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An Atheists Approach to Conversing with Theists

Updated on December 13, 2013

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.


The Approaches

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.

The Firebrand:
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.

The Questioner:
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?

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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:

  1. Personal Experience: As the believer shares their personal experience, they expect you to believe it just because they're saying it enthusiastcally
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

My Thoughts

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.


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    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      That's an interesting experience. I'm not going to disagree, but I'd suggest that a lack of familiarity with defending yourself against a firebrand atheist may have been a factor in it working. I think most Christians are used to having their beliefs attacked, so they develop a kind of a reflexive defense against it. Like you said later in your comment, there are certain people who always take things personally (and are worth avoiding). I think it's more of a spectrum though. Nearly everyone takes criticism of their beliefs personally to some extent. The more they do, the less likely the firebrand approach will work.

      I think this is because all beliefs are self-serving. If you believe in something then you also believe it's worthwhile to hold that belief. Even something as simple as believing it will rain tomorrow comes with the additional belief that you are well-informed, and are a step ahead of people who don't believe it will rain. These secondary beliefs aren't consciously realized, but they are implied, and they motivate us to defend the most trivial of things. I would say that all beliefs are an extension of the ego, and they all have some level of emotional investment, however small. I guess the key emotion is pride (e.g. I'm a better person for believing this). So most of the time, I don't think it's as simple as attacking the belief without attacking the person. If you attack someone's belief, you attack their pride too.

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thomas - unfortunately, I still have to somewhat disagree. From my own personal experience, I can give testimony that firebrand atheism CAN work - in certain circumstances.

      I was raised as a missionary kid in a southern baptist home. I went to christian schools, went to church several times a week, wasn't allowed to listen to the radio or watch tv, and I didn't have any friends that weren't christians. I even began studying for my theology degree in a big, powerful Christian college. It never occurred to me that there were people out there who were different - until I ran across one. He shocked me. Although I had doubts before, and I had my own questions, it never occurred to me to question the very existence of god. Until I found one person who delivered a shock to my system. He forced me to truly think about my beliefs for the first time. It woke me up. I didn't become an atheist overnight. It still took me years. But I credit him with breaking the seal that separated my faith and myself from reality. Were it not for him and his firebrand approach, I don't know what I would have become. So I still think it has its uses - even online. Some people are so entrenched and so ingrained that it never even occurs to them to question it. Sometimes those people need to be woken up - if nothing else than to force them to think for themselves.

      Sheilamyers - thank you very much for your comments. Yes, there is vitriol on both sides, and sometimes it resorts to mudslinging. I try to stay out of those types of conversations as much as possible, while remembering to respect the person - not necessarily the belief. It seems like many Christians seem to take a criticism of their beliefs incredibly personally - and they see it as an attack on them personally. They seem unable to separate themselves from what they believe, and I think that is a dangerous position to be in. Thankfully, I can usually manage to untangle myself from those types of conversations, and I have a growing list of users that I tend to avoid whenever possible. I'm here for the discussion - not the name calling, insults or accusations - and I think that both methods have their uses.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I think you've done a great job covering both approaches to having a conversation between theists and atheists. In fact, I would say these approaches would work well for conversations on almost any topic. Even though you didn't specifically mention it, what you've written about is the basic rules of debate. Whether a person uses the fire-brand or questioning method, one of the main rules is to lay out discussion without resorting name-calling and throwing around insults. I think many of my fellow Christians can learn a valuable lesson by reading this hub.

      I've seen many conversations between theists and atheists in chat rooms and forums and can honestly say I've seen the nastiness flying on both sides. That's why I've been enjoying reading your hubs - because you state your point of view without getting nasty and making people feel put down. You present your opinions in a friendly manner I haven't seen much on-line. Very well written.

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for the reply JMcFarland. I agree that the firebrand approach can work when there's a friendship involved. That will help the theist to separate out the personal from the philosophical. They'll know that the atheist isn't trying to "harm" them if the atheist still wants to be friends with them. I was thinking more of the arguments that atheists have with complete strangers, such as you commonly see online.

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thomas - I agree that the second method is generally more useful in keeping the conversation going, but I disagree with what you've said about the firebrand approach - and I think that sometimes it is warranted. I know a lot of atheists friends, and the "firebrand" types seem to get through to people equally to the other types. Several of my firebrand friends have shown me emails or texts about how they've really given their theist friends something to think about - in a way that they've never imagined before.

      While I try to use the second approach as my primary method, I think that the firebrand approach has it's purpose - and I don't see it as an arrogance at all - although I'm sure that some people use it that way or that it is perceived that way from some theists.

    • bipolartist profile image

      Amy Magness Whatley 

      5 years ago from United States of America

      Great article. Very informative and validating. Shared and +++upped.

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      The firebrand approach is never meant to "de-convert" anyone in my experience. It's for the atheist to stroke his/her ego under the pretense of doing some good in the world. There's only one way for the argument to go, and most atheists know that. The theist will feel they're being attacked, which triggers a reflexive disagreement, and a defense of their position. There is no revelation moment, unless it happens long after the argument.

      Most atheists are of this obnoxious variety because they aren't motivated by the desire to deconvert anyone; they want the theist to get angry and disagree because it gives the atheist an opportunity to show how incredibly intelligent they are (sarcasm). Speaking as an atheist and an agnostic, I can confirm that a lack of religious beliefs doesn't make someone intelligent, though atheists seem to think it does. Atheism just means that you've taken one intelligent position (from many) for an undetermined reason. Possibly the atheist looked at Hawking and Dawkins and thought, "hey, I want to look like I'm that intelligent" ...leading them to pick those role models to follow. So they may have an intelligent position, but for wholly unintelligent reasons. The way that some atheists treat the Trinity of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris makes me think that they've found their own God-like figures to worship anyway. So anyway, I find the arrogance quite sickening, and it's why I tend to stay well clear of atheist communities.

      On a scientific basis, I would draw your attention to a paper by Batson (1975) "Rational processing or rationalization? The effect of disconfirming information on a stated religious belief." that makes the case quite clearly. The firebrand approach appears to actually strengthen the theist's beliefs.

      As you've probably determined, I wholly support the questioner approach. That's not to say I don't ridicule Christianity. I just do it in my articles, not in conversations with theists. I don't support the questioner approach out of some obligation to be polite either. I'm motivated by the effect my impoliteness might have - which as the Batson experiment showed, only works to strengthen a theist's beliefs. I want my conversations with theists to have a meaning beyond inflating my own ego at a hefty counter-productive price.

      The psychology of it is quite simple and can be summed up in one sentence really: The Christian wants to save face. They don't want to be shown to be a fool by someone who is determined to make them look like one. If you hit them with genuine questions, they will be more inclined to apply a level of thought to their answers. Perhaps they'll just regurgitate what their priest told them, but it sure as `hell' gives you a better chance of getting through to them.


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