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

Before and After I Deconverted: The Development of My Sexual Imagination
Before I Deconverted: Christmas Became A Christian Holiday To Me
Atheism Is Not A Religion. But There Should Be Atheistic Religions.
City on a Hill
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.

  • Tom Clark

    Your list is off to an excellent start! The #1 misconception about those of us proud to call ourselves heathens is that we are assholes who look down on religious people, so it makes an excellent rule #1. Of course, in reality, we atheists are actually just regular people, who occasionally have to subconsciously convince ourselves we’re superior to keep from going completely insane.

  • Larian LeQuella

    But aside from just cognitive bias, theists end up DOING and SAYING so many more blatantly stupid things… Sometimes they are a victim of their brians that just makes it so hard not to just boggle at the stupidity that comes out of their mouths!

  • Aaron

    Yes and yes and yes, I agree.

    A tip that I hope other free-thought bloggers hosted here would do well to adopt.

  • Larian LeQuella

    Even knowing that they are suffering from cognitive dissonance, they end up SAYING and DOING things that are just plain monumentally stupid. It’s hard to separate that from them actually not BEING stupid, but they sure act it. Sometimes you just can’t help but to boggle at some of the things coming out of their mouths.

    • larianlequella

      Oops. Sorry about the double post. Corporate portasl is acting screwy!

  • Leanna

    While I agree with most of this post, I believe “absurd” and “fantastically implausible” might actually be more offensive than calling someone “stupid.” But I’m not sure.

    Seriously though, these are good points. I love the freethinking community, but in rural Kentucky where I live, I have to form and sustain relationships with people of faith or be a recluse, and I have to teach my kids how to be true to themselves and still have some friends.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I was a bit stunned and put back by a Christian who called me hateful over using the word “absurd”, but it’s just a logical term. And “fantastically implausible” is an apt description for the miracle stories and the Old Testament legends, etc. Christians have to know that that stuff is fantastically implausible or they’re not living in the modern world enough to have any productive conversation. They can rationalize it all they want but they know what it sounds like from the outside (or have an inkling anyway).

    • Leanna

      I’m not at all certain they know what they sound like to the outside. Most of my friends and family are religious and simultaneously very intelligent. I don’t think they see all the supernatural talk as weird in any way, thought I’ve noticed some of them have toned down their religious talk around me since I outed myself as an atheist. I’d imagined it was out of respect for my (non)beliefs, but now you have me wondering if they are afraid they will come across as silly to me…

    • Aliasalpha

      The problem is that the word absurd has been colloquially altered to mean something other than its correct definition, much the same as has happened to the word theory.

      If people don’t understand the correct use of the word they’ll still get all pissy about what they THINK it means and then moreso when you try to explain that they’re using the word incorrectly.

    • Being human

      She was probably just mad that you were trying to use a logical term. Logic tends to the downfall of Christianity. It’s pretty funny when a new scientific discovery comes out and Christians always try to rationalize it with the Bible.

  • asmallcontempt

    Hmm. This is a tough issue for me, as the majority of my family is quite Christian. The thing is, they don’t understand how to think rationally or why it’s important, and so starting a rational conversation about belief is often fraught.

    I say: “There is no extra-Biblical evidence of Jesus within his lifetime.”


    So on and so forth. :P

    • Camels With Hammers

      This is precisely why you can’t actually call her stupid. I was originally going to write this post a while back arguing that Christians respond to legitimate arguments by crying that they were just called stupid and nothing more and that is bullshit evasiveness on their parts. But then that night I saw how many times my facebook friends and atheist blogs and twitter users, etc. called religious people stupid (or some other equivalent) and realized that the Christians have a point and we’re giving it to them unnecessarily. We let them have the distraction, we let them have something they can seize on and ignore our arguments.

      Call someone stupid and they will not keep listening to hear the rest of what you want to say. Would you punch someone in the face and then make a detailed philosophical argument? When later on the person you punched claims all you did was punch them in the face are you really surprised and outraged they didn’t account for the arguments you also made?

  • raymoscow

    Those of us who are former religious believers don’t like to think of ourselves as intrinsically stupid. As I recall, I didn’t like being thought of as stupid back then either.

    OK, maybe we were, but some of it wore off.

  • Nebularry

    Very well said! I look forward to future installments. After fifty years of theism, I abandoned religion. In retrospect, I thought I was the stupid one. But as you so clearly state, it was just me thinking like a human being having been raised in a theistic environment.

  • drlake

    I’m a firm believer in the Forrest Gump school of thought on the issue, which is “stupid is as stupid does”. Now, it may not be productive to tell them they are stupid, but it is hard to get away from thinking that in a way, they are.

