Don't Tell Religious Believers What They "Really Believe" (Tip 3 of 10 For Reaching Out To Christians)

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”.

All beliefs imply other beliefs. Some things religious believers happily assert as true have possible implications which are dark, disturbing, foolish, and/or in conflict with religious believers’ own most consciously cherished values and beliefs. It is perfectly fair to try to get religious people to understand what repulsive things they imply by what they explicitly say, even when they intend to say something positive.

But just as many atheists loathe being told presumptuously that they must be nihilists, logically speaking, or they must have no belief in morality or in love or in meaning to life, etc., telling a religious believer what he or she really believes by logical implication is only going to rightly put off most believers. So confront them in the following, open-ended, open-minded, fair-minded, and yet rigorously challenging way:

Say, “Your beliefs x and y seem to logically imply bad conclusion z. Are you willing to deny z? And if so, are you willing to deny x or y in order to consistently do so? And if not, what do you mean by x and y such that it does not entail z?” And then in response look for the way that their modification of x or y suddenly puts it in conflict with important belief w or leads to the other bad conclusion v. And so on and so forth. Give them opportunities to explain their own understanding for themselves and then explore the consistencies or inconsistencies of their own particular actual beliefs. In this way you will give them the respect of treating them like individuals and engage them on the terms they actually think in.

If they are not literalists there is no reason to demand that they accept some implication that follows from a literalist reading of their religious texts. It is legitimate when criticizing literalist believers to hold their feet to the logical fire. And when writing broadly about religion and attacking religious beliefs, we certainly do not need to pretend that fundamentalists do not exist or act like their pervasively and dangerously influential and corrosive beliefs are beneath being countered by serious people. We need not only address more sophisticated (and philosophically slippery) theology. We can highlight until we are blue in the face the ways that literalism eats itself alive logically and leads to horrible consequences practically. Fundamentalism is no-good, terrible stuff intellectually and morally worth highlighting and refuting until it stops deceiving so many people.

But when engaging a moderate non-literalist directly, in face to face or in writing, it is foolishness to tell them that the literalists are more consistent than they are or that the literalists understand what their faith “really teaches”. The fundamentalists are wrong that all true religion is literalistic and that their own traditions have always believed and must always believe in infallible literal texts. There is no “real” teaching in religions and there is no single necessary way (either logically or historically) to understand the numerous possible and actual complex relationships between myths, facts, and practices any single religion. There simply are whatever diverse and competing beliefs, practices, and hermeneutics the  various members of the community actually have had or choose to have in the future.

If the religious person you are talking to abandons some premise usually found in the religion, then address their particular beliefs with their particular pitfalls. Point out how it logically seems to require that they abandon more of the parts of the faith they maybe still want to keep. Clarify just how much they are willing to reject of what their fellow believers have usually thought and push them on any seemingly arbitrary decisions to accept some problematic beliefs while rejecting formally similar ones. Point out their own beliefs’ inconsistencies with each other, with reality, and with the broader traditions they want to claim they represent and get them to commit to their desired innovations in their tradition explicitly or to abandon inconsistent positions, etc.

If you do not engage people on the terms of what they actually think (be it fundamentalist or more moderate), you are clearly more interested in attacking “straw men” and “weak men” than you are interested in actually engaging the mind of the individual you are facing.

Your Thoughts?

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.

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.

  • Lou Doench

    This is exactly the problem I had with the documentary “The God Who Wasn’t There”. You have to pick your battles with believers wisely, and you need different ammo for different fights. And some of them are not worth fighting at all. For instance I would never bother to try and argue religion with Fred Clark of Slacktivist. I don’t think he’s right about a lot of things metaphysically, yet I don’t see the benefit of fighting over our differences when we agree on so much else.

  • deanbuchanan

    There may be a contradiction between #3 and #2 in real life.
    I have taken the opportunity, both online and in-person, to address religious believers when they are making positive assertions about something in a discussion. By far the most common behavior among the theists that I have talked to, is the scatter-shot, 15 assertion, you have to be an expert about everything, move the goalposts…(well you get the picture)…approach. This you addressed in #2, which makes a lot of sense to me.
    When they are doing this however, I often find that I need to pin them down on something, or else the conversation is simply dumb unproductive. I have found that, while smiling and making nice of course (especially in person), a direct statement pointing to the dark implications of their stated beliefs and not letting them off the hook for is, often has a strong effect. That is, not giving them the benefit of the doubt. That is, giving them a smack-down with a way out.

