Love Religious People (Tip 10 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious Believers)

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”.

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.

If Jesus got anything right it was that you should love your enemies and if you are some combination of irreligious, anti-faith, anti-theist, atheist, skeptic and secularist, then you are going to wind up philosophical, and maybe political, enemies of religious people. And that means you should redouble your normal efforts to be a kind, generous, patient, sympathetic, appreciative, magnanimous, admiring, affectionate person when you are engaged with religious people—at least in those times of explicit philosophical or political conflict and maybe even more generally if your identity, beliefs, and practices as some variety of cultural secularist grows more and more deeply divided from the identity, beliefs, and practices of your religious acquaintances.

Now this topic of how to love one’s enemies in general is a massive one, worth several posts. And the topic of how an anti-faith/anti-religious variety of atheist should go about loving people with deep religious identities could probably take as many posts. For this post, there is only room to outline key points on the both the broader love your enemy question and the narrower love the religious question. I may elaborate them further, down the road.

The first thing to note is that I don’t want to trivialize the word love. Love is not the same thing as simple respect. At minimum, we have to respect our fellow human beings but loving them is a different matter entirely. And true love, worthy of the name, is not something we can provide to everyone realistically. And we should be extremely dubious of anyone who claims to love you because they want to sell you something—including Jesus and including atheism. Fortunately for our team, I have yet to meet the atheist guilty of that one and this post is not intended to make you into that person that turns people into projects for fixing out of an empty love of humanity that only wants to change it.

So, with a few obvious misconceptions dispatched, what I do recommend, why I recommend it, and how I recommend you do it, is as follows:

Some loving we can do in general. We can generally love movies insofar as we have a special appreciation for the possibilities of the art form, find ourselves frequently choosing to watch them rather than participate in rival activities, find ourselves frequently able to find films that we wind up loving, and we greet the prospect of each new film with a warm sense of hope that it will be good and are disappointed when it fails to live up to what a good film could be.

We can love people in general in the same way and it is a healthier emotional and social disposition to do so than to be generally misanthropic. Of course it is impossible to forge deep reciprocal relationships of affective attachment, desire, admiration, intimacy, cooperation, commitment, sympathy, mercy, etc. with every human. Even as we are as genial, gregarious, and empathetic with the many people we meet as possible, we simply do not have the time or emotional resources to devote to loving every single person.

But the key is this, having a general love of people—a general, admiring appreciation for the good that human beings in their dazzling varieties are capable of, a general sympathy for human natures of so many potentially positive varieties, a general commitment to the advancement of maximum possible human flourishing, a general optimism about the possibilities for a positive connection with each new stranger or colleague or mutual acquaintance you meet, etc., you can love people in general. And you can and should love religious people in general in this same sense in which you can and should love people in general.

You should recognize that religious people (or whoever else your enemy is), no especially less than any other people, are capable of all the net-good things that makes people in general net-lovable and you should orient your fundamental disposition to them in such a way that rationally recognizes and properly honors this truth emotionally.

Of course you should not love what is despicable about either people in general or about your enemies in specific. And in that spirit, you need not love faith or superstition or regressive politics or authoritarianism or anything else that you commonly associate with religious people in general or of some particular stripe. Nietzsche, maybe a little too harshly, puts the point that all great love involves great contempt. If you love someone or something you should want what is best for it and that involves being willing to be unsparingly critical of what is failing in it. In this way, it is consistent with loving someone or something to demand improvement and realization of potential. So, yes, mercilessly shred the irrationalism and related harms that are owed to religion or faith, etc.

But this advice to be properly contemptuous has to be seriously subordinated in all things to a deeper law: Do what most maximizes both the flourishing of the most people and of the people you interact with directly. Contempt for humanity’s inability to realize perfection is only a vital good when it is in the actual service of constructively aiding the greater perfection of a human being or of all of us. Contempt which dominates, demoralizes, discourages, and dispirits a person only ruins him or her further and is perniciously counterproductive.

There is a fine line between love and misanthropy in this way. Many a person loving the ideal potential of humanity is tempted too much to hate the reality of humanity. Many of the worst abuses in the history of religion and government were and are done in the name of fixing human nature. All too many do-gooders presumptuously think that if they can break a person they can recreate him in the image of his greatest possibility but find it is easier to break a person than to recreate him, if he cannot recreate himself.