  • TheDudeDiogenes

    I suppose mocking and laughing at religious folk is equivalent to calling them stupid, but I’ve always found Mencken persuasive: “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.”

  • Crommunist

    Ugh. Oh Daniel… we are now in a fight. LET THE FLAME WAR BEGIN!

    Unless you’re planning on titling #2-#10 of this series “Tips for reaching out to religious believers: Don’t bother, it’s a waste of time.” Then we can totally agree.

    “Believers” as a group are really not worth ‘reaching out’ to. They do not all believe the same thing, and are quick to explain how “that’s not the god (they) believe in!” If you are interested in talking to an individual believer, then by all means don’t call them stupid, but to imagine that you could rationally persuade them out of a position with a dynamite iron-clad argument is wishful thinking. Sometimes people need a short, sharp, shock to jolt them out of complacency and get them thinking critically. Sometimes, not often but sometimes, the word “stupid” is just what the doctor ordered.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Oh, Crommie. I am not saying to avoid offending religious believers. I have a sterling track record of being unfriended by my religious friends because they find me plenty offensive just for mocking what is ludicrous and refuting what is false in their beliefs.

      But those are different things than calling people stupid when they are only quite systematically confused and for reasons I too was once upon a time.

      As for the word stupid being the thing that shocks someone into their senses? All I can say is that when I read a right wing website, the FIRST use of pointless insults and name calling towards liberals and I shut down any interest in what is being said and leave the page or just go into marveling at horror mode. And sometimes left wing sites and atheist sites are just the same for me.

      Name calling is not an argument. You can and should argue vigorously and be a “firebrand” New Atheist, rather than a diplomat OR an accommodationist. (I’ve already written tips 2-9 and some will be hopefully helpful techniques for aggressive argumentation.) These are wholly different things than being school yard bullies or the partisan extremists who dehumanize and overly denigrate your enemies.

      I believe in speaking the truth and standing up for reason with no words minced and no bad ideas politely accommodated. But such truthfulness involves recognizing the difference between stupidity and ignorance and systematic confusion, etc.

    • Crommunist

      That’s the worst flame EVER! You must be new at this.

      You can expect a more developed response to this issue on Monday. You and a commenter on my site have given me some cause to rethink my position.

    • usagichan

      Rather an academic question for me as I rarely come accross the openly religious, even more rarely accross those eager to discuss their faith, but one question occurs – when one has been surrounded by the sense that a set of ridiculous beliefs are not only sensible but innevitable, isn’t there a chance that it would take the intellectual “blunt force” of an unambiguous challenge to the sense of the whole set of beliefs and values, rather than more directed and nuanced challenges that can be brushed off as ignorance of the shade of belief that particualar person has (a la the Emperors New Clothes – you need to shout out that he is naked, not address the missing shades of his stockings, hose, doublet, ruff, cape one by one)?

      Oh, just to add, my question is more about not calling someones beliefs stupid – I do agree that gratuitous insults (however well earned) are rarely conducive to dialogue…

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, there is some need for that. Nietzsche totally did that for me in an invaluable way that really made the difference. But it was not as crude as name-calling.

    • Sarah

      There is a chance however it is very remote. A blunt force attack is more easily brushed off, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about”, “Why’s he getting so rude and aggressive? He’s just a dick who doesn’t get it, there’s no point engaging”, than a subtle questioning which actually forces them to think if they are going to respond to you.

      It’s very easy to respond to “And those are the reasons you are definitely wrong” with “You’re so aggressive and you don’t even understand the basics do you? You wouldn’t have made so many errors if you did, there is no point trying to convince the invincibly ignorant.”

      It’s a lot harder to respond to “And so those two things seem incompatible. What’s your position on that?” with anything other than their position on that, and if it really is incompatible, they will have to think about it, and even if they don’t renounce one of those two things immediately, it may well stay with them for some time, until they are forced to address the contradiction by their own mind.

    • usagichan

      Of course there is also a chance that the believer will hear your tone and interpret it as respect for their position, never listening to and engaging your arguments. While I doubt you will see immeadiate results from the confrontational approach, sometimes (and I realise it is only sometimes, but that is the case for all approaches) it might be enough of a shock to pierce the shell of selective blindness and deafness religion so carefully weaves around its victims.

      Once again I stress I do not advocate gratuitous insults, but in some cases the only way to communicate that not only is the position held not logically or ethically sound, but that it is in no way intrinsically worthy of respect is using blunt language – Anything else can be interpreted as differences of opinion and ignored behind a hipocritical fig leaf of “mutual respect” (i.e. the “we may not agree, but at least they respect (speak in respectful tones) my beliefs”). Well I don’t, and I wouldn’t want them to mistake civil discourse for any form of respect.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I’m not against BLUNT language, I’m against CARELESSLY INSULTING language. My rule is “keep it SPECIFIC, stupid”. It’s not “keep it unchallenging”.

