Don't Call Religious Believers Stupid (Tip 1 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious Believers)

Back in February, I wrote my Top 10 Tips For Reaching Out To Atheists, designed to help Christians (and other religious people) engage atheists in ways that are respectful to them and honest with them and with themselves, and therefore hopefully fruitful for both sides. In a series of posts (fully listed at the end of this post) I now want to talk about ten things I think my fellow atheists should keep in mind when trying to change religious people’s minds. Some of these tips might not apply to every writing or speaking exercise. Sometimes atheists are writing to other atheists or to people in an open middle. These tips are for when you are directly addressing religious people, either personally or publicly. But nonetheless, in many cases (including in the case of the subject of this first post) the tips involve being truthful to reality with your arguments and so should apply no matter what your audience.

Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers:

1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

Okay, many religious people believe some colossally stupid things directly on account of their religions’ teachings. But that does not make them stupid people. They formed their beliefs in ways that follow the brain’s wiring for general success. From a young age most of them have imbibed stories and narratives that, however counter-intuitive and ridiculous, they were rigorously and emotionally taught to think of as (a) literal and/or (b) sacred, and of deep mythical and mystical significance. It was a good and deeply effective evolutionary “strategy” to make children err on the side of being overly trusting of their parents, even if the result is that people routinely grow up believing some stupid things their parents put deep in their heads along with lots of good things. Similarly, for centuries countless brilliant people strongly believed these myths and narratives, whether in literalistic or metaphorical terms, because they were naturally appealing to the mind and because the power of tradition in shaping the mind and what possibilities it sees are incredible.

It took centuries of human practice with inferences to make the extraordinary discoveries about how to use scientific methodologies and statistical reasoning to most reliably and powerfully separate true beliefs from false ones. And it takes many people extraordinary effort to overcome natural mental biases towards leaping to plausible-seeming but statistically unsupported patterns of causation at the presence of interesting correlations, towards seeing agency everywhere in nature, towards overestimating the difference between life and non-life and between free will and determinism, etc.

There are reams of cognitive errors we are all naturally disposed towards which lead us all to specific stupid and false beliefs and to fallacious habits of reasoning in general. And those who are less educated and up to date in counter-intuitive true realities, and those less directly trained to be disciplined in rigorous logic and method are far less likely of their own to ever systematically overcome their naturally faulty reasoning tendencies. And it does not help that in the case of religious beliefs, people are indoctrinated from the time they are young by religious institutions and families which actively reinforce and celebrate fallacious, prejudicial, and superstitious habits of thought rather than correct them. It does not help that religious institutions forge astoundingly powerful emotional connections between people’s most superstitious, fallacious, mythical, foolish beliefs and their very senses of identity, of family loyalty, and of moral authority itself, among other central parts of life.

You do not need to be stupid to be a believer. You just need to have normal cognitive biases exploited and reinforced by outmoded traditions which have still not genuinely caught up with the scientific and industrial revolutions, even in some of their most modernized and sophisticated forms. Being uneducated, scared away from education, or viscerally loyal even in the teeth of education is enough.

And calling religious people stupid is also a sure fire way to make them not listen to you, and to do so with a reasonable moral justification. Don’t give them this out. Even if you hypocritically and anti-rationally do not care about the objective falsehood of your charge that religious people are generally an especially stupid set of people, you should learn that it is a counter-productive tactic to do so, one which loses you the moral and intellectual high ground. So do not do it. Instead relentlessly, factually, and if possible dispassionately, just rattle off all the fallacies and absurdities and inconsistencies and immoralities that their beliefs logically entail. Educate them in the vital tools of critical thought and explain why exceptions cannot be made in the use of these tools in the case of religious beliefs. Make them incapable of avoiding the cold hard facts and logical implications of their ideas.

I would not even call their beliefs stupid since it sounds too much like calling them stupid and I would rather not open myself to them hearing that in what I say. There are perfectly devastating, highly specific and unbelittling words to use. You can say their positions are unsupported by evidence, fantastically implausible, absurd, fallacious, historically disproven, scientifically impossible/disproven/unlikely, logically contradictory, etc. You don’t have to accommodate falsehood or pussyfoot around the issue of their wrongness by mincing your words or equivocating or giving bad arguments any more credence than they rationally warrant. Just expand your words with rational precision and respect for the potential intelligence and ability to learn of those you criticize. Don’t lazily and imprecisely lean on the word “stupid”. Here’s a simple variation of the famous “KISS” rule, in case you forget: “Keep It Specific, Stupid.”

Make them stare right at the logical and factual case against what they believe. Confront them with the facts of psychological prejudice and teach them about the astounding power of science to overcome prejudice and attain unbelievably un-fake-able objective truths and impress upon them that if faith is the avoidance of using those methods to criticize supernatural beliefs, then faith is a resistance and hostility to objective truth, not compatible with it. Faith is a prejudice to be overcome just like all the other biases that science and philosophy undermine and replace with true knowledge.

If you focus on the facts and the logic you do not give them any excuse to ignore what you are saying. If you call them stupid, you give them an opening to feel offended and belittled and to think you’re just a bigoted asshole who they are justified in ignoring. You distract from your own argument. Call the content of a conclusion illogical or absurd or factually refuted and you have done nothing they can rightly take umbrage at and if they are still thin-skinned, you can blame them and not yourself for that and challenge them to take a sober, respectful, logical argument like a mature, open-minded, truth-receptive person.

Your Thoughts?

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.

10. Love Religious People.


Clarifications to the Tips, Based on Objections:

Audiences and Approaches

I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist.

Who Are You Calling Stupid?

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

Force and Reason

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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.