So, in this spirit, we need to always scrupulously ask whether our contempt is constructive, whether it actually improves those we hold in contempt. So, yes, fully criticize errors and harms but always in such a way that actually teaches the ignorant and effectively blunts, stops, and reverses the harms of the destructive.

When dealing with specific religious people, realize that simply being a more scrupulous thinker in one area of investigation (or several as the particular case may be) and being more correct on some matters of intellectual knowledge and virtue, does not make you an inherently better all around person. Having one virtue is often worse than having five. Any given faith-based religious person may be overloaded with more virtues than any given atheist, or vice versa. It is indecent, hypocritical, self-deluding, and counter-productive to true personal growth to let yourself feel superior to someone else because you have opted only to focus on and judge people on the areas where you are better than they are. You are not the standard or perfect realization of all virtues, no matter how rightly proud you may be of the ones you have. And failure at your distinctive virtues is not failure at all virtue.

And in loving humanity in general it is crucial we learn to love the ways that we all complement each other, the ways that a variety of dispositions and virtues and feelings have been retained in the species and are constantly being reshuffled for our greater good in the exciting evolutionary experiment that is each and every single individual. Love those with opposite virtues to your own, for those such people may be humanity’s feet and whereas people like you are its hands. You need each other.

And even where the virtues are the same, one must appreciate that in different cultural forms, comparably good versions of the same basic virtues or comparably good arrangements and orderings of values and practices can generate comparable levels of human flourishing.

So while I might not like religious superstition, faith, authoritarianism, patriarchy, etc., etc. I can still recognize that the rest of a given religious person’s life and character and values may very well be effectively equal to, or more admirable than, my own, and on that account no less worthy of love than my own. I can recognize this in the particular religious people I have relationships with and develop bonds of mutual trust, love, appreciation, and admiration.

And these bonds can serve as the one of the best kinds of common ground for rational discussion (probably second only to shared expertise in the areas under discussion). And in the context of successful rational discussion in numerous areas where vigorous, mutually respectful open-minded open-ended debate and disagreement aimed genuinely at the truth is possible, religious debates can arise and be the best, most fruitful, and mutually edifying they will ever be.

Loving religious people as an anti-religious person means, if necessary, conscientiously avoiding the lie of “loving the sinner but hating the sin” by which churches damage so many gay people (and others). Just as the religious cannot hate something as basic to people’s identity as their sexuality and still genuinely love them as who they are, we cannot hate everything about people’s specifically religious identities and still genuinely love either religious people in general or the religious people in our lives for who they are.

So, we have to walk the delicate balance of hating what is bad in the teachings, practices, and organizational structures of religions, and yet simultaneously finding and rightly appreciating the good in them.

The accommodationist mistake is to say that the good people find in religion is enough to paper over all the bad. We need to be unapologetic in demanding the bad be rectified and not lie and say that it fits perfectly with our best ethics and our best rationality and our best politics when it flatly does not. But we also have to recognize the numerous ways that religious traditions, however imperfectly, create virtues, practices, and cultural forms which are themselves beautiful and can be loved as beautiful in the religious people we are friends with.

It requires laser like precision to love the good and to hate the bad and not to hate entire things or entire people when we associate them with all we recognize is bad within them. This is a difficult intellectual and emotional skill but truthfulness demands it of us. People are more lovable than the negatives we do not like about them. They are also more unlikable than the positives we like to fixate on as well. But most of us are more sympathetic, the more we are truly understood. Most of us, I think, are on net lovable. And it is a better general human disposition to give each of us the benefit of the doubt that the other is on net lovable, or at least on net redeemable.

And the key to loving those whose most unlikable features are most prominent to us given our particular relationship to them or our particular opposition in fundamental values or our particular grouping against them, etc. is to recognize the ways that tons of things that are genuinely lovable can be constituted in alien forms. When we do that, we can love what is lovable in those aliens and even love what is lovable in those alien forms, and when we do that they will not be aliens to us anymore and they will not be alienated from us anymore. And in that context, mutual peace, mutual flourishing, mutual understanding, mutual honest criticism of each other’s genuine errors, and mutual correction of each other’s harmful tendencies are all possible.

