Is it worth debating people if you can’t change their mind?
Over the years, I have often heard atheists pose the question, “What kind of evidence would it take you to give up your Christian belief?” In many cases, the assumption behind the question seems to be that the Christian should have some clear threshold of evidence in mind. And failure to state what that threshold is would call into question the rationality and intellectual seriousness of the Christian.
Atheists aren’t the only ones posing this kind of demand. I recently came across a similar view expressed by Christian apologist Max Andrews in the following tweet:
“When dialoguing with your interlocutor, ask them, ‘What must obtain so that your position be changed or that you’re convinced of my position?’ If they fail to present conditions or claim that nothing will, discard the conversation and neglect the casting of pearls before swine.” (source)
I disagree strongly with Mr. Andrews’ sentiments and in this article, I’m going to explain why by considering what it means to have an open-mind and whether the possession of an open-mind is essential for worthwhile conversation.
Does Having an Open Mind Require You to Know When it Would Change?
First up, Andrews, assumes that having an open-mind about a belief entails having the ability to state the conditions under which one would give up that belief. But I see no reason to think that is true.
Consider the example of Calvinism. After growing up a default Arminian, I became a Calvinist in 1999. Two years later, I rejected Calvinism and returned to an Arminian position, albeit a post-critical Arminian position.
While I am an Arminian once again, I certainly think I’m open-minded on this topic and I know many Calvinists who would agree with me. Despite that fact, I can’t say what exactly would persuade me to change my mind on the question: new exegesis of Romans 9? A novel argument in favor of soft determinism or perhaps the incompatibility of libertarian free will with divine foreknowledge? I’m not sure. Anyone of these could change my mind, but without having the evidence presented to me, I can’t be sure.
I do suspect that if I were to change my mind and accept Calvinism again, it would likely come about as the result of a gradual process in which various arguments or lines of evidence would slowly erode my commitment to Arminianism leading to the moment when I suddenly come to realize, “Hey, I’m a Calvinist again!”
The fact is that this is typically how major belief conversions occur: slowly, over time, by way of multiple small steps culminating finally in one big change. But the ability to anticipate precisely the moment when that change would occur on a particular topic is typically something we don’t know.
To conclude my first objection, it seems to me that the ability to identify the point at which you’d abandon a belief is not an essential hallmark of open-mindedness.
Is a Conversation Only Worthwhile if Your Interlocutor has an Open Mind?
Now, let’s grant for the sake of argument that a particular individual is not, in fact, open-minded. Surely that person isn’t worth a conversation, so we should just move on, right?
Maybe, but then again, maybe not: and this brings me to my second point of disagreement. Andrews assumes that this conversation is only worthwhile if your interlocutor is presently open to changing her mind as a result of this conversation. But I disagree. Such openness is certainly valuable for worthwhile conversation, but it is hardly a requirement.
For starters, keep in mind that while your interlocutor may not be open-minded now, it hardly follows that they won’t be open-minded tomorrow. But if you cut off the interactions now, you’ll never get to tomorrow. And how can you know that even now you aren’t slowly eroding her convictions and opening up her mind? The fact is that changes in belief can be occurring well before we recognize they are occurring. So the surface closed-mindedness could be concealing a slow evolution in thinking that isn’t yet evident. And if you burn a bridge now, you may never get to that moment of belief change.
Is a Conversation Only Worthwhile if Your Interlocutor Eventually Changes Her Mind?
Finally, Andrews appears to assume that apologetic conversations are only worthwhile if they move your interlocutor toward changing her mind. I disagree with this as well. Even if your interlocutor is and will forever remain closed-minded, these kinds of exchanges can have all sorts of additional goods that make them eminently worthwhile.
For example, maybe you need to change your mind and this exchange with your conversation partner could help you do that. After all, nobody is right all the time. So whatever the mindset of your interlocutor, this conversation could be a powerful catalyst for your own intellectual development.
And while I’m talking about intellectual development, here’s another possibility: your interlocutor may not change your mind, but your exchanges with her could lead you to become more effective at sharing your views and fielding criticisms. This too is a boon that could make a conversation well worthwhile.
And here’s one more possibility. This one is radical, but please keep, ahem, an open-mind. What if you had conversations with people not simply to change their minds but because you wanted to cultivate a friendship with them and the amiable and spirited sharing of disagreement is part of friendship? In short, could friendship be a sufficient reason to have a conversation? Surely the question answers itself.
For all these reasons, I disagree with Andrews’ tweet. I don’t think that his conception of an open-mind is helpful. Nor, for that matter, do I think an open-mind is an essential criterion for worthwhile conversation.
In closing, I’d also like to address Andrews’ allusion to a famous porcine metaphor. My simple warning here is for the Christians: while I recognize that Jesus uses the vivid metaphor of casting pearls before swine (Mt. 7:6) it doesn’t follow that we too should use that same metaphor in our contexts.
Put it this way. Consider how you’d feel if your interlocutor characterized her exchanges with you as casting her pearls of wisdom before your cloven porcine hooves. I’m guessing that you probably wouldn’t appreciate the metaphor.
With that in mind, my suggestion is that if you really want to quote from Matthew 7 to inspire and guide our apologetic and evangelistic conversations, we should stick with verse 12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…”