How To Both Love And Debate People (And Knock Off The Attempts To “Save” Them)

A somewhat unpleasantly hostile atheist is outraged that a nephew, with whom this atheist is admittedly not very close, announced on Facebook plans to study theology (in addition to political science).  Here is what the atheist wants to say to the nephew “in a nutshell”:

“In a nutshell, I think religion is: pernicious fraud and one of the chief causes of war and suffering in the world, indoctrination of vulnerable children s child abuse, and to profit from either immoral. To waste one’s time studying how to do those things is a darn shame and a waste of the one life we have doing harm to the world. The reasons I believe that are numerous and have steadily accumulated over the years as I’ve become interested and acquainted with them. I sure wish I’d been able to talk with you about this far sooner.”

Richard Wade’s advice (in his 100th “Ask Richard” column, which he posted today, on his birthday) is superb and should be read in full and taken to heart by all atheists and religious people who feel inclined to write their family members the same sorts of unsympathetically intrusive personal attacks on their career goals and views that this relative does.  (Camels With Hammers is proud to host the full index of links to the first 99 “Ask Richard” columns.)  Richard puts in perspective that being right (or at least righter) than someone else is not a good justification to be shitty to them and also that trying to worm your way into someone’s life for the simple purpose of altering their viewpoints is condescending, disrespectful, and, usually, futile.  He writes:

You say that you’re not known for your tact, but I think that is exactly what you need in order to have productive dialogues with anyone. I think that you can develop skills with tact if you also practice empathy. That means trying your best to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes, and accurately understanding what emotions they are feeling. Then you can choose your words for how they will emotionally affect the other person, rather than talking simply to satisfy your desire to express yourself.

Expressing yourself doesn’t require paying attention to how the other person is responding to what you say, or even if they’re listening at all.

Effectively communicating is very different. It requires you to speak according to how you will be heard. You speak with your ears, rather than with your mouth.

Ask yourself this: If you could establish a close and caring relationship with him that would be a positive thing for the both of you, but he would still be following his present path of beliefs, would you continue that relationship? In other words, can you rise above this disagreement you have with his views, and love and respect him as a person, regardless of his religion, as long as his personal conduct does not harm you or others?

If you could not do this, if your underlying primary motive for establishing a closer relationship would be to change his religious views, then back off and leave him alone. Atheists often complain that some Christians pretend to befriend a person with no strings attached, but are really only trying to make another salvation conquest. If you find that practice loathsome, be sure to not practice it yourself.

However, if you sincerely think that you can be his friend exactly as he is, then first work on establishing a genuinely caring and accepting relationship with him, based on topics and interests completely separate from theism and atheism. Just as there is more to you than your atheism, there is more to him than his religion. He’s still a person with all the needs and desires, hopes and fears as anyone else. He deserves respectful treatment even if you don’t respect his beliefs. and he will respond best to respectful treatment.

There are forums (like this one) for the blunt and uncompromising, expression of ideas.  There are friendships in which people find vigorous, challenging, and even sometimes uncomfortable debates deeply enriching and consistent with mutual affection.  Ideally all of us would have as many of these as we could since they strengthen both us and our friends as thinkers and can bond people together in shared virtue in a special way.  They not only force us to confront our own intellectual limitations by providing us with fresh perspectives we would have missed left only to our own devices, but they train us in the habit of loving those we disagree with and of being able to separate our ideas from our feelings for other people so that conflicts of the mind do not preclude all affections of the heart.  In short, they make us better at committing ourselves to both truth and better at committing ourselves to people by making the two tasks mutually non-exclusive.

And there are also relationships of mutual love and support and relationships of mentorship, in the contexts of which sharing one’s values and critical thoughts about another’s major life decision makes sense and constitutes caring concern for that other person, which the recipient of advice can appreciate even when it makes him uncomfortable or is not what he wants to hear.  There are some times, even, when someone specifically seeks out that kind of advice.  Other times, we may offer a genial challenge to a mutually respectful debate or dialogue with someone we do not know well but think would be an interesting interlocutor.  And sometimes someone might be spouting some nonsense and you just have to have the backbone to confrontationally counter it for the sake of the truth and for the sake of others who may be listening, watching, or reading along.  Sometimes genuine conflict in a genuine argument in a setting not normally fit for heated debates is a good thing that forces the complacent to see that there are important issues they cannot always run away from.  But usually it is best for those showdowns to occur naturally out of ordinary conversations without combative agendas, and usually it is best not to make things any more acrimonious than is necessary but only to push back with clear logic and appropriately calibrated emotional responses.

