There is a common perception that there must be something more to atheism than simply disbelief in gods because atheists so often debate theists. Whats the point of debating if not to convert someone to some other philosophy or religion? It is, then, fair to ask why atheists get involved in such debates and what they hope to achieve. Does this show that atheism is some sort of philosophy or even a religion?
First, many of these debates wouldnt occur if theists werent trying to convert atheists. Some atheists seek out debate, but many are content to simply discuss things amongst themselves. The fact that an atheist responds to prompting from a theist does not suggest there is anything more to atheism. Second, there is a legitimate interest in educating people about atheism, agnosticism, and freethought. There are many myths and misconceptions about them and people are justified in trying to dispel them.
Sometimes, though, debates are engaged by atheists not merely as nonbelievers, but as nonbelievers who are trying to promote reason and skepticism. The specifics of the debate may be about theism and religion, but the purpose of the debate is supposed to be the encouragement of reason, skepticism, and critical thinking. Any encouragement of atheism is incidental to that.
When participating in such discussions, it is important to remember that not all theists are wildly irrational and illogical if that were so, it would be easier to simply dismiss them. Most are genuinely attempting to be reasonable and some manage to do a fair job. Treating them as if they never heard of logical arguments only serves to put them on the defensive and prevents anything from being accomplished.
This raises an important question: if you are engaging a theist in a debate, why are you doing it? You must understand what your goals are if you have any hopes of getting anywhere. Are you just looking to win an argument or vent your negative emotions about religion and theism? If so, you need a new hobby.
Are you looking to convert people to atheism? In the context of any one discussion, your chances of achieving that are slim to none. Not only are you unlikely to succeed, but there isnt even all that much value in it. Unless the other person begins adopting a habit of reasonableness and skeptical thinking, they wont be much better off as an unskeptical atheist than as an unskeptical theist.
However mistaken a persons conclusions may be, the process which brought them to that conclusion is the key. The important thing is not to focus simply on their erroneous belief but instead upon what has ultimately brought them to those beliefs, and work on getting them to adopt a methodology which relies more upon skepticism, reason, and logic.
This suggests a more modest program than just trying to convert people: planting a seed of doubt. Rather than try to foster a radical change in a person, it is more realistic to get a person to begin questioning some facet of their religion which they had not seriously questioned before. Most theists I encounter are absolutely convinced of their beliefs and have the attitude that they could not possibly be mistaken yet they still hold on to the idea that they are open minded.
If you can genuinely open their minds some small amount and get them to reconsider some aspect of their religion, youll accomplish a lot. Who knows what fruits such questioning might bear later on? One way to approach this is to get people thinking about religious claims in the same way they already know they should approach claims made by used car salesmen, realtors, and politicians. Ideally, it shouldnt matter whether a claim occurs in the arena of religion, politics, consumer products, or anything else we should approach them all in the a fundamentally skeptical, critical manner.
The key is not to simply tear down some religious dogma. Instead, the key is to get a person to think reasonably, rationally, logically, and critically about beliefs more generally. With that, religious dogma is more likely to crumble of its own accord. If a person is thinking skeptically about their beliefs, all you should have to do is point out some flaws in order to generate a reconsideration, if not a rejection.
If religion really is a crutch as so many atheists believe, then it is unreasonable to imagine that youll accomplish much by trying to kick the crutch out from under someone. A wiser course of action is to get people to realize that they dont need that crutch after all. Theyll never truly be rid of that crutch unless they toss it aside themselves.
Psychologically speaking, people dont like to change or abandon comforting beliefs. They are, however, more likely to do so when it is their own idea to make the change. Real change best comes from within and your best bet is to first make sure that they have the tools that will help them reconsider their beliefs.