There are many more things to say about the ethics of loving one’s enemies in general. I have, for example, only indirectly considered any of Nietzsche’s reasons for loving enemies or manners of doing so. And there is more to say about why we must appreciate the good in religious people’s religiosity itself in order to love them as people. I developed that argument at greater length already in my post Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religiosity?. Following that up I also wrote What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity specifically to answer skepticism I received about whether there was anything in religiosity for a virulently anti-faith kind of guy like me to admire. In the latter post I describe various instances of religiosity that I love from my own friends’ lives.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • karmakin

    The one thing I find about this series as a whole (I waited until the end to comment), is that I think it makes a common mistake, which is to overemphasize the power of “tone”. This is natural. People generally complain about tone all the time.

    I often do not take these complaints very seriously. I mean sure, you’ll see something truly offensive from time to time in terms of a truly bad tone. But I think this is the exception rather than the rule.

    Let’s take a basic atheistic statement, put in a rather pleasant, and quite frankly, common way.

    God (probably) does not exist.

    That’s the core of atheism, really. By saying one is an atheist, that really is what one is saying.

    Well, for starters, you’re calling them stupid, by saying that what they believe doesn’t exist. You’re also assuming that their “God” belief is in..well…”God”, and not a belief in something like love or everything or a chair. If it’s someone who is educated, you’re not taking their “complex theology” seriously. You’re not showing them any respect by stating your views, and you’re not showing any “love” towards them, at all.

    That’s where I think this guide kinda falls apart, in that I think that it gives tone a bit too much deference. That’s not to say that we should be rude jerks! I think that’s counter-productive, but for different reasons. It’s counter-productive because we’re turning off not the person we’re talking to, but we’re potentially turning off the potential 3rd party listener, who might not be attracted to a hard sell. Then again, the 3rd party listener MIGHT be attracted to a hard sell.

    Which comes to my #1 tip for reaching out to religious believers. Know your audience. Do they tend to be deeply religious? Maybe a more deferential tone is needed. Younger and more hip? Something more ironic and verbally playful. Etc. You are not just speaking to the person you are speaking with.

    But one has to realize that just because someone claims they are offended by your tone, this often does not mean that they actually are. Someone with the same tone on their side would be just peachy-fine. They’re trying to score points on tone. Don’t let this rattle you. Investigate the tone. Put it in a nicer way. Often you’ll be backing them up, where they either have to admit that what you say is merely offensive to them, or they’ll have to agree with you. (Usually the former)

  • http://www.themindisaterriblething.com shripathikamath

    Don’t agree with this as a general rule. It makes no sense for me I love and hate people based on a combination of their looks, deeds, intellect, hygiene, positions, manners, and a whole slew of characteristics. Some are turn-offs. Bad enough that while I do not hate them, I certainly can’t love them.

    Religiosity sometimes does come into it. I love people even if they are religious, but not when they extol its virtues, especially superstition.

    It certainly is not something I can do by following a guideline.
    (Yes, I read your references)

    Tolerance, sometimes with Herculean restraint is about the best I can offer.

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

      Yes, I’m not saying you have to love everything they say, especially when it’s false or in praise of superstition, etc. But it’s another thing to appreciate that with the unique forms that vices take in religious forms, there are unique and valuable forms that virtues and rituals, etc., take too.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thedudediogenes thedudediogenes

    Good advice for reaching out to religious believers, I agree. But, like Crommunist, I don’t particularly care to reach out to believers. I read the atheist blogs I do because I find them interesting and enjoy the writing and ideas.

    Sometimes I debate about religion and atheism online (on Twitter, mostly), but more because of a love of debate than really caring what someone I don’t even know IRL (and will likely never meet) believes.

    I certainly don’t try to love everyone, or even most people. I respect all people, but I also tend to ignore most people unless I have a reason in particular to not.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/bluecollaratheist/2011/09/28/elizabeth-warren-nails-it/ Nomajic

    “You are not the standard or perfect realization of all virtues, no matter how rightly proud you may be of the ones you have. And failure at your distinctive virtues is not failure at all virtue.”