But what we should never ever be doing is presuming to judge people’s entire lives or the worth of their major life decisions on only partial information, including that they have a particular set of beliefs we think are false or bad.  There are many extraordinary people who are very wrong about some matters of fact or philosophical truth but who are nonetheless far better overall people than others with right answers to matters of fact and philosophy.  Nobody has every virtue possible and sometimes someone you see missing one virtue that you proudly know you have can also have 10 admirable virtues you’re too emotionally lazy or immature to even realize you lack.  And so storming into people’s lives trying to fix them because you think they need to be saved and you’re the one to save them is quite often foolish, presumptuous, and an expression of your own bad character.

The reason we should always be extremely cautious in judging people is not because there are no good and true standards of true and false in facts or even in values.  There are better and worse values.  There are true things known about the world which need promulgating and false things thought about the world which need debunking.  And sometimes people truly make mistakes that cause themselves or others objective harm or which simply make themselves flourish less than they could in their own total excellence.  So, truthful judgments can be brought to bear on people’s decisions, their characters and their choices’ consequences.  But we are each far too ignorant about all the myriad facts that constitute the lives of those around us.  We are often blind to circumstances that should morally obligate us to treat people far more sympathetically than our first glance of what we know about a situation would indicate.  There are intricate interconnected psychological realities that could make something that would generally be bad or discourageable or non-ideal actually vital and necessary for this particular person’s overall flourishing in life and in virtue.  And even when we can properly assess the value of an action, a belief, a character trait, a general disposition in a person, if we do not know them intimately enough our efforts to fix them might be ineffective at best and outright counter-productive at worst.  Finally, there are enough ways that our own prejudices and distorted centers of focus can lead us into errors of our own about what is objectively valuable or not, that we should be awfully careful about applying judgments to others which may be distorted by our own fallibilities.

So, my advice is to focus on the arguments.   Challenge people to consider and respond to things that you have not yet heard them address and listen closely to their replies so that you might learn something.  Respond always with reasons, don’t make things any more personal than you need to, convince people about abstract truths and let others fill in the blanks about how those abstract truths relate to the myriad concrete particulars of their own lives (about so many of which you yourself are grossly ignorant).  Don’t turn people into projects, don’t turn arguments into ego-contests, and don’t overestimate your own virtues or underestimate the virtues of your enemies.  Speak the truth, be cognizant of the truths you don’t know and humbly don’t speak as if you know them.  And, finally, have the good tact to treat each relationship with each person on its own terms, such that you respect that relationship’s unique possibilities and limitations for constructive intellectual and/or emotional confrontations which can actually benefit everyone best.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Hitch

    It was a superb piece. On youtube there was a discussion about the problem of evil. The proposal was that evil is thinking that another group is evil. One commenter took exception and said that evil is what violates the two basic principles of equality and empathy. In fact the prison psychologist G. M. Gilbert tried to figure out what evil was by interviewing the Nazis who got convicted. He came back with the answer: “The absence of empathy”.

    I’m taking this a little into extreme land, but I think for anybody, atheists or not, considering empathy is a key thing for coexistence (or even better, friendship).

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Some philosophers and highly argumentative types will have to learn the hard way that we need to let people do their own thing for the most part. If you get too pushy, you become annoying and arrogant.

    I like to argue with family members to some extent, but personal “advice” about how to live life is especially touche even when it is nothing more than a suggestion.

  • Jonathan – a different one :)

    @James: Sorry, I can’t parse: “especially touche”. Help?

  • Daniel Fincke

    I think James just meant “touchy”, not “touche”

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Daniel, this is a wonderful essay and has great value in its own right. It does not need reference to my piece at all. There are so many quotable remarks here that I’m bookmarking this particular post as well as your blog. I’m sure I’ll be citing several of your statements repeatedly. Thank you for clarifying and articulating several ideas for me.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Daniel, this is a wonderful essay and has great value in its own right.

    Thanks so much, Richard!

    It does not need reference to my piece at all.

    One of my favorite things about the blogosphere is how it enables posts which are inspired by and build off of other people’s ideas. What started as a simple attempt to just sum up what you said led to clarifying some inchoate thoughts I’d had that were related.

    There are so many quotable remarks here that I’m bookmarking this particular post as well as your blog. I’m sure I’ll be citing several of your statements repeatedly. Thank you for clarifying and articulating several ideas for me.

    That’s wonderful, your support means a ton, thanks!


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