Be Unapologetic, Rigorous, Patient, And Gracious With Religious Believers (Tip 9 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious Believers)

Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers:

1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

2. Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.

3. Don’t Tell Religious Believers What They “Really Believe”.

4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.

5. Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence.

6. Don’t Demonize Religious People’s Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms.

7. Take Philosophy Seriously.

8. Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments You Can Think Of And Create Gestalt Shifts.

9. Be Unapologetic, Rigorous, Patient, And Gracious With Religious Believers.

“Be rigorous and kind.” This is my supreme commandment for myself as a teacher. I insist on holding my students to high standards that challenge them as much as possible, without breaking them, so that they can grow as thinkers as much as possible. And to support them emotionally as they cope with the difficult discipline of academia, I try to be as kind and personally sympathetic to them as I can. I want all the pain and misery they experience to be what comes from the inherent difficulties of the course of study, the rigors of learning a discipline, and the mental stretching exercises. There should be no gratuitous discomfort that comes from me treating them disrespectfully, dismissively, or with any other undue hostility or apathy. Now in the classroom I am just teaching the students how to think, not taking an interest in their arriving at my own conclusions. But the same basic attitudes are valuable when trying to educate your interlocutors in debates about religion.

You should be uncompromisingly rigorous when things turn to a debate. You should be willing to irreverently challenge their worshipful disposition towards certain concepts. You should be unapologetic about taking a firm and uncompromising stand on the importance of reason and evidence where most people are soft and accommodating. I remember being a believer and being taken aback by the forceful confidence of those who minced their words about religion’s falseness and badness the least. Even when I completely dismissed what they said, their cut-through-the-bullshit sureness was something I admired—though I could only admit it in retrospect. So, even as I argue that we should refrain from insulting people by refusing to stoop to name-calling or demonizing and Othering of religious people, I am at the end of the day 100% behind the New Atheists’ principled refusal to give a quarter to irrationalism, make excuses for nonsense, or to mince words about the falseness or the demonstrable harms of faith-based religions. As long as the critiques are rooted in truth and apportioned to reason and evidence and delivered in ways that respect people’s dignity, I am all about attacking the false and the harmful rigorously, unapologetically, and with no punches pulled.

And you should also feel free to unapologetically challenge someone’s beliefs without waffling on about only wanting separation of church and state unless you’re specifically talking about a separation of church and state issue. There is no need to soft pedal your arguments that your interlocutor really is wrong by bringing up her rights to believe as she wishes. If those rights (or your support of them) are distressingly unclear at some point, then by all means reassure her you have no intentions to force her legally to be an atheist. But if all you are doing is arguing the truth and goodness of being an atheist as opposed to being a person of faith, then do not feel constrained by taboo to hide the fact that you want to change her mind. It’s not a terrible thing to want. The only terrible things are to emotionally bully, rationally deceive, or to legally coerce someone into agreeing.

I have lost friends (at least through Facebook) because people could not take my frank criticism of religion. But rarely if ever has this been because I treated them harshly as people. I am willing to lose the friendship of people too sensitive to cope with ideas that challenge them. But I am not going to push them away by abusing them and giving them just cause to not like me. (Most tellingly, the only Facebook friend to explicitly announce she was unfriending me over my atheism was someone who stormed off because I put up a post exhorting other atheists to simply be proud of their atheism. The post was not even an attack on her beliefs at all.)

So, even though I am willing to let those who find my atheism leave my life, much as I like them, we should prevent alienating people any more than is necessary. It is a necessary evil in life that we have philosophical enemies, but as much as we can avoid them turning into personal enemies, we should.  Below the fold is some advice on how being self-conscientiously patient and gracious can go along way in keeping harmony between disagreeing people.

First off, be patient and accept that no one will likely fall down and deconvert after one debate with you, or with you present there at all. They can be dissuaded from their beliefs. I was dissuaded from devout belief and, surprisingly, I am now slowly receiving word of people who have even been helped out of their faith by my relatively heady blog, and by abstract conversations I had years ago with them face to face. It can happen. But you usually will not be there when it does. And that’s a good thing. No one should have (or feel) that power over people face to face.