    F-ing beautiful. Seriously. I wish I could pull every gifted college freshman aside and give them that message before they began their studies.

  • BFDD

    Do you have any examples of debates that demonstrate these tips? I understand the general concepts behind your suggestions but I don’t know if I could actually put it into practice if I was to ever actually debate with anyone.

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

      I don’t know if any formal debates demonstrate them, I have employed them myself with fair success but I don’t have videotapes or written transcripts. My writing tries to embody most of the tips if you want to see how I balance these various goals in practice, read me! :)

      I will try to think of a way to illustrate though, maybe a fictional debate in which the atheist employs my strategies and has my attitudes to show how the logic of such an argument would work.

  • Ray Moscow

    What if one, in all honesty, can’t stand the bastards? It makes the ‘love’ angle rather unrealistic, doesn’t it?

    Look at the harm they do, and love them in response? Even Jesus would be more inclined to give them the whip/moneychanger treatment.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    It’s a little hard to love someone who tells me “you’re an immoral nihilist who really does believe in god but won’t admit it because you hate him.”

    If people are nice to me and honest in their debates then I’ll respond in kind. If some jerk makes a point of doubting my morality and honesty then why should I be “loving” to him or her? Yeah, I know the “third party listener” argument. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. If someone hears me attacked, often in quite vicious terms, I think they’ll be just a little understanding if my replies aren’t particularly gracious.

    There’s another point. I don’t begin conversations about religion and atheism. They’re touchy subjects with a lot of people, including me. Often if someone does bring goddism up I’ll just nod and try to change the subject. If the conversation continues about goddism and particularly if they start preaching at me I’ll tell them I’m not interested. But some people won’t take hints or even outright statements that I don’t want to discuss the topic.* Am I supposed to love these people?

    *I really hate to be told “you need to hear this.” This is a lie. We don’t need to hear it, they need to say it. It’s not about us or our wants and needs, it’s all about them. They need to proselytize and they could actually care less if we need to be proselytized at.

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

      Thanks for taking the time to read through all these posts, ‘Tis.

      Why be loving to those who are being obnoxious? To break the endless cycle of obnoxiousness. And, seriously, being the calm, patient one who does not take the bait does work. I can see it in my own life when as a teenager I would blow up at my parents with my temper and my parents would just diffuse it by being reasonable and never raising their voices. It’s a powerful way to challenge their aggressiveness. People who are pushing your buttons are looking for a way to evade your arguments. If you lose your cool and drift from the cold hard logic into hate (not just acceptably assertive and uncompromising tone, but frothing anger) then you lose.

      Plus it is happier, more peaceful, and more constructive to train yourself to not have a knee jerk negativity to all the signifiers of your enemy. If you can learn to enjoy the architecture and the music, to appreciate the virtues people are trying to express (and often actually expressing) in religious forms as though they are just interesting cultural and artistic and ethical constructs that you appreciate as an outsider, then when you zero in on what is ugly and objectively hateworthy about their ideas or abuses, you will be emotionally tempered and balanced so that you make a just and proportional critique and don’t become a raving monster they can dismiss as seethingly bigoted against anything they do, no matter how benign.

      Loving enemies is hard, but it’s a good ideal, I think. Morality is hard.

  • jdens

    I don’t know what I believe, and I no longer think belief in that sense is all that important, but I’m still within the Christian tradition (Anglican, specifically), for what it’s worth. I just want to say how much I appreciate what you’ve written here. I guess I no longer think Christianity has as much to do with what a person believes about God or Jesus (and I know lots of people, Christians included, would disagree with me about that) than about the life lived in relationship to others. To follow Christ is to follow an example of a life given to love. The tradition also holds that the person abiding in love, abides in God. In that sense, there are plenty of atheists more Christian than most Christians. Anyway, I like what you wrote, and I’ll try to remember that about virtue:
    “It is indecent, hypocritical, self-deluding, and counter-productive to true personal growth to let yourself feel superior to someone else because you have opted only to focus on and judge people on the areas where you are better than they are. You are not the standard or perfect realization of all virtues, no matter how rightly proud you may be of the ones you have. And failure at your distinctive virtues is not failure at all virtue.”


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