    • deanbuchanan

      hook for it, often has a strong effect

  • john


    what would you think about an article like this??

    This Is What We Believe: A Review.

    i had some mixed feelings..what do you think??


    ps im not spam lol

  • The Vicar

    Most theists I have met and argued with need to be told what they believe in, because they don’t know.

    That sounds stupid. Let me clarify:

    Most theists I have met and argued with have never in their lives actually thought about their beliefs in any clear, sustained fashion, and generally they have never actually read their own holy books directly (cherry-picked passages thrown out at church don’t count), let alone any theology. I’m in America, so I argue almost exclusively with Christians, those being the ones who harass passersby, make nasty comments about others in public, or go door to door trying to get money. Most Christians have only the vaguest idea of the New Testament, let alone the Old, and certainly don’t know what sort of problems with the doctrine have come up. Insofar as they go to church, they nod and smile and assume the clergyman must know what he’s talking about during the sermons (which they basically sleep through). Until you point out what Christian doctrine actually is, they are in a state of “not even wrong”.

    In a perfect world, this would keep them from arguing, of course — whereof one does not know, one cannot speak and all that — but if anything it seems to encourage them. (Christians seem to suffer from what the Catholics call “invincible ignorance”, albeit in a modified form.)

    This being the case, in most of the arguments in which I have taken part, I am usually in the position of someone attempting to teach a foreign language to American college students — the students don’t know English grammar to begin with, so you have to teach them some English before you can even start pointing out how the other language differs. (On that subject, there is actually a series of textbooks called “English Grammar for Students of [Other Language]“, which might as well be “Guess You’re Too Poorly-Educated To Learn Another Language!”. How depressing.)

    Salon recently published an article about “How Science and Faith Coexist”, which was yet another shpiel about how Dawkins et al are too harsh and make too many generalizations from someone who clearly had never read anything by any of them. And that’s from someone who thought they were addressing atheists seriously!

    • Vicki

      That’s not what J. Random Christian believes; it may be what their pastor believes, or what their church hierarchy teaches.

      It may even work to say “Did you know that the such-and-such church teaches $unlikely_things? Do you actually believe that?” But that’s very different from the person you’re arguing with believing that. Unless your goal is to convince them to keep being Christian but leave their particular church, it doesn’t seem productive.

      “The Presbyterian church teaches that whether you’re saved is predestined before you’re born. Does that make sense to you?” is a very different approach from diving in with “predestination would be unjust” because someone mentions that they attend St. James Presbyterian Church; it may be that they go there because, sixty years earlier, their father discovered that if he walked to the Presbyterian church instead of taking the bus to a different Protestant church, he could pocket the bus fare and use it for chocolate bars or comic books, and honestly tell his parents “Yes, I went to church this morning.” (I’m not making this up: this is the background of why my best friend was raised Presbyterian.)

    • The Vicar

      That’s not what J. Random Christian believes; it may be what their pastor believes, or what their church hierarchy teaches.

      Ah, but there you have the root of the problem. Your average theist may not actually believe in church doctrines, but they believe that they believe in church doctrines. So you have to tell them what the church doctrines are so that you can convince them they don’t actually believe, and then you can move on to “if you don’t believe any of this nonsense, why do you still call yourself a member of [fill in the blank]?”

      Imagine if we were discussing politics, and I said I was a Libertarian and tried to convince you to become a Libertarian instead of a Democrat. (This is hypothetical; I have no idea of your politics or even of your nationality but I am certainly not a Libertarian. Imagine, though, that I am, and that we are both American.) Now suppose further that one way or another it came out that I was in favor of the War On Drugs. You would in that case be entirely justified in saying “if you hold that position you can’t really be a Libertarian, because it is a major point of Libertarian policy that the War On Drugs is an intrusive, costly mistake and should be ended.”

