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Why you should talk to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who ring your doorbell
I am an atheist but I have still found it instructive to talk to the wandering missionaries who chance to ring our doorbell. Why?
First, let’s set the scene. We live in a minority-majority area in Oslo, and in our particular neighbourhood (and our building) many residents are relatively new arrivals to Norway. They do not speak Norwegian well, they are not Christian, and nor are they, to the best of my knowledge, looking to convert to Christianity as the penalty for apostasy in their religion is death. Despite these challenges, Norwegian Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly do the rounds here. My husband always talks to these wandering missionaries, and they have come to expect a courteous, if not entirely warm, welcome when they come to call.
One day, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to behold two men — unfamiliar faces but clutching very familiar pamphlets. My husband was “busy” (meaning he didn’t want to talk to them). Usually we would have told them to come back later. But that day I decided that I would talk to them.
It proved to be an excellent decision. And I’m here to convince you that, far from wasting your time, these missionaries can help you in ways that you never thought possible: to identify and call out logical fallacies, improve your extemporaneous speaking, and practice your foreign language skills.
Nearly twenty years ago, a required course at university called Argumentation purported to teach us logic. Most of us came away none the wiser. The lecturer offered little in the way of real world examples of logical fallacies, preferring classics such as the following:
Cats are animals.
Dogs are animals.
Therefore, cats are dogs.
Yet amazingly, some of the lessons stuck. In my first chat with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I shocked myself by managing to identify a number of logical fallacies in their arguments. It was the first time that I had ever heard them in the wild, and one by one I made the personal acquaintance of the Texas Sharpshooter, No True Scotsman, and Strawman. Much to my chagrin, however, simply pointing out that “your argument is fallacious and therefore invalid” did not prove to be a very effective tactic.
Indeed. The ability to recognise logical fallacies will serve you well when it comes to analysing discourse in general but, as I learned that day, a grasp of formal logic alone does not win arguments. You also need to master what the ancient Greeks called rhetoric: the art of persuasion and effective speaking.
The first trick is to get the door-knockers to debate on your terms. You must move them away from citing Scripture at you and into an actual discussion. Depending on the approach that you wish to take, you may want to read up on topics such as the theory of evolution and historical evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of Christ. I prefer the Socratic method—asking questions to create a chain of logic—because it does not require any special knowledge of history or science. However, I have had little success with it because the Jehovah’s Witness who has been assigned to talk to me does not like to answer questions that he considers a challenge to his personal belief.
Learning to control the conversation is key. How you do so will depend on your own personality, that of your interlocutor, and culturally acceptable modes of discourse. Regardless, it is difficult because they and you have diametrically opposite goals: they want to keep you on their turf, while you want to drag them onto yours. They also have a script and do not like to stray from it, so will use any opportunity to get themselves back on track. Furthermore, they have practiced these tactics on countless others before.
Regardless of whether you initially succeed or not in limiting the debate to your desired parameters, you will still have the chance to practice your extemporaneous speaking skills. If you stick with it, you will eventually improve your ability to quickly evaluate your opponent’s arsenal, formulate an argument clearly and concisely, rebut an opponent, and stay on-topic despite calculated attempts to distract you. (Pro tip: Don’t fall for the “ooh! look! a completely unrelated bit of scripture!” tactic.)
Having acquired all those new skills, what else remains for you to learn? Well, if like me you are “lucky” enough to live in a country whose language you have learned as an adult, Jehovah’s Witnesses can provide you with invaluable foreign language practice. You should seize the chance to speak with them because not only do you need to identify fallacies and craft a logical response, you need to do it in a foreign language in the spur of the moment. There is no better way to practice with such low stakes than in these doorway debates, and when you at last manage to fire back with ease and grace, you’ll feel like you’ve just leveled up your language skills.
At the end of the day, you will probably never go to a Kingdom Hall and the missionaries will probably never waver in their faith, but your discussions with them will give your intellectual muscles a workout and prepare you for future debates on different topics with other opponents. Think of these peripatetic proselytisers as sent by God to help you do the Devil’s work, and rejoice.