Don't Demonize Religious People's Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms (Tip 6 of 10 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

Sometimes religion leads people to believe in damaging ideas, behave in harmful ways, or support institutions or organizations that have evil consequences. But however much this happens and however much we should publicly denounce all of this or face to face address it with religious people we want to reach out to, we should avoid at all costs demonizing and Othering religious people.

Call me a Stoic but I do not think most people are capable of conceiving of themselves as hateful destructive monsters, or of aiming to be them. The sociopathic Fred Phelps is the exception, not the rule. Even the most harmful people often think what they do is for the best or is the best action for them and is morally justifiable. It is very hard to hold the thought, “What I am doing is really wrong” in mind while doing something really wrong. Doing that involves a lot of cognitive dissonance and pain for most people, under normal circumstances.

People are also far from being as free in an undetermined way as we would like to think when we want to blame them. It is very tempting to want to demonize them as knowingly and willfully being causers of harm. Thinking about them as confused by misconceptions of the good (both in general and for themselves) takes some of the sting out of our righteous anger. Confused people seem less capable of responsibility in some way.

But we can hold confused people responsible and we can reason with them to help them see and stop the harm they do, and people can change. But part of getting all this to happen entails, empathetically engaging with their own view of the world and not attributing to them a malice or absolute unbounded freedom of will, neither of which they really have.

Look through their eyes. Understand what good thing they really aim at and figure out how they can get so confused as to think some bad thing is the best route to attaining it. Discuss with them what makes it so bad in practice to do what they do and relentlessly point out the ways it is counter-productive to the real good they are aiming at.

Essentially, you should appeal to the better angels of their nature. And you should do so not only because it is easier to draw more flies with honey, but because it is more accurate (i.e., more truthful) to what motivates them. And it also will be persuasive because it appeals to their own self-understanding. People are both in fact motivated by what they think looks best and they will feel understood when you show them you appreciate what their best intentions are and can appeal to them effectively.

The more you imagine malevolence in their motives so you can hate them with a (hypocritically) clear conscience is the more you exacerbate the divide between you and them and the more that you make constructive debate and peaceful coexistence impossible. It takes self-conscious effort to overcome the natural human impulse to Other one’s enemies and out-group members generally.

Conscientiously work to overcome your cognitive biases and your tribalism lest they make you as blind as the religious zealots who so enrage you. By all means confront them vigorously on whatever objective harms they cause or which their ideas or their religion causes (either directly or indirectly). Hold them responsible to the degree they have power to change themselves or to change their institutions. When necessary rebuke them harshly to snap some sense into them. Raise their consciousness and their conscientiousness as much as possible.

But always keep in mind that you are dealing with a human being who likely believes he means well and who will snap tight as a clam in self-defense if you demonize him and refuse to understand and engage how the world looks from his perspective.

More on how I apply these considerations to relating to a particular set of religious believers is in my post How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful. For more on the limits of free will, read: The “Moral Argument” For Free Will Is A Morally Troubling, Hypocritical, Faith PositionFree Will And The Real World, and/or What It Means To Me To Be Free.

Your Thoughts?

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.

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

I'm At The Book Of Mormon!
Christianity vs. Morality
When I Was A Christian Teenager Renting Out Pornography
Different Fundamentalists, Same Covered-Up Child Abuse

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.


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