      If I were then to say, “well, I think the War On Drugs is great, but I’m a Libertarian,” you would rightly decide that I had no clue what I was talking about and was not even worth arguing with because I was making up my own definitions of words. So also with religion.

  • shripathikamath

    Agree wholeheartedly with this one.

  • http://www.decrepitoldfool george.w

    You seem to be suggesting a game of Whack-A-Mole. But if they’re literalists, we’re unlikely to convince them of anything. So countering literalism is of most benefit to people on the fence. As is pointing out the cherry-picking of more “modern” interpretations. In either case it’s most likely to benefit people on the fence.

    (Please, please not the tone-wars again…)

  • speedwell

    What about telling believers what they don’t believe? Barring the “hearing voices” type of mental illness, where the believer actually thinks God talks in a way he can hear, I have never had an honest, well-meaning Christian believer be able to admit the following is true:

    I don’t just think God exists, or hope He exists, I know God exists because He has made his presence known to me directly in a way that is easily distinguishable from my own thoughts in my own head. I have a truly close, personal relationship with Jesus that He reciprocates. When I pray, I know God hears me because I always get what I pray for. Nothing in the world ever happens contrary to God’s Word. I don’t just have perfect faith in God, I have evidence of his work in my life. You are welcome to witness my evidence because I am sure that you can come up with no other explanation than God.”

    These are all statements that Christians have tried to convince me of at one point or another, either while I was a Christian churchgoer, or since I became an apostate. They do not specifically claim that these statements are true of them. They content themselves with claiming broadly that one or more of these statements are true of all Christians, but they can’t honestly state that any of them are true for themselves. That forces me to state that when they claim to be Christians, or they claim that all Christians experience one or more of these things, they are liars. Liars are people who make statements knowing that what they claim is false. Liars make untrustworthy debaters, no matter the truth or falsehood of the remainder of their claims. I invite them to come back and debate me again when they get their story straight.

  • plutosdad

    This drove me crazy. No one wants to be told what they really believe. But it happens. In fact this is the very thing that made it take much longer to come around than I might have otherwise.

    I don’t mean only when authors go after low-hanging fruit (provoking only “those are crazies, I’m not like that”) but sometimes when you object they say “ah you are objecting because you think this” really? How would you know?

    I had this hilarious conversation with someone about how Dawkins drove me further into my faith for awhile until I read some Sagan and other stuff till I could really analyze Dawkins and not get angry. The reason was because of the above, I felt like I was being told what I think. What was hilarious was this person told me “You were upset with Dawkins because he challenged you to think about things that made you uncomfortable.” Really? Did you not just hear what I said?

    Anyway I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine since it applies to all arguments and conversations. It’s fine to argue from surveys and studies or experiments that “people” are likely to believe x but that’s not the same as “this person believes x”.

  • Marta Layton

    I’ve run into this “tactic” from both sides – from atheists who know I’m a Christian, and from people I grew up with who know I am a philosophy grad student in NYC, with all they think that implies. It is maddening because it makes real dialog impossible, since it seems like the other person doesn’t “hear” me (whether or not that perception is accurate.

    So: this is a very good tip to keep in mind, for all vantage points, IMO.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    I’m often in the position of knowing more about Christian theology and the theology of specific sects than the sect member. I’ve had to explain TULIP to a Presbyterian. I’ve had to explain Immaculate Conception to a Catholic. I’ve even had to explain the concept of redemption by faith to a self-proclaimed “born again” fundamentalist. So sometimes it is necessary to tell goddists “this is what you believe.”

    • Camels With Hammers

      Indeed. That’s not what I’m talking about though. I’m saying that if you are dealing with someone with a more sophisticated, nuanced position than the boilerplate or who is drifting away from literalism, then you have to take them seriously on their own terms. You shouldn’t say, “no, you just don’t understand your tradition” if they are fixing their tradition or just rejecting fundamentalist interpretations, etc. Now you can say, “that’s a better more humane position that you think God doesn’t damn people before they are born, but realize that the Presbyterian church you belong to is preaching that—how do you feel about that?” That kind of a situation puts them in a position to think and make a choice about how they will process the new information. It’s better than giving them an ultimatum or telling them “No, even though these thoughts never went through your head, you really think them since they’re entailed by your belonging to the Presbyterian church.”