Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments YOU Can Think Up And Create Gestalt Shifts (Tip 8 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.

I love the “Zombie Jesus” meme. I love the way it highlights the ludicrous fantasy of the idea of a man raised from the dead. It forces the mind to realize that formally the “risen Christ” which is taken to be an entirely plausible concept, looks little different from the brain-eating undead monsters which in our culture are universally taken to be sheer fiction.

Religious doctrines, stories, and values are so deeply embedded culturally that they become as unthinking as cliches. The shock most people would feel when hearing tales of genocide for many is astoundingly absent when they read mass indiscriminate ethnic slaughter celebrated in the Old Testament. When reading their religious texts religious people obligingly suspend their normal suspicion of fantastic tales, or of the wisdom, spirituality, morality and general reliability of those who tell them.

So, it is really valuable to create a gestalt switch wherein you can jolt people into seeing that what they like to conceive of in whitewashed, watered-down, harmless ways are really morally grotesque or obviously and ridiculously false when framed in ways that are more consistent with the rest of our 21st Century values and which give no special exemption to religious texts from the normal 21st Century rules for being morally and historically acceptable as a source of guidance or truth.

But gestalt shifts cannot be all of what we do. I read many atheists whose caricatures of religious beliefs are so reductive that I can imagine hardly any religious people recognizing their own views at all in the straw man. I addressed this a bit already in tip #3 about not telling religious people what they “really” think but engaging them on their actual, idiosyncratic views.

Now I want to add to this a call to specifically figure out the best possible cases for their views and target them. Even where believers themselves are so ignorant or incoherent that they cannot present their religions’ positions with any rigor or plausibility, we should be willing and able to engage the best possible arguments. So, sometimes this means we might have to provide them ourselves. This is because even though the believer may not know how to formulate a better articulation of his beliefs than our gestalt-shifting offering of what they entail, he will usually be unwilling to take a caricature as a decisive refutation of his positions.

But if we reach out and work with him and help him think through the best possible defenses of his position, we get his hopes up that maybe he can salvage his views and we impress him with how thoroughly we are able to think through his own position even though we do not accept it. When we can help him build a seemingly impressive defense for his own views and then take that apart, we demonstrate in a powerful way that we are not just attacking his views out of ignorance or shallow understanding. We show instead that we understand his position better than he does and still can systematically dismantle it because it is so weak. This is very psychologically powerful and has the benefit of being fair, gracious, and a model of ideal rationality. We should do this simply as an expression of our commitment to rationalism and our love of truth, even were it not so useful for persuasion.

If all we ever do is cast their views in ways that do not really capture the essence of what they really mean, believers can reflexively dismiss us as unserious or uncomprehending. When we show that we can engage the most sophisticated versions of their views and show that we can explore a dozen of the most seemingly promising avenues to cogently develop their own positions for them or with them, and yet still refute them point by point, we limit their ability to feel like they have rational options left we have not touched.

Again, as I have stressed before, when I say we should address the most sophisticated versions of believers’ positions, I do not mean that we should ignore fundamentalists’ views as beneath refutation for their lack of sophistication. We just should address the most sophisticated possibilities for interpreting and defending fundamentalists too as part of addressing their views systematically. With fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists alike our focus should be on gestalt shifts, positive alternative accounts of philosophy which answer their theologies, refutations according to reason and evidence, and considerations and refutations of their best hopes of defending their own positions against our refutations.

Your Thoughts?

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

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


Atheism Is Not A Religion. But There Should Be Atheistic Religions.
“The History of Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Suicide”
Talk to Me For Free About Philosophy of Love, Philosophy and Suicide, or Nietzsche
Barrier Breaker
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.

  • Crommunist

    I think I understand what you mean by ‘gestalt shift’, but an operational definition off the top would be incredibly instructive.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Defining a gestalt shift: Sometimes an image or a set of ideas contains within it more than one mutually exclusive, major pattern that the mind can be impressed by. So, in the famous example of duck/rabbit if you look at the image one way, you see a duck and if you just look at it the other way you see the rabbit. You can never really see both at the same time as your entire paradigm, your entire way of organizing the particular pieces of information according to a pattern, shifts in order to see it either as a duck or as a rabbit.

      Similarly I’m saying there is are these whole massive patterns that Christians see when they look at Christianity or at Jesus, etc. The overall image they get is based on all their preconceived notions of how Christianity makes sense in what they take to be a realistic way. The atheist tends to see the whole thing adding up to a wildly different uglier pattern or set of patterns. So the Christians read the same story of Jesus dying and raising from the dead and think “Wow, the Savior! He is Risen!” and the atheist looks at it and goes “Wow, the Undead! He is a Zombie!” It’s the same basic story but to grasp a wildly different interpretation of it you need to shift how you sort the ideas.

      So, the shift from grasping one patterned “image” or idea to another while looking at the same basic information is called a gestalt shift. Getting your opponent to see all the common information under the basic paradigm you do rather than the one he or she is used to is often more important than giving people simply new information. It’s getting them to see what they already know under a different organizing rubric.

    • Ender

      But that’s it, there is no “different organising rubric” under which a resurrected human being is the same thing as a Zombie.

      What you’re asking the atheist to do here is look at the same underlying information, dismiss all of it that doesn’t conform to a vaguely insulting comparison (talking, not decomposing, not eating brains, not shambling etc) and then make the comparison as if they’ve seen a “different organising rubric” where none exists.

      If they’re going to do that they should call it what it is, reinterpreting their beliefs, retconning them if you will, in a vaguely insulting manner because it’s funny.

      It’s no different to creationists making cartoons about scientists with monkeys for parents. They know it’s not what we actually believe, and you know that ZombieJesus is not what Christians believe, but it is a suitable target for mockery, if you believe as they do that evolution is a fraud, or as you do that Jesus did not return from the dead.