Let people come to terms rationally and without the pressures to submit to someone in their face pushing them. Make the hard logical, factual case against their faith and then when it has sunk in and they understand it, back off, let up, give them room to breathe, give them their dignity, and their ability to save face. Don’t get greedy and go for some decisive blow. Be gracious. Give them the space to think for themselves. Trust your arguments and your interlocutors’ reason. Don’t strong arm people. Treat them with kindness and respect for their personal reasoning process. Give them time. Take debates one step at a time and if possible debate only one topic per session. Sow seeds. Be content sometimes just to be a moderating influence even if they remain overall convinced of their general position. Accept that you are just one influence among countless others in their lives and that it’s actually a lot better that way. The other way is the way of cults. You are not a cult leader, just a person making good arguments and that’s all. What others do with the arguments is their business. Make the arguments strongly and then kindly and patiently leave them alone (either for good or until they come back to you curious for more).

Give them no reason to resent you as someone cruel to them. Let all their frustration and anxiety, if they must feel any, be due to the strength of your arguments and none due to your bullying, your condescension, your insults, your impatience, or your lack of personal graciousness and congeniality.

Your Thoughts?

10. Love Religious People. 

Clarifications to the Tips, Based on Objections:

Audiences and Approaches

I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist.

I Don’t Really Give A Fuck About Tone, Per Se

The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
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.

  • Mike

    Hi Daniel.

    I read some of your other posts as I’ve started following on Twitter.

    I guess my question is–why even get into the discussion? I mean, I’m 42 years old, I made the choice, or figured out what I figured out, maybe 20 years ago after being raised in a strict Catholic family.

    Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less what other (i.e. religious) people think. I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m not in a “church” of atheism (and I’m certainly not accusing you of saying any of these things, of course). People are in cults and believe silliness. I do not believe in silliness and am no longer affiliated with a cult. (Yes, I’m being mean by calling the Catholic faith a cult… ;)

    If some religious person wants to get in my face and argue with me, oh, I’ll argue. And no, it won’t involve calling them stupid, but I will argue if need be.

    But there’s a funny thing about religious people–especially smarter ones–they don’t want to get into the discussion because (I think) they might be afraid of what they might hear. (And I would argue, why the are religious to being with–they don’t like looking at death and realize that it is just, literally, the end…).

    Okay, I’m rambling on and didn’t mean to. Your points are valid, of course. I just don’t feel the need to recruit anyone to atheism. If they want to believe in their silliness, fine with me. And I still be friends with them. And hang out with them. And as long as they steer clear of what I believe, we’ll all continue to be friends. Or some such.

    Thanks for the great blog–glad I found it on Twitter (via Dan J. — @unrelated)


    • Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Mike.

      It’s not a matter of recruiting anyone to atheism like it’s a club or like it is by itself a whole way of life. It’s about caring about living in a culture where people know the truth about the world and are free to act autonomously on the truth. That’s the reason to educate anyone on anything. In the case of atheism, the issue is that standard issue human rationality is systematically exploited by religious institutions and practices to be systematically deceived and encouraged to be systematically irrational.

      I’m not saying you have to make this a central part of your life but I think that participating in the cultural debate over truth and values is generally important and at least occasionally you should be willing to get your hands dirty at least when the topic comes to religion, if you never bring it up yourself, and speak up for your take on it.

  • Tom Clark

    #3 is very important. If you can’t get them to be coherent, don’t tell them what you think they’re trying to say. Just move on.

  • Jalyth

    I’m reading this a few days later after it was mentioned somewhere else. The only people I care to try to convert is my family. I don’t believe it can happen, I actually think they mostly dug their feet in deeper since I left the religion they practice. I wouldn’t even care about my siblings, but one has 3 kids that I don’t want to see grow up the same way I did.

    Do you have any insights into how to approach nieces or nephews? Especially if you never see them? It’s probably logistically impossible, but I retain the fantasy that I can have some influence. I hope one of them is gay, cause it’s a way out.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I’ve been inspired to write an entire post by thinking about your question, Jalyth, so thanks. Be on the lookout for it tomorrow afternoon! But essentially the only I advice I have directly on your question is to follow Richard Wade’s advice here.

  • Bobbie

    It’s nice to see you follow some of God’s commandments, loving your non-fellow believer.

  • LK

    I think all people, atheist or believer, could learn from your wisdom. Believers treat other believers of different religions often more harshly than they treat an atheist. Respect goes a long way, even if you don’t agree with a person’s beliefs. I have great respect for the way you handle discussing your viewpoints.