Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers:
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.
Clarifications to the Tips, Based on Objections: