Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers
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.
Clarifications to the Tips, Based on Objections: