An Atheists Approach to Conversing with Theists
Bringing Beliefs to the Table
It's been a long-held assertion that two things should never be discussed in polite company - politics and religion. As the atheist movement grows, however, and starts debating in public, online and across the world, religion is once again a prominent topic of conversation - and it's one that crosses country, racial and religious lines. Conversing with people who believe differently than you do is one of the main ways that change can be enacted - and having these conversations is a good, justifiable way to move forward with change, progress and a deeper understanding. Although these conversations may not be easy to swallow, they are productive - as long as you enter into them with the understanding that you're not looking for an easy "win" and your end-goal isn't necessarily to change someone's mind. You never know who may be positively impacted by your words and behavior, and sometimes the things you say (and the manner in which you say them) can make a real difference in someone's life - whether you recognize it at the moment or not.
Although atheism and theism seem automatically at-odds with each other, they don't have to be. We're all still people, and as such we have feelings, thoughts and beliefs that help define us overall. If we can't learn to converse with each other respectfully we can never hope to bridge the pre-existing gap between us and achieve a place of respect - even in our differences.
Although there are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to having a religious discussion, when all is said and done only two approaches stick out - and are the most commonly used.
Most theists know this type, and it's prevalent in forums and internet based debate groups. This group attacks the core of a person's beliefs fearlessly and with vigor. At first look, this type of approach seems counter-productive, but when you really take the time to look at it, it's incredibly effective. It is marked by several distinct characteristics:
- Demonstrates little respect for a person's beliefs
- isn't afraid to call people out
- interrupts the conversation at the first moment of contention
- often gets heated, as the theist feels as though they are being personally attacked, when realistically only their beliefs are challenged and called out.
- Is often accompanied with terms like "delusion" "lie" and "ridiculous
Although this approach does have it's downsides (namely, after having a conversation of this type, the theist often feels anger or annoyance, and it doesn't encourage further conversations as soon as these characteristics are displayed) it actually IS effective for a very realistic reason. Sometimes theists are SO intrenched in their beliefs that the need a virtual shock to the system to snap them out of the mindset that they've become comfortable in. This approach most certainly delivers that shock. As a result it is often able to get believers to start thinking about what they believe, rather than just regurgitating everything that they were taught to say. It challenges them - and challenges on beliefs are ALWAYS positive - even if they seem rude or inconsiderate in the heat of the moment.
This approach is the polar opposite of the firebrand approach, and it often leads to deeper and more meaningful conversations that can last much longer. This approach doesn't leap in with the counter-apologetics or direct attacks on a person's cherished personal beliefs. It asks questions in a deeper quest to understand what type of beliefs the person has, and it often leads to calmer, more in depth conversations that can continue indefinitely. This approach also has it's own set of typical characteristics:
- When speaking, the questioner makes "I" statements and puts the focus on them, rather than the beliefs that they're questioning
- There is no accusatory terms to immediately put the other person on-guard
- Asks a lot of questions about what the person believes and why they believe it
- doesn't attempt to "deconvert" a believer, but asks them to think for themselves.
This approach leads to seemingly productive conversations, and each person can leave the conversation by feeling that they were heard and understood and not directly under attack. The downside of this more patient approach, however, is you often have to wade through one apologetic tactic after another as you allow the theist to get their typical arguments out of the way, leaving the atheist at a loss. By allowing them to talk to their heart's content, you often lose the ability to address things that you disagree with point by point, and you risk forgetting some of the things that you wanted to say to begin with. This means important points can be often overlooked unintentionally.
which approach do you find the most effective?
A Typical Theist Baseline Argument Progression
Ironically (or maybe not) a lot of theists seem to have their own approach when encountering an atheist. Their arguments seem to line up into a very specific, very predictable pattern that goes as follows:
- Personal Experience: As the believer shares their personal experience, they expect you to believe it just because they're saying it enthusiastcally
- Hell: When the theist realizes that you're not buying their personal claims, they threaten you with hell either directly or indirectly. They use Pascal's wager at this point, and try to convince you that it's better to just believe that they're right rather than face the inevitable consequences. It's like they believe that salvation is a cosmic poker game, and it's better for you to hedge your bets
- Sympathy: When those two points fail to gain the desired result, they pull out the sympathy card. They tell you that you've been hurt by god or by another believer, so it's understandable that you've chosen to walk away. They make it appear that they think you are broken, weak and in need of saving. They assume that any negative experience that you've had is responsible for your lack of belief, and once you receive healing, you'll find your way back into the fold
- Condescension: If all else fails, mock the person that you're talking to and try to look down your nose at them. Yep. Seems practical. They utilize things like the appeal to popularity "you know there's a god. Everyone knows that god exists. You're just in the minority to be contrary". They also use this stage to ridicule and attempt to demonize evolution - as if that has anything to do with your atheism. The upside of this stage is they usually are more than willing to demonstrate their own ignorance of evolution and science, and it's usually pretty funny.
- Appeal to Proof: At this point, the theist will typically start grasping at straws to find some kind of proof (ridiculous as it may be) that will convince you to change your mind. They tell you that Noah's ark was found, and that makes everything in the Bible true. They'll bring up Near Death Experiences as proof of an afterlife and bring the God of the Gaps into full swing.
These approaches may be humorous, but they're also exhausting to go from step to step one conversation to another. It's like the atheist is continually fighting an uphill battle to break through these false, preconceived apologetic arguments, and it's a battle that can easily wear you down to the point of frustration.
Surprisingly, I think that both approaches to theists are effective - as long as you use the right one at the right time. While I generally try to take the second approach, there have been several occasions where taking my time and bending over backwards to foster a good, meaningful conversation of the second type was just impossible. Also surprisingly, I have received a lot more positive feedback from the firebrand approach than the patient approach - and I've had multiple people tell me that the shock to their system really awakened something inside of them and challenged them to really THINK about what they were saying, rather than simply regurgitating all of the counter-arguments that they were talk. In this instance, I'm not alone. A lot of atheists bloggers go back and forth between both approaches, and the large majority of the time, it's the firebrand approach that gets the most positive feedback - if you can dig through all of the name-calling, angry responses in the comment section to find the good ones. Sometimes it's good to put people on edge and break them out of their carefully crafted comfort zones - and sometimes a direct point by point approach is absolutely necessary to uncover the deeper truths.
As always - I respect everybody's right to hold a religious belief. That being said, however, I don't have to respect the belief itself.