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

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.

  • danielrudolph

    This doesn’t just apply to relgion. It comes up all the time in political debates. Think of abortion. People who would rather commit murder than deal with the inconvenience of pregnancy for a few months vs people who think women are just baby-making machines without rights.

  • Aquaria

    People who would rather commit murder than deal with the inconvenience of pregnancy for a few months

    Do you need some matches for that strawman you’re building, or shall I burn it to the ground for you, you privileged moron?

    That’s the stupidest analogy you could make about the abortion issue, and anyone who isn’t a woman-hating douchebag would know that.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I took his point to illustrate the demonizing things both sides say about each other, not to endorse either extremist characterization of the other side.

    • Crommunist

      As did I.

    • danielrudolph

      I thought I was pretty clear that I was purposely invoking strawmen. On a lot of issues, people find it easier to believe in evil than to believe that well-meaning people may come to a different conclusion than them.

  • Aquaria

    1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

    Except if you point out flaws in their arguments, they think you’re calling them the stupidest fucking moron ever to walk the planet. Rational perspectives aren’t their forte, you know.

    2. Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.

    And who are the parties guiltiest of moving goalposts and Gish Gallops during these discussions? I’ll give you a hint. It ain’t the atheists.

    3. Don’t Tell Religious Believers What They “Really Believe”.

    Fair enough. As long as they quit telling us what we believe and are. Which very, very few of them can manage.

    4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.

    Good luck. They think the Bible > any evidence you can muster, in most cases.

    5. Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence.

    You’re not going to do it as long as you’re preaching to the wrong choir. Most of this stuff isn’t a one-way street, you know. Most of it starts and ends with the theists, the calling us stupid (A fool says in his heart is lobbed at atheists at LEAST 90% of the time), not staying on topic, telling people what they believe and worse), and being able to clarify what they believe, not the atheist side.

    Re-word it a little and send it to theists. They’re the ones who most need to see it–and learn from it.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I already wrote the version for believers.

    • usagichan

      Hey Aquaria,

      I actually saw Matsumoto Jun a few weeks back (my Office is right next to the Offices/ Studios of TV Tokyo)… well all right, I caught a brief glimpse of the back of his head from a second floor balcony 50 yards away through a crowd of about 200 screaming Arashi fans – hardly worth mentioning but I saw your avatar and remembered it.

      Whilst in an ideal world where the quality of the argument is the deciding factor this is excellent advice, but the opposition (and they are the opposition, they set themselves up as such) don’t play by these rules and as a result drag normality so far to their side that the most moderate position you take is portrayed as virulent extremism (to be fair this is a tactic used throughout the world, and is not unique to the US). Where the leader of a major branch of Christianity can conflate Atheism with Nazism, or a branch of another sect can equate apostacy with mental disease – however much you feel you have won the argument, the situation on the ground has already moved reality against you…

    • Robert B.

      Well, how can we possibly get them to start using good arguments if we’re not modeling the right way to do it? I rather think we should use these techniques because theists so rarely do the same. If our case is clear, correct, and well-structured, aiming laser-guided criticism at their pile of incoherent fallacies, that has to be good for something. Especially on the internet: you don’t really have to convince the person arguing with you, if you instead convince the ten lurkers who followed the same link, who might be actually reading and thinking instead of just regurgitating well-chewed falsehoods.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well, how can we possibly get them to start using good arguments if we’re not modeling the right way to do it? I rather think we should use these techniques because theists so rarely do the same. If our case is clear, correct, and well-structured, aiming laser-guided criticism at their pile of incoherent fallacies, that has to be good for something. Especially on the internet: you don’t really have to convince the person arguing with you, if you instead convince the ten lurkers who followed the same link, who might be actually reading and thinking instead of just regurgitating well-chewed falsehoods.

      This.

    • usagichan

      And how’s that working out for you guys in terms of politics these days – the debate been influenced to move onwards and upwards, away from destructive rehtoric, slurs and smear campaigns? Mass movements in favour of the superior argument. Its a nice fantasy, and no doubt it re-affirms your own feelings of moral and intellectual superiority (or is that what the argument is really about?), but as an effective technique for moving the debate on, there seems to be no evidence of that (however if you can provide me with some evidence behind the assertion that polite argument is the only successful technique for changing minds I will happily withdraw my objection – I really would like you to be right, but (rather like religion itself) wishing something were so does not make it so!) – Still as long as you feel good about yourself, how can you lose eh?

  • http://www.mountaintrail.us joelj

    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.

    Yes. The way I think of it is that there are no (or at least very few) evil people. We’re all mistaken about some things, and some people are badly mistaken about what is beneficial for them and others.

    From what I’ve read, Hitler may have been insane, but he wasn’t a monster. He thought he was doing good. He was badly mistaken.


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