How to Have an Intelligent Discussion With Anyone About Anything

Not an Intelligent Discussion?

Not an Intelligent Discussion?

My father-in-law stopped mid-stride as he walked away from the kitchen table, turned to me as a light bulb appeared over his head, and said, “You’re doing this on purpose!”

We had been having a heated political discussion about I-don’t-know-what, and my wife had been begging me to stop. My father-in-law was nursing a growing conviction that he had just married off his daughter to a left-wing radical, and I think my mother-in-law was praying.

“Doing what?” I asked not very innocently.

“Taking the opposite view just to debate it!” he exclaimed, more lights turning on, a smile beginning to form.

“Maybe.” I smiled back.

My wife had had enough. “Dad, he doesn’t believe any of that. It’s just the way his family does things.”

She was right. One time, back when we were dating, she witnessed a lively discussion while visiting my family and thought someone was about to get written out of the will. But that’s just how she was raised too.

I grew up in an environment of welcome questions and vigorous debate. She grew up where disagreements were often kept silent or behind closed doors. Imagine our relationship now! (Thank you, Lord.)

Of course, our different upbringings had a lot to do with our parents’ different personalities, and we could drop the subject right there if this were an article on marital relationships or child-rearing philosophies.

But in a world of increasingly varied beliefs and opinions on faith, politics, and everything in between, I believe there is a right way – and a wrong way – to discuss them. One is intelligent, the other simply ignorant.

This applies to Christians and atheists, Calvinists and Non-, Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, and any other grouping of more-or-less polar opposites that you can imagine.

All of us want to be intelligent – or at least discuss things as if we were.

Here’s how.

1. Know What You’re Supposed to Believe

Imagine a Christian who knew nothing of Christ! The Bible actually warns against such ignorance (Heb. 5:11-6:3).

If you claim a tribe, know what your tribe believes. If you’re a Democrat, know the planks of your candidate’s platform. If you’re a Calvinist, know what TULIP stands for. If you’re a Creationist, know the meaning of the word “day” or ex nihilo.

This doesn’t mean you can’t learn something new, but if you’re going to discuss something, you should at least know what you believe – especially if you claim to speak for others. On some topics, it’s OK to say “I’m not sure what I believe,” but at least be honest.

2. Know Why You’re Supposed to Believe It

Most of us have little respect for people who simply parrot what someone else says. Personally, I have little respect for Christians who claim to hold the Word of God but cannot show where God’s Word tells them what they believe. We must back up our opinions. An entire book of the Bible was written for this purpose! (John 20:31)

So, you can use Bible verses.

Or, depending on the topic, you can use scientific proofs. You can use philosophical writings. You can use logic or common sense, but intelligent discussion requires more than a “what.” It answers a “why.”

And remember: neither Bill O’Reilly, nor Bill Maher is a reason. They are cable celebrities. Let’s think for ourselves.

3. Know What Others Believe

Specifically, know what your opponent believes. This requires humility, and it means that we must listen before we criticize. If we don’t know what they believe, we can’t have an intelligent discussion, just a frustrated one. And we’ll probably look stupid! (Proverbs 18:13)

How can you learn what someone else believes? Do this:

First, listen to their best, not their worst. Every tribe has its loony radicals, its weird uncles, its Jeremiah Wrights and Fred Phelpses, that embarrass the rest. Skip these. Instead find the best spoken, most well-written, most irenic opponent, and hear them out.

Second, see if your opponent agrees with you when you state their beliefs. They ought to be able to recognize their creed when you present it back to them. Only then can you know that you are truly discussing one another’s ideas.

4. Know Why You Believe What You Believe

This is different from number 2. It’s different because supporting your belief is not the same thing as defending it. It’s different because you have passed your belief through your opponent’s strongest objections and survived. (2 Cor. 10:5)

Once you understand your opponent’s position, you will begin to see their answers to your facts, and you will begin to see whether or not your facts truly support what you believe.

I mean, Creationists and Evolutionists have to study the same planet, the same fossil record. Nobody’s got a secret cache of information. Calvinists and Non-Calvinists use the same Bible, while Catholics and Protestants should at least acknowledge that they don’t.

Intelligent discussion requires more than stating and supporting your position; it means addressing your opponent’s reasons, as well as their use of yours.

This might mean that you change your mind! It might mean your convictions grow stronger! It might mean you simply hold your opinions with greater humility! But whatever the result, you have pursued truth with integrity.

Of course, I would caution novices (and their mentors) against full exposure to opposing views until they are well-grounded in their beliefs. They should have enough maturity to avoid rejecting or adopting ideas based upon purely emotional concerns.

But I would also caution anyone who habitually declares or debates his belief, opinion, conviction, or preference on an issue to pause before he makes a fool of himself.

Why I Wrote This

I know some will see this as a plea for a creed-less synthesis without any real conviction.

It’s not. It’s just a plea for our warriors to grow in wisdom, our preachers to start persuading, our thinkers to be thoughtful.


In my limited experience, it is a rare Protestant who knows what Catholics believe.

It is a rare Non-Calvinist (or Anti-Calvinist) who can express Calvinistic beliefs in a way that any Calvinist would recognize. (And vice-versa!)

It is a rare Creationist who can discuss Evolution without mocking the genetic ancestry of secular scientists.

It is a rare charismatic who has considered the Scriptural arguments brought by cessationists.

It is a rare alcohol-drinker who can interact with the social, historical, contextual, and biblical arguments brought by teetotalers.

Sometimes, I think it’s rare for anyone in America to do anything out of love and concern for those who disagree with them.

Not Just for Intellectuals

Don’t you long for a day when things are different? When people can have intelligent discussions with their neighbors about anything and not lose a friend?

I guess this post really isn’t about intellect, is it?

It’s about citizens learning to work together to build a better community for everyone.

It’s about family members looking forward to reunions instead of dreading them.

It’s about Christians worshipping together to build stronger churches.

It’s about churches fellowshipping together to offer a better testimony to the rest of the world.

It’s about preserving and presenting truth in a land of skeptics.

It’s about sharing what matters most with those who need it most.

It’s about kindness, honesty, humility, integrity, and tenacity.

It’s about “Love thy neighbor,” which demands no less.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Have I sold the farm? Or do you agree that our conversations could improve?

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3 Responses to How to Have an Intelligent Discussion With Anyone About Anything

  1. Brent says:

    I had this teenager in my youth group who would come into my office and do this quite often…

  2. Pingback: | Why You Should Argue Religion and Politics Online

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