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

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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.