  • thelatinone

    I think you’re absolutely right. I have many friends who are Christian and very smart, that includes two of my closest friends. Oh, sure they’re not religious zealots but Christians nonetheless. The same goes with many professors and other people to have been very important in my life. I do find amazing that they believe these Jesus things but that doesn’t seem to affect other cognitive abilities

    • Being human

      Christians are only stupid in the sense that they believe this nonsense. Other than that, they can be extremely smart in different areas. Some of my cousins are math geniuses, but still believe in outdated mythology.

  • James Gray

    Are you sure that all theists are theist because they suffer from cognitive biases? Is it possible that you’re wrong to be an atheist?

    It is silly to assume everyone who disagrees with us are idiots, but we should also make sure that we realize that disagreement is often rational and we aren’t the always the most qualified expert of a topic. And we need to realize that the opinions of experts tend to be more important than our own opinions.

    Are there any theists you think are truly qualified experts of religious philosophy whose expertise should be taken seriously?

    • Camels With Hammers

      I have yet to encounter the theological argument worth taking seriously and worth questioning whether I am out of my depth over. There are philosophical arguments for metaphysical/physical/logical god concepts that are exceptions. But what I am primarily addressing here is dealing with actual religious believing where whatever metaphysical kernels are there are wrapped up in husks of sheer falsehood and fallacy.

    • Camels With Hammers

      And I have asked some pretty well informed philosopher Catholics for a single reason to think the ground of all being is personal and gotten basically nothing from them. One just desperately started trying creationist lines on me.

  • Daniel Schealler

    Damnit, I struggle with this.

    Occasionally I wind up wrangling with a believer in this kind of context.

    And I know not to call them stupid. And I don’t.

    But I wind up giving them that impression anyway.

    It’s not just believers either. People I know tell me that they don’t like to disagree with me simply because of my general approach.

    Other: “Well, I’ve always thought Q was true.”
    Me: “We can be sure that Q is false because X, Y, and Z.”
    Other: (miffed) “Yeah, but that’s just your opinion.”
    Me: “Actually no. There’s studies backing all of that up.”
    Other: “Yeah right. What were they.”
    Me: “I can’t remember the titles, but I have links to the original research stored in a bookmarks folder at home. I can send you the email if you like.”
    Other: “Wait… Wut
    Me: “They’re actually really interesting. In study X what they did was…”
    Other: *eyes glaze over*

  • Robert B.

    Oh glod, thank you. Sometimes I feel like I should just buy a t-shirt that says “Cognitive Biases Are Everyone’s Problem” and never take it off.

    Like you, I have been there. And recently. For me, it was woo. I actually called myself an atheist all along, I was entirely skeptical about, say, astrology, but I was completely convinced not only that astral projection existed but that I could do it. I still have to remind myself, every time one of my friends brings up woo stuff, that this shit just isn’t real. And it’s hard. Because I am so used to being so sure about this (it actually hurts a little to type this) utter bullshit.

    My IQ tests above 145, and I’m pretty confident that I average more rational than the typical person. If I thought that only stupid people could believe absurd things I would still believe absurd things. (Er. More absurd things than I do now. I should probably assume that I still believe absurd things that I haven’t yet identified.) Because I believed them. And I’m smart. So they must be true, right?

    The most dangerous word to use in any discussion of cognitive bias is “they.” There isn’t a “they.” There’s only an “us,” because everyone has a human brain with all the same bugs. There are always some people who are better than others at avoiding certain kinds of errors, but if you talk about a cognitive error that other people make but not you then you are not paying attention. Which is easy. Because there’s a cognitive bias to not notice your own mistakes.

    We all have the same stupid. It is built in.

  • shripathikamath

    If an atheist acted stupid, would I tell her? If the answer is yes, then I should respond no differently to a theist doing so.

    The problem in not doing so is giving the theist the wrong impression by maintaining silence in the face of stupidity.

    And calling their positions “unsupported by evidence, fantastically implausible, absurd, fallacious, historically disproven, scientifically impossible/disproven/unlikely, logically contradictory, etc” instead of stupid is not going to stop them from nailing themselves to the cross.

    Most conversations with theists end when you challenge their beliefs. No matter how polite you act.

    But it is good advice to not call them (or anyone else) stupid until they act stupidly. And even then, it is probably more accurate to call their comment or position stupid, if it indeed is.