      There is no “different organising rubric” under which scientists believe their parents were apes, nor is there one under which someone coming back to life is the same as someone becoming undead. This is simple mockery, which may in itself do a good job jolting people out of their established thought patterns or frame of mind, show them that their unconsidered belief is considered mockable by others and make them reconsider how sure they are that it’s true, but it’s not caused by a logical gestalt shift, just shame.

      “If all we ever do is cast their views in ways that do not really capture the essence of what they really mean, believers can reflexively dismiss us as unserious or uncomprehending.”

      I realise that I haven’t until this post mentioned anything in the post beyond the ZombieJesus meme, I agree with most of what you said, I just don’t think that what you said is applicable to the meme.
      For example, as above, does the ZombieJesus meme really capture the essence of what Christians really mean? I would hazard not. No shambling etc.

      “When we show that we can engage the most sophisticated versions of their views and show that we can explore a dozen of the most seemingly promising avenues to cogently develop their own positions for them or with them, and yet still refute them point by point, we limit their ability to feel like they have rational options left we have not touched.”

      Is the ZombieJesus meme engaging with the most sophisticated versions of Christian views? I don’t think it’s even engaging with the least sophisticated version of any Christian views. Coming back from the dead (as opposed to becoming undead) has been an established trope for thousands of years, since at least the Ancient Greek period.

      Really I’m only disagreeing with your use of this example as a good example of what you’re talking about below, which it isn’t.

    • Wonderist

      Really I’m only disagreeing with your use of this example as a good example of what you’re talking about below, which it isn’t.

      He’s not using it as an example of “Refute the best counter-arguments”, he’s using it as an example of “Create gestalt shifts”. Zombie Jesus = Gestalt shift.

    • Ender

      It’s not a gestalt shift though, as it is based on false premises. It’s just an incorrect comparison.

  • Ender

    Sorry I’ve been enjoying the rest of your articles but this one is really terrible.

    Zombies are defined as the walking dead. Resurrection is being brought back to life, with a healed body (or at least not dead)

    Even if you know that these two concepts are fantasy they are clearly different concepts.

    Conflating two dissimilar concepts as a ‘criticism’ or a ‘mockery’ of another persons belief may make you look witty to people who agree with you, but can only irritate people who you are disagreeing with and make them think that you are either uninformed, ignorant or prejudiced.

    The “Zombie Jesus” meme is terrible, an insult to both Zombies and rational criticism.

    It’s on the level of “Atheists have no morals” because “Atheists have no morals” is to “Atheists have no philosophical grounding for an absolute morality” as “Jesus was a zombie” is to “Jesus was resurrected”

    That’s not a particularly good comparison, though relevant, a better one would be “Quantum physics. It changes when you look at it!!!” is to “A proper understanding of the collapse of superposition” as “Jesus was a zombie” is to “Jesus was resurrected” i.e. it’s stupid, the comparison is incorrect and it satirises nothing except the intellect of the person saying it.

  • Ender

    Damnit! I struggle with accurate but not pithy comparisons for ages, then one comes along shortly after I post:

    “Jesus was a Zombie” is to “Jesus was resurrected” as
    “Evolution says my uncle’s a monkey!” is to “We evolved from a common ancestor”

  • Wonderist

    Wow, Ender, you really can’t see it? Okay. A few more hints.

    Zombies: Eat human flesh and drink human blood.
    Jesus: Urges you to eat his human flesh and drink his blood.

    Zombies: Often walk around with open wounds from whatever killed them.
    Jesus: Had Thomas poke his hand right into an open wound from his crucifixion.

    Zombies (voodoo style): Are possessed by the voodoo master and become slaves to his will.
    Jesus (Holy Ghost style): Possesses his followers, is called ‘the master’, and expects you to become a slave to his will.

    Zombies: Spread zombism contagiously and actively seek out new converts to zombism.
    Jesus: ‘Nuff said.

  • Ender

    Ha! That’s really incorrect:

    “Zombies: Eat human flesh Brains and drink human blood.
    Jesus: Urges you to eat his human flesh and drink his blood”

    I am going to eat your brains =/= Eat my flesh and drink my blood

    Is that too complicated for you?

    Open wounds is another point of similarity? You’re really stretching there. You’d better never go to A+E.

    Zombies: Voodoo style are possessed / Jesus: Is not possessed.

    Zombies: Kill people to eat and as a result create more Zombies / Jesus: Does not kill or eat people, does not create more Jesuses

    Your argument is silly.

    • Wonderist

      Your argument is silly.

      It’s not an argument, it’s a metaphorical inversion. A funny comparison to shake things up.

      “It’s clearly not two opposing faces! It’s a vase! The comparison is silly!”

      “Ha! That old hag doesn’t even look like a real person. More like a cartoon. It’s obviously a young lady looking away! You’d be a fool to think otherwise!”

      Whatever dude. If you can’t see it, you can’t see it. It’s still a good gestalt shift.

  • Brad

    Comment on this old post:

    I strongly agree that a gestalt shift is going to be key to a religious person rethinking their views, but the zombie Jesus meme just comes across as mockery, to me.

    The problem is that we don’t have any great way of knowing exactly WHAT will cause a gestalt shift for a believer.

    For me, it was learning about skepticism and the confirmation bias, and then asking myself, “wait, can’t we apply these same ideas to the idea of prayer? What if all these ‘answers’ are just my own confirmation bias in action?”

    For a college friend, now atheist, the shift came when he started to look at the history of the bible, and how different churches ended up with a different collection of books they declared as inspired.

    It could come by learning the truth about evolution, then asking how that impacts our belief in the infallibility of scripture.