an engagement that is going the wrong way.

Conclusion

The article concludes with some very useful points. First, you don’t have to win every debate. Just make your point and then let the Holy Spirit handle it from there. It is a mistake to think that you can change people’s minds just by talking to them at more and more. Mind changing usually happens much later, as the person weights both sides of the issues. So don’t rush, and remember, God values free will.

Second, always give an aggressive challenger the last word. This is the policy on my blog, where I get one rebuttal to a commenter, and then they get the last word. So far, I haven’t had to violate this in 5 weeks of blogging.

And let me just reiterate – do not lose your cool. A lot of arguing relates to your attitude under fire, especially for beginners who judge debates not on the evidence, but on appearances. You need to spend time studying in advance in order to get this confidence, and I do mean studying both sides in debates. Under fire, the confidence you’ve gained through study, especially the study of debates, is more effective than your words.

4 thoughts on “Greg Koukl expains the right way to handle an angry, aggressive atheist”

  1. And let me just reiterate – do not lose your cool. A lot of arguing relates to your attitude under fire, especially for beginners who judge debates not on the evidence, but on appearances. You need to spend time studying in advance in order to get this confidence, and I do mean studying both sides in debates. Under fire, the confidence you’ve gained through study, especially the study of debates, is more effective than your words.

    The only caveat I’d add to this is it just doesn’t work a lot of the time on the Internet, since most people (in my experience) aren’t looking for honest debate but, rather, to ‘prove’ their intellectual (or, as is more often the case, emotional) superiority by employing a three-pronged army of strawmen, obfuscation and ad hominem.

    In those cases, seeking to draw a little blood (via sarcasm, snark or simply drawing a line in the sand and daring them to cross it in no uncertain terms) can, if nothing else, get you a techincal win by forcing the opponent into a defensive posture wherein he starts hurling ad hominems rather than seeking to win the argument on the merits (and nobody descends into ad hominem if they think they have the better of the argument).

    Devious? Sure, I suppose it is a little bit, but I find that Christians (and, again, I’m not one, so this might explain a difference in tactics) suffer fools far too readily all in the name of coming out un-sullied by the baseness of the attack–essentially fighting by Queensbury Rules while their opponent is willing to employ a broken bottle in one hand and a pistol in the other. (As a broad example, I would state that Christianity vs. Mass Media for the past few decades would have been one war where Christians should never have given up so much ground, and being more forceful about their beliefs–and the bankruptness of their opponents–would have gone a long way to slowing the decline of organized religion in the West.)

  2. Koukl covers this well in his new “Tactics” book (highly recommended). Love your blog and your author profile. Keep up the good work!

    ECM — good points re. blogging being a little different. That is a problem for me sometimes, as it takes so much longer to have a convservation in a thread so I take shortcuts. In person I use Koukl’s tactics much more (“What did you mean by that? How did you come to that conclusion?”).

    I definitely use a few key lines to clearly refute other arguments, especially when I see the conversation isn’t going anywhere. I try not to be rude, but if they are just passing by with their Big Book O’ Atheist Sound Bites I don’t mind using a little snark.

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