    Be civil longer than you can be polite, but always truthful. Of course it is OK to let a thought go unexpressed, especially when silence does not constitute lying by omission.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    The problem here is that regardless of what you say, regardless of what adjective you use, some theists will just jump out and act as if you called them stupid anyway. Challenging their beliefs is enough to get them in that mindset.

    • Robert B.

      The objective is not to have an argument that every theist in the universe will accept. That’s impossible. As I see it, the objectives are, 1) to have an argument that more theists would accept, even if it’s one in a thousand instead of one in a million, and 2) to have an argument that is actually correct, even if it isn’t believed. Theists aren’t stupid in any meaningful sense, they make a mistake that any human brain could make. And saying they are stupid decreases your chances of success, which is a bad thing even if that chance was already quite low. (Though, given the poll numbers on rates of non-religion, I don’t think the odds are actually that bad.)

      Besides, that “jump out” is a sign that they actually feel their faith to be threatened, which is already a good thing as far as it goes.

    • usagichan

      The problem as I see it is that while you see “The objective”, I see a spectrum of objectives, which can be achieved through a variety of tactics. For example shifting the Overton Window away from “religion is normal and must be respected” might very well be achieved better through shock than through ignored argument. The objective may be to discourage unwanted proselytising, or to impress the unacceptability of the position to an audience with a minimal attention span. Situations differ, objectives differ, and whilst you might happily tie your own hands as you pursue your objective, don’t assume yours is the only objective, or the only path.

    • Robert B.

      The post is subtitled “tip 1 of 10 for reaching out to religious believers.” When I said “the objective” I thought it was clear from context that I meant “the objective in reaching out to religious believers.” It’s not the only objective, just the only one the article we’re discussing is about. (In my judgement, of course, and if I’m wrong I hope its author will correct me.)

    • Camels With Hammers

      You’re doing great, Robert B., keep it up!

    • usagichan

      My apologies… you are quite right – I make the careless mistake of conflating this argument with several others I have participated in on similar subjects (this is not a reasonable thing to do, and likely to cause confusion more than anything else). Please disregard my muliplicity of purposes comment above, as it is neither relevant nor correct in the context of the main post!

  • The Nerd

    I try to avoid it because people never leave it at “stupid”. They start using ableist slurs such as “retard”, “idiot”, “moron”, etc. Some people actually don’t understand why that’s so bigoted, so I ask them to imagine they’re neurologically atypical:

    Let’s say you as an atheist have autism.* You hear me argue with a Christian, and say “ugh, what are you autistic?” Your identity – who you are – has just been used as though it were a horrible thing to be, as though it were lower down the scale than even Christianity. And then I turn to you and smile, and act like I really care about you. Right…

    If Christians are wrong, call them wrong. If they’re stunningly wrong, say as much. If they frighten you, no problem there. Words like “I find your beliefs to be potentially dangerous because ____” are perfectly valid, and do not rely upon bigoted statements to get the message across.

    *I actually do have several atheist friends on the autism spectrum, and the BS they have to put up with from fellow atheists makes me ashamed of us sometimes.

  • Marta Layton

    I would only add one thing. When I feel “my” group is under attack, especially unfairly, I get a bit of the “he’s not heavy, he’s my brother” action. But if I feel the criticisms are fair I will also take up the charge right along side you (if I agree) or at least give them serious thought. I suspect that neither all atheists nor all theists hold identical views. Even if the atheist thinks the theist is a superstitious nit, he may end up driving off some potential allies who are already within the ranks of the very people he wants to convince.

  • Paul Little

    I have not yet read the other nine tips, but I have a bit of a problem with this one.

    So, you avoid telling them outright that they are stupid. You’re still telling them that they are wrong, and by contrast that you are right. Whatever you say, you are implying that you know more or better than they – i.e. that they are less intelligent/knowledgeable/discerning/whatever. No matter how carefully you discuss it, by insinuating that they are misguided, or mistaken, or simply poorly informed, you are calling them stupid (at least that is the way you will be interpreted by them). How do you have this conversation without immediately putting the other person on the defensive?

    • Camels With Hammers

      None of those things are equivalent to calling someone stupid and if they take it that way you clarify that smart people are not smart because they’re never wrong but because they know how to correct it when they are wrong. Smart people are not so insecure as to think their intelligence rides on always being right and so foolishly clinging to wrong opinions rather than be exposed as wrong. The best way to disarm people’s anxieties that you are making them feel stupid by undermining their beliefs is to actively appeal to their intelligence, subtly remind them of it even, to demonstrate humility by explaining common cognitive errors with examples from how you regularly experience yourself committing them too, etc.

  • abb3w

    The phrase “objective falsehood” seems to slightly overstate what the objective statistics imply. True, not all religious people are unintelligent, nor are all irreligious intelligent; and, in fact, among those who consider the Bible to be at least divinely Inspired or even Inerrant, the more strongly religious tend to be those more intelligent. (General Social Survey: WORDSUM, BIBLE, RELITEN.) And of course, correlation does not equal causation, and a comparative tendency does not imply certainty for all cases.

    That said, while other factors play nontrivial intertwined roles, mean g for the irreligious is likely slightly higher than for the religious. (GSS, ditto.)

    However, I’d agree with the larger point. Usually, there’s not a lot of use to pointing such data out, and it seems more often counter-productive to the goal of persuasion. One possible exception might be if the issue of intelligence has been raised by the other side for attitude bolstering; EG: “Lots of smart people like Einstein believe in God”. At which point, a diplomatic phrasing such as “Well, I presume you’re intelligent enough to understand…” might help sugar coat the bitter pill of “…how that particular case is not entirely accurate, nor accurately reflecting the usual tendency; more specifically….” Contrariwise, I’ve not tested this experimentally, so YMMV. =)

  • joelj

    I’m with you 100%, Dan.

    I was an evangelical Christian for over 40 years. I know I was no more stupid then than I am now. I know my wife and my Christian friends are not stupid.

    I am very interested in helping my family and friends comprehend my new naturalistic worldview. I have no trouble avoiding namecalling because not long ago I was making the same cognitive errors they are. I try to be more respectful of them than they are of me because I want them to listen to me.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Joel.

      I admit that the fact that I remember being a smart evangelical Christian myself is a large part of why I balk so reflexively hard at the implication you have to be stupid to be religious.

  • HelpShedtheFaith

    This is excellent! Spot-on advice which seems to get ignored way too often. I wrote a little bit about the same subject here, in case you’re interested:

    On phenomena such as confirmation bias and cherry picking:

    On factors which persuade us, or fail to convince, during discussions (in relation to what you were saying about use of logic and scientific reasoning versus name-calling):

    Thanks for such a refreshingly crisp, practical, and psychologically astute series of articles.

  • debbie pickering

    In my Christian faith over the years I have known people who are atheist. I try not to speak too often of my faith around them, but what is interesting is how they constantly boast, and remind me they are atheist, and delightfully put down GOD and others who do believe in our Lord and Savior. The only thing I say from the kindness of my heart is that, I seriously pray that any athiest person will see the truth before they leave this world. It isn’t my life, yet I’m compasionate enough to pray for them. This is not saying I know their destiny, as only GOD is the judge and knows our destiny. As Christians we are taught to love one another, and pray for one another. I don’t understand how athiest people interpet this kindness as something evil. Here’s a thought, why would someone from years ago make up this book , called a bible ? They are not here to see if we believe in it or not. And how is it we all just miraculously rolled up in a ball of combustion and walla, here we are ! Everything, from our hair on our head that shades us by day, to our eye brows that catch the sweat before it reaches our eyes, and our eye lashes that filter out the dust. Even our nostrils have hair in them to filter the dust, our arteries and vains are like rivers, and streams that transport our blood to all our organs. It’s all too perfect for a cosmetic combustion.

    • Crommunist

      Comments like this are why your advice is so difficult to follow, Daniel.

    • Brian Lynchehaun

      An extension of ‘you are not your beliefs’ is that ‘they are not their beliefs’.

    • Being human

      As an atheist, I understand that Christians are trying to do a good thing by praying for us. However, the implication of Christians praying for us is that we are bad people, or that we need some sort of savior. Most humans are decent people, and we don’t need God or the Bible to tell us how to live.

      Your last argument is an argument from ignorance. You just think the universe is too perfect for a cosmetic combustion, when in fact the universe is far from perfect. There’s a ton of failed solar systems, children who are born with horrible diseases, and parasites that try to kill us. We don’t live in a perfect universe.

  • goldheathen

    Well said, I agree. Roughly in the same vein as the theists’ “hate the sin not the sinner” One can point out that a particular thought or belief is stupid without calling the person themselves stupid. Most theists aren’t any less intelligent than your average atheist, this is simple truth. A great many theists are very intelligent accomplished human beings. Yet even if this wasn’t so it would still be completely counter-productive to insult and denigrate the religious. It makes rational intelligent conversation impossible. Change for the better comes through education, through discussion, and those things are only possible through respectful, rational debate. Thanks for the post.

  • Jeremy

    If I said I believed in Unicorns, I would deserve to be called an idiot. Unicorns like God, do not exist.